Max Streicher: Sleeping Giants

   essay by Gordon Hatt, Cambridge Galleries, 1999


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Sleeping Giants: Tyvek, electric blowers, each figure: 7.5 meters tall, 1998, photo by Robert McNair



Max Streicher 

this flesh . . .

All things are transmutable, we learn as children: anything can become something else and every place can be somewhere else. Objects can be animate: independent lives can be created in toys, images, and abstractions. Mysterious presences, experiences of extraordinary scale, transforming characters and demons -- these are the very content and fibre of the dream and nightmare world, spectres that pursue us throughout our lives. The imaginary life of the child, and the fears and fantasies of the adult, are connected by a common capacity for physical joy and the awareness of physical frailty. 

In his development of the inflatable as kinetic and interactive artwork, and in his other multimedia installations, Max Streicher has created images of our greatest joys and our deepest terrors, the site where the imaginary lives of children and adults meet. Drawing on imagery from literature, mythology, and the Bible (Streicher studied theology before going to art school) his work provokes strong spontaneous, psychological reactions in people of all ages and backgrounds -- reactions that run deep and reveal insights into the socially constructed ego. 

A dream was the source for an important early work by Streicher entitled We Will Name This Place..., 1988 (fig. 1). In the Winter's College gallery at York University in Toronto Streicher removed a large section of ceiling tile to reveal the building's inner structure. Through this opening he installed three pâpier-maché gargoyles -- dogs that appear to be charging from the sky.  The figures are a hybrid of Streicher's childhood dog, George, and gargoyles seen by the artist on the cathedral in Swäbisch Gmünd, Germany. Gargoyles, in the Middle Ages, were put on the outside of buildings to ward off ghosts and malicious spirits. Dogs may be associated with the hunt or the fear of being hunted. The same icon can be a benevolent sign, however -- a messenger, a pet, or a companion on a spiritual journey. Streicher used the gallery's acoustic ceiling panels as a metaphorical skin, standing for the separation between interior and exterior, conscious and subconscious realities. 

The title We Will Name This Place... is a quotation from the Bible referring to the dedication of sites where miracles had taken place. At such a site a rock would be anointed with oil and the place would be named.  For the most part, miracles today are confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids. But what of the world of dreams and spirits, of clairvoyance and prescience? None of us can detach completely from a world that is dark and irrational -- those aspects of our experience that don't quite square with our mechanical, physical understanding of the cosmos. Cracks occasionally occur in this structure, puncturing our logical explanations and our propensity for ordering -- "our cosmology."  Through these cracks we catch glimpses and we experience moments of insight, clarity, physical ecstasy, and existential terror, coming to us in drips and drops and splashes and waves -- like dogs pouring forth from above. 

Perhaps this interest on the part of the artist in the leaky parts of reality is less an attempt to describe the faults in our cosmology than it is an attempt to describe the sacred in contemporary life. What is sacred to us, what motivates our lives may not be sublime images of heaven and earth, God and humanity, but rather the simple prospect of financial gain, a new purchase, or a promotion at work. In The Life We Are Living, 1990 (figs. 2 & 3) Streicher created a work that was based upon his observation of the demolition of a church and the construction, in its place, of a luxury condominium. The church tower, a historical landmark, was preserved and the condominium structure built to incorporate it. He imagined the construction worker as a spiritual worker, a latter-day Levite constructing a temple to "speculative real estate," embodying the spiritual values of Toronto in the late eighties and early nineties.1 

It may be a holdover of nineteenth-century romanticism in contemporary culture that artists are directed to identify with the mental patient, the prophet, or priest -- calling for spiritual values in a materialistic and instrumentalized world. Condemning pleasures of all kinds as vices, the spiritual outsider (read here the artist) distrusts the world of sensation, preferring instead texts and the interpretation of signs. Coming out of a Master of Fine Arts programme, Streicher had absorbed these values, in effect not much different from the values of the seminary school he had earlier attended. Streicher's installation Panic and Fear, 1990 (fig. 4) is an ironic skewering of such contemporary spiritual values. The installation, in a vacant retail space in the Eaton Centre, Edmonton, consisted of a slide projection of a mental patient carrying a sign that read, "I know," and on the opposite wall a text: "Seeing now the possibility of stilling forever our predisposition to panic and fear."2  It is a bitter reflection and an outsider's observation on the habit of pacifying existential anxiety through shopping. 

