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Review: Germans like their America at SLAM

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon:  Enter the old, beaux art, Cass Gilbert building of the St. Louis Art Museum from the new stairwell designed by David Chipperfield and look up, up over the museum’s main entry. “We Like America and America Likes Us” reads the immense red, white and blue banner on the balcony. You will have to go upstairs and get a close look at the banner to notice the gingham print on the quilted letters all of which is intended to call to mind American folk traditions.

The quoted message is a reference to German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance in which he flew to New York, wrapped himself in grey felt and arrived at the René Block Gallery in an ambulance, carried on a stretcher. Beuys spent three days in the gallery and eight hours of that with a wild coyote – the only American he wished to see – before he returned to Germany. Video footage of Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me performance can be seen in SLAM’s new Chipperfield building, where it is part of the Postwar German Art in the Collection Exhibition.

The “We Like America” sentiment and its many references are consistent with the way in which Berlin artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock mull over and play with the St. Louis-Germany connection present in the museum’s collection. Stih and Schnock’s exhibit, The German Connection – Raft with Stranded Objects, provides a bit of inside baseball (er…fussball?) for German art enthusiasts in St. Louis. It also offers a rather thorough display of what America looked and looks like to many Germans.

To these contemporary German artists, riffing on Cold War German artists, America is first and foremost: cowboys and Indians. Theirs is an America that has been projected through endless Bonanza re-runs and over 120 years of reading and performing the Wild West novels of Karl May. I would bet a bushel of white asparagus that fewer Americans than Germans have watched Bonanza. And as for Karl May’s beloved characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (represented in a light hearted installation in Chipperfield Gallery 245), find me an American who has ever heard of them. Professors of German culture studies don’t count.

Americans visiting Germany are often surprised to encounter “Native American Pow-wow” performances in public spaces with Germans engaged in very sincere roleplaying. Apparently, a common interest in German versions of Native American tropes tied East and West together during the Cold War. Stih and Schnock display a collection of “cowboys and Indians” action figures (also in Gallery 245), reporting that these could be found in children’s toy boxes on both sides of the Berlin Wall and are still sold throughout Germany.

When I mentioned to Schnock that playing “Indians” has long been taboo in the United States, he put this off as a “politically correctness” that doesn’t exist in Germany. I countered that Native Americans were a very real part of U.S. history and that Germans do not feel comfortable celebrating stereotypes of their own minorities (such as the Roma or Turkish Germans) or the subjects of their own racist genocide. He quickly agreed.

Stih and Schnock are certainly not trying to encourage the stereotypes they comment upon, but they are also not quite outside of their own culture enough to see how strangely it has framed ours.

Many of Stih and Schnock’s installations freshen our appreciation of familiar, sometimes overlooked, artworks. The Voyage of the Katzenstein Madonna (in Gallery 237) explores the storied arrival of a 15th century sculpture that Dr. F. C. Katzenstein brought to SLAM in 1949 in the back of a hearse. Curator Judy Mann brought the history of this wooden Virgin and Child to the artists’ attention. Prior to Katzenstein’s dramatic delivery of the sculpture it had been seized by Nazis from his German Jewish parents who were killed in a concentration camp in 1942. Stih and Schnock give the gilded sculpture new life with this tragic telling of her provenance.

In their Ich Bin Nicht Stiller – I Am Not Stiller series Stih and Schock bring to light another engrossing St. Louis story. Werner Stiller was an East German Stasi officer, who became a double agent, working for West German intelligence. After Stiller escaped from East Germany in 1979, the CIA game him a new identity in St. Louis. Why St. Louis? He’d always wanted to see the Mississippi (blame Karl May). Stih and Schnock’s Stiller series has numerous ironic twists one of which is the ex-spy’s completion of an MBA at Washington University and subsequent failure as a banker on Wall Street.

Viewing Stih and Schnock’s art interactions makes for a fun scavenger hunt through the museum, but the majority of it is in Gallery 338. That room is full of spirited play – imagining where in St. Louis famous Germans might once have smoked a cigarette, fabricating a river raft ending to the mystery surrounding a lost model of the Reichstag building...

Stih and Schnock flirt with our city and country as they trace the movement of people and objects across the Atlantic between Germany and the U.S. And their flirtation is quite charming. So, yes, it is likely that there is truth in their statement that: “We like America and America likes us.” But, like any amorous couple, this romance is for both of us, at bottom, an exercise of self-discovery.