Roger and Danuta Kneebone

Pyrotechnics is all about display. It’s about theatre, suspense ,anticipation – the waiting, the watching, and finally the light, the noise,the after-glow, the smell. That’s what you see when you’re a spectator. And it’s all over in a flash.

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What you don’t see are the hours of painstaking preparation, crawling around in muddy fields to set up those complex patterns. What you don’t think of is the science and the technology that underpins even the simplest display. And Matthew Tosh’s displays are far from simple. His demonstration showed us the planning, the groundwork, the split-second timing of a firework display. He took us into his world of calculations, weather conditions, gusting wind – where the unpredictability of nature can derail the best-planned show.

It hadn’t occurred to either to me that the pyrotechnicist doesn’t see the show – or not as the audience sees it. He’s behind the scenes, triggering fuses and coordinating complex firings. Like the cathedral organist who only hears what he’s playing several seconds after pressing the keys, the fireworks expert is always out of synch with the audience.

Of course most fireworks displays are out of doors. So it was a rare privilege to glimpse a hidden inner world, seeing what a rocket is really made of. Matthew’s guided tour brought together chemistry, jeopardy and the ferocious beauty of explosion. The noise is what struck me most – and the instinctive jolting jarring reaction to an explosive sound. Looking at an explosion, half closing your eyes, not wanting to look directly into bright burning centre of the source of light. Once the noise has begun, you are almost flinching in anticipation of the next crack, shielding yourself against the forthcoming volley.

Lucy Lyons invited us to respond in a very different way. By asking us to close our eyes and hold a pencil lightly over the page, she focused our attention away from the expected and react instinctively. Deprived of the spectacle of colour and light, my senses were heightened to a painful pitch, waiting in darkness for the explosion. Lucy’s invitation was to us as individuals, not as a collective audience – asking us to make sense of our separate responses and express these through colour.

I’ve been considering First World War paintings in context of the history of a field hospital on the Western Front in 1915. Nursing diaries of the war frequently complain of the unceasing noise and the relentless pounding of the field guns. Yet such accounts can only capture a feeble sense of what it must have been like. Impossible to relive the shattering incessant noise, the horror of the armaments, the instinctive response to explosive weaponry. Yet artists were attempting to convey some sense of reality in the grim tragedy of war. Perhaps fireworks get us a step closer, letting us imagine what it might be like for refugees fleeing rocket attacks in Gaza.

Being so close to the action in this session was vivid, almost shocking. Sound, smell and sight came together with a bang. What transformations it may lead to, only time will tell.


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