The first inflatable by Streicher was the work Breathe, 1989 (fig. 5) installed at the Bloor Street United Church. It was his first work after graduate school, a piece he describes as whimsical, and at the time not intended as a new direction or a sign of things to come. It consisted of a sewn nylon bag, inflated by a vacuum cleaner. When fully inflated, Breathe took the shape of a giant ram's horn. Each time it inflated its motor and fan made a remarkably loud and high-pitched sound and contrasted dramatically with the otherwise serene church interior. There is something slightly rude about the piece: its size and noise and its suggestion of a male erection. 

Breathe made an impression on many people, including John Dickson and Lyla Rye, who around that time found their own work tending to the surrealistic and were looking around for like-minded artists to form an artists' collective. They invited Streicher to exhibit with them and other artists who later came to be known collectively as Nether Mind.3  Nether Mind's first exhibition took place in an old industrial basement in the King Street West area of Toronto. Perhaps it was a combination of factors: a collapsing economy (Streicher had just been laid off from his day job at Bell Canada) and a dank, dark industrial basement as a venue for this first show that generated the spirit that only a scarcity of means and complete independence from institutional structures can afford. 

Streicher again returned to the inflatable for this group exhibition and produced Boiler, 1991 (fig. 6). The figures in Boiler were originally conceived as tripedal bunny suits-- each with three ears, arms and legs tapered to points, like abstracted jesters. Viewers animated the pieces by engaging switches that inflated them. The inflation was startling, much like Breathe. The gloomy setting only enhanced their ghostly presence. In the same exhibition, Streicher exhibited Cellar. A blue sliding door in the same room as Boiler opened to an even darker, danker space with water on the floor. Through this door one could see limp, uninflated and very sad looking "bunny suits" (the rejects of the Boiler research) simply hung as though on meat hooks.4 

The white, airy lightness and billowy softness of the Tyvek, the synthetic, non-porous fabric that Streicher uses to make his inflatables, inevitably recall clouds. In Where There Is Smoke, 1992 (fig. 7), Streicher executed a private commission in the manner of a baroque ceiling painter. The piece suggests the illusion of an opening through the roof to the sky. It is a caricature of a cloud or of smoke, a pulsating vision animated by the variable air currents of a rotating valve mechanism.

Another play on this theme is Pillars of Cloud, 1992 (fig. 9). The Pillars of Cloud were mounted on modified golf carts and inflated by the squeezing of a hand break mechanism. The title is a Biblical reference to when God was leading the Israelites out of Egypt and he led them "by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night."  In the process of realization, the soft billowy cloud forms gradually came to resemble more the sharp "peaks of church steeples and Thai architecture."5  These pillars of cloud are like modern conveniences or consumer appliances -- personal augers to the promised land -- and seem as though they should be available at any department or hardware store. 

In The Life We Are Living, Panic and Fear, and Pillars of Cloud, Streicher suggests that the character of our individual lives is in fact the acting out of our deepest spiritual beliefs in the vernacular of mass consumption and entertainment. As such, the promise of salvation and the spectre of perdition guide us in every consumer selection and choice of diversion. This theme is also unmistakable in the work this flesh..., 1993 (fig. 10), exhibited in a solo exhibition at Galerie Articule in Montreal. this flesh... featured a 16-mm film loop of an appropriated inflatable -- an effigy crudely painted to resemble the Toronto discount retailer Honest Ed with two sewn-on arms spread wide to welcome (or bless?) shoppers. The image was projected on an arrangement of four mirrors that fragmented the image as well as enhancing the cruciform character of the inflatable. An LED scrolled a text from Tertullian, from the treatise On the Flesh of Christ: "(I mean) ... this flesh ... suffused with blood ... built up with bones ... interwoven with nerves ... entwined with veins ... as born of a human ... and knows how to die ... undoubtedly human ... (I mean) ... this flesh ..."6 

