In her Cinis series, made in Pompeii between 2014 and 2018, Helena Petersen works with the question of how to make a phenomenon visible that usually vanishes with the passage of time.
An event that took place in antiquity – which the artist saw as an analogy for photography – was the impetus for Petersens’s journey to an archaeological dig in Pompeii. All life was frozen within fractions of a second following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. A pyroclastic stream of molten volcanic ash and gas buried the city and its inhabitants and froze them in their final movements. They were preserved beneath layers many meters deep for almost 2000 years. During excavations, hollow spaces with bones were repeatedly discovered. Archaeologists made plaster casts of them for the first time in circa 1860. The ensuing forms (called calchi in Italian) were imprints of human bodies that captured the moment in which the individuals died. Over time, the effects of the ash, which had long been preserved in darkness, were brought to light, a phenomenon that remains unique to date.
The artist regards the ash (cinis in Latin) as a type of photographic negative. The material captures and preserves a sequence in space and time that would otherwise be lost forever. The ash’s fatal, destructive power is no longer visible today. The earth-earth-coloured mounds in the excavation sites appear insignificant and incidental. The artist worked together with an archaeologist to excavate the original ash from the pyroclastic flow out of the precise excavation layer that precipitated and also preserved the fatal instant. In doing so, she rescued it before it disappeared in nature’s next cycle.
Petersen worked with a volcanologist to develop a process that translated the result into a photographic process. The artist exposed this layers of ash to high temperatures in order to restore them to their volcanic plates. The ash was cooled quickly, forming translucent volcanic glass. Numerous unique works resulted because the material reacted differently during each melting process. The ash forged into glass becomes visible as an image only when illuminated by the slide projector’s light.
In her Cinis series, Petersen has created a method for creating images in which ash metamorphoses into glass. To do so, she plumbs the veins of the past and uses what she finds to construct a tissue of experience deeply rooted in the question of what has been and what endures in the present.