Emily Hayes

Image 5A modern day magus (and in fact former chemistry teacher), Matthew Tosh, brought the last of the three workshops to a close amidst flashes, bangs and smoke. The theme of the session was fireworks. Whether ushering in an overture, building up tension, focusing attention or ending an event, fireworks frequently mark the transition from one state of affairs to another. An understanding of their place within the ceremonies and activities of different cultures can therefore elucidate the purpose and effect of fireworks. Such a transformative role seems apt since fireworks result from complex transformations of both physical and social materials and landscapes.

So why does the combination of carbon, potassium nitrate and sulphur, the basic firework ingredients, have such a long history? And why does the science of the art of the firework display continue to mobilise human imaginations and minds today? Whilst the firework display shares similarities with garden design with regard to the height and depth, the framing of the canvas of the sky by landscape and townscape features, which enhance the effects of firework shape, colour and sound, transform these performances into works of art of vast proportions. This creative destruction is reflected in the English names for fireworks; those inspired by nature and more precisely by flowers local to China, where fireworks are thought to have  been invented – dahlia, chrysanthemum, peony – intersect with others – mortar, aerial shell, mines and mortars – which sound a military note. Though sometimes recorded visually in eighteenth-century vue d’optiques or works such as Whistler’s 1875 Nocturne, the design of such ephemeral light performances also recall Paul Nash’s scenes of World War 1, the psychedelic splashes of colour of abstract post-war paintings and contemporary performance art. For a third year PhD student in the writing up stage such issues throw up interesting questions about thesis structure and the possibilities and limitations of the traditional textual doctorate design.

The cultural history of fireworks can therefore be viewed through the lens of histories of conspicuous display, drawing attention and focusing the gaze. Histories which can also be located somewhere between the luminous displays of the solstices and artificial light projections, the focus of my own research. With regard to directionality and the touching of the untouchable, they also have a place within histories of looking up and of projecting the self towards the highest known places of mountains, the moon or beyond. Performances of all kinds from religious ritual, plays, lectures or indeed firework displays have long been known to transform human spatial configurations, disperse narratives and participants in new directions, and transform emotional states and restore them – or not.  Thus wherever you want to place them, fireworks are, undoubtedly, a subject for transcendental geographies


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