10th anniversary of the Black Saturday Fire – February 8, 2009, Victoria, Australia
Fire has been an element of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. The indigenous Aboriginal people used it in a controlled manner to manage fuel loads, and more recently European settlers also used it to clear land for pasture. But out of control wildfire can exact immense devastation on both the natural environment and civilization. And only two things ignite a wild fire: lightening and the actions of people.
Growing data on global catastrophic fires reveals that exaggerated – often record-breaking – droughts and heat driven by human-induced climate change are causing more extreme fires to strike, and strike more frequently. Recent horrific wildfires in Spain, Portugal, Greece, California, Chile and even Hawaii add a heavy weight to this testimony. 2018 saw fires in Sweden reach inside the Arctic Circle for the first time. The 2018 wildfire season in California was the deadliest and most destructive on record, with a total of 8,527 fires burning an area of 1,893,913 acres.
Ten years ago, on February 8, 2009, Australia experienced its most catastrophic fire in recorded history; 173 people perished and the fire burned a staggering 1,000,000 acres in a single day. The week before the fire assault saw consecutive days over 43 °C in Melbourne’s central business district. On the day of the fire, a new heat record of 46.4 °C (115.5 °F) was set. (This record was broken again in January this year with 46.7 °C .)
The day of the 2009 Black Saturday Fire, 100 km/h winds blew from the inland desert, inflicting something like a hot fan oven in overdrive on all living beings. To aggravate the situation, with no rain for over a month, and an eleven-year dry period, the landscape was like an explosive time bomb hyperventilating from strong drying winds. These combined climatic conditions made it evident that infrastructures like trains, power, etc. were struggling and that they were simply not designed for these extremes.
The fire ignited about 50 km away from where I live at St. Andrews from an electrical transformer fault. Windblown embers then started a fire a few valleys over from us which began heading towards our house and the Baldessin Press printmaking studio. We were away from the area, and as the ferocious fire front approached, the neighbors were frantically calling, telling us: don’t expect a house when you get back. But as fate would have it, the wind suddenly changed and blew in from the south at about 120 km/h; the fire changed direction, away from the press. However, the long burning flank suddenly became the head and the scale escalated by 100 times.
The immense destructive force rushed away from our place, and up the valley to the top of the mountain at speeds of about 200 km/h with the roaring sound of low flying jets. The heat was so intense that houses and cars exploded before the flames even reached them. From some angles, the fire was so hot that there was no real smoke – just flames and fire balls from vaporized eucalyptus oil in the leaves of the trees. Most people had no warning or chance of escape.
While we are privileged to operate a printmaking studio in a bushland setting, The Baldessin Press, and the fire missed us by a wind change and a few kilometers, we had an artist friend who had worked in the studio perish in the fire. We were not home at the time but returned home the next day.
My first trip into the burnt-out desolate area was with Stewart Morgan up Olives Lane to his devastated property. As soon as I opened the door of the car, there was an overwhelming peculiar smell or sensation of a smell. Years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had been put up to change the stones on the base of a large bread oven. I was the skinniest one on hand. I had to crawl inside the oven, pass out the stones, and lay the new stones. Inside the oven was a strange sensation, as though the oxygen had been consumed through the intense heat. Now, on opening the door of the car, the same sensation from 40 years earlier came flooding back. The smell sensation of the fire area, the charred trees and ash, was the same only much more intense. It was as though all the living energy had been consumed and we were in a vacuum devoid of life.
As an artist I felt compelled to respond to the fire. A few days after the tragic event, I gained police permission to enter the area and photographed the charred ashen landscape. I took a series of three disjointed images that combined to create a triptych in a technique I had used on The Last Rivers Song project in 1983. Over nearly 2 years, I continued to return to the fire-affected area and photograph the regeneration of the bush and nature. I built a huge archive of thousands of photographs.
From this enormous archive I was challenged to produce works that embodied the complexity and subtleness of the gradual return of green from the stark grey landscape. A time-based screen work offered a solution.
Hence, the Entropy project evolved. I worked with Alex Hayes to develop two apps. One allowed me to build a huge composite image of hundreds of triptychs. In total, there were 30 of these mosaic composites.
The second projection application was written in C++ and when playing, began by selecting one of 30 large composite images and randomly generated a pathway to a single image, which eventually filled the screen before returning to another large composite image. The projection plays at 120 frames per second and manages over 5,000 images. Unlike a video loop, the application creates a random on-going unique sequence from the archive. Entropy String randomized projection featured in Bushfire Australia at TarraWarra Museum of Art in 2010. The projection consisted of more than 4,500 images and was developed with assistance from Regional Arts Victoria and Arts Victoria.
The work juxtaposes the abstract macro view by zooming into the micro.
While prints from the archive were exhibited in a number of exhibitions, in 2011 the work featured in a solo exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, with prints and the screen work. The series also featured in a solo survey exhibition at Deaken University Art Gallery in 2014, A PHOTO: synthetic pathway.
The screen work was purchased by Deakin University and plays continuously in the library at the Burwood Campus. The project can be viewed as a free e-book.
As an opportunity to reflect and commemorate the tenth anniversary of the fire, the local Nillumbik Shire Council has curated an exhibition, Renewal, which will be held January 24 – February 25, 2019 across two spaces: Eltham Library Community Gallery and Wadambuk Art Gallery.
(Top image: A large composite work, Entropy string 25, consisting of Triptychs 354, including 1062 images, is included in the exhibition. Pigment print, 110 cm x 194 cm.)
See also Lloyd Godman’s previous article: Creating Sustainable Living Plant Sculptures
Lloyd Godman is an ecological artist whose current work explores practical ways to integrate plants into urban infrastructure in a truly sustainable manner. He established and was head of the photo section at the Dunedin Art School, New Zealand for twenty years before moving to Melbourne, where he taught at RMIT for nine years. He is Vice President of the Baldessin Press, where he lives with his partner. Lloyd holds an MFA from RMIT University Melbourne (1999). Perhaps this from John Power, Editor of Facility Management Magazine best sums up his work. “Lloyd Godman is one of a new breed of environmental artists whose work is directly influencing “green” building design… Godman’s installations are the result of a unique blend of botanical science, environmental awareness and artistic expression. All three elements are intrinsic to the practical realization of his polymathic vision.”