Recentering The West
Henrike Naumann
SculptureCenter, New York
by Katelynn Dunn

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

„Re-Education“ at the SculptureCenter in New York is Henrike Naumann's first exhibition in the USA, which affects the work of the artist contextually and visually. Born in communist East Germany, the former GDR, Naumann’s work deals with the German historical context of political extremism and addresses the youth culture of 1990s Neo-Nazism. Her installations employ interior design and personal everyday aesthetics to reflect on socio-political problems particular to her home country. Her attempt to connect to the New York audience is genuine, thoughtful, and somehow realistic. Reading American Psycho while visiting the city gave her a better understanding of what she calls the inevitability of carnage in a hardcore capitalist society that the main character practices. This is also the ground that paved the way for figures of the super rich such as Donald and Fred Trump to take power leading to the scenario that occurred on January 6 2021 – the Capitol attack.

The exhibition is the result of a unique combination of recent political factors and complex formulations from the artist’s decade of study pertaining to domestic terror groups in Germany. It brings the audience’s attention to the normalization of far-right and white supremacist violence, relevant to both the US and German contexts. It posits that centrism is a construction. To fathom the existence of a moderate place of debate and public imagination between fascism and anti-fascism is actually quite dangerous. It never plays out this way. Upon entering the institution’s space, the visitor is met with the main motif and overall grammar of the the show — to represent two sides of the manifestation of extremist ideologies and their negative affects on society at large.

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

The initial leading piece is a text relief titled Re-Education (2022) adhered to the outer-facing wall of the exhibition space. It is paired alongside a number of grade school desks with green fur attached to the seats. These call the audience to both an introduction and a message to decode. Reading in three parts from left to right is:“Modern,” “Re-Education,” and “Traditional.” The placement of words on what would be opposing sides – although is actually just a mirroring of two transgressions – is the energy of the show. Here, a book is opened on the re-education of a public among its falling democracy and takes the name from post-WWII re-education programs initiated by the US in Germany. The US, and its allies, attempted to re-democratize Germany after WWII with government led programs.

Naumann lived her early years through the reunification of the GDR and FRG. This view between the East and West and exchange between them is a perspective that she often addresses in her work. By twisting and revisiting new visual displays to dig further into the political contexts of ‘unifying,’ she also puts forth what she experienced aesthetically during her childhood.  As the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Western capitalist production and ideology began to influence Eastern living rooms through an adoption of style. This presented itself in an attempt to copy what was seen in the West as being aesthetically beautiful or modern for the time, but also reveals the exchange of social capital.

Henrike Naumann, Horseshoe Theory, detail, 2022, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

By creating based on historical trends, the artist resurfaces these aesthetics to open discussion about current political issues, putting forth the so-called bad taste of past political regimes and public opinion into visibility to be examined. [1] As „re-education“ is suggestive of acknowledging both the former way and new way moving forward, the exhibition probes an in-between state and a clearly sensed confrontation with that liminal space. The tone and message of the exhibition lies somewhere between eerie political pasts and the unknown future of US politics.

Framing the primitivity of white identity politics in Europe, Naumann often veils her installations with a post-modern lens ergo the pointed use of interior design objects. „Re-Education“ calls for another layer of site-specific knowledge, through the objects found around the New York City metropolitan local vicinity. The work in the center of the main exhibition space, Horseshoe Theory (2022), consists of fourteen chairs bent in a horseshoe formation facing Every chair is a completely different design and sourced from widely differing merchants across New York. Yet all bare a similar rustic color pallet including brown and bone, and materials range from wood to fur to leather and even stone. With the exception of a few plastic chairs, the materials and colors seem to reflect those found in the natural Earth, a place considered somehow more desirable. These tones and materials affirm the “Adirondack” style that emerged from northern New York state between 1870 and 1930 [2] to comment on the social inclinations of a certain sensibility by way of popular furniture choices. The title and form of the work is reappropriated from a meme titled Horseshoe Theory of Chair Design and Function that translates the representation of furniture design onto the “political horseshoe”, an educational didactic visualizing the totalitarian resemblance between left and right extreme ideologies. As such, the three-sided horseshoe would seem to signal a spectrum of ideologies that are opposed to one another, as the previous wall relief, Re-Education, would too. However, what is actually proposed are the two equally destructive modes are not so far apart in their effects on society. The metaphor indicates they actually work together to destroy centered, democratic, and cooperative norms. [3]

Henrike Naumann, Radical Centrist, 2022, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

On the inside wall of the exhibition space is the wall relief work, Radical Centrist (2022). This is the centrifugal point between both sides of the horseshoe and addresses the state of flux that occurs when strong oppositions work against each another – but also against overall resolution. At the same time it rejects the extremist attitudes that we see in the US and often globally. It also represents, along with Re-Education, the underlying subject of identity politics, which often gets overlooked in a nation where it may be uncomfortable for the public to address. The wall relief work spells out the words ”Radical Centrist” in Benjamin Moore “Bone White”, is framed with white IKEA curtain rods, bone-colored “Hilton” satin curtains, and ribbons. The terms radical and centrist appear to be oxymoronic and bring attention to unreliability of our belief that a center may be possible. 

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

Installed on a shorter wall in the exhibition space and comparatively out of view among to the eye-catching enormity and centrality of the other works, Iron Curtain (2022) is a less noticeable work in the show. Its burnt exterior also blends with the style of warehouse aesthetic and exposed steel beams of the space. It consists of rusted steel tiles from Home Depot acutely titled “From Plain to Beautiful in Hours”, „rusted hardware“, “handmade spiked bat primitive décor” and a “primitive rustic sickle” from eBay. Along with the video retrospective discussed below, the title of this piece is the clearest reference to the formerly divided Europe.

