Nostalgia and Neutrality in the work of Jasmin Werner
Emerging artist Jasmin Werner exposes biases in architecture and design, showing that nostalgia is more than mere contemplation of the past.
“It is easy to accept the physical landscape unthinkingly as a neutral background,” wrote Leslie Kanes Weisman in the Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women. “But the spatial arrangements of buildings and communities are neither value-free nor neutral; they reflect and reinforce the nature of each society’s gender, race, and class relations.”
Like Kanes Weisman, Jasmin Werner is attentive to the ways our built environment reflects the attitudes, prejudices, and desires of the society in which it is produced. For her inclusion in the group show Musée sentimental de l’ours de Berlin, for instance, she used the exhibition’s unusual location, a former bear pit (Bärenzwinger) turned project space, as a chance to explore the role nostalgia plays in the changing face of the German capital. Originally built as a sanitation depot, the building, which is located in the central Berlin district of Mitte, was turned into a highly popular public attraction in the late 1930s. The timing was suspicious. “This was just before the Second World War,” explains Werner, “It’s likely that it was used as a distraction to calm the people and have them more on their [the National Socialist Party’s] side.” The choice of bears also seems calculated; the animal has been Berlin’s unofficial mascot since it first appeared on the city’s seal in 1280.
While the origin story of the Bärenzwinger has been largely forgotten, it remains an emotional place for many Berliners. Invited to produce a project for this location, Werner, who grew up just outside Berlin, took these memories into account. “Knowing it from my childhood,” she says, “I really liked the idea of creating a public sculpture that could communicate with the people who lived there.” To do so, Werner tied the story of the Bärenzwinger with that of another evocative historical structure that she remembered from her youth, the Palast der Republik. Home to the parliament of the German Democratic Republic from 1976 to 1990, after the fall of the wall the Palast der Republik was demolished to make way for a replica of the Stadtschloss, a 15th century Prussian palace that used to sit on the same site but was badly damaged during the war. Somewhat ironically considering the retrograde nature of the project, the steel from the destroyed building was used in the construction of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is currently the world’s tallest building.
But it’s not only the citizens of Berlin who gain comfort from looking backwards. During preparation for her solo exhibition at Brussels-based gallery Damien and the Love Guru, Werner discovered many instances of Façadism—an architectural practice in which the façade of a historical building is preserved but a contemporary structure is built behind it—in the Belgium capital. Playing on the fact that “facade” comes from the French “façade” or face, for the resulting show, Werner printed instances of façadism in Brussels, London, Frankfurt and New York onto masks that she made from the kind of dust sheet used in construction sites. As with the rebuilding of the Stadtschloss, for Werner, this tendency suggests an unrealistic attachment to the past. She explains:
I’m sceptical of the concept of taking out one point in history and making a Disney version out of it that we then have to live in. Things have changed. Women are now able to work and vote, both of which were not possible in the time of the original Stadtschloss, for example. People tend to forget when they glorify certain elements of the past that it wasn’t a good time for everyone.
The popularity of these projects among citizens is also suggestive of the desire for a more conservative mode of living, which is a topic that Werner referenced more explicitly in the solo exhibition ‘unkrautfrei,’ at Berlin-based project space Salon Stuttgart. For the show, Werner made a series of collages based on the product catalogue of Manufactum, a German retailer of high quality home and garden goods. Using the tagline “Es gibt sie noch, die guten Dingen” (the good things, they still exist), Manufactum trades in nostalgic fantasies of a time when household products were hand crafted from sustainable “natural” materials and lasted for life. But there’s a dark side to this nostalgic quest to return to “die guten Dingen”; the company’s founder also founded a publishing house that sells far-right literature, much of which espouses anti-feminist and anti-immigrant sentiments.
Alongside these collages, Werner showed two sculptures (Totalherbizid I and II) comprising small metal ploughs that she “decorated” with piped icing made of glue. A technique taken from baking, the sculptures are a subtle nod to the so-called “cupcake feminist” who insists that the choice to return to the kitchen is her own. Where does the nostalgia for the past come from, Werner asks, and who is it serving? In ‘unkrautfrei’, as in the rest of her recent practice, she reminds us that neither architecture nor design is neutral. Whether a monument or a wooden spoon, each object that makes up our built environment reflects the beliefs of those who fund, design, produce and distribute it.
Chloe Stead is a writer, critic and editor based in Berlin.
All quotes attributed to the artist are taken from a series of conversations in April 2020, unless otherwise stated.
April 23, 2020