With the first new exhibits open this year, the Wende Museum has set a high bar – The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners uses not just the gallery but all the space above it, creating an almost double gallery effect. By hanging flags and banners to draw the eye upward into the light, it allows the museum to keep the artifacts as unfurled as they may have been in their original homes. The exhibit includes more than historical flags – banners and artworks add into the display with gorgeous punctuation, reminding us that fabric and paint can signify many things – not all of them official.
While the Wende’s Chief Curator Joes Segal admitted that it had been a challenge to start with almost 3000 banners and end up with 30, there are flags representing everything from Soviet cosmonauts to the Lithuanian Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad. Executive Director of the Wende Museum, Justin Jampol noted that flags were among the first items in the museum’s collection, “They are so easily placed as artifacts of a particular moment, and people want them to be preserved.”
Particularly noteworthy are the banner/mural artworks of Jan Sawka, a Polish artist who fled from Soviet oppression in 1976, after being expelled from Poland despite a notable career as an avant garde artist. His large abstractions bookend the gallery with ferocious color and organic shapes. His daughter Hanna Sawka was on hand to appreciate the connection with the Wende and reflect on the cold war echoes in his work.
In both the back gallery and the garden, photographer Martin Roemer’s Relics of the Cold War covered the ruins and remnants of Soviet nuclear storage sites, ruined buildings and empty tunnels. Compelling and surprising, the photos allow the viewer to feel present in the scene, pulling the attention inside the frame and into the texture of the image.
Roemer was also in attendance for the opening evening, and spoke about how he’d been inspired by his grandmother towards photography. “She had one of those box Kodak cameras, and she’d let me use it. I was just a child, but I was hooked; I knew this was what I wanted to do.” Getting permission to photograph the sites had been surprisingly simple, he said, except for his own country, the Netherlands. “Permission was easy to obtain in all the other sites, but the Dutch, you know, there are rules.” Roemer also curated the exhibit, which had previously toured in Europe.
Jampol spoke to the crowd briefly and lauded the teamwork required to make the exhibitions possible. As was quite fitting, the evening was commemorated by raising the Wende’s own flag in the garden, to much applause.
The exhibits are scheduled to be open until October 23, 2022, and admission is, as always, free.
Photo – Jan Sawka’s “Soviet Flag 1991”