My Time in Wassaic
Don’t walk from the train station if you can help it.
My name is Alex Hanson. I am a sculptor from Minnesota currently based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I had heard great things about the Wassaic Project for years and finally applied last year and was very excited to attend. I sent ahead of me a 400 lb crate of steel parts and the like to work on this project during my month-long residency. The work I did during my time in Wassaic was (the beginnings) of a sugar shack in which maple sap will be made into maple syrup. The purpose of installation of this shack at Wassaic is in part to produce a couple gallons of syrup for a future pancake supper that will be made from scratch from ingredients sourced in the most unnecessarily elaborate way I am capable of doing.
I have many fond memories of my month in residence, and rather than recalling them here, I’ll say that the best part of the residency was feeling like part of something larger than simply a place to sleep and make artwork. I was initially attracted to Wassaic because of its mission as a place that integrates and cooperates with the community in creating some kind of strange, beautiful art experience. I had the privilege of working with Tara in the Art Nest as part of my fellowship and it was a welcome reminder that the Project was not operating in a vacuum. People of the community were in and out of the building often, asking questions, learning about us as residents.
So often are residencies quick to talk about their remoteness, their isolation, and how white their studio walls are; Wassaic offered something that felt a lot like the opposite of that. While there was certainly a lot of time to work and think, one cannot help but hear the person in the studio next to you breathing or chewing too loudly, conversations from across the mill drifting in and out of earshot, or the occasional kid running up and down the stairs shouting something over and over. Rather than seeing this as an annoyance, it was actually energizing. Being in a living, breathing building like Maxon Mills in the winter reminded me often of the parts of residencies I find to be so special — being part of an excited and exciting community of weirdos from all over the place.
I met some really great people and I’m excited to go back one day.
with Joe Brommel, April 2018
What did you work on in Wassaic?
I started this multi-installation based project where I'm making a pancake breakfast from scratch. Or as close as I can get to scratch — there's a line that I have to draw somewhere. Balancing practicality and absurdity is a big part of it.
In particular, I was building a sugar shack. To make maple syrup, you take 40 gallons of sap and boil it down to one gallon of syrup until the water is boiled off and the sugar concentrates. Funny enough, the place people do this is in a building called a sugar shack; they're all over the Northeast.
This pancake breakfast will take place in northern Minnesota as part of this invented narrative surrounding the death of Paul Bunyan. The absurdly laborious endeavor becomes a weird homage.
Is your focus particularly on the Paul Bunyan myth, or is it broader? I’m thinking about how food is produced in America, and tracing the paths of how things get to our tables.
Yeah, that's a big part of it: the absurdity of our food system where we can buy blueberries all year round from Chile. There’s a maple syrup factory not far away from Wassaic, too. They have this elaborate industrial operation for this otherwise traditional small-town cultural practice.
In some way, doing this big pancake supper from scratch is sort of a small act of rebellion, or a joke about labor. Because it would be just 1,000 times easier to make great pancakes with nice ingredients from the grocery store down the street from my house. There’s an absurdity enacted by bringing these ingredients to life by actually growing them or sourcing them from places that are “the best.” For me, the project asks: does labor equal value?
Another long-term project that I’m working on is about what one does when everything is temporary. How does one spend their life? What is a good mark to leave? What's a good legacy?
Can you talk more about that project?
The way I often describe it is a sort of sculptural reimagination of the musical Oklahoma! that takes place over nine different installations. Each installation matches up with one of the songs in the musical — over which are laid the five stages of grief — and adds to this narrative of an asteroid the size and shape of Oklahoma barreling towards Earth. The work takes place immediately before the impact happens and all life on Earth ends.
The last part of the project is 67 willow saplings will be handed out and people will plant them, pretending like it's their last action. All of these tender moments happening before everyone meets their end. I guess overall that project is about what to do with the time that you have when you don’t have a lot of it left.
That comes up more broadly in your artist statement as well. You talk about the “futility” of extracting a “pure or unadulterated meaning of the pieces of the puzzle we are given,” but say later on that through your work you want “know what joy is, and how to find a real and lasting version of it.” There’s a really interesting tension — for lack of a better word — between that futility and that desire to find joy.
Something I've been saying for a while is that you can reach a hopeful outlook on the world through cynicism. It’s a fine line to dance, but a lot of the work that I make is offering the worst possible outlook in the hope that if we can see it and understand it, then maybe we won't have to live with it, or won’t be afraid of it.
I know I’m mining your artist statement a lot, but you also say there that we should “prefer a world” where magic doesn't exist. Can you talk a little bit more about that, especially in the context of what we’ve just been talking about? Why do you think we should want a world where magic doesn't exist?
People are really crossing their fingers for magic to exist — in whatever capacity — and I think that does damage to the world. Magic is standing in as a belief in a supernatural thing. But if the world was not destined to be owned or destroyed by us, then we're on the hook — we have to clean up the mess after the party.
That autonomy has been a driving force in a lot of the things that I make, at least on a personal level — that free will does exist, and we can do something about our lives, and hold ourselves accountable for all the horrible things we've done to the planet and to each other. It also means our wins belong to us too.
I talk about magic sometimes in relation to unconditional love. I feel like unconditional love isn’t helpful because the consequences and the benefits have nothing to do with us and our choices. I see a lot of the work that I'm making as things that hopefully highlight the complications of making good choices.
Not that I'm an expert by any means — I have a difficult time making any choice. But when I can make one then they’re mine. And when we don't have access to them because there are supernatural forces involved, I think that removes a cause and effect relationship that is important for learning lessons.
Can you talk about the role of narrative in your work?
People understand how to read and extrapolate meanings or morals out of a story. Whereas it’s not as common that people are willing to do that with a work of “fine art” — there's a lot of hesitancy and fear of feeling like your interpretation is wrong or you’re uneducated. So it's really important for me that the meanings of my work are wildly accessible. The best way that I’ve found to do it is to couple my installation work with writing.
There's this hesitancy in my mind for sculpture not to act like an illustration of something else but to be or embody that thing, but that's maybe some of my baggage left over from art school. People will say, “if you can't say it with your work, you shouldn’t say it with your statement.” It's this intentional obscuring of information, just to show that you are able to communicate things by not communicating them.
But I don't worry about the physical work not doing all of the heavy lifting anymore. Realizing that I had the option to do that was a really freeing thing.
Yeah. That's sort of an arbitrary line anyway.
Because the second you put up wall text, people’s experience is going to be mediated through that. So if you're going to have any text at all, you might as well lend the viewer a hand and help guide that experience rather than needlessly obfuscate it.
Right. It sort of happened neatly that I’ve moved towards more explicit artist statements that accompany works. They grew and grew until they became just as big as or bigger than the pieces. I found I really like writing about it. The key thing is to communicate what you want to in whatever way might work for you.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby