Gender Check at the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna (Exhib. Review)

Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, November 13, 2009 – February 14, 2010; Zach?ta, Warsaw, March 19, 2010 – June 13, 2010

Although the End of History thesis proposed by Francis Fukuyama was repeatedly and convincingly disavowed, the year 1989 nevertheless marked an end of an era in a multitude of ways. One of the issues that appeared from the changed political and intellectual situation in Europe was the need to juxtapose Western and Eastern narratives of art history. Although benefiting from the perspective of hindsight, contemporary art historical discourses don’t seem to have achieved a consensus as to what Eastern European art is–if it does indeed exist–and how it should deal with its own positioning within mainstream Western discourses as inferior and peripheral. The Gender Check project charts this binary constellation of East and West again by using a third term; gender. This may serve to further open up this nebulous field of art history.

The exhibition, proceeded by a collaborative research project and accompanied by a publication, is a welcoming event in the art historical world, as it hopes to map out the unknown terrain of Eastern European art by using an equally lesser known perspective of gender studies. It posits an approach to Eastern Europe within a historiographical method, thus covering the forgotten segments of art history from the 1950s (including the socialist period) until now. As such, it intends to contribute to the understanding of European art history in general and gender issues in particular, in both artistic and social dimensions. The stakes are high as it promises to reassess the legacies of socialism by confronting it with its modernist foundations.

Three pictures that opened the show in MUMOK (Vienna) are in many ways indicative of the whole Gender Check project. Accidentally or not, they are three Polish paintings from the socialist period by Wojciech Fangor and Aleksander Kobzdej. Among many representations of socialist workers, two interconnected pictures by Kobzdej had already received due attention in native art historical discourses. The first picture (Podaj ceg??, [Pass Me a Brick], 1950) depicts three working men, while the second (Ceglarki, [Brick Women], 1950), three idle women workers. When this pair of paintings is considered as a diptych–although initially that was not the case–it subtly portrays the gender roles and differences in the socialist reality. The three agile men are engaged in constructing a house and, by the same token, in the building of the common future; the three women, although supposedly involved in the construction work, refrain from their duty and instead sit motionlessly and despondently, perhaps even engaging in vain gossip. They thus constitute a counter image to the three working men.

Wojciech Fangor (Poland / Polen), 'Postaci / Figures / Figuren', 1950. Oil on canvas / Öl auf Leinwand, 100 x 125 cm. Image courtesy Muzeum Sztuki w ?odzi. © Wojciech Fangor.This opposition between male and female is transposed in the painting by Fangor (Postaci, [Figures], 1950) onto the ideological struggle between the East and the West. Fangor depicts three figures: a slim, elegantly dressed woman wearing sunglasses and makeup, and next to her a couple of strong-handed, plainly dressed workers, a man possessively holding his arm around a tall and square woman. The couple gazes at the coquette with a haughty, yet perhaps slightly envious insistence. Although the painting allows a programmatic interpretation along the lines of the socialist realist doctrine, according to which the good and healthy socialist couple is juxtaposed with the idle and vain, single woman, yet there are small indications in the picture which indicate that this overly predictable reading has its gaps and drawbacks.

The single woman represents the reactionary element by not only declining from her obligation to work (her hands are too delicate and small) but also from subjugating herself to a man and bearing him children (she chooses to be alone and instead holds a small purse in her arms). Not only does she dress too glamorously, but her outfit bears signs of Coca-Cola, Wall Street, or London and therefore discloses her affiliation with abhorred capitalism. She represents both the unwanted model of a woman as well as the discarded model of a society. Yet looking at the picture itself one is not certain if she indeed is the personification of all evils, or, perhaps, her self-confident smile and frontal appearance dominating the picture, she becomes a secret object of desire for the righteous but dull couple. It is precisely this double opposition between male and female on the one hand and between the West and the East on the other hand that lays at the core of the discourse proposed in Gender Check.

The issues of gender, especially representations of femininity and masculinity, are shown both in very well known works as well as lesser known examples from the former Eastern bloc. It showcases programmatic works of socialist realism next to unofficial art from before the fall of Communism complemented by a selection of artistic production of the last twenty years. Yet the exhibition has only a vaguely chronological and even more loosely thematic order, leaving the viewer to search for his or her own connections and insights.

By far the most interesting proposition of the exhibit addresses the question of rewriting the narratives of modernism without or above its essentializing claims. The detailed study of Eastern European insertion in the modernist corpus is meant to reverberate in the whole constellation of modernist cultures, including the mainstream.  Yet the binary division between the East and the West, which is repeatedly addressed and questioned in the catalogue, is not substantiated in the show itself, which is limited to the so-called “former” East. Instead, works are selected with a seeming preference for those explicitly positioning themselves towards the “former” West. Thus the promised dialogue between the East and the West is in fact a monologue which recreates and reinvents its imaginary interlocutor.

Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe (Russia / Russland), 'Monroe', 1996. Offset Print / Offset Druck, 75 x 60 cm. Image courtesy XL Gallery, Moscow. © Vladislav Mamyshev-MonroeThis is visible particularly in the image-icon of the exhibition by Mamyshev-Monroe depicting a glamorous woman. The Russian artist imitates its other, the ultimate icon of the Hollywood culture (and by extension, the whole of Western culture), Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss to the viewer. This ironic remake at the beginning of the 21st century is not only staged in a twofold sense–as Mamyshev is not Marilyn, nor is he a woman–but also, perhaps provocatively, articulates the ultimate desire on the side of Eastern European artists: being as glamorous and as desirable as their western counterparts; to belong to their idealist culture and share their freedom.

