Fire and water: complementary and opposite

This striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill comes from his exhibition ‘Watershed‘, opening today at Mossgreen Galleries in Melbourne. Fire and water are often paired as elements. Described as both complementary and opposite, they sit well with the concept of duality that underpins many philosophies.

A striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill from his exhibition 'Watershed' at Mossgreen galleries, Melbourne

A striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill from his exhibition ‘Watershed’ at Mossgreen galleries, Melbourne

Yin-Yang is a powerful example of a philosophy underpinned by fire and water. Yang is associated with, amongst other things, the element fire, whereas Yin is associated with the element water. A Google image search using the words ‘Yin Yang Fire Water’ illustrates the range of artists that have represented this association with bold, diverse and dynamic images.

Google images illustrate the diversity of ways fire and water are visually linked to Yin and Yang

These Google images illustrate the diversity of ways fire and water are visually linked to Yin and Yang

bio sattva, the author of the blog of ‘Mindful discipline and integration in daily living’ has written a comprehensive and informative post titled ‘Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice’ (this can be viewed at mindfuldiscipline). It includes Yin-Yang and many other philosophies. The post is worth a look for those searching for greater detail . It is quite long for a blog, consisting of three parts (see below), so make sure you have some time up your sleeves before proceeding.
1) Introduction & The Ocean
2) Fire and Alchemy, and
3) Lakes, Rivers and Sunlight

It is the nature of water to move downwards, to find the lowest point, and for fire to move upwards as the heated gas becomes less dense. Fire up, Water down. The interpretation of Aikido philosophy and practice by William Gleason provides another perspective on the elements fire and water. In his book ‘Aikido and Words of Power’ the author states (p. 66):

The ki of fire is originally in the heavenly realm, yet branching outward it sinks down to earth. The ki of water is originally of the earth, yet rising upward it cycles in the heavens.”

Fire down, water up. This concept is illustrated by a fork of lightning and a wave. The concept of ki is challenging to translate. In this context it has connections to life energy or essence, spirit and flow. The relevance of the elements fire and water to Aikido, and to the Shinto/Oomoto teachings the Martial Art is based on, is deeper and more complex than this one statement. It is used here as an example to illustrate the different ways fire and water can be represented, depending on the perspective in play. The intuitive elements have many expressions in Japan where Aikido originated – a rich and rewarding topic to be explored further.

This book by Williams Gleason contains many references to the elements fire and water

This book by Williams Gleason contains many references to the elements fire and water

The complementary and opposite nature of fire and water stimulates many creative responses. Martin Hill specializes in sculptures that return to nature, as illustrated by his burning figure in the alpine lake. The artists representing Yin and Yang with fire and water imagery used a diversity of mediums. Celebrated artists such as J.M.W. Turner also painted fire and water in combination. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Turner’s preoccupation with the dramatic elements of fire and water appears in the two versions of Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), in the large sketch A Fire at Sea (c. 1835), and in Rockets and Blue Lights (1840).”

The book from the exhibition ‘Turner and the Elements’ sheds more light on the way this artist represented earth, air, fire, water and their fusion.

I’m aware that other examples exist where the elements fire and water are ‘paired’ across different cultures, philosophies and creative expressions. Humans appear to find this combination of elements quite compelling, part of our collective unconsciousness perhaps?

2 thoughts on “Fire and water: complementary and opposite

  1. Thanks again for a stimulating entry. ‘Complementary and opposite’ is a good description of the tension that exists between elements that may appear to be at odds with each other. As we move from a consciousness of either/or to both/and, the seemingly contradictory nature of what we previously conceived as ‘opposites’ can be appreciated for both their similarities and differences. Your final question regarding the way we are drawn to the intuitive elements and whether this desire is part of our collective consciousness is worth contemplating. Perhaps our longing to connect is reflected here in both our pull towards what is essential and in experiencing that pull, we find ourselves drawn together as one consciousness.

    • There are some excellent and thought-provoking points in your comment. Moving consciousness from either/or to both/and should help break down some of the barriers to what has been (and sometimes still are) considered opposites.

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