Smoke on the water

A burning sculpture across the Thames will close an arts festival marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London

Work in progress on London 1666, designed by burn artist David Best in collaboration with Artichoke.
Work in progress on London 1666, designed by burn artist David Best in collaboration with Artichoke. · Credit: Oliver Rudkin

You couldn’t really have a festival to commemorate the Great Fire of London without some sort of a burning.  On September 4, David Best’s London 1666 installation – a 120m long sculpture of the skyline – will provide just that in spectacular fashion as it is set on fire as it floats on the Thames.

The conflagration will be the finale of London’s Burning, a group of art installations conceived to mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. The idea is to contemplate the impact of the fire on the architecture, infrastructure and outlook of the City and explore themes of resurgence, resilience and risk. The event is being produced by Artichoke, an arts organisation that specialises in ephemeral work.

Despite the relatively small number of deaths in the fire, it left 80,000 homeless and was a ‘huge moment’ in London’s history according to Artichoke director Helen Marriage. By considering its impact, she hopes the festival will explore another side to the City of London beyond its current identity as a financial district.

American artist David Best is something of a burn specialist, having created epic structures for the Burning Man festivals in the Nevada desert. For the London 1666 piece, he worked with young Londoners to create a skyline depicting the City at the time of the Great Fire. This will be installed across the Thames for a few hours before it is burnt as the final act of the memorial event.

‘The idea evolved as he got to know the history of London. The design has included something of the paintings of the time,’ says Marriage.

Despite the relatively few deaths in the Great Fire, it left 80,000 Londoners homeless

Another key part of London’s Burning is Dominoes, a 26,000-piece domino run tracing the paths of the fire from the Monument through the City’s streets, buildings and public spaces. This is being created by performance art and theatre company Station House Opera as the latest – and most ambitious – in its series of large-scale domino installations around major world cities. These aim to encourage interaction with the public space of the city. Appropriately, the dominoes will be in the form of breeze blocks, an allusion to how seemingly permanent architectural structures can be destroyed by fire.

The domino trail, which will span a total of 6km across three routes, will be set up on Saturday 3 September with the aid of 600 volunteers, in preparation for its toppling at 6.30 that evening. At the end of each path, the run will terminate with a fire in a raised section that is designed to collapse in the aftermath of the blaze.

  • David Best collaborated with young people from across the capital on London 1666, designed by Best in collaboration with Artichoke.
    David Best collaborated with young people from across the capital on London 1666, designed by Best in collaboration with Artichoke.
  • Designs for London 1666 by David Best. The structure will be burned on September 4.
    Designs for London 1666 by David Best. The structure will be burned on September 4.

According to artistic director Julian Maynard Smith, who studied architecture as well as visual arts, the course of the project has demonstrated how many of the seemingly public courtyards and routes through the City of London are actually privately owned. In planning the route, Station House Opera was keen for Dominoes to pass through or alongside several financial institutions, but these were unwilling to give permission. However, it is still hoping to involve the Gherkin in the route. Churches and livery companies have proved much more accommodating. Cobbled areas, however, present a particular difficulty because it is unpredictable how a block will topple on them.

‘It’s quite playful and sometimes quite delinquent,’ says Maynard Smith. ‘We’re trying to bring that element of play into the City, which can be utilitarian and formal.’

  • David Best has collaborated previously with Artichoke on several projects including Temple, in 2015, produced by Artichoke in Derry-Londonderry.
    David Best has collaborated previously with Artichoke on several projects including Temple, in 2015, produced by Artichoke in Derry-Londonderry. · Credit: Matthew Andrews
  • Station House Opera will continue its Dominoes series for London’s Burning. Previous installations include Melbourne in February this year.
    Station House Opera will continue its Dominoes series for London’s Burning. Previous installations include Melbourne in February this year. · Credit: Kieran Stewart

Other installations include Of All The People In All The World, which will use proportionate piles of rice to compare key statistics, such as the number of Londoners displaced by the Great Fire, with the impact of more recent disasters.

Holoscenes, by Early Morning Opera, tackles potential danger from another source – climate change induced flooding. Located in Broadgate’s Exchange Square, the six-hour dance piece will take place in a tank where more water is added every 90 seconds. As the level rises, the dancers will continue to enact everyday rituals, even as they are submerged, in a reference to society’s failure to address the threat of climate change.

London’s Burning is part of Great Fire 350, a series of capital-wide events to mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London.

 

London’s Burning, 30 August – 4 September, various venues. Dominoes: 6.30pm, September 3. London 1666: 8.30pm September 4.