Eastwards”– A Panel Discussion About the Emerging Art Markets of the New Europe
On Saturday, January 28th, 2006, Eastwards brought together representatives of art institutions, critics and collectors from the countries of the new Europe.
Organization and moderation: Marina Sorbello, art critic and curator, Berlin.
Marina Sorbello: I would like to introduce this talk with just a few words about the title “Eastwards”. The idea was to have a look at the specifics and differences of different local contexts. I will start introducing from the left: Ivan Mecl is founder and director of the art magazine “Umelec” — which means “artist”. “Umelec” is based in Prague, in the Czech Republic, but they also have an office in Berlin, and a couple of years ago they started publishing in different languages, French, Spanish, German. They are even planning a Chinese edition which will be out pretty soon. The main characteristic of “Umelec” is that it looks at aspects of contemporary art and contemporary culture that are not mainstream, and mostly from peripheral areas. For instance, if you’re interested in what’s happening right now in Belarus, take a look at one of the last issues. Mihnea Mircan is currently on a scholarship at the Pavillion at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and he is also curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, Rumania. You may remember that museum for the controversies and peculiarities around its location, which is the former Palace Of The People, built by dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. Gregor Podnar is a curator and gallerist based in Ljubljana. He started his career as a curator at public institutions and galleries, such as Galerjia \032kuc, and has curated numerous exhibitions in Slovenia and abroad. Three years ago Gregor Podnar decided to open up his own gallery in order to be more independent. Viktor Misiano was director of the Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow in the 80s, and from 1992 to 1997 he was the director of the Center for Contemporary Art (CAC) in Moscow. He is the founder and director of the “Moscow Art Magazine”, which is mostly devoted to art theory. The magazine is published in Russian. He has curated many exhibitions, among these the “Moscow-Berlin” exhibition in Berlin, and was commissioner for the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Aneta Szylak, theorist, art critic and curator, comes from Gdansk in Poland, and is the founder and director of the center Wyspa, Institute of Art, and vice president of the Wyspa Progress Foundation. The Wyspa Institute of Art is devoted primarily to art and the exchange and networking of international exhibitions. She is also the correspondent for many art magazines, among them “Mare Articum”, “Praesens”, “n.paradoxa”. She recently discovered a passion for teaching and she currently teaches at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Last but not least, let me introduce Zsolt Soml\032i from Budapest. He is a businessman and art collector. His collection of contemporary art that he started together with his wife Katalin Spengler counts over three hundred works of contemporary art, Hungarian and international. You will learn more about it later. Now each of the guests will have more or less ten minutes to talk about the topics of their choice. We will start with Viktor Misiano who will probably talk about theory, the general implications of the changes that occurred in the past fifteen years in Eastern Europe, and the so-called “post-communist condition”.
Viktor Misiano: Thank you, Marina, very much. First of all for the fact that you are considering theory as something general and so important that practical issues should be discussed after the presentation of a general methodology. It’s something very much related to classical German philosophy, which in our liberal and pragmatic time is considered to be a thing of the past. In reality, yes, I’m probably going to give you a very schematic, general overview of a certain situation, but it will at the same time also be quite concrete. First of all, I’m going to speak about the Russian situation, and not going about the general Eastern European context. As I am probably the oldest in this group sitting here on stage, I had a chance to take part in many discussions over the last fifteen years that were dedicated to the Eastern European context. The more time passes, the more reasons there are for considering Eastern European as something unique and as having something in common. Even if there are a lot of economical, political, cultural, historical reasons for this. But at the same time, during the last fifteen years, these countries went in very different directions. Slovenia went in one direction, and the Republic of Serbia went in the opposite direction. The situation in Russia is very much different from that in the Czech Republic. And the Czech Republic, like many other Eastern European countries, is part of the European community, while Russia will never be a part of that community. So really we accumulated many different experiences in the last fifteen years. I’d like to speak about the Russian case.
As Marina just told you, I’m the curator and editor of “Moscow Art Magazine”. The magazine is in Russian, but we also published some English issues recently. So professionally, as an activist of the cultural scene, I’m very much linked to the cultural politics in my country. My work is profoundly rooted in the context of the reforms which were carried out in the country, and which also presumed a certain new model of activity, a new model of becoming, and a new legitimization in a post-communist country. Well, as you know, in Soviet times, in Socialist times, this is what all of us had in common, art and cultural activity were a part of a very homogenous concept of the development of society. The socialist state was very generous in relation to culture. It was generously subsidizing museums and other cultural institutions.
Usually this is explained in an ideological key, whereby a socialist, totalitarian state used art as a form of ideological indoctrination of the population, as a form of propaganda. Which was partially true. But at the same time I also think that there was a second component, an extremely important component, which has something to do with the “socialist utopia” that was the basis for Soviet society. Maybe you remember the very famous pages from Marx\032s “German Ideology” where he describes communism in a very utopian way. Marx writes about people dedicating a few hours a day to work, and then they have a lot of free time in which they draw, go to see museums, sing songs, compose music. In other words, they devote their free time to cultural activity. I think that this idea of the fullness of life, the idea that the Socialist worker should divide his or her time between work and cultural activity was very profoundly rooted in Socialist societies. It’s the reason why we had not only big museums but it is also why the Russian state used to give money to clubs and other independent activities. There were a lot of institutions where it was considered a socialist experience to give the population the possibility to express themselves in cultural forms. This is what totally disappeared in post-Soviet time.
