Artist on furniture as a carrier of politics: “They destroyed their own house”

Whether it’s the storming of the Capitol or the parliament in Brasília: furniture can serve as a weapon and trophy for opponents of democracy, says Henrike Naumann.

People break into a building, chairs lie in a jumble on the floor

When Bolsonaro supporters entered the Brazilian parliament, all the chairs were swept over Photo: Eraldo Pere/ap

Wochentaz: Ms. Naumann, two years after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, you are showing your installation “Re-Education” at the New York Sculpture Center, in which you attempt to artistically capture the events of January 6, 2021. You are interested in furniture, why?

Henrike Naumann: This storm was not only made for an actual overthrow, but also to produce certain images. The furniture in the Capitol played an important role in the production of the image on January 6, 2021. They were weapons to break in, to destroy. They were also shields for the deputies. People barricaded themselves in the offices and saved their lives behind the furniture. And they were trophies too, like when one of the intruders put his boots on Nancy Pelosi’s desk. The furniture is a good element to talk about something that is difficult to pin down and also difficult to portray.

What is this furniture?

Neoclassical cupboards and tables made of dark reddish wood federal style. A style that derives directly from the American independence era and emerges when it comes to representing US democracy. Incidentally, such furniture for the federal buildings in the USA is often made by prison inmates.

The Smithsonian research and museum facility immediately collected the artifacts from the January 6 events. Also the furniture?

The Smithsonian secured the strikers’ posters, and the destroyed artworks have been restored. But the furniture has such an intermediate function. They’re not architecture, they’re not artwork, and they weren’t archived in the same way. At the Smithsonian, no one could help me find the destroyed furniture. They were probably thrown away.

For your installation, which is eight meters high, you are replicating the Capitol, but using private furniture. Why?

For me, furniture is a carrier of politics in the private sphere. I collected furniture from private individuals in all sorts of places in New York, looking for this specific aesthetic of the federal style searched. I didn’t want to build up the historical artifacts from the Capitol, I wanted to say, “Hey, the state, that’s you!” I tried to a metaphor for American democracy to find – stable, traditional, but it can also be brought down by undermining the norms and processes to which it is attached.

Henrike Naumann in front of her installation, stacked furniture in the American representative style

The artist and the Capitol in federal style furniture, Sculpture Center New York Photo: Charles Benton

On January 8, 2023, Bolsonaro supporters stormed Congress, the seat of government and the Supreme Court in Brasília. Furniture was also destroyed there. But those of a modern design, such as the simple wooden chairs by Holocaust survivor Jorge Zalszupin. What does that tell you?

This represent furniture a completely different, much more recent history of democracy – and a very contested one. There are pictures of the military coup in 1964, there are tanks in front of Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings in Brasília, not to protect but to overthrow democracy. On January 8, the desk of Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president who also founded Brasília as the capital, was vandalized. It was used as a barricade and smashed. Similar to the Capitol, the artifacts of the storming in Brasília, the destroyed vases or works of art, are very well documented.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer designed Brasília at the drawing board with a free, grand, modern architecture for a young democracy. Can you – at least as far as the pictures are concerned – even be stormed like the Capitol?

This intrusion, of the people violently gaining access to a symbol of democracy represented by the Capitol, it doesn’t work the same way in Brasília. Oscar Niemeyers Buildings want to welcome the people. The architecture is permeable, looks as if anyone could walk in there. Architecturally, at least, it’s not unreasonable for people to come there and voice their opinions. Looking at the pictures from Brasília, I understood how fiercely contested democracy still is in the country. I felt like people were destroying their own house.

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