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Matthias Mühling on Kraftwerk

When I was studying, the term “curator” didn’t exist in German. It’s only over the past twenty years that it’s started making its appearance from Anglo-Saxon art circles, and it’s definitely had an affect on the way German curators have begun to grasp their own identities and functions. I would say at the Lenbachhaus, we’re much more interested in serving the artist than curators who ascribe themselves a form of authorship of what they present. To that extent, there was lots of trust in Kraftwerk putting together large parts of the exhibit on their own. They knew exactly what they were doing, and I wouldn’t have thought to interfere with such a huge, technical multimedia installation based on my competency in hanging pictures. In that sense, the exhibit wasn’t a lot of work for me. Of course, convincing people that a Kraftwerk exhibition should take place—that I had to do. At the Lenbachhaus, we’re particularly fascinated by the idea that there is no difference between so-called “high” art and art as entertainment.


That’s probably one of the most discussed issues within art history in the twentieth century and certainly part of the great utopian vision of the avant- garde. However many people want to claim that there is less and less of a distinction to be drawn, it’s not something that you see reflected in reality. In museums, you still only find “high” art. Over and over again, contemporary fine art has found itself in crises and hoped to find its way out through some other discipline: fine art and film, fine art and fashion, fine art and pop music, fine art and pop culture . . . But usually it ends up with classically trained artists who only kind of have one foot in some other discipline.


We as a museum are forced to ask ourselves how we can best reflect contemporary, twenty-first century culture. And when we really take that question seriously, we realize we can’t be comfortable with doing, say, an exhibition on pop music exclusively with works by Martin Kippenberger. That’s also a very interesting project, and I guess somehow a connection between the two can be drawn, but Kippenberger isn’t an example of something in popular culture that’s had the kind of massive, significant stylistic influence that I’m referring to—like it changed people’s conception of pop music or had a lasting aesthetic effect outside the art world. In my opinion, the only real example of something so far reaching would be Kraftwerk. They’ve always been devoted to offering a complete artistic package in terms of performance and visual accompaniment—it’s practically synaesthetic in a good Wagnerian sense. But beyond that is the band’s self-reflective nature that we know so well from fine art, one that’s so unambiguously connected to the cultural history of the Rhineland.


Kraftwerk makes pop music about pop music. They incorporate “everyday” sounds—trains, bicycles, cars—as a form of self-reflectiveness, like how Gerhard Richter “exhibited” the brushstroke. But Kraftwerk’s art is also intimately connected to a certain “generosity”, if you can call it that. What they do is entertaining, humorous, danceable and thought provoking. That’s an incredibly rare combination. Kraftwerk refuse to accept the notion that doing something serious or profound has to be obscure or difficult to consume. That combination of entertainment and artistic clarity is nothing short of remarkable. At the MoMA performances, the visuals for “Morning Walk” were an excellent example of that. On the one hand it evoked classic German romanticism—small moonlit hamlets—but on the other the very specific historical provincial, bourgeois narrow-mindedness of the Federal Republic of Germany, which I personally can’t get enough of. Maybe it’s because it’s such a strong reflection of something I grew up with.


Kraftwerk’s performance at the Lenbachhaus in 2011 was the first time the band played an entire concert in 3-D, but I should men- tion that we were also very, very proud to have had the 3-D video and sound installation without the band as well. For us, that aspect of the exhibition was a logical consequence of the disappearance of the performers, with music existing and being played on its own by machines. When we were thinking about how to exhibit Kraftwerk, it was obvious that we did not have to have something “behind glass”, so to speak. We didn’t want to be a local museum that covered the local and generic history and devel- opment of the band. We wanted a contemporary exhibition that had little or nothing to do with relics of Kraftwerk’s past—their old synths or vocoders or whatever. That would have really been the wrong approach to something so timeless.~


Earlier this year we where reporting from the Kraftwerk Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at New York’s MoMa, where we collected a lot of interesting takes on the legendary techno innovators from the likes of Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Klaus Biesenbach and more — read them here. ~

This text appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 30 (2012). Read the full issue on


Published November 23, 2012. Words by Matthias Muehling.