Personal Witnesses

Illiberal Lives, at Ludwig Forum Aachen, April 22, 2023 – September 10, 2023

The group exhibition Illiberal Lives contributes to a rich and provocative debate on art both as a subject and object of liberal market logic. It is curated by Eva Birkenstock, Anselm Franke, Holger Otten and Kerstin Stakemeier, with works by Pauline Curnier Jardin, Johanna Hedva, Ho Rui An, Blaise Kirschner, Jota Mombaça, Henrike Naumann, Melika Ngombe Kolongo, Bassem Saad, Mikołaj Sobczak, and Jordan Strafer. A unique aspect of this exhibition is that the artists, alongside the curators, have worked with the permanent collection and selected works that they placed alongside their own. By taking and rehanging gems from the Ludwig Forum Aachen collection, the selected artists have become part of the curatorial probing of how liberal promises of progress after 1989 are in a stage of advanced disintegration today. Illiberal Lives is a continuation of the exhibition Illiberal Arts, which was curated by Anselm Franke and Kerstin Stakemeier at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin in 2021.

Henrike Naumann, 2000, 2018. Site-specific installation (left); Wolfgang Mattheuer, Century Step, 1984-85. Sculpture (centre front); Magdalena Jetelová, The Positing’s Other Side, 1987. Sculpture (right). Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photograph by Mareike Tocha.

This second and final iteration is set at the old umbrella factory, now The Ludwig Forum Achen—a space filled with natural light and air. It is a beautiful irony that a space so attuned to fine weather was designed to make us ready for the worst of it. The light pouring into the main hall through the sawtooth roof, which before electric lighting was the design of choice for factories and industrial buildings, was in perfect harmony with Henrike Naumann’s five furniture-showroom-like site-specific installations. Imagine 3000 square meters dominated by a furniture landscape: a Stonehenge-like stacking of kitsch 1980s postmodern furniture design riding on pale pink or shag carpets make up Naumann’s Ruinewert—Einstürzende Reichsbauten (2019-2023). Off in the wings, on both sides of the massive hall, lay six more exhibition halls effectively providing each artist with a space to explore the exhibition’s themes. It seems as though the questions posed by the exhibition in 2021 are ever more prescient today.

Since the HKW exhibition, Russia has invaded Ukraine. Illiberal Lives attempts to re-imagine East and West tensions in the storied fight for free market economies and liberalized society. As background to the exhibition, the history of the Ludwig legacy is a fabulous story of chocolate, travel, money, and a love affair with collecting art from the East and the West during the Cold War. Peter Ludwig traveled freely across continents and the Iron Curtain, and to China and Cuba. His collecting activities span from Greek Antiquity to Rococo, and Pop. Peter Ludwig the Chocolate Baron, PhD in Art History and art collector, is on view within the exhibition too. The moment you enter you stand face to face with Peter Ludwig’s bust atop Naumann’s make-shift tabernacle of ribbons and pillows in the same gaudy purple and gold his chocolate wrappers were known for. Such is the way communist and capitalist histories are presented in Aachen, with sincerity and humor. It is the personal witnesses of liberalism’s history, the people and their faces that turn up in a brick-a-brack bricolage of videos, sculptures, drawings, and paintings. It is also the commodities that shape a sense of identity which are used as artistic material. For example, Naumann’s exploitation of found materials, alongside Soviet sculptor Lew Kerbel’s (1917–2003) bronze Porträt Prof. Ludwig (1983), suggests an ironic position of declaring capitalism a victor over communism. In Naumann’s virulent handling of the collection’s namesake, one finds Peter Ludwig’s bronze bust decorated with a faux-fur purple and white promotional pillow crown used for marketing the chocolates—the same ones that financed the collection. Crowns made of laurel wreaths have, since Roman times, represented martial victories. Rather than a laurel crown placed atop the bust’s head, its polyester simulation lies on the floor.

Lew Kerbel, Portrait Prof. Ludwig, 1983. Sculpture (installation by Henrike Naumann). Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photograph by Mareike Tocha.

To some extent, one may be tempted to see the Illiberal Lives exhibition in conversation with the Illiberal Arts exhibit at HWK in 2021. Both might be defined aesthetically in terms of the curatorial decisions to place large sculptural works as architectural interventions at the center. Naumann’s abovementioned Ruinenwert—Einstürzende Reichsbauten (2019–2023) is an intervention of furniture ensembles and design objects that invite Illiberal Lives to be understood from a position critical of consumption, by forcing us to walk around, move through and sit amongst the tarnished 1980s kitsch furniture. It is as though the artist deconstructs liberalism’s fetishism with the new, whether it is newfound freedoms, new markets, or new materials. The promise of the West with its material accessories shines hollow in this displaced context. The result is that it functions as a critical comment on liberalism’s core relationship to consumerism.

