Imageries of heat: a lost interior #heat

Anthi Kosma,

How can it be better stated that nostalgia is the memory of the warmth of the nest, the memory of the cherished love for the “calidum innatum.”

Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire”

The following text explores the imageries of heat. Heat, “the quality of being hot; high temperature[1] and heat´s material imagination are explored through their images, as embodied experience, as they are imprinted in the arts, in visual images collectively, visual descriptive or figurative language. The imageries of heat belong to those images that often escape us. They are not easily visible. They are felt. They need touch to emerge. In other words, they are not approached in terms of our opticocentric culture and this is why they often escape us.

The images of heat in the text are approached through a phenomenological point of view. The aim is to reveal, through observation, the diversity of these images. Images of heat as images of touch, contact, air, senses (aesthesis), security but also as pain and, in any case, as images of an invisible phenomenon. The interpretation of images of heat as non-optical images, a research beyond the rules of visual representations and their analytical approaches, gives the possibility to approach the difficulty in mapping heat and also in capturing aspects of its poetry and the fear of heat.

Heat as an image of a touch -contact-, heat as a filter -distance-, heat as shaping image -formative force-, ash -result-, lost interior -experience- but also as an intermediate body -carrier- are aspects of the imageries of heat which are presented below.


Sensation of heat and contact with it usually does not affect a particular part of the body. It affects body as a whole. Skin, this sensible surface, is the main mediator, this thermometer that gradually and accordingly warns of a rise in temperature, seeks (or not) protection, sweats, seeks to cover itself, moves away, reddens, burns. It is this warning mechanism that will mobilize the body in order to look for the cover, protection, shade, sunscreen, blouse, sweater, awning, air conditioning so that it does not hurt. The skin, an indicator between the inside and the outside, us and the heat, a milieu or a place of minglings[2]. The air is the one that carries it, which can direct heat to our lungs and, accordingly, lead through it to oxygen supply or even up to suffocation.

The air, an indistinct mixture, has a stronger claim to being our base line. Intangible, you could almost say intact; colourless and transparent, a conduit for light and colour; odourless and a vector for smell; tasteless; soundless when not driven by heat; it penetrates our bodies, ears, mouths, noses, throat and lungs, envelopes our skin: it is the medium for every signal that reaches our senses[3].

Heat, like that of the sun, is a more complex caress, a biochemical one. For plants, the heat of the sun is the touch of photosynthesis, a touch of life. For the human body, and not only, the touch of sunbeams is pleasant, necessary for vitamin D, and often, in its excessive exposure, dangerous. Heat is literally and figuratively another way to feel the body and the body of Others.

“Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love”[4].


Bill Viola in some of his video works such as Deserts (1994) and Mirage series (2012) uses the steam from the desert heat as a filter to describe liminal moments and encounters across the borders of existence. The hot air like a “natural thermal camera” highlights images of heat that we often miss. The heat that emerges from the desert sand makes the air circulate and entrains dust grains creating a filter that blocks vision. The camera in the desert constantly monitors the landscape. Heat images are always blurry. Two spots with unstable contours are gradually traced in the shot. The constantly moving mass of air makes the “spots” vibrate and tremble. As they approach the camera, the spots become narrow and long without ceasing to be dull, blurry and flickering. Gradually, at a very slow pace, it is revealed that the spots are two figures. In extreme heat conditions, Viola makes the “painting” frame of a couple. The figures and their outlines are not static, they are not described accurately. We could say that they are dull and pulsate like those of Francis Bacon. Here the “brush-broom” of the painter, the one that works like the diagram in the painting, the gesture of destruction of the portrait[5] is the dust and the high temperature. The constantly moving dust filter, in streams of different densities, blurs the characteristics of the figures who, as they approach the camera, are slowly traced revealing to the viewer-observer aspects and boundaries of the body as it walks in the heat of the desert.


In her research “the calorific imagination of practice in glassblowing”, Erin O´Connor approaches heat images, their imagination and reverie through practice. Her images of heat refer to the heat that, with the help of air, shapes, gives form, transforms. Embodied experience and personal practice are necessary for any deepening in the material imagination. It is the images of warmth, heat practice and their need for immediacy that call for personal engagement in situ. “The warmth itself invites the dream of shaping, an undulating dialectic of resistance and reception. This anticipated corporeal dialectic turns the novice towards “consciousness of inner heat which always takes precedence over a purely visual knowledge of light” and perhaps the novice, like Novalis, senses that “[l]ight plays upon and laughs over the surface of things, but only heat penetrates”[6].  Heat and its forming faculty. How heat transforms solid bodies and materials to fluid ones. Heat changes their properties. Objects, already hot, are in constant formation, changing images.


