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Raphael Hefti
Artist Raphael Hefti working on his lava installationCourtesy of Megan Rooney

How to create an indoor volcano

Artist Raphael Hefti heats things up with his industrial, in-gallery lava installations

Taken from the spring/summer issue of Dazed:

The methods and material of industry are transformed into drama, action, poetry and meaning in the grasp of artist Raphael Hefti. Based between Rotherhithe, south London, where he co-founded project space Library+, and Zurich, Hefti is currently working on a major permanent sculpture for the roof of the new Van Gogh Foundation in Arles. Some of his most awe-inspiring works are in-gallery performances that see white cubes become industrial lava pits, with hot and heavy results.

“Inspired by a welding process used to repair railway tracks, I build a slope with 25 tons of sand heaped on the gallery floor and carve a channel for the melted iron to run down. After cooling, the fragments of the poured steel look like ancient weapons recovered from a shipwreck, or the digestive system of an android alien giant. It’s an engagement with the world of heavy industry and iron casting.

To make lava, there are many elements I have to check that are crucial. The compact energy in the pot could, with a wrong handling, burn through the whole house. It’s liquid steel with a temperature of 2,500°F. You ask yourself if you’ve done everything right and checked every element. Is the basket stable enough? Is the sand not too wet? Is it the right mix of powder? These questions go through your mind before lighting the thing. It wakes you up 100 per cent and gives you the feeling of being completely focused. When you spark the ignition, your natural impulse would be to throw it away or run. Then it becomes about keeping yourself controlled. 

There’s the danger of having a steam explosion if there’s water in the sand, which, together with the heat, might create a vapour and explode – so you better protect yourself with professional clothing. The shield allows me to look into hot steel and see what’s actually happening, as the liquid steel is extremely bright. After the casting, there’s a sense of relief. Your body and mind can relax and receive the satisfaction of the objects that were just casted, with their accidental shapes, a mixture between control and casualty. The objects themselves are not that important; it is more about the process, the experimentation and experience.”