Text by Nicola Jeffs
Where were you in ’92? asks Berlin-based artist Henrike Naumann, in a series (2012–) of photographs gathered from her peers – young people who were born on both sides of the Iron Curtain, each of them about to begin their own individual trajectories into adulthood at that moment.
The photos are drawn together from Naumann’s peers, those she met in Berlin during her studies. They were shot for private consumption in the titular year, 1992, to remember holidays, school days, playing with friends or tender moments at home with the family. However, although they show a specific time and place, the images are familiar to the point of self-identification – the subjects could be me (or maybe you too).
Vernacular photographs intended as private mementos helps us to understand the past more deeply. They tell us the story of the grassroots and what occurs behind closed doors. Naumann deftly utilises this medium in Where were you in ’92?, deploying snapshots as historical artefacts – documents that almost every one of us has to share – to tell a collective story of a generation.
At first glance, the images of 1992 hark back to a time (for many of us) of assurance and happiness, evocative of a hazy relief that something called the Cold War was over. Infectiously nostalgic as the photographs are to those who see their past in Naumann’s series, they take on new meaning when viewed as art objects as part of her wider oeuvre.
Naumann was born near Jena in the German Democratic Republic in 1984. Her practice comprises a variety of media, including film, sculpture and photography. Her work is often presented as large-scale, room-sized assemblages of fake Memphis furniture, which became popular in the GDR after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a desire for the look and feel of the West – but without the price tag – spread East. The tactile velvets, sticky-back plastics and pseudo-American pastel pinks of the furniture draw the viewer into an experience that seems familiar at first. Yet in Naumann’s sculptures the cheap postmodern furniture becomes, in the words of Moritz Scheper, ‘memorials to German disunity’, as the artist juxtaposes it with iconography of the German Empire, the Nazi era, the GDR and the US-led post-1945 ‘empire’. These works dig and bite at real violent political acts and the ideological shifts to the far right that occurred in the aftermath of the GDR and elsewhere in the western world after 1989.
Where were you in ’92? functions similarly in a way to Naumann’s installations. Viewers see photographs of Clemens with his Swatch watch, Bastian cruising in his Venice Beach-esque skateboard gear, Henrike with a new computer, Flippe sucking on his thumb and drinking a Fanta. The kids and teens in these photographs, from a wide range of global backgrounds, in Americanised aesthetics, were broadly unaware of the wider political implications of the events of the 1990s that threw any post-Cold War sense of security into a new era of socio-economic discombobulation and political dysfunction.
1992 was a defining year in German history in particular and this is of course why Naumann draws our attention to it. Racist, violent riots erupted in the city of Rostock, and the centre-right Christian Democratic Union party abolished the constitutional right to asylum. Naumann was drawn to ‘the innocence of the 1992 childhood photos, because it lies before people radicalized and paths drifted apart,’ she has explained. ‘In a way, by looking back at these pictures is a need to find out at what point things went wrong.’
Where were you in ’92? was first displayed in Zwickau, Naumann’s home town. The series was shown in conjunction with Triangular Stories (2012), a film work that juxtaposes the stories of a group of youths from a housing estate in East Germany with that of a trio of West German young people partying in Ibiza. The series was also included in Aufbau Ost (2016), Naumann’s first major solo exhibition at Gallery Wedding in Berlin, which explored extreme youth cultures in Germany and the integration of East and West Germany. The photographs from Where were you in ’92? were displayed in 1990s-era picture frames, becoming part of the wider installation and in the process merging innocence and hope with new and prominent conflicts. The photographs were hung askew on the walls, some touching, some not. Installation images of the exhibition were shot using easily accessible domestic cameras of the 1990s, which the photographs on display were probably also taken with. In doing so, Naumann further blurs the lines between history and today.
As Svetlana Boym argues, ‘nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place but is actually a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood’. 25 years is now a while back for some but the early 1990s feels like even longer ago. The photos in Where were you in ’92? are not nostalgic monuments to the past, but rather an astute commentary on the politics of the present that history has bequeathed us, and how the events of the past continue to play out today. Naumann hopes to make a book to further explore the links between her furniture installations and the images. She should: the work, like our crisis, is ongoing.Read more Photography+ Learn more about this artist