The exhibition “El Greco and Modern Painting”, dedicated to the 500th anniversary of El Greco’s death, at the Prado Museum in Madrid, featured works of many contemporary painters, in a dialogue with the classical painter. Among them, along with one of El Greco’s first works in Spain, “The Adoration of the Name of Jesus”, an early work of Jackson Pollock, “The Flame”, appears. In El Greco´s epic scene while souls await entry to heaven other souls, in the mouth of hell that swallows its victims,’ are led over a bridge to dark purgatory[7]. In “the flames” of Pollock, an image of blazing flames, the dissolution of the painted object, a skeleton, is presented in the dark. In it, the flames of hell leave their traces like scattered red “brushes”, and the body is “vanished” on the black background of the burning body, which now appears almost dismembered, just before it turns to ashes and painting chaos. “Pollock used vigorous brushstrokes and rhythmic, interlocking forms to create a quasi-abstract, allover composition that anticipates, however crudely, the breakthroughs he would achieve a decade later.”[8]

Like the flames of desire. Flames that come and go, they approach, they move away, they come a little closer. And suddenly the image burns. A deep feeling. A tiny flake of ash remains on the table. We cannot talk about images without talking about ashes.” [9] Every memory is always threatened with being forgotten. Images are not present; they are a set of relationships with time. Didi-Huberman, in his text ‘L’image brûle’ in “Penser par les images”, claims that the image burns. Why the image is burning while nowadays images, with their high intensity, in our aesthetic, technical, everyday life, and in our political, historical world, reveal so many raw truths? Why is it still burning? Didi-Huberman talks about images that change, like butterflies as they transform; they are in movement and emotion. The images of fire burn. We need to look at the ashes to wonder about our present to tell their story and speak about their memories. Wondering about the images that burn, the ashes.


Nowadays heat and fires are becoming more and more a topic of discussion. For her book on climate change and global warming, Naomi Klein chooses the title “On fire: The (burning) case for a green new deal“. The chapter “Season of Smoke” typically refers to the summer of 2017. It has been the summer of fire, the summer when science predictions began to come true. Fires “from California to Greenland, Oregon to Portugal, British Columbia to Montana, Siberia to South Africa[..] it’s been the summer of ubiquitous, inescapable smoke.”[10] Uncontrolled fires ring the bell once again. “Our collective house is on fire, with every alarm going off simultaneously, clanging desperately for our attention. [..] A satellite image from early September shows the entire length of the continent blanketed in smoke, #FakeWeather from the Pacific to the storm-churning Atlantic[11]. Due to their large scale and intensity, smoke and ashes force us to admit, wonder and act about our lifestyles, our homelands and the relationships with our planet.

Images of fire are images that are difficult to erase, points out neurologist Oliver Sacks, describing a personal experience with a bomb in 1940 and referring to Rossotti’s book “Fire: servant, scourge, and enigma”, and points out: “Nowadays, as a neurologist, I am more concerned with the firing of neurons, and the slow molecular fires that burn in every cell. It is not entirely metaphorical to speak of the fire of life or the fire of inspiration. But secretly, I often yearn for something harsher, more primal: blazing, superheated infernos, devouring sheets of flame, beautiful and terrible explosions. Rossotti’s book, which would be best read, of course, by firelight, satisfies this slightly guilty love of fire on every level.”[12]

In 2003, at the Tate Gallery’s Turbine Hall, Olafur Eliasson with ‘The weather project’[13], a site-specific installation, employed a semi-circular screen, a ceiling of mirrors, and artificial mist to create the illusion of a sun. The images of the visitors dreaming in front of the artificial “sunset”, gazing at the sunset with their look “sinking” in the colors of its “heat” makes us wonder about the power of the representation of a natural landscape-phenomenon but, maybe more, about the vital need to be close to them.


In our increasingly warming planet, living in a Mediterranean country, Greece, where significant areas of forest land are burned in the summer, it may be important to refer to another image of heat and fire: the image of a lost interior. A series of wildfires in Greece, during the 2018 European heat wave, began in the coastal areas of Attica in July 2018[14] where 103 people were confirmed dead in the area Mati. In 2021, in Evia 511,854 burned acres[15] led to the destruction of one of the biggest forests in the country.

Α burned area can be analyzed into square meters, number of lost animals, bodies and perhaps burned trees. However, we rarely talk about the life that fire destroys, life and the experience inside the forest. The sadness and the sorrow for the missing life, the missing interior. A space seen and experienced only from the inside. The image of the burning forest is, among other things, the memory of this interior that will be forgotten, the image of this ecosystem, the atmosphere of this diverse coexistence that has been destroyed. The experience of these places and their images cannot be reproduced, they are accompanied by loss, pain and nostalgia. The image of fire, the images of climate change, the overexploitation of the planet’s natural resources, the ashes of forests, the ashes of the choices of a colonial-capitalist tactic of exploitation include images of such precious interiors. Images of heat are marginal images, if they exceed a temperature limit, they destroy, they often contain within them the image of destruction, of the coming destruction.


