RACHEL FRANK | rewilding
Rachel Frank’s artistic practice employs sculpture, theater, and performance to explore the tensions between the natural world and the man-made, the animal and the political, and the past and the present. She has received numerous awards for her work, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and The Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation, and residencies from Yaddo, The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation and The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Born and raised in Kentucky, Frank lives and works in Brooklyn.
Frank’s solo exhibition, PAST/FUTURE TENSE, was a meditation on time, near and distant landscapes, vanishing ecosystems, and the inescapable awareness of man’s calamitous footprint. With sunlight filtering in from behind opaque shades, throw rugs on the floor, and a video soundtrack of lapping water, the exhibition felt like an oasis—a retreat from the cacophony of a packed-to-the- gills art fair in Times Square. The serenity of the space and the detailed beauty of Frank’s work gave way to nuanced but darker themes of extinction and environmental collapse. Frank and I discuss this breakthrough exhibition, previous works, her influences, and her inspiring Rewilding projects.
Jen Schwarting: Your sculptures possess an exquisite model quality that I associate with the American Museum of Natural History. The woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros heads are astonishing, and startlingly realistic. Substantial in scale but built light enough to wear, they strike me as feats of engineering. Can you describe how they are made?
Rachel Frank: This was one of the most frequently asked questions at SPRING/ BREAK. The masks are hand-sewn out of layers of fabric and stuffed with poly-fill. After I have the structure built, I use acrylic paint and various mediums to develop details in the surface and add color. I sew in a mixture of horsehair, thread, and wool to make them “woolly” and add details, like eyelashes, again using horsehair. It’s important to me that they are realistic, but still unreal at the same time and remain impossible animals, which no longer exist. I like my work to be somewhere between the realism of American Museum of Natural History dioramas and sculpture, so I purposely leave a lot of the hand in the details with fabric unaltered, sewing stitches visible in some places, and paint marks apparent when you see them up close. I also like to “dirty-up” the hair and fur afterwards with paint so they seem less pristine and more like wild animals with a history. As masks, they do have weight to them but I like that actually, be- cause they change one’s posture when performing in them while still existing as sculptures.
JS: In your video, Vapors (2016), the mammoth declares “Some things only exist in pictures and books,” alluding to the fact that the animals are extinct, wiped out tens of thousands of years ago. Since we know of their existence only from archeological records, what kinds of references do you use to render their features?
RF: While I am building the masks, I look at a lot of internet images of related animals that are still living today, as well as fossil records, images of skeletal structure, etc. Both woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos appear in prehistoric cave paintings in places like Chauvet and Lascaux alongside images of other extinct animals of the time period like aurochs, cave lions, and tarpan horses. I really enjoy researching these first painted artworks as I try to imagine the time in which they lived and man’s early relationship to that particular world. I also grew up near an area of Kentucky where a number of mammoth, ground sloth, and mastodon bones were found early in the history of the United States. This particular discovery, in Kentucky of all places, dramatically altered Western science’s understanding of and beliefs about nature and extinction. Before these findings and subsequent research, Western science had no understanding of extinction and believed that the Earth was basically a constant made perfect and absolute by God; species neither changed nor died out. I think a lot about the role the remnants of these animals had collectively on our understanding of nature and how radical the idea of extinction was when it was first presented. The difficulty people had accepting the idea of extinction and this new drastic reconceptualization of nature is useful, I think, when looking at the way many people have a hard time accepting the science behind manmade climate change today.
JS: Your decision to display the animal masks on simple wood scaffolds was extremely powerful, both beautiful and a bit brutal, and I immediately questioned whether or not they were decapitated heads. Just today I read in the New York Times about the barbaric killing of a white rhino at a zoo in Paris; poachers broke into the animal sanctuary and sawed off the rhino’s horn. So when we see a rhino, we have to consider its inherent vulnerability and humans’ violent relationship to it. Yet the woolly rhinoceros died out not at the hands of man, but in the Ice Age. I’m curious about the idea of extinction that seems to be at the core of the work. Who or what is responsible?
