Fire on the Veld
An environmental artist integrates science and art in nature
At sunset on April 11, 2015, fire erupted in a 12-acre swathe of dry grass in the Khatlhampi Private Reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa.
This was no wildfire; it was a controlled burn, carefully supervised by Working on Fire, an NGO that specializes in fire management on savannah lands. The burn was also designed—by Johannesburg-based environmental artist Hannelie Coetzee—to produce an enormous silhouette image of a little boy reaching out to touch an eland, an African antelope.
A gentle, giant icon of peaceful interaction between the human and animal worlds, Eland and Benko is also major earth art, and the Khatlhampi location borders the Nirox Sculpture Park and Artist Residency, one of South Africa’s most important outdoor art venues. But the project’s purpose went beyond art-making.
Coetzee collaborated with University of the Witwatersrand ecologist Sally Archibald, whose research interests include how fire influences the way grazing animals inhabit and use the landscape. Burning nearly-inedible dry grass produces tasty new green shoots that the animals like, and Archibald has been experimenting with burns of different sizes and shapes to see how they affect animal movement and behavior, with an aim to improve the management of grasslands.
Thus the matchup with Coetzee, an artist who, as her website states, “specifically aims to integrate science and art to inspire empathy for and engagement with nature,” was, well, natural.
To execute the project, Coetzee also worked with Kirschhoff Surveyors, who plotted the outline of the artwork with one thousand GPS markers. All told, some 200 people were in attendance when the grass was lit, including Archibald’s student colleague Felix Skhosana, who was assigned to monitor animal usage of the area after the burn.
Graham Wood of the Times of Johannesburg was there too. “As the smoke cleared,” he wrote, “the image was revealed and the audience broke out into spontaneous applause. The effect of the performance and the image left in the landscape was undeniably powerful, but Coetzee is not interested in beauty for its own sake, or art for communication or critique alone. Rather, she is interested in the ways in which artworks can participate in the social or environmental context they take place in, and contribute to the life around them.”
The video below shows the coming-to-life of Eland and Benko.