Promethean flames

Art 2003 - Richard Cork finds hope and despair in a year when it wasn't only artists setting the wor

This turbulent year is ending, as it began, with images of flame. Back in January, on the eve of Chinese New Year, I joined an immense crowd on the Thames embankment at night to watch Cai Guo-Qiang unleash a dragon of fire. After a dramatic countdown, and a heart-arresting pause, the flames erupted under Blackfriars Bridge, darting and leaping across the black water. Then they zig-zagged their way across the Millennium Bridge before dancing crazily along Tate Modern and up the chimney. Another technical glitch prevented the dragon from reappearing, as promised, in the sky. But sufficient firepower had been generated to set the riverfront momentarily ablaze. Cai called his headlong assault Ye Gong Hao Long: explosion project, and the force discharged by his demented dragon was ferocious and unruly enough to burn itself into my memory.

And now, as the year comes to a close, a further epic spectacle inside Tate Modern confronts us with a colossal fireball. Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-born artist responsible for the installation, underplays its destructive potential with a seemingly harmless title: The Weather Project. But make no mistake - the moment we enter the Turbine Hall and find this titanic orange disc glowing at the far end beyond visitors silhouetted on the bridge, the heat seems palpable. It is an illusion. The last time I went, on a chilly afternoon in late November, there were dozens of people lying on the floor as if stunned by the sublimity of their surroundings. A fine mist seeped into the Turbine Hall, lending the installation a tense air of expectancy.

The disquiet does not end there. When we realise that the disc is only a semicircle, completed by its reflection in the gargantuan mirror running along the ceiling, a sense of fragmentation takes hold. The reflected top half of the disc seems about to break up, sliced into sections by the panes of glass. So the initial mood of cosmic stability gives way to a far less reassuring alternative. This feeling increases once we walk underneath the vast, free-floating disc. Eliasson demystifies his incandescent orb by revealing that it is illuminated by hundreds of mono-frequency lamps, clustered in a burst of light directly behind the disc. We can even see the electrical wiring and, by looking up to the north side of the hall, machines silently releasing the mist.

The whole installation, which from afar looked so elemental, is exposed in all its man-made fallibility. It could even malfunction, making the "sun" suffer an eclipse. Once we appreciate how dependent everything is on technological ingenuity, the figures sprawled on the floor seem oddly defenceless and manipulated by the forces at Eliasson's disposal. Their reflections in the glass far above shrink them to a diminutive size, utterly insig-nificant compared with the engulfing immensity all around them.

Nor were such intimations confined to Tate Modern. The threat of apocalypse underpinning Eliasson's deceptively seductive work becomes overt at the National Gallery in London, where Bill Viola's show brings the year to an ominous conclusion. In The Crossing, the largest and most perturbing of his exhibits, a tall screen dominates the big room, displayed centrally so that visitors can walk from one side to the other.

At first, nothing seems to disturb the enveloping darkness. But gradually a minuscule figure in the distance begins to walk forward. As he does so, the ground in front of him lights up. He, too, is illuminated, from both sides. We see his blue shirt clearly now. He looks like a man in his thirties, balding and neatly bearded. Striding with confidence right up to the foreground, the figure comes to a calm and deliberate halt. He is waiting for the moment to arrive, and so are we.

Then, quite gravely, he starts raising his arms as if in response to some power stirring below him. He seems to welcome it, and even embrace its invisible presence. But it turns out to be a flame. Small and solitary at first, it emerges between his shoes. Soon, however, the fire spreads to either side then climbs up his body and around his back, burning and devouring with impatient greed. The man's arms subside, yet he makes no attempt to beat out the flames or escape. The flames consume him, but he accepts their fiery assault as willingly as the man on the other side of the screen submits to death by a cascading onslaught of water.

For Viola, this self-annihilation by the opposing forces of fire and water is a positive act, "a necessary means to transcendence and liberation". He uses it as a religious metaphor, and regards The Crossing as an affirmative work. Even so, I found myself thinking of suicide bombers as the flames extinguished the calm, resolute figure in their midst.

And all this during a year marred by terrorist atrocities as well as the war in Iraq, a year dominated by the conflagration known in Pentagon parlance as "shock and awe". The Anglo-American invasion continues to plague us as 2003 approaches its close.

No wonder so many flames have sprung up in art. I think of David Nash's outstanding exhibition at Roche Court, the New Art Centre, in Wiltshire this summer, which was held in a gallery that he likened to an oven where "the sculpture is cooking". One work, chainsawed from a felled beech tree and with a gouged cavity deep inside, was burnt black. Outside, on the lawns, a scorched, dome-shaped work heaped with charred fragments of oak seemed reminiscent of a cemetery.

Soon afterwards, the fire implicit in Nash's elegiac exhibits shot up in all its disquieting rawness at Tate Britain. Roger Hiorns, a young artist invited to make a work in the gardens outside the Clore Gallery, confined himself to a single, naggingly unforgettable gesture: real flames, leaping without any explanation from a steel grating in the ground. London became a very nervous city in 2003, and the unexpected advent of these naked flames managed to sum up the fearful side of metropolitan life.

So did a monumental painting in Tony Bevan's show at Michael Hue-Williams Fine Art this autumn. Although it was called Studio Furniture, the vulnerable forms were difficult to identify. They resembled the shell of a wrecked house or office block. The rafter-like remnants they contained would once have offered shelter to anyone inside. But now, possibly in the aftermath of a catastrophic fire, these scorched and brittle timbers seemed ready to collapse. They appeared as fragile as the remains from the devastation inflicted on so many buildings in Baghdad, Bali, Istanbul and other recent targets.

Art can help us to confront our anxieties by giving them coherent and eloquent form. Bevan's furniture can provide no facile consolation, but its obstinate refusal to disintegrate completely points to a fundamental resilience. A related impulse governs Two Burning Bushes, a 35mm film loop projection by Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson. Shot in Trafford Park and shown at Manchester Art Gallery this summer, it shows both bushes spontaneously catching fire and blazing fiercely in post-industrial scrubland. Yet, however high the flames reach, they fail to destroy their victims.

As Moses discovered when Jehovah's angel appeared to him "in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush", the burning could not triumph. The burning candle in Hiroshi Sugimoto's redemptive exhibition, currently at the Serpentine Gallery in London, is marooned in an otherwise darkened room, and doomed to burn out within a few hours. But it is constantly replaced. The flame speaks of vigilance, persistence and, above all, the need in these unnerving times to focus on remembrance and hope.

Earlier works by many of these artists are discussed in Richard Cork's four books on modern art (1970-2000), recently published by Yale University Press

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the peacemakers (and probably Norwegians)