The cruciform resemblance of the Honest Ed effigy may be merely coincidental, but the Christ-like death and resurrection character of many of Streicher's figurative inflatables is hard to miss. These figures, even at their most abstract, remind us of physical life as both miraculous and ephemeral. In the same exhibition at Galerie Articule, Streicher installed in the office the ceiling-mounted inflatable My Dear One (fig. 11). Recalling the earlier ceiling-mounted Where There Is Smoke, My Dear One featured two large inflatable arms, angelically hovering and embracing the office workers. Its message, that of a Walmart greeter or of Honest Ed himself -- one of throbbing, all-embracing love. 

In contrast to the cotton-candy sentiment of the inflatable, the Galerie Articule exhibition also included a third piece demonstrating Streicher's acidic side. Alchemist's Tongue: of which my rage is made / of which my fear is made, 1993 (fig. 12), was an installation of approximately fifty tongues, some cast in sulphur and some in lye soap. The tongues had been cast in flexible moulds and bound differently for each casting so that every tongue was unique.7 

As a piece of human anatomy, the tongue is perhaps second only to the representation of the genitalia in its suggestiveness. It may be for its unique sensitivity that modesty insists that the tongue remain private and contained and shared only in the most intimate relationships. Streicher views the tongue as a threshold organ between inner and outer, a basic surface for the investigation of the world,and here, a literal description of emotion in both form and substance. 

The example of Joseph Beuys's sculpture and installations from the 1960s through the 1980s, as well as the work of other artists, encouraged many to explore an alchemical relationship to their materials. Contemporary sculptors may now use a broader range of materials -- materials that in themselves may stand for feelings, emotions, or abstractions. For Streicher, Alchemist's Tongue in lye and sulphur, and later kaolin, is about inner transformation, like the dogs in We Shall Name This Place breaking through the ceiling. Illuminated by flashing lights, there is a Faustian character to these glow-in-the dark tongues -- eloquent and impossible to resist, yet bitter to the taste. 

Three installations / interventions followed in 1994 that had fun with the conventions of language, interpretation and political postures.8  Streicher returned to the inflatable in 1995 with the site-related piece Stalk (fig. 13) in a temporary exhibition space in the Scotia Plaza concourse in Toronto's financial district. Directly across from the exhibition was the men's clothier Moores, whose promotions for various lines of clothing featured models in wilderness and hunting scenes. The artist, interested in the culture of business and how it is expressed by the language of the hunt, decided in turn to produce his own homage. He fashioned four rifle-toting hunters in peaked caps following their five bloodhounds. A rotating valve inflated and deflated the figures by turns to mimic a slapstick chase. While the human figure had often been implied in Streicher's inflatables, Stalk gave the artist the opportunity to work out his first full figurative work. 

Stalk again situates the artist in the outsider position. The physical and ideological lives of the financial district are seen from the outside. The cartoon-like figures of Stalk can only be read as the artist's comment on the absurdity of the maniacal hunt for gold. The piece also allowed Streicher to find a figurative role for the inflatable. The carnival figure, the caricature, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade inflatables now became points of reference. 

"Where my work does make reference to popular culture it is, I feel, to such things as freak shows, carnival and the tradition of the grotesque; expressions of 'low culture' that assert the body as undetermined, disrupted, leaky and in direct confrontation to the contained and controlled body represented by the dominant culture."

If not of the exuberant body, Quartet in a Box, 1995 (fig. 17) seems to communicate a body out of control, eliciting strong feelings of fear and loathing. Four inflatable figures arranged in a circle, each connected to an air source through the top of the head, pulse and writhe in response to changing air pressure. It may be their horizontality or the way they seem to jerk and quiver as they inflate, as if in some kind of seizure, that inspires such feelings of revulsion and morbidity. 

