Central Europe in the Face of Unification

The following essay is part of a series devoted to contemporary art and architecture East-Central Europe. It was first delivered as a paper at a conference held at MIT in October, 2001. 

When speaking about European unification, or the incorporation of Central Europe into the EU structures after 1989, we should focus on Central European exhibitions held in the West after the Fall of Nation in 1989. The answer to the question “what was the core of the (Western) interest in newly discovered lands in the East” is very simple: there were political reasons so obvious that they are not even worth mentioning. A much more complicated and even important question is about the interest of the East in organizing such exhibitions.

To start, however, it is worth considering what the word “exhibition” means, and whether it tells us something about the exhibition itself.(I am very thankful to Dr. Ewa Domanska for her discussion, critical remarks, as well as suggestions that helped to write this paper.) It comes, as most things do, from the Greek and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, means, among others, “submitting for inspection, a public examination”.

We can go further and say that the word implies a sort of supervision or, more precisely, submitting to supervision. What is exhibited, first of all, is allowed to be publicly seen, to be on the scene, to be on the agora, and then, as a consequence, to be inspected, examined, and evaluated.

In other words, such an understanding of the question of exhibition has something to do with the question of power. The power is located, of course, on the side of inspectors, who supervise what is submitted for supervision and what is exhibited. It would then mean that post-1989 Central European exhibitions were a sort of inspection of art from the “other” side of the continent; knocking unexpectedly on the doors of the “right” side of Europe.

There is no doubt that exhibition is the most crucial means of communication in contemporary art. Without exhibition what should be shown cannot be seen.

As Jean-Marc Poinsot has argued “contemporary art [maybe any art, and any cultural production – P.P.] comes to us through the medium of the exhibition.”(J-M. Poinsot, “Large Exhibitions. A Sketch of a typology,” in: R. Greenberg, B. W. Ferguson, S. Nairne (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 39.) On the other hand however, exhibition faces a dependence on the power system.

The question, then is not to challenge the exhibition system as such, but rather to deconstruct a curator’s strategies in the context of lost or gained identity in what has been exhibited, namely of Central European culture. The focus on identity should be examined both in terms of reconstructing its history of art, as well as its cultural ambitions for a new, post-communist world.

In other words, we can say that the question is: In what way did the curators of exhibitions want the art from Central Europe to be inspected, examined, or supervised by the West; in what way did they want it to be presented on the agora, to be shown to the public, or – conversely – not to be neglected by the West in the process of European unification? Thus, the problems I would like to emphasize are not the Western strategies that allow the East to be on the scene, but rather the Eastern (or Central European) strategies in submitting its art to be inspected.

Even though Central Europe is nearby, the West did not reveal any serious interest in the art of its close neighbors before 1989. The West looked instead at the “real other” of post-colonial studies, or at least at Russia, which occupies a special role in Western imaginary and cultural politics.

This observation applies not only to the exhibitions themselves, but also to the exhibition scholarship and scholarly discourses. Krisztina Passuth, studying a history of avant-garde exhibitions, could not find any expressed interest in that field among Western scholars.(K. Passuth, “The Exhibition as a Work of Art: Avant-Garde Exhibitions in East-Central Europe,” in: Exchange and Transformation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, forthcoming.) Not even the famous Bruce Altshuler’s book on avant-garde exhibitions mentioned them.(B. Altshuler, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.) One can say the same in the case of other studies, such as Thinking about Exhibition, where no Central European show was analyzed, or even mentioned.(R. Greenberg, B. W. Ferguson, S. Nairne (eds.), Thinking about Exhibitions, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.) This does not mean that the Central European exhibition discourse does not exist in the West at all. Milena Kalinovska, a pioneer among Western curators on that field, has written one of the few studies summarizing Central European exhibitions held in the West before 1989.(M. Kalinovska, “Exhibition as Dialogue: The “Other” Europe,” in: J. Caldwell (ed.) Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Carnegie Museum of Art, 1988.)

