Darryl Lauster is the sort of American you wish there were more of, those with a political memory longer than the last election cycle or even last year. He is fascinated by the construction of American mythology and the history of it seen from the privileged position of the straight white religious male.
His installation God Bless America (2014) in an abandoned warehouse featured a revolving mirrored disco ball along with a looped soundtrack which had 37 different politicians (from all American parties and genders) declaiming the title. Contemporary American politics is so deeply rooted in religion, even though there is a constitutional separation of it from the state, that in a recent poll Americans said they would rather have a homosexual as a president than an atheist. The work will be on show in ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids this September.
As many will know, Americans are also addicted to guns and the resultant violence. In one of Lauster's many folk art based sculptures Big Eli (2014) a large, Ferris wheel can be activated by dropping in a quarter. The wheel rotates and a charming tune comes on - it is in fact a pro-slavery Confederate anthem from the American civil war and sat on one of the pink seats is an automatic weapon. Many mainly southern and western states now have "Open Carry" laws which allow those with a certificate to carry any gun wherever they like. Recently open carry apologists have called for their supporters to turn up to retail and food establishments carrying automatic weapons which even some pro-gun people think is a tad too much. It is hardly odd that the majority of those who do are white men, but some bring along the wife and kids all armed to the teeth. What we do not see is groups of black men with machine guns and assault rifles, I wonder how the police would react should they too act to defend their 2nd amendment rights?
Lauster's new video cycle Prone takes this paranoid world view on a holiday - to Holland to be exact! He received a grant from the University of Texas at Arlington and funding from the Netherland-America Foundation to take up an artist in residency at Foundation id11 near Rutten.
In his video over eight episodes we see him washed ashore in a desolate location, covered in mud, with only a small yellow bag that has a camera, a harmonica and a golf ball in it. He then tries for a very long time using rudimentary tools he has fashioned to make a fire. When he succeeds he shouts "America"! He then grumbles to no one in particular that he is "in some foreign damn place" proclaiming he is a "survivalist, not a 'wet back'" which is a very derogatory term for mainly Mexican nationals who have swum across the Rio Gande river that borders Texas.
His character then starts tries to fish with a broken branch and a piece of dirty string to no good effect so he starts to play the harmonica. He then tenderly recalls a dream where a deer has slipped and died in a river and its babies keep jumping in and out of the water to be with their mother. His hunger drives him to a second attempt at fishing this time stripping a tree of its branches to make a spear and he sets up a trap but catches no food.
As the day closes in, he fears he is being watched, hunted. He mummers that "if you want to be with your own kind, that's not racist". I so thought of UKIP at that moment. He then sighs "I wish I had a fire arm... "
He then exclaims "we are an exceptional nation - America. Don't bring your country to ours, if I wanna see your country I'll go there, you come here you be an American" and he flees into the bushes painting his face in yellow camouflage with plants in his hair and the soundtrack becoming increasingly scary. In the final episodes shot eerily at night in close-up we see his face and glasses as he rambles on, getting more and more spooked, frightening himself, sure someone is coming. He runs off into the night and we sort of see him stumble and the tape abruptly ends with a knowing nod to the Blair Witch Project.
Lauster's video references mainstream television shows like Survivor where people are shipwrecked and the winner (last person standing) gets a large monetary prize (a capitalist dream/nightmare). Yet he deconstructs it and the American notion of needing a gun to survive, to protect yourself from others and the all invasive State. Watching the films in light of recent European Parliament elections where the far right made such gains by scaring the public as they have done in the US (about being swamped by others), one can only hope that this particular brand of Americana can be sent packing. But with youth unemployment at record highs, the white working class disappearing and callous opportunistic politicians ready to stir trouble, we can only be thankful that guns are in short supply in the EU.
Lauster is represented by the
Devin Borden Gallery, Houston
Barry Whistler Gallery, Dallas