“He kept on making two fishes a day and when he finished twenty-five he would melt them down and start all over again. He worked all morning, absorbed, without thinking about anything…”
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“For ten years from 1925 to 1935 Bartlebooth would acquire the art of painting water colours. For twenty years, from 1925 to 1955, he would travel the world, painting at a rate of one watercolour each fortnight, five hundred seascapes of identical format (royal, 65cm x 50cm) depicting seaports. When each view was done, he would dispatch it to a specialist craftsman (Gaspard Winkler), who would glue it to a thin wooden backing board and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle of seven hundred and fifty pieces. For tweet years, from 1955 to 1975, Bartlebooth on his return to France, would reassemble the jigsaw puzzles in order, at a rate, once again, of one puzzle a fortnight. As each puzzle was finished, the seascape would be “retextured” so that it could be removed from its backing, returned to the place where it had been painted -twenty years before- and dipped in a detergent solution where would emerge a clean and unmarked sheet of Whitman paper.”
Georges Perec, Life: A Users Manual.
The goldfish, a closed loop of endless production, the paintings a project that ended where it started, also a closed loop. For my project I wanted to create a similar closed loop of production. Over the Christmas break I made my own charcoal from the willow tree in my back garden back home. I decided I wanted to create drawings from this charcoal, collect willow, and use the drawings to light a fire to create more charcoal in. I started by looking back at drawings I had done when I was sixteen and seventeen of the River Mersey near my house, which I went to very often. I decided to draw the River Kelvin because I go there a lot now and have memories attached to certain spots along the river, similar to the memories I hold of the Mersey. I also took cuttings from a willow tree next to the Kelvin to create charcoal with. Through drawing the river I started to notice changes along the river, the water had risen, the winter snow had melted, someone had dumped some litter there, I started to become more aware of the surroundings and their changes. After I had done a few A4 drawings I decided I needed to do some bigger ones to be able to be more gestural and started to give the drawings titles based on either observations or memories related to the site. Perhaps like Robert Smithson’s non-site works I could, through this cycle of production and destruction, bring “back from these places material samples, geological maps, and photographic documentation which reconstituted the gallery or space of exhibition as a non-site, a place defined by its reference to another place”
W. J. T. Michell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images.
. Or like Simon Starling's Shedboatshed (and children's dens) the piece could create something more than itself. “As children build dens that or infinitely more than the sum of there parts, so Shedboatshed is both infinitely more and exactly the sum of its parts; nothing added or taken away.”
But when everything is taken away, or in my case, when everything is burned, what is left?
image: /fire/shedboatshed.jpg

Figure 1: Shedboatshed, Simon Starling, 390 x 600 x 340 cm 2005.

I burned the first set of drawings at the end of January in an abandoned lot near my flat. I decided the best way to document the process would be to film it. I invited some of my close friends to come along and bring something to burn themselves. Someone brought a drawing of something they were scared of, someone brought an old notebook, someone brought an architectural model they had made and didn’t like, and someone brought some decoration from there flat that no one liked. The event felt very ritualistic, people burned things they wanted to let go of, things that may have haunted them, or in the case of the notebook, destroying ideas to fuel new ones. It turns out that according to some folklore burning willow is bad luck, having used the peeled bark as tinder I hope this won’t cause me any issues.
Across the world willow has many different religious and folkloric symbolisms and rituals surrounding it. In some Eastern European countries it is used as a replacement for palm leafs on palm Sundays. “On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” In some Japanese tales willow is associated with ghosts.”These two cultural strands–Shinto and Buddhism–come together in the stories of Japan. Some of the most spiritual Japanese tales, like “Green Willow” are ghost tales. But unlike many ghost tales familiar to Westerners, their purpose is not to horrify. Instead they distill the essence of what is mysterious in life in order to remind us of the dreamlike–“ghostly” if you will–reality of things. Beauty itself may be a goal in these stories and it can be haunting.” In Greek mythology “Hecate the powerful Greek goddess of the moon and of willow, also taught sorcery and witchcraft, and was a mighty and formidable divinity of the Underworld’.” and “Orpheus the Greeks most celebrated poet is said to have received his gifts of eloquence and communication from the Willow by carrying its branches with him while journeying through the Underworld.” Also "Circe is said to have had a riverside cemetery planted with Willow trees dedicated to Hecate and her moon magic.”. “In Louisiana, when a willow grew large enough to cast a grave-sized shadow, a family member would die”
Icy Sedgwick, What Willow Folklore Surrounds This Beautiful Tree?, https://www.icysedgwick.com/willow-folklore/ [accessed 20/01/21]
. According to Rosemary Ellen Guiley's Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft; in England Druids discovered that salicin, found in willow bark, has analgesic properties. Willow seems to be a plant symbolic of life and death, a cycle of production and destruction. Perhaps I will end up with my own mythology surrounding the willow, in the words of Jacques Lacan “A myth cannot sustain itself when it supports no ritual.”