To be honest, there have been some comparative Central European art exhibitions organized before 1989. There was the exhibition Expressiv. Mitteleuropaische Kunst seit 1960, shown in 1987 in Vienna, and a year later in Washington DC,(D. Ronte, M. Mladek (eds.), Expressiv. Mitteleuropaische Kunst seit 1960/ Central European Art since 1960, Wien: Museum moderner Kunst, 1987.) and again for another year in Vienna. A short time later, the exhibition Reduktivismus appeared just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.(L. Hegyi (ed.), Reduktivismus. Abstraction in Polen, der Tschechoslowakei, Ungarn, 1950-1980, ed. Wien: Museum moderner Kunst/ Stiftung Ludwig, 1992.)

The paradigmatic exhibition dealing not only with Central Europe, but also with Eastern (Russian) culture, was the Europa-Europa exhibition set in 1994 by Ryszard Stanislawski and Christoph Brockhaus in the Bonn Kunst- und Ausstesslungshalle.(R. Stanislawski, Ch. Brockhaus (eds.), Europa, Europa. Das Jahrhundert der Avantgarde in Mittel- und Osteuropa, Bonn: Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1994.) The task faced by the organizers of the exposition was extremely difficult, particularly from theoretical and psychological perspective. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the “iron curtain” allowed them to ask questions about the identity of Europe shaped by the Yalta Agreement. Their ambition, however, was also to change the Yalta order.

The political context of the exhibition was quite obvious. Somewhat less obvious were its artistic premises: The Eastern part of the continent was defined in a retrospective manner, because it was distinguished not just in reference to the aftermath of the Yalta conference, but also to the pre-Yalta years.

Moreover, the typical Central European trends, such as the Czech cubism that developed among local historical tensions referred to the far metropolis (Paris) and simultaneously to the closer one (Vienna). These tensions were combined, perhaps for the first time, within the same geographical area as the art of the Russian avant-garde.

The art of Austria and Germany, no doubt the historical points of reference for Central European artists (at least in the first half of the century, not to mention around the turn of the 19th century), were not included.

The art of the German Democratic Republic, a fragment of German territory that incorporated after 1945 into the political sphere of the East (i.e. the Soviet Bloc) was excluded as well. If the threshold of World War II justified the geographical division of Europe into two parts, there were indeed few convincing arguments to apply it retrospectively to all of the twentieth century.

At this point, however, this crucial question does not refer to historical divisions, but rather to the identity or historical significance of the art produced in this region. Of course, the organizers of the exhibition were quite aware of this issue. In fact, Stanislawski admitted that his basic intention was to show the universal character of the art of the Eastern part of the continent.(Among many statements of the exhibition curator, see an interview: “‘Europa, Europa’ an Interview with Ryszard Stanislawski by Bozena Czubak,”in: Magazyn Sztuki, No. 5, 1995, p. 223-237.)

Reading between the lines, and sometimes even listening to the curator himself, one could realize that the primary objective of this undertaking was to valorize the art of the “other Europe” in the context of its absence from art history textbooks. The same intent was expressed by the exhibition itself as well as by its monumental catalogue. Of course, such a strategy is quite obvious. Quoting Jean-Marc Poinsot once more, we can say that indeed organizing exhibitions is writing art history.(J-M. Poinsot, “Large Exhibitions. A Sketch of a typology,” in: Thinking about Exhibitions, op. cit., p. 41.)

I really believe that the Bonn event showed the dimensions of Central/ Eastern European art on an unprecedented scale. Regardless of all the particular objections raised in various countries of mostly Central Europe, its effects remain beyond dispute.

The actual problem lies elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Europa-Europa did not put forth any new theoretical and methodological categories applicable to the discussion of European art in the twentieth century. Expanding the range of material, it did not modify the paradigm of artistic geography, and even worse, did not even articulate such possibilities.

To provoke the deconstruction of universalism, the exhibition inscribed itself in the perspective of its mythology: into the myth of European universalism as a neutral tool of writing art history. Moreover, to challenge European art history, and-perhaps more importantly-art geography, the Europa-Europa exhibition submitted Central European art for the Western inspection using the supervisors value system and showed that there was no “other Europe,” just Europe.

