Leicester City Art Gallery

Sometimes a foil is needed through which to conjure reflection. The same foil might yet be used as a ruse to misdirect or lead astray. At times a scene is set, only to test another's script: a frame drawn in order to expel the gaze beyond. Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, the mystery and melancholy of a street. Imagine the scene.

The figure of a young girl, silhouetted against the pale blank ground behind her. Playing a game, of hoopla perhaps – immersed and all alone. Across her face are strands of hair or maybe a veil or a shawl: a tangled bind that blinds her to all except the silent reverie of her own hooded and suffocating introspection. Shrouded and surely safe in this warm dim, darkness; surely safe playing her game of hoopla, all alone. Disoriented and dizzy though, listlessly and vertiginously spinning as if blind-drunk, forever falling forward into the uncertain void beyond, below. In the far corner of this space, a dark shape hangs ominously, wraithlike. An apparition that is almost, though not yet human. Limp and heavy as if on the gallows: featureless like a formless promise.

Architectural forms are hollow and unhomely here. Buildings are bleached and emptied out; evacuated of motion, emotion. Silent, static, still. Burnt black arches and windows stare with dead eyes; out onto flat-lines of land. Apocalyptic and ashen, this nowhere resonates only with faint echo traces of faded lives now gone, held forever at a distance, once upon a time. Shadows glide into spaces that are not their own. Escape their habitual anchors in order to trespass elsewhere: deftly, stealthily – touching lightly. At times they are thick and liquid, and settle in pools upon the floor, smeared; or else remain noxious and linger mid air – their orange pungent smoke like a retracted insult or an overheard confession. This space is haunted by memories of earlier or other inhabitations: stubborn reminders like stains.

At the stroke of twelve the sun's heat is at its highest and most fierce. Pity him caught in the midday sun, for this is a witching hour, the time for noon-day ghosts. To lose one's shadow is to become one, for only shadows don't cast shadows. Without a shadow we are lost like Peter Pan. Our shadow reminds us of what we are – in case we forget ourselves and try to escape.

When the body is cremated, there are still certain things that might withstand the fire. Though the familiar exterior will undoubtedly be lost; hidden relics may emerge in the flames. Gold crowns might be rescued from the settled ashes. The unseen pins and staples that have until now held the body in place can be collected in a small pot and stored away. Prosthetic hip joints gleam against the hot coals like treasures gleaned from an abandoned ruin, like heirlooms salvaged from catastrophe. It is to this dust that we must return.

Trial by fire has come to mean a process of transition and change, a rite of passage where innocence is lost and maturity gained. It signals the wilful abandonment or loss of what is known; in order to wander, as though blindfolded into the unknown void beyond. Hermes is a broker between such worlds. Greek god of transitivity; of gaps and thresholds; of transformation and twilight zones: it is no coincidence that Hermes is also the finder of fire.

Tool of choice for pranksters and puritans; iconoclasts or inquisitors; insurance claimants and incendiary evangelists, the act of wilful burning is both a criminal and cathartic gesture: both purge and punishment. It offers a means of destroying the evidence of a painful, iniquitous past or unwanted present. Disappearing in a puff of smoke; to escape and start over again.

Hypothetically speaking, in the event of a house fire most people claim they would forfeit objects of material worth, in order to grasp from the immeasurable vault of sentimentality and from their cherished memory banks. Photographs perhaps are the objects most feared to be lost in the fire, for each abandoned film is like a chapter torn from a book and burnt; leaving behind only an incoherent and partial narrative. Fragile stories vanish forever in the flames. Past. Regret. Promise. Forgetting. Release. Odd words or phrases now float free from their former grammatical logic: a suspended sentence through which to rewrite a new beginning. Imagine the scene.

Emma Cocker, 2007

This text is a response to Things We Lost in the Fire, an exhibition curated by Gordon Dalton, including the work of six UK artists – Ruth Claxton, Gordon Dalton, Lloyd Durling, Mark Gubb, Merlin James and Cecile Johnson Soliz.