Expressing Extinction: A Conversation with Anna Lehner
During this fast-paced period of political change it can feel difficult to find a space for reflection, especially around conversations about the environment. But for Anna Lehner, a glass artist and M.F.A. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the need for reflection on loss and the environment has become only more urgent. I sat down with Anna to discuss extinct languages, ice cores and ancient air, and her reintroduction of Morse code through tap dance.
Stream or download the full conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Helen J. Bullard: In our first ever piece for Edge Effects, two and a half years ago, William Cronon talked about Aldo Leopold’s term “edge effects,” which Leopold was using to describe interactions in the vicinity of boundaries. In that case, Leopold was talking about the special sort of fringe spaces that we find at the edges of woodlands and places where food and vegetation tend to cross over. Anna Lehner, I know that even from quite early on your work was focusing on edges and boundaries, and the sort of spaces and in-betweens of things. Can you tell us a little bit about your earlier work and what inspired you?
Anna Lehner: My earlier work really dealt with interpersonal relationships, and I made work that was very abstract. I would make prints and glass sculptures that had a lot of different planes and spaces within them, but were a little threatening, a little menacing. It really was me growing up, trying to work through ways of visualizing my relationships with other people. I noticed as time went on that I started to use more and more natural imagery to exemplify the feelings I felt. So, my work started to migrate towards more naturalistic forms, more geographic forms to personify those feelings.
HJB: Your work has become increasingly informed by ideas about communication across space, across species, and across time, but also across extinctions of languages themselves—particularly Native American geographies, and also birds.
AL: Right before I entered graduate school, I started to take an increasing interest in the land; what gets buried, in my mind, both physically and metaphorically. I started to move towards language and took an interest in the research behind extinct and endangered languages. At first this interest was very broad. It was every sort of language I could find research on. Now, it’s becoming more of an interest in things that are more local. In the United States it happens to be that a lot of endangered or extinct languages are found within the realms of Native American languages, due to our political pasts and current situations. Alongside these languages are issues of animal languages as well. In terms of birds, I’m really inspired by an artist called Rachel Berwick. She has done a lot of work with Mayporé, an extinct language which parrots learned and were able to speak long after the people who spoke Mayporé had passed. Things like this give me goosebumps! And, I think they are why I want to do the work I do.
HJB: You have work on display in an exhibition that I saw recently at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Art Loft. Can you tell us a bit about the pieces on display there?
AL: I really fell in love with ice cores, which is oddly specific, I think. But, I feel them as a form of record keeping in the sense that there is captured air, captured physical ancient air in them. Those samples are a direct stand-in for climate data about the changes in our atmosphere. At the time I made them, I was thinking about extinct languages, and I wanted to cross those ideas together: beauty in preservation in ice with some sort of preservation of the passing of time, and with the passing of time comes the extinction of language. They’re inspired by glass, and what they hold within them stands for a year which records the date in which a language has passed. Each one is almost a memento, but it’s also a memorial. It’s quite sad because there is not a lot of data to preserve or to talk about. So, they show this loss that builds from year to year. The pieces in the show are just from the twenty-first century. I’m hoping that as my ideas develop and the glass pieces I make become more exact I can continue this piece and keep going back in time in order to show how much we lose in the different centuries.
HJB: I was lucky enough to tour your studio recently, and at one point you reached down and picked something up that you wanted to show me. It was your own footsteps—black footsteps imprisoned in glass, a little like amber. What did you want me to see in that piece?
AL: With that piece I was thinking more about my direct impact on the environment, in a quite literal sense, but with poetic implications, too. The work that those footsteps were a part of was called “Anthropocene.” The footsteps that were captured in black glass were made to resemble carbon in that they led into a doorway that I drew on the wall, an impassable doorway made of carbon. So, the footprint that was mine stood for many people, was just a general footstep leading into this doorway. I was thinking about my effect on the environment, as well as our species’s effect.
HJB: I teach contemporary art, and there are a lot of conversations around interpretation and the message that the artist is trying to send. I think art has a great capacity to draw attention to practices that might have seemed normative but are becoming more problematic. One of the big players in that conversation has become the environment and ideas of the Anthropocene. Do you see yourself as a political artist?
AL: I didn’t at first. I felt I swore off that when I did abstract art, but taking the step into communication and languages that become extinct over time, I’ve found that these topics are very political. There is a good conversation to be had. I would say now I’m a political artist. I didn’t think of it that way a couple months ago, but I would say now I think so. I think I have to be if I’m going to talk about endangerment and extinction.
HJB: You’re working on a new collaboration about international communication. Could you describe the project and how such pieces help us to understand our own boundaries and geographies?
AL: A friend who lives in Brussels and I have been exchanging letters for quite some time. They’ve been on the back of old artworks. I had an idea that I really wanted to work with her, especially after communicating through letters with her. I was thinking about the act of communicating through voice, but also modeling the conversation so that the viewer can only take in the tonal aspects of the communication, but not the information. Only the two of us would know the information. The viewer would not be privy to that. In some ways our conversation would be… I don’t want to commit to this term “extinct,” but that’s the way I’ve been thinking about it. And it’s really quite beautiful that we’re corresponding over an ocean. It allows me to think about her place, my place, and how we can interact in that much space.
HJB: I wanted to ask you about one last thing. You mentioned earlier that you’re learning to tap dance. What does that have to do with communication, in terms of your work?
AL: I was thinking about Morse code for a while, and I was thinking about ways of communicating with my feet. I thought I could use a form of communication that has since lost its primary function (as military code), as a way to communicate with somebody through dance. It might end up being something that is Morse code-esque, depending on the how the performers I ask to perform for me or on how my own tap experience goes. The messages themselves have to do with my concerns for the earth and some other letters I might write, concerning more emotional ties and relationships.
HJB: Do you think that your returning to the idea of feet, and of contact with the earth, is emerging as an important theme for you?
AL: Yes, it’s very important, and it’s very new to me. I think as this first year of grad school passes I’m moving away from my tendency to make objects and moving more towards an interest in feet: where my feet touch the ground, what kind of space they take up, and how this is important to my work. The other day, before I even started the tap course, I decided to tap out a message. So, I tapped out in Morse code, “Hello, my name is Anna. Period.” I say period because you have to tap out the period in Morse code, which actually is longer than any of the letters. So I tapped it out in tap shoes, and there’s another recording where I tapped it out with glass taps, producing a higher pitched sound. It might become more fluid as time goes on.
Featured image: Anna Lehner, “Communication Lost,” Glass, Air and Morse code, 2016. Dimensions: 1-6”X 1-3” each.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Anna Lehner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in May, 2016, with a B.F.A. in 3D emphasis and a B.A. in Art History. She has had artwork published in New Glass Review 36 and 38 and has won various awards at Glass Art Society conferences. Currently Anna is attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison pursuing an M.F.A. in glass. Anna uses the material of glass to investigate communication and elements of language. Website. Contact.
Helen J. Bullard is a research-based storyteller, currently working towards a Special Committee Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts and Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focused on telling the story of the horseshoe crab. Website. Contact.