Let me briefly discuss how the other exhibitions have been trying to avoid the geographical and historical traps seen in the case of the Bonn show. Let me begin from the end, from the exhibition Exchange and Transformation: Central European Avant-Garde, 1910-1930 which is still being prepared, and that is scheduled to open in March 2003 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The point of departure of the exhibition is an unspoken critique of the Europa-Europa show. The structure of Exchange and Transformation will be, therefore, entirely different. Likewise, the the curator’s strategy will go towards a very concrete definition of its subject.

It will be neither the art itself as a show, as in Europa-Europa, nor an attempt to valorize art production from the region in the context of European art history. Rather the show will attempt to focus on the formative processes constructing local art communities, namely international, mutual cultural exchange between several Central European art centers transforming classical avant-garde imagery.

There will be no 20th century art history of Central Europe that is more or less parallel to the canonical (Western) one, as it was in the previous exposition. Instead there will be a focus on a geography of art: dynamic geographical processes reconstructed by focusing on particular places (cities), and events (exhibitions and publications).

The same unspoken critique of the Europa-Europa show may also be seen in the case of two other exhibitions: Der Riss im Raum held in Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin in 1994, and the next year in Warsaw, as well as Aspekte/ Positionen. 50 Jahre Kunst aus Mitteleuropa, 1949-1999, showing for the first time in Vienna.(Respectively: M. Flugge (ed.), Der Riss im Raum. Positionen der Kunst seit 1945 in Deutschland, Polen, der Slovakei und Tschechien, Berlin: Guardini Stiftung, 1994. L. Hegyi (ed.), Aspekte/ Positionen. 50 Jahre Kunst aus Mitteleuropa, 1949-1999, Wien: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 1999.)

The subjects of these shows were defined not through formative and constructive processes, but rather through geographical and historical boundaries. The first carefully presented show focused on three or four countries: Germany, or West and East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, or Bohemia and Slovakia.

The second show, less carefully organized, gathered material for more Central European countries (with the exception of Germany, and Bulgaria, but including all post-Yugoslavia countries). Even if the catalogues employed were used to present a historical material in a country-to-country manner, the exhibitions themselves tried to avoid such a schematic presentation. Instead, they stressed a comparative perspective of the history of the last forty to fifty years.

However, while the Berlin show focussed on the artists themselves, the Vienna show concentrated more on historical processes. It is worth mentioning that both shows were localized in a very specific historical moment, namely the post Second World War period, which was rather less problematic.

What was problematic was the instrumentalization of historico-artistic geography. If, the ambition of those exhibitions was to represent post-Yalta Central European culture, why was West Germany included in the Berlin show and Austrian art given an important role in the Vienna show?

What’s more, if the exhibitions focused on the post-war period, why were Bohemia and Slovakia separated in the first show, and included with all post-Yugoslavian countries in the second? In both cases they were each separate countries during this period-namely Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The answer is obvious. As Europa-Europa was involved in a political agenda, the same was true in the latter exhibitions. Politics intervened in the curators’ strategies, changing their more or less clear historical premises.

Whereas the above mentioned exhibitions could be seen in a more or less ambiguous historical and geographical framework, the last ones I will mention, have been defined much more precisely-at least as far as history and geography are concerned. What I have in mind here is the Beyond Belief exhibition in Chicago (1995) and the After the Wall show in Stockholm (1999).(Respectively: L. Hoptman (ed.), Beyond Belief. Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995; B. Peji? and D. Elliott (eds.), After the Wall. Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe, Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1999.)

Both exhibitions concentrated on the post-communist period. However, while the first show exhibited art from Central Europe (i.e. the Eastern part of the continent except the former Soviet countries), the latter presented material from the whole former Soviet bloc.

The first show collected material on a country-by-country basis, and focused on particular cultural developments among mostly young artists. The second show, on the other hand, focused on young artists (not exclusively however) and their individual art productions, and tried to avoid – as Bojana Pejić once pointed out -exhibiting the “stars” from the region who are working mainly in the West (e.g. Marina Abramović, Ilya Kabakov, Krzysztof Wodiczko).

