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Henrike Naumann

Press release

Henrike Naumann – Ostalgie

Henrike Naumann’s first solo exhibition at KOW—it is also the gallery’s farewell show after ten years in the rooms at Brunnenstraße 9—explores the historical dimensions of a particular flavor of nostalgia: Ostalgie, the wistful yearning for life in socialist East Germany. As it happens, a nostalgic gesture is built into the exhibition venue itself: preserving the gap in the row of houses lining the street—it can still be seen on Google Street View—and transforming it into KOW’s showrooms, the 2009 structure by Arno Brandlhuber is a nod to a Berlin-Mitte that is no longer. Next door, a multimillionaire celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall by having the words “Dieses Haus stand früher in einem anderen Land” (“This building once stood in a different country”) written on its façade in large letters, a cynical and almost hostile appropriation of historical memory.

Like any other sentiment in capitalism, Ostalgie has been merchandised. Henrike Naumann’s new video Die Monotonie des Yeah Yeah Yeah (the title quotes Walter Ulbricht), embedded in the original furnishings of a 1990s shoe store in Brandenburg, examines the nexus between the marketization of memories and the construction of a new East German identity. The piece focuses on the birth of today’s East Germans from the beat of dedicated Ostalgie club nights. In retrospect, Ralf Heckel, who invented the format, interprets the inaugural party on New Year’s Eve in 1994 as an ecstatic ritual of community formation that opened the door to “true spiritual freedom” for East Germans. Ostalgie products are the artefacts of this long-ago departure for a new world as well as mementos of an allegedly magical instant: “Not only were we allowed to say what we wanted, we were even free to sing what nobody wanted to hear.” (Ralf Heckel)

Ostalgie may be read as an individual and collective longing: as the projection, loaded with positive emotions, of a fictional East German society, an imagination cobbled together from media discourses and selective snippets of memory. This sentiment is at odds with the communist philosophy of history known as historical materialism. In the logic of history’s necessary progression, the past could not possibly have been better than the future. With the collapse of communism, the authoritarian rollback around the world, and the onset of global warming, however, the future has lost its allure as a social vision. On the other hand, Ostalgie is also a form of resistance, a “counter-memory” (Daphne Berdahl) that defies a hegemonic culture of memory and commemoration as much as the colonialization of East German lived realities.

The linear sequence of stages envisioned by the Marxist model of social development and the capitalist growth paradigms share a positive point of reference: the primordial hunter-gatherer society as a projection of the human foundations of sociality. In the gallery’s ground-floor showroom, Naumann’s new installation Ostalgie (Urgesellschaft) turns the spotlight on the materiality of anthropological narratives and reactionary social models. East German everyday objects mingle with cartoonish furniture for a Flintstonesque “neo-Paleolithic” (Markues). Naumann’s work inquires into the abiding appeal of utopias that promise to reduce the complexity of contemporary life and beckon with the construction of an ostensibly simple past. Sexual, racial, and social structures that are unmistakably steeped in violence and raw power are the intellectual constants of this imaginary “retrotopia” (Zygmunt Bauman). The ground that no longer holds firm becomes the wall

Mass unemployment, the devaluation of people’s achievements, flexibilization, and the disintegration of social bonds were the landmarks of an East Germany that looked like a jungle; until 1995, West German public officials who volunteered to chart it were paid what was known as the outback bonus. Only in this “land before our time” (Littlefoot) did the “East Germans” come into being as an identifiable demographic recognized as such by both its members and outsiders. Ostalgic feelings, products, and practices are the immaterial and material expressions of the active making of cultural difference.

Probing the sediments of the past, Martin Hoop is a mine shaft leading down into the cryptic semiotic systems of the years after the fall of the Wall. 2000, an ensemble on view in the downstairs gallery, combines recent and earlier sound and video pieces to trace the genesis of the challenges of Germany today. This is the soil in which Ostalgie struck deep roots. Unemployed miners, dangerous far-right crackpots, a fanatical fundamentalist, and the hard-boiled executive Birgit Breuel, who led the privatization of East Germany’s industries and was commissioner general of the 2000 world’s fair in Hanover: they are the protagonists who put their stamps on the post-socialist crash and redevelopment. Furniture, rugs, and TV sets anchor the recollection of a future frozen in an infinitely distant yet recent past.

– Clemens Villinger