Exhibition of contemporary German art to open at Kemper Museum
On Friday, Feb. 9, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University will open “Reality Bites: Making Avant-Garde Art in Post-Wall Germany,” the first museum exhibition to focus on German artistic production in the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of divided Germany. On Friday afternoon, the Museum will host a panel discussion with artists, curators and cultural critics affiliated with the exhibition and its catalog. The opening day concludes with an evening reception and extended viewing hours. All events are free and open to the public.
The exhibition takes as its central focus the effects of reunification and globalization on the German landscape, populace and collective identity as mediated by the art of the last 17 years. However, it is just as much about the use of technologies and aesthetic strategies towards a new mode of cultural expression in the contemporary era – an avant-garde for now. It is here that the exhibition moves beyond a survey of recent German art, with Berlin as its crucible, and towards a meditation on the modern, global condition. Germany becomes, then, an exemplar and a lens through which to approach the history of the West – with its genocides, its terrorism and its totalitarian states – and the future of the flattened, post-everything world.
Through its 70 works on view, the exhibition reveals the tensions between the local and the global, the aesthetic and the political in media ranging from photography and video to sculpture and new media. Although limited to art produced in Germany since 1989, the exhibition showcases 28 artists and artist groups of German descent or who were born abroad but are now based in Germany. The featured artists, many in their 30s and 40s, are of the generation which came of age during the post-Wall years. For them, the experience of reunification and its reverberations into identity and collective memory have become central and unifying themes for their artistic production.
The exhibition’s curator, Dr. Sabine Eckmann, director of the Kemper Art Museum, has organized the works in three thematic sections – “Re-dressing Germany,” “Traumatic Histories” and “Global Spaces.” Whereas “Re-dressing Germany” examines recently lived experiences in the unified Germany, many of its themes – xenophobia, state power, triumphant capitalism – echo in the exploration of Germany’s more distant past that constitutes “Traumatic Histories.” In the first section, Christian Jankowski’s video project “Haus des Ostens” (House of the East, 2000) conflates Disney-esque theme parks with the Darwinian extinction of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to highlight the marketing allure of “Ostalgie,” nostalgia for pre-unification East Germany. British artist Tacita Dean also employs photographic media but to different documentary ends: her photogravures of the former seat of GDR government, now a demolition site, demonstrate the limits of nostalgia and the purposeful obliteration of the past from the present-day reality of Berlin’s built environment.
“Traumatic Histories” mines pre-1989 German history including the National Socialists of the ’30s and ’40s, the homegrown terrorism of the ’60s and ’70s and the decades of the communist GDR to investigate the ongoing process and pervasive cultural effects of “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung,” coping with the traumatic past. The artist Collier Schorr revives and subverts the aesthetics of the Third Reich by appropriating its vaulted subjects: young, “Aryan” nationals. Her staged photographs of attractive, flaxen-haired youth portray Luftwaffe pilots and (perhaps “joy division”) maidens that remained at home while rhetorically challenging the enduring legacy of the blonde ideal. Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock also appropriate “youthful” imagery to question naivetâ€š and complicity during the Nazi era. However, their installation “Orte des Erinnerns” (Places of Remembrance, 1993) couples emblematic illustrations seemingly from children’s books with excerpts from anti-Jewish legal code.
The final section, “Global Spaces,” deals with the transnational character of contemporary culture in Germany and beyond and proposes mass media as both cause and possible solution to our simultaneous alienation from each other and our communal experience of everyday “reality.”
Friday’s panel discussion, to begin at 4 p.m. at the Kemper Art Museum, includes four artists whose selected works represent the diversity of media and subject matter in the exhibition: Beate Guetschow, Rudolf Herz, Christian Jankowski and Via Lewandowsky. The panel will be moderated by the exhibition’s curator Sabine Eckmann, Professor Lutz Koepnick of the departments of German and Film and Media Studies and cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen, all of whom contributed to the exhibition’s catalog. A reception will follow at 7 p.m.
The exhibition, which premieres in St. Louis, will close on April 29, when it will travel to a venue in Germany for display throughout the summer. The Museum has scheduled several events over the coming weeks to accompany the exhibition, including a series of evening lectures by scholars, cultural critics and art industry professionals as well as a festival of contemporary German cinema in mid-April. For additional information related to the “Reality Bites” exhibition or its related programming, please call 314-935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.
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