I still remember an enthusiastic pamphlet by liberal writers and journalists from the early 90s in which they proclaimed that finally cultural activity would become self-sufficient. To them, culture that was supported by the state was ideology. Real culture belongs to the people, it is a culture for which the audience wants to pay. If it doesn’t want to pay, it means that it doesn’t need it. The new liberal democratic order presumed, logically, that art should be based on commercial income. So that was the initial impulse. But the problem is, and this is very curious, that what we had as a result had nothing to do with this neo-liberal idea. Neo-liberal laws in Anglo-Saxon countries presume that the federal center creates certain conditions which are going to help culture and cultural production, such as tax incentives. For example, they make private sponsorship in the cultural field tax-deductable.
There are many ways to lessen the commercial aspects of cultural activity. We can look at the American system as an example. It can be criticized for many reasons, but in many ways this model is working. But that’s not what happened in Russia. There was no attempt to move in that direction. The majority of cultural institutions still belong to the state. Deregulation and privatization never happened. Or if they did happen, it was not in order to keep the institutions active, but simply to sell them as real estate. In fact even the Putin government which is much less neo-liberal now than it was in the nineties, many cultural and scientific institutions are going to be sold away. A friend of mine who works at the Center for Nuclear Physics told me: “You know, Viktor, I came back after the summer holidays, and realized that the building of our institute has become so beautiful, even the garden around it. It means that we’ll be sold very soon.” So the neo-liberal idea is essentially to sell cultural institutions as real estate, not to keep them as cultural assets or as an active cultural resource for society. At the same time, the state wants to have control over cultural activity. Not as in Western Europe (in Germany or in France) where the social welfare considers it its obligation to use social resources and public money to create programs and grant systems that support not only major institutions such as big museums but also cultural activities with an experimental character. Nothing of this sort is being done in Russia.
Marina Sorbello: But what would you say is the role of culture, how does it change?
Viktor Misiano: The paradoxical combination of social control Soviet-style, on the one hand, and neo-liberalism understood as free commercial practice, on the other, has produced the figure of the state bureaucrat, a manager who manipulates public funds and deals with them at his own risk like a businessman on the free market, without any external control. The state managers who are the former directors of museums or the bureaucrats in the ministries prefer not specific programs or experimental activity but big, representative projects. For instance, recently, Russia organized an enormous exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that was completely paid for by the Russian state and not by the museum. The Guggenheim simply opened its doors. However, this exhibition was not organized by expert curators but by bureaucrats. The same thing is happening in the film industry. There is no seriously articulated program for helping our national film industry, as there is in France for instance. However, the Russian state pays very generously to finance blockbuster commercial movies.
There are two justifications for this preference for big spectacular events, events that are organized not by specialists but by people who are unify in themselves the ambition to become cultural producers and managers who control the money. First, there is the ideological justification. Paradoxically, in this neo-liberal time, we are getting back to ideology, but ideology understood in a completely different way, a really populist way. Which kind of ideology is behind this? Russia has invested money in big propagandistic events. We have to build up our new capitalistic industry. We want to be competitive, we want to invest in big blockbusters that will compete with the American or Chinese ones. So there is a very nationalistic rhetoric behind it.
The second justification for these events that are produced out if any public control or transparency has to do with the neo-liberal ideal of efficiency. Public control is simply not efficient. It’s boring, it’s old fashioned, it’s something we’ve had too much of in socialist times. Now, it’s the time of dynamic young managers who will very quickly change everything. Now, however, we come to the last point which is absolutely inevitable in a situation where cultural production and money are controlled by the same people and without any transparency. We are touching on a very delicate point, the problem of corruption. I’m not going to speak about this too much but I want to simply quote some statistics carried out by a sociological center that is very close to the Putin administration. During one year and a half of Putin’s second presidency, corruption in the country increased ten times. And this is data produced by an official sociological research center. I promised to speak about something very concrete, about the Russian case. Despite the enormous differences that we have in the world nowadays, in reality, I think that this model is in some way universal. I have noticed a certain false consciousness in Western interlocutors. Usually they are use two different scales. One of them is global, whereby everything works according to the same standards. But at the same time they like to emphasize local and specific cases. Russia is such a specific case because of its lack of a democratic tradition, because of Stalin’s terror. In reality we all live in a global and a local context at the same time. If the Russian case is part of a global world, this means that the same thing is, in different forms, going on almost everywhere. An American specialist inRussian history has said that Russia is a very interesting country because it’s sick of European diseases, though it is suffering them in a catastrophic way. So the Russian case is catastrophic, but the disease is European.
Marina Sorbello: Thank you Viktor. We will probably have the possibility later to ask more about Russia. I noticed you were a bit nostalgic about the socialist system. Now I give the word to Zsolt Soml\032i, who is a collector and who may possibly have another approach to the subject.
