Monday, March 14, 2011

"Going to Bed Hungry": Art installation by MCC-Blue River student Mary Braun

"Going to Bed Hungry" created by Mary Braun

Metropolitan Community College-Blue River students and staff recently had the opportunity to view an insightful artwork installation entitled “Going to Bed Hungry,” which was created by artist Mary Braun, an MCC-Blue River student, specifically for the campus. The interview below delves into the ideas behind the installation and the meaning of various aspects of Mary Braun's creation.

MCC-BR: Will you tell me about the inspiration for your recent installation project entitled “Going to Bed Hungry”? What made you want to make an artistic statement about hunger?

Mary Braun: It was just a stunning figure. From the world I'm in to finding [800,000,000] people... People talk about statistics and how many people die from this or that per minute... and in a way I think that those kinds of statistics and that kind of information is supposed to alert us to the information in some way—to make us not just be aware, but to make something else happen in us. But I don't think that kind of information really ever does that. It's there, and we think about it maybe for a few minutes. What does that do for the rest of our life? Is there any way that these statistics motivate us to do anything else?

MCC-BR: They've lost their shock value.

MB: Yeah. So 800,000,000 people going to bed hungry every day just seems very vivid to me. You can picture going to bed. I can picture going to bed, maybe hungry. But when you think of
the sun going down and every range of humanity from the old to the young... It's different. Somehow that felt different to me.

MCC-BR: You talked a little bit, in your description of the installation, about “real” and “imagined” reasons that people suffer from hunger.

MB: I think the real reasons people are hungry are economic, and that... as communication has expanded our ability to have commerce, business, just across the air waves... We're not waiting for months just for the load of cotton to get here. Now I think things are traded in microseconds. Huge amounts of money are transferred around. And when we, long ago, as a human race started taking money as something that was of value, versus human life—I think any time we have done that, the degree of hunger and starvation and poverty actually has increased exponentially to the point that I think money has become its own reality, has its own values and its own structure that has almost nothing to do with human life, and certainly nothing to do with the value of human life... Take away any judgments you might have over people who are extremely rich or extremely poor and how that happened. How that happened was that chasm was real and it's been there for a long time. And if we really acknowledge that if we never look at it and try to do something about it, it's just going to continue. . . .

So that's what I'm saying, “Imagined versus real.” And human life—that, to me, is the real part. The rest of it is a means to an end, and certainly necessary, but I think has taken. . . . If there was ever a question of holding false idols before God, that's what I would relate it to.

MCC-BR: I was very interested in the materials in it. You mentioned that it is made of aged, cut yew branches, acrylic and wool thread, deconstructed house assemblages, and tin wire. Now, what exactly are you describing when you say “deconstructed house assemblages.”

MB: These were little toy houses that I found. I just had an array of different things to work, maybe, into these pieces. These little toy houses—I just had them. I pick up odd things. I even pick up, in parking lots, things that have been flattened by trucks. Just rusty little shapes. So [a house assemblage] was in my pile of strange stuff, and I pulled off the little floors and I was just looking at them a lot. And I kept thinking, this has nothing to do with the little organic figures I'm making, but they—I just felt pulled to go ahead and use them. Especially in the fact that there is social structure in every community no matter how ancient or current. There just is social structure, and everyone has an idea, or maybe an idealized vision of what can be in their world. I call it a glass castle. Everyone should have that sort of unreachable, vulnerable, incredibly beautiful idea of what life can be. Something to strive for. And it should always be a little farther than what they can reach—inspiration in a way. But also having to do with connecting to other people. So in every way, those little houses actually did have a place in this piece.

They do also kind of represent the empty stomach. Again, in many ways society has created this situation.

MCC-BR: I like that the houses are placed upside down to show the emptiness to the viewer who stands above. I wanted to ask also—I heard you telling a passerby about the yew branches and how they relate to “Going to Bed Hungry.”

MB: The yew is a very interesting tree. Some of the oldest yews that scientists have to guess at that are living could be 4500 to 9000 years old. And they were planted around grave yards in England, Normandy, Ireland, Scotland, some of those northern areas. Some thought it was used to dissuade farm animals from ranging on top of graves. They were also used by a lot of the Celtic tribes to mark a grave, and the idea of that was that the soul would find that surviving tree and would be able to come meet the person who was coming to visit them at their grave. It reaches into the other world in some ways. Probably because it was so long lasting, also because the needles and the seeds inside the berries are poisonous... The fruit around the seeds is very sweet, so birds eat the fruit and deposit the seeds. So it's come up with its own mechanism.

But it hollows out as it grows, so in Normandy some of the oldest chapels are actually inside of yew trees that have naturally hollowed themselves out, with a living ring of branches and bark. One of them... you could fit forty people inside one of them.

It has a lot of life and death spiritual connection socially for a lot of our past. And again, these branches that I used were about five years old—I cut them down about five years ago. They still retain an amazing amount of pliability.

MCC-BR: They don't look brittle. I also wondered if during the process of working on this project, did the figures you were creating take on any personality of their own because they are in a human shape?

MB: They really did. The one that's sitting, who I think is—my intention was for that one to indicate the counter-idea of not taking action. She's beginning to rise. She's coming from the same amount of poverty, the same hunger, the same terrible past, terrible future, terrible present, but she is sitting up and she is reaching. And I have seen that. I've seen people in that much desperation still reaching. Versus the form who's laying down and has pretty much given up completely.

No matter what I did I could not put them on that bed without them touching just a tiny bit. For some reason I kept—yes, they definitely took on their own sort of personal message to me. And I've had a number of friends say, “What's the point? What's the point of trying to help. I mean, you can't help 800,000,000 people.” And my answer is not only “Why not?” but I think people immediately give up the fight when they “What can I do?” I think the question needs to be “What shall I do?” Because everyone can do something. . . .

MCC-BR: You mentioned at the end of your description of the piece, a website called What is that like, and what can people do there?

MB: That is a very incredible sort of grass roots, funky, wonderful group of people. . . . There's a—unofficially—we call it the kamikaze food drop down on the plaza. About 4:30 on Sunday evening in the park on the plaza we just swoop in, set up a table, hand out all this food to all these great homeless guys who just show up from everywhere with their backpacks. In fact, they help us set up. We all have these great conversations. . . .

The other thing is that churches that normally have a food pantry—they're closed on Sunday. So if you're homeless you don't eat on Sunday in Kansas City. So you either carry the food with you, find enough on Saturday or some time to get through Sunday and part of Monday, or you just go hungry. . . .

One of the things that we've started saying now is “not homelessness, but foodlessness.” Because some of these people have a place, but they have no food. . . .

And there is a lot of information on how you can help [on].

MCC-BR: How long will the installation be here?

Artist Mary Braun
MB: It's coming down over spring break, but I'm putting up—across from the bookstore, there sort of an inset glass covered bulletin board thing... I'm going to put up all the information, documentation, notes, sketches, inspirations, pieces, pictures of putting it together—everything about putting it together is going to be in there for a little while. It's sort of a documenting of it.

Tying it back to the school... this is a beautiful school and a beautiful campus. I just think all of the MCC campuses are. They all are designed, the view is designed, even from the parking lot looking out, some of that has been taken into consideration. The views from all the windows, what we see as we're walking through the campus, it is all by design. The same with the inside of the buildings, hallways... all of that atmosphere has been taken into consideration and planned and designed. And it all fits together in a certain genre... which is great.

But to be able to have the opportunity to come in and alter that design, alter that sense for somebody for just a little bit is the idea behind an installation. . . . all of those nuances have been considered in whatever way I could pull together to alter the person's experience who's walking down that path or in that courtyard. . . . 

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