Burn – a series of work 1999 – 2002
Burn explores the physical and metaphorical nature of pain and scarring in images created by branding, burning and marking of surfaces with heat, fire or charcoal. Pared back to its essential elements the gentle simplicity of the images belies the inherently complex and uncomfortable content of the series. Comprised of works in sculpture, installation, photography, and drawing, the large series of work makes repeated veiled and explicit reference to the themes of destruction, abuse, consumption, sacrifice and redemption in the context of the body and the spirit.
My initial concept began as sort of a cathartic expression of trauma.
One of the most difficult images I have seen were scars of an infant that had been held down upon an electric stove element. Burnt into the tender skin was the unmistakable spiral ‘coils’ of an electric hotplate – the child was so small the wound covered much of her back, a spiral scar she would wear forever.
It was from this point that I became obsessed with burns, and the imagery and form of the coil and its inherently cryptic swirl. It was as if each black spiral carried with it an aura of its potential energy and a mysterious history of heat.
The familiar domestic object with a sinister undercurrent. The metal stove coil motif evolved into a metaphor for isolation, alienation and abandonment…the works like scars on a fractured and isolated humanity; where abandonment, exploitation, even torture lurk painfully close.
A mysterious synchronicity
But the creation of this series of work was to become as personally visceral as it was metaphorical. In some bizarre, macabre twist, several months into the process of creating this series of work around burning and scarring, as the images below were laid out in my Cairns studio, my father sustained serious full thickness burns to 40% of of his body. The accident occurred when he had a seizure in the shower, unable to turn off the hot water.
I had spoken to him the night before, as he prepared to fly to the Austin Hospital Neurology Unit in Melbourne for surgery on his brain the following morning. Instead, he was evacuated to the Royal Brisbane Hospital Burns Unit. My sister and I flew down from Cairns, where I now found myself watching the weeping, blistering, dying skin of my father.
This accident profoundly affected my vision.
The central image of the series is the poignant sculptural image ‘Corpus Christi’, a winged Christ crucified upon an electric stove coil which is exhibited individually and also as a component of the larger ‘element’ installation. Exuding an archetypal quality the piece simultaneously references traditional spiritual iconography and 1950’s suburban kitsch; at once both reverent and ironic. The hand made wings are made from the collected feathers of battery hens – nature imprisoned to feed human demand – while the physical interplay between the plastic, metal and organic media mirrors the simple conceptual balance of the piece.
In the re-configuration of the familiar domestic object as an instrument of torture ( of the child and of the Christ) this work alludes to the sinister undercurrents of the everyday while becoming a type of post-modern crucifix. The representation of a Winged Christ visually recalls a despondent Icarus, the plastic sheen on the synthetic figure exuding a wax like quality, reinforcing the mythic association; the intersection of icons throwing up interesting implications around ascension and decent, obedience and fleshly destruction. Icarus’ waxed winged ascension was sabotaged by flying too close to the sun in direct disobedience to his father’s wisdom, whilst the Son’s alignment (Christ) with the Father seems to predicate his heavenly ascension toward the Sun. Are we grounded by wings created by the subordination of nature and youthful hubris? Do our shadows crucify the energies that will transform us? Forgive us father, for we know not what we do.
In Flesh jagged pieces of paperbark branded with text line white walls like nameless patients in a hospital ward; burn, weep, crust, maim, sear, scrape, welt, brand, bleed, scab, scar. The inherent characteristics of paperbark, with its subtle variations in colour and texture has an uncanny parallel to the layers of human skin and I was part way through the creation of this piece when my father was burnt during his seizure. This lead to my work evolving from the rhelm of conceptual metaphor to one infused with concern for texture and surface, form and tangibility.
Burn Part 2.