In 1990, shortly after the reunification of Germany, Christoph Schlingensief released his controversial film, Blackest Heart, which features naive East Germans who are hunted by bloodthirsty, chainsaw-wielding West Germans, their battle cry: ‘Welcome to the market!’ Almost three decades later, we can agree that Schlingensief was onto something, since, for most East Germans, the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) signalled a turn for the worse. The hopes of these people – who, overnight, were integrated into a different country, society and economic system – were never fulfilled. Instead, these communities were plundered, as private investors snapped up the collective property of their socialist economy.
In recent years, the trauma of this failed reunification has gained a higher profile across Germany, as a result of the emergence of an extreme right politics, its roots in the East, and of the neo-Nazi group NSU, who carried out a series of xenophobic murders between 2000 and 2007. Naumann was born in 1984 in an East German town that later became the NSU hideout and, during the reunification period, witnessed her neighbours exchange their old furniture for ‘Western’ products: poorly made, irony-free copies of Memphis Group designs that were no longer fashionable in the West. These harbingers of a supposed golden age were followed by nothing but economic defeat and as Germany’s eastern states continue to lag behind, their postmodern designs linger as emblems of promises unkept.
In her exhibition ‘2000’, at Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Naumann links the history of the two Germanys and postmodern design via a grey, cheap-looking rug in the shape of the country’s territorial borders, the East and West slightly set apart. On it stand a horrorshow of tasteless furnishings from the 1990s: triangular tables, bedcovers of fake cowhide and a slate-effect wall unit. Shown together, these Memphis zombies become more than a memorial to West Germany’s economic exploitation of those in the East. Shoddy and outdated, they also emit a nasty aura of defeat and precarity, thus reflecting the situation in which many found themselves, by no fault of their own, after reunification.
Naumann relies on the narrative vigour of these objects as a testimony to and symbol of the political missteps of German unity. Several items have been reworked through minor interventions, like a wall unit of cherry veneer that has been given the heraldic quality of a tomb thanks to the addition of two pillar-like baseball bats and two funeral wreaths made of fake cowhide (Altar Mourning German Unity, 2018). The symbolism is blunt – due, in part, to the fact that these installations echo the interior decor favoured by contemporary East German neo-Nazis, which Naumann researches on social media. In this post-Memphis hell, the sad mass phenomenon of neo-Nazism is linked to the failed social and economic integration of many former citizens of the GDR.
The connection between furniture and reunification is mainly made palpable through several films, the majority of which require a deep knowledge of German history. Most accessible are the related videos Amnesia, Triangular Stories and Triangular Stories, Terror (all 2012), which introduce us to two groups of three teenagers. While a West German trio party in Ibiza, their East German counterparts become violent towards themselves and others: an act of defiance against their own neglected town. This second group is easily recognizable as young versions of the three NSU terrorists whose radicalization Naumann also links, quite plausibly, with the failings of reunification. These associations are by no means new, but set alongside the cheap Memphis copies, within an important West German museum, Naumann offers an experience of the ways in which former citizens of the GDR have been abandoned. And she makes it clear that the therapist’s couch upon which Germany needs to lie will certainly not look very tasteful.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Henrike Naumann: 2000 runs at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, until 10 June.
Main image: Henrike Naumann, '2000', 2018, installation view, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach. Courtesy: Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach; photograph: Achim Kukulies
First published in Issue 196