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‘No smoke without fire’: Traces and Time / Ruins and Residue

Exhibition catalogue essay for Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art: 1776 – 2019 for RWA, 2019

"I placed the ashes of burned paintings in chemical containers that measure and contain what can’t be contained … Like traces or remnants, they point forwards and backwards at the same time." Susan Hiller

There’s ‘no smoke without fire’ ( 2), yet in many of the artworks in Fire: Flashes to Ashes in British Art 1692–2019 there is in fact no smoke, nor fire, just ‘traces or remnants’, the sooty residue of the past; a physical memory of both flame and furl. 


Whereas flames flicker and dance, beguiling us in their destructive path, smoke lingers; lilting and lifting, caught half-way between land and sky, form and formlessness, obscuring, veiling and ‘rubbing against the windowpane’. And it is these curling wisps of whispering smoke that are of interest. Whether pointing us forward or backward, smoke plays a fascinating role in relation to fire, and no more so than when explored through art. If fire suggests duality – symbolic of both comfort and danger – then smoke could be said to occupy one delicate strand of this contradictory torch, providing the darkness to fire’s light.


Although often depicted sullying pastoral skies or as yellowing stains with an acrid taste that remain long after the embers have lost their heat, smoke, despite its hazy darkness, has too its own duality. It is both material and immaterial, a symbol of worship and a signal for danger.  In art, its history encompasses Palaeolithic cave paintings and surrealist experimentations, such as the technique experimentations, such as the technique of fumage, invented by Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen (fig. 7) in which the smoke from a candle is guided to make an image in wet paint.4 Later still, artwork from the 1960s and 1970s made use of this ‘immaterial material’, seen in the work of American land artists whose interest in fire and smoke returns full circle to find its origins in prehistory. (5)

You can read the full text here and buy the catalogue here.

Image: Fire: Flashes to Ashes cat. cover © Sansom and Co., Measure by Measure II by Susan Hiller and Black Dome by David Nash, photos © Gemma Brace.

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