Franziska Nori

The following text is part of the exhibition catalogue, published by Silvana Editoriale and available online at

Franziska Nori

American Dreamers

The American Dream: Reality or Imagination?

Does the American dream still exist? What is its future in an era in which the promise of happiness and economic prosperity seems to clash with an increasingly complex and difficult scenario?

The contemporary formulation of the founding myth of the United States of America – the “American dream” – was encapsulated by Bill Clinton in 1996: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” Within a system of shared values that exalts freedom and equal rights, each person is the master of his own destiny and, believing in himself and his own abilities, must grasp the opportunities that are presented to him.

Over the course of the past fifteen years, however, serious doubts have arisen regarding the possibility of fulfilling this dream in the present. Globalization and the crisis of the capitalistic economic system have dashed the certainties of invulnerability and security that seemed so solid and immutable by this time, generating a strong sense of precariousness and uncertainty about both the present and the future. At the same time, however, the ability to imagine and a desire to keep believing in the possibility of an ever-better future remain central to the very idea of “being American”.

Being Europeans, in dealing with such a theme, we need to face our values and think about them. The history of European countries has been distinguished by a fundamental difference in the relationship between the individual and society, with a concept of welfare far different from the American one. Pushed by the economy of the global market, over the course of the past decade these models have converged. Europe is becoming increasingly similar to the American social model based on the individual’s responsibility, while the United States, led by Barack Obama, seems to be moving closer to the motto “leave noone behind”.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is an expression of a new thought process among the middle class which is increasingly uneasy about a system that can no longer keep its promises and is mistrustful of it. The young people of America have found themselves facing a world in which unemployment and the lack of new prospects now seem to be an inevitable reality.

Deregulation and the predominance of financial considerations have even managed to penetrate the educational system, transforming into financial packages the investments – worth tens of thousands of dollars – made by young people who graduate only to discover that they are unable to find the job they need in order to pay off the debt they have accumulated or afford a way of life in which they can achieve their dreams.

Although differing in intent, American Dreamers, curated by Bartholomew Bland, seems to establish direct ties with the recently staged exhibition Declining Democracy. Whereas the artists of Declining Democracy investigated the modern validity of the principles of democracy, analyzing the processes that make our society working or, as chroniclers,  suggesting  a documentary approach of reality, American Dreamers underscore the evocative and transformative value of artistic imagination, taking reality as a starting point to reveal or imagine new worldviews.

Many of these artists work by retreating to the private dimension of their studies, where they see themselves as still capable of acting and creating works that, starting from their individuality, may be able to interpret reality and create autonomous aesthetic worlds. Some devise theatrical spaces, sets that can draw in the spectator, who becomes part of the reality built by the artist to express his or her imaginative world. For some artists, the construction of fantastical worlds is meant as a personal critique of contemporary society; for others, it allows them to create alternative solutions in which they can rediscover meanings and values that seem to have been lost. Their withdrawal from reality does not mean autobiographical withdrawal or personal isolation, akin to writing in a diary. These artists make a new start with the individual connected to society, tracing references to the tradition of art history, ethnography, psychoanalysis and folklore.

The starting point for all of them is the observation of the world they live in, generally large American cities, to which they respond with aesthetic interpretations that express the Zeitgeist of reality and that sometimes imply examining a microscopic dimension of the world, as if to seek the contemplation of interior landscapes rather than external reality. Some of them focus directly on interior worlds, in which they set their own rules in quest for an equilibrium. Others instead create fantastical worlds as if they want to grasp the gloomiest atmospheres, bordering on catastrophism, and where solitude and disintegration dominate.

Quite often, for the artists featured in the show the subject is the typical American home, the quintessential symbol of isolation, security and ownership. In the tradition of American art, which often honors the landscape and the endless horizon of territories waiting to be discover, the house is a place of shelter and safety for the individual and the family nest. In the exhibits shown, this image seems to have been called into question and reprocessed in order to make us reflect on the crisis of values that the present has placed before us. The process of artistic production becomes a mental itinerary, a journey into reflection in order to leave outside the studio walls a world that, the more we look at it, the more unrecognizable it becomes.


The exhibition thus gives us an opportunity to examine a phenomenon that has become increasingly widespread, and not only in the United States: the tendency to retreat to one’s private life or reinvent the relationship between individual and community. Since the world seems to have become vaster and more complicated, the individual narrows his range of action to a more circumscribed dimension (his community, his family, his home) in which he can truly make a difference or feel more secure. It is in this light that many artists focus on miniatures and on the construction of small worlds, enclosed and under control, that force the spectator to move closer and thus losing the breadth of perspective – but to the benefit of focusing on details.

Some of the artists exhibiting here seem to share the same focus on handcrafting that harks back to the principles of pre-industrial production or to forms of an alternative organization of life. Many of them use everyday elements and recycled or discarded materials to find a new value and a new function in them. The recovery of fragments and parts of materials that already exist is conducted according to the principles of appropriation, collage, assemblage and sampling: taking possession of fragments of reality in order to decontextualize them and bring a new meaning to them.