This difference in focus constituted the main difference between the two shows. To elaborate, while the first exhibition was executed in the mid-nineties, and not at the beginning of the decade, it just tested the water. The second exhibition, on the other hand, offered a kind of closure to the post-Soviet period in European culture.

After the Wall was organized, as I said, not according to countries, but rather around the particular issues in which artists were involved. It dealt with social critique, recent history, questions of an artist’s subjectivity and identity, and questions of body and gender.

This last theme even had a special place since art related to that topic was shown in Stockholm in a separate space. However, the frame of the entire exhibition was a historical background, namely the post-communist point of reference. That was precisely the last moment when such a show was possible, simply because the post-Soviet world is disappearing, as – notably – one of the curators of the exhibition expressed very clearly.(D. Elliott, “Instroduction,” in: B. Peji? and D. Elliott (eds.), After the Wall. Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe, Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1999, p. 11.)

Would we be able to find similarities in the near future between the former GDR and Armenia, or Slovenia and Ukraine, Poland and Belarus? That would be very difficult-indeed this was something that was not so easy to accomplish during the communist period.

What is even more complicated is that the previously “cohabitating nations”, such as the Czechs and Slovaks, or the Slovenians and Croats, have been split into separate countries. One of them is even seeking EU membership, while the others have less of a chance to do so. But due to EU regulations their citizens would even face difficulties on the level of free travel, as well as economic trade.

Will we be able to draw any common background between those countries in the near future? Not any more. Except of course, for the historical ones. The political geography of the post-Soviet world is disappearing and would make such exhibitions as After the Wall very problematic in the future. Thus, the end of the last decade of the 20th century was really the last moment such a show was possible.

If After the Wall is closing the post-war history of Central European art, it does at the same time open a new discussion. Let me raise an odd question: what really is Central Europe? Is it something real, or just a phantasmagoric projection? Is the “otherness” of Central Europe contained within the context of European culture? Of course, looking to the distant past we find a Poland/Lithuania Kingdom, not as the center of the European continent, but rather as its Eastern border-facing the “real others,” (the Turks).

Central Europe, however, has been born as an ideological construction expressed in German political discourses, both in Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire, and a little bit later in Berlin by Otto von Bismarck leading the newborn Germany. While the first discourse and political practice was relatively open to the multi-ethnic communities living there, Prussian society, on the other hand, was not only oppressive, but also aggressive.

This is an important point to note, since this oppression is the reason for a sort of nostalgia in the post-war Central Europe that emerged from the Austrian Empire. A good example of the expression of such feelings is the famous essay written by Czech writer Milan Kundera “The Stolen West or the Tragedy of Central Europe,” which can be seen exactly in the context of such a nostalgia. However, even though the discourse of the Austrian Empire was less oppressive than the Prussian one, Central Europe still expressed an ideology of political domination over the nations in the East.

This is, however, not the only point of reference of such a discourse, since it aims not only at the East, but also at the West. Central Europe as a political doctrine has been constructing German identity both in opposition to the East (mostly the Slavs and Hungarians), as well as Western Europe-particularly as associated with France.

The philosophical discourse justifying such an ideology was of course Nietzsche’s concept of the antagonism between “culture” and “civilization.” This opposition influenced a particularly more German than Austrian way of thinking,(E. Gillen, “Tabula Rasa and Inwardness. German Images before and after 1945,” in: E. Gillen (ed.), German Art from Beckmann to Richter. Images of a Divided Country, Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1997, p. 17-18.) and determined the idea of Central Europe as a defense of “culture” against Western “civilization,” while at the same time bearing (German) “culture” to the East.

The above mentioned political and historical background was the source of discouraging new Central European countries just after World War I, rather than encouraging them to identify themselves in such a context. Moreover, an ideological and political distance kept by German discourse to the West, which always was idealized in the East, was the next reason for the disappearing notion of Central Europe in new countries during the inter-war period.

