Barbara Kruger. Bitte lachen/Please cry
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin
April 29 – August 28, 2022
The Neue Nationalgalerie presents Barbara Kruger‘s first institutional solo exhibition in Berlin. The US-American conceptual artist is developing a typographic installation, especially for the exhibition hall of Neue Nationalgalerie that covers the entire floor of the exhibition space and invites visitors to join in on a group discussion about political and social issues. In the expansive installation, Barbara Kruger combines her own writings with citations from three authors: George Orwell, James Baldwin and Walter Benjamin. Their texts each revolve around major political themes: the violence of totalitarian states, the mechanisms of social discrimination and the dangers of one-sided historiography.
At the centre is the sentence taken from Orwell’s book “1984“: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-for ever.” Originally, this nightmarish vision of a totalitarian state was created by Orwell directly after the Second World War and was intended as a reckon-ing and a reflection of the National Socialist dictatorship in Germany. Orwell’s novel “1984” is a general and timeless warning to society to view and judge every form of state violence and surveillance critically. By quoting this prominent phrase, Barbara Kruger also draws attention to the dangers of repressive structures and states, which occur at all times and universally. In the light of the current conflict in Europe, however, the warning against the violence of a totalitarian state seems more relevant than ever.
Alongside the literary quotations are short texts written by the artist, borrowed from social media messages, which directly address the visitors and refer to the discrepancy between self-perception and self-alienation: “Please laugh”, “Please cry” or “Is this all there is?” Kruger counters the classical and stark architecture of Mies van der Rohe with his own distinct, signal-like aesthetic and questions fundamentally consumption-oriented, affirmative ways of life that characterise many states and societies today.
Through the combination of a direct address (in her own short texts) and the use of three thought-provoking statements by well-known authors, the artist strives for a profound reflection, also an expansion of consciousness. The texts, says Kruger, “can be read relatively quickly, but their meanings should linger and remain present despite of the ephemeral nature, the delights and sorrows of digital culture. I hope it suggests that subjectivity is in flux and it points to the power of one’s ego and empathy. Hopefully, this will succeed in bringing the contradictions of power, control, gender, colour and money to the foreground.” (Barbara Kruger)
The installation is part of the programme for the reopening of the Neue Nationalgalerie. After the more historically oriented exhibition “Alexander Calder. Minimal – Maximal”, during which the building opened in August 2021 after extensive renovation, Barbara Kruger‘s typographic work stands for an emphatically contemporary attitude and perspective. Out of respect for the iconic architecture, Kruger focuses her work exclusively on the ground floor of the building. All historical elements of the building (such as curtains, carpets, Mies furniture) were removed from the hall. The installation, therefore, allows for a puristic experience of both: Mies’ glass space, which has been reduced to its basic elements, and Kruger’s written work, which is completely condensed into its forms and messages. With the graphic force of the writing, reduced to only three colour tones (black, white and red), Kruger succeeds in bringing a strong artistic language of its own into the massive building. Apart from all the relevance of the texts and themes, the invitation to Barbara Kruger is also a tribute to an outstanding artistic position that has strongly influenced the art of the late 20th and early 21st century with her feminist and political approaches.
Barbara Kruger (*1945) has been known since the 1970s for her large-format graphics with pointed statements or short texts, questioning common social stereotypes from a feminist and consumption-critic point of view and exploring how images and ideas are disseminated and perceived today. In 1983 she had her first museum exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Kruger also displays her work in public spaces on advertising posters, banners and billboards. Past exhibitions dedicated to Barbara Kruger include the Art Institute Chicago (2021), the National Gallery of Art in Washington (2016), the Kunsthaus Bregenz (2013), and the Pinakothek der Moderne (2011) and the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2010). Her work is currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum. Kruger is also exhibiting at the 59th Venice Biennale (2022) with a large-scale typographic and media installation.
With the exhibition by Barbara Kruger, the National Gallery is also pursuing the goal of giving female perspectives a clearer and stronger presence. Kruger’s exhibition was preceded by dance performances by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in March 2022. Barbara Kruger’s contribution will be followed by a solo exhibition by Monica Bonvicini in autumn. The National Gallery’s collection, which historically consisted primarily of works by artists, is also to be expanded in the future to include more works by female artists. Curated by Joachim Jäger, Deputy Director Neue Nationalgalerie – Museum of the 20th Century; Curatorial assistance by Lisa Botti, Research Museum Assistant hereafter, Neue Nationalgalerie.