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Fire art in South Africa promotes healthy grasslands

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The smoking image of a grasshopper was burned into the South African grassland, as alert firefighters stood by. Last month's work of performance art was born from the idea of promoting controlled burning as beneficial for South Africa's savannah ecosystems.

Artist Hannelie Coetzee said the 5-hectare (12-acre) artwork was inspired by research scientist Sally Archibald, who was looking into the importance of fire in creating productive grazing areas.

Archibald had described a controlled burn as a kind of performance, "and that really triggered it," Coetzee says. "It gave me the idea that I could take real scientists, real firefighters and weave it into an artwork that is really large-scale, speaking about very important and pressing environmental issues."

Art curator Tammy Langtry also worked on last month's performance, which included a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) hike to the site for audience members.

"Hannelie's practice is very unique, and the art objects and work that comes out of that is then again very unique," Langtry says.

Archibald, a scientist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said controlled burns clear space for new plant growth that animals find "very tasty."

"The animals put their dung there and then they graze some more, and they create what we call a positive feedback," she says. "So the more animals you have, the nicer the environment is for the animals."

She's now looking into the impact of controlled burns on insects — and the idea for last month's grasshopper image was born.

"In collaborating with Hannelie, who is an artist, we actually decided to actually turn that burn into an image to make it more exciting, and in so doing we actually tried to inspire people and make them interested in science," said Felix Skhosana, a postgraduate student with the project.

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