Who is Responsible for the American Dream? : Josef Strau at the Renaissance Society

Josef Strau, The New World, Application for Turtle Island, Installation view, 2014. Courtesy the artist; House of Gaga, Mexico City; Greene Naftali Gallery, New York; and the Renaissance Society, Chicago; Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

The following article was originally published by Artslant on October 17, 2014.

I had a dream a couple years ago in which a new, previously unknown continent was discovered on Earth. The knowledge entered my consciousness first like the ambient news of a radio dispatch. It was an impersonal knowledge, born through the slippery medium of dream space, the source of the transmission overlooked as my dream self wondered instead about the profound consequence such a discovery might have on the rest of humankind. The next thing I remember is that I stood on the ground of the new country. It was made of gypsum, entirely empty except for many animals who seemed to have been living there for a very long time. I woke up shortly thereafter in a warm stupor. Imagine the way our concept of global space would change upon discovering that we had, for so many decades, overlooked an entire continent. It would offer so much to the imagination. A blank place to start again. To be reborn, as they say, with the luxury of retaining prior memories. In his first US solo exhibition, Josef Strau examines such a place. The New World, Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society reflects a real new world: the Americas.

Leaving University of Chicago’s academic corridors behind, The Renaissance Society’s double doors act as a portal, opening up on a flood lit, counter intuitively large, modern gallery; Strau uses that sense and shock of arrival into a new space as a backdrop for a series of material assemblages. Positioned throughout the room on various low-lying plinths, or occasionally on the floor, these small islands contain the same family of objects repeated in different configurations: metal gates, or printed flags with those metal gates, or messily painted ceramic tiles so small in comparison as to be easily overlooked. There are a variety of IKEA lamps, the lampshades of which are in some cases still wrapped in plastic. Others are fitted with tasseled shades or garnished with elaborate and lush folk-art-esque sequin paintings of Pocahontas, the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, a bear and a wolf together—as they so often appear in the rest of the exhibit—a turtle, a priest, a purple bird. Ceramic bamboo sticks make a regular appearance as well in this tableaux, as do fabrics and flags with Strau’s text. Another recurring component is a ceramic turtle—its shell hollowed out like a dish—offering itself up, as if suddenly in service.

If exhibits can have main protagonists, the stars of this one are a wolf and a bear; originally stuffed animals, they appear in the exhibit as unglazed, white plaster multiples. In most instances they appear as a pair, sometimes sitting side by side, sometimes across from one another. Often it looks like they are rowing, and by that simple gesture transform their plinths into rafts, the floor into a kind of metaphorical river. Not surprisingly, Strau references the Mississippi in his book—another document of the exhibition—and a photograph of the comical couple also sits on its back cover. The artist photographed the pair when the bear and the wolf still sat plush in his studio. “Coincidentally,” he writes, “I had caught them [in the photograph] while in fact they were reading [my] text poster on the wall next to them. They read very carefully and with great focus obviously. First I just laughed and said to myself, they are probably, aside from 2 or 3 exceptions, the only ones that have read my texts in germany”[1] .

The soft animals consistently appear as friends and allies to the artist, and yet a remarkable conversion takes place. The animals are translated from image into a mold, from which more bears and wolfs are born. These hard representations are frozen in the same position, becoming archetypal. They populate the installation like characters, where each assembled plinth could be one frame of a single comic book. Strau’s own book ends in Mexico, where the artist worked with friends to create the publication, which includes the photograph of the bear and wolf. Overall, there is a delineation between the book and the material exhibition. In his talk with curator Solveig Øvstebø, he explains that text occurs in the past, whereas exhibitions appear in the present. Nevertheless there is a real connection: sequential chapters printed on the page, and constellations of objects installed in the gallery are two different kinds of islands, all of which feel similarly fragmented, and personal.

The text also begins with friendship, though its account reflects the strange and somewhat accidental unfolding of a new friendship. The way discomfort becomes intimacy. Not surprisingly, the book begins in the old world of Europe; in the second chapter the holocaust enters the artist’s thoughts. Or, rather, we enter the artist’s family history, and the way one of Strau’s aunts escaped the holocaust on a boat to America. Somehow, those stories are also present in the material tableaus Strau assembles for this exhibit. Using objects like characters—indeed objects that even appear in the text—he creates a vertiginous mash up of American mythologies. Present in the semiotics of these materials is the decimation of Native Americans; the chains of slavery; even the pangs of America’s immigration policies: all threads that remain present while sublimated into the friendly guise of our bear, wolf, and sequin lamps.

When Strau talks about this project, he emphasizes an unabashed appreciation and love for this continent. In the show’s poster, he even writes, “For many months I tried to work on these obviously simple expressions of the happiness in everyday life that I first finally found in my life in these countries on the great continent of the Americas.” He describes this work as an act of gratitude.

Nevertheless, there is an underlying and purposeful ambivalence in the exhibition. A can of Red Bull is nestled into one assortment of things — the only one of its kind in the whole show—it sits nevertheless on purpose, a tiny but powerful advocate for enhanced production. The gates are metal, jutting, and fierce; by delineating space they create exclusive borders. Pocahontas’ prayer repeats on different pedestals where it, like the turtle and even Strau’s use of America’s original name in his exhibition title, remind the audience that the New World so many of us came to was an ancient home to others. In fact, he reminds us, the Americas represent an idea more than a place—as a stuffed bear translated into a hard, easily reproduced ideology. America is “‘no country but an invention for foreigners and for immigrants…garnished with factories of dreams’”[2]. Even the repetitive material of the brand new lamps recall a discount show room for disposable furnishings; the hard white casts of bear, wolf, turtle, sea shell etc.—those items too are similarly situated within a global economic landscape of mass production, capitalism, and consumerism.

The new world is always a dream, but it is a complicated one. A place one desires to furnish with affordable and hopeful things. A site for productivity. Strau’s own questions resonate as a final word, “But what if I tell I [sic] a dream in American? Is this me or something or someone else doing so? Who is responsible for this unconscious American dream and who for the factory?”[3]

[1] The New World 1: The Application, p.107

[2] Ibid. p. 48

[3] Ibid