Zsolt Soml\032i: Thank you. What I’m going to talk about very briefly today is to highlight some key points about the art market in Hungary over the last fifty years. I will also talk for a few minutes about our collection. I will make this presentation in three parts. One is 1945-1985, life behind the iron curtain. In communist Hungary, there was an official policy and an official art. The communist government divided art into three categories: forbidden, accepted and supported. There were people who were very much in line with the official concept of Socialist Realism, and they had support from the state; there were people who were kind of so an so, and there were people who had no money, no exhibitions, and no support at all. So there was no real art market at that time. Underground collectors could buy treasures even for a bowl of soup. Collectors were primarily low budget intellectuals, librarians, teachers, etc., because even on a primary school teacher’s salary, you could compile a fantastic collection.
The period between 1985 until 1995 I would describe as influenced by the West. After the fall of the iron curtain, the region became interesting and fashionable, creating a phenomenon we might call “C art”. “C art” means that you are interesting because you come from a certain region. For me, “C” doesn’t mean anything. I’ll give you an example of a simple thing, how you drink and how you do your coffee. In the Czech Republic, people drink filter coffee, in Poland they drink Turkish coffee, in Hungary we drink Italian style espresso coffee, and Russia has the tea market. In the same way you can talk about politics, history, language, religion and so forth. If these countries described even in these simple terms have nothing in common, then how can you talk about them in the same way? In these ten years, in Hungary, there was the phenomenon of double pricing: one price for the locals and another one for the foreigners. By the mid 90s, Hungary and the region had lost their curiosity.
I would describe the period after 1995 as the emergence of a local market. The markets were open. New galleries opened. The oldest gallery in Budapest celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. Fifteen years of constant work, and exhibitions. So I think it’s not an emerging, it’s an established market, when someone can make it for fifteen years. There are other galleries present at the international art fairs. For example when Tony Cragg had an exhibition in Budapest, he sold three big art pieces to Hungarian collectors. There is a new generation of collectors with a totally different social-demographic background. They are bankers, entrepreneurs, CEOs who are focused on their own generation and who are interested not just in painting but also in new media. And there are a lot of private contemporary museums that were opened in the past ten years or that are going to open soon, and not just in Budapest. My wife Katalin is an art journalist. I work in the communications industry. I have some advertising companies, film productions, art, media, and so forth. We started to collect art in 1992. As I used to say, I had a good painting before I could get a good car. We bought our first contemporary art work in 1996. We started with classical Hungarian contemporary art from the 1980s. But then we turned from this to photography, prints, videos, and objects. From 2004 on, we decided to open up towards the world and tried to put our collection in an international context. We tried to visit international fairs and bought international art. Our collection comprises about 300 pieces today.
Marina Sorbello: Thank you, Zsolt. I was struck by your example of coffee drinking habits to illustrate how different Eastern European countries are. We will return to this topic later in our discussion. Now I give the word to Gregor Podnar.
Gregor Podnar: Thank you, Marina. First of all, I would like to refer to the comment made at the beginning of this conference, when it was said that we are all seeking a common identity. I would say that identity is something that belongs to objects. Human kind is never able to reach identity in its absolute sense. So in that sense, I can also refer to the so-called Eastern European contexts and I would also follow Viktor’s idea that we have to focus on particular issues. Nevertheless, there is one matter, which I would stress, that’s a lack of private initiative in general, or the private sector, which we faced during the last fifteen years of developments in central and Eastern European cities and art centers. And from this perspective, I would say that the Slovene example is not much different from many other central, Eastern, and middle European countries. Although I would say that from the very beginning of the fall of the form of socialism we experienced in Ljubljana at the beginning of the 90s, there was not only a focus on the West, but also very much on the former republics of Yugoslavia, to the East, and possibly Vienna or Budapest,. During this time we realized that the infrastructure given in Ljubljana, or Slovenia, was actually very much grounded in national structure. It became like this during a successful economic period in Slovenia, until the last years, during a time of very nationalistic ideology. During the last 10 years, it was difficult to change the infrastructure to a more open structure. It was quite a vivid scene in the 90s, for a relatively small city. This was due to the fact that there were artists and a few museum directors and curators in general, but at some point we faced a stagnation of developments in Ljubljana. So my decision, to tell a little bit about my story, was to open a gallery space, which still tries to develop a curatorial approach or experience that we try to follow also in our presentations at art fairs in general. As a curator, I realized I was working with internationally renowned artists. However, few of them actually came from and worked in Eastern European centers. They were not backed up commercially by the gallery system, so that was one direction that we tried to start with: already institutionally established artists, working for 15 to 20 years on the international market in the sense of institutions, museums, biennials, etc. The second direction of the gallery was to focus on young artists. Since every young artist starts somewhere it does not make sense to speak geographically about their origins. We worked with young artists coming from post-socialist countries, including a few Swedish and a few Slovenian artists. So that is all, and we can continue this at the discussion.
Marina Sorbello: Now I give word to Mihnea Mircan, visiting curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and curator at the National Museum of Contemporary art in Bucharest.
