Soap Factory explores 'Americana'

MARY ABBE | | Updated 7/3/2014

Soap Factory pieces together an immigrant’s perplexed view of the U.S.

The Soap Factory executive director Ben Heywood in the installation “Pledge Project,” part of the “Americana” exhibition.
Jeff Wheeler

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. Heywood is 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. “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?”

Why, indeed?

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. He channeled his puzzlement into “Americana,” a nouveau-patriotic show by nine artists.

The Factory artists’ idea of “Americana” is nothing like the hyper-realistic, old-timey, small-town, Norman Rockwell realism that’s typically associated with the word. Their art is sketchy, conceptual, metaphoric and pretty rough-hewn.

Installations include a mock-up of a one-room schoolhouse, a telephone/power pole, a lawnmower and a symbolic meditation on the life and accomplishments of Charles Lindbergh. Plus videos of cheerleaders, stock-car races, Midwestern farms and kids saying the Pledge of Allegiance. 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 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, an ever-changing national creed that was written in 1892 in part to homogenize a nation of immigrants.

Beyond its dadaist surface, the show is a meditation on aspects of the nation’s culture that often go unremarked. The Lindbergh piece 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 No. 2 pencils. Called “The Machine in the Ghost,” the installation is an elaborate riff on Lindbergh’s complicated history as an American aviation hero, and a scoundrel later scorned for his Nazi sympathies.

Displayed in the Soap Factory’s cavernous warehouse, the art is sometimes dwarfed by the space. Erected in 1882, the warehouse dates to the same era as the Pledge and the schoolhouse, which is furnished with desks 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.

“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.”

 

Amercana

Where: 1-7 p.m. Wed.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 17.

Where: Soap Factory, 514 SE. 2nd St., Mpls.

Admission: Free.

Info: 612-623-9176 or www.soapfactory.org.