Over the weekend, my husband and I went to what I am officially dubbing The Coolest Thing in the Twin Cities Area. No one told me about this, nor did I read about it anywhere. Instead, a month or two ago, Paul and I were driving to Taylor Falls to go hiking (a place that was recommended to us), and from the highway, I saw some giant, crazy-looking sculptures sitting next to a corn field.
“What is that?” I asked.
As it turned out,” that” was Franconia Sculpture Park, a 43-acre park and active artist residency that awards fellowships and internships to up to 40 visual artists each year. Plus, the park is free and open to the public from dusk until dawn, 365 days a year. PLUS, you can climb and play on most of the sculptures. So, it’s pretty much the greatest thing ever, and if you’re a Minnesotan parent who hasn’t taken your kids there, you need to cram everyone into the minivan and go right now before I charge you with neglect. That’s how strongly I feel about the awesomeness of this place.
Another example of my strong feelings? “If we ever get married again, let’s have our wedding here,” I told Paul as we wandered around this amazingly weird wonderland of art and nature (I saw two chipmunks, and Paul saw a snake!). And in fact, later on, a wedding party showed up and started taking pictures next to one of the sculptures. Obviously, I’m not the only one who loves this place.
Before I go any further, let it be known that I am not a visual artist, nor do I know much about art besides what I like and don’t like. Actually, I’m often don’t know that either. A common phrase I utter in modern art galleries is, “I’m not sure how I feel about that.” Which, perhaps, is the artist’s intention sometimes.
There’s also a difference to me between art that I’d want in my home/yard and art I enjoy looking at, talking about, or interacting with. Most of sculptures at Franconia fall into the latter category. I loved the taxidermy deer that looked, from a distance, like they were forming a cheerleader-style pyramid. I loved the whimsical playgrounds made of found objects, and the off-kilter kitchen that looked as if it had been ripped through by a tornado.
What I didn’t always love, however, was what the artists had to say about their pieces. Take, for example this sculpture:
“Ooh, what’s that?” I asked as we approached.
“It looks like hunks of meat,” Paul said. “It looks like llama legs.”
“It looks like a piñata… of a llama,” I said. “A bloody llama piñata.” And then my mind started to whirl: a llama piñata, but instead of being filled with candy, it’s filled with blood. With a final blow of the bat, the llama bursts open, and blood rains down on screaming children who were expecting bubble gum and sweets. Creepy, but cool.
Then we got up to the sign and read the title: “Up, Down, Shake it out… Will you marry me?” The artist’s statement did not help to illuminate this title. “Magnifying, speculating. Solidifying a moment of realization,” the sign explained.
“No,” I said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“This one is called Llama Legs,” Paul said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s called Bloody Llama Piñata.” We moved on.
Then we came to this piece:
“Ooh, what’s that?” I asked. (This is what I say upon approaching any and every outdoor sculpture.) “I like how the triangles reflect the light. That’s kind of cool.”
“Yeah, this is neat,” Paul said. “What’s the sign say about it?”
I read aloud: “Through understanding and analysis of memories and experience, I intend to encourage introspection and further dialogue concerning socio-political issues including, but not limited to, sexuality, identity, and popular culture in America.”
“So this sculpture is about sexuality?” Paul asked. “I don’t get that.”
“Well, the triangles,” I offered. “And the rainbows. You know.”
And that’s how it went for many of the pieces. Paul and I would make our (albeit naïve and nonartistic) assumptions about what a sculpture was portraying, only to be rebuffed by the artist’s explanation. No, actually this piece is about “altering environments to highlight the visual language that is used to instill a subconscious fear and uneasiness.” And, this piece over here is about “the universality of loss and grief and …recording the existence of a moment or memory as they become three dimensional documents of time and place.” Oh, OK.
I wanted the artists’ statements to add to my enjoyment and understanding of their sculptures, (and sometimes they did), but sometimes, to be honest, the explanations sounded sort of pompous or vague, and I almost wished I hadn’t read them.
Of course I can’t help but tie this to writing. In July I’ll be teaching a fiction workshop class, and one of the rules I will put in place is that authors are not allowed to explain or defend their work. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter so much what the author’s intent was, or what he/she was trying to show. All that matters is the reader’s experience. As the author, you might want to know what readers thought, and you might want to revise accordingly, but it doesn’t help to tell people what they “should have gotten” out of your story.
I’ve been in workshops that were bogged down by authors saying things like, “Well, the party is supposed to be a metaphor for life, and when she looks out the window and says, “it’s so dark outside,” what she’s really describing is her fear of death.” Well, that’s great. If that’s what you want the readers to understand, then it’s your job as the writer to make them see that. And you have to accept that maybe they’ll see something else entirely. That’s what’s exciting (and scary) about putting your work out into the world. You can’t control what others think about it.
And I feel the same way about some of these sculptures. I liked coming to my own conclusions, even if they were totally different from the author’s intent. In fact, I didn’t always care about what the artists intended.
Although, I must admit, I enjoyed it when my interpretation matched up with the artist’s vision. Take for example, “The Big Game” by Kari Anne Reardon:
At first, all Paul and I saw was this part of it:
And at first, I must admit, we thought it was a camel. (We were far away.) As we got closer, I said, “Oh, it’s a deer! She’s winking. It’s a flirty deer.”
“Look, Paul said,” it’s got a heart on it’s butt. Like a target.”
Then I noticed the rifle a distance away. It had the same pink camouflage. “Oh, wait,” I said. “I think this goes with it.” We ran to the rifle.
“It’s a game.” Paul pointed to the coin slot. “You try to hit the heart.”
We went to the sign to read about it. Apparently, when first installed, the game had actually worked. A quarter made it come alive with sound and lights, and the flirty eye winked. It’s a take on the arcade game Big Buck Hunter, exploring themes of sexuality, artist Kari Anne Reardon explained. (Unfortunately I can’t quote exactly what she said because, weirdly, I can’t find it anywhere online.)
“That’s so clever,” I said. She made Big Buck a winking doe, surrounded by pink camo, turning the whole macho hunting thing on its head. And I wondered, was the flirty doe playing hard to get — who was predator and who was prey in this situation? And was this a statement about more than just hunting? Was it perhaps a statement about men and women and the game of sex? As I pondered my answers to these questions, I was glad that the artist didn’t explain too much.
Because that’s often the fun of art, and of reading… Coming to your own conclusions.