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  • The Thermodynamics of Art
  • Andrew Sano

Therm, an East Bay art collective founded in 1999 by inventor Dave Andres and artist Vance Cearley, has paralleled the growth of and definition of fire arts in the Bay Area. Beginning with individual, human-scaled pieces, the founders, as well as artists Justin Grey, Orion Fredericks and Zack Wetzel, created "Fire Gardens" in the Bay Area and at Burning Man. Fire art, as a medium, inherently demands interdisciplinary rigor-the inventor becomes an artist, the painter wields new brushes of metal and flame, the fabricator emerges as performer. Therm creates fire art that does more than just oxidize fuel-it is art that sings, plays percussion, dances like alien insects or simply radiates occulted beauty when quiescent.

In 2002, Therm, aided by a generous grant from Burning Man, came together and pooled their efforts into a single piece: The Thermokraken (Fig. 1 and Color Plate D No. 1). Inspired from the initial drawings of Vance Cearley (Fig. 2), the finished piece consumed the pneumatic, electronic, metal-fabricating and aesthetic abilities and focused energies of all the above-mentioned members in its realization. Twenty-three ft high, with a footprint of roughly 5 by 5 ft, the "Kraken," as Therm affectionately dubbed her, originates in a half-ton skeleton of purpose-built metal framing, both scaffold and initial gesture.

Packed tightly within the structure are propane and ethanol fuel lines, chemical powder feed lines, pumps, switches, solenoids and a mass of wires, all somehow coexisting with the main combustion chambers. Equal parts bomb, jet engine and organ-pipe, the primary chamber is a hand-width 16-ft steel tube, fueled by high-pressure propane and forcibly aspirated by 12,000-rpm sports-car turbines to howling red-hot crescendos. Further up, in the "blossoms," as the spiky tripartite top pieces are called, ethanol fountains weep blue flames, and additional propane sculptures "bloom" in brilliant colors, enhanced by chemical powder feeds. (Said chemicals were carefully selected by David Andres to be as non-toxic as possible, or, as he more eloquently put it: "Safer than a Presto log.") Finishing off the piece is a patchwork cladding of stainless and naturally patinaed raw steel. This exterior, much like our own skin, protects the more purely functional innards while somehow emphasizing and enhancing the structures concealed within.


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Fig. 1.

Therm, The Thermokraken, steel, propane, ethanol and flame, 23 x 5 ft, 2002. This is not just an overgrown roofing torch, it's Art, baby. . . .

© Therm. Photo © Mike Woolson

In scale alone, The Thermokraken is an imposing, brooding success, drawing the curious from great distances and transfixing them up close with her ferro-botanical aura. Her construction is analogous to a living thing. Once lit, she is the totem of a new art form.

Whether controlled solo, in ensemble or in live duets with musicians such as the Reverend Screaming Fingers or Joe Rut, performances of The Thermokraken limn the holy contour of life itself. The makers pour their lives into the machine, seducing her to breathe and sing, sob, chuckle or bellow in joyous rage. Seeing a 7-meter, red-hot steel sculpture cry blue methanol tears while emitting a deep systolic throb from its main ignition chamber as it struggles to respire, each tortured breath heaving out coronas of carmine and emerald flame, one feels the pathos of all things fighting to get what they need: enough air, enough fuel or just the proper conditions in which to thrive. One realizes this is not just an overgrown roofing torch, it's art, baby, and-no irony intended-very cool.


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Fig. 2.

Vance Cearley, drawing, 2002.

© Vance Cearley

Therm has had fire shows in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Coachella (all in California) and Las Vegas and has been featured on KQED radio's Spark, well belying the conception that fire art is "just a playa thing."

Fire art is here to stay. Mere ignition, however, doth not an art piece make. Incomplete combustion is inelegant. Are you using all your oxygen? [End Page 347]

Andrew Sano
E-mail: <raveboywalter@hotmail.com>

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9282
Print ISSN
0024-094X
Pages
p. 347
Launched on MUSE
2007-07-30
Open Access
No
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