In 1944 George Orwell wrote in Tribune, the leftwing British newspaper: ‘Of all the unanswered questions of our time, perhaps the most important is: “What is Fascism?”’ Seventy-five years later, the question remains unanswered. Were the riots in Chemnitz, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville or the National Radical Camp’s hand-in-hand march with Forza Nuova through Warsaw on Independence Day fascism? There is one thing of which we can be sure: once we do know, it will already be too late.
‘Resistance Against Fascism is the Best Art’ read a banner hung by Occupy Museums in New York’s Whitney Museum on the occasion of the #J20 Art Strike back in 2017. The slogan hasn’t really caught on, which makes the art of Henrike Naumann all the more urgent. Naumann comes from Zwickau in the German Democratic Republic (she foregrounds the fact that she was born in a country that no longer exists), which was a bastion of the National Socialist Underground. Her art places the viewer in an uncomfortable situation. Instead of giving openly antifascist declarations sprinkled with art-gallery confetti, she offers an unpleasant insight into the mundane, unleavened, small-town roots of fascism.
Her installation 14 Words (2018) – a sterile, empty shop space – at MMK Frankfurt is an investigation into the Order, a white supremacist neo-Nazi group active in the US during the 1980s (the title of the work derives from the 14 slogans from Hitler’s 1925 manifesto Mein Kampf adopted by the Order’s leader, David Lane). Her 2017 exhibition Das Reich at the Kronprinzenpalais, meanwhile, was devoted to the Reichsbürger movement, comprising the self-appointed ‘heirs’ of the German Empire who question the legitimacy of the federal government and see themselves as ‘indigenous people’ under occupation. In a room filled with items of modernist design, in a predominantly black-and-white palette, was a cushion bearing the Parteiadler eagle, the emblem of Nazi-era Germany.
The artist began her career with scenography and later moved through film to visual art. Most of her installations resemble furnished stage sets, through which Naumann deals with our every- day and homely fascism, assessing the conditions in which the historical monster is being resurrected. Looming in the background of her work, however, are questions concerning the role of realism, the political engagement of artists under Communism – her splendid exhibition at the Galerie im Turm, Berlin, included paintings by Karl Heinz Jakob, a member of the Guild of Artists of the GDR and Naumann’s grandfather, amidst her own installation – and the neglected consequences of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Henrike Naumann, born in the German Democratic Republic, is an artist whose immersive installations combine videos, sound and scenographic spaces as a way to explore the roots of the rise of the German ultraright over the last two decades. She lives in Berlin.
Sebastian Cichocki works as the deputy director at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Between 2005 and 2008, he worked as director of the Centre for Contemporary Art Kronika in Bytom.
From the January and February 2019 issue of ArtReview, in association with K11 Art Foundation