Max Streicher – Clowning Around

Endgame (Coulrophobia) at Nuit Blanche 2010 (Photo Credit: Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche Website)

To those of you who managed to make it out for Nuit Blanche this year and were able to successfully navigate the sea of drunk people surrounding Yonge and Dundas, I hope that you had the chance to see the Max Streicher’s startling, larger-than-life installation Endgame (Coulrophobia).  “Coulrophobia” is the term used to describe the irrational fear of clowns, and it is upon this phobia which Streicher’s installation plays.

As I strolled down Yonge toward Front street during Nuit Blanche, I encountered a group of people who were staring up at the buildings flanking the street with facial expressions communicating various degrees of horror.  Looking up to see what the fuss was about, I caught my first glimpse of Max Streicher’s Endgame – a massive, deathly pale, grinning clown face with yellow eyes peering out from the blackness of an alleyway, dozens of feet above street level.  Taking a step back, I realized that two more ghostly faces were lodged within the alleyway further up, near the top of the buildings, appearing to hover between them and grinning malevolently out from their dark lair upon pedestrians below.

Endgame (Coulrophobia) at Nuit Blanche 2010 (Photo Credit: Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche Website)

Now I should point out here that personally, I do not and have not ever harboured a fear of clowns.  While I am not particularly fond of them, and feel more sorry for than amused by the fellow with a large red nose and oversized feet who is probably deeply depressed about his choice of career.  However I found myself thoroughly disconcerted by these disembodied clown faces, and substantially creeped out– which is perhaps why I was so intrigued by them.  Visiting the Nuit Blanche website afterwards to read about this piece was an interesting experience, since the floating heads were described as “happy-go-lucky characters” and the installation referred to as “whimsical, generous” and evocative of a sort of “empathy.”  Perhaps this would be the case in daylight, but it is certainly not a sense I got even remotely at night.  I mean, please, somebody tell me if you think the character above looks “happy-go-lucky”!

The choice of title for this piece is very interesting. Endgame. There are many possible things this could refer to – the end of the game played by the floating clown heads? Are they stuck, lodged in this alley against their will, disenabled from further play?  Or is it supposed to be endgame for the viewers – the defenseless pedestrians whom the clowns are preying upon in some sick horror-show game of their own device?

Stephen King’s It, 1990

Those of you who have been traumatized by Stephen King’s vastly disturbing movie It (Wallace, 1990) would likely subscribe to this explanation, and I believe it is at these very people, who already sustain a secret fear of clowns, that this piece is targeted.  The clowns lurk in a dark (and what would usually be deserted) city alleyway, hidden from direct view, able to spy secretly from the shadows.  We fear the city alleyway, and what we imagine is hidden within its unfathomed depths – criminals (the type which will slit your throat for your wallet), rapists, serial killers, desperate drug addicts, filthy poverty, rabid dogs, and worse even monsters, vampires…and now evil clowns.  The alleyway is an area which is culturally loaded with negative implications, because it is an unseen and unknown no-man’s-land. Streicher astutely recognizes this point, and blatantly exploits it.

Floating Giants, 2001  (Photo Credit: Max Streicher’s website)

There is also a third potential meaning behind Endgame, which could refer to the very materials used in this installation.  These giant balloon heads, which are held in place between the alley walls by their internal air pressure alone, are constructed of vinyl from recycled billboards.  The artist has expressed pleasure in the fact that in his art, corporate ads (which he perceives as profit-driven and therefore selfish) have been re-contextualized into playing a fantastical, fictional, fanciful role, and he has therefore, as he puts it, “turn[ed] propaganda against itself.”  And so, the end of the advertising game is in his art, at least for now.

Max Streicher has produced a number of other intriguing pieces in a similar style, of a massive scale, and made with air-filled nylon spinnaker (the material which boat sails are made of).  Floating Giants features two massive white figures, in swimming/flying positions, suspended high in the air by a combination of helium balloons and large anchoring metal poles.  Their stiff poses and facelessness are eerie, and the Frankenstein-like composition of their seven-meter long spinnaker bodies increases the sense of menace created as they loom weightlessly above.

Trio in a Box is even more disturbing to look at, a piece which features three inanimate bodies attached via metallic stomach tubes to a central, empty cardboard box.  It instantly brings to mind associations with sci-fi movies depicting half-machine humans, and horrifying images from The Matrix (Wachowski, 1999) of millions of unconscious human bodies being nourished via metal tubes while their minds rot in a false universe, and their life energy fuels a world ruled by machines.  The references go on and on, including the oracular Cylon hybrid of Battlestar Galactica (2004), forever chained to the basestar speaking incomprehensible riddles of the future, or psychic Agatha from Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002), the creature with precognitive abilities so acute that she is kept floating in a tub, wired up to television screens for the benefit of the human justice system.

Max Streicher’s installations seem to have taken some inspiration from Claes Oldenburg’s colourful, soft-sculptures of the mid-late twentieth century, combined with a Tim Burton-esque twist.  His work is provocative – it hints subtly at horror and science fiction, while remaining outwardly light-weighted and light-hearted, and creating an enjoyable if uncanny spectacle for the viewer.

Trio in a Box, 2006 (Photo Crit: Max Streicher’s Website)

Neo in The Matrix viewing the field of “human batteries” (1999)

The oracular “hybrid” from Battlestar Galactica (2004)

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4 thoughts on “Max Streicher – Clowning Around

  1. I don’t know if there is a yearning to create art about what you find creepy, but one of my photographic series is of clowns in various states of undress. I Think the mask is a metaphor for hiding something inside.

    • Hi David, I definitely believe that people are inclined to have, if not a yearning, at least a fascination with things that they find creepy or mildly frightening, and are compelled to explore them through different types of art-making and art-seeking. Hence the widespread popularity of horror films, novels, and some types of fettishism – we experience simultaneous attraction and repulsion to stimuli.
      It sounds like you are coming up with an interesting series. Tackling the relationship between the impenetrable clown identity as a cover and the ambiguous sexuality that underlies it could make for an interesting topic…I’ll certainly have to check back once your series is posted!

  2. Another great and interesting post, Nicole!!

    I also think I figured out why I didn’t enjoy Nuit Blanche… I wasn’t one of the drunk masses. Next year, I’m bringing a flask.

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