Wild at Heart

You should see what he can do with bagels, cream cheese, and lox: The 365 smoked herring of Frank Sander's Fishhouse

The sound of a piece of chalk hitting a slate surface pulsates from the upturned hull of an old fishing boat in Frank Sander's installation piece Fishhouse. Resting on four solid wooden pillars, the boat rises over the viewer's head. At eye level, dangling from the boat's underside, hang 365 smoked herring. The first of three tectonic constructions currently on view in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Fishhouse strikes a dramatic profile, and judging from the popularity of this exhibition, its familiar symbolism speaks a language most everyone understands.

Fishhouse, like its companion pieces in Sander's "Human Nature" show, Beaverhouse and Bathhouse, is at once a personal meditation on the artist's life and a visual essay on the history and ecology of Minnesota's Arrowhead region. Sander, who was born and raised in Germany and has lived in Duluth for the past 11 years, gathers materials from his outdoor surroundings. He scavenged logs with chewed-off ends from an abandoned beaver dam to build the rough framework of the Beaverhouse, and he stocked the aquarium set into the low-hanging ceiling of Bathhouse with live fish bought at a bait shop. Although he has experience as a carpenter, Sander did not build the boat we see in Fishhouse. Rather, this craft, built in the 1920s, was used for decades by fishermen on Lake Superior.

Sander's most exhaustive collecting project seems to have gone into the business of acquiring 365 smoked herring. Convinced that an artist should incorporate real-life experiences into his art, and attentive to the economic history of the Arrowhead region, Sander didn't simply buy the hundreds of smoked herring found in the installation; he caught them. Sander's face brightens as he relates the tale in a heavy German accent: "Two weeks before the opening of the show I needed my 365 fish. Instead of buying the fish, I thought I should experience the catching of the fish."

And so Sander headed out onto Lake Superior at 5:30 a.m. each morning with a fisherman. "On the first day," he recalls, "we caught 14 fish....The second day we caught four fish, the third day six fish, and so on. I got really nervous because it was so close to the opening and I had still to smoke and treat the fish before the show." Sander pauses, then, and removes his glasses before resuming this fisherman's tale. "The fifth day we put the nets out and I looked down; the water was silver down there! We pulled up, and we had 450 pounds of herring....We were so happy we were singing songs when we were going back, and the fisherman was giving me high fives."

Sander's passion for nature and his strong compunction to address ecological issues finds its way into other projects outside his artistic work. Employing his training in architecture, Sander has designed buildings that use passive solar energy. And working in association with Duluth Technical College, Sander recently designed a prototype for a year-round worm-composting greenhouse equipped with wind towers--a device, which, if popularized, could redirect waste out of landfills. "I like to reflect on my surroundings, but also give my work a global message," Sander explains.

This is the case with Beaverhouse, the darkest and most didactic piece in the show, where a regional conflict between humankind and nature serves as a kind of case study for global endangered species. Here beaver skulls arranged neatly in a government-issue filing cabinet draw attention to the near elimination of the beaver in Northern Minnesota--the legacy of the area's fur-trapping history.

The show ends on a more positive and abstract note with Bathhouse. Inside this elegant and understated steel-frame construction, a single chair rests in a shallow pool of water and large black-and-white photos of a swimmer hang on walls. Like a public fountain on a hot summer day, this installation persuades a surprisingly large number of museumgoers to take off their shoes and socks, roll up their trousers, and take a dip. With this piece, Sander says, he wanted to provide a reflective space, "a quiet place where you do your own work, and think about your own personal responsibility....I don't want to be a preacher. I like to lay it out as I see it....Everyone else can make up their own minds."

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