Mies van der Rohe’s glass museum looks empty from where I’m standing, eight steps below the vast square which houses Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. There are two black flagpoles, slightly taller than the museum itself, to right of the stairs. Have they always been there, I wonder? One of the flags reads “BITTE LACHEN,” the other announces PLEASE CRY”in Barbara Kruger’s unmistakable style: Futura Bold Oblique font, black on white. The words stick; they feel lofty and important. Like a CK billboard or the star-spangled banner, the fabrics on the poles denote what they want us to know and love. But what does Barbara Kruger want? The message is a clear directive of ambiguity.
The exhibition, like the building, is low; it sticks to the ground. Once through the revolving door, the works are under my feet. The whole floor is covered in rows of enormous letters and symbols – arrows, happy and sad smileys – in the artist’s signature red, white, and black. I have to take long steps to piece together letters into words and words into sentences. There’s a persistent ticking in the background, as if someone were pounding a typewriter. The noise comes from the exhibition’s only vertical interventions: two screens attached directly to the green marble-clad pillars towards the back of the space supporting the museum’s roof. The presentation expresses understanding of the architecture, and the works nicely follow the building’s intentions by stretching out alongside its lines.
In the 1980s, Kruger became known for her method of appropriating the iconography and vernacular of the advertising world. Ironic slogans such as “Love for sale”, or “I shop, therefore I am,” were displayed on billboards, magazine covers, and in art galleries. The tension was in the discrepancy between the advertising images – where companies consistently used images of women to sell stuff, writing ad copy like “some women seem to do it all” (from a Maybelline campaign) – and Kruger’s powerful verses which targeted these skewed representations of reality and the mindless consumption and exploitation of the female body.
Today, as companies have adopted the message of feminism as well as Kruger’s style, it’s exciting to revisit her practice and see how it’s kept up with these developments. In one of the artist’s ingenious works from 1999, a black-and-white mega-sexy image of Paris Hilton is paired with the text “Just be yourself, 100% natural.” I scroll my Instagram feed and see Fenty being marketed with a sexy chick and a fat guy, both wearing mesh corsets. I come to think of Prabal Gurung’s 2017 fashion show where Bella Hadid walked the runway crying and wearing a T-shirt that said “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.” I browse H&M’s online shop and find a “Feminist” t-shirt on sale. I think of how Supreme designed their logo using Kruger’s Futura Bold in white on red, selling T-shirts and skateboards with the help of the anti-commercialist wink that the aesthetics have come to represent thanks to Kruger’s career.
I don’t mean to say that Kruger’s work has been watered down, just that symbols, messages, and ideas change over time. Is advertising today completely saturated by Kruger’s irony, aesthetics, and feminism? In 2017, a headline in American Vogue announced: “Political statements are rocking the runway this season.” This obviously did not pass the artist by, and the same year that political messages trended in the fashion world, she started her own streetwear brand at Performa:Untitled (The Drop) (2017). With a shop, a skate park, merch, and billboards all over New York, Kruger mocked the contemporary desire for purchasing completely pointless things.
At Neue Nationalgalerie, however, there are no ironically presented feminist or anti-capitalist slogans. Maybe it’s because popular culture has caught up with Kruger in that respect. When political messages are loudly proclaimed in Adidas’ sneaker advertisements, the friction between reality and art that generates social criticism is lost. Instead, the exhibition is based on three lofty quotes. I take big steps beside letters as large as myself, and read a snippet (in German) from George Orwell’s 1984 (1947): “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” James Baldwin and Walter Benjamin join in with similarly solemn estimations: “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” and “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
It all feels a bit bleak. Kruger’s cocky and clever reminders to always question what we are told have been replaced by dark statements; instead of a flirtatious game of ping-pong with the present we are left with melancholy. I miss her impulsiveness, which doesn’t merely lay out the state of affairs, but requires that we draw our own conclusions. I get lost having to interpret these weighty texts in advertising type. It feels like Kruger has deviated from the game between appearance and content and become literal. I find it hard not to let both the Orwell and Baldwin quotes be coloured by the online contexts in which I usually see them – as memes on slideshow activist Instagram accounts or from newly woke tweeters – where they appear so worn and watered down that they almost feel ironic.
Yet, Kruger has always been good at compelling us to carefully study language. As I move my whole body forward in order to read, I am forced to weigh each word separately and penetrate its meaning. The sum can only be reached after I have gone back and forth across the museum at least eight times per text snippet. Words that normally wash over me in various feeds materialise in a way that makes me read them carefully. The same method is found in the video works quoting standard American wedding vows and the Pledge of Allegiance. These are shown word for word and sometimes paused, as in hesitation. “I take,” for a second becomes “I remove”, “I rape,” then returns to its original form and continues. We are asked to reflect on phrases that have been given significance beyond the actual meaning of the words, to dissect what is actually being said. At the same time, there is a critique against institutions such as marriage and the nation state, which are bundled together with corporations whose will to put words in our mouths should be met with vigilance.
The best parts of the exhibition are the artist’s own texts. At the entrance, on the floor, I encounter the statement: “This is about loving and longing. About sharing and hating. About the promises of kindness and the pleasure of doing damage. This is about crazy desire and having a gift for cruelty. This is about the difference between the figure and the body. About the fickleness renown. About who gets what and who owns what. About who is remembered and who is forgotten. Here. In this place.” As with the flags, there is room for ambiguity and contradiction, for sentences that slip. The ambivalence is moving. Being two things at the same time is perhaps the only thing that does not fit into today’s popular culture, advertising, or political debate. This trope runs through the exhibition and somewhere therein lies the tension between form and proclamation that for decades has made Barbara Kruger one of the sharpest social critics in contemporary art.
Nora Arrhenius Hagdahl (b. 1994) is an art critic and curator based in Berlin. Together with Frida Vega Salomonsson, she is editor of the cultural journal Nuda, exploring topics ranging from art, fashion, design, philosophy and science.