A Whole New Ball Game
Lars-Erik Fisk re-invents the wheel
By Daniel Kraus

From Gadfly August 1999


Imagine looking at a photographed picture of a countryside barn—its solid stone foundation, chipped red paint, spider-webbed corners, sun‑glistened windowpane and dry, crackling hay. Imagine slapping your hand down on this picture and crumpling it into a ball. Now imagine doing the same thing to the actual barn. Now do the same to a city street. A tree. A UPS truck.

Madness? Well, sort of. Genius? Well, kind of.

From the brain of sculptor Lars‑Erik Fisk do these concepts come. When he is not designing the huge, multi‑media stage shows for the legendary band Phish, he plays with balls. Big balls. Really big balls.

Fresh off a big gig at the DeCordova Museum in Massachusetts, the twenty-eight-year-old Fisk has enjoyed a success rarely seen at his age or in his profession. He is already emerging with an art form recognizably his own. This is because his "Balls" series is undeniably irresistible. It's just too bad that Fisk receives much of his art appreciation via mass destruction. Let's face it, when you see a ball, you want to roll it—no matter that it is a $10,000 art piece that has been slaved over for nearly three months.

Witness the sphere today, gone tomorrow fate of Field Ball, a mind‑boggling, sod‑covered grass‑like thingamajig four feet in diameter. While it was showing on the front lawn of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, one of its admirers couldn't resist the urge to prove that he got game. Moments later, Field Ball became Field Dome. Only days later, Street Ball—a ponderous, eight-foot sphere of asphalt and yellow dotted lines—was formally introduced to the concrete pillars of the Hood's front gate. The gate survived. Street Ball didn't. Local detective Daniel Gillis decried it as "irreparable damage to the piece, but also the aesthetic, cultural and educational value that such works of art bring to the community."

Well, yeah, but... they are balls. And, as such, they contain an undeniable potential energy, screaming to be released. One can hardly blame the "vandals" for their attempts at "liberating" them. Least of all Fisk. "I forgive them," he admits, "after the sadness of losing them passes. I mean, I'm glad they're so compelling. They beg to be rolled."

Compelling they are, pulling off the monumental trick of being equally as fascinating to eight-year‑olds being dragged to the museum to experience some "culture" as they are to art connoisseurs. In Shakespearean terms, the balls play to the groundlings as well as the upper balconies. But no matter where we sit, as human beings we suffer the obsession of finding order among chaos. By nature, we separate, sanitize and categorize. Civilization itself is an attempt at ordering disorder. Fisk's art takes this instinct to the extreme—if you could take the uneven curves and edges and ripples of a maple tree, how would you package it? Where would it be located in Wal‑Mart? The balls represent life with no assembly required.

The destruction of Fisk's art, then, satisfies our opposite urge, the urge to play, expel energy and destroy.

All this rolled into a simple ball.

Fisk likens his art's effect to Cubism in the 1920s. "People looked at that and said, 'My God, a café table doesn't look like that! That's ridiculous!' Likewise, [in my work,] the object being transformed is irrelevant. The transformation is what's important." To subtract, reduce and distill an object until it is an abstracted symbol of itself entails asking the question, what is its essence? How can one say "barn‑ness" or "truck‑ness" in the fewest words possible? About UPS Ball, Fisk says, "Everything about UPS is brown. The drivers wear brown, they always have brown hair and brown mustaches, and they drive brown trucks and deliver brown packages. If I can get people to look and say, 'Wow, UPS brown is really a swell brown' and appreciate and get a different understanding of it, I'm happy."

The sphere is merely the least likely form for these things to be represented in. Not to mention that a sphere has no beginning. No end. No edge. No borders. Just a spinning infinity of an object that normally has all of the above. It's hard to imagine that Barn Cube would be anywhere near as potent as Barn Ball.

At once, then, Fisk's work is the most interesting fusion of realistic and abstract art. He only uses materials true to the source—Tree Ball is made from a tree, Roof Ball from roofing, and Barn Ball from wood, stone and hay (as the only ball with an interior, it has been installed with an inside light that can be turned on and off ). But because of their new, perfect and completely inappropriate geometry, we are forced to reevaluate their commonplace standing. Banal objects we wouldn't look at twice are suddenly the most fascinating things we've ever seen. Suddenly, everything's a toy. Suddenly, we're kids again.

But unlike that catchy pop song whose simple chorus wears old fast, the balls have a complexity that can strike deeper chords. Barn Ball, for instance, is a slyly sarcastic response to the over‑romanticization of the "classic countryside farm," the kind of cute, winsome paintings you see on calendars and refrigerator magnets and in films like The Bridges of Madison County. By skipping the step of reproducing the barn on a trinket and actually squashing the barn into a trinket, we come face to face with our own absurdity.

Fisk's intentions are refreshingly low‑falutin'. "I want to ignore this concept of the artist's ego, the artist as a higher being. I don't believe an artist's invented forms can be any more interesting than a basic form. A sphere is already understandable and accessible to everyone." By removing his role as an "innovator," Fisk becomes more of a laborer, hammering and molding toward the already existing goal. "In a lot of modern art, the craft of it is not as important as it once was," laments Fisk. "People look at stiff, conceptual art pieces, like a canister of horse piss, and they don't really respect that as they would a neo‑classical stone carving of a figure, because they can understand all of the effort that went into the craft of it."

Fisk's own craft of employing vast technical know‑how toward the most rudimentary of shapes has his fans demanding, "How???"—not only because it is a natural part of the audience's giddy befuddlement, but also because of the apparent preposterousness of creating such endearing monstrosities. Each ball, although similar in form, represents an unprecedented challenge of construction. How does one begin to sphericize the unspherical world? Within this question lies the rare promise of almost total artistic freedom—because of the ensured and preconceived end result of a ball, the artist now finds that his palette includes almost every single object existing within the modern world. Yet, this is severely tempered by the near impossibility of the task itself—it takes a lot of work to look effortless. However, Fisk has so far succeeded in transforming everything but the kitchen sink. Well, okay, he did that one too (Sink Ball).

Exhibit A: Tree Ball. A flawlessly bark‑covered nub of a tree. People regularly ask Fisk, "Where did you find this plant? Did you grow it?" On the contrary, Fisk got himself a huge maple log and chainsawed and carved at it until it was a solid 250‑pound sphere. Then he stripped bark from other tree drums, made it pliable by soaking it in water, taking excruciating pains to make sure the bark looked seamless and hiding the axis where the ridges meet with a natural knot in the bark. Add some wood glue, and presto‑change‑o.

Strange reactions are normal for the balls. When a private collector bought UPS Ball and displayed it on his front lawn, he was greeted one day by a pair of UPS workers. "We just wanted to let you know that we're here to pick up our thing out there," they said. "We're not sure how it got here. Maybe it fell off a truck." On the owner's protestations that it was a work of art, they kindly maintained, "It's no problem. We'll take it. Free of charge." Later, a postal worker expressed his admiration of the new "drop box" but admitted that he had no idea how to open it.

Exhibit B: The DeCordova Ball. Fisk's most recent work was created for the DeCordova Museum's "Sphere in Contemporary Sculpture" show. The objective: to make a ball out of the DeCordova Museum, a rather complex brick building. With three months to finish it, Fisk began. Since you can't exactly buy these bricks at the local Home Depot, twelve hundred delicately shaped bricks with compound curves (curving side‑to‑side as well as top‑to‑bottom) had to be hand‑made from a pickup truckŠsized lump of raw clay. Fisk found himself in the dubious position of hanging directly beneath his suspended, 5,500‑pound concrete sphere, gooping on the clay that was needed for the bottom of the ball, only to find much of it succumbing to gravity's pull. Once Fisk dealt with all the bricks shrinking by twenty percent (leaving a huge gap), he began the three‑day process of 1,930 degrees. This process ended with Fisk opening the oven to find blackened, warped and exploded bricks. With time waning and heart breaking, Fisk abandoned the project.

All of this strife stems from his stubborn refusal to construct the balls from anything but genuinely indigenous material. He could have stopped working with the completion of the concrete ball and just painted it to look like DeCordova. But it is commitment to the transformation of the native object that makes this series pure, and with this in mind, Fisk dove back in, grinding the warped bricks into submission and adding color to the ones most in need. Pascal Spengemann, curator of the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts, calls Fisk a "generous" artist. "He doesn't make us wallow and suffer through the difficulty he goes through. He's not one of those guys who make us say 'Wow, look how many moth wings he used to make George Washington's face.'"

All the work is paying off. Almost every ball (that hasn't been destroyed) has been snatched up by museums or collectors. In a time when a lot of art just makes people nod their heads in hesitant "appreciation," the balls enjoy a wondrous "lightness" about them. Balls are like playthings, and playthings are fun and easy to relate to—fun to such an extent that it is hard to report on Fisk's work without using such gratuitously horrible puns as "Sphere and Loathing," "Sphere and Present Danger," "From Sphere to Eternity" and "Blood, Sweat and Spheres." Their appealing charm suggests that Fisk could continue in this rather circular direction for some time. "I want to play this out some more," he admits. "I don't consider myself very cunning and creative. Right now, I just apply my formula to things and get to work."

It would seem that Fisk need only beware of the temptation to become too clever or tricky. What makes a ball like UPS Ball work so well is its spare succinctness—it is recognizable, simple and, most importantly, mute. Fisk doesn't work like many painters do, discovering the true form of the piece along the way. Instead, he handles his sculptures as an architect handles the construction of a building. This painstaking method guards against the danger of being swept away by an attractive gimmick. Paint can only represent something, anyway. Architecture is that thing; we have no choice but to physically contend with a building that we see and, inherently, to consider what the building is used for and what's inside of it. The fact that Fisk represented the DeCordova Museum is really incidental. The fact that he figured it out and transformed it is essential.

On the conceptual horizon for Fisk are Stop Balls (modeled after the ceramic tile and mosaic New York subway stops), Burlington Town Hall Ball (a ball for the Burlington, Vermont, Millennium Celebration that doubles as a time capsule via an opening top dome) and School Bus Ball (use your imagination). The idea of travelling to a different culture and encapsulating, say, a Japanese garden into a ball has enticed Fisk for some time. Although the intent to "ball" a revered culture is slightly more dangerous than his previous work, Fisk sees it as the natural function of his position as an artist. "Art is about getting people to look again and give themselves a new perspective on things. Or, at the very least, remind them of it."

In the meantime, the balls' strict set of guidelines continue to inspire people to come up with their own concepts of reimagined banality. Can't you picture them? Dumpster Ball? McDonald's Ball? River Ball? The ideas just keep on rolling.