Thursday, January 14, 2010

INTERVIEW: Part One, Fran Bull and "In Flanders Fields"

By Janet Van Fleet

Ed: This is Part 1 of an interview with Fran Bull. You can read Part 2 here.

Fran Bull is an artist of huge energy and accomplishment, with a career that goes back to the mid 1970's, when she was an artist in the Photorealism movement in New York City. In addition to her work in the visual arts, she is a trained musician and a practicing poet. She has operated Gallery In-The-Field (in the same building as her studio) in Brandon for several years. Sadly, the gallery will soon be closing (though others may take it up; stay tuned...).

Fran Bull’s most recent installation, "In Flanders Fields: An Installation in Nine Parts”, is on exhibit at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland through March 28. I came across this work in her studio (see below) when I was at Gallery In-The-Field to review an exhibit of Barbara Pearlman. The work in progress was very compelling, and I wanted to know more about the process and the product.

This major installation is highly complex, and Fran intends it to evolve over the next few years, as it travels to other venues. This interview with Vermont Art Zine is presented in two parts, the first of which will look at the current exhibit at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center (below right, photos by Michael Heeney), as well as the elements that Fran intends to expand on in future efforts. The second part of this interview, to be published in a few days, will look at the background of this effort – where Fran got her inspiration, and the precursors in her previous work.

The work is related to a poem by John McCrae:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw su
nset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel wit
h the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

— Lt.-Col. John McCrae (1872 - 1918)

JVF: So how do you feel about this poem?

FB: Here is a reprint of the statement I wrote for this exhibition:

My piece In Flanders Fields: an installation in 9 parts, is one artist’s attempt to add my “silent scream” to the chorus of those for whom war is anathema. It is a meditation on the fact that we-- as whole countries, as societies, as small bands linked by shared hatreds and as human beings with our pitifully short lives given the privilege of inhabiting a magnificent planet--continue to engage in warfare mired in the delusion that we are thereby solving our human dilemmas.

The famous poem from World War I, In Flanders Fields written in the midst of “seventeen days of Hades”* by Lieutenant Colonel John Mc Crae, forms the central image from which I draw my inspiration. Dead soldiers lie buried in a field of poppies. Larks fly overhead, singing, oblivious of gunfire. Soon enough the fields will harbor just beneath the surface, an array of human bones. The Lieutenant Colonel imagines the dead speaking. They implore us to “take up our quarrel with the foe” in order that they might sleep for all time. My piece takes issue with the poet, and with his assumption of the rightness of retribution and the implied glory of “winning”.

May we come to understand that the unbridled mortification of human flesh known as War is a shameful betrayal of who we are and of all that we are.

Fran Bull
Vermont 2009

JVF: I see... so the poem created some categories and images for you to work with. This is such a large and complex installation, it's hard to get my head around the whole thing! What are the Nine Parts referred to in the subtitle?

FB: Encouragement for the use of the number "9" as a structural device came from poet Frank Reeve. He came by the studio when I was in a very early phase of the work, and just sort of "got it". I asked him about the number "9" and he said, "Yes, 9 is a good number!" So here are the Nine Parts as I now see them evolving.

1. The Wall of the Fallen Ones: The piece itself is a kind of vertical "field"—a field of buried bones, buried lives, silent, yet speaking volumes. There is a small writing area supplied with red rice paper, and I have invited visitors to write comments on little pieces of gorgeous red paper and insert these into the "wailing wall", and do you know, they've been doing it. I am so pleased. (Photo at left, cropped by VAZ, by Cam Camarena) To see the red messages tucked into the boxes is very moving. I'll compile these at the end and put them into the catalogue.

2. Lysistrata and her Circle: inspired by the play of Aristophanes, this section includes eighteen sculptures of (imagined) women of Classical antiquity, busts on pedestals, contemplating the Fallen Ones from across the centuries. These are the women of Greece, who, at Lysistrata’s entreaties, refused to have sex with their husbands until they signed a peace pact during the Peloponnesian Wars.

