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Henrike Naumann Searches For Repressed Histories Connecting Societal Trauma and Banal Domesticity

Three decades after German reunification, the artist articulates the inhumanity of right-wing terror, and how ideology lies within domestic interiors

The town of Zwickau, near the Czech border, lies southwest of Chemnitz in the eastern German state of Saxony. It made headlines in 2011 after it was discovered that three members of an extreme right-wing terror cell shared a flat there quietly for years. Between 2000 and 2006, the National Socialist Underground (NSU) committed ten racially motivated murders across Germany. They also wounded numerous people in a 2004 nail-bomb attack on a busy shopping street in a predominantly Turkish area of Cologne. Only after an unsuccessful bank robbery and the subsequent suicide of two of its members in 2011 did authorities and the media become aware of the group, highlighting a sustained failure of Germany’s security services. Last summer, the five-year court case dealing with the series of racist murders came to an end. Partly due to the silence of the main defendant, Beate Zschäpe, the crimes were never successfully resolved. A great many questions surrounding the case remain unanswered.

In her early installation Triangular Stories (2012), the artist Henrike Naumann, who was born in 1984 and grew up near Zwickau, included a fictitious prehistory of the three terrorists, using actors in a two-channel video to characterize them as typical far-right youth from East Germany. A point of departure was a 1990 photograph of Zschäpe released by the Federal Criminal Police after her arrest: it shows the right-wing radical as a 15-year-old against a white wall adorned with a tree slice. Naumann is interested in the iconology of the Zwickau terror cell and the spaces in which they radicalized themselves. But, in a second clip, she also asks about other young people from that time: teenagers who spent their weekends in techno clubs. Nazis and ravers – these were the two foremost East German youth cultures of the 1990s. One is marked by aggression and the other by extreme escapism, but both subcultures co-existed in a social context marked by feelings of liberty, defeat, uncertainty, depression and absence of authority. Presenting these parallel biographies in a moment of radical systemic political change, Naumann suggests that these youth were given a choice between burying themselves ideologically in the past or the future.

Trianglar Stories, 2012, two VHS colour videos, monitors, furniture, wallpaper, carpet, various objects, installations view, KOW Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Stefan Haehnel 

Henrike Naumann, Triangular Stories, 2012, two VHS colour videos, monitors, furniture, wallpaper, carpet, various objects, installation view, KOW Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Stefan Haehnel

Triangular Stories exemplifies Naumann’s installations. The work articulates the inhumanity of right-wing terror while depicting the way ideology is couched within banal domesticity. It includes a folding chair with a cowhide print; beside the baseball bat on the floor lies a cuddly toy; on the wall, beside the Imperial War Flag popular with neo-Nazis, hang two small, framed pieces of embroidery showing Pierrot and a German Shepherd. Mickey Mouse, a Nintendo Gameboy and ALF testify to a childhood that gradually drifts into monstrosity. The uncanniness of the installation echoes the chilling details surrounding the NSU case: reportedly, in 2011, before blowing up the group’s Zwickau apartment to destroy evidence, Zschäpe entrusted her two cats to a neighbour, then fled.

Naumann, who lives in Berlin, studied costume and stage design at Dresden’s Academy of Fine Arts and scenography in Potsdam. As though gathering evidence, she collects texts, images, sounds and objects, visiting libraries and archives, though her artistic approach remains associative and speculative. Her installations usually contain second-hand furniture and home accessories bought online. Low-quality, triangular side tables or shelf constructions find their place beside awkward, octagonal black tableware or an anthropomorphic clothes hanger. Naumann refers to this as the ‘aesthetic of reunification’: the debris of cheap consumer goods and postmodern design and architecture that arrived in East Germany around 1990. In her work, these artefacts become monuments of a cultural and political imposition that, at the time, was presented as the only way forward – yet was, in many ways, doomed to fail and remains the source of a longstanding societal malaise.

