Memory & Geography: “Fire/Gate,” 1995 The First Biennale for Art, Johannesburg, South Africa

Doris Bloom (Denmark/South Africa) in cooperation with William Kentridge (South Africa

Memory & Geography: “Fire/Gateway” is the result of collaboration between two artists, Doris Bloom, and William Kentridge, that was created for the First Biennale for Art, Johannesburg, in 1995, after the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Bloom, born in South Africa, is a performance artist active in Denmark/South Africa. Kentridge, is the most prominent South African artist on the contemporary art scene, known for his sketches, video and works of animation, which deal with relationships based on power and dominance, exploitation and freedom, on both the local and universal level. The artistic collaboration between Kentridge and Bloom, while falls into a category somewhere between performance and earthwork, included two special events in public, where the artists ignited monumental fire sketches on the ground, in the shape of a gate and a human heart

The current exhibition showcases video documentary material, stills and prints. The videos document the work as it progressed from sketches until implementation, based on interviews with the artists, photographs presenting bird’s-eye views of the sketches aflame in public, and prints featuring monochromatic details of imagery, the result of artistic endeavor.

On one hand, this is performance art – two artists working together, from planning and sketching the mock-up, to translating the sketch into an actual commodity by enlarging it to a sketch of monumental proportions on the ground, covering it with flammable material and setting it on fire, to create fire writing. On the other, the work may be categorized as earthwork, since it fits all the criteria for the genre, which came to prominence in the 1970s, when artists used natural and synthetic materials to create monumental sculptural environments in open spaces – intervening in the landscape at times and even altering it for a pre-determined time. Art researcher Rosalind E. Kraus, in her article “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” suggested a new multi-disciplinary way of looking, which incorporates sculpture, architecture, and nature, and tests limits unceasingly. Examining Bloom and Kentridge’s artistic endeavor, we discover a work of art that is performance, sketching in space, earthwork and fire writing, all in one.

The use of fire is a reference to early periods, when messages were transmitted by means of bonfires that could be seen from afar. Fire is a sign, a means of human communication. The monumental image on the ground references the occult symbols of Mayan culture; from the Israeli perspective, fire writing is associated with youth movements and their camping and other activities. In the context of South Africa, a new significance was added to the fire writing: fire burns, annihilates and destroys, but in burning, it creates the image itself, whichlights up the darkness like a bring star – an activity highlighting a rare meeting between being and nothingness, life and death.

The gate, which represents the entrance to an entire space or the departure from it, calls the arches of triumph to mind and represents the beginning of life and maybe the transition from slavery to freedom too, which hints at South Africa’s social and political condition after the apartheid era had ended. The heart appears twice, once as decoration on the gate and once in its own right, symbolizing openness and love and signaling the possibility of living.

Irit Carmon Popper