Joburg unveils 11-m tall ‘fire walker’ steel sculpture

29th July 2009 By: Christy van der Merwe

The eleven-metre tall steel sculpture known as the ‘fire walker’ by artists William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx was the latest edition to the Johannesburg public art collection, which forms part of the inner city’s regeneration programme.

Unveiled on Wednesday, it is situated on a previously derelict traffic island site on the Newtown side of the Queen Elizabeth bridge in Johannesburg. Marx described the artwork as “a kind of irrational piece, with no 90º angles”, making the erection of the artwork “an engineering nightmare, and a mammoth task”.

The sculpture depicts a silhouetted image of a woman walking with a fire brazier balanced on her head, an everyday sight in the city - female entrepreneurs who make a business out of cooking and selling ‘mielies’ (corn on the cob), and ‘smileys’ (cooked sheep heads), to pedestrians and taxi commuters.

There were no architectural drawings for the sculpture, and it was based on a smaller scale (about 80 cm) model, made of cardboard.

“To change the scale to the full scale ten metres high that we have on the square, we first started by making a three-metre enlargement. The sensible thing to enlarge a sculpture from three-metres to ten-metres would be to build the whole sculpture in a workshop in a steel yard so you could get it all perfect and then dismantle it in the steel yard and re-erect it on site,” explained Kentridge.

However, this did not fit within the timelines and budget of the project.

“So, we actually built the sculpture on site, as if we were building it out of a piece of bolster wood and foam, and cardboard, but instead of a central core, we had a massive H-beam, and instead of a sheet of paper, we had laser cut steel,” Kentridge added.

The construction of the sculpture on the site took about three weeks.

Ensuring that the structure was not evident, and that it did not interfere with or ruin the sculpture was an important aspect of the project. Marx explained that finding an engineer who could erect the sculpture without additional structures and columns was difficult.

“The major challenge in a project like this is the wind loading, because you have a very slender thing made of plates, and under normal circumstances where it’s a big sign, there are no constraints of the structure, we all see the huge columns, but in something like this, the idea is to hide the structure within the sculpture,” structural engineer John Munday told Engineering News Online.

The only thing done with full-blown joins was the foundation, and the “guts” of the sculpture holding it down. “In there are big chunks of structural steel, H-beams and I-beams, but hopefully most of them are hidden amongst the artists’ vision,” added Munday.

Kentridge described the artwork as a three-dimensional object, which in one way has to be read as a two dimensional flat image. From one point of view the image is clear, but as one moves around the sculpture it seems to disintegrate and becomes chaotic.

“It has the appearance of a solid object, which is not really so,” said Kentridge. Initially the artists thought of constructing a sculpture of a miner, considering the mining heritage of the city, but after seeing the women “carrying fire on their heads”, felt that this would be a more appropriate image for the city.

“The piece is really meant to act as a kind of explosion, so it was really about constructing a sculpture that had very little sense of gravity to it, and of course what an engineer brings to a structure is a sense of gravity, so it was always a slightly counter intuitive project,” noted Marx.

The artwork was commissioned by the Trinity Session and forms part of the second phase of the Public Art programme for Hillbrow Berea and Yeoville. It was funded by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), which spends 1% of the City’s total capital expenditure budget on beautifying the city through public art.

JDA CEO Lael Bethlehem emphasised that the fire walker was one of a number of artworks which form an integral part of the regeneration of the city, and said that it reflected a love and passion for Johannesburg from the two Johannesburg-born artists.