Oriental HearthThe Oriental Hearth is a substantial installation piece (over 2 meters high) and comprises of two highly charged symbols (the hearth and the female form); both are enveloped in photographic tiles. (Read more below the gallery)
Conceptually I had originally imagined the female form touching the hearth – two historically powerful symbols, almost inextricably entwined together in a reverential physical embrace. The hearth and fireplace representing both the home and a sustainer of life – something to return to. However whilst the fire offers up light and warmth, so too are there inherent dangers of fire as a destroyer. A force requiring both managed control and respect.
Concurrently the second element, in that of the female form, requires possibly less explanation as a symbol. From the Virgin through to the Femme Fatale figure – the mother, the lover, the sister, the friend – a giver of life itself.
As the project developed, I wanted the female to be found approaching the hearth. Her face reflected back at herself in the manner of a realisation and revelation as she nears the mirror.
The Oriental Hearth installation piece is enveloped in photographic tiles; all the images displayed were taken by myself, and are drawn from a pool of pictures made over a three year period throughout Asia that go to represent the The Day After This Night photographic project. Representing 1,000s of cut out tiles (the truth is I lost count!) each image was applied in a découpage fashion. On the body, lie all the female-centric images made throughout this period; whilst on the fireplace all the street-life, landscape & portraiture ones.
Oriental Hearth is an integral part of the The Day After This Night, Love & Loss in the Orient overall body of work; in many ways it is a gateway to the individual images when viewed independently. However there is no single story that I heard, any more than there is a single image that could offer an answer or a conclusion. Nonetheless, I was left with a lasting impression of Hell Fire Pass – a small part of the infamous Burma Railway, situated on the Thai border. Known locally as the Death Railway, over 90,000 Asians and 13,000 Allied service men died during its construction. They say there is a life for every railway sleeper.
It is an extraordinary place. A 10 meter wide path, maybe 25 meters high cut through sheer rock running for over 75 meters. The process involved men wielding pick-helms, and dynamite & mallets. It was run 24 hours a day, and the lamps used at night gave out an spooky red light. These red lit skeletal figures, swinging pick helms reminded the men of a scene from hell. Hence ‘Hell Fire Pass’.
Having paid my respects, I climbed back up the impossibly steep slope to my car; sweat was pouring out of me – it must have been near 100% humidity and 40 degrees. At the top sat an elegantly designed, clean white small Museum. It was air conditioned; and I entered quickly wanting to drink in the ice cool, air-conditioned air. There, amongst the memorabilia was a simple quotation from a Dr Kevin Fagin. The doctor who served on the railway as a POW, trying as best he could to treat the men in impossible circumstances. His final reflection on this time reads:
“You know, when it comes to the end, the only thing that really matters are the people whom you love and who love you.”
These words seemed so profoundly appropriate for the project themes as a whole, that they are woven into Oriental Hearth, and are set within the antique mirrored glass.
From a photographic perspective, in creating the Oriental Hearth I wanted to address one of the challenges of the medium itself – that of replication. The frustration that the photographic image can be replicated, repeated & reprinted ad infinitum without discernible differences from one copy to another has been considered by other artists for many years. I wanted to create a single, unique photographic piece that could not be replicated – not even by myself; therefore I felt that the body of work needed to be three-dimensional.
Secondly, I also knew that there could not be a single image from the The Day After This Night exhibition would capture the scale of the photographic project. Indeed Hockney has spoken of the ‘temporal stinginess’ of the photographic image. He references both the instantaneous nature of creating the photograph, and the fact that the viewer of the image is left in a moment without time. Whereas the painting may have subtle deeper ambiguities, requiring the viewer to return and explore, the single photograph lives in a controlled space that reveals little narrative. This can of course be its greatest strength. The viewer is free to explore their own interpretation. However if the viewer is so free, then there is potentially also no reason to remain and explore.
I wanted to create a piece that could not be read or consumed in one brief viewing. I first tried to explore this method of working in the piece You can’t know me, I’m over there (To view). Emboldened to take the process of creating a théâtre photographique a step further, the Oriental Hearth represents a significant piece of work for myself – both in terms of sheer physical endeavour and time, but more importantly reflects the love and passion I have tried to convey to the viewer in the project as a whole. One of the sweetest paradoxes has been that with so many 1,000s of photographic tiled images used, many are in fact replicated across the artwork; only serving collectively to ensure that the whole piece can never be replicated.
The Oriental Hearth, as an installation piece was part of a larger photographic project concerning Love & Loss (The Day After This Night : Love and Loss in the Orient).
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All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes