Patrick Zentz and Dennis Voss

Big Spring Ranch

There was something especially fitting about the turn of events on Labor Day weekend at Big Spring Ranch in Laurel, Montana. When artists/ranchers Patrick Zentz and Dennis Voss turned from the summer wheat harvest to create artworks combining sculpture and performance on the land, their year of labor came full circle, making a unique statement about work and art.

For their performances, each man activated sculptural pieces that had been fabricated during the long cold winter and displayed during the spring at Yellowstone Art Center in nearby Billings. Audio recordings were made during the performances, which became part of the documentation for the catalogue. Zentz had created a three-part sound sculpture that was designed to respond musically to the lay of his land and the action of wind and water. Voss performed as a character, the Mechanic of Isolation, combing the land with constructions of bone, hair, hide, and salt.

With some family members and a small invited audience in attendance, Zentz assembled his three instruments on the creek and bluffs of his 6,000-acre dry-land farm. Called “Instruments for Day,” the machines “translate” his observations made during daily activity “The predominant interaction I have with this land,” he states, “is from machines—tractors or combines or swathers or bailers—and it’s a continual year-in, year-out caressing of that surface with a machine.”

The three instruments, meant for measuring “the breathing of the surface,” are beautifully complex and meticulously crafted. Horizon Translator, which sat on green bottom-land below the farmhouse, is a ring of 64 copper flutes aligned to imitate the contours of a northern ridge on the ranch. The flute valves were opened and closed according to the fluctuations of the wind against a large sail, creating a calliopelike sound. Creek Translator stood over Duck Creek like a water spider, with brass floats on the water that moved with the flow, causing pads to move on the strings of a dulcimerlike instrument. The force of the wind moving through five windmills activated picks that plucked the strings. For Runoff Drum, situated on a high ridge, wind-activated sails caused sticks to strike the drum, whose tone was controlled by the weight of a block of melting ice in an adjacent container.

Thus the music of the ranch was played according to scores written by heat, the flow of water, and the configuration of the horizon. The wind was the “conductor” of the concert, with its pulse registered on the drum, its speed measured on the “dulcimer,” and its direction indicated by flutes.

Voss, who comes down each summer from his teaching job, at the University of Montana at Missoula, to help Zentz with the harvest, has created a performance persona, the Mechanic of Isolation, based on his observations of human responses to the agrarian setting and to the isolation from human companionship in the American West.

For “The Mechanic of Isolation as a Transporter of Salt,” Voss activated his Salt Sled, a wooden device for moving a load of salt around the ranch. The piece—designed to last for years and to measure Voss’s own aging and declining strength—consists of Voss moving the sled across a hillside every few months, watching the salt gradually melt away from rain and from being licked by animals. For his second piece he used his Snake, a 30-foot “tail” made of the bones of horses and cattle, bound with horsehair and nylon rope. The audience watched from 1,000 yards away as Voss ran naked on the hills with Snake strapped to his shoulders, trailing behind him, snapping and rolling across the boulders and cactus.

Voss’s most dramatic piece was “The Mechanic of Isolation as the Illuminated Night Hunter,” consisting of his journey across the ranch at midnight, pulling a nightmarish farm instrument comprising two wheels on a 20-foot axle, with armatures of animal carcasses, branches, and hides. A spotlight mounted on the sculpture lit it with a ghostly bouncing light. The audience was deposited by truck on a high bluff and advised to observe the piece alone. Some picked their way down the cliff in the full moon as the swinging light came into view, following the sounds of Voss’s labored breathing as he lugged the creaking structure across a fallow field. After nearly an hour of walking, the sculpture came apart on the hillside rocks and Voss attacked it, dismantling the skeletons and bundles of hide and depositing them on a nearby fence post. He whistled for his dog and strode off over the hill, leaving the observers to feel their way back across the fields and up the rugged cliff to the waiting cars.

In an age when we are becoming more and more spiritually separated from what we do for a living, it was inspiring to witness this testimony of two artists to their livelihood and their working friendship.

Linda Frye Burnham