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Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art • Environment • Interview

Sarah Pickering London, UK
Interviewed by Dean Pajevic | Website | Upcoming Shows

About the photographer
Sarah Pickering's startling and somehow dreamy images of explosions have been featured in magazines such as Art Review, Art Monthly and The New York Sun. Sarah states, "My work explores the idea of imagined threat and response, and looks at fear and planning for the unexpected, merging fact and fiction, fantasy and reality. The images are a representation of society's coping mechanisms, which are often happening out of the public arena."

"My previous body of work, Public Order documented the ambiguous urban landscape of the UK's Metropolitan Police Public Order Training Centre, an unreal constructed world of civic intransigence and imagined threat. The Explosions series further develops this investigation into the crux of reality and its simulation."

Sarah Pickering's work is featured in the upcoming March 10-13 Scope Art Fair with Daniel Cooney Fine Art, and in the ongoing Jerwood Photography Award touring Exhibition in the UK.

DP: Humans seem to love looking at explosions. Why?

SP: Perhaps it's about harnessing the powers of nature or tapping into the emotion of fear. I'm interested of course in the visual seduction of explosions, but also intrigued by the more disturbing aspect of the potential violence and our relationship to it.

Ground Burst No1
Ground Burst No1. Courtesy Daniel Cooney.

DP: Are you still awed by the explosions you photographed, or did you find yourself becoming numb to them? Do you feel like you want to see even bigger ones?

SP: I really enjoy photographing the explosions - I don't think I'll get bored with that, but I'll be moving on to other projects soon. It's not only the effects themselves, but the people and situations around the production of the pyrotechnics that are interesting. A couple of the shoots were displays for the military and police to write out their pyrotechnic shopping lists! I have been exploring contacts who work with bigger explosive tests in different contexts so perhaps I have 'upped the ante' a bit!

Land Mine 2005
Land Mine 2005. Courtesy Daniel Cooney.

DP: Sex, violence, supernovas, the Big Bang. We are "exploding with desire" or "exploding in anger." Lovers are said to be "on fire" and "burning with passion." Explosions are woven through our imagery and writing about creation and destruction. What is it about explosions that so turns us on?

SP: The explosion as a metaphor is a very powerful one. It represents an extreme state and conjures some visually rich imagery in our language, fusing fear, power, pleasure and the unknown. In a way the photographs I've made show the inadequacy of an explosion when packaged as a 'product' or captured as an image.

In a world of six-plus billion people, incredible inequalities and rampant environmental destruction, what do explosive love, explosive ideas and explosive wars do for us anymore?

SP: Explosive love I would think is a global phenomenon and happens in all walks of life and cultures! I suppose it's likewise for explosive ideas. Wars however don't appear to be explosive anymore. Representations of wars have been mediated and cleaned up. The SMART bombs of the Gulf War and remote warfare have distanced observers from the destruction and brutality of war. The ongoing situation in Iraq with suicide bombers and regular violence is an everyday reality, but is reported from a cool distance. We are well aware that the magnitude of the world's problems can never be understood or represented adequately, and even resolution of these problems is out of our control. In reaction to the hard realities of the world, Western culture is withdrawing to virtual approximations of the world. I'm interested in opening up a dialogue around the separation of the real from the imagined and this is my way of addressing the complexities of contemporary life.

Fire Burst
Fire Burst. Courtesy Daniel Cooney.

DP: The hydrogen bomb is the biggest pyrotechnic we have built so far. It will kill millions, perhaps billions, if unleashed. What is the difference between the explosions you photograph, the hydrogen bomb, and fiery visions of Hollywood?

SP: To refer to the hydrogen bomb as a pyrotechnic perhaps best represents it in our collective consciousness as we have imagination, tests and reconstructions in fiction to inform our concept of it. The bomb at Hiroshima was of course a very real and terrible event which was fired as a strategic 'test' by the US military hoping to find out more about its effects. Derrida called the concept of nuclear deterrence "a fabulously textual non-event", a "reality-effect". The imagined destruction and fear evoked by the idea of a nuclear war is the deterrent rather than the bombs themselves.

Hollywood special effects overlap into some of the pyrotechnics I photograph as some of them have been designed by a guy who does the pyro for the Bond movies and also works with the military on their training effects. The Explosions are all designed for use by the military and police to train for real scenarios (which explains the naming of the products in some cases and is quite scary in others!). The photographs are taken to suspend the explosion in a permanently tranquil state, and to hold them up for contemplation. I suppose it's a way of looking at the gap between what's real and what's not.

Napalm. Courtesy Daniel Cooney.

DP: What is the most interesting/disturbing Hollywood movie explosion that you have seen?

SP: Rather than an explosion I'm really disturbed by the Hollywood destruction of Manhattan in 'The Day After Tomorrow'. Although this was a filmic natural disaster striking the city, not only did it seem perverse in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, but the trailer was shown in secret filming on British TV. There it was recontextualized as a promotional video in a meeting for extremists willing the downfall of the US.

DP: The Book of Revelations from the Bible is probably the biggest and most far-reaching vision of fire and destruction to be propagated throughout humankind. It's the original Hollywood CGI and many people take it as truth. What do you think about these kinds of visions?

SP: Ideas of apocalypse run through many religions and belief systems. There is a desire in human nature to imagine destruction and it's no surprise that it's recurrent through forms of entertainment too.

Electric Thunderflash
Electric Thunderflash. Courtesy Daniel Cooney.

DP: What's next for you as you explore this "crux of reality and its simulation?"

SP: I'm still concentrating on getting my Explosion and Public Order series exhibited and published. I'm working on ideas for a few tangent projects linked with the previous ones, but my work is always dependent on getting permission and access, so to a certain extent it's out of my control!

Upcoming Shows

Selected Group Exhibits
March 10-13, 2006   Scope Art Fair with Daniel Cooney Fine Art, 636 11th Ave, NYC
2005-6   Jerwood Photography Award touring Exhibition, UK

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers