22 Feb 2024 - 05 May 2024

Tongues of Fire

Kunsthall Trondheim


In response to our home building’s former life as a fire station, and Trondheim’s history as a city shaped by blazes whose traces are still present in its design today, this group exhibition brings together artists who have been deeply touched and transformed through the challenges manifest in the burnt and burning. Hailing from various generations and backgrounds, these individuals converge to explore how flames have served as agents of change across time and space.

Through the mediums of tapestry, video, computer simulation, sculpture, photography, and drawing, the exhibition contemplates fire’s many physical facets—its light, its heat, its other phenomena. Simultaneously, the artworks kindle reflection on broader themes such as wonder, intimacy, and passion, and the urgent concerns of war, repair, and climate.

By sharing narratives, strategies, and recollections, with a special emphasis on communal remembrance, the exhibition sheds light on the intertwined history of fire and humanity, inviting reflection on whether this intricate and fragile relationship is now teetering out of control. The pivotal role of the arts in shaping the politics of memory and the regional specificities of fire is highlighted through a collection of historic objects sourced from Trondheim’s archives, including the city’s repeatedly burnt cathedral. Together, these artworks gather to pose a question: what lies ahead in our ever-evolving “Age of Fire”?

Like tales told around a campfire throughout the night, Tongues of Fire presents several voices that weave in and out of each other. Audiences are encouraged to build their own connections; however, the following lines may be used as a (non-exhaustive) guide.

The exhibition is organized around several constellations of artworks, one of which notes the personal and communal impact of domestic fires. Anna-Kaisa Ant-Wuorinen’s sculptural installation of objects reclaimed from the time her own house burnt down, is one such example. This theme extends to Lungiswa Gqunta’s video projection evoking kitchen and other home fires affecting informal communities in the artist’s native South Africa. Nearby, an image by Walid Raad presents an archival photograph of an enticing optical “Op-Art” painting leaning against a jewelry cabinet. However, the painting is actually intended to document the shelling of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The impact of political conflict on the landscape can likewise be seen in Thu Van Tran’s images of a burning jungle, which references the use of defoliants dropped on vegetation originally introduced by the French from Brazil to Vietnam.

Other wildfires ignite across different moments in the exhibition. Noémie Goudal reimagines the prehistory of geological coal formation through a simulated blaze across Amazonia, while Tuda Muda’s charcoal drawings illustrate the mythical sacrifice of all the snakes in the world. This act is in retribution for an interrelated series of events narrated in an ancient Sanskrit epic, reaching back to the burning of a serpent community’s forest home.

Beyond rage and retaliation, the emotion of desire and its metaphorical representation as both heat and flame can be observed in Sin Wai Kin’s filmic installation. Here, the drag character Victoria Sin lays out in a fashion resembling a courtesan, teasing the viewer to “look at her” as clouds of smoke fill the air. The body, as well as the transit of the soul, is explored in Ana Mendieta’s film, where her own physique is rendered through a burning effigy lit against the night sky. Respect for the deceased, particularly by museums, is highlighted in Gala Porras-Kim’s record of the ashes of “Luzia,” the oldest human fossil in Brazil, whose remains were inadvertently cremated when The National Museum of Brazil caught fire in 2018. The paradoxical nature of communal remembrance is further grappled with in the work of Tuan Andrew Nguyen, who revisits the history of protest by selfimmolation in Vietnam through its public memorialization.

Turning to the alchemical and the cosmic, Agnieszka Kurant presents a hybrid metal sculpture made from fusing together the artworks of other artists. A second artwork by the artist displays a synthetic rock, whose artificial geological strata contains simulated evidence of various “events” such as a nuclear explosion through the rock’s inclusion of trinitite, a “glass” that was formed as a consequence of the Trinity nuclear bomb Test in 1945. Walid Raad makes a second appearance in the exhibition through a “found” series of notebooks in which a Lebanese explosives expert analyzes the aftermath of car bombs during the Lebanese Civil War by measuring blast sites in carpets.

How history is continuously inscribed in textiles can be considered through a captivating work by Hannah Ryggen that depicts a naked couple and children floating amongst the stars. This image is possibly inspired by the Swedish science-fiction epic Aniara (1956) by Harry Martinson, in which refugees drift through the universe after surviving an apocalyptic catastrophe that destroyed the Earth. Several decades after its creation, the tapestry was damaged by a terrorist who targeted the building where the work hung with a car bomb. During its repair, a decision was made not to render the work’s wounds invisible, allowing their marks to serve as a testament.

John Gerrard employs state-of-the-art gaming technology to depict a blazing flag of burning gas emerging from a desolate ocean expanse. Whether this flag symbolizes the era of fossil fuels, serves as a warning about its endgame, or encapsulates both concepts is open to interpretation.

On a formal and technological level, several works in the exhibition directly relate to fire. In the most apparent instances, this involves the heating, burning, charring, and melting of wood, metal, and other materials. However, the exhibition also features lens and screen-based works to highlight the hidden connection that all electronically powered devices share, often tied to the burning of some fuel. These “fire images,” which we consistently consume, whether on our phones or elsewhere, not only contribute to our addiction to fossil fuels but also resonate with an ancient parable. Similar to Prometheus, who endured eternal torment for stealing fire from the gods, we too bear the consequences of our insatiable consumption.

In addition to the core contemporary art exhibition, Tongues of Fire is grounded by artifacts from Trondheim’s own tale. These include the score to a 17th century “Fire Ballad” that attributes the blame for the 1681 inferno that devastated Trondheim to the city’s own moral decay alongside Johan Caspar de Cicignon’s (ca. 1625–1696) Enlightenment plan for the subsequent rebuild following rationalist design principles.

Archival photographs document Kunsthall Trondheim’s home building’s former life as a fire station nearby images of key fires in the city’s history. One such fire, which consumed parts of the Archbishop’s Palace in 1983, is represented through a collection of early 20th century stone gargoyles and other grotesques that once adorned the adjacent Nidaros Cathedral until they were scorched in that event. This incident altered their color and texture from cool stone-gray to a rust-like encrusted orange. These carvings find reflection in several other objects on loan from the Cathedral dating back to the 12th century. Each, in its own way, bears witness to Trondheim’s connection to both the burnt and the burning.

Adam Kleinman
Director Kunsthall Trondheim
and Exhibition Curator
with Katrine Elise Agpalza Pedersen

Press release from Kunsthall Trondheim

Image: Walid Raad. Appendix 153. 2019. Photography by Daniel Vincent Hygstedt Hansen/Kunsthall Trondheim. Installation view of Tongues of Fire at Kunsthall Trondheim, 2024. Image courtesy of Kunsthall Trondheim