Monitored Activities: Eastern European Performance Art through the Prisms of Photography, Film, and Politics
Corinna Kühn, Medialisierte Körper: Performances und Aktionen der Neoavantgarden Ostmitteleuropas in den 1970er Jahren (Vienna: Böhlau, 2020), 324 pp.
Corinna Kühn’s Medialisierte Körper: Performances und Aktionen der Neoavantgarden Ostmitteleuropas in den 1970er Jahren deals with selected performances and actions from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland during the 1970s. Her focus lies on the dimension of documentation through photography and video. She is interested in how artists communicated with imaginary or future spectators through the deliberate use of images or even the manipulation of techniques of filming or photographing. The book approaches the topic through detailed analyses of works by Endre Tót, Jiří Kovanda, Natalia LL, Ion Grigorescu, and the artist couple KwieKulik. It makes an important contribution to the art history of postwar Europe, since the art of Eastern Europe is still underrepresented in German-speaking academic research about neo-avant-garde art practices. Kühn’s aim is not to introduce lesser-known artistic positions into a highly specialized field of research, but instead to present German-speaking audiences with new perspectives on some of the more well-known representatives of Eastern European art. Kühn’s study draws broadly on the existing methodological and historiographical research literature on neo-avant-garde art. On the one hand, she draws on literature published in English and German by Eastern European and Western scholars.(Kühn engages with current and already classic historiographically oriented texts by Amy Bryzgel, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Elisabeth Jappe, Klara Kemp-Welch, Pavlína Morganová, Piotr Piotrowski, Łukasz Ronduda, or Georg Schöllhammer, among many others. In the methodological field, it draws centrally on Erving Goffman, as mentioned above, but also on texts by Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, as well as Slavoj Žižek.) Due to her background in both art history and Slavic studies, Kühn is also able to integrate primary sources (including archival material and journal articles from the context) in the original Czech and Polish into her analyses.
Although artists such as Kovanda, Tót, and Grigorescu are not part of the art historical canon in German-speaking countries—the Polish artists KwieKulik and Natalia LL are more well-known—Kühn’s ambition is not merely to introduce them to the public. Rather, she wants to embed their works in a broader interpretive framework that focuses on their use of media. Additionally, she deploys a sociological method relying mainly on the work of Erving Goffman, using his theories to analyze the behavior and communication of these artists towards the imaginary or future spectators of their artworks. She also links the works to their political context, offering interpretations that seek to show the subversiveness of the works in relation to the political system in which the artists operated.
The book begins with an introduction defining its scope and methodology, and then proceeds through four chapters focusing on specific case studies. The first of these chapters is dedicated to Endre Tót and Jiři Kovanda. The tertium comparationis between the Hungarian and the Czechoslovakian artist is the fact that they both operated in public space, and in both countries—as Kühn stresses—this space was charged with political meaning. Tót puts his series of works with the title TÓTalJOYS under the motto “I am happy if…” and fills the sentence with the respective activities he is happy to do. In the photos documenting the work, Tót often wears a broad, exaggerated smile while performing, whereas Kovanda discretely merges with his surroundings. Kovanda places very simple, daily activities and gestures in the center of his actions. Every work consists of careful planning, the action itself, photographic documentation, a title, a date, and a short description. For the action x x x (1977) the description reads as follows: “x x x. September 3, 1977, Prague, Wenceslas square, on an escalator … Turning around I am looking into the eyes of the person standing behind me…” (p. 74). The photo shows the artist standing on an escalator, facing the wrong direction and looking at the person in front of him. The action Contact on the other hand consisted in the artist walking through Prague, gently touching passers-by with an arm or his shoulder as if by coincidence.
Kühn points out that it was not possible for Kovanda to use an official, institutional frame for his actions. Kovanda himself stresses that his works were always meant for the institutional context—although they were produced outside of it. Kühn rightly suggests that secondary or future spectators were in fact the primary target: the actions were staged for them. But frustratingly, Kühn offers a sociological reading of the works that is rhetorically always on the verge of confusing the “real” event and the “real” person Kovanda with the artist-persona staging a certain artificial event or gesture, and making aesthetic choices. Building on Erving Goffman’s theories of social interaction, she reads the artist’s activities as sociological experiments. According to Kühn, Kovanda is trying to get in contact with people (for example on the escalator or when he is softly bumping into somebody) and his works demonstrate the difficulties or impossibility of the interrelationship under the social conditions of life under an authoritarian regime. “In his actions, Kovanda goes through different types of interpersonal relationships under the conditions of life in a dictatorship: being forced to be alone, possibly being wiretapped, meeting strangers, the impossibility of unbiased contact, or friends as a possible danger” (pp. 85–86). This kind of political reading falls short, insofar as it narrowly confines the artist’s potential intentions to staging the struggles of a subject under communist rule. Perhaps his actions are not so much playing “with the borders of social interaction,” (p. 94) but rather exploring the limits of art and artistic institutions. Kühn’s own observation that Kovanda’s primary spectators or witnesses were in fact secondary contradicts the social immediacy that she ascribes to his work.
