Please laugh, even if it makes you cry

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Of: Ingeborg Ruthe


Barbara Kruger,
Barbara Kruger, “Please Laugh, Please Cry” at the New National Gallery. Barbara Kruger/Timo Ohler © Timo Ohler

The media-critical exhibition of American artist Barbara Kruger at the New National Gallery in Berlin.

Three flags wave in the spring breeze in front of the Mies van der Rohe building, many Berliners’ favorite museum, which reopened after renovation last summer. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag flies as a statement of solidarity with Putin’s war-torn country – and the black and white banners with the words ‘Please laugh’ and in English ‘Please cry’.

The invitation came from Barbara Kruger, born in 1945, an American artist who grew up in poor post-war New Jersey. She tells us with her art: Please laugh, even if it makes you cry! Because there is war. again Putin, the Russian despot and aggressor in his brother country, Ukraine, is blackmailing the world with his natural gas and nuclear weapons.

With his text art, Kruger was no longer able to explicitly adapt to the terrible events of Europe’s second largest country. But their fonts on media criticism, false propaganda, fake news, manipulation and threats are universal signals: in war, truth dies first, extremes rule. She does not rely on conventional imagery, but rather on the power of huge letters, words and signs. This is how she comments on what is happening in the world and what is wrong. So should we understand the animation of laughter as humorous, even more ironic, even sarcastic?

A carpet of smileys

The stone floor of Mies’sche Oberhalle is covered with 2500 square meters of vinyl. A tapestry of strict texts – mostly written by Kruger himself, interrupted or bordered by a striking ornamentation composed of smiley faces, this standardized graphic representation on smartphones of facial expressions that reflect emotions.

Anyone who sends these things no longer needs to reflect and give information about their feelings for an SMS or on social networks. He can cut things short in this radically uninspired way; there is a suitable smiley for every situation. But to experience and grasp the socially critical art of Kruger, we have to walk around reading it slowly, marking it with the markings of our dress shoes, the red, white and black letters and symbols stomping on the soles, so to speak. . After all, art is a way to better understand the world. You should know that Barbara Kruger’s ideal is, as she says, “a clear and understandable art for which everyone can pay”.

She is one of the world’s most striking conceptual artists, has been meddling in political affairs for decades with her harsh and direct visual aesthetic and has been honored internationally with the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and in Germany. with the Goslar Kaiserring. With her typefaces, she has already fought the military interventions of the United States in Iraq, racism in her country and the arrogance of the West towards other cultures. She was and remains one of the most courageous critics of Donald Trump, the unspeakable ex-president of the United States.

Kruger is respected, but also hated in the United States for her clear messages. In 1991, she commented on the Gulf War as follows: she alienated an American star-spangled banner which, instead of the stars in the blue field, bore the exhortation: “Think of when pride turns to contempt. “. Instead of the white stripes in the red field, she wrote ten simple but uncomfortable questions one below the other: “Who has free choice? Who is outside the law? Who will be healed? Who is hosted? Who speaks? Who is silenced? Who greets the longest? Who prays the loudest? Who dies first? Who will laugh last?

Barbara Kruger’s main idea is clear: sharp messages against all forms of violence, sexism, misogyny, consumption and abuse of power. Long before the Metoo debate, she addressed equality issues.

excess of stupidity

In Berlin, she draws attention to our media world, on the social networks, this incessant stream of both useful and useless messages and questions, which of course hardly oblige their recipients to react in depth or even to give a correct answer. This massive flow of information remains as non-binding as it propagates excessive stupidity but also hatred and agitation. Algorithms do not judge and have no feelings.

As a spiritual and emotional antidote, Barbara Kruger uses thoughtful statements from writers in her vinyl typefaces: quotes from George Orwell, Walter Benjamin and James Baldwin, which can also be read in a journal accompanying the exhibit at the National Gallery in Berlin. “If you want to imagine the future,” she quotes Orwell’s 1984, as sarcastic as it is inconsolable, “imagine a boot stomping on a human face. Constantly…” And a whiny emoji.

New National Gallery , Berlin: until 28 August.

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