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Artist Tries to Light US Map on Fire, Burns Gallery … or Something

Claire Fontaine, "America (Burnt/Unburnt)" — but definitely burnt. (image via Flickr/Telstar Logistics)

Claire Fontaine, “America (Burnt/Unburnt)” — but definitely burnt. (image via Flickr/Telstar Logistics)

Today, in bizarre art news: people are claiming a San Francisco gallery nearly went up in flames after an artwork that was purposefully set on fire burned a little too intensely. The gallery disputes the claim.

The piece, Claire Fontaine’s ”America (Burnt/Unburnt),” involves 50,000 matches arranged in the shape of the United States (subtle). To activate it, Fontaine takes a blow torch and lights the bottom of the work, and then it goes up in pretty spectacular flames, as seen in the video below (in this version, Fontaine, who’s French, has created a map of France):

The whole thing went off without a hitch in 2011 at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, but at Queen’s Nails gallery in San Francisco last month, something went wrong. A bystander recounted the story for the Bernalwood blog:

I arrived just as the first matches were being lit. There was a hose ready in the gallery and fire extinguishers around in case things got out of control– I remember feeling relieved to see that. Everyone had their iPhones and camcorders out to document the slow burn of the piece. At first, when the map was lit on fire (intentionally), it burnt slowly and was rather gorgeous.

However, within about 15 seconds of burning, something went wrong and the flame began to surge out of control. We were not sure if it was part of the art piece… however, soon the smoke was billowing over the entire crowd and the sulphur was so hot and thick that it hurt the lungs.

Someone yelled “EVERYONE OUT!!!” and the small crowd stumbled out the front door on Mission Street. The smoke was so thick and yellow that one couldn’t see.

Queen’s Nails, however, contends that nothing went wrong, and that the story has been blown out of proportion by the press. “The piece is on fire; there wasn’t a fire in the gallery,” co-director Bob Linder told Hyperallergic. “I think the news just made it sound as if the place caught on fire.”

According to Linder, he told reporters and other concerned people that they should attend Fontaine’s artist talk at the CCA Wattis Institute or come to the opening reception for the show if they had questions about the piece and what happened in the gallery. No one seems to have taken him up on the invitation, and he sounded audibly frustrated about it. When pressed to elaborate about whether everything went as planned in the burning of the piece, he directed Hyperallergic to a statement about the fire on the gallery’s website. “Due to inadequate ventilation, there was a large amount of smoke coming from the front of the gallery which caused onlookers to call the SFFD. Upon their arrival, there was absolutely no flame burning in the building,” it says. It’s also worth noting that the gallery wrote a note on Facebook asking people not to post images or videos of “Burnt/Unburnt” on the web. Clearly they’re unhappy about the attention this has received.

Still, the experience of gallery goer who spoke to Bernalwood sounds extremely scary. One wonders if Queen’s Nails could have done something to prevent this, and/or if maybe it just wasn’t the right setting for the piece. In the aforementioned statement, the gallery says that “American (Burnt/Unburnt)” has appeared previously at seven different venues around the world, but there’s no indication of how spacious those venues are. Independent, artist-run galleries, especially in expensive cities like San Francisco, are often pretty small, and they don’t tend have a lot of windows and ventilation.

According to the SF Appeal, the fire caused $5,000 worth of damages and might end up costing Queen’s Nails more, since it really pissed off the fire chief and charges might be filed against the gallery. But Linder contends that all of the damage to the space is actually from the fire department itself, which “used their tools to smash up part of the ceiling.” He added that the $5,000 number was arbitrary, reported without talking to the building’s landlord.

It’s hard to know who to believe here, and the truth is probably some combination of the two sides of the story. But judging by that photo above, the piece looks pretty fantastically charred, so maybe Queen’s Nails can sell it for enough to recoup any costs. At the least, it’s probably worth a visit if you’re in town. (The show is up through February 23.) As Telstar Logistics put it on Flickr, “The fire was out of control, but at least they got a good art project out of it.”

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