Lothar Baumgarten

When Lothar Baumgarten applied the names of Indian tribes to the walls of the Guggenheim Museum, some visitors were offended. They didn’t understand why a German artist would tell Americans about their own history. The crux of the matter lies in how one approaches the artist’s use of words: the subject of this work is not American history, not the Indians or their customs; it is the words themselves. When Baumgarten uses words in his installations, he is not interested in what they signify, but, rather, in what social constructions they reflect.

On the interior walls of Portikus, pairs of words were painted in pairs of alternating colors, forming ellipses through their order, moving along the walls and around the corners. It has become very common to speak about language as a carrier of culture. Baumgarten—in his permanent installation in Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt or at the last Documenta, and now for this exhibition—makes his crude nouns into guides through the warehouse of culture. Many of the words reflect a no longer extant reality, but the way of thinking that led to their formation remains, and thus they are like the scaffolding of contemporary culture.

In his earlier works, Baumgarten confronted nature and culture from the perspective of “manipulated reality.” This was evident in works such as the Guggenheim installation. His attention to all things that reflect a cultural structure is also directed at the exhibition venue itself. He takes aspects of the space and uses them in the work. Portikus is the ruin of a portal of the former city library; on the frieze the words litteris, recuperata, libertate, and civitas are etched. These concepts are taken up in the accompanying publication—a four-page supplement to the newspaper the Frankfurter Rundschau. At the top of each page, one of these words appears, thus giving an order to the subsequent list of words. As in the exhibition space, words are also paired here. One group comes from German newspapers; another is made up of terms specific to botany and zoology. The publication of the words from the newspaper returns them to their origin—in a newspaper words function as signs of a social climate. In Baumgarten’s supplement, the word pairs tell of details; in the installation they have an architectonic quality since the words offer directions on moving through the space. Thus, the words are not representative of a certain thought structure; they are independent images of language. Rather than an effort to decode each word, a patient and associative reading is required in order to find the pathways through the cultural warehouse, through the cultural preserve, through the wilderness of concepts.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.