Henrike Naumann: Re-education
Sep 22, 2022 – 27 February 2023
In her first US solo exhibition re-education At the SculptureCenter, Berlin-based artist Henrike Naumann explores the power of design to convey specific messages and align with broader ideologies. Using mostly found furniture arranged into large installations, Naumann interprets objects of consumption as icons of political and historical significance. re-education refers to the dual meaning of the term, once as a post-WWII Allied program to establish themselves in Germany, and again after the dissolution of the East German Democratic Republic (GDR) and reunification. Having experienced her homeland in both the former GDR and a unified Germany, Naumann’s practice addresses the transformation of society after the advent of Western capitalism, including pop culture and material goods. In doing so, she asks the viewer to suspend their understanding of design and to engage in a re-education.
In the center of the cavernous exhibition space is a row of chairs in different styles, arranged in a giant horseshoe. The installation, horseshoe theory (2022) refers to the political concept that suggests that extreme left and extreme right are very similar to each other, rather than being on opposite ends of a spectrum. Visually, the idea is that if the extreme left and extreme right were aligned, they would bow toward each other like a horseshoe. Naumann’s work plays with a meme popular on Instagram called “Horseshoe Theory of Chair Design and Function” by the northwest_mcm-wholesale account, which associates chair designs with political and religious beliefs, as well as terms such as “science accuracy,” “third wave feminism,” and “science Accuracy” combines male chauvinism.
Naumann extends this satirical take on the already critical view of politics with a range of recognizable and unique chairs. Included in her installation is a replica of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House Chair in what the meme describes as hedonism. It sits between a design inspired by Hans J. Wegner’s round Danish armchair that marks the liberal square and a rigorous Shaker miniature stool in the space destined for altruism. Also included are a generic rolling desk chair symbolizing corporate life spent in offices and a plush dark brown lounge chair of questionable cleanliness representing conservatism and male chauvinism. These develop or evolve into chairs made from animal horns and bones suggesting nationalism and fascism.
Aside from those last two chairs, the range has a lived-in feel to it. Primarily sourced from the greater New York City area, the presentation is a case study of the diversity of styles people live with. The installation focuses on humanity’s tendency to associate design and taste with specific people and ideologies. While the hedonistic Mackintosh design might seem outlandish to some, to others it’s as desirable as the chauvinistic recliner.
Between the two ends of the horseshoe is a mural relief with the words “RADICAL CENTRIST” written in a severe style reminiscent of ancient Greek letterforms and framed by satin curtains. References are also superimposed on the names of the colors and materials used by Naumann. The curtains inside radical centrist (2022) are in a bony color called Hilton, and Benjamin Moore color names throughout the show include Wall Street, Capitol White, and Bleeker Beige, references to political and financial power in the United States. As a constant indoctrination, the paint company is known to draw inspiration from American history with collection lines like Colonial Williamsburg (which includes “Capitol White”) and Historical Collection (Bleeker Beige).
Overlaid with cultural and historical meanings, the horseshoe is featured throughout the show. In addition to the formation of chairs, real horseshoes are hidden in various places, hanging on a door and on the floor in the courtyard. The latter is available for visitors to play the turf game to which it is linked and references former President George HW Bush who was known for his love of the sport. The marketing for Naumann’s exhibition features an iconic image of Bush playing horseshoes with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, which took place during a historic visit to the White House in 1992 to mark the end of the Cold War.
The installation of the horseshoe chair is surmounted Rustic Traditions (2022), a pyramid of dark brown furniture, primarily desks and office storage. Farming implements, including pitchforks, shovels, and pickaxes, are scattered throughout the exhibit. The monumental heap of objects climbing the gallery wall resembles both an altar and a blockade. Naumann did the work as the embodiment of political extremism in response to viral images of rioters carrying guns and farm equipment as they attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Naumann points to the role of furniture in the event, particularly items associated with order and political tradition, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern that became a symbol of anarchy after it was stolen and carried away by a rioter. The overall form of the installation also envisions what a blockade might have looked like as a protective tool, as those inside attempted to shield themselves with furniture barriers. Another allusion to January 6th can be read in the horn and fur chairs horseshoe theory.
On the left side of the furniture pyramid is a relief text in the same austere script as radical centrist this reads “VERY FINE PEOPLE” with the second part on the right reading “ON BOTH SIDES”. The phrase comes from former President Donald Trump’s comments about the violent “Unite the Right” rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, where a man deliberately drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman. The statement and Trump’s refusal to condemn white nationalists laid the groundwork for the violent uprising on Jan. 6. Naumann highlights the way objects, design and words are linked to political ideology and significant historical moments.
There is an undercurrent of tension throughout the show: political tension, stylistic tension, cultural tension. Familiar objects are subverted to reveal something deeper about the user. This tension explodes in a small room at the back of the gallery. Hidden behind the massive furniture pyramid, the cavernous space is filled with iconography associated with the Flintstones, including rocks, bones and animal skin rugs. On the floor is a mat that says “Welcome to Bedrock”. At first playful, the room suddenly seems post-apocalyptic when a selection of Naumann’s films begins to play on the screens. Exploring a range of themes such as fascism, Nazism and club culture, the video works feel removed in time and culture from the rest of the exhibitions, as if viewers have found themselves in a bunker watching clips of bygone cultures.
The objects and designs people use to define themselves are overlaid with nuanced, evolving meanings. Throughout the show, the meaning changes depending on the context. Framing her own re-education with the deepening divide in the US, Naumann underscores how powerful material culture can be in aligning with larger beliefs.