Sextet, 1996 (fig. 18) was an enlargement on the Quartet in a Box model, but by subtle changes in articulation and the location of the air source Streicher could achieve an entirely different effect. In Sextet the figures are inflated through the navel area and they come to life in a way that is even more dramatic than Quartet in a Box. The inflation is coordinated so that each figure is in a different state of inflation or deflation at any one time. This movement takes place quickly and creates the impression of a certain type of childish play energy -- manic, reckless, dizzying, out of control.10 

The occasion of the last Nether Mind exhibition in 1995 was the stimulus for Balancing Act (fig. 18 & 19 opposite), one of the artist's most elegant and eloquent pieces.  Balancing Act consists of two pair of figures suspended from the ceiling and inflated by fans through rubber tubes in the area of the mouth.11  As a figure quickly inflates, its chest fills and its arms thrust forward, its back arches and legs and feet stiffen to a point.  As it deflates, the stiffness slowly disappears and the legs dangle down and cross over. Streicher likens the effect to a dance, "as if dancers had an exercise of having to make it appear as if all of the air were draining from them."12 

Indeed, there is a grace to the awakening and expiring acrobats, yet within that grace there is also a startling and disturbing truth. When, in the ballet Giselle, the tragic heroine dies after her dance with the spirit of the woods, she gracefully succumbs to the stage floor, her death the dance's denouement. The dancer acts as if dead and the audience plays along, the saddest part being that she has finished dancing. However, when the acrobat in Balancing Act loses air, it is the illusion of physical life itself that disappears -- vanishes in front of our eyes -- and becomes nothing more than a limp cloth bag. Moreover, we have become intimate with these figures. As they inflate and we hear the air rush into the body, we form a strange bond -- the kind of feeling we experience with the breath of the other on our skin. Yet, as Streicher is aware, "the source of that breath, industrial fans and rather crudely fashioned valve mechanisms, are reminiscent of respirators or some equally intrusive medical gadget, and this breath is not life, just its sobering mechanics."13 

Perhaps more than any other piece, Balancing Act makes us focus on the central role of air and the imitation of breathing in Streicher's inflatables. We relate to varying patterns of breathing, and the action of air filling a body can suggest many things and elicit many emotions. We breathe differently when asleep and awake, when we are nervous, when we are calm. By adjusting and controlling the rhythm, the sound and the speed of inflation and deflation, the artist manipulates those perceptions and tells a story. Air, in the work of Max Streicher, is indeed one of the substances of feeling. 

The dragon exhibited with Balancing Act in the last Nether Mind exhibition may have been an afterthought, in part because the warehouse space for the exhibition was so vast. Streicher calls it a gift to the show, "a prop, because Nether Mind shows were always more like events or three-ring circuses."14  However, he had been exploring the idea of scaling up his inflatables probably as early as 1993 when he appropriated the image of the Honest Ed inflatable in this flesh.... The version of Boiler exhibited in the Naked State exhibition in 1994 was a scaled-up version of the original to twice lifesize. It was also around that time that the idea began for the gigantic Swan Song (fig. 20), which he designed for the exhibition Once Upon A Time at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge in 1996.15 

In Swan Song Streicher was seeking "threatening beauty."16 He chose the swan because as an animal it is commonly known as a symbol of beauty and elegance, but at the same time feared for its strength and its potential for violence. Yard upon yard of silky white Tyvek in softly undulating and pulsating forms created a dreamlike state for the viewer to wade through. As in a dream, scale is distorted and no contour is solid -- everything collapses to the touch or seems beyond reach. 

