In 2014, on the night of July 21st to July 22nd German artists Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf replaced Old Glory with hand-sewn White American Flags on the two towers of the Brooklyn Bridge to coincide with the 145th anniversary of its German-born American architect’s death. Wermke and Leinkauf were careful to treat the bridge and the flags with respect and followed the U.S. Flag Code. Like an empty canvas, White American Flags invited many readings, multiple interpretations and projections, and became a sensation that now lives in the collective memory of all New Yorkers.
signs and symbols is delighted to present the work of the critically acclaimed and beloved Berlin artist duo and filmmakers Wermke/Leinkauf in their first ever solo exhibition in the U.S. The exhibition, entitled I I Think It’s Safe to Say, opens on September 14th and will be on view through October 21st.
Working together across three decades, the duo has developed a dynamic, multidisciplinary practice that ranges from films and installations to performances and architectural interventions in urban environments that tackle, challenge and question the limits of space, artistic freedom and the prevailing boundaries of the public sphere. Their practice addresses historical legacy through an investigation of architecture, the ownership and use of public space, and its appropriation as a place for art. Exposing themselves with no limits, their performative interventions claim spaces as their own. The work is driven by recurrent questions: what is freedom and what are the boundaries of artistic expression; what are the flaws in systems and how can one expose and go around such systems? Through rigorous research and calculations, they find ways to reach the seemingly impossible.
For their solo exhibition at signs and symbols, a range of work has been selected from various projects that investigate the boundaries of public space in urban environments through different kinds of interventions and performances. In the series Landmarks, hand-sewn flags made from highly visible construction vests, a signature of the duo, are installed in well-known architectural masses, buildings and off-limit sites. In addition to Landmarks, the duo will present for the first time in New York the White American Flags project. For Wermke/Leinkauf, the most powerful impact a work of art in the public sphere can have is to become part of the wider societal discourse of a city’s inhabitants.
The duo often recites a speech by Bill de Blasio in 2014 while appointing Tom Finkelpearl as cultural senator: “I think it’s safe to say: You can’t have a flourishing democracy without a strong cultural sector, without the ability of artists of all kinds to express themselves, to challenge us, to make us think, to provoke us. And to help us understand what the societal discourse may or may not include.”
There are inherent elements of illegality and risk involved in their artistic practice and seemingly naughty actions, yet their poetic compositions are carefully thought through; each work is extensively calculated and preceded by years of meticulous planning and research. The duo often spends their time on extensive pre-production in field research, archives, scouting and observation of sites, in addition to physical training before any execution, carefully conceptualizing and balancing the risks in the height of art. The White American Flags, for example, was a project that was 7 years in the making.
Restrictions and boundaries are seen as opportunities for the native East Berliners. They temporarily override limitations and constraints without permission or invitation. They aim to question common standards and to show the beauty beyond these standards. Their work largely exists only in time and remembrance. As such, their work celebrates a certain moment of freedom, the conquest of architecture, the moment of making a city your own. The ultimate sense of freedom.
For Wermke/Leinkauf, some of the greatest public artworks would never have existed if artists had waited for permits and permission. They often cite the work of Gordon Matta-Clark who famously climbed the Clocktower Building in Lower Manhattan in 1974, as well as that of Philip Petite, Tehching Hseieh, Trisha Brown and other artists whose un-commissioned actions inspired Wermke/Leinkauf in the development of their White American Flags project.
With regard to architecture, their interest lies within the Genius Loci: the soul of a space, its history, its beauty, its stories. The story and life of the Brooklyn Bridge’s German born architect, John August Roebling, his son Washington and his wife Emily Warren fueled much of the project’s ethos. In presenting content that is historically and collectively embedded within spaces, the duo proposes a scenario in which these histories and places might hold a universal significance if freed from a fixed set of discourses. The duo’s interventions not only celebrate the history of a space but symbolically alter the Loci of the place with their poetic activism. Although never performed publicly for an audience, their performances forever live on at the scene where occurred; indexically, in photographs and in our collective memory.
wermke/leinkauf, the celebrated Berlin based artist duo, work on installations and performances/public space interventions dealing with the hidden possibilities of a city. Using various artistic strategies, the conversion of urban topographies and the exploration of its borders, they create temporary irritations that allow new perspectives on 'everyday' situations. In their artistic practice, crossing the boundaries of individual freedom serves as an extension of artistic and societal scopes. To question common standards and constraints, they "open" the city by using not only their bodies in performances but also the architecture and the tools of urban spaces. Their work often relates to the Genius Loci and the history of a space. The duo has received numerous awards worldwide, taking them to Athens, Tokyo, Cologne and several locations around Germany. Their work has exhibited internationally in various solo and group exhibitions at venues such as HAM Helsinki Art Museum Finland, Moderna Museet Stockholm, Kunstraum Niederösterreich Vienna, Akademie der Künste Berlin, Manifesta 11 Zurich Switzerland, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo Japan, Museum of Contemporary Art Denmark, KW Institute Berlin and Eyebeam New York among many others. They have received numerous accolades for their work, including Best German Shortfilm & Audience Award at the International Short Film Festival Hamburg, as well as nominations for best Germans Short film of German Film Academy and European Film Award of European Film Academy.