Fire


BlueGasEyes, 20014, Miroslaw Balka, Born Poland 1958, Video projection, salt, steel, MDF, Courtesy of the Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

The ability to control and use fire — to ward off predators, produce light and warmth, or cook food — represents a turning point in the evolution of humankind that propelled us all the way to the top of the food chain. With it, the human species took its first step towards subjugating nature: from this moment on human survival no longer depended on our physical powers but rather on our power of invention. The central role of fire in rituals and social gatherings brought humans together and fostered the creation of societies, and some attribute the growth in size of the prehistoric human's brain to the rapid digestion of cooked food — yet another byproduct of the discovery of fire.

The earliest evidence of the use of fire, some 1.5 million years ago, was unearthed in prehistoric sites in East Africa. In Eurasia, one of the oldest indications of fire-making (on view here) was discovered at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel, a site dating to about 780,000 years ago. However, the process of dominating fire and using it in everyday life was only completed in the Stone Age, some 250,000 years ago.

In time fire became an object of devotion, perceived as something sacred, the essence of life and a metaphor for metaphysical light, while also identified as a dangerous element endowed with threatening and destructive powers. It is on this tightrope between life and death — between evolution and destruction, between flames and ashes — that human civilization has been advancing ever since the discovery of fire.