The reference to the Arts and Crafts Movement thus becomes crucial to understanding an attitude that is explicitly nonconformist and contrary to the principles of mass production, to the excessive speed imposed by modern society and dependency on consumption, the cornerstone of capitalism. Just as William Morris and other representatives of that late-nineteenth-century artistic current and philosophy revived traditional techniques and drew on a new relationship between culture and nature, the artists showing their works in American Dreamers convey a sense of nostalgia, a desire to step back from an increasingly rational and constantly accelerating world in order to seek interior and spiritual realms.

Time becomes a central factor. Whereas the ideas of manual ability and temporal deceleration no longer find any space and have lost value in the contemporary world, essentially becoming limitations in the concept of mass production, the artists involved in this exhibition instead focus on such themes, exalting their work precisely through their manual approach to “doing”, at times with the aesthetics of overabundance and at others evoking a sense of sobriety foreign to the contemporary world. What characterizes art itself is reflection – through action and manual ability – on complex concepts that seek to catch the meaning of “being” in the world. A phenomenon such as the widespread circulation of the handmade and homemade – as a way of rethinking production practices but also our spare time and as a new kind of social relationship – reflects the influences on the American society in general of the considerations made above. Originating in the United States but now also common in Europe, this movement unites emerging artists, crafters and designers who work with traditional media as well as new techniques. What has thus emerged in the new generations is a new (sub-) culture expressing a community of people who combine traditional techniques, punk culture and the so-called “DIY ethos” (Do It Yourself). The members of this community share ideas and support each other through the channels of digital communication, also getting themselves organized at galleries, shops and fairs where they can present their products. What has ensued is an international collective that has forged an alternative economy and a lifestyle based on creativity, self-determination and on the idea of networking. One of the most politicized currents of this movement is Craftivism (craft – activism), which seeks to develop alternative approaches for society’s passive enjoyment of the media while keeping creative forces alive. The political objective is not to implement major mass actions, so much as to contribute personally to triggering an improvement process that starts in one’s own community. Likewise, the individual ownership of objects no longer seems to be a goal to which one should aspire. Today ownership is not experienced as a privilege but a burden; what prevails is the desire for an unfettered life, free of the weight of material. In other words: “sharing is to ownership what the iPod is to the eight-track, what the solar panel is to the coal mine. Sharing is clean, crisp, urbane, postmodern; owning is dull, selfish, timid, backward” (Mark Levine, New York Times Magazine, March 2009).

As the sociologist Rachel Botsman says in What’s mine is yours : The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (Harper Business, October 2010), wherever the individual created the image of himself by owning objects that characterized him, today possessions increasingly seem to be a burden in a life characterized by mobility and precariousness. Ours is a life in which we must travel lightly towards an uncertain future waiting to be built. What have emerged, in fact, are phenomena such as collective consumption, of which car sharing may be the best-known example, and in which we do not necessarily change what we consume, but how we do it.

Years ago Jeremy Rifkin declared the end of hyper-consumerism, ushering in a new economic era: from the accumulation of objects typical of the age of the Industrial Revolution to a form of collective enjoyment and collaborative consumption. The concept that no object is useless if it is in the right place at the right time has spawned trends such as Netcycler, a platform that allows people to get rid of things in exchange for something else, trading an object for an object: a third-millennium form of bartering.

The consumers of the new generation have realized that they do not want ownership of the object, but its use and function. Music and films are enjoyed through direct streaming on the internet, and no one purchases vinyl records or DVDs any longer. Cars are leased or shared. Owning objects means commitment. It ties you to a place, and the purchase and accumulation of products require space, order and supervision. American citizens rent storage units, containers and basements that, added together, make a space three times the size of Manhattan. In time we discover that the objects we save and protect are completely superfluous: deadweight. And it is here that a culture of exchange, gifting and sharing steps in. What in the digital world has already become normal is also conquering the world of products: the common use of resources.


The exhibition itinerary attempts to explore the different issues we mentioned, revealing the language of the artists involved in order to create parallel worlds that, in many cases, are in sharp contrast with each other.

The show opens with a site-specific work by Adam Cvijanovic, whose wall painting draws visitors into a visual illusion, a surprising panorama that portrays an idyllic and typically American urban landscape that can be interpreted in two different ways: is it being demolished or built? Beside Cvijanovic’s are set the aesthetics of Will Cotton and Nick Cave. The former has created an unreal world of overabundance in which everything becomes cotton candy, custard and cream, merging references to the American pop culture (from the singer Katy Perry to the allusion to Candy Land, a board game that is immensely popular among American children) and art history (eighteenth-century French painting by artists such as François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard). The latter instead displays a selection of his so-called Soundsuits, “indestructible sculptures” that are colorful and extravagant, the instrument for a multisensory experience in the amplification of the movement of the limbs and for the creation of unexpected sound effects when the artist also uses them as costumes for his performances.

