As you walk down the narrow hallway into Frank Sander’s
sunlit studio in Lowertown you’re greeted by an entryway table piled with
cables, cast-off camera bits, miscellaneous video equipment, and a couple of
discarded microphone heads.
On the walls are personal treasures the German-born artist
has picked up during his twenty-odd years of travel. He takes down a recent
prize from a wall near the galley kitchen: a weathered, conical straw hat he
bartered from a farmer on a recent trip to China’s Yunnan province. "Can you
see the sweat stains along the strap here? Look at the fine weaving work; the
swirls and patterning in the straw are just stunning. I love that this bears
the evidence of his labor, the time he spent in the fields," Sander said. "I
think it’s just beautiful, it’s so human."
Sander studied carpentry and architecture, along with visual
art, in Germany; it’s clear he’s an itchy sort of artist, resistant to the
fetters of just one discipline. Finding carpentry and architecture too precise
and measured, he turned to sculpture and painting. He’s also noodled around
with filmmaking and photography since childhood, experimenting early on with
Super 8 cameras, and graduating over time to videography and digital
In his twenties Sander wandered throughout Europe, living in
Spain for a time, then the Netherlands and Denmark. On a trip home to Hamburg
in 1979, his train was caught in a week-long blizzard. "After a couple of days,
I started to look around for ways to pass the time." He recalls wryly, "I kept
thinking, surely there’s a young woman around here who needs some company."
You can guess the rest: a fellow passenger was an attractive
American. They hit it off and Sander followed her home to Minnesota, where they
were married. That relationship eventually fizzled but his affair with the
North Star State did not.
In fact, Minnesota’s landscapes, especially the wilds of the
Boundary Waters, have indelibly marked his artwork. Sander may be best known
for his critically hailed installation, Human Nature, which premiered at the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1999 and also showed at the Daum Museum of
Contemporary Art outside Kansas City. In Sander’s landscape, fish enrobed in
resin hang from the frame of an upturned fishing boat; and scores of beaver
skulls sit in government-issue file boxes in witness to the destruction of
their habitat. The entire work was a sort of sculptural reliquary for Upper
Midwest wildlife displaced by industrialization and sprawl.
Sander, however, now has mixed feelings about large-scale
public art. "It takes so much time and money, and so much time applying for
grants, to put something like that together. No one really buys work that
large, so in the case of Human Nature it sat around on my property deteriorating
for years, just getting in the way. I’m more interested in actually making
artwork than in shopping my artwork around."
His current passion, videography and film, marries well with
his wanderlust. Currently he is documenting the tribal minorities and austere
beauty of Yunnan Province, in the mountains near the Tibetan border. Typically
for Sander, he arrived at this latest work through both luck and a Zen-like
acquiescence to the vicissitudes of his curiosity. He stumbled on these insular
enclaves last year while sightseeing in China, and, intrigued by their singular
cultural histories, struck up a friendship with a local university professor
who introduced him to some locals.
Sander was smitten with the people and their communities,
poised between agrarian life and industrial modernity. Armed with just a
camera, he returns every chance he gets. Sander’s video footage is immediate
and intimate. There’s over-the-shoulder access to the mountaintop homes of
boisterous young dancers, and walks along narrow village streets on festival
With the ongoing collaboration of his Chinese partner, He
Lujiang, Sander is working to raise money for an ambitious film project that
would chronicle these peoples’ fast-disappearing stories.
"We have the opportunity to preserve something of this way
of life before it’s gone," he says. "Imagine if we’d been able to do something
similar to capture Native American life before the days of reservations. These
are communities on the cusp of modern life, and every day they lose a bit of
their heritage to the conveniences of new technologies. If I can document their
way of life, I’d like to post the whole film for free online. He Lujiang and I
want their chronicle to be our small contribution to the world."
The medium may vary, but Sander’s consistent theme is
preservation. His is the proverbial (and literal) voice in the wilderness
urging us not to forget who we were and to be mindful of the natural wonders
being sacrificed for the manufactured comforts of modernity.