RF: Yeah, I read about the slaughter of that young rhino in France. It was really shocking and sad and makes me a little worried there might be more incidents in the future as rhinos become more and more rare and their horns become even more valuable on the black market. It’s not a good thought. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to zoos, but we do like to think of the animals in those spaces as being familiar, protected, and safe. The science looking at the extinction of much of the Megafauna at the end of the Ice Age is still evolving, but it is most commonly believed at this point that natural climate change played the largest role in the extinction of these animals. Early man did hunt mammoth to some extent. Mammoth ivory was used in early tools and objects, their bones were burned in ires for warmth, and there are spear holes that have been found in the bones of mammoths in Siberia, so human hunting may have put added stress on populations. But climate change seems to have played the largest role, as recent scientific discoveries point to mammoths dying off from dehydration or lack of food when their preferred food source died out as the climate warmed. As populations grew smaller, a lack of genetic diversity probably played a role also. These factors—climate change, hunting pressures, and populations becoming less genetically diverse so that disease or mutations can more easily wipe out a whole population—are all issues we need to worry about today with the myriad of species that are currently facing extinction. I was drawn to these animals because they are both recognizable and have close relationships to animals facing extinction today: the Asian elephant is a closer relative to the mammoth than it is to the African elephant, while the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros is the closest living relative to the woolly rhinoceros.
JS: Demise and extinction are themes I first recognized in your work when I saw the 2016 BRIC Biennial in Brooklyn. In your corner of the exhibition, you showed a tapestry and three giant bison heads lined up one after another on a table. The repetition emphasized slaughter, and we know that the American Bison was killed to near-extinction by non-indigenous settlers. Can you talk about this piece?
RF: Again, these bison heads exist as sculptures onto themselves but are also masks that were used in Rewilding performances. Rewilding is an actual environmental practice, which involves reintroducing species to environments in which they had formerly thrived but have since gone extinct as a way to reestablish the landscape’s former ecosystems and increase sustainability. Much of the environmental practice of rewilding has focused on reintroducing species that are considered “keystone species,” or species that even in small numbers have a dramatic effect on the ecosystem and health of other plants and animals that live in that ecosystem. The reintroduction of the bald eagle to New York state in the 1970s and 1980s and the current work restoring the oyster beds in the New York City harbor are great local examples.
I chose the American Bison, an important keystone species, as it is our largest and probably most recognizable North American land mammal and has so much symbolic resonance and cultural history. The original bison range extended from northwest Canada to the Mexican state of Durango, and through the eastern Atlantic seaboard from New York to Georgia. Fortified by the belief in Manifest Destiny, the early European settlers used force and firearms to press increasingly westward into the Americas. With the expansion of the railroads, they decimated the bison population as a racist action aimed at removing the Native American’s food source and forcing the indigenous people off the land and onto reservations. The genocide perpetrated on the indigenous peoples and the environment was very shameful.
We became very close to wiping out the bison entirely at the turn of the last century and it is through numerous reintroduction or rewilding programs that many herds, primarily in the west, have rebounded and have returned to their native habitats.
In my Rewilding project, I perform with the bison masks in site-specific landscapes and areas, drawing attention to both the landscape’s past and to current rewilding projects and sites in an effort to envision a more sustainable future. These performances are comprised of small movements interjected between series of still tableau vivants; the tableau vivant is a form I’ve used previously in my work and which I conceptualize as a sort of sculptural performance. In my Rewilding performances, it’s a way to explore notions of time differently. When wearing the masks, you cannot see, which changes your relationship to the landscape. You’re forced to sort of feel the ground with your feet and create a physical memory of your path. I like to think about these Rewilding performances as a physical way to explore the landscape’s memory. Most of these performances have occurred in New York state, but I also traveled to and performed in the Innoko region of Alaska as part of an artist residency where a population of Wood Bison was reintroduced in 2015. Along with these performances, I’ve given a number of lectures on the history of the bison, the practice of rewilding, and its relationship to these sculptures and performances. I use these events to encourage people to think about temporality, landscape, and the natural world and I consider these lectures to be a component of the artwork.
JS: I brought my three-year-old daughter to the BRIC show. She looked at the disembodied bison heads, furrowed her brow and said, “where are their bodies?” I viewed that show with her, crouched down to her 36-inch height, face-to-face with the bison and their sensitive, glistening eyes. My overwhelming feeling was one of loss, but my daughter and I playfully talked about each of the bison’s different personalities, and we connected to the animals through empathy. To bring it back to your role as the artist making political work, how do you hope the viewer will experience and understand the work?
RF: Creating sculptural pieces that have a specificity and presence to them such that they can initiate feelings of empathy or wonder in the viewer is something I strive for. I like that the pieces can be appreciated on this emotional level as well as more complexly. Conceptually, I choose issues that feel abstract or too far outside of our daily life to easily address. I don’t have the answers, which is one reason I became interested in addressing these issues in the first place, and I also don’t think it is necessarily effective (or very interesting) to tell people what to think. Instead I like to think through problems using these platforms to reframe the issue or posit visions of alternatives.