However, the situation changed radically after 1945, when a large part of the European continent was incorporated into the Soviet Empire. For the most part, both cultural societies and the so-called “ordinary people” did not want to be identified with Eastern Europe, which actually meant the Soviet bloc.

Timothy Garton Ash has noted that the tragedy of Central Europe was that after World War II it was incorporated into the Soviet bloc; it disappeared in order to be replaced by the concept of the Soviet bloc.(T. Garton Ash, “The Puzzle of Central Europe”, in: New York Review of Books, 18 March 1999, s. 19-23.) He is certainly correct that it was a tragedy of this part of Europe that its cultural, social, economical and political ambitions and development were damaged. But at the same time he is incorrect, since this was precisely the moment when Central Europe got a chance to re-emerge as a discursive construction.

To avoid being identified with the Soviet Union, the idea of Central Europe has been revived in the region, yet with a totally different meaning. This was the time when the above-mentioned nostalgia for the Habsburg Empire emerged, particularly in countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which previously belonged to the Empire.

Nevertheless, in almost all of these countries Central European identity worked as a sort of reaction to the political situation, but did not produce any cultural unity between them-at least not in terms of art. Modernist and neo-avant-garde artists identified themselves more with the international, rather than the Central European.(L. Beke, “Conceptual Tendencies in Eastern European Art,” in: Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999, p. 43.) In actual fact, it was the dissidents and intellectuals involved in political opposition who revived the concept of Central Europe, rather than the artists.

Central European identification seemed to be very useful, both on the political as well as the cultural level just after 1989. It was at this particular moment when a series of Central European art exhibitions came to be. I am afraid, that 1989 was perhaps the last, and perhaps the only moment when these exhibitions were possible.

Now, when some of the Central European countries are facing (at least they are seeking) unification within the EU, while other countries will apparently be excluded from that process (at least in the near future), the concept of Central Europe can no longer work as an identifying discourse. Moreover, it could even be perceived as something that would disturb the unification process.

Therefore, in what way could the concept of Central Europe now work in order to create the identity of the region? Central European countries are in a very different economic and political situation. This is one reason for losing their former regional identity. The other is after beingliberated from communism, all of these countries want to forget the recent past-which actually created their regional identity in the past.

If a revival of Central European discourse was a product of such a past, it means that it should be forgotten as if it were a child who experienced a traumatic experience. In other words, it means that the regional identity understood as a reaction to Soviet expansion could be forgotten.

Even more, if nostalgia for the multiethnic Habsburg Empire used to fulfill cultural ambitions suppressed by the Soviets, the now United Europe can offer those countries a much more attractive identification associated with being in Europe. This is precisely where the region always wanted to be. This is particularly visible in the Czech Republic, which perceives itself as quite western, both in political and cultural discourses.

What has been said above does not mean that there is no space for organizing exhibitions of Central European art in today’s society. Certainly, there is such a space and it is even a necessity, particularly for historical reasons. The above-mentioned LACMA show concentrated on some geographical and historical points, which I hope proves its necessity. It reveals that there is still an interest as far as the post-war period is concerned.

For example, in the Central European history of art between 1945 and 1989 we would be able to find many common points of reference that could be the subject of many exhibitions. One of them could be, for example, a horizontal comparison around some particular key dates in both a history of art and politics, such as 1956, 1968-70, and 1980. There are many topics still waiting to be discovered.

In one word, I will argue that history is not problematic; the problem is with contemporary culture. In other words, Central European culture (as a discursive concept) is the historical, rather than present day point of reference. As far as contemporary culture is concerned, and particularly a future culture of the region, we should perhaps find a different discourse to describe the relation between the West and East, or the West and the so called the center of the continent.

Now, I presume, we are approaching the crucial question dealing with contemporary European culture: the relationship between its centers-almost the same historical centers-and its radically different margins- one of which used to be Central and Eastern Europe. The crucial question, therefore, is the distance between these two factors: space and geography.

