Illiberal Lives
Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen
22 April – 10 September 2023

The collapse of the liberal-capitalist post-war order that seemed to prevail after 1989 does not leave the art of this society untouched. Illiberal Lives, the current exhibition in the Ludwig Forum Aachen, starts right here. She asks how, with the breaking of the liberal promise of progress, the unfree, illiberal core of modern freedoms inevitably comes to light, and how the liberal fiction of art as a space for the expression of civil freedom comes under increasing pressure. Wherever art not only defends possessions or serves to conjure up national communities, it is increasingly showing itself today as a practical venue for social contradictions and exclusions. The works of Pauline Curnier Jardin, Johanna Hedva, Ho Rui An, Blaise Kirschner, Jota Mombaça, Henrike Naumann, Melika Ngombe Kolongo, Bassem Saad, Mikołaj Sobczak and Jordan Strafer break with the restrictions and violence of liberal freedoms and instead allow artistic forms of our illiberal life take their place. The new hangings of works selected by the artists and curators from the collections in the Ludwig Forum Aachen, which are part of Illiberal Lives add to the exhibition essential exacerbations of past and present. In their examination of works by, for example, Renato Guttuso, Konrad Klapheck or Jeff Koons as well as rarely shown works by Vincent Desiderio or Svetlana Kopystiansky, the invited artists always re-perspective the post-fascist history of Germany – in an institution whose collections are inextricably linked to the rhetoric of the bloc confrontation between East and West in the post-war period and the liberal narrative of “free” and “unfree” art.

The presentation of five installations by Henrike Naumann in the spacious hall of the museum, in which works such as Magdalena Jetelová’s sculpture The Setting on the Other Side, Jörg Immendorff’s Naht ( Brandenburg Gate – World Question) or a bust of Peter Ludwig by Lev Efimovič Kerbel are directly integrated The center of the exhibition: Naumann’s installations, in which furniture ensembles, accessories and design objects become sculptural, with their running video and sound works, make the location of Illiberal Lives in the post-war history of West Germany inescapable.

Naumann’s integration of key works from the Ludwig Forum into her artistic presentation of German political violence after 1989, the other artists invited to the exhibition juxtapose aesthetic figures of collective perspectives and thus often offer forms of artistic activity that break away from national ideas. For example, Miko ł aj Sobczak’s depictions of protagonists of LGBTQI+-based organizing, of queer, countercultural milieus and resistance movements from different eras combine with the revolutionary gestures of the murals by Aachen muralist Klaus Paier, Jann Haworth’s surfer sewn together from silk stockings, with Iconostasis ,a work by the artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, a well-documented participant in the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, and last but not least with the architecture of the exhibition space itself, which he selectively paints over.

The artists in Illiberal Lives aim for communal horizons, for collective forms of perception and for political spontaneity that erupt today from the cracks of the crumbling present. Because once the identity of art-work and artistic life-work has been broken up, the view also shifts to modern art history, in which extra-artistic historical continuities are inscribed. Built into Naumann’s work Das Reich , the question of whether Immendorff’s heavy bronze sculpture Naht ( Brandenburg Gate – World Question) disappearswhether it is formally successful as a work or not: its monumentality, choice of materials and exaggerated symbolism document an artistic-national self-portrayal that was symptomatic of its time, a Federal Republican formalism. In Illiberal Lives, the institution of art is therefore not understood as an authentic achievement of liberal modernity, but rather as a historical form of limitation – as an enclosure and isolation of artistic (life) practice that derives from forms of community that are lived out.

Illiberal Lives is a continuation of the Illiberal Arts exhibition curated by Anselm Franke and Kerstin Stakemeier at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2021, realized together with Eva Birkenstock and Holger Otten . The exhibition is accompanied by the production of a publication.

Photos by Mareike Tocha