100 Works of Art: (Visual) Burn Season, ParkeHarrison

For an explanation of what 100 Works of Art is, please see the first post in the series.

6. Burn Season, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison (2003)

Burn Season is taken from a book by ParkeHarrison, The Architect’s Brother. I received it as an unexpected but entirely wonderful gift from a friend of mine, who has a particular habit of attacks of arbitrary generosity when it comes to items of beauty and inspiration. Because she’s a rotter.

I had difficulty picking an image from this book for this post, and  Garden of Selves and Lowtide were both strong contenders. However, this image stuck in my mind along with a phrase, unlike the other two, and I attracted to words the way sharks are attracted to water (or, in The Raw Shark Texts, to thoughts…)

Burn Season, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison
Burn Season by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison

Here we see a man covered in hanging bags of water walking slowly into an inferno. He might be conducting an experiment – esoteric “scientific” experiments are a recurring theme in the book – or committing some great personal sacrifice. Either way, the tiny bags of water, reminiscent of funfair goldfish bags, are a futile gesture against his forthcoming immolation.

That pathetic armour, notional at best, struck my imagination and coupled this image forever in my mind with the enigmatic phrase, part of the deal is that he would never know what I did for him.

Sacrifice and futility are two of my favourite themes in any work of art. The lone figure in his sad, ineffectual armour and his slow progression towards certain death stirs up the same emotional response as watching a solitary solider with a battered tin helmet approach a line of the enemy. Here the defiant last stand with inadequate protection is against the forces of nature, against whom he has no hope of a compassionate reprieve: physics doesn’t care about the family you’ll leave behind.

So what is he doing? And who is he doing it for?

This  image also neatly mashes together the four ancient “elements” of earth/air/fire/water with a human (supposed, according to the rather erroneous science of the time, to be made up of all four) at the centre.  Perhaps there’s a sense of him drawing together the elements into himself, or expanding out into them… but to my admittedly biased mind it reads as a sacrifice, and one which – those tiny balloons of water strangely suggest – he does not expect to earn much from.

The nature of all the photographs in The Architect’s Brother is this smoky, past-tinted sepia with hints of the studio poses of Victorian commercial photography, which for me only strengthens the associations of noble self-sacrifice and useless protection:

A man who has nothing to save him but water which will soon boil walks into a fire in his Sunday best. No one knows why. Perhaps no one even knows who he is.

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