EAST ART MAP: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe

IRWIN (eds). EAST ART MAP: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. An Afterall Book: Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London, 2006. – 527 p., with an appended map.

EAST ART MAP is an edition that sums up IRWIN’s more than 15-year-long experience in networking, institutional activity, curating, and artistic research in the problems of contemporary art and how this latter’s agendas are received, reproduced, interpreted, and revised in the vast post-socialist territory that for lack of a better name one refers to as Eastern Europe.

Contemporary art elsewhere discovered Eastern Europe after the fall of the wall (in my memory, one such monumental act of discovery happened in Stockholm at the mammoth art show After the Wall in 1997, about which I published a review in ARTMargins.) After the Wall did its share in the work of institutionalising Eastern Europe as a division of contemporary art in general. Since then, contemporary art has become fond of including East European names in its lists of actors. EAST ART MAP shows how much has been done by East European art practitioners and theorists to rid themselves of the heritage of After the Wall. Then, it was established contemporary art institutions that made statements about East European artistic contexts. Now these contexts are speaking for themselves through a network of institutions and projects that they run themselves. The volume makes up only part of the project in question. It also includes a homepage (www.eastartmap.org), an exhibition project (East Map Museum; first displayed in 2005 in Germany), and East Map University Network, a partnership of eight universities whose researches take part in project activities. This is the very impressive result of artistic research, an innovative form of knowledge production that only recently has been introduced in established European art and education institutions. IRWIN seems to have been successfully practicing it for at least 15 years.

The book I am reviewing is not entitled “Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe”, but “Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe.” This apparently trivial nexus and problematizes both sides of the equation. On both sides of this deceitfully peaceful “and,” there stands not one, but two unknowns, two non-givens: not only that of Eastern Europe, but also that of contemporary art (which efficiently loses its self-identity when critically attacked by a theorist with an East European perspective). And even more unknowns evolve as one reads on: the pseudo-temporal attributes contemporary (as opposed to modern and traditional) and the pseudo-spatial one east (as opposed to west). And of course, the substantives art and Europe do not remain unaffected. The nexus and is polysemous almost to a point of explosion, as it implies a conjunction through negation, a but and a not.

The volume therefore produces quite a complex kind of reading. In the beginning of the project, IRWIN proclaims an almost scientific aim: the identification of criteria according to which Eastern Europe with its post-war art production could be described as a regional whole, as opposed to the false, ideologically imposed classification into national art scenes, on the one hand, and the generalizing and equally false and imposed contradistinction to the “west” on the other. Initially, the project looks as if it were an exercise in survey research for an encyclopaedia. Representatives of “local” (that is, country-based) art communities were asked to supply IRWIN with a list of artists, art groups, projects, and movements that have exerted the most influence over the local situation throughout the post-war period. The results of the survey were then supposed to be presented on a cognitive map and interpreted in a number of theoretical essays.

The book thus contains the following divisions: (1) Museum, a section of illustrations as selected by the contributing project members, organized on a land-by-land basis; (2) Part I, which contains commentaries by the contributors to the work and names presented, with an explication of their own criteria of choice; (3) Part II, which contains theoretical essays with the purpose of summarizing the “fieldwork” done in Part I, and (4) the map itself (to my mind, it’s unreadable.)

Even though it was conceived with a view to producing a unifying picture of the post-socialist region, the book itself avoids the dangers of imposing still another universalizing discourse of theory over the territory. Respect for the complexity of local contexts goes first, as well as for the authority and judgment produced by the specialists who did the work of selection and interpretation. The book makes therefore a very interesting reading, supplying the reader with multitudes of possible strategies of thinking, discussing, comparing, and teaching Eastern Europe as Eastern Europe. Even though both the “east” and the “west” are criticized in most contributions as mythological constructions, it is still the opposition to the “west” that remains in the center of attention. But the West is constructed differently in each case, and equally different are the resulting histories as they are produced under the sign of “not being the West.” The reading of the book is as interesting and illuminating as it is confusing. What adds to the confusion is that although the book speaks about the individual relationship of concrete art scenes to the West, these art scenes rarely speak to each other. The idea of Eastern Europe as a territory with structural similarities works more or less. But the idea of Eastern Europe as a place organized into a whole by means of internal dialogue among its actors does not work at all. Which puts the reality of Eastern Europe as an autonomous post-socialist and post-national whole under a question. Is there indeed any particular reality of (in) Eastern Europe today?


