According to Carl Jung, fish can be symbolic of libido or greed; and they, like snakes, “are favorite symbols for describing psychic happenings and experiences that suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect.”
In art and myth, the fish has been there almost since humans have been creating it. Ancient Egyptian priests were prohibited from eating fish: it was a fish who had eaten Osiris’ phallus and the animal had sacred connotations as the divine originations of life and Ka, the life force. Sumerian beliefs held that the first Kings had emerged from the sea as fish; later the fish became beasts and monsters, one slain by Marduk, another by Baal, and the Hebrew people carried the story on. The Leviathan was slain by Yahweh.
Chinese language equates the word for “fish” with abundance (they’re homophones) and there are many different myths for the fish. Astrology, of course, has its Pisces; the early Christians picked up on the symbolism of fish as the resurrected, or the life, and adopted the old symbol as their own. The Greek Ichthus can be seen everywhere now in the twenty-first century, usually as shorthand for Christianity but also, with added feet, as a commentary on the truth of science and evolution.
Native Americans, particularly those tribes who lived near water, frequently adopted fish as totems and clans. Fish were a primary food source and became as life-giving and special to those who relied on them as the buffalo were to the tribes of the Plains. The Ojibwe associate the fish with sagacity and longevity; and the myths associated with fish are varied and plentiful.
Ritchie Branstrom, a native of Michigan, has been working in found object assemblages (sculptures) and he has many versions of fish (generally metal; scales painstakingly crafted from pop cans and soup cans) on display at the Michigan Artists Gallery in Traverse City, Michigan. The copper and aluminum piece seen above is placed on the exterior of the gallery: there are several spatulas, a piece of a music stand, but mostly endless pop can tops. It’s a particularly flexible and appealing manipulation of materials, whimsical and wonderful. It would be easy to compare this fish (and the ones like it inside the gallery or found on Branstrom’s website, adhocworkshop.com) with Larry Fuentes’ Game Fish, found in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian. Both are contemporary artists working with found objects and both Branstrom and Fuentes seem to share a certain playfulness. Branstrom’s fish seem more sensitive, in their way, than Fuentes Game Fish (or his bead-encrusted cars). Regardless, both artists and their fish are memorable and appealing. For Branstrom, it would be easy to point to the waters of Lake Michigan and say his fish sculptures pull on the environment and a respect for it or even point to the myths and culture of the Native Americans who still live in the area.
His own artist’s statement will only point to the fact that his home has influenced him.
It’s worth visiting the Gallery to see this fish (and the more monochromatic versions indoors) but if you can’t get there, Branstrom’s site is a pleasure to visit. (His photograph, “Mosquitos for Sale,” alone is wry and funny.)
And there you have it: one big fish that can be anything and everything, metal leviathan, playful but sobering statement on garbage in the waters of our planets, a comparison between the natural and the industrial, or a life-giving force capable of swallowing the privates of an ancient god.
The fish doesn’t say but you’re more than welcome to ask.
Update: 2018. Mr. Branstrom seems to be going by “Ritch” now instead of “Ritchie.” We love his work, no matter what name its under.