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The Extraordinary Case of a Red Couch
What is a couch? Is it a word that signifies comfort? Or is it a necessary material object for an urban house? Is a couch a place where we only sit and watch TV and sometimes we even take a nap? Is it only a place where we used to host our fellow couchsurfers? Everyone could have answered yes to all of these hypothetical questions. A couch is certainly all of these things. However, a couch can be something else as well; a couch can be a metaphor. At least this is what it is for Horst Wackerbarth. The German born artist has managed to narrate a story with a couch that… ardently travels; a red couch to be precise.
Born in 1950 in Fritzlar, Horst Wackerbarth is a photographer and video artist. Along with his career as a fashion and portrait photographer he became worldwide known for his project titled “The Red Couch”. What started back in 1979 as another photography project along with his colleague Kevin Clarke, it rather became a remarkable event of worldwide interest. The project is already thirty-three years old and it grew so much attention that it really grew big! Some facts: the red couch has traveled in 33 countries and more than 600 people have been interviewed while enjoying its comfort.
In case you wonder what kind of a couch it is and if it's comfortable enough, well, all I can say is that it isn't the most classy you can find; otherwise, they wouldn't have given it to the lions!
To return to the subject, before this huge success, a book was published back in 1983 titled “The Red Couch – A Portrait of America” which was critically acclaimed almost immediately. This is how the journey managed to leave the American borders and expand all over the world. Wackerbarth exhibited in America and Germany of course but also in Florence, London, Milan. His project also made it to the screen. A TV-series was produced, in total 21 episodes, which was awarded a number of international awards. In 2003 he published the book “The Red Couch - A Portrait of Europe” and between 2004 and 2007 he exhibited in a number of European cities, Brussels, Copenhagen and Moscow among others. Finally, and to add to all these, in 1997 the Universal Couch Foundation was funded, a project designed to promote dialogue and universal values.
This was his original intention after all; replying to the hypothetical question “why a sofa?” Wackerbarth states that a couch leaving his surroundings is transformed from an object of comfort and pleasure into something entirely different, “a new image emerges” as he says. Out of context the couch loses its meaning and acquires a new one. As the time passes and the red couch continues its journey, people might wonder: “where is it now?” Or, “who is sitting on it?” And this is when a new universal meaning appears.
Apart from all these that could sound a bit superficial to some, Wackerbarth’s art project is indeed unique, and the fact that it came to be that popular only fueled his vision. His intentions were fulfilled; on his red couch sat people from all walks of life (from rich and famous like Steve Jobbs or even Michail Gorbatschow to ordinary people of the world), demonstrating in that way that his couch was indeed a universal vehicle, carrying personal stories and spreading an equalitarian attitude. Whoever sat on that couch had to answer to the very same questions; these answers would form a “Gallery of Mankind” as himself put it. Wackerbarth intended to create a mosaic of people that in appearances didn’t share anything in common; nevertheless, in reality they were all sharing the single fact that they’re all part of the same world.
His work is an anthropology of our times, perplexed and demanding as they are. Horst Wackerbarth is a man of our times as his work is eventually representative of our era; an era that seeks methodically for documentation and searches passionately for a globalised, universal, and commonly shared meaning. It is an era whereas people are craving for visual representations of everyday life and this is what Wackerbarth offers to them: dreams made of an a everyday object.