Henrike Naumann, Ostalgie (Urgesellschaft) (Ostalgie [Primal Society]), 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Henrike Naumann, Ostalgie (Urgesellschaft) (Ostalgie [Primal Society]), 2019, mixed media. Installation view.

Henrike Naumann

Henrike Naumann’s first exhibition at KOW was about history in the broadest sense of the term. More precisely, it was a reflection on memory and the mechanisms through which recent history is written by still more recent history, as well as a study of the ways in which the now defunct German Democratic Republic figured in collective East German memory during the 1990s. The exhibition’s title was the portmanteau word Ostalgie—a contraction of the German words for east and nostalgia—which has come to describe nostalgia for everyday life in East Germany before it was exposed to the hardships of capitalism. Needless to say, this nostalgia is not only a highly selective retrospective construction but it also has been given its own capitalist inflection, marketed through GDR memorabilia and club nights.

The exhibition’s reflexive approach—examining past forms of historical narrative in a manner that is itself historicizing—is already nascent in Naumann’s material of choice: cheap ’90s copies of postmodern designs from the ’80s, which themselves once aspired to ironically recycle history. Already outdated on arrival, these symbols of a bright capitalist future flooded East German living rooms after 1990. But in the late 2010s, all those curved mirrors, cheap veneered furniture pieces, and quixotically contorted wall units add up to a rather bleak and dreary landscape of memory.

The three floors of KOW were here organized into a three-part argument. On the top level, where visitors entered the gallery, the 1990s set the tone, with Die Monotonie des Yeah Yeah Yeah (Eastie Girls) (The Monotony of the Yeah Yeah Yeah [Eastie Girls]), 2019, a large, chaotic installation built from the original ’90s furnishings of a shoe shop in Brandenburg, outside Berlin. Amid the objects making up this work was a small television set that played a short video mixing the eponymous phrase—a famous quotation by the GDR politician Walter Ulbricht disparaging Western pop music of the 1960s—with footage from The Flintstones and a bubblegum techno soundtrack.

The Flintstones reference reverberated as a comically exaggerated allusion to a seemingly intact, and wholly imaginary, primal, prehistoric state of society as it is constructed in nostalgic yearning. On the next level of the gallery was Ostalgie (Urgesellschaft) (Ostalgie [Primal Society], 2019—another extensive assemblage of furniture, which was mounted on a vertical wall, forming an “image” whose orderliness was not so much inhabited as projected. The socialist utopia that only a few years earlier had shone as a projection of a bright future had now been shunted to a past in which everything was supposedly better than in the present.

In the gallery’s basement, 2000, 2018, forged connections with the current political situation via an installation comprised of several pieces originally made for the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, Germany. The forlorn furniture sculptures seemed to be haunted by ghosts of the undead, emanating from the various sound and video works: Among these specters were far-right “Reich citizens,” who dispute the existence of a sovereign German state; unemployed East German miners; and the (West German) politician responsible for closing down their pits. In the video Triangular Stories Amnesia, 2012, West German teenagers are dead set on dropping ecstasy at a techno club called Amnesia, on the Spanish island of Ibiza. They stand in contrast to three East German teenagers who are drawn to neo-Nazism in Triangular Stories Terror, 2012.

The third and final act, Desolation, 2014, featured the voice of Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, a former gangsta rapper from Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood who in 2012 joined the Islamic State in Syria. Naumann stripped the images from Cuspert’s YouTube hate speeches, leaving us with the rapper’s ghostly and disembodied voice in our ears as we looked out upon the ruined landscapes of East German teenage bedrooms, arranged around the gallery’s bunker-like basement. It was here, beneath the cold neon light, that all was laid bare: feelings of being denigrated or discriminated against, of having no opportunities. These problems still linger today, as neither East German nor immigrant experiences have been given their due place in a shared German history. Instead, this has all been repressed, tucked away for more than twenty years in the cheap postmodern closets that were once sold to people as the false promise of another bright new future.

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.