A new work of art about the bond between horses and humans is at the Iowa State Fair in the century-old horse barn. Most of the 400 stalls are occupied by horses waiting for competitions, some with their human companions camping next to them, providing company and care. At stall 406 is something different: a white fiberglass horse head hanging on a wooden mount illuminated by several work lights.
This narrow stall houses the exhibition titled “Switch” created by M12 studio, a collection of a dozen artists from Colorado. They were commissioned by the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation to create a temporary work of art on the fairgrounds. Richard Saxton is the founder of M12 and is one of the four members here to install “Switch”. Saxton says, this piece is based on a translation of an Irish poem about a farmer and his horse.
“It’s in some ways about a high level of emotional ... intelligence and sensitivity between human and horse, coming together as one way of looking at the world,” says Saxton.
The poem begins with a farmer looking into the eyes of his horse, empathizing with its pain presumably from working hard on the land. As the poem ends, the reader learns they are looking at a reflection of the farmer in the eyes of the horse.
“The poem leads us into a conversation of being able to see the horse’s eyes through the farmer’s eyes,” he says.
Matthew Fluharty is another M12 artist that helped create “Switch.” He says the poem’s idea of swapping a point of view is something they wanted to take further.
“Part of the underpinning of this piece, is thinking about how rural and urban communities and regions are themselves in dialogue,” says Fluharty.
On the fiberglass horse head, the eyes are reflective one-way plastic. Behind them, cameras take pictures. Those images from the horse’s point of view are being projected in downtown Des Moines on the skywalk level of the Capital Square building. Fluharty says they want people to think about the differences and similarities between rural and urban culture.
“The kind of empathy that you feel in a place like this horse barn, the people have for ... horses and their animals here at the fair. We need that same empathy as Americans whether we’re rural or urban,” says Fluharty. “So often, that empathy doesn’t cross the gap between those different kinds of spaces. So what we’re really trying to do with the second part of this project in Capital Square is to start a conversation about that.”
Unlike an art gallery, the horse barn provides an immediate context about the subject. Richard Saxton says this makes it easier for a viewer to have an intimate experience with the work.
“We have a wonderful audience who can walk into this space and say yeah, I felt that. Yeah, I know what that is,” says Saxton. “You know, is it an immediate sort of easy sign message telling you what the work is about? I don’t think so. I think in all of our pieces we ask the viewer to do some work too, to come to the work asking questions so that they can get deeper.”
To gain a deeper understanding, Matthew Fluharty says copies of the poem this work is based on are available for visitors to take.
“That idea is that folks will come in, they’ll peruse, and they’ll take something with them and that kind of dialogue can continue just beyond this one single stall,” he says.
Because a key element to "Switch" is the state fair, the piece will no longer exist when the fair ends Sunday night.
The poem Switch by Seán Ó Ríordáin, translated from the Irish by David Wheatley
“Gwawnowwdat,” said Turnbull, “and take a good look
at the pain in a horse’s eyes.
If you’d a pair of dragging hooves on you, it’s short work
they’d make of the smile on your face.”
You could see that he understood, and his fellow-feeling
for the pain in the horse’s eyes;
and that dwelling on it so long he’d finally stolen
into the innermost space
of the horse’s pain that I saw, too, trying to plumb
the depths of pain that it felt;
until it was Turnbull’s eyes I saw starting out from
that suffering horse’s pelt.
I looked at Turnbull and saw set under his brow
as I looked him up and down twice
the two, too-big eyes that were speechless with sorrow:
the horse’s eyes.