Hongtao Zhou’s art is on fire. In the literal, touch-it-and-you’ll blister sense. His sculpture Burniture, consisting of two wax chairs that can be set aflame like candles, is part of the Philadelphia Art Alliance’s new exhibit “The Tool at Hand,” which has its opening reception this week.
This touring exhibit was sparked in March of 2011 when Ethan Lasser, then curator of Milwaukee’s Chipstone Foundation, challenged 16 artists to create a work of art using only one tool. Other artists, whose pieces can be seen alongside Burniture, chose saws, hammers and even dental drills. Zhou chose perhaps the most obvious tool of all: his hands. With these (and the hands of several friends), Zhou sculpted 15 pounds of white wax into twin chairs, which, unable to resist the pun, he then dubbed Burniture.
The wax chairs have wicks buried in their seats and stiles; when lit, the chairs burn like candles — literal hot seats. When the wicks are extinguished, the melting, dripping wax hardens into paradoxically frozen-looking stalactites, a visual tension that interests Zhou. “These small wicks are burning down the ‘coldness’ of the icy-looking wax chairs,” he explains on his website. “Cold chairs generate ‘hot’ seats, baking, melting and disappearing.”
The piece is intentionally ephemeral; eventually, the chairs will weaken to the point of collapse in a manner reminiscent of some of Zhou’s past work in a different medium. The straightforwardly titled Ice and Snow Furniture, created atop Wisconsin’s frozen Lake Mendota in 2009, consisted of snow-sculpted chairs, tables and even bowls from which visitors were encouraged to eat ice cream. When the weather changed, the furniture melted back into the lake — completing, in Zhou’s words, “their beautiful green life cycle.”
Another Zhou installation, Snow Furniture Dancing, also had an environmental bent. Created in January 2010 for the Milwaukee Art Museum’s inaugural “Green Furniture” show, these slowly melting pieces were meant to convey a sense of the impending crisis of climate change — a crisis which Zhou believed threatened not only “the current industrial world,” but “human civilization” itself.
Burniture is less explicitly green, though as it travels across the country to destinations such as Portland and Houston with the rest of “The Tool at Hand,” its wax will melt away to reveal a twig skeleton. Its transience, though, is meant less to address a deteriorating earth than the inherent impermanence of our own lives. “It is just a matter of time,” Zhou writes. “Burn the ice, burn our seats, burn us.”
Opening reception for “The Tool at Hand,” Feb. 7, 6 p.m., through April 28, $5, Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., 215-545-4302.