Considering today’s flood of digital images, how relevant are historical template collections to contemporary design? The Kunstbibliothek invited internationally acclaimed Berlin illustrator and graphic designer Henning Wagenbreth to pursue this question by delving into the museum’s holdings. For the exhibition, Wagenbreth selected 40 objects of inspiration from the collections of architecture, book art, photography and graphic design, bringing them together with some 80 works of his own. The resulting dialogue explores the transitions between past and present, image and writing, tradition and new invention from various angles.
Giraffes in outer space, skeletons on a business trip, angry skyscrapers… At the heart of the exhibition, Tobot Tower contains a host of surprising combinations of images and concepts. Henning Wagenbreth built the three-metre-tall sculpture from 1.300 building blocks, painting motifs, words and ornaments on each of them by hand. Just how deeply entrenched this cosmos of symbols is in image traditions comes to light in its interaction with prints and books that Wagenbreth selected from the holdings of the Kunstbibliothek, shown alongside. What emerges are semiotic cross connections to Dances of Death and illustrated broadsheets, to hieroglyphs and computer games, to Metropolis and the Tower of Babel. Here, playful presentation meets precise analysis and historical pictorial knowledge.
Henning Wagenbreth (b. 1962) is known internationally for his expressive visual language and the diversity of his practice between graphic design, illustration, comic strip, music and experimental projects. Besides his work as an independent graphic designer and illustrator, he has also been active as Professor for Visual Communication at the Universität der Künste in Berlin since 1994. In 2000, the Stiftung Buchkunst honoured him with their prize for the “world’s most beautiful book”, and his poster designs continue to garner him awards. Wagenbreth has developed numerous exhibitions, including in Berlin, Paris, New York, Istanbul, Lucerne, Naples and at the Victoria and Albert in London.
To present Wagenbreth’s work, the exhibition at the Kunstbibliothek has drawn on around 80 works by the artist from three decades – ranging from stamps to design drawings to oversized silkscreened posters. As a segue between his graphic works and Tobot Tower, the compelling exhibition architecture designed by Wagenbreth expands into the space with powerful colours, words and patterns. Through it, the title’s Transit Zones – the idea of discerning transitions and intersections – emanate a spatial presence.
In his exploration of historical popular graphic design, literature and music, Wagenbreth touches as much on matters of motif as on conceptual matters, often adding a light dose of humour. Looking at old ornamental prints, he is fascinated with the skilfulness, pictorial invention and serial diversity of the works. In the political domain, current and historical subjects complement each other, as can be seen in the juxtaposition of African fraudulent letters from the series Cry for Help with a photograph showing Africans being greeted in Berlin in 1931, having arrived there as exhibits in “human zoos”. An intersection of Wagenbreth’s poster 100 Soldiers with propaganda prints from the time of the First World war has explosive force as well. The Transit Zones between past and present, between patterns and design practice simply vibrate with tension.
The Kunstbibliothek has used the format of the guest performance to open up the institution to current creative positions, turning the exhibition space into a platform for artistic exploration of the collections. What this means is that a fresh gaze is cast in two respects: Wagenbreth’s illustrations expand in their associations and meanings, while the Kunstbibliothek’s items unfold their import in the present moment.