Books & Arts | Published:

Science in culture: Burning Bush

Naturevolume 444page426 (2006) | Download Citation

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An exhibition in Australia highlights the country's bushfires.

Flames of passion: Tim Storrier's The Ladder shows that fire stimulates the imagination.

Disastrous bushfires, which occur regularly in Australia during the scorching summer months, have scarred the country's collective psyche as well as its landscape. From colonial painter William Strutt's panoramic canvases of bushfires, such as the Black Thursday fires in 1851, to today's television news coverage of widespread forest devastation and burnt-out buildings, images of bushfires abound.

'Fireworks: Tracing the Incendiary in Australian Art' is an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary and historic works that show the impact of bushfires on the country's art. It reveals their continuing potency in stimulating the creativity of Australian artists, who depict both their dramatic pyrotechnic effects and their tragic consequences.

The exhibition includes works by contemporary Aboriginal artists, whose ancestors used fire as a land-management tool over tens of thousands of years. Exploring Australia's east coast in 1770, Captain James Cook described the land as “a continent of smoke” and noted that “we saw smoke by day or fires by night wherever we came”. As well as using campfires, Aborigines regularly set fire to areas of woodland and grassland to regenerate plant food for themselves and the animals they hunted, to sustain a viable food chain.

Systematic 'fire-stick farming' released nutrients into the soil and fostered fire-loving plant genera, such as Banksia and Hakea, which require intense heat to release their seed. By reducing the area of thickly timbered country and creating open grassy woodlands, fire-stick farming limited the spread of fire. Its decline following European settlement made it easier for bushfires to spread quickly in southeast Australia.

Many of the exhibited works show the immediate aftermath of bushfires, in charred, still-smouldering landscapes. Others show green undergrowth regenerating among blackened tree trunks, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, hinting at the redemptive power of fire in the Australian landscape. The most dramatic works, however, depict fire as the protagonist. In The Ladder by Tim Storrier (shown here), it dominates the foreground. The canvas is covered with shards of flaming light, swirling smoke and heat, across which a burning ladder has fallen to create a claustrophobic space from which we cannot escape.

The images in 'Fireworks' illuminate how Australian inhabitants have interacted with their environment, from Aborigines to the present-day population. Both scientists and artists, who observe the environment closely in order to depict it, are now encouraging a return to Aboriginal methods of land management to combat bushfires.

'Fireworks' can be seen at the University Art Museum in Brisbane, Queensland, from 19 December until 4 February 2007.

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  1. Colin Martin is a London-based writer.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/444426a

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