Bojana Pejić on Gender and Feminism in Eastern European Art (Interview)

Bojana Peji?. Image courtesy of the author.Bojana Peji? has organized many exhibitions of Yugoslav and international art. In 1995 she organized an international symposium, The Body in Communism, at the Literaturhaus in Berlin. She was chief curator of the exhibition After the Wall–Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, organized by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999), which was also shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art ­Foundation Ludwig in Budapest(2000) and at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (2000-2001). Peji? recently curated Gender Check–Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe at MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna). Peji? lives and works in Berlin.

“There is not only one feminism,
nor is there only one patriarchy.”(Ann McClintock, “No longer in a future heaven”, in Imperial Leather, New York/London: Routlegde, 1995, p. 384.)
– Ann McClintock

Hedvig Turai: I see Gender Check as an exhibition that commemorates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more generally, the political transition in Eastern Europe. You examine communism, post-communism and new types of capitalism, but you chose a special filter through which you view all of these–the category of gender. What did this perspective allow you to do that other ways of framing the materials would not have?

Bojana Peji?: Before I had proposed the Gender Check concept to the Erste Foundation, I had carefully studied the publications dedicated to Eastern European art that appeared after 1990. Even though we often complain that “we” Eastern Europeans and “our” artists are still invisible on the world scale, there is a body of knowledge published about “us” in which we show ourselves to be very “East-centric”. However, none of the publications dealing with socialist and post-socialist art presents a feminist or gender positioning. This is not to say that these volumes do not discuss women artists. There are also women art historians and critics who contributed to these publications. It is indeed surprising that gender is discussed in countless books and anthologies analyzing communist and post-communist condition from a sociological point of view, but there is no publication focusing on gender in socialist art. Of course, in  many post-communist states there are exhibition catalogues dealing with gender in contemporary art productions, but the socialist period has never been “checked” with gender glasses.

My other motivation to propose Gender Check had less to do with art. To my knowledge, the critiques of state-socialism written over the past twenty years generally go in two directions. The first is a critique informed by the nationalist ideologies, which are still domineering political and cultural life in the post-socialist hemisphere. “We,” the nation, could not express our identity (ethnic, religious) during the communist tenet. The other critique targets the totalitarian structures in state socialism, whereas the totalitarian power is still conceived as a force coming from “above” (well known “Stalinist model”), as something directed from a “Center” (Communist parties and/or the State). According to this model, we the citizens had been just passive victims of the System.

Very rarely have state-socialist structures been examined in terms of power relations, as Michel Foucault wrote about. Gender relations are relations of power. It was terribly motivating to observe how gender relations are imaged and represented in visual arts. In the Gender Check exhibition there are many examples of these relations, for example, in the works picturing the family, showing the relationships between artists and their models, or in the representations of the female and male nude, for example.

HT: How long have you been working on preparing the exhibition, and in what ways did you prepare?  How did you set up a team of researchers from the different countries? Could you tell us something about the supporters of the exhibition, Erste Stiftung and MUMOK?

BP: On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Erste Foundation in Vienna planned to document this event with “a significant project” and invited seven curators based in Western and Eastern Europe to send their project proposals. This initiative took place within the frame of their program, PATTERNS. They received five proposals, and in the fall 2007 I was informed that PATTERNS Advisory Board (Cosmin Costinas, Veronica Kaup-Hasler, Piotr Piotrowski and Georg Schöllhammer) had chosen my concept, which then had a working title “Scattered Resistances: Negotiating Gender and Difference in Eastern European Art (from the 1960s till today).”

I had proposed an exhibition (with close to 200 works): two publications -exhibition catalogue and a Reader with selected texts written by Eastern European art historians/critics- and a two-day symposium. Very soon, it became clear that such a project could not be realized without research performed in the post-communist countries. First of all, nobody knows national art history better than art historians who live and work in their native milieu, and also, as far as art historical texts are concerned, you have to know the local language. Due to the efforts by the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art which existed until the end of the 1990s in twenty post-communist cities and which published in two languages, most of the texts written on contemporary art exist in English translation.

The process of selecting the researchers was somewhat easy, given that I know their work since the exhibition After the Wall (1999), after which I tried as much as I could to keep myself informed about art, theory and art criticism developed in the post-communist region. Some of the researchers are internationally known for their feminist approach, some are known nationally and some of them never ever thought about the role of gender in art. For them, the research was a process of learning and discovery. We received most of the image material by July 2008, when many researchers met in Vienna and discussed what we had. It was amazing and indeed stimulating to look at the images originating in so many different countries and found out how much “we” have in common. Then we discussed the title, Gender Check, which I proposed. It did not meet immediate approval, but after a while, it was finally accepted as the title of the project.

