Silke Wagner

According to Marius Babias, the new director of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, “Silke Wagner presents a programmatic choice for NBK’s new orientation.” Wagner’s artistic approach, Babias says, refers “to the question of activating publicity and creates offerings for communication and interaction”—and thus appears to operate in complete unison with his intent to sustain, as the ground for an ideal critical education, the possibility of “participation in civil society” in a protected institutional space independent of market pressures. Babias’s reorientation of the NBK. is guided not by self-reflexive methodologies of institutional critique, but by forms of praxis that see art’s institutions as a bulwark against “the notion of culture as a consumer item” in the face of the state’s increasing lack of responsibility in cultural politics.

At the invitation of the NBK, Wagner has reactivated the modular stacking system that she has deployed in various institutional contexts since 1998—sequences of interlocking square boards that can be assembled in ever new formations. Upon entering the NBK’s main space, the viewer faced Wagner’s Plexiglas structure Ellen, 2008, which oscillates between its use-value as a display device and tautological serial permutations with a nod to Minimalist sculpture. Nearby, white neon light works gleamed on the black-painted walls, quoting historic emblems, predominantly from the new social movements of the late 1960s and early ’70s—from Woodstock and May ’68 to the Easter marches of the German Federal Republic’s peace movement. Ellen held fifteen monitors showing Wagner’s choice of videos (by Martha Rosler, John Baldessari, Vito Acconci, Valie Export, and Lynda Benglis, among others) from the NBK’s extensive collection of video works, the so-called Forum, established in 1971. The artist also shows one of her own videos, 7 Vorträge, ein Bild, ein Auditorium (7 Lectures, One Painting, One Auditorium), 1998, in which a group of students is made to listen to radio broadcasts about the protests of ’68, their expressions ranging from absent to apathetic. Near the offices on the second floor, Wagner has erected Roland, 1998, a comparatively sober-looking version of her standard display structure manufactured in wood, in order to present part of the in-house “Artothek,” a collection of four thousand works that can be taken out on loan by the public.

Wagner thus foregrounded the collection of the NBK, begun in the spirit of democratic participation in the early ’70s, juxtaposing it with emblems of the protest movements of the Left—and seemingly subsuming her own work to the self-presentation of a redefined institution, as the catalogue foreword and press release constantly suggest. Yet Wagner’s neon works are rather indexes of an irretrievably lost epoch, signifiers completely detached from the activist contexts in which they emerged, now reduced to mere logos. Her video, too, pointedly confronts the political engagements of forty years ago with subsequent student passivity. In this way the exhibition—far from merely performing an institutional service—at least partly distances itself from the curatorial rhetoric surrounding it, a rhetoric that is in danger of instrumentalizing the critical potential of artworks such as Wagner’s.

André Rottmann

Translated from German by Emily Speers Mears.