“History is not given. Please help to construct it.” (www.eastartmap.org)

The 23 contributions–presenting altogether about 300 artists, projects and institutions throughout the period in question–are written by leading locally-based but internationally acknowledged art theorists and curators, representing Albania and Kosova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia (2 contributions), Czech Republic, East Germany, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia (3 contributions), Serbia and Montenegro (2 contributions), Slovakia, and Slovenia (2 contributions). Each contributor selects those artists and art events that in his or her analysis have produced the most palpable effect on theevolution of respective post-war art scenes. As already said, both the criteria of palpability and the time frame were interpreted very differently by each contributor. Another factor contributing to the uncertainty of the result obtained – and probably the most arbitrary factor – is the selection of the contributions according to the present-day administrative division of Eastern Europe. Thus, the contributors from the former Yugoslavia, in search of an individual identity, are all contesting the heritage of post-war art in the Federative Republic under and after Tito; Czech and Slovak scenes, practically without referring to each other, still refer to the common pre- and post-war developments under the flag(s) of Czechoslovakia; at the same time, scenes administratively belonging to one country appear to be light years removed from each other, as one reads the accounts presented in the two Moscow-based contributions, as well as in the one from St. Petersburg.

Thus, on the one hand: seeking to be comprehensive. Wishing to recreate the whole of the space of contemporary art and Eastern Europe. Wishing to invite more and more contributing writers and institutions to the creation of East European genuine, not EU- or US-synthesized art history. On the other hand: fragmentariness and lack of consequence in the criteria of choice (not necessarily a bad thing.) Which are going to increase as more projects and more territories are included in the map.

On the back cover, we see a map of Eurasia with the former East Block territories, from the Pacific to the Baltic shore, painted pitch black: a zone of unknown, unwritten, un-interpreted histories. But why restrict this blackness to the former Eastern Bloc? History is not only not-given to the East, it is not-given to anyone nowadays, not even to the West.


The flatness of the map and the linearity of writing are two factors that contribute to distortion in the relation of lived experiences, but there are no other techniques to create a knowledge of the latter. This has to be kept in mind while reading the encyclopaedia of East European art contexts and practices as it is represented in Part I of the book. Following the contributors in their search for an East European selfhood, the reader finds here an abundance of facts, names, and stories that are mostly unknown to the mainstream. We realize what immense intellectual and aesthetic riches are hidden in the depths of the East and what a tremendous potential of revising the fundamental postulates of art practice and art history open up once the experience of their creation and reception is properly reflected. No less challenging are the perceived silences. Some subjects, like the Chechen wars that have been going on practically throughout the time of the project, remain unnoticed. Strangely enough, the colossal threshold of 9-11 and the declaration of the war on terrorism have remained without attention.

One such unanswered question comes from Albania, a scene deeply traumatized by a position which Edi Muka describes as a place in the middle of and away from everything. “Being an artist in Albania means coming to terms with Utopia or with a future that never comes …(i)n a situation where the economic rules are leading towards a forced unification for all … Albania represented a point of no return in the great escape towards the Western European myth.” (p. 134). The sense of being betrayed and abandoned during the “great escape” probably does not only belong to Albania, but the other contributors do not support this subject of conversation. Nermina Zildžos analyzes the Bosnia-Herzegovina art scene among the mass graves in Sarajevo; she tell us about her own experience of a total deafness among the international contemporary art establishment (as encountered at the 1993 Venice biennial) to the terrors of the siege of Sarajevo, a reality that was not only contemporary to the Biennialbut also taking place a mere 30 minute flight away. “…I wished that Venice would finally sink into the Adriatic together with the Guardini and all of us” (p. 152). The book starts with these difficult statements; they probably are as relevant for the rest of the region, too, and probably not only in the East, and not only in Europe. But the important subjects of trauma, grief, and sorrow receive no further development, at least not explicitly.