In many ways we should feel lucky that the approval of the budget for Gender Check took place in August 2008; it was only six weeks before the economic crisis started. The Erste Foundation and Museum of Contemporary Art in Vienna, which cooperated earlier on other exhibitions, agreed that the show would take place in MUMOK in 2009.

As the curator of the exhibition, I made a selection of the received image archive and also added some works. My “dream exhibition” consisted of some 400 works, but I had to respect the given budget and thus the show displayed only 250 works.

I should perhaps add that Gender Check includes artists from the GDR. After the re-unification of Germany in 1990, artists who lived and worked in East Germany are usually omitted in the studies rewriting our Eastern European cartographies.

HT: This impressive and thought provoking exhibition, the first with this special focus on gender, is taking  place in Vienna. Post-East art is being displayed in a post-West country. Do you think this exhibition could have been arranged and organized, and the research conducted for it, in a post-socialist country?  I can’t help seeing it symbolically that the exhbition is in Vienna and not, let’s say, in Budapest, or Vilnius, etc.  How does the specific location of Vienna affect what you have done with the exhibition and its possible reception?

BP: I cannot speak to this question. I offered a project to a Western foundation and was given the possibility to realize it. I do not know whether an institution existing in a post-East country would be able to initiate and realize this project. The other question is, which institution? A university? An art history department? A museum? I cannot tell. Thefact is that the Erste Foundation from Vienna created this initiative, and the research performed in 24 countries was conducted in 2008 over a period of some eight months. The research has been coordinated by the team working in the Erste Foundation, headed by Christine Böhler, who runs Programme culture. When the research was over, the realization of the exhibition and symposium were organized by MUMOK. Material gathered during the research consists of a valuable archive of socialism and may be a starting point for further studies. The other aspect concerns the financial support, which institutions in the “new” Europe still lack. The exhibition will be shown in the Zacheta gallery in Warsaw from mid-March until mid-June 2010.

I cannot foresee the reception of the exhibition in Vienna, but so far the responses are positive. One has to wait for professional reviews of the show, which will hopefully follow. I am not so afraid of negative criticism. For me, it is important that people see the show and understand that what they see is simply European art.

HT: Could you expound a little on the title of the exhibition? What sorts of resonances were you trying to evoke?

BP: Gender Check show does not aim to present a completely new set of material (although most of the works produced during the socialist period are less known). The issue is to proffer a new “filter,” as you put it. Many journalists ask me why this show has gender as a theme. Gender Check is not a theme, it’s a method. It is an art historical operation. We try to establish and promote a different reading, and this is present in the catalogue contributions as well as in the installation of the show, which is structured thematically. This reading is not final or totalizing. It offers a parallel interpretation of “our” art, which is informed by feminist, gender and queer theories. This does not mean that the attempt was to declare, after the fact, that we had feminist or queer artists, or feminist art historians, in Eastern Europe before 1990. The issue here is the question of interpretation. In this sense, we are not so concerned with artists’ intentions, and I admit, many artists may not be happy with this decision. However, all the artists who came to Vienna and attended the opening did not object this decision. They understood that their work is treated with respect.

HT: After putting together this huge exhibition, how do you see feminist art’s situation in the postcommunist countries? Many presentations in the symposium were, I would observe, not too optimistic about the future.  Would you agree with this assessment?

BP: Well, I do not remember when feminist art occupied the central place in art historical writings. We did learn and still learn “universal” art history – thought in both Western and Eastern European departments of art history. It is true that “feminist interventions” in art history, as Griselda Pollock phrased it long ago, are not older than some 30 to 40 years. I do not believe that the number of women artists working in the West who openly declare that they are feminists is smaller than the number of those working in Eastern European countries. We all operate in patriarchal contexts, and our post-socialist societies are deeply patriarchal, which means that they would like to preserve time-honored gender constellation, according to which post-communist men earn money and women keep the home clean and produce babies. Many artists (both men and women) deconstruct this socially desirable image and rebel against it. It is, of course, clear that today one cannot speak of feminism as an organized movement. Those times are gone. However, there are feminist resistances; there are feminist critiques of nationalism, religion, sex industries. I see them as the most relevant social critique of post-socialist democracies.