The wall motif epitomizes that toxic romanticization of either side – for example extreme left communism or extreme right neoliberalism. Both proponent positions may be similarly affected, creating their own problematic representational barricades to commonality and rationality that could be avoided. It’s also worth it to note a potentially underlying connection to Wall Street, which perhaps beckons beyond the political and social spectacles, and into the unspoken and often invisible economic fractures of New York City. Finally, the walls between us are made worse by political opponents and this perpetuates the differences in class and therefore unequal balances of power.

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

Rustic Traditions (2022) stands against the largest wall in the space. The work consists of 29 found furniture pieces that scale the wall, which is replete from floor to ceiling, and stuffed with an occasional pitchfork, sickle, or shovel. It represents the exacerbated politically extreme opinions and actions of the American public exhibited over the recent few years of the country’s unravelling. This resulted from an opening of painful class and race issues as discordance among the public’s vision of itself and its omnipresent role as a leader within the global sphere diverged. It's like being at Thanksgiving dinner and being forced to reconcile with the inclinations of a large bear in the room, just another form of the proverbial elephant, tailored to the context of the US political scene, wild and unruly in the moment of unrest. As grand and foregrounding as the US capitol may think it is, Rustic Traditions assumes to substantiate this beast as well as the event of the Insurrection and the political misrepresentation it implied. 

The title is also important here. It tells of something that is forced or old and deteriorating. Traditions are always on the way to becoming obsolete, appearing backwards to the next younger generation. Somehow this also points to the repetition of history and the problems we not only learn about but also experience, socially, politically, and economically, that inhibit social transformation. Or, perhaps this is the way in which society knows how to transform itself. 

Henrike Naumann, Rustic Traditions, 2022, detail, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

Entering the smaller exhibition space to the right of Rustic Traditions, the audience encounters the room-filling installation Welcome to Bedrock (2022) with objects modeled after the aesthetic cornerstone of The Flintstones television show – an iconic American family comedy and cartoon series that only ran from 1960 to 1966 but was the most popular TV show in the US until the Simpsons surpassed it. [4] Bedrock was the name of the town where the Flintstone family lived. A small doormat with the words “Welcome to Bedrock” lays on the floor with a few rocks piled next to the entrance. A hard and strong stone under surface terrain that most building foundations are cemented into, this word intimates that the base of the politics discussed here are perhaps rooted in an overall decreasing standard knowledge base. It lies outside of a diverse and fair understanding of political situations. With the popular vote winning elections, of course this understanding is the link between who may rise into power.

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

A video collection is featured here, among the most primitive yet functional furniture pieces and design objects made of dinosaur bones, rocks, rubble, and metal. They are imperative to understanding the exhibition. On a small television set encased in a rock frame screen five short films made between 2012 to 2020. In another window on the wall, framed with fur rugs hung on a thin bone curtain rod and a couple upside-down horseshoes, four more videos show, all made between 2018 and 2021. The films portray deeply troubling insight into governmental neglect of the public’s needs and an estrangement between government and polis. For example, in Das Reich (2017) Naumann depicts layerings of a press conference of the agreement between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic with photographic images of Stonehenge. In Tag X (2019) a voice narrates his conspiratorial convictions and disparaged feelings about the German government before an attempt to overthrow it.

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

In Masha Gessen’s e-flux podcast titled How We Survive Autocracy, which is observed in the exhibition text as an inspiration to the show, the systematic failure of the imagination is discussed as being a point of departure from democracy. When autocracy wins, the public imagination is at play, because according to constituent voters it seems unbelievable that such an unqualified candidate could gain enough support to become a national leader. [5] Naumann’s exhibition becomes darker when we realize the possibly severe consequences of this kind of political leadership and the fact that it is criminal to act against it. The Radical Centrist message is not necessarily an outcome but a reminder and outcry, loud and clear, a roadside sign flashing its lights in extreme caution.

Within „Re-Education“, Naumann has made the connection between different political knowledges – as she does with all her works. While the visual grammar of the show is concise on the exterior, the intersecting lines of left wing, right wing, bourgeois, working class, historic, and current politics all cross to form an interior philosophy that puts forward a grounded and somber view. Beyond the underscoring irony and alluring use of sentimental trappings and local cultural motifs, there are serious questions posed about the long-term effects and consequences of national political divisions, walls, specially when they form extremes. Whether it was living in a divided Germany during the Cold War or enduring a previously abhorred US presidential administration – the show feels like reintroduction to reality and push to move on from former states of being.

[1]  Madsen, Kristian Vistrup. “Bad Taste or Ugly Truth?” Kunst Kritikk. March 03, 2021.
[2] Cocar, Leo. “Rustic Americana: A Tour through the New York School of Interior Design Library.” Re-Education (2022) Exhibition Text. 2022. Page 17.
[3] Berlatsky, Noah. “Let’s put an end to ‘Horseshoe Theory’ once and for all.” Pacific Standard. February 9, 2018.
[4] Sands, Rich. “The Definitive Ranking of The Simpsons, Peanuts, and More Old Cartoons From Your Childhood.” TV Guide. September 24, 2013.
[5] Gessen, Masha. “Masha Gessen on how to survive an autocracy.” e-flux podcast. May 22, 2018.

Henrike Naumann, "Re-Education", installation view, SculptureCenter, New York, 2022. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Charles Benton.

Henrike Naumann
22/09/2022 – 27/02/2023


44–19 Purves Street
Long Island City, NY 11101