Canadian visual artist Gwenessa Lam explores what triggers memory and the nature of perception and how disaster images are made and disseminated. She was working on a series that dealt with Syria and the Arab Spring, but she wanted to do something that is closer to home. Quite literally. “House fires are something everyone is exposed to no matter where you live. There’s always some fire. They’re often neglected in relation to larger issues, like a terrorist bombing, but if it happens to you, or someone you know, the effects can be as devastating. They’re both ubiquitous and yet highly personal events. Among other things, they make you think about what constitutes home and what happens when it’s taken away—how very much more significant it becomes.”
Lam works in oil and her technique is laborious: she slowly building up her image through successive layers of glazes that must be applied when the surface is wet. This means she has a limited window of time when she can work. Being on a residency for an extended period without interruption is vital to her process. “When I’m at home, things get in the way so I have to reactivate the medium again because I’ve left it too long.” Lam uses an extended medium that allows her about 24 hours, nevertheless, after two hours, the surface gets tacky and she has to reactivate it. “If I keep it wet, I can keep it going.”
Lam works from photographs, altering the images to create a negative version of the original in order to disrupt the way we look at normalized images. “I manipulate the photograph through filters and Photoshop, it’s still black and white, but I invert it and amplify things. For me, this is important in two ways. This particular fire is a night scene so normally it would all be black, but when you invert it, the black areas become white and the white becomes black. Initially, I was more interested in the fire as being light and hot. If you ever see a night fire, it draws you in—but I wanted to see what would happen if you reversed it. Normally, light is seen as life-giving; think of all the mythologies of fire, it’s the source of heat and energy and how we cook, but then in a different context, like a house fire, it’s very destructive. When you make it black it’s almost a psychological flip in one’s mind. So in some ways the blackness—it still could be like smoke so it’s ephemeral, but to me, the blackness is a psychological internal solidification that happens by making that choice to make it black.” The inversion is not only optically interesting, but it creates confusion. Is it fire or is it smoke? It’s hard to tell and if it’s both where one begins and the other ends. The smoke is an effect of the fire, but maybe it’s going out, or maybe it’s just beginning? There’s uncertainty. At what point of the emergency are we at?
At first, Lam’s palette looks like monochrome black and white, but almost immediately you see a distinct pink cast to the painting. This adds a lovely soft aura that’s startling, eliciting, on the one hand, an emotional response akin to a kind of dreamy nostalgia, and on the other, bafflement at how weirdly at odds it is to the catastrophic image depicted. This effect is only enhanced by the refined delicacy of Lam’s approach. She depicts the hard edges and nebulous shapes with perfect veracity and an overall restraint. The end result is a painting that is mysterious, and as ineffably beautiful as it is haunting.
Lam uses the pink as a reference to the type of source image she’s painting from. “I’m conveying that the print itself has an aberration—it’s not color corrected—sometimes you’ll have a cheap printer which will have a pink tone. I like to include those little hiccups as part of the palette to create an image that has a distant imprint of its source, like a patina. It looks like its black and white, but you’re not quite sure, and the effect will remind you of something. That’s part of the interest I have in perception in terms of recognizing the image, locating the source, but also in the way we experience it through the color. So one ongoing investigation in the work has been this interest in lightness and darkness, but also the idea of the imprint of an experience. A manifestation of this is the shadow and in in this case, it’s the idea of what survives after a disaster. Even the idea of the smoke and the fire as a type of ephemeral shadow as well.”
The inverted image also achieves a kind of solarization effect. It’s as if she’s captured the scene lit fleetingly by a great flash of light that has crystalized the moment of disaster.
For her subject matter, Lam tries to find actual houses because she wants to reference actual events, but it’s actually very hard to find them. By the time a news crew arrives at the scene, the house is usually too far-gone. Of the images she has found, Lam has had to sift through to make sure they weren’t intentionally set by the fire department for training purposes. But these also interest her. “Trying to understand which are real and which aren’t has led me down a rabbit hole thinking about the reliability of these images. What is the source imagery? How is it disseminated?”
She was able to verify this one as an actual house fire that occurred in Wainfleet, Ontario. But she has been tracking another one for the past year and has found no clear provenance. “It’s so strange because it’s such a popular image; it’s been re-appropriated so many times that its context has been emptied out. I figured out it’s on a meme generator website and in the last three months, the number of images, or websites that have been re-appropriating it are multiplying. Before I arrived, a couple of weeks ago, it was up to 700. People are using these images like clip art for things like home insurance websites, but also some of them are accompanying online blogs or narratives that have nothing to do with the specific house, or even a fire. I’ve found it on amateur news blogs that are reporting on a real fire, just not this one. If you read the news story closely, it won’t actually ever say this is the image of the fire. But to look at it superficially, you would think it was. That made me really think about the truth-value in the things that we see. We’re always looking at things online or even in the newspaper and thinking it’s suspect, but it became much more clear. And the fact people are doing it so boldly is so interesting.”
There’s a serendipity that comes into play Lam’s process. For instance, the two figures on the bottom left of the painting were a discovery, made when she inverted the image. She didn’t see them in the original because of the darkness. Their proximity and seeming disinterest in the conflagration going on beside them is peculiar. At first Lam suspected that maybe the fire was intentionally set. But she has verified that it is real and they are firemen whose aspect and position are somewhat distorted. Between them is another unlikely vignette, what appears to be a horse or cow calmly grazing. Because it was a poor quality image to begin with, it could have been just a weird formation, but to Lam, this ambiguous blur registered as a pastoral scene and she wanted to depict it as she saw it, shaped by what she personally projected onto the image.
Nowadays, it’s hard to shock people because everything is out there easily accessible, easily seen. Maybe because a house fire has a quotidian quality—we are all at risk—it resonates so deeply with us. It’s interesting that Lam achieves a reaction of fear, or at least foreboding, in the viewer using such quiet means. She is trying to understand what one’s engagement with the images is. “We all are exposed to disturbing events whether they be personal or external and how to respond to them. I’m trying to work through a romanticization or a dwelling in things. There’s enough atrocity and disaster around us. How do we work through all that and arrive at something generative. The reality is that those events and that feeling will always be there; it’s an experience that we have to acknowledge.”