Henrike Naumann, Ostalgie, 2019. Installation; Lew Kerbel, Karl Marx (Model of the monument in Moscow), 1966. Sculpture. Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photograph by Mareike Tocha.

To the side of Neumann’s central installation, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol pop up as reminders that art and the institution exist in a shifting marketplace which can serve to intensify liberalism’s contradictions. For example, Mikołaj Sobczak places Andy Warhol’s framed silkscreen print The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) (1963), of the Hollywood vampire, as a graphic doppelganger to Sobczak’s video work Upiór (2022). In that film, the central figure is attacked by an upiór (Slavic folk culture vampire). According to tradition, people labeled as upiórs not only had shamanistic abilities but were also able to change their gender identification. So much of Sobczak’s work focuses on one of the paradoxes of liberalism: the greater the diversity within a population, the more alienated old identities become. In terms of art as a critique of the state, Sobczak’s subject is often Polish national history and its tumultuous relationship with the state’s abuse of minorities. Upiór tells the story of a Polish official visiting a Ukrainian Orthodox church that is to be demolished. The official’s dialogue with the Upiór creates a nuanced view of the violent minority policies of the Second Polish Republic (1918–1939), which forged ahead with forced ethnic and cultural assimilation of the Ukrainian population from 1921 onwards. By presenting this work next to Warhol’s The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), Sobczak forces us to consider a critical position in his appropriation of figures taken from the public imagination. In the large exhibition hall, he also presents us with The Vision (2022), where he addresses European uprisings, peasants’ wars, and acts of resistance to slavery and oppression. Warhol’s use of Lugosi by comparison can be seen as an attempt to decontextualize and reify the celebrity of Lugosi. In contrast to the richness of Sobczak’s work, Warhol’s silkscreen seems empty.

The irreversible loss of Western hegemony and the defensive struggle for liberal privileges and ownership rights are tearing apart the modernist notion of the special status of art. The works on show in Aachen continue to rip into this unresolved issue unapologetically. Mikołaj Sobczak’s approach to the history paintings of Polish and Slav histories effectively arrests an easy association with art as a space of expression for bourgeois freedom. Sobczak’s imaginative new approach to the genre of contemporary historical painting injects protagonists from LGBTQ activism, queer and resistance movements. His paintings Harem and Women’s Rebellion (both 2022) are inspired by the research of French historian Daniel Beauvois,(See for example Daniel Beauvois, The Noble, the Serf and the Revizor: The Polish Nobility Between Tsarist Imperialism and the Ukrainian Masses (1831-1836) (Chur, Switzerland; New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991).) who has reappraised the history of the relationship between Ukraine, Poland, and Russia in the past nearly 500 years by drawing on historical sources and documents. Sobczak’s use of unusual perspectives and wavy circus mirror distortions of the figures in his paintings are also accompanied by creatures from mythology. By humanizing them he is transgressive in his questions about what it is in society that makes us lose our humanity.

The Slavic peasant is at the center of Sobczak’s paintings and films. At the Ludwig Forum, no artist is better at presenting illiberalism and partisanship than Sobczak. Whereas the feudal peasant might be an easy pick to thematize the lack of freedom, Sobczak’s speculative historical perspective in his painting of prostitution is an interesting twist. For example, in his painting Harem (2022), Sobczak’s reinterpretation of Eugene Delacroix’s Women of Algiers (1834) is a triumph. Delacroix’s original painting was created after his first-hand experience of being admitted to the house of pleasure which would have been heavily guarded and very difficult to enter. The French Romantic painter depicts four women enclosed in a lavishly decorated room. Sobczak’s reimagining of the harem scene replaces Algerian women with Slavic peasants and carries forward to the present day the tensions between masters and servants. Through the act of relocation, the artist questions their portrayal and draws our attention to the fallacy that history is a march forward, equating liberalism with progress. How does one interpret Sobczak’s paintings of Ukrainian peasant women in a Polish count’s harem? The genre of the historical painting is upended in Sobczak’s hands. It becomes less a historical document and rather a speculative arena for mixing history’s witnesses. The artist’s political imaginary tends toward history’s injustices, in particular gender violence. Harem shows the women in traditional Ukrainian costumes meant to represent the 19th-century harem of the wealthy Polish count Mieczysław Potocki (1751–1805). The women of the harem, both to Delacroix and to Sobczak, transcend time and space offering the viewer a critical visual language in which the subjugated are a synecdoche for the conditions under which harems are made possible in Africa or Europe. Placing one subjugated person within another context can at times feel forced and may be seen as a petty way to create empathy and doesn’t necessarily enlighten through juxtaposition.