Categories produced for the analysis of one context in many cases could be extended to other contexts; see for instance, Iara Boubnova’s detailed and pertinent analysis of the institutionalization of socialist realism in Bulgaria. Boubnova analyzes the system as an example of Foucauldian governmentality (this category traditionally applied to liberal states, not to communist systems, actually works very well.) How applicable is her analysis to other contexts? Is there a unifying, systematic factor to be looked for in the governmentality of Soviet art establishment? Inke Arns includes four of the GDR’s official establishment artists on her list of impacts and influences. Different from Boubnova, she looks for what is controversial in the production of the dogma itself. Arns is attentive to Socialist Realism in Socialist Germany as a ruin of the international movement of Socialist Realism. It is important to acknowledge the cosmopolitan claims of this system, which eventually repressed the cosmopolitanism of East European avant-gardes and after its own demise collapsed into national art scenes in search of nationalistic artistic agendas. In the accounts from Russia, however, the country where socialist realism blossomed and reaped its most abundant harvest in terms of art practices and artistic ideas exterminated, socialist realism is not mentioned at all. Nor is the legacy of socialist realism a factor in the accounts of Russia’s ex-brotherly republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Then, of course, there is a controversy around tradition: the roots, the origins, the beginnings. Here, the chronologic limits as they are required by the editors – the post-war period until present — are easily bypassed. The post-war history of the art that now “belongs” to the Czech republic starts before the war, while Croatian post-war art history starts in the 1920s. Russian post-war history starts as late as the 1970s. The post-war history of the art of Bosnia and Herzegovina is counted with a starting point in a different war, in 1995, with the loss of sovereignty with the Dayton Peace Treaty. The art history of the Republic of Macedonia is written as beginning in 1945 but avoids the mention of the fact it was at that time “owned” by the Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. “Serbia and Montenegro” are mentioned in the table of contents, but the titles of both the texts in the collection suggest that they only deal with Serbia, not Montenegro, even though the art of Serbia and Montenegro is considered as part of Yugoslav art before the end of Yugoslavia. These chronological and administrative discrepancies signal different genealogies and archaeologies; and these imply, consequently, differences in terms of self-identifications.


As we have seen, IRWIN’s scientific approach to systematically represent contemporary art and Eastern Europe as a whole (intentionally?) fails. Let us, then, look at the strategies of interpretation. This possibility is given in Part II of the collection, which is comprised of analytical essays.

Ratsko Mocnik starts by critically assessing the East/West mode of thinking that “robs both sides of their histories and robs them both of their common history – and precludes any possibility of them having a common history in the future.” (p. 344) This robbery is implied in multiculturalism with its reliance on identity: “…a paradoxical tool for attaining universality by missing it” (ibid.). To confer an identity on aminor particular instance within the universal whole means to give it acceptance in exchange of history. This is a tendency actively resisted by (East European) art whose work is that of politics and historicity.

Among the universalizing totalities that confer an identity on the particularities of Eastern European history, politics, and art, Mocnik identifies three: (a) commodity fetishism, the reification and the homogenization of the social sphere; (b) institutionalization, social care through administration of expert knowledge, and the related biopolitical practices in the reproduction of bodies and egos; and (c) the production of illusions of social wholes like, for instance, the nation. Nowadays as before the fall of socialism, cultural domination is effected through the ideas and practices of “cultural management.” Art itself produces no ideological effects and works against the condition of anti-history “which has crippled the spaces of “post-socialism” for almost a decade [since the fall of the wall]” (348). dohaescortstars.com

Roger Conover in his essay offers an analysis of the institutional structures and totalities through which the “crippling anti-history,” under the slogans of transition and liberalism, was implemented on the scenes of East European art. Here we are confronting a new totality, a fourth one compared to the three identified by Mocnic: practical institutionalization through curating and the client-patron relationship that were established throughout the territories of the ex-Eastern Bloc through the agency of the Soros foundation branches and contemporary art centers. “Museums got their grants from culture ministers, curators were given their budgets and spaces, then sent off to find new “importable” visa-eligible artists from the East. Hopping on a Lufthansa jet and checking out the scenes from Estonia to Skopje was not much harder then Googling … Every city had a Soros centre, and every Soros centre … had a doorman of curatorial relations …In every pocket, a list of names, a list of number ones … it was a short distance from intellectual exchange to insider trading … [It was due to such institutional practices, Conover continues, that] this increasingly false but passionately defended idea of divide” was created and supported on both sides (354-355). What is happening now, then? Conover identifies a change in what he describes as a current turn of the prefixes, from the temporal post- and neo- to the spatial inter- and trans- (Cf. Susan Buck-Morss’decoding of post- and neo- as pseudo-temporal, intrinsically political labels, all post- being on the side of the global Left, all neo- being on that of the global right-wing, p. 494-495.) inter- and trans- are also temporal in a pseudo way: they imply a metaphorical space and a symbolic transfer: interpretation and translation. The see-through space of Eastern Europe as it appeared to the Lufthansa jet hopper at the beginning of the 90s is now in the 2000s a space of complexity and interference: a space that is awaiting close reading and considerable hermeneutic work.

