Earth, Wind and so much Fire

A series of screens that enclose the viewer in a 'u' shaped space have video projections of a forest fire
Walk Into WildFire, video projection by Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith

A few weeks ago Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith had a video projection within the Visions of the Wild Festival in Vallejo. Their installation called “Walk Into Wild Fire” features footage of a fairly short controlled burn of a section of forest, shot by a video camera encased in a fireproof housing. The speed of the fire’s progress was immense and overwhelming. I remember talking with my buddies about how terrifying the experience must be, and we talked about whether there would be any serious ones this year.

Words are pretty useless for describing the gravity of the current fires in California and the unfolding events for many people. We know that there is huge devastation and destruction everywhere, and that many people have lost their lives, their homes and in some ways their history.  Some of them are artists.

As the blanket of smoke was beginning to clear over the east bay on Saturday afternoon, a tangible atmosphere of doom and sorrow shaped the small crowd present for the artists’ talk at the Richmond Art Center. The current exhibition “Earth, Wind and Fire” seems so incredibly prescient and somehow so trivial all at the same time. We all knew that one of the participating artists Clifford Rainey, has lost home, studio and work in the ongoing Napa fire. We also learned that another participating artist, Chester Arnold has been evacuated.

The subject of the show is climate change and I’ve visited it twice before. Given the events of last week, the work was resonating with a much more direct power yesterday. I noticed the recurring images of fire in Chester Arnold’s work that I had not really seen before. I felt much more connected to a work by Clifford Rainey called White Bison  which one of my previous exhibit-going companions had particularly enjoyed. We had spent a long time looking at the piece and had gone back to it several times. We had both gazed at the deep blue of the backdrop and the charred wood pedestal in front. My heart was heavy, sensing how prophetic his work has become.

The fires have arrived after five years of drought and a year of climate change deniers in power. As human beings, we seem to be heading for a future environmental catastrophe that we cannot stop. I imagine that we were all sitting in that exhibition space with our own personal knowledge of the stark reality of what is happening to our beautiful environment, and struggling with what to think about the cruel and selfish political denial that is making it worse. It seems at once outrageous, monstrous and impossible. We are all groping for a way through the event and wondering what artists can do in the face of all the lying and corruption in high places. How do we continue? How does it shape our work and how do we practice the kind of self-care and activism that will keep us potent and sane?

The two artists present were salve indeed on the collective wound. Kim Anno and Jenny Odell shared their work and their process with calm generosity and honesty. They also gave us a greater insight into their practice and current projects than can ever be made known in an exhibition. Kim Anno is an artist, activist and educator and also executive director of which “collaborates with communities worldwide through fearless art, film and performance productions to inspire resiliency in the face of adversity.” She has moved away from painting into more collaborative video projects that explore environmental realities. She spoke with great power about the “unspeakable future” we are leaving our children.  Jenny Odell talked of the two common responses to our environmental crisis that she has noticed: the impulse to archive, and the creation of impossible and visionary futures. For immediate balm for your soul, I can highly recommend diving into her long-form piece on Medium called “How to do Nothing.”  Together they shifted our collective experience to one of community and fellowship.

I’m so glad I went again, and I encourage everyone to visit because there is also beautiful work by Harry ClewansAbel Rodriguez, Alison Saar, and Joshua Solis. I had not seen any of their work before and there is much to appreciate and spend time with. The show is on until November 11 and entry is FREE.

My favorite piece is a counter narrative of fire as destroyer. In a joyful expression of the beauty and mystery of nature, I discovered that “Ice Makes Fire” in a video work by Paul Koss1974–2004.

In a snow environment, a small twig fire is started with a piece of ice focusing the sun's rays onto kindling.
Still from video work, “Ice Makes Fire” by Paul Kos, 1974–2004