Mihnea Mircan: I’ll say that one of the things that differentiates various Eastern European contexts is the ability of the local art scene to present itself coherently, acting as one group with one readily identifiable image that differentiates them from the magma of central or Eastern Europe or of the various Balkan contexts that have been imagined in recent years. I don’t know if you would agree with me, but I would say that the Slovenian and Polish scenes have managed to do just that, presenting themselves as entities in both cultural and commercial terms. And now I’ll say that this starts to be the Russian case. The Russian scene has found ways to promote itself both culturally and commercially, and I respect that move in both senses. Unfortunately, Romania is not such a case. It hasn’t found the ways to communicate itself, to communicate an identity that brings something to the European polyphony that we all imagine. I would say that there are sociological and institutional causes for this. I am not going to the sociological side, because I would get lost immediately, but I am going to the institutional side, which I happen to know quite well as a curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest. I’ll say that the creation and the progressive discouragement of this institution by the Romanian government is a clear example of what is wrong with institutional culture in Eastern Europe. First of all, the idea of establishing such a museum at this location probably stemmed from the medieval need to have art and political power in the same place. Of course, the idea of a museum of contemporary art in Bucharest has been discussed repeatedly since 1989 and there have been various ideas as to where the museum could be located. But eventually it became quite clear that either the museum would be located in the Palace of the Parliament or it would not exist. This building is formerly known as the Palace of the People. It’s the second largest building in the world. As the main tourist attraction in Romania, one can find it in absolutely any tourist guide. The museum occupies a wing in the Palace of the Parliament that is about 4% of the total space. A remarkable fact is that the museum is the only area in the Palace of the People where the original plans sanctioned by Ceausescu have not been carried out. Therefore it is the only area in the building where the style of Socialist Rococo has not been implemented. Instead, we tried to replace it with a flexible functionalist way of thinking about architecture. Such an institution has a lot of problems because it’s not only a museum of contemporary art, but also a place where art has to reflect permanently on its political context and on the place where it is being exhibited. Therefore, the museum must negotiate permanently between the need to exhibit art, to articulate a view of visual contemporary culture, and to take a critical distance from its own premises. In addition it must admit that it is located in a traumatic place which was built as a result of an act of political brutality\032a place of power that has transited rather easily from communist to neo-liberal times.
Marina Sorbello: Maybe we should add that moving the museum into this palace also split the contemporary Romanian artistic and cultural scene.
Mihnea Mircan: There was, of course, massive opposition from one side of the contemporary art scene to the project, an opposition that had not been vocalized when the parliament itself moved into the building. There was no problem there. I don’t know why the contemporary art scene created such a heated debate, whereas politics, which is undoubtedly more important, has not attracted any. The fact that the new democratically elected parliament took over the central building of the communist power did not surprise anyone, although I think it’s far more problematic than the museum itself with its mild subversion. I have a few images of projects that I selected because I think that they are the more interesting ones. These projects actually reflect on the building and engage its history.
This image [shows image] is from an exhibition which the museum showed, consisting of a few hundred Socialist Realist or Socialist Surrealist portraits of Nicolai Ceausescu, the main character in the exhibition. It was similar to a crash course in art history because everything was there from a Simone Martini painting with Ceausescu to a Jasper Jones rendition of the same man surrounded by various Socialist achievements: children thanking him, birds, and so on. Actually, this started another debate. The museum successfully creates one debate after another. This time the debate involved the masters of Romanian painting, who managed to create a halo [for Ceaucescu]. Their answer was that they had no option but to paint Nicolai Ceausescu. Their second answer, which contradicts the first, was that a good painting is not a matter of subject matter. If it’s a good painting, it doesn’t matter whom you depict. The works were installed in a rather narrow corridor between the original wall of the house of the people and the board wall we built for the museum to hide various installations. So you were actually touching the paintings, your relationship with them was rather corporeal and not visual. It was a corridor of power, in a sense. This [shows image] is another project that responded directly to the political context of the house and to its symbolic architecture. Artists Gianni Motti and Christoph B\032chel described it as a political fair, with a Romanian and European Union flag. The Romanian presidency is presented on cheap monitors, with the volumes turned up as high as possible. This resulted in a complete political cacophony belonging, to a certain extent, to the Palace of the People itself.
Marina Sorbello: For those who do not know of the Palace of the People and its massive architecture, let me say that in order to build this palace, Ceausescu destroyed about one-third of the historical center of Bucharest, which before was called the “Paris of the Eas.” Now I give word to Ivan Mecl from Prague. Ivan is the founder and director of the art magazine “Umelec,” based in Prague and in Berlin.
Ivan Mecl: I come from Czech Republic, which is not really Eastern Europe because geographically we are partly inside Germany. When there was a very famous “Last Eastern European Show” in Belgrade, this was very visible because the Czech Republic was not invited to this show. At that time, no one knew if we were still part of Eastern Europe. Basically, we are very badly located. I edit the magazine “Umelec,” which is published by the Divus publishing house. The magazine has been published since 1997. In the beginning it was published in Czech with English summaries. Now it is published in two separate languages (Czech/Slovak and English) and has distributors, readers, and contributors from all over the world. Since 2002 there has been a French edition, since 2004 a German edition, and in 2005 a Spanish issue was published. I can also say something about the Czech Republic and its present situation which is worse than in the 90s when Eastern European countries shared similar fates, as my colleagues explained. At that time we lived through an Eastern Europe hype, but that is over now. Now we are confronted with a wave of bombastic and very expensive events. In Prague we now have two very strange Biennials as well as our own art fair, which is very bad but not very expensive. We have many things that our officials have seen in Europe. However, they’re doing it in a bad way, and nobody is taking care anymore of the small initiatives that are important for a growing contemporary culture. So we have a very high number of ambitious projects, but at the same time we have a dying level of very small galleries, activities, and associations. So that’s the situation, and I think that’s all for me.
