Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Earth Pods go up in flames!

 photos by Simon O'Callaghan

Our main mission at AfrikaBurn this year was to burn the three Earth Pods we built last year. This burning of art, what is it about? Is it just all craziness, pyromania, a brief but intensely celebratory revolution or a 21st century form of iconoclasm?
Any artist who has created and built a sizable burnable object for the Festival has the space and audience to burn it within safe perimeters guarded by 10 to 15 fire marshals (Note that all works built for AfrikaBurn does not necessarily get burnt; at the end of the Festival you can pack it up and take home with you). Seeing that Kim’s Fear Gods of 2012 did not flame up as spectacularly as wished, he approached this year’s burn with more thought-through planning. This year, unlike the Burn of 2012, there were no fierce winds and rainstorms to dampen the spirits and wood. From the farmers of the area we got the kind permission to cut pieces of dry gannabos spread over vast tracts of land in the Tankwa Karoo to use as burn material within each Pod. Added to this Kim packed each Pod with big pieces of dry thorn wood. It was a lengthy task and a real patience-tester. The interior of the Pod had space for only one packing person. Kim took on the role as Pod-packer. From below on the ground either Ben, Craig or I would pack together armsful of twigs, thorny branches and gannabos, tie a long piece of rope loosely around it all and Kim would then hoist it up. The bundle could only be so big, for the entry into the Pods was less than a square meter. Kim pulled up just under a hundred bundles in total. We had only one ladder, so only one Pod at a time could be packed. Indeed, a slow and zen-like process.

When we returned to the Earth Pods this year, we marveled at how well they looked after a year standing in the stark weather of the Tankwa Karoo. A few little birds used it as landing spots and we even found a nest in the tallest Pod. We removed the cabling and rebar - for they were not needed anymore. Clearly the Pods could stand on their own three feet without any support in all sorts of inclement weather. (Though, when Kim climbed into the first Pod to check how packing is going to be done, my heart pounded in my throat. What if Kim's movements in the Pod make the thing come toppling down? Do I run out of the way to save my own life or do I run to catch the few hundred kilograms of Pod and save Kim's life?) By the end of filling the Pods, Kim was one properly scratched, pierced and itching individual. I took a very gingerly climb up the ladder just to appease my curiosity on how the pods look like with all the filling packed inside. Oh, what an aroma captured in those Pods - just like the smell of freshly built weaver's nests.
Why is it that we burn? As AfrikaBurners we have often had the conversation about temporal art and letting go of Western concepts of monetary value, meaning, and cotton-wooling. While there are people who invest in art and pride themselves with the value and name of the artist, AfrikaBurners delight in burning these cherished beliefs to the ground. Yes, there is a quasi-maniacal aspect about burning! But more than that it brings forth a primal experience. Fire teaches us the meaning of conflict and peace, growth and death, scourging and purging. At AfrikaBurn it has become clear to me that the flames lapping around the sides of the art works are in itself an artwork. Fire has a hypnotizing aesthetic that makes us feel warm, safe and visionary.  Setting an artwork alight in a cold Karoo night is definitely much more spectacular than watching the slow and inevitable process of soot and pigeons gathering on the more permanent public sculptures in cities and towns. The flames you see curling over the Playa at night are the very flames that ignite shifts in each and every onlooker. It may be the smallest shifts, even just a fleeting question or idea that jumps in the mind to stir any stagnant air and bring a spark to the breath. Ahhhh.

The Art crews build their respective pieces in record time. And it is advised to burn them in record time. From catching conversations from some of the organisers and fire marshals at the Burn, it is preferred to have the bigger pieces burn with a fast and dramatic display of flames. The slower and longer a piece burns the quicker the attention of the instant-gratification-seeking-audience dwindles. And we do not want that, now do we?
The Pods burnt well. They were great balls of fire flaming in the sky, just as Kim had envisioned.

The last flaming Pod was pulled over by cabling by about 6 men, causing some comedic relief as the cable initially slipped from the hands causing the men to all fall down! But a second time round, gripping the cable tighter and fiercer the Pod came crashing down with flames and ash trailing like a long sigh.
It was hot. It was exciting.
The sobering part is the morning after – a lone bird came flying over the burn scars. Was it my imagination, or was he looking around for his high perch in the Pod's wattle branches and could not find it for it had disappeared overnight? Facing the burn scars brings up all sorts of memories and mixed emotions. Your eyes are the first to feel the loss of a beautiful man-made landmark. Disorientation sets in. Then a slight tremor of a heart-ache.

AfrikaBurn is not for sissies. The harsh conditions make surviving sanely and creating convincingly that much harder.

You stop the choke in your throat and step up into function mode – still-warm coals, metal wires and ashen sand is all that is left, and it ALL has to be cleaned up and taken back home with you – it is after all a leave-no-trace event. It took us two mornings to clear the debris of the burn. By this time any enchantment of being a pyromaniacal non-conformer and visions of flying high like an iconoclastic hero has worn off. Energy depleted. Body heavy. With an ashen brow you peer into the barren distance and feel the skin on your heels flicker with the flame of transience...

...and you wonder what can you burn next time?


Article "Demystifying the Desert-Dwellers: AfrikaBurn for the Uninitiated" in the latest Art Times >

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