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, ‘Monroe’, 1996, Offset Print , 75 x 60 cm. Photo by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe. Image courtesy XL Gallery, Moscow. HT: Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s work serves as an emblem of the exhibition, a Russian male artist dressed and masquerading as Marilyn Monroe, a Western female sex icon. And on a somewhat different note, one of the most exciting and groundbreaking parts of the exhibition is how it addresses masculinity. Masculinity here is not about exercising power, it is about being subject to power. Masculinity is not the performance of power here but rather appears as subjected to power. This is rather new in the context of post-communist art. Another exciting part is how you go back to the communist genealogy and exhibit works from 1950 onwards, through the sixties and seventies. However, I have the impression that, in this respect, the exhibition is rather selective, or if one were to put it somewhat more critically, uneven. Could you say more about your critieria and methods of selecting “representative” works?

Elbieta Jab?onska, ‘Super Mother’, 2002, Photography, 100 x 150 cm Photo by Elbieta Jab?onska. Image courtesy of the artist.BP: It is very interesting how you read the issue of masculinity in the exhibition. Your remark regarding masculinity as “subjected to power” is something that I did not intend to convey. This is a good test for me, given that as much as we curators would like to “impose” our meaning on the viewers, this cannot always work. Therefore, I am grateful to you for this observation. In the gender studies rooted in the sociological view and dedicated to the socialist period, we usually read about women in socialism, but hardly ever about men. On the other hand, over the past ten or so years, the studies about post-communist masculinity have indeed increased. There are studies, particularly in Poland, about men in film, men in media, about “crises of masculinity.”

Wojciech Fangor (Poland), ‘Figures’, 1950, Oil on canvas, 100 x 125 cm. Image courtesy Muzeum Sztuki w ?odzi.In the second part of the exhibition, entitled “Negotiating Personal Spaces,” there is section dedicated to the “Heroic Male Subject Revisited.” Gathered here are works in which male artists investigate their artistic subjectivity in self-portraits and performances. Importantly, this section offers several works picturing the male nude, a genre that has been far less frequent in socialism than the female nude. I did not intend to point out that men or male artists are “subjected to power,” but instead that the representations of masculinity had been the question of the artists’ intentions: they decided to re-present themselves in a non-heroic manner, that is, in the state of vulnerability.

One should, I trust, differentiate the state of being vulnerable and the state of being a victim. The adjective “heroic” stands here primarily for the model of manhood, which destabilizes the societal need (very developed in state-socialism) for strong, heroic and productive manhood (as in the type “hero of socialist labor”). This model is presented in the first part of the show, where men are portrayed as heroes working in the factories and construction yards, as useful subjects “building socialism.” In my view, the paintings and photograph(s) showing the male nude are valuable given that in the entire socialist context, the male nude appears in public statuary; that is, in war monuments, only when a soldier is dying, when he is wounded. This representation goes back to the antique times, and it connects the nude male body with death only. In contrast to the female nudes, which “decorated” public places from former Yugoslavia to the GDR and connoted “beauty, healthiness and life itself,” the male nude was somehow a “forbidden” theme in the socialist era. In his important study, Piotr Piotrowski presented a thesis as to why. He presumes that that socialist culture manifests here (as elsewhere) its links to Christian tradition with its representations of Jesus, whose otherwise nude body is always shown with a drapery.

The exhibition may appear selective, I agree. There are several “representative” works, which MUMOK could not get from the institutions that own them; sometimes it was also a question of transport and insurance costs. Sometimes, it was not possible to locate the owner, and sometimes the institutions (like the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana) could not loan the works in their possession (they needed more than six months to organize the permission for loans). You should know that the material shown in MUMOK is just one third of what we have received from the researchers. Check out our list of florida microbreweries: crafted beer –

My way of organizing such a huge amount of works was to present it thematically. The first part of the show, “Socialist Iconosphere,” presents artworks dealing with and referring to social(ist) reality, regardless of whether artists do it in an apologetic, neutral or critical manner. One can say that the dominant medium here is painting. The second part, “Negotiating Personal Spaces,” deals with artists’ immediate surroundings, his or her inner worlds. In any case, the focus here is on personal attitudes. Both parts cover a period between the late 1950s to 1980. The choice of media the artists use is extended to photography, video and the artist’s body. The third part, “Post-communist Genderscapes,” is dedicated to the post-1980 era, which introduced contextual art practices. In a similar way, this art also deals with social–and this time, democratic-realities.

