VW metropolis in 2015: For his “Wolfsburg Diary” series photographer Bialobrzeski returned to the city where he spent his youth, for example to the cult bar “Tunnel-Schänke”.
Photo © Peter Bialobrzeski
Wolfing it up
by Thomas Edelmann
Jul 5, 2016

Anyone arriving at a new place and intending to stay a while needs to know what goes on there. You can find out, for example, by wandering the streets with your eyes peeled, by talking to people who have already lived there for a while, or with those who have left or have returned. You can study the influential companies that shape the face of the place, read the local newspaper, go to the theater, visit sports and entertainment facilities, or opt for historical research. Ralf Beil, Director of Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg since 2015, went one step further. He turned his own institute into a walk-through exhibition object, into a chamber of marvels that presents any number of found objects from the comparatively young history of the city that was planned on a drawing board.

With “Wolfsburg Unlimited – A City as World Lab”, the first exhibition that he has devised in his new position, Beil enables visitors to participate in his personal voyage of discovery. In line with the museum’s tradition, he has included art and artists, commissioned new works, and obtained others that are appropriate on loan. Beil’s core hypothesis: “Wolfsburg, the Capital City of Volkswagen”, offers a concentrated version of Germany, as if seen through a magnifying glass. In this special case of a city there are, he suggests, countless elements for which Germany stands out. This is the case precisely because Wolfsburg “has no cathedrals, no façades of grand townhouses”. Instead, “the capital flows, the global financial and commodity flows are far more visible” there than elsewhere.

Fame and fables

The first part, a “Hall of Fame”, presents museum exhibits in the customary sense, displayed to great effect against the backdrop of strikingly red walls: the prehistory of the city, starting with archaeological finds of an aurochs’ horns and bones, fragments of a dug-out canoe dating from 1000 BCE, decorations from Wolfsburg Castle, through to paintings by Antoine Pense, who in the 18th century produced portraits of members of the von der Schulenburg family, the scions of which were influential countesses and counts and had strong roots in the region. And a 19th century painting that is not of any great relevance to art history likewise has its place here. It shows a wolf, purportedly the last one sighted at “Wolfswechsel”, the historical village from which the city took its name.

On exiting the red entry hall and stepping into the next one, you are greeted by the full range of the Volkswagen world, initially as a cabinet of horrors: “Adolf Hitler was forever car crazy,” wrote “DER SPIEGEL” back in 1950 when chattily describing the invention of the Volkswagen. The fact that the lands of the von der Schulenburg counts morphed into the “City of the KdF Auto nr. Fallersleben” was the result of the Third Reich’s automobile project. During the 1920s only the affluent could afford cars, and this was even more the case in the wake of the Great Depression. Meaning that there was a need to market an affordable auto. That mass-market vehicle, which as of the 1920s was often mentioned as a “people’s car”, a “Volkswagen”, was the subject of much discussion, with experiments with numerous concepts, engines and shapes. Among the engineers who tried their hand at it were Béla Barényi, Josef Ganz, Paul Jaray, Hans Ledwinka and Ferdinand Porsche, not to mention Edmund Rumpler. Because the lobbyists at the Reich’s Automobile Industry Association showed no clear interest in helping the breakthrough of a new low-cost car, from 1936 onwards the government intervened and set about developing the vehicle to a point where it could be mass produced. The concept put forward by Ferdinand Porsche, a member of the Nazi Party, had long since won the day. The idea of “a Volkswagen” had given way to one for “the Volkswagen”. In organizational terms, the “German Labor Front”, the umbrella trade union, was entrusted with running the project, or rather its entertainment and vacation section, which was named “Kraft durch Freude” – strength through joy.

The Nazis’ specimen city

The exhibition presents the first plans for the city that were drawn up by then young urban planner Peter Koller. The Austrian, a Nazi Party member since 1931, designed the city to complement the Volkswagen factory. His patron Albert Speer hinted that he should be a tad more monumental in the plans: On a hill to the south he should add a “city crown” – in keeping with ideas such as had been dreamed up by Modernist architects during their Expressionist phase. Koller planned Party and cultural buildings for his auto-acropolis, although, like the East-West Parade Avenue, they were never erected. In 1942, construction work on the City of the KdF Auto was terminated. By then only a few of the housing estates had actually been built. Until the post-War period, the key architecture consisted of huts. They served during the Third Reich as accommodation for the slave laborers who worked in the factory producing armaments and military vehicles.

