Polish artist Goshka Macuga — history lessons from the women of the Bauhaus
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Polish-born, London-based artist Goshka Macuga is interested in the history of ideas — from modernism and futurism to communism and fascism. She takes concepts that could be dry or abstract and makes them relevant. Sometimes frighteningly so. Ranging from collages to plays and to humanoid robots, Macuga works across different media, often challenging the notion of authorship by collaborating with other artists or by acting as collector/curator and displaying others’ work.
It is apt then that Macuga should tackle the legacy of the Bauhaus in its centenary year, as she does in her solo exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover. Just as the movement encompassed everything from handicraft to architecture, typography to stage designs, Macuga’s show, stairway to nowhere, presents a dizzying array of artistic approaches.
The first work visitors encounter is the sculptural installation “Kabinett der Abstrakten (after El Lissitzky)” (2003), a cube-shaped cabinet with pullout elements on which artworks by other artists are displayed, from Nino Barbieri’s 1968 “Breakfast Piece” to Jonathan Monk’s “My glasses” (1994). The piece pays homage to Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky’s “Kabinett”, which was commissioned in 1926 for the neighbouring Sprengel Museum in Hannover and conceived as an interactive room for art that viewers could rearrange at will. It was a milestone in the European avant-garde, a Gesamtkunstwerk with numerous authors, including the viewers themselves. Deemed “degenerate”, it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1937; a reconstruction in the Sprengel Museum no longer allows for viewer curation.
Macuga seems to say that, despite technological advances, history is never simply a matter of “onwards and upwards” — it moves in waves. Works in the adjacent gallery drive home this point. “Noticeboard” consists of dozens of Polish newspaper clippings of articles about visitors attacking works in Polish museums post-1989, when political and belief systems were undergoing seismic shifts. When she first showed “Noticeboard” in 2011, Macuga thought it marked the end of the sort of censorship that had prevailed in Poland. “We now know that it’s going in the complete opposite direction,” she says, mentioning the recent removal of three feminist works from the National Museum in Warsaw that have allegedly offended young viewers.
“Untitled” (2019) explores the idea that censorship often highlights an artwork’s subversive power. Here, Macuga spins a web of references out of an existing tapestry by cutting it up and interweaving it with an acrylic-painted canvas. The original tapestry depicted a blown-up photograph from the opening of her 2009 exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery — the same institution where Picasso’s antiwar masterpiece “Guernica” was displayed in 1939. With a nod to that history, Macuga loaned the tapestry version of “Guernica” that has hung in the UN Headquarters in New York since 1985. By deconstructing an earlier work to create a new, interrupted image, Macuga questions our ability to internalise history.
On the museum’s upper level, Macuga honours largely forgotten women thinkers, including those of the Bauhaus, with large-scale installations and collages. Colour-field pieces woven into cut-up graph paper as on a jacquard loom, these collages reflect her interest in the history of knowledge, post-human futures and the ecological crisis. (Works from this series will be at Art Basel, with the Munich-based Galerie Rüddiger Schöttle and London’s Kate MacGarry.)
Three glass installations, “Haus der Frau 1”, “Haus der Frau 2” and “Deutsches Volk — deutsche Arbeit” (all 2008), recreate, from original sketches, fragments of exhibition designs by Lilly Reich, who is assumed to be responsible for much of the furniture that her husband, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is credited for.
Macuga’s tapestry “1919/1933” (2019) addresses the sometimes conflicting values attributed to the Bauhaus during the school’s brief existence, cut short by the rise of Nazism. But it also reflects its founders’ attempts to spin a narrative about the school after the second world war. It depicts a colour-coded graph that lists values — “utopian”, “anti bourgeois”, “elitist”, “fascist” — on one axis, and the school’s years in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin on the other, as if to show which ideologies were influential when. “The gaps of the truth are probably pretty huge”, says Macuga about the graph. And that’s exactly the point.
To August 4, kestnergesellschaft.de