Belgrade feminist meeting in 1978. Photo by Goranka Matic. Image courtesy of the author.HT: Already in 1978 in the former Yugoslavia, in Belgrade, you and Dunja Blažević organized the first international feminist conference, and you posed this very important question as a motto: “Proletarians of All Countries, Who Washes your Socks?” Concluding from this, it seems to me that this was the first attempt to translate Western feminism to the conditions of Eastern, communist countries. I wonder if you reached any conclusions at this early conference about the differences between Eastern (communist) and Western (capitalist) feminism?  And all the more so, since it has become an even more bothersome and hot question now, whether, as Suzana Milevska formulated it, “feminism can speak East?”

BP: I feel rather flattered to be named as one of the organizers of the feminist conference, “Drug-ca žena: Žensko pitanje- novi pristup” (“Comradess Woman: Women’s Question – New Approach”) held in the Student Cultural Center (SKC) in Belgrade in 1978. Alas, I was then assistant in the SKC Gallery and only helped its organization in a purely technical manner.

The initiators of this international conference were Dunja Blažević, art historian and then director of the SKC, and two sociologists, Žarana Papi? (1949-2002) from Belgrade, and Nada Ler-Sofroni? from Sarajevo. This meeting was attended by Western and Eastern women and those living in Yugoslavia, all with different professional and life experiences. It was a very intensive meeting charged with a lot of misunderstandings. For example, Western participants objected to the presence of men in the conference room; they could not believe that the conference was not organized by the Yugoslav CP, and they could not understand that women in Yugoslavia have certain freedoms unimaginable in the West (same salaries as their male colleagues, right to abortion, etc). The conference was also attacked by the official Yugoslav women’s organizations, which claimed that it “imported” Western feminism to our country where women and men have equal rights. The slogan I have used as the title of my catalogue essay appeared some days after the conference in the Belgrade student press. I do not remember who coined it.

Sanja Ivekovi?, ‘Personal Cuts’, 1982, Video with Sound / Video mit Ton, 3:40 min. Photo by Sanja Ivekovi?. Image courtesy of Generali.Unfortunately, this conference did not have any impact on art history and art criticism in Yugoslavia. At that time, Sanja Ivekovi?, living in Zagreb, had already produced many feminist works, but nobody read her art in a feminist way. Thus, as far as art reception and interpretation are concerned, the legacy of this meeting was simply nonexistent. Those who took part in this conference were primarily sociologists and theoreticians, and since that time feminist theory and art practice have been divided, at least in Yugoslavia.

As to the question whether feminism can speak East, I can only quote my favorite post-colonial writer, Ann McClintock: “There is not only one feminism, nor is there only one patriarchy.”

HT: In the context of your own previous curatorial practice, how would you position Gender Check?   Do you see it in continuity with your other curatorial projects?  What is new for you in this project?

BP: As a freelance post-communist and post-Ossie who is twenty years “sitting in the West,” I am not only curating exhibitions. This happens when I am lucky. I write about contemporary art, and I think that writing about Sanja Ivekovi?’s practice finally made me a feminist art historian. Certainly, living in Germany where feminist art history is fantastic, I have learned a lot. In passing, we Easterners often complain that our writings are not enough translated, but German feminist art history is as un-translated as our own.

In the exhibition “After the Wall,” which was organized by Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999, there was one section dedicated to gender, but at that time it focused mainly on the body, as the body was the issue of the 1990s. Perhaps Gender Check is the result of my doctorial dissertation, “The Communist Body: Politics of Representation and Spatialization of Power in SFR Yugoslavia (1945-1991),” which I defended in Germany in 2005 and which is still not published.. Working on it for three years, I became aware of many gender aspects of Yugoslav public space that I had never thought of before. In proposing Gender Check project, I wanted to check whether similar mechanisms of power had been at stake in other countries practicing state-socialism. Our research has proved my presumptions. But this is only a beginning. I can only hope that some of my young colleagues will continue to be sensitive about the importance of gender in art production, distribution and reception. Play today at the best kizi games.

Berlin, November 30, 2009.

Hedvig Turai. Image courtesy of the author.Hedvig Turai is an art historian and critic living and working in Budapest. Her main interests are gender issues in art and theory, Holocaust and contemporary art, and the art of dictatorships. She has published a book on the Hungarian painter Margit Anna. Turai is a frequent contributor to ARTMargins.