Marina Sorbello: I give word to Aneta Szylak, from Gdansk. For those of you who weren’t here before, Aneta is the “inventor” of Wyspa, the Institute for Contemporary Art.
Aneta Szylak: Gdansk is in the very north of Poland. So what I am going to talk about is the institutional project I’ve been busy with for the last few years. And actually I will also refer to my previous efforts in establishing an intellectually independent art institution in my country. The condition we have been struggling with since 1989 is not only the post-communist condition but aneo-liberal condition. Also, the democracy that unveiled this unwanted image of itself has triggered cultural wars in the country. Contemporary art has become a battleground for political representations. It’s a difficult situation and many curators have gotten new directors. I myself tried twice to establish an art institution. The first one was the Center for Contemporary Art Laznia (Bathhouse). It was an artist-run organization that was transformed into a public institution. So my first effort in the 90s was to have public art institutions, because what we really needed was a strong new public art institution that could manage to follow the entire process of transition in cultural terms. But this instantly put us, including myself personally, in trouble, and I was fired as director of this institution. Now, the institution is going on its own path, but it is very much dependent on the city authorities, and is no longer showing the sharp political profile I tried to give it. This was the first and only public art institution that was established in the country after 1989. That made me think that we needed something else. We needed an institution that would not be public, and not even legal. So we have a very small foundation. However, being a foundation in Poland doesn’t mean that it has money. The foundation is merely the easiest form for a non-governmental organization to establish itself. Started in 1994, the foundation is run similar to the Bathhouse, my previous organization. After losing the Bathhouse and some other exhibition spaces in the city we were invited by a private developer to move to the Shipyard area in Gdansk. I will give a brief introduction to what is happening in the Shipyards. It is a very legendary spot in northern Poland where the entire process of the social political transformation in central Eastern Europe started. This is the place were the strikes run by Lech Walesa began, triggering this very long process of changing the social, political, and economic system. The Shipyard remains a very symbolic spot. It’s both a production site and a very strong political symbol. And today, the Shipyard has become one of the first victims of the neo-liberal system. Many of the workers who fought for democracy and economic change are now unemployed. The Shipyard is much smaller in terms of ship production because ship production is down globally. The shipyard is a triangle, beautifully located in the center of the city between the waterfront and the main train station. Today it has become a very valuable piece of land. Now the shipyard area is fenced off and operated by two major owners. One is still the shipbuilding plant, and the other is a Polish-American real estate developer. So the developer started a new project called the “Young City,” by inviting different artists and art organizations to settle down there.
Marina Sorbello: So what is unique about Wyspa?
Aneta Szylak: Wyspa is the little building in the middle [shows image]. Wyspa is trying to be a completely new kind of art institution. First of all, we are known as the Wyspa Institute of Art, but there is no such organization registered in the county. It is an intellectual construct. It has a location and a program, and it is strongly oriented towards the social, political, and economic context. It is also one of the major cultural operators in the country, pushing, in intellectual terms, public art institutions. Virtually no one knows that we don’t exist in a legal sense. We exist in cultural terms. A new means of artistic cultural production was created by our foundation. Therefore, it was important for us to win a space in the public sphere and to debate the condition of artists and artistic institutions in this completely new political situation. Since our system is completely corrupted, it is very much dependent on political ups and downs. So now we will have a new Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. I hope, since there are very qualified people working on it, that it will be a good institution. However, because of the fact that it is not independent it will still be a medium for political representation\032 What we are trying to do is to be a sort of troublemaker who is there as a very political and highly politicized place. Next to us will be the Solidarnosc Central Foundation which will be a major commemorative project. There is a memorial dedicated to the fallen ship builders. The entire Shipyard and its surroundings is the scene of different forms of political recuperations. So being there and asking difficult questions about what is happening in the public sphere in terms of cultural production is very important. We see the role of Wyspa as a sort of intellectual think-tank for analyzing this specific situation. At the same time we operate in a very broad international network. We have very important major intellectual organizations in Europe and the United States who work with us and this gives us a lot of visibility in artistic and intellectual terms. At the same time we have managed to be very local. So it really attracts audiences from the city and from the Shipyard itself. For example, we made a project about memory and history in a way that was completely different from the official image made by politicians and by the media. We also give space to those who have been pushed outside of the official political representation of memory and history. It doesn’t mean that we identify with them, but we see it as important that all the voices connect. As long as it makes sense, it will be released. So it is like an open platform for different ideological positions.
Marina Sorbello: So in a way we can say that Wyspa is an example of a do-it-yourself institution: if there is no institution by which you feel represented, just make one yourself?
