Spotlight: Dina Goldstein Examines America Through Its Presidential Icons

By David Schonauer   Thursday October 17, 2019

Dina Goldstein is a connoisseur of disillusionment.

The Vancouver-based fine-art photographer and self-proclaimed “pop surrealist” has taken aim at a variety of false promises permeating modern culture in her work. Her series “Fallen Princesses,” which she began in 2007, reimagined Disney princesses stranded in a real world of crushed dreams. Her 2012 project “In the Dollhouse” is a visual narrative about Barbie and Ken that ends with Ken coming out as gay and Barbie cutting off her hair. Goldstein's 2014 series “Gods of Suburbia” asked whether deities from the world’s major religions could make a go of it in the modern world.

“I make it simple when I describe what I do — I say that I’m looking at iconic characters that are built up in society’s collective subconscious though literature or culture,” she told us in 2016, when we published a profile that featuring her project “Modern Girl,” a series that skewered the commoditization of women in advertising.

As it happened, that profile was published on November 8, the day Donald Trump was elected president, ushering in an era of nationalism in the US that has upended politics around the world. “Of course we were paying attention in Canada,” Goldstein told us recently. “There’s a saying, ‘when the US sneezes, Canada gets a cold.'”

Now Goldstein has completed her newest project, which she calls “The 10 Commandments.” Like her previous work, this one spins a narrative about disillusionment that, she writes, “seeks to examine to socio-political makeup of American through its political icons.”

The series consists of tableaux featuring US presidents portrayed, writes Goldstein, “through the prism of their politics, popularity and/or notoriety.” Each tableau is assigned the “moral and ethical postulates” of one of the Ten Commandments.

For President Trump, Goldstein chose Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before me.

“Propaganda that denigrates the free press is boosted by the ideology of populism,” writes Goldstein in the accompanying text.

Goldstein connected the first US president, George Washington, with Commandment 5: Honor Your father and your mother.

“The value of ‘the wise elder’ archetype has diminished,” she writes.

President Barack Obama is connected with Commandment 8: You shall not steal

“Under his presidency not a single Wall Street billionaire was convicted for the subprime housing scandal that cost millions of Americas their homes,” she writes.

In other scenes, Ronald Reagan is seen taking a selfie, while Abraham Lincoln is associated with America’s epidemic of gun deaths

The series is a broadly mordant view of American history, and, as with her series on religion, Goldstein expects it to be controversial. “It might offend some people. But I think I have a good vantage point, being able to look at America from the outside,” she says. “Here in Canada and in other places, you kind of think of America as a place to go to make your dreams come true, where meritocracy works. But as you peel back the layers, you see other issues.”

Goldstein, who studied political science and began her career as a photojournalist, began working on the project a year ago, after reading a number of books about American history and its history of political thought, including Harvard professor and New Yorker writer Jill Lapore’s acclaimed book These Truths.

As in her another work the series is shaped by Goldstein’s careful attention to detail and casting. Below is a behind-the-scenes video of her at work on the project.

“I’m not really saying that the presidents I’m showing were bad or good presidents,” Goldstein says. “I’m using them to discuss ideas of right and wrong.”

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