For Naumann, questions of design lead to a discussion of social structures and politics. Sometimes, this comes together in an almost disturbingly precise manner. In 2017, Naumann was invited to the autumn salon at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre; in the historic hall of the Kronprinzenpalais, where Germany’s Unification Treaty was signed in 1990, she installed shelving units containing ethno-nationalist kitsch: a steel helmet from the GDR’s National People’s Army, a Viking drinking horn and a towel printed with the face of the pianist Clara Schumann – which was reproduced on the last 100 Deutschmark bill before the introduction of the euro. The artist arranged the furniture in a stone-circle formation and called the work Das Reich (The Reich, 2017). Alluded to in the work’s title is the militant and esoteric ‘Reichsbürger’ scene, a far-right movement that takes the signing of the Unification Treaty as a central element in their ideology. The movement questions the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany and believes that ‘Germany’ is merely a front for occupying Western powers. In recent years, this anti-authoritarian group, long dismissed as right-wing nonsense, has gained unsettling legitimation.

Vitrine Alpina Junges Wohnen, Pallen-Wohnwelt, Würselen, 2018, installation view, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Achim Kukulies

Henrike Naumann, Vitrine Alpina Junges Wohnen, Pallen-Wohnwelt, Würselen, 2018, installation view, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Achim Kukulies

Besides the Unification Treaty, Naumann has also looked to the Treuhandanstalt (or Treuhand), a trust agency that operated between 1990 and 1994. The goal of the Treuhand was the swiftest possible privatization of formerly state-owned East German companies, most of them in need of restructuring. The agency sold off many factories and buildings, 2.4 million hectares of agricultural and forestry land, as well as assets having belonged to the Ministry of State Security (Stasi), the East German Army and state-owned pharmacies. The policies of the Treuhand often provoked vehement resistance in the former East German states. In summer 1993, a hunger strike by miners against the closure of their potash mine in Bischofferode became a symbol of that struggle. Their protest drew attention across Germany, but ended in defeat.

The privatizations resulted in the closure of hundreds of factories and the loss of a third of all jobs across East Germany in a short period. These events were traumatic and disruptive. In some of her installations, Naumann exhibits an image of the conservative politician Birgit Breuel, who was Treuhand’s president from April 1991. Breuel referred to the agency as ‘the acid bath of German unification’ and became a figure of public acrimony. The politician was later appointed commissioner general of Expo 2000 in Hannover. For ‘2000’, Naumann’s 2018 solo exhibition at Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, she included an allegorical portrait of Breuel that she found in the Expo’s archives. The painting was a gift from the United Arab Emirates to the German Pavilion. It shows Breuel in business apparel in front of a steppe landscape with a wild horse and a Native American quilt. In this weird, telling picture, the capitalist manager is depicted as a force in the ‘wilderness’ of an empty, postsocialist landscape.

Unknown artist, Portrait of Birgit Breuel, ‘2000’, 2018, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Courtesy: Exposeeum, Hannover; photograph: Thomas Ganzenmüller

Unknown artist, Portrait of Birgit Breuel, ‘2000’, 2018, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Courtesy: Exposeeum, Hannover; photograph: Thomas Ganzenmüller

For the journalist Daniel Schulz, ‘having trouble remembering or not being able to remember at all’ is something those of the generation whose teenage years coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall have in common. In an essay published last summer, Schulz recalls his youth in the East German town of Brandenburg in the 1990s and describes the period as a phase full of brutality that fostered the rise of right-wing sentiment: ‘Violence was normal and, in this normality, the Nazis swam like fish in the ocean.’ Elements of the fashion worn by Nazi skinheads ‘also spread to high schools’, where ‘many people wore the green bomber jackets with the orange lining’. Not only the bomber jackets were considered fashionable; in the years after reunification, right-wing ideas also became normalized among many young people in the east. Naumann knew such people during her school and teenage years in Zwickau. Anyone who grew up there in the late 1980s and early ’90s did. A few years ago, she looked on social networks for the wearers of bomber jackets she knew and found pictures of families openly presenting themselves as right-wing. This research led to the installation Unbetitelt (Untitled, 2013): four cell-like living spaces on a swastika-shaped floorplan that included furniture, a speckle-patterned carpet and wall decals in Fraktur font. In summer 2018, the installation was included in a group show at KOW Berlin, which addressed the mainstreaming of the political right in Germany.