Aneta Szylak: It is very tough financially. We are trying not to stick to any major donors that would make decisions for us about what we are supposed to do there. We operate in different networks. In the future we will have our own sources of income, so that will also balance our situation a little bit. We have a pretty big space, 3500 square meters, and it will expand further. We are going to build an extension, the building will be over 5200 square meters. We also have a collection and have been collecting art works since the mid 90s. It is a wonderful thing to have but also a burden in economical and organizational terms. So we are trying to develop some projects that will give more visibility to the collection in terms of the recontextualization and translation of those works from Poland that have a strong political overtone. We work a lot with politically involved artists and activists. This has been the specificity of Wyspa since the beginning, originating from the mid 80s. Working in with public spaces, activism, and highly political art were always our major fields.
Marina Sorbello: The time for the presentations took longer than expected. So I wanted to ask you if there are any questions, or any topics you would like to discuss. Otherwise I will give word to the public.
Public: My question has to do with the commercial aspect of Eastern European art. My question is primarily to Mr. Soml\032i, as a collector, but also for Mr. Podnar, as a gallery owner. What do you refer to when you talk about the lack of private initiative in the Eastern European context, especially in your country? And as a collector, could you say what your main reason is for collecting? Maybe you have a particular attitude towards the national expression of art, or maybe you receive special tax reductions… Another question is: do the institutions have a particular relationship with the galleries, or are they still two worlds opposite?
Zsolt Soml\032i: Ok, I can’t think, I can’t draw, I can’t read, I can’t write, so my art is my collection. My motivation is verysimple. In response to what you ask in general, this story came to my mind. It was a Hungarian who invented vitamin C. His name is Alber Szent-Gy\032rgyi. He was a very clever chemist. Once he was asked to give an interview about how he invented vitamin C, and the importance of different factors in the invention it. So he said that money is just factor number 3. Number one is creativity and innovation. Number two is the public understanding and public support around you, those people who want you to do something good, or people who listen to you and understand what you are doing. The number three factor is money. This interview was given forty years ago, but I think it is still valid.
Gregor Podnar: I would refer to the private sector as a power system. That means that with only one center of power, it becomes a system that is not very dynamic. So I see all over Europe, that whenever there is a power system, it can have negative as well as positive influences, which provides for more of a competitive structure. So in the case of Slovenia, there were mainly two financiers and two partners for contemporary art, including the minister of culture and the city council. I believe that cultural politics have something to do with an individual approach. It might sound strange if I tell it from a curatorial background, when this type of demystification or demonization of neo-liberalism is very much at stake. So I would say that if there is a neo-liberal system we have to enhance certain systems and improve the already existing institutional framework. That means that if there is a private institution, such as a private museum, which does good work and is opening up and working on a scientific level, then it might also be helpful in the long term as a mirror for a state run institution. The same goes for other fields; it’s not only the art market, but private initiatives, concerning donations, and private institutions. In the long term it reflects on the state of art in the general approach in changing tax laws and so on [sic!]. But of course, every medal has two sides, which means that the private market brings a certain dynamic and a certain change in the power structure. However, only if it is a dynamic system can it lead to a change in the system.
Public: Mr. Mircan in his talk referred to some “local groups”. Some of these groups have a common commercial and cultural expression. So I just wanted to ask not only Mr. Mircan, but also everyone who is willing to comment on this, how is it possible for these local, national groups not to remain local, but to become somewhat “global”, and enter the global art market?
Mihnea Mircan: I obviously wasn’t referring to the attitude of those groups that are endlessly reinforcing cliches about their own nation and becoming continuously involved in the exercise of expressing their nationality. I was saying that through an ensemble of operations that involve various means of cultural policy, I must confess that the entire process escapes me. Certain nations have managed to produce more coherent images than others. I’m from a country where this process hasn’t yet happened, and I look with the utmost respect to Slovenia, for instance, for doing that. So I don’t know if you agree with this or if you know how this has happened. Unfortunately, I’m unable to answer this question; I’m only a witness to this process.
Marina Sorbello: I would like to raise another topic. The problem of the neo-liberal condition is not only that of the flexibility of work and the vanishing welfare state. It is not merely a problem of the so-called “New Europe,” or of the Eastern European countries. It is a problem sensed also in Italy and in Germany and in countries all over the world nowadays. I also wanted to raise one other question: where are the leftovers of Socialist culture, and what is the place of culture in society, not only in Eastern Europe but also in Western societies? I mean, it is a kind of mirror because we are looking at the Eastern European countries and vice versa. There are differences but in the end there are also many things that both have in common. In my own experience, I have traveled a lot in the East, the basic problems people they do have are very similar to the problems that we have in Western societies. Concerning the art system for example, institutions are not sponsored enough, they don’t have enough money, they are not backed up from the political side, artists have to struggle to survive, and so on.
Public: I think the Irwin group is a great example of dealing with a given system, that of Slovenia, and producing art works which are recognized and appreciated internationally, beyond the Slovenian art system.
Marina Sorbello: The Irwin group is also working on a project entitled “Eastern Art Map,” a massive research project on alternative art history from Eastern Europe, an art history that has been silenced or not yet researched. Gregor Podnar, maybe you could comment on that.
