Wish you could set fire to the last 3 years? A huge flaming art installation is coming to Toronto

An interactive art project will tour the GTA to mark the third anniversary of COVID, coming to a fiery climax at Nathan Phillips Square on March 11.

An interactive art project will tour the GTA to mark the third anniversary of COVID

3D digital rendering of The Burn, an art installation. Visible is a brassy dodecahedron adorned with perforated patterns. It appears to glow from within and floats above still dark water.
Rendering of The Burn, 2023. (Javid JAH)

What if you could just set fire to the past? Would you feel liberated — free to start fresh in 2023, flush with feelings of love and peace and other things you could file under positive vibes?

The City of Toronto launched an interactive art project last Thursday called The Burn, a seven-week initiative that aims to offer a moment of respite in the wake of COVID-19, and it comes to a climax on March 11 — the third anniversary of the pandemic. 

On that date, a monumental art installation will go up at Nathan Phillips Square, and the centrepiece involves three towering steel sculptures that'll be set aflame for 24 hours — fires that will keep on burning with a little help from the public, who'll be invited to add bits of (supplied) wood to the blaze.

It's a scenario that sounds significantly more thoughtful and controlled to hear Roger Mooking describe it. Mooking is the lead creative on the project, and he talks about The Burn as a chance to heal and grow as a collective. In short, it's bigger than an all-day bonfire. 

Mooking says he began thinking about the work in 2021, prompted by the "overwhelming melancholy" of lockdown. "I recognized that I was not the only one, that we were in this kind of collective consciousness globally, and we all needed to heal," he tells CBC Arts. And with The Burn, he's inviting Torontonians to actively begin that healing process. 

The first phase of the project is already underway, and involves a series of interactive sculptures — significantly smaller vessels than the ones that'll go up at Nathan Phillips Square. They're being stationed at public sites around the GTA as part of a tour that launched Jan. 19 in three locations: Fort York National Historic Site, the Toronto Zoo and Twist — Mooking's restaurant at Toronto Pearson International Airport.  

Here he is, testing it out in Terminal 1.

As of writing, people can find The Burn at three new sites through Feb. 1: Spadina Museum, Native Canadian Centre and the Market Gallery at St. Lawrence Market.

"We want to make sure that we're hitting every corner of the GTA: north, east, south, west, central — all the nooks and crannies," says Mooking. Twenty-one locations are currently scheduled for the tour, and a full map and schedule can be found through the city's website. 

Through March 11, visitors will find metallic dodecahedrons at different destinations — sculptures created by local artist Javid JAH. And under each sculpture is a bowl of wooden balls: spheres the size of marbles that have been carved out of cedar. 

Photo of a brassy dodecahedron adorned with perforated ornate designs. It's mounted on a wooden stick. A wood bowl full of small wooden spheres rests below the polyhedron. In the background, two step-and-repeats printed with extensive instructions for how to engage with the artwork, are visible.
Find vessels like this one throughout the GTA. This shot was taken during The Burn's install at Fort York National Historic Site. (CBC Arts)

Take a ball, and you'll be asked to stop and think — to sit with your feelings, really. In the language of The Burn, you'll be "setting an intention." Is there something weighing on you: an emotion you wish you could change or simply set free? Once you've identified that feeling, you're asked to drop your ball inside the sculpture. It's a moment for "letting go," so to speak. 

"People are carrying so many things, especially coming through this COVID time," says Mooking. "It's a very simple thing … that can be very, very emotional."

A multihyphenate known for his success as a chef, TV personality (Man Fire Food), and musician (Bass is Base), Mooking's presented participatory art projects for the city before. Just last August, to coincide with Emancipation Month programming at Toronto history museums, he launched Read(In), an interactive installation that also appeared in multiple locations throughout the GTA. 

To bring The Burn to life, project curator Umbereen Inayet connected him with collaborators JAH (who designed and produced the installation's ornate sculptural elements) and artist Catherine Tammaro, a Wyandot Elder who served as an advisor, particularly concerning the project's spiritual bent. Says Mooking: "There's a deep history of Indigenous cultures using fire and water for cleansing and preservation and healing, so we needed that guidance to make sure that we were respecting that tradition."

The wooden balls collected at each tour site will eventually fuel the fire on March 11, and Mooking says those attending the activation at Nathan Phillips Square will also have the opportunity to set an intention. At the big event, visitors will send their cedar spheres down a chute, directly into the flames. And when the fire's extinguished, all the ash that's left behind will be collected for use in city gardens. "We're really trying to emulate the cycle of life: from the spark to the ash," says Mooking. "We're looking to carry the spiritual intentions from everybody in the city to fortify our Earth."

The city says it will be announcing more public projects that respond to COVID's impact on residents. Like The Burn, they're part of a program called Stronger Together that launched in late November. More programming is expected to be revealed in February.

In the first few days of The Burn's cross-city tour, Mooking says he was receiving reports from the participating venues. Folks are interacting with the sculptures already, he says. "It's been cathartic, I hope. … I can't wait to see how much healing we're able to do when we really roll out the full scale of this at Nathan Phillips Square."

Full event details, including a map of The Burn's tour locations, can be found on the project's website.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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