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Fragile humans

January 3, 2012

Human beings are fragile, and the law often isn't enough to protect them. The Cologne exhibition "Before the Law" brings post-war and contemporary sculptures together to show how art deals with those realities.

Thomas Schütte's sculpture "Vater Staat" (Father State)
Thomas Schütte, "Vater Staat" (Father State), 2011Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011

"Vor dem Gesetz steht ein Türhüter" (A gatekeeper stands before the law) is the world-famous first sentence of Franz Kafka's short story about a country doctor that comes to the city and requests entry into the law. In vain, the visitor waits for years to be let in. Just before his death, he asks the gatekeeper why he is the only one to have requested entry in so long. The answer: The gate was made just for him.

The man from the countryside learns that any given law is open to interpretation.

Artists, in particular, can attest to that fact, having often seen their right to expression trampled by hostile social movements and governments. In the wake of the Second World War, creative spirits in Germany took up questions like what it means to live in a world that has no respect for human life. The exhibition "Before the Law" in Cologne's Museum Ludwig examines how neglect for human rights shaped art from the post-war period through the present. The focus is on sculpture.

Diagnosis of the present

Painting can only illustrate suffering and can easily become kitschy, said exhibition curator Kasper König, one of Germany's most celebrated art experts. In 1977, he established the Sculpture Projects Münster, which has since taken place ever 10 years. Since 2000, König has been director of Museum Ludwig, a major exhibition hall for modern and contemporary art.

Before he completes his time in office at the end of this year, he's offering one more major show in Cologne that examines some of the fundamental elements of human life. For König, the show is both about reflecting on existential questions and offering a diagnosis of the present.

Broken bodies

Wilhelm Lehmbruck's "Sitting Youth" from 1916-1917 is among the earliest pieces in the exhibition. The figure sits with her limbs turned inward and her head hanging in sadness. The sculpture was first shown in the year 1955 at the inaugural edition of the famous documenta art show in Kassel, Germany.

Gerhard Marcks' "Chained Prometheus" from 1948 is another sculpture with suffering at its core. The figure's narrow, fragile features suggest a likeness with expressionist sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck. The bowed head and chained hands reflect the artist's own persecution during the Nazi era.

The fragility of the human body is a central theme in early post-war art, evident also in a mutilated figure sculpted by Henry Moore, in a powerless Madonna sculpture by Fritz Cremer, and in Alberto Giacometti's "La Jambe," which consists of a leg fragment resembling a prosthesis joined to a base. Each piece exudes a sense of helplessness. The post-war works on display are proof of art's capacity to make pain perceptible.

One question remains

Contemporary art doesn't restrict itself to a single point in the room or to a single base. Rather, the works often draw in entire rooms. Bruce Nauman's "Carousel" offers a good example. The lifeless remains of animals' bodies hang suspended from poles that turn on their own. Each corpse is covered with a dead grey material.

In the entryway to the exhibition, guests see American artist Jimmy Durham's "Building a Nation." Its theme is the appropriation of North America by European settlers, and the piece recalls an abandoned building. Pieces of a door and furniture allow the viewer to imagine an edifice. Racist statements hang on the few walls of the structure, many of which represent arrogant demands like, "Indians out!"

Jimmy Durham is of Native American heritage and offers a personal take on the colonial slaughter of his ancestors.

The exhibition brings historical sculptures into dialogue with contemporary installations. But violations of human rights make up the thread that unifies the diverse works on display.

Jimmie Durham's sculpture "Building a nation"
Jimmie Durham, "Building a nation," 2006Image: Jimmie Durham
"Carousel" by Bruce Naumann
Bruce Nauman, "Carousel," 1988Image: VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011
Two sculptures shown in side by side photos: Untitled by Marko Lehanka and Zoe Leonard's "Tree"
Untitled by Marko Lehanka, 1999 / Zoe Leonard, "Tree," 2011Image: Marko Lehanka/Zoe Leonard

At least one question lingers after taking in the exhibition: Where are we today as people, artists and society?

Author: Sabine Oelze / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen