Hear Expert Commentary
Speaker: Molly Moog
Saint Louis Art Museum
A telescoping antenna extends out of this sculpture as though ready to receive a transmission. However, you won’t hear a sound coming from its core, a block of solid concrete. Renowned artist Isa Genzken has produced a series of these paradoxically silent radios, called World Receivers, starting in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Evoking the global nature of radio transmission, many of the works in the series are titled after international cities. The title World Receiver Brüsselerstrasse encompasses the name of a street in Berlin as well as the capital of Belgium—Brüssels or Brussels.
Born in 1949 in northern Germany, Isa Genzken moved to Berlin with her family as a child. She studied at the famous Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1970s and was exposed to works of American Minimalism on view in Düsseldorf art galleries.
In the 1980s Genzken moved to Cologne, a city still rebuilding after Allied bombing raids of the 1940s. She began casting the World Receivers in concrete, a material closely associated with postwar architecture. Germans of Genzken’s generation grew up in and around Modernist housing made from prefabricated concrete slabs that replaced the crumbling ruins left in the aftermath of World War II. The cracks and holes that mark the surface of World Receiver Brüsselerstrasse are reminiscent of wartime ruins themselves as well as the effects of time and weather on the cheaply constructed facades of postwar slab buildings. The intentionally rough surface treatment in Genzken’s sculpture highlights the vulnerability of what appears to be a solid and impenetrable material. Concrete is also the material of the Berlin Wall, constructed by East Germany in 1961 to stem the flow of defectors to the West. A symbol of Germany’s ideological division, the wall nevertheless could not prevent all communication between East and West Berlin.
Situated in a block of concrete, the antenna—a recurring symbol within Genzken’s body of work—brings to mind the radio stations that became sites of communication and propaganda transmission both within and across borders during the Cold War. However, it also suggests broader notions of connection, inspiration, and receptivity. A few years before she began her World Receiver series, Genzken made an oblong sculpture from plaster and the sweepings from her studio floor. Sticking a wire antenna in the top, she called the work Mein Gehirn (My brain)—a physical representation of artistic insight. Later she said of her World Receivers, “My antennas were also meant to be “feelers”—things you stretch out in order to feel something, like the sound of the world and its many tones.”