Caution: flammable

Where pyromania meets contemporary art.

FROM ITS MAGICAL, unpredictable dance to its warmth, fire transfixes us. We revel in its destructive power and are fascinated with the lack of control it represents. There are those among us who are compelled even further by the possibilities of fire. Those who play with fire, and I mean really play with fire—arsonists aside—are indeed daredevils, driven by the need to contain and control its beauty. The distinction is subtle, but in fact the fire setters and the fire artists inhabit very separate worlds.

New Prometheans International Fire Festival

CoCA, Sand Point Naval Air Station, October 8

Welcome to the New Prometheans International Fire Art Festival, presented by CoCA and curated by Astrid Larsen, a Seattle-based Danish-American fire artist. This weeklong tribute to fire features folks whose lives revolve in some way around fire. While swapping stories and artistic visions, they will contemplate why fire is so vital to every culture on the planet. The answer is elementary: Fire can be equated with life, food, and heat. But in these times of television as the new hearth, the complexities of our relationship with flame fluctuate. With panels on women in fire art, fire safety, and the psychological underpinnings of arson, the festival aims to inform the public about fire—not only fire art as a viable form of artistic expression, but its many roles in contemporary life.

What is fire art? While it's securely rooted in spectacle and visceral experience, it's far from Fourth of July pyrotechnics or even fire dancing, fire eating, or juggling. Here, flame is a medium, as opposed to a destructive force set upon created work. Larsen insists that "the piece must hold its integrity through the process of pre-, present and post-ignition." In other words, the art works that she considers fire sculptures must stand alone, must have structural integrity before they are lit, and have kinetic integrity while they burn. Finally, they must leave a trace of themselves that is part of the work both while the fire is subsiding and after it is completely out. Larsen is attempting to carve out a niche for fire art, legitimizing it as a recognized genre of contemporary art.

THE CULMINATION of the Festival takes place October 8 with the first-ever Pacific Northwest Fire Sculpture Championship. Three competing teams will be given specific materials—straw, wire, twine, kerosene, wood—and eight hours to design and engineer fire sculptures to be ignited for the audience. Artists whose work will go up in a blaze of glory include: Kain Karawahn, a Berlin artist who has created a performance concert in tribute to Jimi Hendrix's legendary Woodstock guitar-burning; Gunnar Carl Nilsson, leader of the European Fire Sculpture Association; Trimpin, the Seattle-based sound sculptor, composer, inventor, and recent MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, who will operate his propane-fueled FireOrgan; environmental sculptor John Roloff; professional stunt man Ted Batchelor, who lights himself on fire; and Crimson Rose, artistic director of the Burning Man Festival.

These are serious artists who work with fire, who understand how to control it as well as the safety precautions necessary in its presence, and who understand that fire naturally attracts both benign onlookers and an element of humanity that sees fire as a means of destruction.

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