If Andy Ducett's rambunctious exhibition "Why We Do This" were a literary genre, it would be creative nonfiction. Part memoir, part cultural critique, the sprawling show swallows up every nook and cranny of the Soap Factory's 12,000-square-foot gallery. Thoughtful, entertaining and frequently hilarious, it is an idiosyncratic and experiential road map of received notions of pop culture, particularly those identified with the American Midwest of an indeterminate time frame beginning, say, in the 1960s.
As informal as it may appear, "Why We Do This" is a massive effort, the result of a two-year planning process and a volunteer installation cast of ostensibly thousands. It comprises nearly 50 sculptural installations, or vignettes that visually and physically interlock like a chain-link fence. At the gallery entrance, an illuminated sign topped by a directional arrow greets the visitor. From that point on, the viewer roams freely, beckoned only by the next wily vignette.
With each one, Ducett provides us with a broad brushstroke identifying place or content: a vintage 1960s living room, a high school locker room leading to a football stadium, a small-town sports bar adorned with taxidermied animals. The viewer fills in personal details, constructing a sort of existential call-and-response.
Several vignettes promote active participation, such as throwing switches on cue in the darkened faux "planetarium," or following the instructional shoe prints on the dance studio floor while listening to a 45-rpm single by Ol' Blue Eyes. Looking for vinyl albums? There are dozens in the record store and they're only 25 cents. The thrift shop is not a simulacrum, but real and open for business. Find an opponent and play the kids' game Battleship on a gargantuan scale. Or skip down a corridor that sports a floor carpeted with bubble wrap and a wall sheathed with white balloons for pricking.
Celebrity pop and high culture make appearances, too. One can channel an alien abduction à la "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" by sitting on a swing and being assaulted by high winds (from huge fans) and bright lights. Ironically, from this vantage point, one notices the iconic Vermeer painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Who knew? And just when your thoughts turn to sex, there stands Fabio, bold and beautiful, on the cover of a romance novel.
The show's audio quotient is high. In addition to a molded plastic shower that never stops running, pinball machines ding, football fans scream and Frankie croons. Shattering glass is heard throughout the cavernous space each time the SWAT team crashes through the window of the Conspiracy Theory Room.
The show's only restrained element is Ducett's beautiful drawings. Using a black marker, the artist has filled empty walls and connecting points with drawings of chandeliers, radiators, furniture and vacuum cleaners.
On opening night, the Hotdog Stand delivered; South High School's football team, the Tigers, high-fived anyone who sprinted from the locker room to the field; people drank at the bar, and a Fabio look-alike flirted with everyone he could. Regret not, it will all be reinvented at the Nov. 11 closing party, when the show's contents will be sold.
If it seems that "Why We Do This" hovers at the juncture of the Minnesota State Fair and "Alice in Wonderland," it does. Ducett's almost haphazard presentation belies his sophisticated, even intellectual, vision of the Midwestern experience. The onslaught of visual stimuli and material culture is at once universal and personal -- even if bouncing on the cabin bunk bed, or peering over the edge of the scenic overlook doesn't quite duplicate the real deal. But it does provoke us to reimagine it.
"Why We Do This" is provocative rather than exhausting. Such an in-your-face show could only happen in a space like the Soap Factory, one distinctly removed from the limitations of a white-walled art museum or a commercial gallery. Oddly, too much is not enough.