The third chapter of the book is dedicated to the work of Natalia LL from Poland and Ion Grigorescu from Romania. For both artists the interaction with the photo or film camera lay at the core of their performances. Between 1971 and 1975, Natalia LL created a series of works under the umbrella title Consumer Art, which consisted in the exaggeratedly sexually performed eating of “phallic” food like bananas or pastry sticks. Kühn stresses the importance of the fact that the artist worked with a model, a young woman that resembled her very much (p. 138). Natalia LL was therefore able to split her persona, or rather double her. Natalia LL was both performer (in this case not literally, but through her double) and photographer, giving her a great deal of control over the creative process. The images that Natalia LL produces borrow from pornography and commercials. They seduce the beholder into focusing only on the subject matter. It is therefore very important to shift our attention, as Kühn does convincingly, to the artist’s formal interests. The serial order and successive structure of the photographic series was, for Natalia LL, a kind of inquiry into the morphology of the image. She acts with the rationality of a researcher but challenges the (future) beholder at the same time through the physicality and sensuality of images that aim at a bodily, somatic reaction.
The engagement with both body and media, the entanglement of the two, is even stronger in the case of Ion Grigorescu. To work and exhibit in marginal, but still sometimes official and public institutional frameworks (as Natalia LL could in Poland) was unthinkable for a neo-avant-garde artist of the 1960s and 70s in Romania. Kühn’s focus on the significance of media in Grigorescu’s work is both justified and productive. His performances could only be conceived for the camera and for a future spectatorship. Grigorescu created his work in his apartment: the setting and subject matter are intimate—apart from the fact that the technical apparatus is present as a tacit observer. Kühn analyzes the relationship between artist, camera, and spectator thoroughly. The artist manipulated the photo camera with various lenses and even eyeglasses in order to create Verfremdungseffekte in the Brechtian sense (p. 142). The borders of these constructions of lenses are clearly visible in some of the photos, for example in the photo series Pajama (1978). Grigorescu poses in his pajamas in various situations at home: with a piece of bread in his mouth (in this case without a manipulated lens), sitting on a chair, standing, and saluting. In one of the photos, he holds the remote release of his photo camera clearly visible in his hand. As Kühn observes, this fact shows how much the artist demonstrates control over the apparatus even though the images also refer to the uncanny situation of being watched through a spyhole. Both the film Masculin/Feminin (1976) and the photo series Body (1974) are shaped by the tension between intimacy, voyeurism, and control.
The fourth and last chapter is dedicated to the artist couple KwieKulik from Poland. Kühn provides detailed information about the context in which the trained sculptors Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek operated, arguing that this context was also their most important artistic source and reference. In their early work, the duo mainly dealt with the traditional notion of art in Poland, whereas in their later practice they articulated a critique of art as an institution (p. 219). One of KwieKulik’s early films is a work in nine sequences called Open Form, after their teacher Oscar Hansen’s theory of “open form.”(Fascinatingly, similar theories of open form or open work emerged independently from each other in around the same time in completely different contexts: in 1955 with Haroldo de Campo’s The Open Work of Art in Brazil, in 1959 with Oskar Hansen’s Open Form in Poland, and finally most famously in 1962 with Umberto Eco’s The Open Work in Italy.) Kühn analyzes Game on an Actress’s Face (1971), one of these nine sequences. This short film of two a half minutes utilizes a static camera to present a close-up of the face of the well-known actress Ewa Lemańska. Sharp cuts divide the film into different pictures: each sequence or picture shows her face being manipulated or augmented with various different materials, objects, and colors. We see only the hands of the anonymous actors who paint her face with color, wrap it in paper and cut it open, or stick something on her skin. Some of these acts disturbingly render her an object of almost violent fantasies—especially in the instances when the actress is totally passive. Yet in other scenes she acts on her own, drinking a liquid and slobbering it out, stuffing something into her mouth, smiling, or crying.
Kühn’s interpretation focuses on the actress’s crying, referring to Goffman’s theory of “front stage” and “back stage” behavior. The former is the space where a person acts publicly and officially, deploying a façade, and the latter is private, unofficial space. According to Kühn, Lemańska’s tears show how the manipulations of the hidden agents force her to give up her façade or public image and reveal her private self, a self that was hurt during the performances. The film opens space for the future beholder to identify either in an empathic way with the actress, or with the “perpetrators”—which Kühn argues transforms the beholder into a perpetrator, as well (pp. 226–227). By refusing to consider that the performer is actually acting, the confusion of fiction with reality that comes with Kühn’s use of the sociological approach leads to an almost moralistic tone in her interpretation.(Here, a comparison of Game on an Actress’s Face with Marina Abramović’s canonical performance Rhythm 0 carried out in Naples in 1974 is enlightening. During the six hours of the performance Abramović gave the visitors of the gallery the possibility of “applying” various tools on her, an opportunity of which the visitors made a more and more excessive use. Some of the pictures that document the performance also show tears in the artist’s eyes. As in many other works at that time, Abramović deliberately gave up control over the situation almost completely. Game on an Actress’s Face, on the other hand, is a film. The cuts that divide the nine short sections from each other expose the fact of the break between the different scenes. It gives the participating artists including the actress more then enough opportunity to carefully enact each scene from the beginning. There is no visual evidence in the film that the acts on Lemańska’s face got more and more unbearable for her.)