Gregor Podnar: It is actually the same in other countries, or in other situations that happened maybe twenty or thirty years ago, when art historians decided to write the history of avant-garde art, and other art historians didn’t understand them because they had another approach. In this case, a few artists are actually telling the same story in another part of Europe to their colleagues, artists, and conservative art historians. So it’s always the same story of discovering or re-discovering the past. I think the fact that it was artists who opened up the debate is very interesting. The project functions as a platform from where you can look to the past and the future. But it is not only an Eastern European project. It’s also a project on the arts, and in that sense it’s actually directed at the search for quality and discourse in general. So it starts from this specific geographical point of view, but more generally this raises questions about context, processes of re-contextualization and conceptual art practices, including in the United States, Germany, or anywhere else. So it is not a project merely about Eastern Europe.
Public (Dan Popescu): I have two comments on the issue of cultural policy in Romania, which is a little bit tricky compared to other Eastern European countries. I happen to know something about it because I own a gallery here. The first problem in Romania is that the state needs cultural policies. They don’t take into account the fact that the only way to raise awareness about contemporary artists is to help private independent endeavors. However, I heard that in Slovenia and also in the Czech Republic, if I’m not mistaken, this was an issue of national pride: the fact that the state got involved in helping artists had something to do with building a sort of national pride or national identity. That’s how I see it, but maybe I’m wrong. Until a few years ago, all institutions in Romania were state-owned. About four years ago, the first private venues opened in Romania. So now there is a new fresh institutional movement that has something to do with the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the rise of the private sector, and the fact that private galleries are representing artists abroad.
Marina Sorbello: Thank you for these remarks. But maybe we could go back to the topic of what the position of culture in the current post-socialist countries is.
Zsolt Soml\032i: As I said, I am 38 years old, I have lived here for fifteen to sixteen years and for twenty-two or twenty-three years I lived over there, in a one party system. At that time, culture was important on two fronts: the first front, the one on which I agree with Viktor, is that Marxism stated that people must develop themselves. So if you are a rural worker, your son has to be a white-collar worker and your grandson has to be an intellectual. It was in this atmosphere that the government put a lot of money behind culture, with the idea that culture was for everyone. So my grandparents were normal, ordinary people, and we had opera season tickets. I grew up going to the opera twice a week. We had front row seats and it cost the equivalent of two Euros. For five dollars I could buy five books because the government subsidized it. The other aspect of culture and art at that time was resistance, because art and culture were very good expressions of discontent with the system. For some people, culture was a central political issue, and for others, culture was a way of demonstrating hatred for the communists. Novels, paintings, and music became an expression for not liking the system. So culture was important at the time. As for now, from what I see from the media, Brad Pitt’s wife is more important than what is exhibited at the National Kunsthalle in Hungary. Around 1990, every region had a very competitive edge and this competitive edge was directed against Western Europe. Just a small example: for a very long time, in Hungary, the biggest political daily had three times the circulation than the biggest tabloid daily. For comparison, in Germany, the biggest tabloid circulation is 6 million copies and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has a circulation of 350,000 copies. In Hungary and the Czech Republic it was absolutely the reverse. So generations grew up on the notion that culture was important and is a part of your body and soul. Culture’s importance seems to have gotten lost in the last fifteen years, and we just follow the western European and American standards for our way of living and thinking.
Aneta Szylak: I wanted to also say something about standards, but I don’t think this remark is only about Eastern or central Europe. It’s generally about Europe, or possibly the entire Western artistic system. So I think that the conviction we inherited from modernity is that we consider the institution as a building, a structure, a budget, or sometimes a brand name. This is no longer relevant to what is really happening in art and artistic production. This kind of branding connected with the institution doesn’t have any kind of creative power anymore. The artistic institution is not a kind of a box where one puts aesthetic goods son display. For me, an institution is first of all an intellectual force and it’s always an individual or a team. It is never the same institution when the team has changed. So what I wanted to say is that what counts is this strong individualization, a kind of intellectual authorship behind the institution. At Wyspa, we have a building, but we can also operate without it. What really counts is the content behind the term “art institution.” We can have the same intellectual force without a fancy building, and this is why I don’t want it to be fancy. That is not a message we want to send to the audience. In general, I think this is the direction in which we could go in terms of a general transformation, not only in Eastern Europe, but Europe in general.
Viktor Misiano: Well if I have to contribute to the idea of the function of art in contemporary society, let’s say in Eastern Europe, I would start with the situation in Russia during the 70s. Back then, when the young Ilya Kabakov was working in Moscow, the Collective Actions Group was starting to do their performances, and young Erik Bulatov was doing some of his first work, the moment was so rich with talent, so dense with critical and metaphysical pathos, that there is no comparison with what we have nowadays. I simply wanted to say that in every social context in modern times art has been produced by a very small circle, a circle zone. In my opinion, art is usually produced in what I call “zones of autonomy” and “zones of solidarity.” One of the functions of these zones is to establish a platform for a critical point of view on society. In socialist times, the aim of this criticism was of one kind. Today, there are a lot of other reasons to have a critical position on society. What I was trying to defend in my speech today was that the post-communist state is imposing a very vulgar, neo-liberal concept of culture, culture as entertainment. As “art-entertainment”\032art purely understood as a commercial product meant to entertain the audience and the possible purchaser. This practically became state policy, which is dangerous and needs to be criticized. At the same time these “zones of autonomy” and “zones of solidarity” produce another level of quality for the artistic product. The necessity to produce and to articulate another understanding instead of the “internal” selfish quality of the art product is extremely important. So I want to say that autonomy as we know it from the times of Adorno and the Frankfurt School has political meanings.