The exhibition shows us Koller in an early, Expressionist self-portrait dating from 1938, standing with his legs apart in jodhpurs “investigating the terrain”. He was one of those members of the Nazi management crew who were allowed from 1955 onwards to denazify themselves: He remained city planning director of Wolfsburg for five years, devoting himself to building the churches the city had been denied during the Third Reich. The exhibition relies on individual images and documents as key elements of historical developments. In the case of slave labor, the curators simply opted for the Führer’s decree of 1942, which mentions Himmler and “labor from the concentration camps”, a somber Himmler portrait by Luc Tuymans of 1997, and a carved miniature Madonna figure in a sheath, made by a Dutch slave laborer in 1943.

Keeping an eye on the CEO

When it comes to “Volkswagen”, the general public is at present probably only interested in one topic: the Volkswagen diesel scandal with the manipulated exhausts and the company’s future. Here, the associative method underlying the show functions because memories are still very much alive: the covers of Focus magazine (“Das Drama”) and of DER SPIEGEL (“Der Selbstmord”) with the first set of revelations, the poster “We’re sorry that we got caught” by “Brandalism” for the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, which subverts the well-known Volkswagen ad with the new Passat by slightly changing the text: “Jetzt, da wir erwischt wurden, versuchen wir dir einzureden, dass wir uns um die Umwelt kümmern.” (Now that we got caught we are trying to persuade you that we’re caring for the environment”.) Next to it, on a flat screen, you can watch the statement by then CEO Martin Winterkorn. The infinite loop shows him in a double-breasted suit, the main style at Volkswagen since the era of CEO Nordhoff. One day after making the statement Winterkorn resigned as CEO. What has not yet percolated through into the museum is that the corporation currently talks of the embarrassing, extremely costly disaster innocuously as the “diesel issue”. The new focus, which is expected to lead to as many as 30 electric car models hitting the streets in coming years, is called the “Together Strategy”.

From the world of rumors, a revolving door leads on to the darkened main museum hall. Artist Julian Rosefeldt has transformed it into a drive-in movie theater, complete with a container world that for some time now seems to be anchored in urban planning nirvana. But in the middle of Wolfsburg? In his “Midwest” installation there are 1980s autos; they all seem a bit shabby and yet nevertheless attest to better times. And on a large screen you can watch another infinite loop, again by Rosefeldt: “The Swap”, something to do with autos, suitcases, big weapons and mean-looking guys. It’s all very impressive, but ignore what the author says about his piece fitting perfectly to the Volkswagen diesel scandal and the Panama Papers. That only serves to unnecessarily trivialize the synaesthetically most powerful picture in the exhibition. As it is actually an artistic mystery, all about nostalgia and dashed future expectations, such as can be found not just here but anywhere in the world.

Everyday images

One leaves the large movie theater, with its claustrophobic feel, through a side door with a red neon heart. Sex for sale, Hartz, Brazil? Wasn’t there something that was not supposed to ever get repeated in Wolfsburg and in the Volkswagen world? – The Volkswagen corruption scandal of 2005 really is too long ago to be remembered here in detail. From the darkness of the movie theater one can head into the chambers to the side entitled “Wolfsburg Photo Gallery”. Especially impressive is the dual gaze of Hamburg-based photographer Peter Bialobrzeski, who grew up in the home town of Volkswagen in the 1980s and returned there in fall 2015 to compile his “Wolfsburg Diary”. In 1988 he followed the everyday life of Italian locals, fashion shows, women’s wrestling and other everyday events. And now he meanders round the present-day city. He comes across its urbanity in inner courtyards that have become public pathways and in views of houses that, after multiple changes, stand around town more than actually getting used. It is a gaze at a specter-like present.

Floating and commanding

John Bock’s extensive material assemblage peppered with film shots and called “Labskaus oder der alte Scharoun in seinem Elend” offers only a little relief. Like a berserk, Bock mixes up fragments of real-life interiors that are destined to function as models. The neighboring “Museum King Nordhoff” sees us lapse back into the fuddy-duddy 1950s. No mention though of how the product changed: How the Nazis’ KdF auto mutated into a Volkswagen Beetle, how Porsche’s designer Erwin Kommenda (who devised both) even included US styling traits before the Beetle emerged as a million seller. The example of the Volkswagen also revolutionized advertising. The ads by New York’s Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) agency, which Volkswagen hired from 1959 onwards, are part of “Museum King Nordhoff”. Internally, the admen’s “Think small” campaign was known as “How to sell a Nazi-Car in Jewish Manhattan?” – the team led by Julian Koenig, George Lois, Helmut Krone came up with images, copy and a relationship between white page and image that were all refreshingly new. They brushed away the cobwebs of the banal 1950s on both sides of the Pond. And the Beetle became a playing ground for artists and photorealism alike.

