The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners
Originally used to identify soldiers in battle and ships in international waters, flags have represented large geographic territories since the rise of the nation-state beginning in the late eighteenth century. Like monuments and national anthems, they intend to create a sense of identity based on a shared past, present, and future.
Like many other governments, the communist countries of the twentieth century produced an abundance of flags and banners. They were omnipresent at military parades, sports events, and public gatherings. Apart from national flags, many organizations produced their own richly decorated flags and banners. The Wende Museum holds over 2,000 of these ornamental textiles in its collection.
However, not only the powers that be use flags and banners. Artists have repurposed flags to change or subvert their original meaning for decades, while protestors and counterculture movements worldwide have capitalized on their strong symbolic value and identity-shaping qualities. The Medium is the Message combines Cold War-era political flags from communist countries with playful and critical appropriations from the period presented alongside contemporary artworks offering critical reflection on the here and now.
Alongside flags from the Wende collection, the exhibition presents contemporary work referencing flags and banners from New Zealand-based multimedia artist Fiona Amundsen on the topic of surveillance; Prague-based Belarusian artist Rufina Bazlova, whose political digital drawings and embroideries went viral within the pro-democracy movement; Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary artist Carolina Caycedo, committed to social and environmental justice efforts; multimedia artist Renée Petropoulos, whose multi-nation flags subvert the associations of national identity; Dutch American sculptor and painter Lara Schnitger, working at the intersection of art and activism; filmmaker and multimedia artist Cauleen Smith, whose banners address the realities and possibilities for Black women in the U.S.; Düsseldorf-based Belarusian conceptual artist Anna Sokolova, presenting abstract studies in light; Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Cole Sternberg, whose project “Free State of California” dreams about an alternative future; and, Ukrainian American multimedia artist Molly Surazhsky, whose textile work critically reflects on modern-day capitalism.
The exhibition also presents works by the Polish American artist Jan Sawka (1946–2012). Beginning in 1968, when he took part in mass student protests across Poland, Sawka used propaganda as a medium for artistic resistance, specifically through banners. He continued exploring this form throughout his career, especially around the collapse of communism in the Soviet Bloc when he developed monumental banner-painting hybrids on loose canvas that reflected on the twentieth-century history of Poland.
The Medium is the Message: Flags and Banners is generously supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research.