You’ll see that I show, for example, the exposed parts of the understructure of each piece, intentionally, to dispel the illusion, even while creating it. I want to give away the trick. I am interested in an alchemy whereby disparate and humble parts conspire to create an illusion of some complexity, (almost in the same way that brush strokes in a painting by Van Gogh can be seen and appreciated for themselves, and then seen as participants in the construction of an illusion). In other words, I take a perhaps post-modern stance wherein I reveal the artifice in the art and I urge the viewer to see the illusion as a created one, referential in its relationship to the gorgeously carved marble works of Classical antiquity, but in reality, smoke and mirrors – and detritus such as Styrofoam packaging from our time recycled into art. (Photo at right by Michael Heeney)

3. The Larks: These are made of Styrofoam, wooden sticks, glue and Paverpol™ dipped in muslin. The poet has them flying above, in the sky, while gunfire rages below. They sing, they represent temporal continuity and the indifference of Nature towards the more base dramas of human beings These plane-like birds are suspended from the ceiling. There are 36 of them. (Photo: Michael Heeney)

I have thought about stenciling numbers on the bodies of these Larks, corresponding to the tattoos on the arms of concentration camp inmates.

4. The Etchings: These are so fresh and new, I am just beginning to see or edit them at the moment. But at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center Gallery exhibit I have only shown one, owing to limited space in the gallery: a version entitled A Moire of Birds, an etching on paper with a silk translucent veil of the same image, hung in reverse, over it (see installation shots above).

5. Etchings on cotton batiste and silk fabric, banners or hanging flags: This work, for me, invokes prayer flags, ancestor scrolls, blood on bandages, and even the Shroud of Turin. A friend, Brie Patterson, is currently crocheting lacy borders on the cotton batiste hangings, like the handkerchiefs my mother and grandmother had, and also like banners hung in windows when a family loses a son or daughter in war.

6. Other banners or scrolls with combinations of the principal motifs taken from the poem In Flanders Fields. These are printed in red on handmade paper from Barcelona, where I make the etchings. To this will be added wall hangings of flags of all nations: This hasn't been worked out as of yet. It may or may not be a sewn thing. My impulse is to create a work that fuses the nation states and jumbles their patterns. My feeling is that nation states are moving towards obsolescence as we become increasingly globalized, but we haven’t caught up to this reality yet. Nationalism, various forms of chauvinism, provincialism are still very powerful forces in the world. These need not disappear, but a world consciousness along with a caring for one another, already present in some spheres, needs to predominate if we humans are to survive on Earth.

7. Caryatids: I will begin work in 2010 on a group of six monumental sculptures of Caryatids who bear combat soldiers aloft over their heads. Caryatids are those sculpted women/goddesses who appear to be holding up the temple at Erechthion, like so many columns. Along with Lysistrata’s Circle, these are images of ancient women presented as strong protagonists in the service of peace, strength and support.

Like a veritable apparition, a woman named Renee Marie, a Captain in the National Guard here in Vermont appeared at a gallery talk I gave at the Carving Studio Gallery on the work. She’s a medical technician and was literally on the eve of deployment for service in Afghanistan. She spoke about her experience as an army officer, and most passionately, of her feelings as an Army officer/pacifist . She’s a member of a global group that inscribes the words “May Peace Prevail On Earth” in numerous locations publicly. She told those of us gathered at the talk that she intends to be an agent for peace in Afghanistan, even as she serves in the war. I couldn’t help but feel that my Greek women, and my Caryatids had come to life in the person of this woman. Art and life had converged, and, in some sense, the art itself became enlivened by its having been an impetus for Captain Marie’s astonishing sharing.

8. Collages and Poetry: There will be a series of collages with poetry as text, as another one of the elements. My father, to whom the installation is dedicated, was a journalist in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, reporting for the New York Times and other publications. He designed the press coverage for the Nuremberg Trials “down to the last sharpened pencil and note pad” as he was fond of saying. He told me that he’d hired bi-lingual German-American reporters to cover and report on the Trials. These were men and women, ironically, who’d escaped Hitler’s Germany. I will include my father’s letters to my mother from the Trials in the collage pieces, fairly astonishing pieces of writing. His reportage is colorful and of course, redolent of tragedy. The letters are typed, single-spaced, with skinny margins, on an old-fashioned typewriter, on fragile, sheer onionskin paper. I have long wanted to bring these wonderful letters forward in art, and now the moment has arrived.

9. Performance: There will be a performance piece that includes projections onto the Wall of the Fallen Ones-- a piece I will score (I have a degree in music as well as being a trained classical singer) for voices, dance movement, instruments and projections. This piece will be made in collaboration with some of the very talented performers I know here in Vermont. This piece will be presented at the Christine Price Gallery at Castleton in 2011, thanks to an invitation by Bill Ramage.

JVF: It looks like the last three or four of the nine parts are yet to come! You have a lot of work cut out for yourself in the future, and I have no doubt that you'll be able to make it all happen. I look forward to speaking with you in our next interview about your work in the past, and how this current project is related to what you've done previously.