Tate Etc

'Danger concentrates the mind'

Anne Bean recalls the perilous process behind an iconic series of photographs

Anne Bean

Heat 1974-7

© Anne Bean. Photo courtesy England & Co

Before I made Elemental (Heat) 1974, I had been experimenting with pouring gasoline over heatproof glass and setting it on fire, resulting in beautiful blue flames. Because the glass didn’t crack, I thought about interacting with it more closely. I built up a stack of bricks, put the sheet of glass on top and lay beneath it. I asked my friend, the photographer Chris Bishop, to squirt gasoline over the glass and set it alight, and then take photographs of me through the flames.

As a performer, if a situation is dangerous, you must exist only in relationship to the process as it is happening. I find danger concentrates the mind, and reality takes on a different intensity. If you can edge into that space, you can bring the audience with you into the present moment. With Elemental (Heat), I have no memory of planning an image that I thought would look good. Under the flames, my hands made shapes of their own volition. As with many performances I was making at the time, it was seen briefly by only a few dedicated witnesses – usually about 20 or 30 friends in my back garden in Bow, East London or the derelict house next door. People often ask if I am concerned that my work has not been more recognised, but I had such engaged witnesses that I only needed a small number to feel that the work was in the world.

Around this time, I was developing my own photographic prints and wanted this work to have that same entropic feeling as the performances. I was exploring these ideas with chemicals in the darkroom, but also by printing on crumpled paper and by burying photographs in the ground, tearing them up, slashing them, and leaving them in the sun. I also tried burning them, leaving prints in water, bleaching them. I was thinking about how one could combine performance and documentation to let the prints themselves take on a process. I exhibited framed versions of the Heat works and blowtorched them so that each of them cracked, melted, singed and charred in its own singular way.

Looking at the photographs today, it strikes me that this piece has endless tendrils reaching back in time. I grew up in Zambia and have childhood memories of people cooking food on fires. At the end of the evening, the fires would be extinguished with water, the earth would steam and everything would disappear into ashes. Fire is a basic, elemental force. In 1993, the late artist Paul Burwell and I created a ritual in the then empty Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern). We lit a huge fire in the chimney, creating an urban paean to the dynamic energies that had been conjured by the building.

Throughout my life,I have found being a woman artist oppressive in one way but astonishingly liberating in another. When I was an art student in the early 1970s, the title of my dissertation was: ‘What is art and what am I doing in it?’ The 1960s and 1970s were a fertile time for women who wanted to redefine what art was, and there were enough women working within the same parameters for it to become a strong support, even if it was the underbelly of the arts scene.

I have tended to be profligate with my work, not wanting to feel the burden of one’s past. I’ve wanted to jump outside of it. I have no regrets – it’s freed me up to stay connected to the zeitgeist, to consider where I fit in, whatI want to do. As is maybe evident with Elemental (Heat), the significance of the lasting object is not a great priority to me. It’s like Yves Klein said: ‘My works are only the ashes of my art’. I can see why Klein wanted to jump from being defined by his work: while one is a living artist, it’s great to feel free.

Elemental (Heat) is included in Women in Revolt!, until 7 April 2024. Supported by The Women in Revolt! Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate International Council, Tate Patrons and Tate Members.

Anne Bean is an artist who lives in London. She talked to Figgy Guyver, Assistant Editor, Tate Etc.