Visual artists strive for communication. Sometimes the message is readily apparent, and sometimes, as in The Metamorphosis novella, they are layered within the work. Streicher creates astounding inflatable artworks on a grand scale. The efforts of the staff of the Castellani Art Museum mirror the artist’s originality to provide a range of art experiences engaging individuals at all levels of appreciation. Franz Kafka said, “Association with human beings lures one into self-observation.” Perhaps through self reflection and observations of society, we can experience the visions and insights that contemporary artists hold to heart. In the end, all art is a reflection of society, culture, and the human experience.
Beyond the intrinsic artistic value of Streicher’s work, this exhibition offers the Niagara University community opportunities for integrative learning collaborations and university partnerships. Students studying Theatre, Biology, Philosophy, and Literature have the opportunity to develop critical skills to respond to an exhibition of this magnitude. Expanding the museum experience into a classroom based learning initiative, this collaboration offers students the opportunity to use the skills they are learning to respond to a unique exhibition and literary interpretation. Armand and Eleanor Castellani, our museum’s founders, believed art was for everyone. Following this vision, Metamorphosis reaches beyond the walls of the museum and into the classrooms, providing an art experience to new audiences.
This project was made possible by generous support from public and private institutions spanning four continents. Major support for this exhibition has been provided by the Canadian Consulate General and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. The exhibition catalog was produced by the Castellani Art Museum with support from Galerie Ernst Hilger,
Vienna, Austria; Galeria Leme, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Galerie Eric Mircher, Paris, France; and Gallery Maskara, Mumbai, India.
Expanding and transforming the way we experience the world through the visual arts, a number of contemporary artists have utilized the inflatable form to convey their observations on society. From Ant Farm’s 50 x 50 Foot Pillow used as a medical pavilion at the Rolling Stones 1969 concert at Altamont, California, and Paul McCarthy’s recent floating renditions of dog droppings, titled Complex Shit (2008) over Bern, Switzerland, to Japanese art duo Yuji Tokuda and Junya Ishikawa’s Retired Weapons (2007) life size inflatable tanks with pink flowers sprouting from the gun barrel, the spectrum of message is extremely varied.
Inflatable works such as Jessica Findley’s project Front (2004) which consists of two voice-activated suits that inflate according to sound identification and Joo Youn Paek’s Self-Sustaining Chair (2007) an apparatus that is worn like a dress and self inflates to form a useable chair have taken the physical attributes of the inflatable art form to a new interactive or self-modifying level. These artists, from the United States and Korea respectively, have merged industrial design and visual art to create functional devices, albeit comical, that interact and perform with the physical being. Most importantly, they are executed and presented outside of the traditional art-object environment and its limitations. They have been integrated into a public setting free of museum or gallery boundaries.
The inflatable medium also references the commercial oversized inflatables associated with grand openings, car dealerships, and thematic holiday yard ornamentation. These outdoor advertising structures embody a comfortable familiarity, existing as a focal point to draw the eye of passers-by—sharing a generic public message. When comparing these two aesthetics, the commercial and museum/gallery based works, the relationship between high and low art becomes apparent. Innovative contemporary artists utilize this medium, providing relevance for collectors and art enthusiasts to take the medium seriously, as artists have taken the medium indoors—into galleries and museums. In fact, the act of viewing these works in a museum/gallery space speaks to the advancement and accepted genre of t he inflatable. Beginning as outdoor props and advertising elements, the medium has come full circle. The achievements of contemporary artists who master this illusive medium should be celebrated.
Toronto artist Max Streicher has an instinctive ability to transform the inflatable form into objects of art that offer an interactive experience and engage the viewer, transcending commercialized preconceptions and expanding the visual art experience beyond the walls of exhibiting institutions. He succeeds in taking the inflatable past these philosophies, to an elevated esthetic and an ethereal experience.
