At the end of Kennedy Quay one cool, fine evening in April, Vulcan and his acolytes are in position, wearing leather aprons and leggings held on with duct tape, each with an implement at the ready, like costumed peasants awaiting their part in a ballet whose focus is a small furnace beside a long, counterbalanced contraption within reach of three large metal candelabra stuffed with pallet wood. Yellow helmets complete the Health and Safety part of the performance. Under an awning, Mick O’Shea and Alex Pentek toy with the deepening sunset and the vagaries of our attention. Their soundscape occupies the scene with creaks and grinding, farts and bubbles, frying pans idly hit: bored child, sullen teenager, time passing, sound extracted and then thrown away. Sunset, what sunset?
The candelabra are ready to receive whatever mental sacrifice we choose. We look across the river at the painted terraces of a newly unfamiliar Cork at the champagne hour, the cameraman’s perfect moment. A container ship about to dock goes by; most of the crew only have eyes for their berth, upstream, but a few sailors look our way as fresh bags of coal are emptied into the furnace and the gas pump is primed for a season in hell.
We have no idea how long it takes to melt iron or what temperature you have to reach. United by our ignorance, our patience, our optimism, waiting makes us an audience, a pair of multiple eyes looking north, looking east, looking at each other, at ease as long as the evening is fine, as long as we ignore what else we might be doing this evening, what we must do when we get back. As Vulcan stokes his fire, pumps his furnace, we rustle and sway with the prospect of melting metal: the hard made soft, the cold made hot then cold again, the life we’ll return to, made hot then cold again.
A film crew dallies with a stylish woman striking nouvelle vague poses in the foreground. The swing of the camera boom anticipates the swing of the contraption behind them. Serious melting is slow. We start to think about iron, and, by extension of unexpected frailty, other solids on the brink of dissolution elsewhere in the world for even less reason; our audience, our semi-circularity, our permeability, will be resolved somewhere between the furnace and the three candelabra, along the contraption to its fulcrum, favouring now one end, now the other, the one with the bucket.
The contraption is native Tinguely; the counterbalance will do one thing, three times: fill and turn and tip the bucket, then go silent.
A signal from Vulcan to the soundscapers. Acolytes ready their implements. Drum roll. Places everybody. Action. Clustered behind the crowd fence, we pull out some disused elemental stops. How much danger do we want? What passes for unmediated? How close would we want to be without the crowd fence?
The molten moment is brief, sluggish, relentless, like a Super 8 film of Etna erupting. Some of the molten misses the bucket and falls on the ground, to be taken away and sprinkled with sand. The contraption swings round on its fulcrum and the bucket tips molten iron onto the first candelabrum; the pallet wood catches fire, dropping redhot slops onto the ground. The leavings can be read as in molybdomancy or tea leaves. Already as it burns we start to think what will be left next day, what curiosity it will draw. We all like to linger by a charred site. If you’re Cornelia Parker it might be the start of a whole new work.
Few if any of us have ever stoked a furnace (Richard Gere in Days of Heaven), worked in a steelworks or an iron smelter. Birthday treats for small boys no longer include five minutes in the engine room of a steam train followed by a photograph. There are bonfires on St John’s Eve, and smokeless fuel in livingroom fireplaces (perhaps); otherwise most of us have a fire deficit. This is no country for pyromaniacs or volcanologists.
Three times, three candelabra. ‘Take three as the subject to reason about’, says the Beaver in The Hunting of the Snark. ‘The snark was a boojum, you see.’ We’ll get on our bikes and go home after an evening well spent. It’s pointless but satisfying because in the wrong place at the wrong time, or adjacent to the right place but a long way from the right time, in half-used docklands, where molten iron falls not amiss.
Some people leave after the first flow of molten, more after the second when the pointlessness and also the point have settled in. Maybe the hubris. Or we have found we’re not wearing enough clothes for a cool evening. We have gathered and now we ungather. The empty quayside, like a film set for Cannery Row, all buddleia and bollards swept by the smell of urea from the fertilizer depot, sees us out.