The German Artists Who Put White Flags on the Brooklyn Bridge Are Still Facing Criminal Charges—But Their First New York Show Is Opening Anyway

Will the artist duo make an appearance at their show?

Wermke/Leinkauf White American Flags (2014-18). Photo courtesy of Signs & Symbols.

The German artist duo that clandestinely planted white flags on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge four years ago are coming back to New York.

Mischa Leinkauf and Matthias Wermke are still facing criminal charges in the US for the July 2014 stunt, in which they scaled the bridge under cover of darkness and replaced the two American flags with hand-sewn star spangled banners in all white.

Although the artists insist they treated the bridge respectfully and followed US flag code, the incident prompted a media frenzy, embarrassed police, and spurred fear and bewilderment among New Yorkers—as well as serious legal ramifications for the Berlin-based artists.

Nonetheless, their debut solo exhibition in New York, “I THINK IT’S SAFE TO SAY,” opens today, September 14, at Signs & Symbols gallery. But will the artists be in attendance?

Installation view of Wermke/Leinkauf “I THINK IT’S SAFE TO SAY” at Signs & Symbols. Photo courtesy of Signs & Symbols.

“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Leinkauf told artnet News, “but legally it’s not so easy.”

The show features a photographic edition, titled Landmarks, that questions limitations of space, artistic freedom, and boundaries within the public sphere.

As part of the ongoing series, the duo draws attention to otherwise mundane buildings and architectural sites by planting flags sewn from high-visibility construction vests in order to assign significance to overlooked spaces. The interventions themselves often go unseen until they appear in an artistic context.

“At first they exist only for ourselves until it is captured by the camera and finds an audience in the exhibition space, if at all,” Leinkauf said.

Installation view of Wermke/Leinkauf “I THINK IT’S SAFE TO SAY” at Signs & Symbols. Photo courtesy of Signs & Symbols.

A newly released photographic edition of White American Flags (2014–18) will also be on view. The work encapsulates the core of Wermke and Leinkauf’s practice, which revolves around architectural interventions, finding loopholes in established systems, and occupying a space in the collective memory of populations. (They’ve cited Gordon Matta-Clark as an inspiration.)

“The huge number of interpretations the [white flag] piece provoked was exactly what we hoped for,” Leinkauf said. “It moved people in one way or another, there were even a number of people who were frightened by it. I don’t think they will forget their emotional reaction to that experience.”

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