Eda Cufer in her contribution analyzes the narrative of Eastern Europe as a product of cold war cultural politics. Here, the context of the emergence of Eastern Europe becomes even wider, since it includes the “theft” of avant-garde by the two powerful centres of the Cold War: the post-war cultural politics of the USSR and those of the US. In America, the depoliticized radical art easily loaned itself to the needs of cultural export of American values to devastated Europe, establishing links between private corporate capital, the CIA and such institutions as MoMA. In the East, on the other hand, modern art during the Cold War era was simply eradicated. What occurred was “an internal brain drain by which creative expression (was) prevented and critical expression discouraged” (369), “a dysfunctional, neurotic institutional culture” (370), and as a result of that, the inability of Eastern Europe after the wall to act otherwise than as “a passive receiver of neo-liberal economic plans and scenarios (and) also a submissive recipient of western theory” (ibid). This narrative has failed East European societies’ ability to “democratize themselves through their own historical, intellectual, and creative resources” (364). One has to explore cracks on the façade of “Eastern Europe” in search of a new, “third” narrative.


How does one explore the crack on the façade? The collection includes several essays that show us the possible strategies of thinking, writing, and teaching Eastern Europe and contemporary art. Matters like scale and format play a decisive role.

One can for instance concentrate on a close reading of the work produced by one group, as the late Igor Zabel does in his “Short History of OHO.” The work of the group is well documented; there has been historical periodization produced and a pre-history established. Zabel acts as a chronographer, describing the group’s gradual evolution through genres and media, the evolution of their politics, their place in the ideological debate of Tito’s mildly totalitarian Yugoslavia, and their relation to the western influences of the time, their gradual abandonment of the avant-garde for the sake of a “cosmic body” in conceptual art, and of the concept of the cosmic body for the sake of a healthy-lifestyle-traditional-agriculture-cum-artistic-practice community, the Šempas Family, in the country in the 1970s. Zabel’s work is quite traditional, a well-balanced record which is possible to achieve when dealing with an episode of history that is already finished.

Another possibility is a biography of a single artist: a close reading for the sake of disentangling an almost congealed cobweb of dialogical connections around the artist, across the borders, across the ideological divide, and across time periods. This is what Andreas Spiegl does in his story about the East German artist Neo Rausch. Here, there is no place for programmatic statements about progressive or conservative trends: traditional media like painting and classical references like Piero della Francesca are interpreted not as signs of collaboration with the academic doctrine, but as surfaces for the performance of controversy within the established practices of composition, colour, structure, or perspective. With such a respectful attention to the artist’s freedom of choice (e.g., of a particularly reactionary medium like painting) the critical questioning becomes more refined, and the eye of the critic becomes more attentive to the decisive though probably inconspicuous differences in the artist’s way of treating the materiality of expression.

Still another possibility of writing is to analyze an artistic strategy. This is what Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse do in their research of the strategy of over-identification: making, by the critical artist, herself invisible against the background of the statement of power which she intends to subvert. The two authors proceed from the declaration about the ineffectiveness of creating a critical distance in the age of consumption technologies that immediately turn the distance into an object of commercial entertainment (p. 455). Invisibility and mimicry, the reduction of a critical gesture to a zero are considered as alternative strategies and traced down into the history of avant-garde and across various local art communities, both from the position of the producer of the gesture of invisibility and from that of its recipient, the spectator who discerns the provocative transparency and thus becomes the ultimate subject of such an affirmative subversion.

Still another strategy of writing, also represented in the collection, is institutional and discourse analysis, as performed by Ana Peraica in her analysis of the expropriation of the history of East European contemporary art by the mainstream academic grand narrative created with the authority of Greenberg and Michael Fehr’s project of museumification for East art conceived in critical opposition to the concept of MoMA. These two create a continuity when read together with Boubnova’s examination of governmentality in Part 1.

The volume concludes with the theoretical and political statements made by the only two non-East persons, actually: two walking art and theory institutions: Slavoj Žizek and Susan Buck-Morss, both with a critique of Western (global) left liberalism in its half-hearted acceptance of its post-Soviet other in the east, as well and with its stubborn support for the fictions of liberty as individual free choice, a narrative that collapses when confronted with the experiences of neo-liberalism, whether in the West or in the East.

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