Benjamin Crotty, Menu No. 3, 2016, acetate, glass, 12 × 9 1/4 × 1/8". From the series “Menu No. 1–15,” 2016.

Benjamin Crotty, Menu No. 3, 2016, acetate, glass, 12 × 9 1/4 × 1/8". From the series “Menu No. 1–15,” 2016.

Benjamin Crotty

Benjamin Crotty, Menu No. 3, 2016, acetate, glass, 12 × 9 1/4 × 1/8". From the series “Menu No. 1–15,” 2016.

On Wednesday, November 16, 1949, President Harry S. Truman had the shah of Iran to tea. The shopping list for the meal included one chicken, two packages of cream cheese, bourbon, scotch, and juice oranges. By contrast, on October 15, 1947, the same president lunched alone, feasting on a fruit cup, cottage-cheese salad, and, for dessert, a floating island. For dinner, he had a club sandwich.

The menus of nearly every day of Truman’s presidency, which started in 1945, have been preserved in the National Archives in Washington, DC, ever since his second term ended, in 1953. Some of them were recently unearthed by the Paris-based filmmaker Benjamin Crotty, and found their way to Oslo for his first solo exhibition, where they appeared printed on sheets of acetate alongside blown-up images of fruits, coffee beans, and other food items. Crotty’s series “Menu No. 1–15,” 2016, ignites the feeling, so common when we are faced with apparently inconsequential historical documents, that we are peeking behind the curtain separating us from the past. The artist’s staging of the series—cinematic in its careful editing and its suggestion of an ongoing narrative running from one day to the next—makes good-humored fun of deeply American (i.e. hapless) aspirations to culinary sophistication (creamed chicken and peas in patty shells, anyone?) while at the same time giving rise to a nostalgic longing for a time when a piece of exotic fruit was considered a perfectly adequate dessert, and the American president could host a “stag dinner” with the president of Cuba and sip bourbon with the shah of Iran.

This is not the first time the National Archives have played a role in Crotty’s work. It was among its digitized film material he first saw footage of the army base Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, which would go on to give the title and setting—albeit in a fictionalized French version—of Crotty’s first feature film. In Fort Buchanan (2014), the base is the backdrop for an erotic melodrama played out among the wives and gay husbands of soldiers stationed overseas, elaborating the filmmaker’s penchant for military life—especially its more prosaic aspects—as displayed in his 2009 short Visionary Iraq, a collaboration with Portuguese-American filmmaker Gabriel Abrantes.

Crotty has also delved into the archives’ collection of unedited 16-mm film shot by American soldiers during the Vietnam War. The apparent aimlessness of the footage is preserved in his reworking of the material for the video work Division Movement to Vungtau, 2016, made in collaboration with French artist Bertrand Dezoteux and also on display here. Absurdity is added as the work’s seven short vignettes—showing, among other things, soldiers frolicking in a muddy river, driving tanks, and receiving Holy Communion in the jungle—are overlaid with CGI animation, which twists the footage to form a surreal narrative of four animated fruits on an unspecified military mission, their giggling and nonsensical murmuring added to the silent films. In “Menu No. 1–15,” fruit connotes the sumptuous perks of the free market, while in Division Movement the anthropomorphic fruits are cast as the happy-go-lucky tourists of war. They add a queer touch to the all-male environment, underlining the theatrics of it all.

In both groups of work, Crotty takes as his starting point the mundane aspects of the rise of the United States as a global superpower. While Truman’s presidency—beginning with the dropping of the atomic bomb and ending on a high consumerist note—stood for postwar optimism, the Vietnam War ultimately divided the country and birthed the counterculture of the 1960s. But rather than dealing with the sinister historical undercurrent of his material head on, Crotty infantilizes it and gives it the sheen of silly harmlessness—which, ultimately, makes the work all the more uncanny.

Maria Horvei