DETROIT — It takes a great deal of awareness to identify the moment when a fanciful notion becomes a blatant untruth, and from there, perhaps a destructive ideology. It might be easier if these notions took a physical form, one that could hang in space as a visual metaphor. For a recent solo show at K. Oss Gallery, Whether Ewe Like it or Not, sculptor and installation artist Sarah Wagner chose a sheep for this purpose.
According to Wagner’s research, 16th-century Europeans explained the appearance of cotton in its natural state (quite an exotic commodity, at the time) with the idea that sheep grow on trees, leaving behind little snippets in the vegetation. This idea took popular hold, until it was debunked by the book The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary in the late 19th century. Wagner has adopted the notion of the sheep tree as a sort of mascot for pervasive falsehood — specifically romanticized or elided stories that Americans tell themselves about the forces that built the United States into a world power. Cotton was fundamental to the initial wealth-building of the burgeoning nation, and some of its crucial innovations — devalued (enslaved) labor, the cotton gin — created key precedent for the ravages of the US as an industrialized nation, in the next extension of its wealth and power.
“Our entire structure, culture and body politic are infinitely weakened and deranged by ignoring the true history of how this rise to power occurred,” writes Wagner, in materials accompanying Vegetable Lamb of America. “Today, new versions of ‘sheep trees’ — in the form of ‘alternative facts’ or the like — seem to exist almost everywhere in our culture.”
Wagner drew her inspiration for the sheep tree apparatus from Zug Island — a small island in the Detroit River to the south of Detroit, industrialized by US Steel, but once a Native American burial ground. Wagner’s use of industrial discard for her piece directly references a place that was once a sacred space for native peoples who were displaced by white settlers and industry. The steel frame armature that outlines two interlocking works on display at K. Oss looks like a rusted roller coaster, or a loose scale model of the industrial chutes and stacks that that move agricultural products like cotton or belch toxins into the air and water around Zug Island.
Unlike a previous iteration at the Muskegon Museum of Art, which featured several sheep, the installation at K. Oss has only two: one chicken-wire ewe cut off at the lower legs and positioned upside down on scaffolding, and a second one, meticulously pieced together in silver fabric and rising above like the spirit leaving its tired cage. Wagner artfully rearranged her elements to leverage every inch of the irregular gallery space at K. Oss. The steel frame forms archways and limbo poles to be negotiated by gallery-goers, sometimes ending up in miniature house forms positioned in different locations around the gallery. Seamed and stitched animals play a large role in Wagner’s installation work, and their interplay with small houses is a motif that she is also revisiting, having created a complete facsimile of her former Banglatown neighborhood in paper, fabric, and laser-cut armature for Yard/Zone/Field at Popps Packing in 2014.
Wagner’s work is deft, playful, highly adaptive, easy to connect with, and hard to shake. She combines detailed research, a host of skilled trades in the execution, and deep — if occasionally despairing — philosophical thinking, with the sincere work of processing pain into healing. Wagner’s vegetable lambs might be tough to digest in one sitting, but they offer incredible food for thought.