After burning my drawings of the river perhaps I didn’t feel enough sadness for there loss, I’m not sure if I put enough time into them, but burning them does feel like an important resolution, a way to fuel more drawings. For the next cycle I plan on spending at least an hour at the site each time I do a drawing to try and capture the essence of the site better.
So far I have done two more drawings and cut and peeled some more willow. I did the drawings on A2 paper. one of them I drew from the top of a tree-house in Kelvin Meadows, the other in Queens Park on one of the last days of snow before it melted. I used a putty rubber and spent more time on these drawings, I feel like they do do a better job at capturing the feeling of the environment - dark / eerie in the case of the Kelvin Meadows drawing, and peaceful and joyous in the case of the Queens Park hill. During my group tutorial with Richard and Josh they mentioned how my work was relating to elements; the water of the Kelvin, the fire in the converted oil container, the wood of the earth, and the winter snow (and ice). The diversion of the elements into the production and destruction of my drawings. Richard also made me start to think more seriously about the ritual aspect of the cycle, what does it involve? Is there music? Is there Inebriation? Is there an organized manner in which people burn there objects? To me this ritual is starting to feel like the most interesting aspect of my project. It is interesting to see what other people bring to burn and why, and how burning their objects effects them. I think I will make the next fire more organized, people will take turns to approach the fire and the camera will capture there hands placing the item into the fire. I have (just) started reading the section about fire in The Golden Bough to try and draw some historical context for the ritual. I am also conscious of the issue of authenticity, does my ritual need to be authentic? What would make it authentic? Is it ok to appropriate from historical rituals? Personally I think that to be authentic all my ritual needs is to be treated seriously, I genuinely hope that through the symbolic gestures of it I can, in a small way, help resolve and heal any of the issues the participants are dealing with.
I have also started to consider how much of the process I should exhibit, it feels like the video of the fire would become more interesting with some context. I have filmed some video of me cutting the willow and will record some of me peeling it, I could exhibit this next to the other video as a split screen. I could, instead, display the documentary photos I have taken (they are unfortunately not yet developed so I am unable to show them) to show the process. Or I could write a small piece describing some of the things I and other people have burned, or display a info graphic of the production/destruction cycle.
In J.G Frazer's The Golden Bough he talks of The Lenten Fires that throughout Europe occur on the “first Sunday in Lent” commonly throughout the different bonfires fuel is collected collectively by the community, an effigy is burned and people sing and dance around the fire. They often serve a superstitious purpose. At Grand Halleux it “is a common saying that seven bonfires should be seen if the village is to be safe from conflagrations”. Often the fires, or leaping over them, is thought to “secure good crops.” “In some communes it was believed that the livelier the dance round the fire, the better would be the crops that year.” In some villages “they put some of the ashes in the fowl's nests, in order that the hens may lay plenty of eggs throughout the year.” It seems that through the fires, the destructive all consuming fires, at the end of winter are meant to revitalize the village, to create circumstances that may otherwise feel outside of there control. Through the destruction of something, life is given to something else, particularly literally in the example of hens eggs. What is it we desire to produce in our totally different urban world? The massive scale of these bonfires that “blaze simultaneously on the hilltops. As many as forty may sometimes be counted within sight at once.” is simply not possible at the urban site, my fire needs to be small, almost invisible to passers by for fear of someone taking issue. In the city any sort of unorganized or communal ritual is hard to do, most rituals people engage in take place in the Church, the Mosque, the Temple of organized religions. Even bonfire night has become much harder to do with the recent restrictions on firework sales
Andy Philip, 'No firework zones' and sale restrictions planned in safety crackdown across Scotland, https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/firework-sale-restrictions-planned-safety-22949064[accessed 21/02/21]
in Scotland, and the police dispersal of any non-official bonfires.
image: /fire/thehaywain.jpg

Figure 2: Conrad Hübbe, The Haywain (after Hieronymus Bosch)

Considering what I have written above I decided to do a second fire in the same location. I statically framed the shot showing just my hands as I build the fire by scrunching and crushing my drawings before putting peeled willow tinder and kindling on top and lighting it. I found it harder to let go of my drawings this time, I feel that as the project has gone on my technique and understanding of how to use my specific willow has improved, in some ways I have improved without having anything to show for it. I have started to draw inspiration from other contemporary artists using charcoal such as Conrad Hübbe's The Haywain (after Hieronymus Bosch)[Fig 1]. I was mainly drawn to it by the way they draw figures with relatively loose and gestural marks while still retaining a very human quality to the form as well as the play with contrast created with the strong blacks and lighter greys ( I think for the blackest blacks they possibly used condensed charcoal which I haven't tried to make yet.) In spite of the fact that I have decided that if I was to exhibit the project I wouldn't show any photos of the drawings (maybe I would show the ones that hadn't yet been burned.) I think it is important to the project to spend time on the drawings and put effort into them, through taking that time and sitting with my drawings somewhere outside it gives me a moments respite in what is currently (let's be honest) a pretty grim time. As well as my own drawings I invited a few other people to come along and bring something to burn this time. I wanted this to be a bit more of a central aspect of the video than it was last time so I told people they needed to bring something to burn and it needed to be of value. Someone brought a wood carving of a wizard, we ended up spending a lot of the time around the fire thinking about what we would ask the wizard if we got a chance. Someone brought a letter they wrote to there 16 year old self, and one the wrote to there 80 year old self, they tied it to a bunch of Syrian rue, a plant commonly burned in some Islamic ceremonies gifted to us by our Turkish friend. It is also a Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors and therefore sometimes used in conjunction with other plants to create psycho-active affects. It smelt a bit weird. What smelt even weirder were the socks someone else brought to burn. They wore the socks last year when they walked all the way from Glasgow to London over the summer. Someone else brought a Chinese New Year flag from the celebrations they had at there flat for it. Someone else brought a envelope full of letters they had written to people but never sent. I think from these things you can start to think about why these people might want to let go of these objects, or if not let go maybe re-incarnate them into something else. During the crit feedback for the film I created of the fire I felt like some people might want to know more about the objects being burned and who is burning them, during the video some people decided to say what the object they were burning was but some didn't. I intentionally wanted to keep it as anonymous as possible because I feel it is important that people participating can choose to burn things that have personal meaning to them without having to reveal why. In some ways I think this can make it more interesting because we can project our own ideas of why someone might burn the objects on to it. The other main comment I took from the crit was that the music I played on the video set the tone for the video and that I should experiment with other music, or no music. Looking back and contemplating on it I think that maybe the video is too fast paced, and that if I was to play it in an exhibition setting I would want it to be running on a loop, showing longer more natural shots, and maybe without music like the other two full videos of the fire. Although I would want to add the footage of my cutting and peeling willow to the video.
I have now settled on an edit. I have lengthened everything out to give it room to breath and speak for itself as opposed to the music and editing speaking for it. The video is a lot longer now (around 15 minutes) but I think it works better. The sound is the distorted noise of people speaking, I think you can just about make out what people are saying when they put things in the fire as they are closer to the microphone. I have also started reading Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. In the book the story is told backwards, I have been specifically interested by the way that fire is seen as a force of mass creation, with letters and objects being born in its flames. It got me thinking that to put my video of the fire in reverse could be a good way to show that burning these drawings and objects isn't necessarily a destructive process. In spite of the video being more stripped back and possibly edited more like documentation I hope it will come across as a piece in its own right, thinking back to how I would display this if we had the chance to do an exhibition I think I would put the final two videos I created on a loop, first the video going forward, then the one in revers, then the one going forward again... the fire in a loop of becoming and going. I also still think it would be important to show along side the video the burner, the metal tin I put the willow in in the fire and the charcoal I have created, marks on these objects show the process they have been through and I think they tell parts of the same story the video does.
Another interesting piece of media I have related to recently was David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. Particularly this scene with Sheriff Truman and Deputy Hawk https://youtu.be/E_MwXAg6Eug?t=55.
Truman: Looks like a campfire, what is this?
Hawk: It's not a campfire it's a fire symbol.
Truman: Whats that mean?
Hawk: It's a type of fire, more like modern day electricity.
Truman: Good?
Hawk: Depends, depends upon the intention, the intention behind the fire.
This idea of fire possibly being good or bad depending on the intention is very interesting, its bringing our attention to the two types of fire, that which lights up the dark so we can see, communicate and create; creative fire. And that fire which burns things, destroys them; destructive fire. Like modern day electricity, fire can create and destroy. I think this relates to what I have been doing particularly when we talk about the intention of the fire, in one sense my intention was destructive, burning my drawings and other materiel objects, however, in another sense you could say my intention was creative, I may have used the drawings as fuel but I have created new charcoal (potential future drawings), I have created conversation and light in a usually dark empty place, and I have possibly helped create inspiration and ideas. Have I created less or more than I have destroyed? Did I destroy the drawings or did I recycle them?