Having worked with kinetic inflatables since 1989, Streicher has exhibited a significant number of projects across four continents. Working with elements of scale, public/private space, and architecture; his works exist on an elevated plane, well beyond his aforementioned contemporaries. Through the visual impact of volume and scale, his installations have challenged notions of art in public spaces. Noted works such as Equestrian Monument #1 (2003) and Lost Unicorn (2003), are monumental in scale and broaden audience engagement through public display.
Equestrian Monument #1, an inflatable horse gallantly poised on its back hoofs, was attached to the face of a building in Venice, Italy. Rising two stories above the street level gallery, this positioning reinforced the sculpture’s seductive relationship with the surrounding architecture—juxtaposing the smooth machined vinyl with the stone, wood, and wrought iron of the building.
Lost Unicorn was presented squeezing out of the top floor window of a Renaissance building in Erfurt, Germany. Rich with traditional architectural elements, the building’s sculpted cherubic figures poised with trumpets appear to be announcing the unicorn’s perilous situation. The tension, which Streicher carefully sets up, between the building structure and the trapped unicorn, sets an uneasy scenario for the public below, anticipating the moment the unicorn breaks free of the building and lands on the causeway. These two works challenged the historical architecture, as well as the building materials, with the slick smoothness of the vinyl horse/unicorn sculptures.
The monumental scale and careful positioning of these works blasts the sculptures out of the art gallery context and into public space. By doing this, Streicher’s sculptures take full advantage of an opportunity to engage the general public. His talent for challenging these preconceptions works to covey his creativity beyond the realm of art enthusiasts to a wider audience.
Union Station in Toronto, Canada, was the site of the 2007 installation Quadriga II. Four horses, each the size of an automobile, were suspended from the ceiling in the central terminal. A quadriga is the four-horse chariot used for races in the original Olympic Games and rituals in ancient Greece, and the vehicle used by gods and heroes in classical art. Again, Streicher has installed a work on the grandest scale in a public setting. The purity of the white nylon horses against the granite and limestone structure offers a superb elemental contrast. Cloud like, softly-contoured horse forms against the vaulting walls and arched ceiling visually resonanate against each other. One can imagine the hustle and bustle of activity on ground level and the echoing noises, arrival/departure announcements, and conversations bouncing off the architecture—all the while, these horses hang poised in their gallant gallop in the terrestrial space above.
Satirizing the notion of commercial advertising inflatables, Streicher’s Hamm & Clov (Taichung) (2001) was presented atop a five-story commercial building in Taichung, Taiwan. This work consisted of two large-scale inflatable clown heads, complete with red noses and exaggerated features positioned above billboards, advertisements, and street signs in a place most of the public would not readily notice, while going about their business below. Hamm & Clov (Taichung) seems reserved only for the most astute and attentive of Taichung’s urban population. It seems that a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor is not beyond Streicher’s palette.
Perhaps the most ethereal of the artist’s recent works, Cloud (2004) recreated elemental nature indoors—in the museum space. This work, a sculptural rendition of a cumulus cloud, took its position in the direct line of a public walkway. Within the Sculpture Atrium at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, Cloud sat just feet from the floor and reached almost to the apex of the atrium. Contained, seemingly trapped, within this glass enclosed space existed a cloud that visitors must negotiate around, forcing public engagement. Here, the enormous scale was challenged by the grand modern architecture of the atrium. It is as if the cloud could see the sky (where it belongs) but cannot escape, held captive by the space.
The exhibition presented at the Castellani Art Museum brought important attributes from each of these projects together, culminating in an installation that reaches far beyond the museum walls. Streicher’s Metamorphosis features an enormous inflatable dung beetle encircled by a number of photograms (images of the male form and oversized beetle) elaborating on the transformation of a man into a giant beetle. This work was inspired by Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis.
On the surface, The Metamorphosis is about a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa who awakes one day to find that he has been transformed into a “monstrous vermin.” The story continues with his family trying to come to grips with this transformation and how it complicates their own lives. On a deeper level, the story is also about self reflection, depression, and isolation. Kafka is notorious for his visionary, enigmatic stories that present a grotesque vision of the world in which individuals, burdened with guilt, remorse, and anxiety, make a futile pursuit for salvation.