"My intention is to overwhelm the gallery space and impose on the viewer a sense of scale like that which a toddler might experience. I am attempting to recreate a situation like that of childhood encounters with humongous snow banks or haystacks; structures that invite a physical exuberance which in turn leads the imagination  . . . In this work I want to physically embrace the viewer within a tension between pleasure and threat, enchantment and self-reflexive awareness."17 

Sleeping Giants, 1998 (fig. 21, 22 & 23), exhibited at the Cambridge Galleries, brought together the phenomenology of the physical body first ventured in Quartet in a Box with the scale of Swan Song. The giants in their great mass heaved and sighed to the timed intervals of the fans. Lying on their backs and sides, heads rose from the floor, legs stiffened, chests inflated, only to relax again, as if in some futile attempt to get out of bed or off the couch. The giants recalled the body as gross anatomy -- of a soul trapped within spoilable flesh -- the dispirited body, incapable of action because of the sentiment of futility. The giants also recalled the tragic body -- the self perpetuating machine -- needy, voracious, desiring,  independent of consciousness and will. 

The inflatable as art -- the balloon, the soap bubble, the inflatable toy -- until now, has been dedicated to children. Max Streicher has taken the inflatable, the prepubescent symbol of wonder and tragedy and rehabilitated it, or rather, he has given it an adult life. He has done this not by stripping the inflatable of those characteristics that appeal to children, but by probing those aspects that are fundamental to understanding ourselves. We favour children with balloons and they in turn are fascinated by their lightness, enthralled by their buoyancy, and devastated when they break. With each balloon, we create a round, pudgy, brightly coloured life -- symbolizing at once our joy in creation and our awareness of life's fragility. And therein lies its magic: the inflatable makes the abstract character of our organic existence visible. We know we were born from nothing, we feel our breath now, and we know that we will expire.

Gordon Hatt 

(fig. 1)  We Will Name This Place..., 1988, installation at Winter's College gallery, York University. (Permanent installation at Fine Art Building, Phase II, York University.)  Photo: Max Streicher.

Fig. 3 Panic and Fear, 1990, slide projection, text, installation, Eaton Centre, Edmonton, Alta., "The Works" Festival. 

Fig. 5 Breathe, 1989, "The Crossing," Bloor St. United Church. Coordinated by Mediums Art Centre, Toronto.
Fig. 6 Boiler, 1991, Tyvek, fans, duct, and switches, 300 cm. high., Nether Mind collective exhibition, 1991.

Fig. 8 Where There Is Smoke, 1992, installation. Collection of Marat Inc., Toronto.

Fig. 9 Pillars of Cloud, 1992, Tyvek, modified golf carts, fans and switches, 351 cm high, Nether Mind Collective exhibition.

Fig. 10  this flesh . . . , 1993, 16 mm film loop, mirrors and LED sign, projection size: 190 x 190 cm, Galerie Articule, Montreal. 

Fig. 11 My Dear One, Tyvek, fan, flexible duct, lights, 10 m finger tip to finger tip, Galerie Articule, 1993.

Fig. 12 Alchemist's Tongue: of which my rage is made/of which my fear is made, 1993, cast sulfur and lye soap, flashing light bulbs. tongues: 8 to 45 cm high, Galerie Articule, Montreal, May, 1993.

Fig. 13 Stalk, 1995, Site-specific installation, Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Scotia Plaza, Toronto, 1995.

Fig. 17 Quartet in a Box, 1995, Tyvek, electric blower, flexible duct cardboard box, 190 cm tall x 42 x 42 cm. , 00 Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Fig. 18 Sextet, 1996, each figure 250 cm high and Balancing Act, 1996 version, each figure 190 cm high, installation at Synagoga na Palmovca, Prague, Czech Republic.  Photo: Daniel Sperl.

Fig. 19 Balancing Act, 1995, Tyvek, electric blowers, flexible duct, 190 cm tall, Cambridge Galleries, The Library & Gallery, Cambridge, 1998. Photo: Robert McNair.

Fig. 20 Swan Song, 1996, Tyvek, electric fans, switches 14' high, "Once Upon a Time," Southern Alberta Art Gallery.

Fig. 21 Sleeping Giants, 1998, installation, at the Cambridge Galleries, the Library & Gallery, Cambridge, Ontario, 1998.Photo: Robert McNair.