An abused chief witness

The show ends with another change in perspective. The large “Nudnik” installation created by artist Rémy Markowitsch commemorates engineer and writer Josef Ganz. He was not only one of the pioneers of the one Volkswagen, but of many concepts for super-simple cars. As of the end of the 1920s he was an editor for Frankfurt’s “Motor-Kritik” magazine. And he worked with small manufacturers long since forgotten and with the big players such as Daimler-Benz and BMW. His objective: to prompt industry to turn its back on the large, heavy, expensive luxury limos. Like many other guys who spawned the Volkswagen idea, he lost out and was tricked. As a Jew he was, to top it all, banned form publishing and was personally threatened by a former colleague, engineer and sci-fi author who had turned Nazi. Born in Budapest, Ganz was stripped of his German citizenship, had to flee to Switzerland, and from there to Australia. He was prevented from exploiting his own patents. Yet Josef Ganz’s work was a key element in the history of mass motorization in Germany even if his constructions were not direct predecessors of the Beetle.

The expansive Wolfsburg exhibition on Wolfsburg blurs the object and image levels, once kept clearly separate. At the same time, with its wish to see everything in Wolfsburg and read anything there to be interpreted, it often gets bogged down in individual objects. Structural aspects that require greater depth simply get blurred. Not that this is a problem, as rarely has a city been so often and so intensely scrutinized by sociologists, artists, planners and economists as has Wolfsburg.

Wolfsburg unlimited – eine Stadt als Weltlabor
Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg
Thru September 11, 2016.

Edited by Ralf Beil
350 pages
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2016
costs EUR 35 from the museum ticket office

Wolfsburg – Volkswagen capital city: Detail with the Nord/Süd co-generation plant from the overall “Downtown Wolfsburg” model in the City Building Dept.
Photo © Marek Kruszewski
Hustle&bustle yesterday, contemplation today: The Kunstmuseum stands on the grounds of what was the “Fair on Porschestrasse” (image dating from before 1979).
Photo © David Taylor
Arnold Odermatt above all photographed car crashes. “Buochs” dating from 1966.
Photo © Urs Odermatt, Windisch
Transformed hustle&bustle: One of the first exhibits is “The Carnie” an installation by Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Photo © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Luhring Augustine
In urban Nirvana: Julian Rosefeldt’s installation “Midwest”.
Photo Marek Kruzewski, © Julian Rosefeldt, © VG Bild-Kunst, 2016
Happy is he who has a large museum hall: Julian Rosenfeldt’s installation “Midwest” is actually a drive-in movie theater.
Photo Marek Kruzewski, © Julian Rosefeldt, © VG Bild-Kunst
Modern yesterday, now neglected: Image from the “Wolfsburg Diary” series by Peter Bialobrzeski, 2015. Photo © Peter Bialobrzeski
Photojournalism with beetle fenders in the VW Press Steel Plant 2 from the “Volkswagenwerk” series by Peter Keetman from 1953.
Photo © Peter Keetman in the F.C. Gundlach Collection
“Evasion XVII (Two Pipelines Delivering a City – Build me up Knock me Down)” painting by Franz Ackermann.
Photo Helge Mundt, © Franz Ackermann, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg Collection
John Bock: “Labskaus oder der alte Scharoun in seinem Elend”: in-situ installation by John Bock.
Photo Martin Sommer, © John Bock, Courtesy Galerie Sprüth Magers
Champion of cheap mass mobility avant la lettre: Josef Ganz in his second prototype, built in 1931 for Adler – the open-top two-stroke “Maikäfer”.
Photo © Josef Ganz Archive/Paul Schilperoord, The Hague
PR presentation: “Heinrich Nordhoff und sein Werk” in 1955. Photo © Reinhold Lessmann
Documentation of the PR presentation with the photographer lying on the ground and Nordhoff standing on the tower. Photo © Reinhold Lessmann
“Nudnik. Forgetting Josef Ganz,” installation by Rémy Markowitsch with 3D staging of “Motor-Kritik” and the design for a Josef Ganz memorial.
Photo Marek Kruzewski, © Rémy Markowitsch, Courtesy Galerie Eigen+Art
"Untitled (Volkswagen)": hyper-realist painting by Don Eddy from 1971.
Photo © Don Eddy, 2016, Museum moderner Kunst – Stiftung Ludwig Wien