Flashes of brilliance

Oct 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

This past Saturday, on a small farm somewhere on the outskirts of Windsor, Ontario, the third annual Fahrenheit Festival of Fire ignited its most ambitious fire art show yet. Don’t go conjuring images of piercing-riddled, shirtless men exhaling orange plumes, musically challenged rockers engaging in a little pyrotechnic wizardry or, heaven forbid, starving artist renderings of firemen smuggling big-eyed children and puppy dogs from burning houses. The subject of this event was actually, well, art made with fire.

Despite wind and rain, a crowd of more than 100 people gathered under the stormy darkness of rural Ontario skies for the festivities. Earlier in the day there’d been games, music, an all-you-can-eat pig roast Bacchanal dinner — all going to benefit Windsor’s Artcite Centre for the Contemporary Arts. But as the sky grew dark and rain threatened, it was time to begin. One by one, a total of 11 sculptures of wood and straw were set ablaze. A few, menaced by the damp wind, ignited but failed to produce their full effects. Others torched instantly, transformed to blazing spectacles of form and movement.

The night’s notable works included a 20-foot tower constructed by University of Windsor professor Rod Strickland and two grad students. The piece was lit from a wick at the bottom, which ignited and burned a trail to the top, where a nest-like straw object caught ablaze, illuminating the entire structure and mesmerizing the crowd. Another piece, by Bryan Lane, resembled two large, perfectly balanced pendulums poised to swing.

According to festival organizer and installation artist Denis Bolohan, this is the only event of its kind in North America. Bolohan was first exposed to fire art in France several years ago and found the novel concept so exciting that he brought it back to Canada and introduced the first Artcite-sponsored fire show. He was initially attracted to fire as a medium because of its kinetic properties and uncontrollable nature.

“It keeps moving. You’re not performing. The fire is. You are the producer. You sit back and try to manipulate it as much as you can,” says Bolohan.

Although certain techniques, like how tightly the straw is woven, for example, can affect the rate of burn, the end result always possesses an unknown variable.

“The fire takes over,” he says.

In addition to France, fire art shows like Ontario’s are growing in popularity in Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland. Unlike the European events, where participants are not necessarily artists by vocation, Bolohan’s festival was solely comprised of visual artists from a variety of backgrounds, including painting, sculpture and video art.

“What we’re trying to do here is more of a visual manipulation of fire. Being artists, we’re trying to push the envelope,” he says, adding, “[Fire as a medium] is still in its infancy.”

Even unlit, many of the creations are fascinating.

“I think it’s important for people to see them in the daylight, before they’re on fire,” sculptor Wayne Tousignant asserts. Tousignant showcased an impressive 11-foot tree-shaped column with three sides, which were constructed to open and fall away like a rocket launcher when set ablaze. Unfortunately, the wind interfered with the piece’s ability to burn properly, but the effect was striking all the same.

This year’s event attracted a colorful mix of spectators, both art-appreciators and locals. “It wasn’t the typical people that come into the gallery,” says Tousgnant. Bolohan adds, “[The crowd represented] the spectrum of society. There were farmers, other artists, rural and city people, young and old … people who were into meditation [and interested] in the ritual part of it. It hit across many borders. Some were awe-struck. Fascinated.”

Regardless of the complex work involved, Bolohan sums up the fascination with the new art form, concluding with a boyish laugh, “I just like to see it burn!”

Christina Kallery is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]