With all of my sociopolitical and environmental-based projects, I look at the ways in which the past and the present can inform each other to try to address questions of landscape and climate change differently. With the Rewilding pieces, that means exploring the landscape’s memory and through this line of thought, both helping people to envision what the landscape once looked like and prompting them to consider the factors that led us to our present state; at the same time, it offers a physical and performative vision of an alternative future. When I was doing research for this Rewilding project, I came across the scientific term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” which is used to describe the phenomenon that, as a generation, our perceptions of the norm are based on the ecosystems we encountered as children even though in many cases these ecosystems may have been already depleted, significantly altered, or heavily polluted. I like that rewilding challenges peoples’ baseline perceptions and their visions of the norm, asking them to dig deeper into the past than our individual personal memories afford us.
JS: The animal masks in the BRIC show and in the SPRING/ BREAK show are so compelling. Were you trained as a sculptor? The masks are only one aspect of a larger practice, which includes video, performance, two-dimensional wall hangings and other forms of sculpture. How is it that you came to integrate so many mediums?
I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and sort of assumed, based on my limited understanding and exposure to contemporary art, that as an artist I would be a traditional painter, painting landscapes or portraits. After getting accepted to the Kansas City Art Institute, I soon realized there was a huge time period I had not had much exposure to contemporary art, and found that my skills and interests were much more material-based. I studied sculpture, but ended up transferring into the painting department because I wanted to study with certain professors in that department and still address concepts like narrative and color within my sculptural work. The incorporation of performance (and performance within video) still feels relatively new to me. My first performance piece was in 2010, but I like to joke that I had early experiences with performance as a child. The town I grew up in was mostly Southern Baptist, but my mom was Lutheran. The closest Lutheran church was super small with only four kids in the entire congregation. Every Christmas, the children would put on a nativity scene—the original tableau vivant, by the way—and I would play the roles of all the animals switching costumes from a sheep to a donkey to a camel. I also worked with animals on family farms, spent a lot of time hiking outdoors, and in high school and throughout summers at college I worked at a horse stable. I like to think these early experiences both working with animals and embodying animals were significant.
JS: In the SPRING/BREAK show you exhibited three beaded wall panels which were hand-sewn with thousands of glass beads. Can you describe the process? Beadwork is enormously labor-intensive. I’m curious, based on your references in the show to nomadic structures, are they inspired by Native American beadwork traditions?
The beadwork in the yurt panels is all done by hand and the process is very labor-intensive and time consuming. I usually only make one large beaded piece a year in between other projects. In my past work, I often worked with mirrors and glassy surfaces. Attracted to the way that they reflect light and image, I think of these materials as transformative—as windows, portals, or reflectors, and I continue to use beads for this reason. I am definitely influenced by the use of beads in many cultures. Beads were probably the first objects that were traded and led to cross- cultural exchanges and the development of language between various groups throughout history. 100,000-year-old prehistoric shell beads have been found far inland in Africa where the first peoples are thought to have originated. Before colonization, the Native Americans did trade and use beads in the form of shells, animal bones and teeth, and turquoise in the west, but the glass beads that we now associate with Plains Indian Art were brought over by European settlers and traded. The most intense and heavily beaded forms of Native American garments and objects were made during the early reservation period. This trading of glass beads led to innovations in technique and design and to many beautiful pieces of art, but also helped enable the European colonists to penetrate deeper into parts of the Americas and in Africa, so there’s a darker part to that cross-cultural exchange, also. I became interested in studying nomadic shelters in response to the economic crisis in this country and the emergence of tent cities, as well as the various refugee crises going on around the world—some due to conflicts or war and some due to climate change and environmental conditions. With climate change, I think we will see both more conflicts based on access to resources and more migrations of people as flooding or droughts increase. This anxiety about that future drove me to think more about nomadic shelters. The yurt, which originated in Central Asia during the time of Genghis Khan, became particularly interesting to me because in addition to being a nomadic shelter, it also was intended to be a shelter that would give the occupant a sort of spiritual form of grounding and transformation. The yurt is circular in form with a hole in the center allowing one access to the sky, the cosmos, and the unknown; the walls represent the body, and the ground is exposed at the base. I was attracted to the idea of a shelter that would provide covering for the body, but would also assist in transforming or grounding a person in an uncertain time or a period of conflict.