A significant part of the Eastern European art gathered in this show, especially, from the more recent period, seems to revolve around its inferior existence in the shadow of the Western mainstream. In that sense it often only strengthens the stereotype, which, according to the exhibition commentary, was traced in the early video works of Marina Grzinic, herself a critic of the exhibition. In her work Bilocation (Grzinic/Šmid, 1990) she observes that the West is usually imagined as a strong and active male, whereas the East of Europe takes on the role of a passive and deficient female. Yet what seems the most interesting in the concept of Gender Check is precisely the questioning of both these binary oppositions of male and female as well as West and East, and the established narratives that stem from these binary divisions.

One of the advantages of this show is the opportunity to see gender differences across temporal and geographical divides. Such flanerie through Eastern European gender in art may focus on, for example, the rather marginal motive of a kiss, provoked perhaps by the already mentioned mock image of Monroe blowing a kiss.  As a social phenomenon, the kiss is nearly absent from socialist art in its programmatic form of painting. However, it did exist in the public sphere in the socialist state controlled culture, but functioned in a particular way.

This can be traced in a cult novel from the Polish opposition culture of the 1970s, The Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. Konwicki describes the typical socialist celebrations organized around official meetings, impossibly long speeches and all-present transparencies glorifying the socialist progress. Inseparable in those celebrations were delegations of youth handing in flowers and gifts to central party officials on the podium, accompanied by an enthusiastic applause of the public. Among these youth were usually pretty girls who would typically give, according to Konwicki, a strangely passionate kiss to the party officials. This apparently small gesture can be indicative of the role of women in the public sphere and re-emerges in a detail of the otherwise well known work by Anri Sala entitled Intervista (1998).

In the old television footage of an interview with Sala’s mother as a young communist activist she is shown during a party meeting, giving a kiss to the Albanian leader after his speech. This public kiss reappears at the beginning of the transformation period in the first beauty contest in Hungary in 1985 documented by Andras Der and Laszlo Hartai, where the elected young girl is shown being kissed by much older men crowning her as the first Miss Hungary. Her suicide as the consequence of the contest is telling of the real position of women, regardless whether she be a worker, a conference participant, or in the later stage, a beauty symbol.

Although this is just a small and arbitrarily chosen trope found in the show, I think it reflects the methodological strategy adopted by several art historians who contributed to the Gender Check catalog. Singular issues, such as the concept of beauty, images of masculinity, or particular artistic attitudes alternate with regional or national overviews and are preferred above strictly chronological or exclusively thematic approaches. This might be the only possible way of tackling the region’s historical and geographical specificity, which requires both national as well as synchronically comparative perspectives, yet it also proves irremediably fragmentary. Equally, the concluding section in the catalog containing interviews with researchers, thus covering all twenty-four participating countries, leaves the reader with a hungry feeling. The questions posed are too general and answers too short to allow a much needed overview.

What the publication does attempt to address is the seeming absence of gender issues in the Eastern Bloc, and their complex emergence in the transition period and the new capitalist reality. It thus makes visible the complexities of gender roles in official and unofficial spheres. Quite surprisingly, the fact that women had a clearly determined position in the official iconography of socialism informed their situation in the counterculture. If emancipation of women in socialism was illusory, the praised legal abortion being more often than not treated as a replacement of nonexistent contraception, it was equally absent in the opposition movement or in the private sphere. The anti-communist culture being male-centered, so was the art produced by the artists engaged in contestation of the political order.

Where gender is concerned, the unofficial culture must equally be subject to critique. Yet as a result of it, the clear-cut divisions between official art seen as retrograde and unofficial art seen as modernist turn out to be obsolete. Many of the representations by underground artists lack a critical dimension in respect to gender issues and often remain vaguely metaphysical, as is the case with the performance by Rimma Gerlovina and Valery Gerlovin entitled Costumes (1977). This and other examples reaffirm rather than contest the official “gender neutral” policy imposed by the state socialism. Quite surprisingly then, both state-controlled and dissident culture before the 1989 agree in their nonchalant approach to the gender issues and commonly perceive them as non-existent.  In contrast, after the fall of communism the questions of gender and emancipation of women or non-heterosexuals, although recognized, encounter new obstacles in the face of growing nationalism and subsequent revivals of conservatism.

It seems quite pertinent to ask what we want feminism to be in relationship to Eastern Europe. Having acknowledged that it is and should remain a dynamic and diverse concept, it seems relevant not only to reiterate the question of Rada Ivekovi?: “proletarians of all countries, who washes your socks?” but also to interpolate those caught in the transition process and those embracing new capitalist order: globalists of all countries, who washes your socks?(The question was raised in 1978 in Belgrade, at the first international feminist conference ever held in a communist country. See Bojana Peji?, ‘Proletarians of All Countries, Who Washes Your Socks? Equality, Dominance and Difference in Eastern European Art’, in Bojana Peji? (ed.), Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna: Erste Foundation, 2009), 19-29.)  The simple beauty of this question is due to its anchoring in the often invisible fabric of the everyday which nevertheless lays at the basis of all history writing. Gender Check proposes to reconsider modernism with its essentialist claims that more often than not obscure the complex issues of gender. It provides some brilliant ideas and gathers a vast material of analysis, yet at the same time makes apparent how complex and multifaceted such tasks prove to be. This all leads to a double conclusion, that Gender Check opens a fascinating perspective and that it leaves an immense field of work yet to be done.