Bad Taste or Ugly Truth?

In constellations of kitschy furniture, Henrike Naumann’s show at KOW in Berlin addresses the still-fraught aftermath of German reunification.

Henrike Naumann, Olstagie, Installation view, KOW, Berlin, 2019. Photo: Ladislav Zajac.

In 2007, an article in The New York Times announced the stretch of Brunnenstrasse between Park am Weinberg and Rosenthaler Platz as Berlin’s new art district. Over the course of just a few months, a dozen contemporary art galleries, many of them affiliates of upmarket Zurich, Düsseldorf, or Manhattan operations, had opened up on the block. There was also a Commes des Garçons reseller, and a hip bar named – at the last minute, as the story was going to print – after the article’s author, Kimberly Bradley. 

Ten years later, I live on this exact block, in a building looking onto Kim Bar, which is now frequented mostly by tourists and diehards of the former era. Also opposite my house is KOW, a gallery that opened in 2009 in a striking new buliding designed by architect Arno Brandlhuber. The consumption of this stretch of city was swift. To this day, on the site of the Brandlhubercomplex, Google Street View shows an empty plot. Now, KOW is the only gallery left, and Henrike Naumann’s show will be the last before it, too, changes locations. 

Ostalgie, as the exhibition is called, is more of the same from the German artist, who in the last year alone has had solo presentations at Galerie im Turm in Berlin, Steirischer Herbst in Graz, and Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach. Not that I’m complaining. Naumann’s theatrical assemblages of cheap postmodern furniture invite new interpretative pathways every time. 

The style of interior design that she employs, by now so universally loathed it’s due for a comeback, trickled down from Memphis and Alessi in Milan through the IKEAs of the world to arrive in small homes and shops across provincial settings everywhere around 1990. Remember humanoid CD shelves, furry sofas, geometric glass shapes, chrome and plywood in mint and lavender hues? It wasn’t exactly pretty, but it was bold, potentially funny, and definitely something else. For Naumann, a teenager growing up in East Germany, this was the aesthetic context of reunification. 

‘Ostalgie’, nostalgia for the German Democratic Republic, most often takes the shape of Trabi Safaris – city tours in tinny little Trabants, the GDR’s staple car – and sections of frumpy kitchenware in charity shops. It’s a strange half-hearted wake for a way of life that is no more, perversely adapted for the tourist economy. But Naumann’s version of the GDR hangover tells us so much more about the deformities that attended the welding of East to West. 

Titled Anschluss ’90, in Graz, Naumann’s installation was quiet and grey. In the dusty ambience of a furniture outlet after hours, audiences were invited to recall Austria’s all too welcome ‘Anschluss’, or annexation, by Germany in 1938 in light of the renewed West German swelling into the east in 1990. In Galerie im Turm, Naumann placed Socialist Realist paintings by her grandfather among conventional petit bourgeois arrangements of eccentric furniture, an uncanny temporal overlap in which the arrival of one aesthetic did not require the other’s demise; an incongruous alternative reality tinged with the melancholy of impossibility. 

Henrike Naumann, Ostalgie (Urgesellschaft), 2019. Installation view, KOW, Berlin, 2019. Photo: Ladislav Zajac. Exhibition view KOW

With Ostalgie, Naumann has upped the stakes. The always disorienting architecture of KOW – further in disarray ahead of their move – is crammed with hideous artefacts. 2000(2018), reshuffled from the artist’s Mönchengladbach show, fills the basement: cupboards and beds crawl onto the walls, creating a nightmarish effect; a tiny shelf made out of mirrors figures the millennium numerically next to a bizarre portrait in oil on canvas of Birgit Breuel, featuring a horse running through a desert landscape.  

Breuel was the executive iron hand that famously pushed the privatisation of East Germany’s industries. She also served as commissioner general of the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover, which was billed as the first big international event to take place in reunified Germany, an emblem of the reborn nation’s industrial prowess and bright future. Breuel’s creepy portrait, a gift to the Expo from the United Arab Emirates, accompanies a collage of video footage installed in a purple column that documents a hunger strike in an East German mine scheduled to close as a consequence of Breuel’s programme. Her double role speaks to just how thoroughly the promotion of a new Germany in 2000 was tied up with the dismantling of the East. 

Triangular Stories Amnesia and Terror (2012) comprises home videos dating from 1992. At KOW, placed only inconveniently within sight of the viewer, it provides a sprawling soundtrack to the downstairs gallery. VHS footage follows two groups of teenagers: in Amnesia,preparing to take ecstasy at the video’s namesake techno club; in Terror, Sieg-Heiling a frightful omen of fascism’s re-emergence into the mainstream. These were the options, the argument goes, when the Berlin Wall was far from the only structure that had crumbled. 

Henrike Naumann, Die Monotonie des Yeah Yeah Yeah (Eastie Girls), 2019. Installation view, KOW, Berlin, 2019. Courtesy the artist & KOW, Berlin. Photo: Ladislav Zajac.

The success of Naumann’s work resides in its subtle awareness that the design objects which flooded that newly capitalist market were not only silent witnesses to the variously destructive coping mechanisms of East Germany’s youth, but also a parallel symptom. These kidney-shaped footrests and hairy beds are themselves as ugly, confused, and lost as the social context that welcomed them. 

“Something went wrong here,” the funky interior seems to say. And it’s true: this is an aesthetics of aftermath. By contrast, post-unification style as it has developed since, from the Humboldt Forum to the Mall of Berlin, is unnervingly clean and neoclassical. As the once-again capital gentrifies, ever spearheaded by the next new art district, the aftermath is exchanged for its delusional twin: an aesthetic of amnesia. Truth – even when ugly – is in better taste than that.