New York

Sarah Pickering

Preparedness seems to be a watchword of the era of “global terrorism” and global warming. The expectation of calamity keeps us stockpiling food, water, and moist towelettes, even as the distance between preparing for an unknown catastrophe and actually experiencing it encompasses a vast speculative terrain. In her third series on disaster preparedness, British artist Sarah Pickering again investigates that divide, plotting her most incisive course yet into the weird realms of simulated reality in which first responders practice their trades.

Pickering’s earlier series “Public Order,” 2002–2005, and “Explosion,” 2004–2005, captured, respectively, the empty street sets (blank storefronts and housing facades) utilized for training by British riot police, and the pyrotechnic blasts used to prepare the police and the military for combat. In her latest project, “Fire Scene,” 2007, Pickering introduces a heightened level of context. From 2006 to 2007, she served as artist-in-residence at the UK Fire Service College, where crime-scene investigators are trained to predict the behavior patterns of domestic fires. To this end, huge shipping crates are dressed to resemble a room—complete with furniture, carpeting, books, toys, objets d’art, clothes, and dishes—and are set ablaze. Once the fire has consumed the replica, trainees search for clues amid the ashes.

Pickering photographs these fires, usually shortly after their inception, from the close vantage of the doorway. As indicated by the images’ titles, their causes range from the straightforward (Electric Radiator [all works 2007], Candles) to the shady (Insurance Job, Glue Sniffing Kids) to the grisly (Vandals, Abduction). The series isn’t without a certain dastardly humor. In Cigarette, a blazing easy chair backgrounds a dining table littered with, among other items, a pack of Silk Cut cigarettes and a box of Cardene, a medication used to treat angina and hypertension, conditions caused in part by smoking. The tongue-in-cheek House Fire shows a living room furnished with a child’s fort fashioned from a bedsheet and a toy house that has been set alight. The rooms’ detailed appointments bind them convincingly to reality. The home computer in Insurance Job, for instance, looks old and incomplete, and in Abduction, a handgun is visible amid the blistering flames. Yet other features of the rooms pull back the curtain to demonstrate their pure functionality: None are decorated with wallpaper or paint, and the carpet pattern repeats in several photographs.

Though the premise of her series is seemingly simple, Pickering gets the maximum from the minimum. Her images reveal staged dramas (the artist likens them to British soap operas), but the act of photographing them transmutes the sensational into the documentary. Simultaneously, however, this same action serves to heighten the imaginary quality of the scenarios: Fake homes burned by acts of pretend arson or feigned carelessness are preserved in images that attest to their actuality. Additionally, the rooms are reconstructed over and over again—a sort of burning-bush effect, in which the fire does not consume its object and the set appears as though it has remained intact, further complicating ties to the real. Investigators search the smoldering remnants for hints of a fire’s magnitude, direction, and intensity, and Pickering obligates her viewers to do likewise—to hunt for evidence that points either to the real or to the reproduced and to trust that some combination of the two will prepare us for the future.

Nicole Rudick