View of “Josef Strau,” 2014.

View of “Josef Strau,” 2014.

Josef Strau

Vilma Gold

View of “Josef Strau,” 2014.

For his exhibition “My Divid’ed House,” Berlin- and New York–based artist and writer Josef Strau had promised to present a nearly complete archive of his type-printed poster-pamphlets from the past decade. This was a daunting prospect, given that in previous, less comprehensive exhibition projects, the prolific output of his automatic-writing technique, sometimes attached to cheap lampshades or cardboard partitions, and occasionally even tucked away in letter-shaped tunnels, could often exceed the reader-spectator’s time and energy resources. At Vilma Gold, reprints and high-resolution digital photographs of the poster-pamphlets, starting with White Nights, 2003, were affixed to the gallery walls in a seemingly manageable row around the room, with the exception of one corner in which five adjacent black garden fences with colored picket tops, dangling images, and decorative lights obstructed the works from view while still creating an altogether welcoming atmosphere. Once one started reading the densely printed, unedited, ever-digressing text, whose subjects range from personal matters to thoughts on other writers, one quickly realized that it would indeed require an all-nighter to get through. The dizzying layout, painfully small font, and poor lighting conditions compounded the sense of frustration in the face of too much reading material. The photographs of the posters, which appeared here for the first time and were superimposed over some of the reprints, effectively bifurcated the linear sequence. While raising questions about the image-text binary, the photographs placed producer and consumer on the same level in the otherwise unequal temporal economy of this archival exhibition—as though the camera eye had already accomplished at once the reading and memorization, thus relieving the reader-spectator of these arduous tasks.

The richly metaphoric title of the exhibition was a reference to Italo Calvino’s “The Burning of the Abominable House,” a 1977 detective story driven by a search algorithm and an example of the constrained writing techniques cultivated by the Oulipo, of which Calvino was a member. On this tale, Strau in turn modeled the exhibition’s mode of production itself, using search software to recover lost text files and recombine them in a new work. This labyrinthine construction, while focused at a meta-level, required its own elaborate narration. A written Model for the Reconstruction of the Abominable House, 2014, was duly provided and securely chained to a pedestal, upon which three electric lights poked through a large aluminum sheet, or makeshift lampshade, which highlighted the provisional nature of the whole thing. The text deliberately confused Strau’s voice with that of Calvino, the preeminent storyteller, who, unlike Strau, pushed the boundaries of linear narrative within the confines of the book format. In Strau’s installation, on the other hand, it was the fences—each titled Beating Fences into Lamps, 2014—that literally and metaphorically challenged expectations of what could constitute a coherent whole in any conventional sense. What were the fences separating from what here, and could this space within a space stand on its own, or was it actually a conceptual and material smokescreen?

Strau is a storyteller who hides his “literary results,” as he calls them, in plain sight, effectively turning this concealment into its own theme and leaving the reader-spectator to chance upon disjointed particulars. But it is precisely the spontaneous aperçus produced in the process that redeem the reading experience. One such find was the ingenious “lamp leash” mentioned in one of the texts—a prosthetic for switching off the light without getting out of bed—which, besides its intrinsic comic value, can serve as an example of how Strau’s texts, while so quantitatively disproportionate that a sense of narrative order remains out of reach, open up spaces in which the dilemmas tend toward a human scale.

Elisa Schaar