Mihnea Mircan: I’d like to answer with the example of a project that refers to the local and confuses it with the global to such an extent that both become indistinguishable. The project is by a Bulgarian artist named Plamen Dejanoff who lives in Vienna. He is planning to create an international museum quarter in the middle of Veliko Tarnovo, a very nice small town in Northern Bulgaria. He has bought seven villas there and is now converting them with the help of architects and selling them to various international museums that would be interested in having an outpost in the heart of the Balkans. The first museum that is going to occupy one of Dejanoff’s villas is the MUMOK from Vienna (Museum Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig). He is negotiating with other museums. I think this is a very good answer to fifteen years of talk about how to bridge the gap that separates East and West and of trying to invent a common language, either a language of European cultural history or a language of a European political future. I think this might be the perfect response to the questions that we have been asking in the last few years, without any hope for an answer.
Ivan Mecl: We are comparing countries, but I think we’ll be more clear if we compare cities. What I can say about Prague and the position of contemporary culture in this city is that the government wants to change Prague to some kind of a medieval Disneyland, because we have a lot of national treasures and monuments from the past. They want to reconstruct it as a very beautiful “cake.” With this kind of background, it is very difficult to build and live for contemporary art, for anything contemporary. So the situation is much better for other cities, like Brno, the second biggest city in the Czech Republic. There are not as many monuments as in Prague, and contemporary culture and young culture are sensed much better there. So it’s not only a problem of money, but also a case of how you feel in a given context.
Public: I have a question for Mr. Misiano. What I don’t understand is why the culture is so different from the art system. I want to understand how it is possible for artists from Eatern Europe tobecome important. Let’s say, Kabakov became really important as an artist and his idea of Russian conceptual art became important only once he had left Russia. Even if the socialist and communist system was important in this country, the local circles would need a guide, an artistic guide, to become influential in the cultural world. So my question is: Realistically, what do you think should be done in these countries, in cultural terms, to change their current situation?
Viktor Misiano: Well, first of all, I think that Kabakov was very important even before he appeared in the West, just as I think that Tolstoy was a great writer before he was translated into French in the 19th century. So I would say that in culture personalities are important because of their message, not their popularity, because of their institutional market influence on the situation. When I’m speaking about the “zones of autonomy” and “zones of solidarity,” I believe that this is not only a specifically Russian or Eastern European phenomenon. I think it’s universal and valid for any country nowadays. Also, when you’re speaking of the Western art system, I think such a thing doesn’t exist. I think it is very different. The American art system is very different from the German system, the French system has nothing to do with the British system. In reality, there are multiple variations and differences, methodological differences and different principles. The problem is that in certain countries the institutional machine and the “zones of autonomy” are very close to each other. The “zones of autonomy,” the zones of professionals, and the zones of people who are able to establish values, occupy the position of experts, both on the market and on an institutional plane. In the Eastern European countries, the official public sphere and the sphere of public experts often do not coincide. Sometimes they are even opposed to each other. Sometimes they establish a dialogue, but not one that is particularly homogeneous. Very often the same happens in Western countries; The institutional machine is late to absorb the messages that are being established in the “zones of autonomy.” That is all. That is the reason why in Eastern the zones of autonomy are taking the form of fictitious institutions. They are trying to institutionalize themselves by opposing the public sphere. As an example, we could again point to Irwin because they are probably the most emblematic case. However, the same probably happened in Moscow with the conceptualist movement, which was not simply a circle of friends. They tried to institutionalize themselves, because they wanted to create order, logic, and alienation. They tried to act inside the “zones of autonomy.” This is the reason why Eastern European artists so often work in collectives. The last remark is that there are many similar situations and phenomena that happened lately, not only in Eastern Europe, but also in Latin America, Asia, and the far Eastern countries. This is due to the fact that they share the same social conditions. Artistic autonomous zones are not absorbed by the public sphere, they are distant from it.
Marina Sorbello: I think we have to start to finish. I don’t know if you want to add something. Zsolt?
Zsolt Soml\032i: I would like to stess the importance of being strong at home. I would like to cite a very good cultural parallel. A hundred years ago Hungary was very famous for its music and its music system. We had Liszt, Bart\032k, Kod\032ly, Ligeti, and so on. To learn good music thirty, forty, fifty, seventy years ago, you had to travel to Budapest. Still, under the communist era, there was a strong initiative that the school children should learn music. Currently, there are ten million people in Hungary, and out of all these people, only 400,000 school children officially learn to play a musical instrument. If you compare this ratio of children learning to play classical music professionally to other countries, it is quite small. That’s why today in the Budapest Academy of Music, two thirds of the students are from foreign countries. If in five years we have an art fair and strong local galleries, we will not have these kinds of discussions because we will have a strong local market and strong institutions. Politicians will support that and the press will pay attention. Then we are off to a good start. As I said, my company is half international, half local. We have strong local clients. If you are not strong locally, there’s nothing you can do on the international level because no one cares about who you are until they visit you locally.
Marina Sorbello: I think that could be a nice conclusion. Thanks to all the participants and to the audience.