Summer 2006

Artist Project / Explosion

The pyrotechnical sublime

Sarah Pickering

Atrocities have always occurred during conflicts, yet in recent times combat training has become more and more realistic in order to psychologically prepare security forces for the worst. One result of this is the rapid expansion over the last five years of what are known as simulation pyrotechnics. Police and soldiers who have grown up playing computer games and seeing ever more spectacular special effects in films are simultaneously disconnected from and situated closer to the “real.” The photographs reproduced here, which depict pyrotechnic explosions used by British police and military instructors to intensify the sense of drama and tension in training exercises, are part of a series taken at test sites in the English countryside where the bursts of light, flames, sparks, and smoke sit incongruously in the rural environment.

With names like “Artillery,” “Groundburst,” and “Napalm,” the pyrotechnics evoke not only violent and destructive events from wars and conflicts, but also the dramatic re-enactments of such events familiar from feature films or war documentaries. Witnesses to extreme situations often describe what they saw as being “like a film,” and modern filmmakers use CGI and special effects to conjure the most realistic possible disasters to entertain viewers. Whether real or artificial, we enjoy looking at explosions and, as an artist, I’m of course fascinated by their visual seductiveness. But I’m also interested in the forms of violence explosions represent, in our relationship to them, and in identifying the imaginative references they instantiate.

By using photography to record a simulated or imagined scene, I am creating a document that is already a departure from reality. Moreover, most of the photographs in this series were in fact taken during manufacturers’ demonstrations for military and police shopping trips rather than during training itself—in this sense, the images represent artificial instances of artificial explosions, packaged here as “product.” Both cataloguing and decontextualizing the explosions they depict, these photographs permanently suspend them in a tranquil and contemplative moment. The image of a past event hovers between “then,” “now,” and “what might be”; what should be a decisive moment is confounded.

Groundburst No. 1, 2004.
Landmine, 2005.
Artillery, 2005.
Fireburst, 2004.

Sarah Pickering is a London-based photographer who received her M.A. in photography from the Royal College of Art in 2005. A recipient of the Photographers Gallery Graduate Award and the Jerwood Award, she has exhibited in the UK, Mexico, and the US—most recently with a solo show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York. Her work will also be featured in Vitamin Ph, the forthcoming Phaidon anthology on contemporary photography.

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