Jordan Strafer, Loophole, 2022. Film still. Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photography by Mereike Tocha.

The works at the Ludwig Forum often use humor to critique assumptions about art’s liberal tendencies. While Sobczak’s use of humor spans continents, Neumann seems stuck in a Eurocentric relational aesthetic between furniture and the economy. Illiberal Lives is perhaps at its best when it uses art to describe real-world historical examples of liberalism’s failure to provide justice. For example, New York-based video artist Jordan Strafer’s Loophole tells the tale of a 1991 American courtroom drama. The basis of this is a true story: John F. Kennedy’s nephew William was tried for raping a woman at the family’s residence; William was acquitted. The high-paid defense attorney Roy Black eventually married one of the jury members, the glamorous cosmetics tycoon Lisa Haller. This slice of American non-fiction is the subject of Jordan Strafer’s film. Her cinematic approach blends surrealism and the 1990s erotic thriller genre. Strafer’s previous work has used applied prosthetics, and silicone to enhance discomfort, for example, sunburns, a young woman with a worsening heat rash, or a flight attendant who resembles a doll. The effects disguise the actors in some way, to make them extra real and not real at the same time. Strafer’s version of Lisa Haller and Roy Black places the action in a 90s-era Fatal Attraction-like soft porn backdrop accompanied by the sexual trope of hot wax being poured over the lawyer’s chest to exaggerated suspenseful music. Interestingly, Strafer casts her mother as the attorney’s sex fantasy.

Jordan Strafer, Loophole, 2022. Film still; Jeff Koons, Large Vase of Flowers, 1991. Sculpture. Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photography by Mereike Tocha.

Strafer’s work is an example of the way Illiberal Lives can be seen as a loose collection of contemporary narratives concerned with the contradictions within the liberal paradigm of freedom. There is a kind of checking in to see what condition Western democracy is in.  By virtue of the whole of the exhibition not succeeding in providing a coherent narrative structure, this tells us that historicity itself is a game of context and renegotiation. Works with no obvious narrative part in the curatorial exploration of liberalism’s illiberal core, are curious. Strafer’s work is sensitive to its placement in time. Strafer chooses 1991 and positions her film beside another work from that year, Jeff Koons’s meter-high painted wooden Large Vase of Flowers (1991). Koons’s painted wood sculpture is noticeable when one walks into the darkened room showing Strafer’s film. It festoons itself like a peacock decked out on an ornamental dining table, as though it were a prop taken from Strafer’s film. Rather than a distraction, this pairing raises questions about how the Ludwig Forum is in the unique position of operating like a museum with a collection while hosting new artists, who in turn play host to veteran works. Koons’s sculpture is decorative and playful but there is a question of exactly what kind of game Strafer and Koons are playing. Both rely on pop culture, and both rely to some extent on irony. The subject of their irony is unclear, however. Ironic nihilism is a term that the curator Kerstin Stakemeier and Ana Teixeira Pinto(Ana Taxeira Pinto and Kerstin Steikmeier, “Brief Glossary of Social Sadism.” Text Zur Kunst Issue no. 116 (December 2019).) consider a dangerous weapon in the hands of Alt-Right movements meant to delegitimize progressive political positions. If Strafer uses parody and irony, what is the thing that is to be critiqued and corrected by this? These questions are left unanswered.

One possible way to read the relationship between Koons’s Large Vase of Flowers and Strafer’s Loophole is as a parasitic artwork, reinforcing a position put forward by Michael Serres’s Le Parasite (1980). Serres’s book, an early poststructuralist and posthumanist text, challenges the idea of the autonomous human subject. That is, Serres argues that ideas such as independence, autonomy, and agency obscure the interdependency of humans with their environment. Jeff Koons and his art may on the surface be the perfect symbol of individualized commodified material wealth, yet here, Koons is dependent on cooperation with his host, Jordan Strafer. And likewise, Strafer is dependent on The Ludwig Forum, and so on. Strafer’s work questions the moral integrity of a society in which wealth and justice are intractably entwined. The libidinal economy of Strafer’s hyper-masculine nineties-era courtroom thriller is as grotesque as it is alluring. However, the question of the extent to which Strafer or Koons can be seen as defending bourgeois freedom or acting as a subversive critique of the imaginary of the free citizen is an aporia of consequence. This exhibition wishes to present contemporary art as a scene of social conflicts and its exclusions.

