LONDON.- Built like a tree, flows like a river is a major sculpture made by Barry Flanagan employing for the last time some of the artistic strategies that had made his reputation as one of the leading sculptors of the1960s and 70s. The sculpture has been exhibited only once, in France, at the time of its making. Shortly after Flanagan would turn to the subject of hares.
Made from cotton fabric and granite, Built like a tree, flows like a river was commissioned for the exhibition Europe 80 in Lyon, which included Mario Merz, Guilio Paoloni, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, amongst others. An overview of the avant-garde in Europe at the beginning of the decade stressing artistic positions that insisted on independence from a dominant American aesthetic each of the artists was invited to Lyon to produce a work on-site.
Flanagans sculpture draws on the geography and history of Lyon, one of only three towns in Europe to be located at the confluence of three rivers: the Rhône, the Saône and their combined path. The Italian town of Turin, the base for the Arte Povera movement, shares this unusual geographic feature. Anselmo, Merz, Parmiggiani and Penone often mentioned this and attributed special magical and magnetic qualities to this topographical detail.
Built like a tree, flows like a river strongly references the Lyon textile industry through Flanagans use of100kg of local multicoloured fabric. Lyon flourished due to its trading connections with Italy, and garnered a reputation as an important centre for producing silk and other textiles. The industry thrived for several centuries, but declined when modern manufacturing methods took hold. Flanagan considered the local sourcing of materials crucial to the making of the work. At the centre of the strands of fabric, Flanagan added a granite boulder on which he painted a miniature representation of the entire piece, providing both a diagrammatic rendering of the work and an installation map. There follows an extract from the Europe 80 catalogue.
First day: Barry Flanagan shows us his project. Today we have to get everything together: to find a really good stone and100 kilos of fabric. There is nothing rural about the banks of the Miribel. There is a strong smell of articulated lorry. Very quickly we can see that this is not the place to find the perfect stone for the job. Barry hesitates a long time
and finally decides on a large piece of veined granite, not too flat, not too round, with three gently sloping planes on top perfect to accommodate the marks that are to be engraved. We buy fabric in the textile warehouses in Oullins, where there are huge quantities of packaged textile waste that the industry has no idea what to do with. We buy cotton, printed and plain, which will be woven together to make the looping meanders of the rivers Rhône and Saône.
Second day: Barry is in no hurry. He takes time to think about every detail of realising the project. The piece will probably be longer than originally thought, and have more tributaries.I work first with my eyes, he says. And how will we connect the stuff without sewing or tearing? Barry sits on the floor and ponders
After various attempts, we have worked out how to make the ends clean, without fraying. Third day: The interweaving the putting together could start anywhere and never finish. The colour goes inside, comes out on the left, then on the right, and goes back under again, like sediment drawn along by the waters of the Rhône. Three of us can barely manage to weave the widest parts. There are many more attempts at joining up the tributaries. They must go naturally, as if of their own accord, like branches growing from a tree, Barry announces. We work on slowly, in silence. The Saône is a plant-like organism.
Fourth day: The weaving together is now almost complete. The stone remains to be done, and Barry finally opts to paint rather than engrave it the white lines are not like an inscription, there is something too close to nature in them they have something almost pre-historic about them.
We can now install the piece in the space where it is to be exhibited. The tributaries wind up to the tree, which in turn branches out again. Photo session. Barry is satisfied: the stone and fabric speak for themselves, and the tone is playful.