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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Sightlines "When the Smoke Clears"

Sightlines challenges artists to envision what happens when the smoke clears and we are confronted with fire’s impacts on human bodies, landscapes, and the built environment. The exhibition bears witness to these impacts, sparking a range of emotions about what becomes visible, and felt, when the flames are extinguished. What emotions are mirrored back to us in the eyes of wildland firefighters and others facing fire’s front lines? What pressures do we put on younger generations to both symbolize and create a better future? Who and what survives, and might even thrive, in fiery futures? Sightlines artists invite us to learn lessons from fire that might shape not just how we respond to it but also how we anticipate and prepare for it, how we work with fire as an agential partner in a shifting and shared world.

Part of a hotshot crew, Jackie Barry took a camera into the field in 2020 to film their fellow crew members. The result is an intimate set of images that challenge us to reckon with, perhaps to justify, what firefighters do: the labor, the risk, and the “burnout.” Many people are aware that firefighters are underpaid and overworked, and that romantic visions of firefighters as akin to war heroes can encourage us to put them in harm’s way unnecessarily. But beyond stereotypical images of urban firefighters—with their red trucks, their fire stations, the highly visible structure fires they extinguish—what is life like when the backcountry is your workplace, when wildland firefighting is your job? Barry’s position as hotshot crew member enabled them to catch their coworkers in casual moments and expose the gritty realism of a very hard job. In Medio Fire, a cluster of hotshots gaze across a valley at smoke on the ridge opposite them. What seems like repose is both warranted (they work excruciatingly long days, sleep on the hard ground, and carry extremely heavy packs) and also probably not repose at all; most likely they’re analyzing fire behavior and strategizing for the next day’s work. This perspective contrasts with the close-ups of the “boys” in Boys in Truck, an image that makes me curious to hear what they’re talking about right then, and to understand more about their day-to-day work lives. Too often we only see fire from afar, on a distant ridge or not at all—a far-off flame front, or billowing smoke columns, or orange skies in a photo next to an alarming headline. Barry’s photographs make fire personal, not by showing flames but by showing us what human bodies that work with fire look and feel like. I feel challenged by Cole’s close-up stare, and by his slightly downturned lips: Is this worth it? Are you asking too much of us? And what does his unflinching look juxtaposed against a field of sunflowers begin to tell us about this traditionally masculine workplace? What becomes visible when we focus on the people who work in and with fire are questions of justice, then, at root.

 

Allison McClay’s Olallie Burns echoes Medio Fire in that it frames a distant fire from the perspective of a human—and, in McClay’s image, companion animals. Facing fire alongside these figures, we viewers are looking out with them on a landscape that is burning, has burned, will burn. Here we see the familiar red skies and what looks like a lake reflecting that umber hue. What I find most fascinating about this image—aside from the dogs, who outnumber and look up to the human figure—is the hands on hips stance. This can signal frustration, bemusement, determination, or anger. Without a facial expression, it’s hard to tell. But the piece is powerful for the way it shifts attention from figures to background, asking us to reflect on what we see and feel looking across this landscape with this triad of animals in the foreground. As McClay puts it in her artist’s statement, her work implores us to reconsider “what a healthy relationship to destruction and to existential doom could look like.” In Sucia Saves Us McClay recalibrates doomism toward hope. Gently winding tree limbs cradle a harmonious multi-species community of ravens, white-tailed deer, and human children, in a magical realist mood that suggests salvation. Pushing back against depictions of children as emblems of the future or requisite symbols for hope, though, it is Sucia—an island in the San Juans—that “saves us” here. As the Pacific Northwest adapts to longer and more intense fire seasons, McClay’s paintings are refreshing in their indication that “alarm” is only one affective attunement, even when fire is always in the background. 


 

Returning us to central tensions in Ground Truths—between mourning and renewal, death and regeneration, destruction and new growth—Andreas Rutkauskas’s Silent Witnesses series refuses to resolve them. Instead, these photographs expertly show how fire’s power is both destructive and restorative, and prompt reflection about what roles humans should play, as witnesses and stewards, in capturing, rerouting, or simply admiring what Ruskauskas describes in his artist’s statement as “fire’s power to sculpt the land.” Rutkauskas’s photographs get at this question, in part, by re-centering plant agencies, using an outdoor strobe light to illuminate what he rightly considers valuable “members of a community.” Rutkauskas’s framing disrupts the common anthropocentric perspective of looking down and out across a burned-over area by positioning a dried-out shrub in the foreground. What first appear to be almost black-and-white shots quickly take on multiple dimensions of color and texture. White tufts of dandelions pop against a blackened forest. Ponderosas are marked by vibrant orange splotches beneath the bark, which shine neon against charred trunks and signal the emergence of new layers of growth. In all three images, the foreground glows, attracting my eye and heart to brightness rather than the threatening sense of dread or the grief that often overwhelms us when confronted with destruction. One thing that becomes visible, and felt, from this vantage point is a sense of near-miss relief: the feeling that things could have been even worse. But what strikes me most is the bright green understory, which brings a spirit of resilience, even joy, to the darkness.


Katie Kehoe’s Wildfire Shelters for Small Animals operates in a similarly dissonant mode. Small animals often imply cuteness or play, but fire shelters are deadly serious. Trained firefighters practice deploying shelters very quickly, with the knowledge that they are last resorts for survival, to be used only when a flame front is overtaking the crew—in other words, when death is imminent. These triangular shelters are arranged so that their tips touch in a kind of wheel, conjuring a “circling the wagons” sense of protection. But who is included in the circle, and who is the implied enemy? How do we protect not only ourselves, but other animals as well, from destruction? What “survival architecture,” to cite Kehoe’s provocative phrase, is required for our hearts? Kehoe’s art asks what “lifesaving devices” we need to develop to survive and perhaps even thrive in uncertain fire futures. They also beg a more basic question: who is the “we”? Why should large mammals—humans in particular—get priority for survival? Kehoe’s shelters, like Pyro Postcard’s “babes in the woods” avoid a sentimental Bambi-ism but nevertheless tap into a profound and common human concern for “small animals,” harnessing that concern for fire awareness. Ultimately, Kehoe’s project, like all of the work in Sightlines, confronts us with the harsh material realities and the “survival architecture” we must create in the face of extreme conditions—individual wildfires, changing fire regimes, and, more broadly, the climate crisis.


further considerations contributed by

Sightlines Juror Jennifer Ladino,

February 2024

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