Three months to make, worth thousands, but Burns burns in just seconds

IT BEARS a striking resemblance to Scotland's national bard. In a short but dramatic burst of orange flame, a sculpture of the head of Robert Burns made from tens of thousands of matchsticks was set ablaze last night.

The life-size artwork, entitled Burning Burns, was torched to mark the opening of StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival, before an audience that included Alex Salmond, the First Minister.

Given it took three months to create the three-dimensional head, the artist might be expected to be sad to see his work go up in flames. However, David Mach said the pyrotechnics at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews proved a "very special", albeit "very quick", experience.

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The Burns head is the latest in a series of the Fife-born artist's matchstick sculptures. Previous subjects include Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali and Mao Zedong.

He has also created matchstick versions of gorillas, grizzly bears and rhinos, which sell for up to 35,000 apiece.

But Burns, he said, posed his greatest challenge yet. Whereas his other works had been based on photographs or videos, the 52-year-old's only frame of reference was portraits of the poet.

"Normally, if you were making a 360-degree model of a person, you would be able to take photographs from every angle," he said. "But with Burns, all I had to go on were a few pictures."

The sculpture was initially made from clay, before a glass-fibre mould was created. Mr Mach then required about 12,000 boxes of matches, imported from Japan. Matches were applied to the mould one at a time. It is an arduous process involving his wife, Lesley, and about ten assistants.

The idea of burning the sculptures came by accident, when one he sold was set on fire deliberately by the buyer. "It looked fantastic," he recalled.

Like other contemporary artists, Mr Mach, who was born in Methil but now lives in London, is no stranger to controversy. Works such as the Temple of Tyre – a Greek-style edifice comprising old tyres and freight containers at Leith Docks – and Train a 120ft scale model of a locomotive built out of house bricks in Darlington, North Yorkshire, have been criticised for their use of public funding. He also created the Big Heids sculptures visible from the M8.

But it is his unorthodox use of matches that has recently been capturing the public's imagination.

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For Brian Johnstone, the director of the festival, the image of Scotland's most famous writer ablaze signified a "daring metaphor for the power of the Bard's imagination".

Launched in 1998, StAnza has become a popular addition to the Scottish cultural calendar. This year's festival is designed to take advantage of the Year of Homecoming, and will examine Burns's poetic heritage. Performers taking part in the festival, which runs until Sunday, include Carol Ann Duffy, Ian Rankin, Crispin Bonham Carter, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Helen Dunmore.

Mr Salmond said: "The StAnza poetry festival attracts major poets from home and abroad.

"That is what makes it a perfect way to explore the poetic legacy of Robert Burns, while inviting everyone influenced by him to come home and join the celebrations in St Andrews."