The critical geography would be aimed at disclosing the center of power, and – like feminist, post-colonial and other deconstructive practices – would produce a discourse of a pluralistic, non-hierarchical concept of the subject, or to be more exact, on the multi-subjectivity of European dimensions.(See: I Rogoff, Terra Infirma. Geography’s Visual Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 2000 , p. 14-35.) Such a study would provide a critical approach to the question of similarities and differences between the centers and margins, but also – and this is perhaps the most interesting challenge of “after the wall” European culture – between many geographical margins themselves.

In addition, these studies would provide a critical approach to the question concerning a new context of Central European identity in new European cultural and political relations. What I mean here is dealing not only with the relation between the centers (Berlin, London Paris) and peripheries (Bratislava, Warsaw, Zagreb), which used to be a subject of art historical studies in previous decades, but also the relation with other peripheries (Athens, Dublin, Lisbon, Stockholm).

To conclude, I would say that the new European political and cultural geography would make Central European contemporary art exhibitions more problematic. Many relations between the centers and margins, different margins and different centers, and margins themselves, produce diversity.

What does diversity really mean? What is the necessary condition in order to realize diversity? That is the border; borders between many spaces, the centers and the margins, the margins themselves, and borders between the “new” margins emerging from post-communist Europe.

Jacques Derrida writing on the aporetic character of the borders and on the “double concept of the border,” refers to the question of Europe, or – more precisely – European borders. Such an aporia tells us of the “passage”, and at the same time “non-passage” of the border. If the border is something to cross, it also means that it would be something not-to-cross. These are not opposite figures, as he argues, but rather the plural logic of aporia, which installs the haunting of the one in the other.(J. Derrida, Aporias, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 19-21.)

Let us note two examples of non-passage (or aporia) mentioned by Derrida, and adopt them for our consideration. Derrida perfectly describes the European situation before and after the Wall demolition, particularly in the very heart of Europe where the Wall physically and symbolically existed, namely in Berlin. This was an experience especially and exclusively expressed from its Eastern perspective.

In one case – writes Derrida – “the nonpassage resembles an impermeability; it would stem from the opaque existence of an uncrossable border.” This is the case, let us add, of the Wall before demolition, when everyone knew that a few steps away there was the border, however, no one (or almost no one) was allowed to cross it. That was precisely the aim of power strategies, particularly in East Germany, but also in other Central European countries, in which citizens, although not welcome, were allowed to cross the border, under a strictly controlled passport policy.

In another case – Derrida continues – “the nonpassage […] stems from the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border.”(Ibid., p. 20.) This is precisely what East Germans experience right now, after the unification-and, presumably, what the other Central European nations will experience soon in the space of the EU.

This aporetic character of European borders was the precise reason for Central European curatorial strategies in submitting the local art for Western (supervisor’s) inspection, and vice versa. That was also the precise reason of Western interest in seeing such exhibitions.

Even now if we observe vanishing European borders, or because of them, such aporias are still at stake. Not only because we do not remember our European experience, but above all because we know that there are invisible borders between the centers and the margins, such as the invisible Wall in Berlin and the margins themselves.

There are also invisible borders inside the “new” margins, which have an even more aporetic character. Since such borders are not stable they exist, and at the same time do not exist. We can cross them, and at the same time cannot cross. They are very flexible, dynamic, unstable, and much more multi-faced in relation to the other margins, such as geographical and cultural margins.

More than ten years after the demolition of the wall we are facing a challenge to see the former Central Europe, and Eastern Europe as well, in a different context. This concept is much more complicated than Central Europe or the West. If the former Central Europe is much more diverse in its relations with the EU in regards to historical cultural centers, as well as its relations to the other margins of European culture, we shall not put ourcuratorial practices to submitting/supervising or surveillance/submission strategies. It is necessary to express a critical and deconstructive strategy, aiming at both the margins and the centers themselves in order to generate a new, more complex image.

Piotr Piotrowski is Professor and Chair of the Department of Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland, and currently is a Visiting Professor at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. He is co-editor of the annual journal Artium Quaestiones and former Senior Curator of contemporary art at the National Museum, Poznan.

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