Fig. 22 Sleeping Giants, 1998, installation, at the Cambridge Galleries, the Library & Gallery, Cambridge, Ontario, 1998.

Fig. 23 Sleeping Giants, 1998, installation, at the Cambridge Galleries, the Library & Gallery, Cambridge, Ontario, 1998. Photo: Robert McNair.


    1. College Street United Church was adesignated historical building protected from demolition by the local architectural conservancy committee. The building was preserved in part by the incorporation of the bell tower within a new condominium structure. The redevelopment of the site was planned to include a church facility that would take up a large part of two lower floors. Revenues from the condos were to help fund the church.
    2. "They were feelings of warmth, attentiveness, serenity, and happiness, and I sensed that I had to banish forever my predisposition to fear and panic." Peter Handke, "Short Letter, Long Farewell," 3 X Handke (New York: Collier Books, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), p. 90.
    3. Other artists exhibiting with Nether Mind included Tom Dean, Catherine Heard, Greg Hefford, Mickey McCarty, Mary Catherine Newcomb, Reinhard Reitzenstein, Carl Skelton, Anastasia Tzekas, Manrico Venere. 
    4. A scaled-up version of Boiler (tallest figure 15.75 ft high) was created for the exhibition Naked State: A Selected View of Toronto Art at the Power Plant, Toronto in 1994. Another version consisting of two figures (tallest figure 10 ft high) was shown in the exhibition Outrageous Desire,Rutger's University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1994.
    5. Interview with the artist, March 20,1998.
    6. Tertullian's Treatise on the Incarnation, translated by Ernest Evans (London: Cambridge University Press, 1956), Latin p. 18, English trans. p. 19.
    7. For a 1993 show in the Czech Republic Streicher made the tongues from kaolin, "which doesn't bind to together and has a Jell-O-like consistency."  It is a substance used with clay to make porcelain. The installation site was in a damp chamber in the basement of an eighteenth-century monastery, adjacent to a pool of water that monitors the water level necessary for the preservation of the oak foundation of the monastery. The tongues, made of the locally mined kaolin, remained moist at all times. Heavy rains slowly eroded the tongues and as this occurred the dissolved kaolin formed milky trails, leading into the subterranean water system which flowed beneath the monastery. Interview with the artist, March 20, 1998. Another version of Alchemist's Tongue was shown in the exhibition Communion,at the Johnson County Arts Center, Iowa City, Iowa, 1993.
    8. These installations included Within / Without, 1994, a collaboration with Lois Andison installed in the foyer and stairwell of the Jesuit institution, Regis College, Toronto; and Surrender Gringo, 1994, part of the Mediatrics exhibition sponsored by the cooperative gallery Cold City in Toronto.
    9. Artist's statement, November 1997.
    10. Sextet was also part of an installation and performance with Petr Nikl, Los Kabayitos Puppet Theatre, New York, 1996.
    11. As shown at the 1995 Nether Mind exhibition, Toronto, Balancing Act originally consisted of a pair of figures and an inflatable dragon made of reinforced plastic. When the piece was shown in Prague the next year the artist replaced the dragon with a second pair of figures. This new version was also exhibited in 1996 at the Loggia Gallery, Koffler Centre of the Arts, North York, Ontario.
    12. Interview with the artist, March 20, 1998.
    13. Artist's statement, 1995.
    14. Interview with the artist, March 20, 1998.
    15. A version of Swan Song (Lamentation) made from reinforced plastic sheeting was installed in the ice-cellar, Hermit Foundation, Plasy, Czech Republic. (Now in the permanent collection.)
    16. Interview with the artist, March 20, 1998. 
    17. Artist's statement, February 1998. Viewers were invited to step inside Streicher's Pleasure Dome, 1997, exhibited at Pyramida Centre for Contemporary Art, Haifa, Israel. Streicher wanted to share the sensations of being inside the piece, which he had experienced while working with the swans.

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