Consider the immigrant’s view. Behavior that seems perfectly normal to native-born citizens may look peculiar to outsiders.
So it is with British expat Ben Heywood, who for the past dozen years has run the Soap Factory, a rustic warehouse art venue in southeast Minneapolis that hosts exhibitions, performances and a popular Halloween “haunted basement” that capitalizes on the building’s spooky cellar. Never mind that Heywood’s wife is from Mankato and their two teenage daughters are deep-dyed Minnesotans. He’s still puzzled by parts of his adopted country.
“There are lots of things about America that I find amusing or ridiculous or weird,” Heywood, 47, said recently. “Cheerleaders, for example. No other country has cheerleaders. Why do you dress young girls up in sexy uniforms and have them jump around on the sidelines of sports events?”
Shopping malls, consumerism, the cult of the U.S. flag and the widespread belief in “American exceptionalism” all seem strange to a guy who grew up in Winchfield, a “small hamlet” about 40 miles southwest of London. Musing on the topic, he channeled his puzzlement into “Americana,” a nouveau-patriotic show by nine artists who produced three videos, four installations and a photo project on view at the Soap Factory through Aug. 17.
As might be expected, the Factory artists’ idea of “Americana” is nothing like the hyper-realistic, old-timey, flag-waving, small-town, Norman Rockwell realism that’s typically associated with the word. Their art is sketchy, conceptual, metaphoric and pretty rough-hewn.
The installations include a mock-up of a one-room schoolhouse, a telephone/power pole, a lawn mower and a symbolic meditation on the life and accomplishments of aviator Charles Lindbergh. Plus videos of cheerleaders, stock-car races, Midwestern farms and kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. But even such iconic Americana is a bit torqued.
The cheerleaders in Ellen Mueller’s video, “Manifest Destiny,” chant patriotic banalities and corporate slogans in a desolate landscape. The stock-car races that Leif Huron recorded go nowhere and are interrupted by hogs and chickens. In the schoolhouse, videos by Shana Berger and Nathan Purath show children reciting various official versions of the Pledge of Allegiance, an ever-changing national creed that was written in 1892 in part to homogenize a nation of immigrants.
“I gave myself the luxury of selecting things that are to me, if not necessarily American, at least sort of Americanny, and that reference Minnesota or this part of the world,” Heywood remarked during an opening-night tour.
Beyond its dadaist surface, the show is a meditation on aspects of the nation’s culture that often go unremarked.
The Lindbergh piece is typical. It consists of 2,600 faux pencils drilled into two Sheetrocked walls, as if they’d been impaled there by angry schoolchildren. Minnesota artist Kenneth Steinbach whittled the “pencils” from lumber found on the grounds of Lindbergh’s home/museum in Little Falls and painted them various shades of yellow so that, from a distance, they resemble the No. 2 pencils that students use in test taking. Called “The Machine in the Ghost,” the installation is an elaborate riff on Lindbergh’s complicated history as an American aviation hero, idolized for his 1927 nonstop flight from New York to Paris, and a scoundrel later scorned for his Nazi sympathies.
“Lindbergh’s flight is celebrated as the heroic gesture of an Ayn Rand-style individual who conquered the empty skies,” said Heywood. “This piece talks about an age in American history when the individual could show the way forward for humanity. But the flip side is Lindbergh’s politics — Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and all that.”
Displayed in the Soap Factory’s cavernous warehouse, the art is sometimes dwarfed by the space — a hulking raw-brick expanse supported by thick wooden beams rough-cut from the massive pines that once covered much of northern Minnesota.
Erected in 1882, the warehouse dates to the same era as the Pledge of Allegiance and the one-room schoolhouse, which is furnished with desks on loan from the Perault School, a historic 1880 structure near Red Lake Falls, Minn. The nearby Stone Arch Bridge opened in 1883 and helped link Minneapolis to the East Coast.
Heywood finds the coincidence of all those dates to be emblematic of the rawboned newness that still astonishes him about the United States. Where he comes from, the landscape is layered with remains of ancient roads and cities dating to Roman times. Here the original inhabitants left little more than the arrowheads that still surface occasionally at nearby St. Anthony Falls.
“I’m struck by how light the tread is on this land, and yet how much has been built in the past 150 years,” Heywood said. “I’m interested in getting people to consider how thin civilization is here, especially compared to Europe. But we want this to be seen not as a judgment. It’s just an observation of how things are.”