Josef Strau

The sheer quantity of language in Josef Strau’s installations generates a logorrheic din that could test the patience of even the most committed viewer. Yet his installations are by no means chaotic, but instead rather modest or even cozy: Floor lamps huddle near posters of type-written text, discreetly pinned up, strung on ribbons, or stacked in piles for distribution. A Dissidence Coincidence but W.H.C.T.L.J.S, 2008, created for the Malmö Konsthall, is another example of Strau’s typical narrative overload: Seven texts that revisit the artist’s biblical namesake go alongside writings from past installations. These are mounted inside temporary partitions that wind through the exhibition space, eccentric white corridors forming the seven letters of the title from a God’s-eye view. At the threshold of each is an account of the fratricidal envy provoked by Joseph, the ancient prototype for the modern artist, that rambling dreamer and mollycoddle with the flamboyant jacket. With each retelling, Joseph’s tale changes to bring out different events and details. This fugal biography wraps Strau—artist’s artist, stymied writer, flea market vendor, former gallery director—in the vestments of a bygone artistic archetype, one characterized by obsessive psychic force. But whereas this kind of artist traditionally sought to distill these obsessions, Strau’s écriture automatique, peppered with spelling mistakes, clearly rejects refinement.

Inside the work’s corridors, some of Strau’s 
floor lamps—flea market castoffs and IKEA
 models mostly still in their plastic sleeves—
cast faint halos onto printed texts, some
 mounted on canvas. The gloom and minus
cule print conspire to make them almost
 unreadable, while ink splatters and a medley 
of typefaces give them the allure of a manu
script, more sketch than text. Composed of
 recycled projects (even the letter-shaped corridors appeared at Laden/Schillerstr., Gunter
 Reski’s art space in Berlin, in 1998), Strau’s
 installation has the ambience of a mental garage space; its daunting glut is but one way of warding off scrutiny of stowed-away contents. The work seems to candidly reflect the existential anxiety of the self-portraitist and to play it against the endurance of the viewer—indeed, a thorough reading of all these texts is beyond most of us. The temporary partitions and throwaway lamps emphasize their own impermanence as if they, too, lacked the stamina to support so much verbiage, down to the abstract and encoded language of their walls.

The riddle posed by the abbreviation in the installation’s title is, in fact, no riddle at all: “Who has chosen these letters, Josef Strau” is part enunciation, part agnostic query, and can no more be deduced from the show than answered by its many texts. Yet Strau still richly rewards the viewer who has neither the punishing zeal of the fanatic nor the blasé reserve of the skeptic. When skimming this hubbub of writings, every repetition seems to quiver with connection or significance, stanching—if only for a moment—the overflow of information. To the agnostic seeker, Strau’s work offers a quiet enchantment. It becomes, despite its cacophonous beginnings, fertile ground for the coincidence of meaning within any great narrative.

Joanna Fiduccia