“Tongues of Fire”

Daisy Hildyard

April 17, 2024
Kunsthall Trondheim, Trondheim
February 22–May 5, 2024

From Grenfell Tower to the clothing factory fires of Gujarat, the wildfires of Sicily to those in California or New South Wales, the great fires of the past decade have all seemed to reveal something about the place that they destroyed. Caused by different circumstances, and burning on distant parts of the planet, what the fires share is this quality of revelation: each one shed light on the slower but relentless systems that made its devastation possible.

You don’t need to contemplate the geopolitical causes of disaster, though, to know that fire compels attention. Its mesmerizing quality is everywhere in this group exhibition, shown over two floors in a former fire station, that places nineteen local civic relics and documents beside twenty-six international contemporary and modern works. Lungiswa Gqunta’s Feet Under Fire (2017) plays hypnotically slow video footage of bare feet, with scrubbing brushes strapped onto them, swinging over a rubble of charcoal and matches. Noémie Goudal’s film Below the Deep South (2021) sees flames licking and consuming a tropical forest, set to a soundtrack of distant bird calls. In John Gerrard’s CGI Flare (Oceania) (2022) a flag of pure flame waves over an unending stretch of water. In Tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means (2018), Sin Wai Kin’s drag character Victoria Sin languidly raises and lowers her eyelashes as white smoke rises around her.

The overall impression is dreamy and—unsettlingly—just on the edge of seductive, but the subjects across the show are somber. Feet Under Fire evokes the flammable architectures of informal townships in South Africa. Below the Deep South is a vision of extraction and cremation in the primeval forests that constitute Antarctica’s coal belt. Positioned between them, Thu-Van Tran’s hazy, leafy, close photographs of flora in Vietnamese jungle are surfaced in a cracked orange chemical coating. These images face bookshelves excoriated by a fire at Finnish artist Anna-Kaisa Ant-Wuorinen’s home.

With such range in its forms and histories, the risk that “Tongues of Fire” takes is that of rendering its subject indistinct. The incendiary is a firework in Ana Mendieta’s Silueta de Cohetes (1976); a meteor in Agnieszka Kurant’s Still Life (2014); a car bomb in Walid Raad’s They thought they would be safer at home (1989/2019). If fire is a revelation, “Tongues of Fire” refuses to tell you anything straight. Gqunta’s soundtrack, an isiXhosa nursery rhyme or lullaby which contains instructions for an emergency, is sung in rounds, the melody overlapping and extending around the other works in its room and down the stairs. This does something unconventional to the space, breaching the boundaries that usually zone one piece from another.

Hannah Ryggen’s tapestry i lever på en stjerne [We Are Living on a Star] (1958), an exhibition centerpiece, is also subtly repositioned. Dramatically elevated under a low ceiling in dim light, the tapestry is steeply reclined to draw attention away from the central subject (two figures), and emphasize the scars on the lower part, where the work was damaged in a 2011 explosion set off by terrorist Anders Breivik below the government building in which the tapestry was hanging at the time. This reorientation, like the overlaying of Gqunta’s soundtrack, pushes at a meta-narrative, confronting the viewer with the wider worlds in which the works exist. Almost everything here brings in a new time, place, and story, and the show as a whole leaves the impression of tumbling history as something that rages, like a forest wildfire, just beyond the edge of human control.

Interspersed with the contemporary works there are relics from the local area which ground the exhibition in its building, a former fire station, and in its city (Trondheim has been burned and rebuilt several times over the last centuries); and in the current environment of fires that we could have seen coming. There are scorched stones, a raft of broken gargoyles strapped to a pallet, photographs of burning buildings, and a facsimile of a seventeenth-century urban reconstruction plan. These quieter exhibits anchor the exhibition in the literal (a rusted Medieval anchor leans against one wall), bringing the conceptual play with fire–as an image, a concept, or a theme–into contact with material objects that have been badly burned.

Some of the documentary images are striking, but what I liked about them was the provincial archive energy they bring to the room: they reminded me of the local history displays you see in public libraries and the sense of quiet care and familiarity that comes with that. It has to do with recognition, not necessarily of this particular locality, but that all fires are local and happen in a home rather than a place. That’s why it matters when these great accidents show something about the everyday systems and processes that shape lives over time. It was an unexpected but revealing choice to exhibit, among the scorched artefacts, two stone finial stumps from Trondheim cathedral that had not been damaged by fire but weathered by slow relentless attrition.

Nature & Ecology
Crisis, Environment

Daisy Hildyard is the author of two novels, Hunters in the Snow (2013) and Emergency (2022), and one work of nonfiction, The Second Body (2017).

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Kunsthall Trondheim
April 17, 2024

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