The early 1990s and the artist’s personal history also provided the backdrop for the large-scale installation DDR Noir, which she created in winter 2018 at Galerie im Turm in Berlin. The gallery is located at a large crossroads at the eastern end of Karl-Marx-Allee, a showy socialist boulevard, based on plans by Hermann Henselmann and built in the 1950s, which is dominated by Stalinist gingerbread architecture. Naumann referred to the history of the location in two ways: on the one hand, there is the gallery itself, founded in 1965 as an exhibition space for East Germany’s Association of Fine Artists (VBKD), whose members included the artist’s grandfather, the painter Karl Heinz Jakob, who died in 1997 aged 68. In her installation, Naumann combined 11 of Jakob’s paintings from 1958–61 with cheap postmodern furniture from the period of reunification. These now found themselves within an architecture which, as a showcase project, was once intended to embody a socialist antithesis to major modernist parade projects in West Berlin. With the end of the GDR, socialist realism ended up in the dustbin of history. The way Naumann feeds her grandfather’s paintings back into the contemporary exhibition setting is jarring: official and semi-official art from the GDR suffered an abrupt aesthetic devaluation and, until now, this artistic history was almost taboo in German contemporary art circles. But Naumann’s project suggests the possibility of discussing GDR artists and their oeuvres without prejudice. And this act seems appropriate in a city like Berlin, where East German history and Germany’s Western present often overwrite each other in an urban palimpsest.

14 Words, 2018, florist-shop furnishings from Neugersdorf, porcelain vases, metal objects, skins, colour video, installation view, Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Axel Schneider 

Henrike Naumann, 14 Words, 2018, florist-shop furnishings from Neugersdorf, porcelain vases, metal objects, skins, colour video, installation view, Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Axel Schneider

With her contribution to the group show ‘Because I Live Here’ (2018–19), curated by Susanne Pfeffer at Frankfurt’s MMK, Naumann returned to the theme of the NSU. 14 Words (2018) is based on the almost-empty interior of a closed flower store that the artist installed as a space within the space. The work refers indirectly to the florist Enver Simsek who, in September 2000, became the first victim of the NSU murders. The attacks were directed mainly at small businesses run by migrants, raising questions about the group’s aims and intended victims. The title of the installation refers to a white supremacist manifesto. Naumann found and bought an abandoned shop interior on the internet, where it was advertised as being ‘in friendly mint green’. Its emptiness is punctuated by scattered objects, including mint-coloured animal furs. On a small monitor behind the till, a shadowy and distorted video plays; it refers to the coded NSU video that Zschäpe sent to various media organizations: after blowing up their Zwickau apartment, Zschäpe travelled by train to Leipzig, where she posted a dozen envelopes enclosing a DVD in which a Pink Panther cartoon animation had been doctored to contain a coded message. After a few days, Zschäpe turned herself in to the police. Naumann’s work shows that even a dull design of grey bars made out of pixels can be ideologically charged and as dangerous as a weapon. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Henrike Naumann is an artist based in Berlin, Germany. In 2018, she had solo shows at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany, and Galerie im Turm, Berlin, and participated in group exhibitions at Steirischer Herbst, Graz, Austria, Busan Biennial, South Korea, Riga Biennial, Lithuania, and Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany. Her solo exhibition ‘Ostalgie’ at KOW Berlin is on view until 6 April. Forthcoming exhibitions in 2019 include Urbane Künste Ruhr, Dortmund, Germany, and solo shows at Kunstverein Hannover, Germany (opens 13 July), Belvedere 21, Vienna, Austria (opens 26 September), and Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (opens 30 November).

This article first appeared in frieze issue 201 with the headline ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’

Main image: Henrike Naumann, Anschluss '90 (Annexation '90), 2018, Köflach double bed with integrated radio playing Radio Steiermark, Vorwerk Petticoat carpet, ashtray, Dalí wall clock, installation detail. Steirischer Herbst, Graz. Courtesy: the artist and KOW Berlin/Madrid; photograph: Mathias Voelzke

Kito Nedo arbeitet als freier Journalist für verschiedene Magazine und Tageszeitungen. Er lebt in Berlin.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019
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