The Pattern for a Yurt pieces are intended to be pattern pieces that in theory could be cut out and assembled to make a nomadic structure. I beaded large shapes that I think of as windows or portals but also mirror the general shape of the yurt when assembled. Camouflage is used since, again, I think of this material as transformative: When worn, camouflage allows one the ability to blend in with their surroundings. Camouflage is also associated with the military and with conflicts, adding another dimension and a tension between these two connotations.
JS: The Vapors video, which is a conversation between the woolly rhino and the woolly mammoth, is beautifully shot in a cave covered in yellow and orange leaves. The animals are nostalgic for their primitive life, and one of the last phrases the rhino says is “unwritten, unbuilt.” The video also contains spoken references to the cosmos and the unknown, and the entire show is laid out based on the organizing principle of a nomadic dwelling. Considering all of these intersecting layers of meaning, I find myself deliberating your point of view. Are you exploring life in a pre-colonial age, or conversely is the project a postcolonial critique?
I wouldn’t say it’s exactly either of these things, actually. I recently started reading the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, which chronicles the history of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. I ind learning about these societies, many of which were much more egalitarian than our own, interesting, but pointing to that particular time period wasn’t exactly my aim with the video Vapors. I also don’t think we live in a post- colonial age. There are both remnants and residues of colonialism in how our country and its foreign policy are organized, how access is granted, and where and how resources are extracted.
In Vapors, my main objective was to talk about the Anthropocene and climate change by looking to the human past: how worldwide climate change at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age affected the environment previously; how myths or knowledge about the past and predictions for the future were arrived at historically; and how the concept of the Anthropocene helps us to better conceptualize our history within the context of deep time.
The video imagines the woolly rhinoceros and mammoth returning from their prehistoric past to some sort of present day, but I purposely left the exact contemporary time period from which they speak somewhat abstract. I wanted them to have knowledge of time’s past and present and, like Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi from ancient Greece, they offer fragmented prophesies about the future. Also, like the Oracle, their visions and conversation take place in caves—places associated with the unconscious, the internal, or the repressed. But instead of the natural caves where the historical Oracle had her visions, the mammoth and rhino appear in former mining caves, man- made places where we have tunneled to remove and transform substances like coal, iron, and precious metals. It’s significant to me that many of these substances are transformed through heat: burning, smelting, and forging. The title of the piece, Vapors, refers to both the rhino and the mammoth as ghost-like apparitions from the past and the idea of warming gases, heat, emissions, or invisible pollution.
My intention for the section on the “unwritten, unbuilt” was that this passage would suggest both the prehistoric time period they have come from, but could also allude to either a future where our technologies and industries have failed to prevent the effects of climate change on a global level, or could refer to a future time where value is places on the qualitative rather than the quantitative, e.g., profit, capital, physical development. At the same time, I was thinking about the line as yearning perhaps to return to an earlier time and make differ- ent decisions on a global level about industry, extraction, and resources. I think one narrative that keeps coming up when we talk about climate change is future generations: will they look back at our time period, or the time of the Industrial Revolution, or the nuclear age, and wish we had made different decisions, or done more to curb our impacts on the planet? What will the future think of us when we have become their past?
JS: Did you write the text and audio first and then shoot the video? How did the piece come together?
RF: I had the initial ideas for the script and the video in my head over a year or so ago and started doing a lot of research and reading from a variety of sources—everything from more philosophical writings on disaster and tragedy to reflections to ruins and time, environmental science articles, science fiction, and even some plays to help think about the structure of the dialogue. I do a lot of writing and rehearsing of dialogue in my head to ind rhythms before putting anything down on paper. Having it mostly in my head also allows me to start filming for the piece organically, while I am out hiking with friends or working on other projects simultaneously. When I finally started writing the piece down, I wrote more dialogue than was actually needed and cut back drastically several times during more of the planned filming with the masks, which took place over a number of separate weekends. A few sections were added in later, particularly at the end in response to some of the footage I arrived at. I recorded the dialogue and worked on distorting it to make it more computerized and manipulated. Finally, I recorded and edited the sort of soundtrack of sounds while editing the footage together.
JS: The spoken audio sounds slightly distorted and eerie, as well as melancholy. Last on the planet and ruminating on time travel, I thought about the genre of science fiction and wondered if there were any specific film references you were working with?
