The Sacrifice (1986/2020)
after Andrei Tarkovsky
The Sacrifice (1986)
There is a somewhat apocryphal tale regarding the filming of Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece The Sacrifice [Offret in the original Swedish]. Always a singular visionary, Tarkovsky choreographed a single six-minute moving shot as a powerful and climactic denouement. In the director’s vision, its protagonist Alexander builds a huge pyre made from all his worldly possessions, setting alight to the stacks of chairs and tablecloths, and which would eventually engulf the entire house.
During filming, the carefully choreographed shot came unstuck when the camera failed. Rather than employing composite shots or fading to enigmatic black, Tarkovsky tasked his set designers with meticulously reconstructing the house and its belongings. The reconstruction took two weeks and was filmed for the second and final time with two cameras working adjacently should either one fail.
Tarkovsky’s film is mired in ironies and paradoxes. Its protagonist, a committed atheist, drops to his knees in prayer on hearing what he believes to be impending nuclear annihilation. Promising to sacrifice all that holds dear – yes, his relationship to his family too – in exchange for salvation, Alexander follows through with uncompromising detail.
Oscillating between moments of great faith and denial, it ends with a beginning. As the embers turn cold and life returns to normal, the mute grandson ‘Little Man’ – silent following a recent throat operation – recites the opening of the Book of John: “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?”
Ecologies of fire
Fires are devastating and generative in equal measure. For millennia, highly strategic hazard reduction burnings have shaped the landscape of Australia. They continue to do so today, not solely to protect property and individuals but to encourage ecological regrowth. They are acts of necessary sacrifice and occur not in the opposition of culture and science but in active collaboration. Long before colonisation, strategic burnings were managed by the custodians and owners of the land. Colonial blinkeredness privileged what it considered ‘hard science’, employing meterologicalical evidence and complex computational modelling to plan and undertake hazard reduction. Only recently – thanks in part to pioneering collaborations at the University of Tasmania – has that narrative been challenged. What has always been known might again be known. In working through collaborations with local Aboriginal land managers and Elders, scientists now actively work with communities to retrieve and reconstitute fire knowledge as a living form of practice.
The Sacrifice (2020)
Three hazard reduction burnings brought about through collaboration with local fire services, land conservation agencies, and local Aboriginal communities form the backbone of this relocation of Tarkovsky’s cinematic sacrifice. The recent ferocity of uncontrolled bushfires and regular hazard reductions have formed one landscape, a visual vista of flames and smoke. This work concerns the other landscape, one generated by managed fire and its auditory life. Those with keen ears may be able to detect that something is amiss in this reworking of The Sacrifice, something that may be uncanny in its similarity to our known auditory universe.
Dislocating The Sacrifice and its relocation within a contemporary Australian landscape is a somewhat absurd gesture of course. Filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, the sound of the original film is both specific and foreign. In the relocation of field recordings from lutrawita / Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales the sound world becomes unstable. Each of the screens plays a slightly different composite soundtrack that – more or less – matches the enraging and engulfing fire on the screen.
This project began in the aftermath of highly devastating bushfires throughout Southern Tasmania and the Central Plateau in early January 2019. When the wind was travelling south towards the Derwent, the sound of 10,000 hectares of uncontrolled fire could be heard from the suburbs. It is a sound we must be prepared to hear again.
A little note on faith
This is not a faith-based exploration. Or at least not in the sense that it is underpinned by a theology. As so often in my works, strange congruences meet in places that they ought not to. Climate Action walks and actions preceded and followed the 2019 bushfires. Organised protests continue across a broad range of ecological and social justice petitions (and, we should be reminded that the ecological and social are intertwined). Placards and posters fill our cities on a semi-regular basis. ‘What are you doing for our future?’ ‘Save us.’ ‘What are you willing to sacrifice?’ Even the most secular amongst us can’t help but to detect the foundation of petition in prayer. And though that is secondary to this work, it is nonetheless a point that might merit a moment.
Certainly, the division between positions of ‘hard science’ and faith regarding climate catastrophe are erroneous in the most part. If recent collaborations between pyrogeographers such as Professor David Bowman and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (and its team of land consultants lead by Andry Sculthorpe) have taught us anything, it is that through collaboration and deep listening that we can find ways to strengthen positions through shared concerns and shared values.
Has climate catastrophe turned us to God? I don’t know that it has. I wouldn’t be the best person to ask about that. But the frequency of disaster and social injustice is such that these petitions demanding change have equally been met with commitments to sacrifice. A bag for life is no effective substitute for sacrificing unnecessary air travel, and hybrid cars are a poor neighbour to public transport investment. And though our sacrifices may not be as the uncompromising Alexander, the protagonist of Tarkovsky’s last great film, they may yet aggregate into something meaningful.
About the work
A single work of art isn’t going to influence national agendas on climate change. Art doesn’t do that. It shows us another life to a position and gives voice to different expressions of value. It won’t end things, and rarely begins things. But it is a story that might, in some small way, contribute to a shared understanding. And that’s why we do it.
This 3-channel video work constitutes adapted soundtracks to accompany the final scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice [Offret] (1986). The soundtracks were generated from field recordings of hazard reduction burns conducted in lutrawita / Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales throughout 2018-2019.
For dramatic effect, these soundtracks are often layered to create particular effects. The sounds of explosions are recordings sped-up and layered, and each soundtrack is only an approximation of Tarkovsky’s original.
The lighting in the installation is controlled by an algorithm connected to the Fire Safety rating in each of the three sites of the field recording. The darker the exhibition, the more imperilled we are. The lighting is adjusted every day, with its colours and brightness changed according to the intensity of local warnings.
The field recordings took place on the unceded lands of many different language and family groups. I pay due respects to their Elders past, present, and emerging and thank them for their co-operation in making this little work happen. I pay further respects to those Elders who continue in contributing many generations of fire knowledge in their ongoing custodianship of these lands.
I thank Aaron Horsley of the School of Creative Arts and Media, at the University of Tasmania for technical assistance, and Rebecca Holmes and Jason James of Moonah Art Centre for their patience and sterling support.
Toby Juliff, nipaluna/Hobart, July 2020