The exhibition continues with Thomas Doyle’s apocalyptic imagination. In his works, at close range, the most attentive observer discovers that seemingly serene and controlled micro-worlds are actually dramatic realities that express the precariousness of the human condition using the symbols of middle-class life such as the home, yard and family in alienating, catastrophic and sometimes sarcastic settings.

Starting with stereotyped images, Richard Deon stages his personal and evocative aesthetics, which he defines as “social surrealism”. With pictorial works in different formats that interact with the surrounding space, Deon creates scenes of people and places that emerge like surreal paradoxes and play with images and situations that look familiar, using the graphic forms and figures typical of the civics handbooks of the 1950s.

Uniting references to art history with the languages of advertising and fashion, Adrien Broom creates visions of women poised between reality and dreams, inspired by figures ranging from the dramatic character of Shakespeare’s Ophelia to the images of saints in ecstatic adoration before the divine, typical of Baroque art.

The sensation of suspension can also be found in Laura Ball‘s work. Through the fluidity of watercolor the artist creates a world populated by allegorical images that are constantly changing and that dialogue with her self-portrait, clearly an allusion to Jungian psychoanalysis. Fears and dreams acquire a bodily form as if in a game of free association and with a highly imaginative style.

In the next room Kirsten Hassenfeld’s works use a commonplace material like recycled gift-wrapping paper to create hanging sculptures, set at the evanescent boundary between the enigmatic and the domestic. They are juxtaposed with Christy Rupp‘s works, which reflect on the issues of mass production and the exploitation of animals in industrial processes. Both artists unite references to the decorative tradition of the Arts and Crafts Movement with elements of contemporary sociopolitical condemnation. Rupp’s sculptures of extinct birds evoke the skeletons exhibited at museums of natural history, but they are actually made from countless bone fragments collected by the artist from the rubbish outside fast-food restaurants, the emblems of today’s materialistic consumerism. Hassenfeld instead uses an ephemeral material like paper to create objects and installations whose immense evocative power takes us to a separate dimension, exalting the value of art in finding new meanings and new values in objects and materials that our society considers to be mere waste.

For American Dreamers Mandy Greer has made a site-specific spatial installation that visitors can explore as if it were a sort of fantastical forest. Using the art of crocheting with inserts of various materials, she creates sculptural objects with a biological and phytomorphic appearance that allude to the stories and images of mythological worlds, combining shamanism and Native American traditions.

In the room devoted to Patrick Jacobs‘s  work, visitors find small windows that allow them to peer into dioramas. This close-up reveals miniatures of imaginary worlds, which reconstruct in detail the subjective visions of lawns or the interiors of an apartment and fool the observer, who is forced to wonder if he is gazing at something real or if it is merely an illusion.


The Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina was established with the aim of creating an active laboratory to reflect on contemporaneity, a place devoted to the expression, creation and reception of current artistic production and its repercussions on and parallels with today’s society. According to this approach, during the American Dreamers exhibition the CCC Strozzina will again present a cycle of afternoon appointments with experts asked to explore the thoughts triggered by the exhibition, with presentations devoted to specific aspects of contemporary American culture: a window on the cultural production of the decade that followed the tragedy of 9/11. Each meeting will examine a specific field in the artistic and cultural production of the United States, such as literature (Luca Briasco), cinema (Roy Menarini) and architecture (Marco Biraghi). Architecture and cinema in actual fact helped form an American mentality tied to the occupation of space in the scenario of a permanent frontier – subject that will be explored by Emiliano Ilardi.

The cycle of appointments will not be dedicated only to the visual arts or products of the so-called “high” culture, but forms of entertainment such as video games (Gianfranco Pecchinenda) and the crossovers between pop music and visual languages (Lucio Spaziante) – important elements in order to reconstruct the complex mosaic of American culture – will be also dealt with. A special appointment will be devoted to the American artist Matthew Barney, and Cosetta Saba will offer an overview of his videos and sculptures. For the exhibition the CCC Strozzina is also renewing its collaboration with the Festival dei Popoli and is inaugurating a new one with Fabbrica Europa, both of which are benchmarks for the promotion of the languages of the contemporary world.




Franziska Nori is director of the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina in Florence, where she has also curated exhibitions like Emotional Systems (2007), Art Price and Value (2008), Gerhard Richter and the Disappearance of Image in Contemporary Art, As Soon As Possible (2010), Virtual Identities and Declining Democracy (2011). Her university studies have been focused on cultural anthropology, romantic studies and art history. Prior to the position at Palazzo Strozzi she was project leader of the Kulturbüro in Frankfurt, which has organized exhibitions devoted to trends in digital culture, including I Love You, about the world of hackers and computer viruses, or adonnaM.mp3, an analysis of file and network sharing on the internet. From 2005 to 2007 she has been a member of the scientific committee of the New Media International School at the University of Lubeck. In 1998 she was appointed by the European Commission to draw up an appraisal of future strategies for European museums showcasing new media. Since 1994 she has worked as independent curator for international institutions such as the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Vienna, the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Fundación la Caixa in Palma de Mallorca.

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