I’m glad you asked this question. I spend a lot of time both watching films and reading a lot of film theory, which inevitably ends up influencing my work. For Vapors and some of my past videos that also deal with memory and time, I was definitely thinking about the films of Chris Marker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Peter Wier’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Kubrick’s 2001, and Alain Renais’ Last Year at Marienbad. In the science fiction films, Stalker, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and 2001, I’m attracted to the metaphysical unknown or unknowable presence in these films that reveals a vulnerability of the characters, and ultimately leads to some sort of almost mythic transformation—the Zone, the Hanging Rock, and the Monolith, respectively. Alongside the people or apes in these films (thinking about Kubrick’s The Dawn of Man scenes), both time and the physical environment have such a presence and play almost another character in the films. There is also an interesting relationship between the impossible, the enigmatic, or the sacred, and nature, history, the past, or the profane, which is something I wanted to explore in part in Vapors.
In many of Chris Marker’s films, most notably, La Jetée and Sans Soleil, and in Renais’ Last Year at Marienbad, I was influenced by how the ideas of time travel or shifts in time play into the conception of memory and its mutability, untrustworthiness, or impermanence, and how these ideas influence the radical structure of all of three of these films. La Jetée uses photo- graphs in place of moving film, while Last Year at Marienbad uses distortions in time and place that often lead to disorientation. In Vapors, I wanted to use the split screen and the shifts and fragments that occasionally occur in dialogue as devices to give the feeling that the woolly mammoth and the rhino were sometimes conversing in the same time and place and sometimes were not. On the other end of the spectrum, as a child of the 1980s, I also appreciate the handmade and physical and think about the materials that were used by Ray Harryhausen for his stop-action animations in Clash of the Titans and the puppets and sets made by Jim Henson in The Dark Crystal.
JS: The more I have thought about your work and have unpacked the various layers of meaning, the more unlikely it seems that your project was displayed at SPRING/BREAK, an experimental art fair that is arguably a celebration of capital and desire. Your room looked exceptionally persuasive, and when I was there many of the patrons were awed by your work. But I’m curious if you sometimes feel a disconnect making environmental and political art in the New York art market?
Yeah, I think in general making work is New York has changed a lot now that everything is much more monetized and the city has gotten more and more expensive. Rents have gone up for gallery spaces so it sometimes feels like there are fewer exhibition opportunities for work that is less commercial or for galleries to take chances on emerging artists. Maybe it was always like this to a certain degree, but I think there is an increase in artists feeling conflicted when their work ends up in storage as an investment for a collector, or their work is used in commercial advertisements, or at odds when museums are funded by people or corporations which many artists are politically opposed to. I’m thinking specifically about the Koch brothers’ sponsorship of the Met, Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of Natural History or the BP sponsored exhibitions at the Tate, which were heavily protested. For artists working with environmental or political issues this can especially be a bit of a Catch-22... if your work even makes it to that level. I am glad there are opportunities like SPRING/BREAK where artists and independent curators can afford to participate and show installations and works of art that aren’t necessarily geared towards sales or are more political or experimental. It is still a commercial fair, but I think the types of work one sees at that fair and other artist-run fairs feel different and conversations between visitors, artists, and curators are more welcomed. Participating in SPRING/BREAK allowed me to show a number of pieces together to create a larger dialogue. Also, I’ve put together a number of solo performances at theaters and universities, but this was my first solo show in a New York art world context, so it felt really gratifying to finally get to present so much work combing sculpture, video, and performance.
JS: On the other hand, the last few months since the inauguration of Trump have been a terrifying shock to environmentalists, and trends in art may quickly become more political again. Your work directly addresses environmental issues, like climate change, that are under attack. Can you talk about the importance of your message in a broader sense?
RF: Yes, the election of Trump has been a shock for so many people and it feels like every day brings new concerns on multiple fronts, but his rollback of environmental regulations, rejection of science, disregard for the Paris Climate Accord, and push to bring back coal and reopen pipeline constructions feels particularly frightening because of the effects this will have on the more localized health of people and communities and the more broad effects on the environment and the climate. I struggle with feeling both depressed and overwhelmed and need to remind myself to take breaks from reading the news, but I am glad to see so many people paying attention and getting more politically involved. Sometimes it seems things have to get worse for people to become more aware and spur the movement towards more radical change. With my work, more broadly speaking I am asking my audience to contemplate their own relationships to the environment we currently live in. I hope by addressing historical, political, and ethical questions and examining the forces and decisions that led us to our present state, we can begin to make different decisions and move more sustainably into the future. As part of this work, I strive to create my own mythos, one that relies on actual science and environmental practices and history, and a mythos that hopefully can inspire other people make connections between our shared histories and the contemporary issues we all face when thinking about the natural world, extinction, and loss.