Streicher’s Dung Beetle (2005) occupied a substantial portion of the Castellani Art Museum’s main gallery, effectively changing the role of the exhibition space. He altered the space from a place to view works of art to an encapsulated environment containing a giant insect. Streicher transforms the role of the museum visitor to active participant. Metaphorically, the audience becomes Gregor’s family members who are forced to deal with this unnerving transformation and subsequent series of grotesque events.
Michael J. Beam
Curator of Exhibitions and Collections
Click here to access a digital copy of the exhibit catalog
Niagara University Integrated Learning Partnerships
The Max Streicher Metamorphosis exhibition provided a significant opportunity for the Castellani Art Museum to partner with Niagara University Academic Departments including English, Biology, Philosophy, and Theatre in the development of engaging integrated learning opportunities for students across multiple disciplines.
Integrated learning projects inspired by The Metamorphosis came to fruition through the dedication and creativity of Niagara University faculty and museum staff on the Metamorphosis steering committee who developed a broad range of projects. Partners included Dr. Alexander Bertland, Assistant Professor of Philosophy; Dr. Jamie Carr, Assistant Professor of English; Susan Clements, CAM Publicity Coordinator; Gregory Fletcher, Director of Niagara University Theatre; Dr. Mark Gallo, Associate Professor of Biology; Marian Granfield, CAM Coordinator of Education; and the staff of the Castellani Art Museum.
Size, Scope, and Scale.
Dr. Mark Gallo, Associate Professor of Biology, Microbiology
Niagara University Microbiology students (Biology course 212) created drawings and models of insects and microbes in a scale to compare with that of Max Streicher’s Metamorphosis. They included microscopic images of the microorganism and insights regarding the particular habits and habitats of microbes in the real world.
Through the Looking Glass.
Dr. Mark Gallo, Associate Professor of Biology, Microbiology
Dr. Gallo and students created a display consisting of objects that were viewed under the microscope to see their underlying features, structure, pattern, and characteristics. Insects and other biological objects were included as well so individuals could get a closer view of the complexity and beauty of the natural world. Some examples were produced by Niagara University students enrolled in Nature Studies (Biology course 302). This project was also integrated into the educational programming for family activities and the Castellani Art Museum’s Saturday Art Express classes.
Reader's Theater presentation of Metamorphosis
Adapted by Steven Berkoff from the novella by Franz Kafka, directed by Steve Vaughan
Gregory Fletcher, Director of Niagara University Theatre
Reader’s Theatre brought to life the famous 1915 novella Metamorphosis. A story about a man who wakes one morning to find that he has transformed into a dung beetle. Students performed amidst the large-scale inflatable sculpture and photograms featured in the main gallery of the Castellani Art Museum.
Is it Art?
Dr. Alexander Bertland, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
The overall theme of the Philosophy of Art Class (Philosophy course 318, section A & B) asked the traditional philosophical question, “How is art defined?” The Metamorphosis installation by Max Streicher represented an important test case for answering this question. The installation defied traditional ideas of art through its use of materials, its scale, and its subject matter. Students composed a philosophical argument to justify whether or not the installation pushes
the boundaries of the definition of art too far or not. Students were engaged in the debate between formalism, which holds that art is a function of rational structure; and expression theory, which holds that art is an expression of emotion. Simultaneously, students generated their own ideas about how best to grasp the scope of the installation itself. The strongest arguments were presented at a public panel discussion Monday, November 3, 2008 at the Castellani Art Museum.
Identity through Literary Criticism.
Dr. Jamie Carr, Assistant Professor of English, English Department
For this project, students composed museum labels that theorize relationships between Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis and Max Streicher’s Metamorphosis exhibition, illustrating a range of work in contemporary literary studies. Analyses included: inquiries as to whether Streicher challenges our notions of originality and “high art” and with what effects; considerations of who authorizes the meaning of texts—author, reader, or the context of reception; exploration of the bug figure as a representation of the abject in modern society; and investigation into how the physicality of the art object “subjects” us as spectators.