One of the works that Kühn discusses is actually proof of the complexity and multifacetedness of KwieKulik’s activities. Actions with Dobromierz (Działania z Dobromierzem) is a series of actions that the artists carried out between 1972 and 1974 with their son Dobromierz (born in October 1972). The actions took either place in their private apartment or outdoors in nature, and were documented in photographs or slides. These images show the (naked) baby alongside carefully arranged daily objects like onions, books, scarfs, and cutlery. The work also includes detailed instructions that exactly prescribe the placement of all objects (including Dobromierz) in relation to each other. Surprisingly enough, it is not parenthood that lies at the center of the artists’ interest, but rather mathematical-logical functions. Using visual forms and with tangible objects, they create—in a serial and variational way—relations between different variables.
In 1973 KwieKulik showed this work at the gallery Studio in Warsaw under the title Logical Window. The unframed slides were presented in an improvised installation between two panes of window that KwieKulik brought from their own home. As Kühn describes it, political slogans were integrated into the presentation, too. These slogans criticized the PSP (Pracownia Sztuk Plastycznych), the Workshop of Visual Arts, a state institution that coordinated all public visual arts commissions. Phrases such as “PSP humiliates!” or “If you are a young, talented, curious artist, no one is going to help you!” are an expression of the artists’ unsuccessful struggle against official institutions—and yet, KwieKulik did not turn away from those institutions, but fought their battles with them and integrated that critique into their works of art, Kühn writes (pp. 247–250).
Medialisierte Körper is strongest in the moments when Kühn stays true to primary sources (such as archival materials and periodicals from the contexts she discusses) and integrates them into her close readings of the artworks. This leads to detailed accounts of artworks and artistic practices not widely discussed in German-language academic art history. On the other hand, her application of Goffman’s theories on social behavior to the artists’ actions sometimes leads in strange directions, especially when these theories culminate in superficial political interpretations of the works. In these political readings, we are confronted with a problematic general tendency in the contemporary art historiography of Eastern Europe, where subversiveness is understood simply as the fight of David (the single, isolated artist) against Goliath (the communist state). This risks othering art and artists from Eastern Europe, depriving them of the possibility of producing anything other than sociopolitical studies and commentary, and it is a narrow conception of political critique that ultimately undermines the critical potential of art.(April Eisman offers a short but precise summary of those pitfalls in the historiography of art from Eastern Europe as well as a convincing suggestion of an alternative approach in her introduction (in English) to Schwerpunkt Kunst in der DDR. 30 Jahre danach, part of the series Kunst und Politik. Jahrbuch der Guernica Gesellschaft (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2021), pp. 9–11.) If artists of that time left the borders of traditional art genres, of traditional spaces for production and reception, of traditional material, this was not (necessarily or naturally) an act of subversion against the state or dictatorship. There are many interconnected interests that lie behind this move—including subjective or personal ones.(Apart from using an extremely laconic and distanced artistic language (as well as in his descriptions as well as in the actions themselves), Kovanda for example offers a “personal” explanation for his actions in the public space. Maybe it is ironic or not totally serious but certainly it is not political in above criticized sense, when he said that he did perform on the streets because he wanted “to overcome his innate shyness.” See p. 110. Grigorescu, too, offered in an interview with Kühn a “subjective” explanation for some of his creative decisions saying that he is “a coward,” “waiting,” and “stealing from reality.” See p. 143.) The real strength of Kühn’s study lies in the author’s precise analyses of the media dimension of the works under discussion. Medialisierte Körper is especially rich when Kühn sheds light on how the communication with what she calls the future beholder is staged. She shows the complex forms of mediation, and the temporality, that go in hand with the processes of planning, recording, commenting, collecting, and re-arranging the works for the art context—a projected future art context. In her conclusion, Kühn points out that this approach to the media dimension of performance art is not just applicable to Eastern European art, and this broader applicability is certainly a strength of her approach. Since the deliberate use of media in performance art is a general tendency of that time, this opens space for future scholarship that goes into a more comparative direction. Kühn’s efforts to include Eastern European performance art in broader art historical narrative of the postwar period is particularly welcome: it represents a necessary move towards a richer history of the neo-avant-garde.