On the Snake River, one man’s ode to the beleagured sockeye


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Dispatches, November 1998

It’s 900 Miles Long. It’s 20 Feet Tall. It’s … Art!
On the Snake River, one man’s ode to the beleagured sockeye
By Rob Nixon

“I‘ll have to start a factory to make these things,” says environmental artist Gregg Schlanger. “Then get molds, plasma cutters, and computers. Plus hire accountants, publicity guys, and lawyers.” A monumental task, to be sure, given that Schlanger has only five years and nine months to produce his 150,000 sockeye salmon cutouts, each 10 to 20 feet
long. In a labor as Herculean as the salmon’s upstream odyssey, he plans to display his objects along 900 miles of riverbank stretching from the Pacific Coast of Washington through Oregon to Redfish Lake in Idaho.

An associate professor of sculpture at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, Schlanger is a veteran of numerous piscatory art installations: His distinguished r‰sum‰ includes works involving trout, salmon, and perhaps most notably, the Hole-in-the-Head Catfish Show at a gallery in Clarksville in 1995. “Sockeye Waters, Sockeye Dreams,” however, is
his boldest statement yet. Schlanger hopes that the exhibit, slated for the summer of 2004, will publicize the plight of beleaguered sockeyes, legions of which once completed the epic journey to their spawning grounds in Redfish Lake each summer. This year, decimated by decades of overfishing and rampant dam building, only a single salmon returned.

Originally intending to fashion his ersatz fish from half-inch aluminum plating, Schlanger was recently forced the rethink the project. Aluminum plants, it turns out, are major consumers of hydroelectric power generated by the very dams along the Snake River whose turbines have chopped countless sockeyes into salmon p‚t‰. In the interest of both environmental
correctness and metaphoric elegance, Schlanger is now moving toward “some sort of wood fiber,” which “would feed nutrients back into the system, just like the dying sockeye does.”

Early response to the exhibit has been mixed. “Nine hundred miles of art!” enthuses Liz Edrich at Idaho Rivers United, who can scarcely contain her excitement. “Its impact will be astounding.” Others, however, seem to find the idea less than electrifying. Muses Andrew Ross, critic and columnist for ArtForum magazine: “Wouldn’t that kind of money be
better spent on direct environmental lobbying?”