Jack McLean at the Za Moca Foundationby Monty DiPietro
Fire has a way of forcing people into action. Residents do not "walk" from a burning building, they "flee." And emergency vehicles do not "drive" to the scene, they "rush." A blaze also draws a crowd - good people who will interrupt their walk home or trip to the grocery store to push against police barriers and, well, gape in stupid rubber-neck wonder. Because while cooking our evening meal, heating our homes, or starting up our cars all depend on tidy combustion, when the flames get out of control, we take notice.
Jack McLean’s fires make people take notice.
"I don’t like labels," says the Scottish-born artist, "but people give them to me anyway, like ‘art terrorist,’ or ‘pyromaniac.’"
For the last four years, McLean has been building cardboard and paper-stuffed aluminum figures, hauling them out into the night streets of large cities, soaking the humanoid constructions with gasoline, and then setting them on fire. McLean calls the project, which he began in Tokyo and has since taken to New York, Los Angeles, and seven European capitols, "Pyrosculpture."
"[A burning body] has a really strong image," says McLean, 36, "and people can’t really help but stop and look because it’s something gruesome that you don’t see everyday."
McLean points out that there are Japanese television programs that take the "blooper" out-take trend of the 1970s one step further and show video clips of actual accidents - some of which are nothing short of grisly. "There is a curiosity with violent death which is not particularly pleasant but is a part of human nature," he says.
While McLean’s flame-engulfed figures may appear human at first glance, onlookers receive a reprieve from the horror when they realize that the burning object is actually an aluminum effigy. Most elect to stay on and watch what McLean describes as an "amazing" sight, their initial morbid curiosity now sublimated.
"I can imagine what would be going through a New York policeman’s mind when he arrives on the scene and thinks, ‘Oh no, another body,’ and he thinks he’s going to have to fill out all these reports and then go home and tell his wife that he saw this person’s charred remains," smiles hobgoblin McLean. "When he sees it’s not a real body, he probably feels a sense of relief, then curiosity sets in and he thinks ‘I wonder who did this, why is it here, what does it mean?’"
So, why does McLean do it?
"It’s something interesting to do."
What about wasting the emergency response resources of the cities where "Pyrosculpture" actions occur?
"A lot of people ask me that, and I think the chances that another emergency would occur at the exact same time are pretty slim."
What if everyone started fires in the street, wouldn’t that increase the chances that a real emergency might not get the prompt attention it requires?
"Everyone isn’t starting fires."
McLean seems to have the moral questions covered - while arson is malicious, McLean’s actions are probably nothing more than mischievous. After all, a passed-out salaryman or cat in a tree will also bring out a squad car.
Those who still want to slap the "art terrorist" label on McLean can hold off - the artist will extinguish his "Pyrosculpture" project when, on the fourth of July and as part of the UK ‘98 series of cultural events, McLean will light one final fire before retiring his Zippo. The same day sees the beginning of a new McLean undertaking, "Rot," in which the artist will make plastic-wrap molds of people, then fill the casts with rubbish before burying them in public parks.
The July 4th event at the Za Moca Foundation in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward will also present "Pyrosculpture" photodocumentation by Kiyoshi and Yoko Tatsukawa and a documentary film on McLean’s work by Paul Harkin, entitled "Trilogy."