Noland’s work makes use of an American iconography of stars and stripes, empty beer cans, charcoal grills, tabloid headlines, and sporting equipment – including firearms – and a material vocabulary of fences, walls, and shackles, combined in a narrative of oppression. Technology is explored here not in its digital incarnation but in its most basic sense, as tools: physical aids such as walkers and canes appear to attempt to work around a caged-in spatial and social reality – to poke fruitlessly at the imposing gallows of late capitalism. Noland has referred to the commercial art world as a “maze”; in Frankfurt, her vision of the American Dream is labyrinthine too, a post-industrial trap designed to immobilize.
The show is MMK director Susanne Pfeffer’s curatorial debut at the institution, where complimentary programs – notably, two ambitious conferences called “On Violence” and “One Day on Cady Noland,” an adjacent group show, Because I Live Here, dealing with racism and immigration in post-war Germany as well as the video-installation Blood in My Milk by Marianna Simnett, dealing with economic, social and patriarchal power – situate the exhibition firmly in contemporary discourse of human rights and structures of power. For Pfeffer, a museum is a public platform, in which institutional violence and racism must be addressed politically and philosophically, and a space in which the works on view must inspire and engage with conversations about the social realities outside of its doors.
Victoria Camblin: Walking through the exhibition there were moments where I felt trapped, where I encountered a wall where I thought a door would be. It was disorienting, maze-like – you were fenced in by works made of actual fences. The installation and experience of the work within the museum mirrored the content of the work itself, the subject matter of oppression and immobility present in the physical space of the MUSEUM MMK.
Susanne Pfeffer: The architecture of MMK is very specific in the way that you can choose where to go since there is no predetermined direction. That means that you are free and risk to get lost at the same time and you feel the subject of architectural oppression and mobility/immobility even stronger. In my curatorial experience, it is the space which demands the exhibition and not every exhibition is working in any space. The space determines how exhibitions are set up and how you narrate an exhibition – what’s the first work, what’s the last work. For example, it was quite obvious to put the Publyck Sculpture — a huge three tire swing — in the central hall. It’s a public space within the public space of the city run museum that reminds me of an agora or campus. The sculpture is dealing with exactly that: how the public environment is shaped and designed by certain materials and forms. Almost as a joke we put this Oldenberg Bacon over the balcony, so you could think of an old guy going over and looking down into the space. Formally, it started to look like a flag.
VC: It creates a piazza.
SP: Some people did say, “Oh why is a certain work there twice, that’s strange.” But it’s not a repetition. It’s just another constellation. If there are two fences in two different locations, they work together like an actual fence. Seeing her works in the space I realized you can’t show any more than three of them together, because it would weaken them – we had to put it in that tension, using the whole building and the whole space. That’s why the works are so strong: the tension is huge. The emptiness of the space made me afraid in certain ways – after awhile, I became possessed. I think there’s an intimacy that comes when you go to the space and see the whole vocabulary she has developed, with similar aspects formulated differently through more than one work. Maybe this is what gets the viewer closer to an artistic way of thinking.
VC: The show has been extremely well received, and artists in particular seem to be totally possessed by it, too – unanimously moved, even overwhelmed. I’ve never seen that type of consensus among artists about a museum show before.
SP: First of all, I could never have expected that. I’m really touched that people are touched, moved or shaken. I think that Cady Noland’s work is very consequent and without any compromises, and that is something that people are shaken by. The work is so direct, so strong, so brutal, and the straighter you present it the stronger it gets, because the work is so exacting. The work is simple, but there’s violence in its materials, in its forms, and in how masculine it is. Yet there’s always humor in it, without ever getting cynical or unserious. She can even make a good work with some cans of beer. Maybe it’s a difficult point to reach for an artist, to have this emotional precision, and then to just throw something on the floor. With her materials, everything is just as it is, you know? If something is hanging on the wall it hangs on its wall, the hanging system is part of the work. If something is standing it stands on its own. This gives the works a certain independence: they are what they are.
VC: Much of the work is from the 1990s, and of course it’s so resonant now. Is the thesis that Noland’s work was somehow prophetic?
SP: I think all artists are quite sensitive to the world and to the formal language of their environment, and work around it. They see how society treats people like objects, how modernity and the materials of modernity are, how national identity is constructed. In a certain way the American Dream, or the negative side of that – the consumerism, the sales optimization, this whole way of constructing a social life and a nation – became global. This work is about how much of modernity is directed against the body, how it’s constructed against the human, and how all this shapes us. And that’s something she already observed so clearly in the 1990s. With the internet and social media, the issues of how we construct a society in the public space or in the media space – spaces where we think about and in which we discuss society – have become more violent, more visible, more intense. That’s what is so interesting about Cady Noland’s work: those are real chains, that’s a real fence, but she puts those physical materials on the border next to symbolism. When people go to the exhibition they may not all be analyzing what is going on, but everybody is getting it physically.
VC: With the magazine I often think about publishing as a “making public” of content – and there’s a tension there, between what you make public and what stays private, and how you mitigate that distinction responsibly. The internet complicates that.
SP: I think in the way she is dealing with media, with public spaces, isn’t directly about the internet or how communication has changed, but about our relationship to objects – about treating people like objects, about knowing how much objects influence us. People still have fences, want more fences, and die on fences. Yet a fence is also an everyday thing: you have these things around, and these things change the way you move and think. The relationship between object and subject that Cady Noland has always been thinking about is really contemporary. It’s like a continuum, a relationship you can’t differentiate so easily anymore in terms of the subject forming the object or vice versa. “It’s a subjectivity of the object-image-thing” as Peter Osborne suggests. But for every garden, somebody decided what the fence would be like: which materials they’d use, how it would look and function, and whether you can look through it. Do I have to use the wall to be a part of society? If they use a wall am I excluded? That’s laid out in Cady Noland’s work: how public space is public but also private, institutional, and commercial. As a normal citizen I might not be able to influence that – I am just there and have to deal with it. But we can think about what language is doing and what objects are doing, and how these things influence our space and ourselves.