Laurel Holmes

Artist Catalogue

Virtual Exhibition


The diminishing diversity of our planet is a daily occurrence and is of deep personal concern. The Anthropocene Epoch is the current period in modern history where human activity has had a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems, which are becoming more vulnerable and fragile.

The last few years have seen an extraordinary increase in devastating wildfires all over the world largely caused by climate change, drought, faulty machinery, fireworks, agricultural practices, arson and more. The 2019 wildfires in Australia were devastating, but some protected areas experienced less fire damage where they are managed by indigenous people using age-old customary fire management knowledge. Inherent customary knowledge is lost when people move away from the land and this knowledge dies with them. When habitats disappear, the platform for that knowledge does too.

The fire in April 2021 in Cape Town ravaged fynbos and heritage buildings, included the Jagger Library’s vast African Studies collection. [lh1] In the salvage operations, some materials retrieved from the vaults below the Jagger Library were paper and film - fragile, vulnerable, unique materials, at odds with the information they hold of a heavily loaded history.

In response to the fire, I began making repositories in the form of delicate, fragile porcelain paper clay boxes, to ‘preserve’ what was lost. Selected Dewey Decimal Classification system numbers are embedded in the sides of the boxes. Now that much of the Jagger Library’s special collection is gone, what remains is only the (colonial) DDC record of what once existed. With the critical debate around the decolonisation of tertiary curricula and the spectre of what was lost, an opportunity arises to remember and provide an inclusive base upon which we can create a new parity – politically, socially, economically, environmentally, culturally.

The whiteness of porcelain depicts insight and illumination associated with knowledge and learning, but also describes absence, ghostliness, weightlessness and silence. White hot is the hottest heat and aptly describes the intensity of this fire.

By repetitively displaying of most of the objects on the gallery floor, the horizontal rows replicate horizontal shelves of materials in libraries or archives: an aesthetic and lyrical device to demonstrate the magnitude of the works lost in the fire, and which unifies the installation.

The sound component of the exhibition adds a further discordant, sensory dimension to the visual narrative of the enormity of the disaster caused by the fire. Sound enhances the fragility of the paper clay material, recognising our human frailties as well as our powerlessness against a natural phenomenon like a wildfire – and warning us of the environment’s impending final crack.