The freedoms promised by liberalism have created an environmental crisis. Amsterdam-based Jota Mombaça’s installation I have nothing beautiful to give (2023), delivers an ecocritical position. A huge pile of dried mud sits on the floor amassed around an otherwise immaculate support column. The sheer mass of the drying mud looks like it has arrived there to support the architecture, rather than the other way around. The mud for Mombaça represents the uncontrollable sedimentary process of mud’s accumulation in underwater ecospheres left to forces beyond our control. The artist is interested in her city’s canals and how the Dutch coexist with and attempt to control water. The hydrological engineering in Holland in this work becomes something to be unlearned and perhaps even reverse-engineered. Mombaça seems to be asking what matters in a posthumanist reality amidst changing conditions and relationships with planetary trauma and water precarity. The artist takes a hydrofeminist(Astrida Neimanis, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist phenomenology (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).) position demanding that we reconsider a less controlling relationship to water or what curator Eva Birkenstock called the  “ultraliberal habits of production.”(Eva Birkenstock, text on Jota Mombaça in Illiberal Lives (exhibition booklet) (Aachen: Ludwig Forum Achen, 2021), 25. Accessed here: No doubt the artist is sincere, however the mud, despite being locally sourced, fails as an aesthetic object to propose an alternative imaginary to our hydrological precarious moment in what Bronwyn Baily Charteris has termed the hydrocene.(Bronwyn Bailey-Charteris, The Hydrocene Eco-Aesthetics in the Age of Water (London: Routledge, forthcoming).) In an exhibition that seems to propose contemporary art as the locus for the critique of liberal-capitalist post-war order after 1989, one might interpret Mombaça’s work as a deliberate refusal of the liberal narrative of ‘free’ or ‘unfree.’

Jota Mombaça, Ghost 6: In happiness, uneasy, 2022. Installation. Ludwig Forum Aachen. Photography by Mereike Tocha.

An unfortunate achievement of liberal humanism is that it has convinced us of the notion that individuals are autonomous and self-contained. Illiberal Lives shows us that it is in fact the opposite. Both artists and the art institution are shown to be socially extracted, interdependent, and in conversation. The fact that the exhibition might position all of the artworks as a testing ground for the curatorial hypothesis of the exhibition and less as art, but rather as signifiers of the symbolic economies of our present life is proof that an art world beyond the marketplace exists. It is also proof that the works on display are a potential site that makes visible this testing, a testing made possible by societal acceptance of the institutional validity of art.

Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market is rather made visible here. Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)(Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library, 1994 [1776].) forced us to consider if liberalism might be the freedom from or the freedom to. Secondly, once the invisible hand of the market is unleashed, how does the visible hand of the state turn the private vice of material greed into a public benefit? Interestingly, Illiberal Lives makes the same inquiry. If one substitutes the museum for the visible hand of the state, the Ludwig Forum does just that, it makes visible the tensions and contradictions within the capitalist political-economic configurations by showing us the ever-present possibility of structural breakdown and social crisis.

Michael Laundry
Michael Laundry is an artist, researcher, curator and critic based in Bergen, Norway. Laundry’s artistic and curatorial practice is grounded in trans-disciplinary exhibition-making as ‘happenings’. Laundry is Curator at Mikey Laundry Art Garden (MLAG). Laundry is an alumnus of the Curatorial Studies Programme, The Curatorial Thing at SixtyEight Art Institute. Laundry holds an MA in Comparative Literature and MA in Didactics from the University of Bergen. Laundry also holds a B.Ed from the Indigenous Perspectives Education Module (Simon Fraser University). Laundry’s research interests focus on curatorial ethics, neo-liberalization in publicly supported art venues, political aesthetics and the intersection between performance, technology and ecology. Published work on these topics has appeared in panels and conferences including, Akademirommet (Oslo) and The University of Plymouth. Laundry’s writing is featured in Kunstkritikk, ArtMargins, Subjekt and Bergenstidende. Laundry was selected for the Verien K Visiting Curators Vienna 2021 curators-in-residency programme and Momus Emerging Critics Residency Programme 2020.