At Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, cheap post-modern furniture becomes a symbol of failed social and economic integration
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, they 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, the 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 a East German town that later became the NSU hideout and, during the reunification, witnessed the households in her neighbourhood suddenly 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, these postmodern designs linger as emblems of promises unkept.
In ‘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. (It’s actually two rugs, the East and West slightly set apart.) On the material stand a horrorshow of tasteless furnishings from the 1990s: triangular tables, bedcovers of fake cowhide and a slate-look wall unit. Collected together, these Memphis zombies become more than a memorial to West Germany’s economic exploitation of those in the East. With their cheap ugliness, 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 testimonies to and symbols of the political missteps of German unity. Several items of furniture 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 baseball bats and two funeral wreaths made of fake cowhide (Altar Mourning German Unity, 2018). The symbolism is blunt, something 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, most of which require a deep knowledge of German history. Most accessible are the related videos Triangular Stories, Amnesia 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 connections 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