The surreal situation of Donald Trump’s presidency is pushing some artists to become increasingly concerned with dystopia, fantasy and sci-fi. In an interview Isa Genzken once explained “I want to animate the viewer, hold a mirror up to them”, and this seems particularly pertinent when thinking about just how commonplace these contemplations of dystopia are becoming. I came across Genzken’s The American Room at the Stedelijk Museum’s current exhibition Jump Into the Future, displaying a new donation from the Borgmann Foundation, and although created in 2004, during Bush’s time in office and three years after 9/11, which Genzken witnessed in New York, the work seems cartoonishly and disturbingly reflective of right now.
The room-sized installation is on first glance a collection of cheap Americana meticulously arranged as if by someone trying to make the best out of what they’ve got. A series of plinths, topped with finicky assemblages pieced together from bits of cultural iconography and everyday items, lead up to an office desk. Two corporate chairs lounge either side—the meeting has just finished, perhaps both parties stormed out. In the corner of the desk there is a metallic silver lamp, and at the front a silver spray-painted Scrooge McDuck toy clutches a wad of notes and screams into the face of an absent employee. A glossy vase is filled with a magisterial display of fake flowers, eagles spread their wings or watch over credit cards, there is something sadly pompous about the whole set up.
Immediately The American Room connotes waste and greed—the crap left over from capitalism mixed with the continued Americana and machoism of the American state. But it cannot just be about that, because it feels as though Genzken cares about the objects she’s delicately pieced together. There is something sad and tender about the arrangement. Like Andy Goldsworthy meticulously balancing and sculpting with objects in the natural world, Genzken’s assemblages show a care and dedication towards the detritus of mass-production—perhaps a last-ditch attempt to make anything of merit out of the state of the world.
The German artist is known for working political critique into her sculptures and assemblages, for example in her piece Oil, for the German pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, of which she said “Whether there is a war, or whether there isn’t—that’s what it’s about. About energy and oil.” In The American Room, it seems to be about energy and oil, and pathetic ego.