Heat and cold are material forces affecting bodies without producing meaning in the first place. Because temperatures are not yet discursive, they seem to be located beyond the social. Their pre-linguistic, pre-discursive character is likely also the reason why temperature has mostly been neglected in the social sciences and humanities, apart from its metaphorical uses. [..] To think thermally means to think processually, it means to think in fluid transitions and processes of becoming without a neat separation of subjects and objects[..]Temperature is never simply a free flow of vital energies, but it is always embedded in mechanisms of regulation and control, both on the internal level of bodies regulating their core temperature to maintain it, and also regarding the politics of control and manipulation of those thermal systems.”[16]

Buildings, shelters, are directly connected to the regulation and temperature control. Temperature regulation is possible not only with the development of technology and the study of protective materials, but more or less with the reinforcement, support, creation of a microenvironment capable of regulating, creating between the inside and the outside a non-dividing border, an intermediate zone, with ratings, related, connected to the surroundings, able to shape and be adapted to the surrounding conditions. An intermediate body that gradually integrates, preparing, helping the existing ecosystem, regulating and strengthening existing conditions. Knowing that even passive intermediate interventions, that are very small and insignificant for the global scale, signal another way of relations with us, others and the environment. The body’s ability to regulate temperature can find its equivalent in the building environment through intermediate natural or built zones, multiple protective limits, surfaces and “skins”. There, heat may find what it has probably always needed, its antidote, humidity, coolness or, if heat is missing, its enforcement. 


A last heat image came to my mind. “Refugees and migrants are cover themselves with thermal blankets after their arrival on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the village of Skala Sykaminias on the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos on Friday, Oct. 23, 2015[17]. Emergency rescue isothermal blanket works as a refuge, an ephemeral house, the first house in a new land.

The poetry of the nest, of the fold, has no other origin. [..] Were it not for the memory of man made warm by man, producing as it were a redoubling of natural heat, we could not conceive of lovers speaking of their snug little nest. Gentle heat is thus at the source of the consciousness of happiness. More precisely, it is the consciousness of the origins of happiness.”[18]

This article was written for Thresholds, annual peer-reviewed journal produced by the MIT dedicated to Heat.

Thanks Yourtranslator for the help.


Bachelard, Gaston. The psychoanalysis of fire. Beacon Press, 1987.

Beregow, Elena. “Thermal objects: Theorizing temperatures and the social.” Culture machine 17 (2019): 1-18.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation. U of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. Arde la imagen. Ed. Oceano, 2012.

Klein, Naomi. On fire: The (burning) case for a green new deal. Simon & Schuster, 2020.

O’CONNOR, E. R. I. N. “Hot glass: The calorific imagination of practice in glassblowing.” In Practicing culture, pp. 67-91. Routledge, 2007.

Rossotti, Hazel. Fire: servant, scourge, and enigma. Courier Corporation, 2002.

Serres, Michel. The five senses: A philosophy of mingled bodies. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008.


“Definition of ’heat,” Collinsdictionary, last modified June 15, 2022, .

“The Adoration of the Name of Jesus. El Greco,”, last modified June 15, 2022,

“Jackson Pollock. The Flame,”, last modified June 15, 2022 , .

“Oliver Sacks On His Burning Love Of ‘Fire’,” Wbur, last modified June 15, 2022, .

“The weather project,” Olafur Eliasson, last modified June 15, 2022,

 “2018 Attica wildfires,” Wikipedia, last modified June 15, 2022,

 “Forest fires in Greece 2021,” Wikipedia, last modified June 15, 2022, .

“Pictures Of The Week Photo Gallery Greece Migrants,” Apimages, last modified June 15, 2022,

[1] “Definition of ’heat,” Collinsdictionary, last modified June 15, 2022, .

[2] Michel Serres, The five senses: A philosophy of mingled bodies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008), 5.

[3] Ibid, 169.

[4] Gaston Bachelard, The psychoanalysis of fire (Beacon Press, 1987),7.

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Francis Bacon, Francis Bacon: The logic of sensation (U of Minnesota Press, 2003),101.

[6] Erin O’Connor, “Hot glass: The calorific imagination of practice in glassblowing.” In Practicing culture (Routledge, 2007), 61.

[7] “The Adoration of the Name of Jesus. El Greco,”, last modified June 15, 2022,

[8] “Jackson Pollock. The Flame,”, last modified June 15, 2022, .

[9] Georges Didi-Huberman, Arde la imagen (México: Océano, 2012), 5.

[10] Naomi Klein, On fire: The (burning) case for a green new deal (Simon & Schuster, 2020), 160-161.

[11] Ibid, 179.

[12] “Oliver Sacks On His Burning Love Of ‘Fire’,” Wbur, last modified June 15, 2022, .

[13] “The weather project,” Olafur Eliasson, last modified June 15, 2022,

[14] “2018 Attica wildfires,” Wikipedia, last modified June 15, 2022,

[15] “Forest fires in Greece 2021,” Wikipedia, last modified June 15, 2022, .

[16] Elena Beregow, “Thermal objects: Theorizing temperatures and the social.” Culture machine 17 (2019), 10.

[17] “Pictures Of The Week Photo Gallery Greece Migrants,” Apimages, last modified June 15, 2022, .

[18] Gaston Bachelard, The psychoanalysis of fire (Beacon Press, 1987), 38.

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