Man on Fire1
Previous viewers of these films have speculated greatly on the meaning of these narratives and on the psychology of their author. I remember how, after a screening in Minneapolis last year, a woman asked me if I had played with matches as a child. I told her that I tended to be introspective as a child and preferred spending an afternoon sequestered in a dark closet to joining in the games my peers seemed to so enjoy. At any rate, the films presented this evening have a perfectly ordinary origin, which I shall try here to reveal.
I first met Edmond Jouvret in Paris during the early 1950s. As I’d quite literally dropped out of the sky into France during the war2, nothing thereafter ever felt completely strange, which is to say I found Jouvret’s aesthetic principles of Tidewriting compelling and attractive.
At this time I began sculpting paper en plein air, abandoning my creations when I finished them in places where I was assured of their eventual destruction. In the countryside, the placement of these pieces was never a problem and I could revisit a sculpture left in an old olive grove weeks or months later and view with satisfaction the effect that time and weather had had on the work. When I worked in the city, however, I could only put the sculpture in parks or other public places, and when I returned, even if it was only a few hours later, I found that the work had invariably disappeared. Increasingly I suspected that people carried my sculptures away after I had left. As with indigestion, my suspicion proved to be true. One day I happened to attend a party and found one of my figures on display in the corner of the salon, glowing insanely under the Hiroshima of its own spotlight. Enraged, I carried the sculpture into the bathroom and placed it inside the tub, where I hosed it down with cold water from the shower attachment and trampled on it until it was nothing more than a pulpy mass, despite the protests of the owner of the apartment, who claimed she had paid an art dealer a small fortune for it.
Soon thereafter, I thought of a simple solution.
My creations were for the most part life-size studies of human figures, painted to resemble living people. I made them from extremely thick, stiff paper that I manufactured myself. After cutting the sheets to the sizes I needed, I soaked them in water to make them pliable again, then rolled or folded them into the desired shape and joined them together with joints of papier-mâché. Typically I fabricated the various parts in my studio, then transported them to the site, where I joined and painted the sculpture. Though I used no framework inside the works themselves, I generally reinforced the legs with wire attached to a wooden base, which helped support and anchor these deceptively light sculptures.
I began with a self-portrait, an exact likeness cast in a kneeling position. I made the arms extend above the head, with the palms of the hands reaching to the sky. I gave the upturned face an expression of acceptance and peace. After a good deal of planning, I assembled and painted the statue at the Jardin de Luxembourg, on a gravel pathway just inside one of the spiked iron gates. The clothes I painted onto the statue were the exact clothes I was wearing. It was early on a Sunday morning in June, so only a couple dozen people stopped to watch me as I worked. Wearing a hat with a wide brim pulled low over my brow, I doubt anyone took note of my features.
When I had finished assembling and painting my likeness, I sat down on a nearby bench and smoked as I admired my work. Instead of extinguishing the cigarette when I was done with it, I brought it to the sculpture and held the still glowing ember to the paper until it caught fire and burst into flames, which quickly spread, enveloping the entire work in only a few seconds. The few people who had been standing nearby, admiring the sculpture, collectively muttered a startled cry. I took off my hat, bowed to them, and walked briskly through the gate and down the street, disappearing in short order around the nearest corner.
Over the years I’ve made and ignited sculptures of my wife, my children, and my colleagues. I’ve burned up my parents, my sisters, my childhood friends, my teachers, my ex-lovers. Since then, I’ve specialized in ecstatic nymphs dancing by the riverside and shy girls exiting their baths. They are my glass horses, my children, my angels.3 I’ve noted the sadness on the faces of spectators as the ripe curves of these young bodies explode into flames. Some of them turn their heads and walk away before I can even strike the match. No doubt there is something both heartbreaking and triumphant about the creation and destruction of beauty.
Many people have asked me why I always insist on destroying my art.4 I can only reply that I’ve found it liberating to arrive at some understanding of what it is to disappear forever.5
1. An essay first published as a pamphlet to accompany the 1969 screening of Reed’s films at the London gallery Down and Out.
2. A paratrooper during the war, Reed operated behind German lines during the Normandy landings.
3. A reference to Raymond Sabbatier’s prose poem “The Glass-Blower,” a work with which Reed was no doubt familiar.
4. Ironically, Reed’s sculptures are known today only as a result of the films he made of the performance art spectacles in which he burned these works in public places. Some have suggested that Reed is also the father of more contemporary art rituals, such as the Burning Man Festival held each year in the desert of Nevada.
5. See Bertrand Hébert’s “Tidewriter Manifesto, 1953.”