On Wildfire, David Claerbout’s exhibition at Pedro Cera Gallery
Ash is an ethereal substance, it conveys intangibility, and undeniably is the material that evidences the passage of both corporeal and elemental time. David Claerbout has worked tirelessly for many years to capture the possibilities of temporal delay and expedition, such that his artistic practice moves beyond the realm of content and image generation into a metaphysical paradigm which challenges the way we perceive ourselves in motion and in space. In one of his earlier works, Boom (1996), he invites us to enter into a personalised reverie with a tree, dappled in summer light, with leaves shifting slightly in the wind. It is important to trace the line between this work and his most recent video work Wildfire (meditation on fire) (2019-2020) as they in spanning twenty-four years, over two decades, both address the majesty of the arboreal, but from different perspectives. With Boom, the tree is left intact, immune from damage, soft, receptive, and with Wildfire (meditation on fire), we see the drama of a forest inundated with fire, affected, ravaged. In analogising these two works, a core thematic marriage is introduced: the passive is activated, and the active is compliant. This play of forces characterises Claerbout’s work and speaks to a larger tension which has proven relevant in the canon of video-art since the mid- ’80s.
Within the exhibition at Pedro Cera Gallery, Wildfire, the artist inquires into “the amount of power needed to simulate a very detailed digital “still life” of fire, that would in fact, as the artist later found out, most likely set the computer system on fire…”. The interest here lies in the possibility of forcing the technological to meet the magnitude of the natural in such a way that not only is the beholder challenged to understand the “reality” of what is occurring in 2 dimensions, but also to consider and re-consider the artist’s role in manufacturing or stimulating “disaster”. Before viewing the video-work Wildfire (meditation on fire), we are invited to review a series of eight washed ink and pencil drawings which are also in their own right, meditations. Monochromatic, spectral, sensitive, these drawings act as prophecies as well as memories of the action pictured within the video-work. One is held in contemplation and asked to return to the same image repeatedly to discover detail and ponder a scale which is the antithesis of saturated, digital, and consumptive. Navigating the exhibition there is a boomerang effect emotionally between a certain peace which is cultivated through viewing these drawings, and encountering the video which in its duration of 24 minutes feels even longer due to its gravity and montage.
There is a fine margin between the utopian and the dystopian, and it has very much to do with “optical truth”. David Claerbout’s Wildfire conjures something of William Faulkner’s notion that “memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” Ultimately, in experiencing this exhibition we are drawn into a space of awe, notes of concern, and a desire to fulfil a hidden promise of understanding.