New Art and New Questions from the “New Europe” (Book Review)

ARRIVALS > ART FROM THE NEW EUROPE. Suzanne Cotter, Andrew Nairne and Victoria Pomery (eds.) Oxford: Modern Art Oxford, Turner Contemporary, 2007.

This beautifully designed book contains the records of ten exhibitions organized over a period of two years by Modern Art Oxford, an established public gallery, and Turner Contemporary, a new cultural institution at Margate. Works by artists from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, as well as Malta and Cyprus, have been selected for exhibition as part of the exploration of the post-Wall “New Europe” segment of the European Union. With the appearance of these works in the European and global art scene, “more fluid networks have replaced binary oppositions of centre and periphery,” as organizers Suzanne Cotter, Karen Eslea, Andrew Nairne, and Victoria Pomery write in their introductory remarks, a sentiment echoed in several essays in the volume.

These select countries of “New Europe” have a lot in common. In this new cultural landscape they are being transformed from state-controlled economies to free market economies, from places in which government censorship is yielding to freedom of speech. Amidst the great variety of the art works and the concepts of the authors, it seems that most artists and critics are tackling the same difficulties. For example, almost every essay in the book admits that as of the publication date in 2007, it has not been possible to put in place an infrastructure for exhibiting and marketing art in a fashion that would reflect the changed historical and cultural context. A decade and a half is, of course, too short a time to build up a system of venues for showing both the classical and the radically new.

The questions that several authors ask are the same: Should the state keep on supporting the arts, and if so, in what form? How can commercial galleries survive in an environment with no tradition of an art market? What should be the role of establishments such as museums and nonprofit exhibition venues in the context of the market? How does the education system function in the process? Ultimately, where can one draw the line between art as a spiritual activity that contributes to the common good on the one hand and art as business on the other? Who is authorized to draw that line?

Permanently haunting Eastern Europeans and reappearing in this book is the East-West problem. How does the art of the “other Europe” differ from the well-established, well-interpreted, canonized, and historically well-described art of the West? Most authors are dismayed to find that the moment the former Peripheries generate some interest in the Center and can show some of their art, the entire Center-Periphery discourse is drifting away as obsolete, something that is happening before the proper history of their respective country’s art can be constructed. As Aneta Szylak writes about art in Poland:

Organizations are rewriting art history according to where they find legitimate antecedents. Previously unquestionable intellectual and political traditions are being reviewed, revisited and sometimes recuperated, galvanized and re-enacted. It is as if the past is being reinvented in order to control the future. (31)

Louli Michaelidou, talking about new art in Cyprus, also expresses concern about the chances of a “post colonial society [that is] repeatedly cut off from its past [as it is] struggling to validate its present through the declining verbal and visual vocabulary of a marginal culture” (127). It is unquestionable that, in spite of the promising EU grants and supports, artists in countries that have recently joined the European Union feel lost between the past and the future. This dilemma is articulated by Victoria Pomery in her short introduction to the work and her commentary on the Slovenian team son:Da (Metka Golec & Miha Horvat), who express doubts about the sunniest aspects of our culture, such as digital technology, online information and communication. While Western artists compete to achieve the highest possible level of expertise in these technologies, son:DA contends that all these technologies “do not necessarily mean that we relate to one another in a more meaningful way [because] we are better at developing relationships with machines and electrical systems than with each other” (39). This reservation and consideration of technological devices as something that “overreaches” reflects the rich tradition of disillusionments in Eastern Europe. Soul-searching and suspicion are more natural reactions to novelties than unclouded pleasure. Zdenka Badovinac assesses the Slovenian situation, listing “The 7 [Pre-EU era] East European sins: “laziness, utopianism, collectivism, unprofessionalism, love of the West, cynicism and masochism” (48). These “sins” are being replaced by the new things the accession to the EU has brought: “industriousness, matter-of-factness, individuality, professionalism, self-sufficiency, and a think-positive-and enjoy-yourself lifestyle.” Here comes the true Eastern European question that Badovinac asks: are “these new changes…in reality solely beneficial, or [do they] perhaps constitute a great loss?”

This question speaks volumes because it expresses the quintessential Eastern European dilemma. It looks like our life has improved, but perhaps we are deceived. Shall we not be disappointed again? Should we not brace ourselves for a big-time deception? Shall we not awake having lost more than what we have gained?

These questions are not unjustified because the countries with newfound freedom experience a time lag. Having missed the historical opportunity to become nation-states in the 19th century, they now try to look into the future without losing the past. They hear the buzzword “globalization,” but would regret being incorporated into the European Union before hammering out their own national cultural identity, an ambition many think is their duty to achieve. As several artists’ work and several essays indicate, they try to resolve two tasks simultaneously: to be relevant both locally and globally. It appears that a two-front battle has to be fought in these countries against both chauvinism and the loss of tradition. This is an extra burden that Western artists do not have. As Aneta Szylak writes, “We continue to be asked to define our “Polishness” when what is expected is a certain kind of universalism” (30). Estonian artist Kristina Norman examines the group of Russian-speaking Baltic people, asking “how cultural minorities are valued in the EU?” (155). The Maltese author Raphael Vella writes about the “inability to see oneself with one’s own eyes” as a result of centuries-long exposure to, and living off of, tourism and being offered to visitors who take the country for a theme-park (207).

Related to this problem is the lack of a specific discourse on contemporary art. It is shocking to recognize that, as Badovinac writes, “the neo-avant-garde has not been appropriately historicized” (47) and, as Maja and Reuben Fowkes note specifically about Hungary, “conceptual art … goes virtually unrecognized in art historical accounts and public museums” (184). This is a new chapter of an old problem that Badovinac assesses, pointing out that “One of the principal tasks of contemporary artists in Eastern Europe [is] to define the historical trends in their own traditions, independent of the canonized Western tradition” (47). This raises a plethora of questions about how independent such a narrative can be. Given that its format has been created in the West, what is the definition of independence in this case? Issues of historical, national, and cultural independence as a longtime ideal would need to be revisited, as they appear to mingle with the urging problems and the reality of the present, where borders disappear and global ecology and climate change pose new challenges that not even art can ignore. Several artists attempt to join the international discourse through a national motif or message. Beáta Veszely from Hungary, for example, uses a recent page of the Art Monthly as an introduction to an article. The text is a perfect hit, penetrating one of the core issues of the previously marginalized cultures:

The question of truth and fiction lies at the heart of Performance Art as much as in religion. As Chris Burden’s documentation for his 1974 performance Trans-fixed suggests, the object’s existence as a relic and the image’s function as an icon both hinge on the viewer’s belief in the authenticity of the original action. (178)

Veszely draws horses and archers onto this page in ink, evoking the myth of what is taken for “authentic original action” in Hungarian legends, but, at the same time, she points out the time lag between that revived legend and the present. Pawel Althamer and Artur Zmijewski’s photo project Pilgrimage, a trip of Polish Catholics to Jerusalem in 2003, also explores how to bridge the apparently unbridgeable cultural and historical gaps by juxtaposing images of the myth and the reality on the ground.

Another aspect of self-investigation is a close look at the educational system. Ibolya Hegyi gives a detailed description of the connections between Hungarian art “education, the institutional system, funding, and the art market,” pointing out that most of these, with few exceptions, are modeled on 19th century tradition even if there is a sense of fundamental progress (186). What is encouraging in Hungary is the invitation of Western artists and curators and the cooperation of a British art college in order to transcend the limitations of the local systems and promote the integration of Hungarian art into the international art scene – an effort also accentuated in Slovenia and other countries. The difficulty, Hegyi points out, also transcends the local scene and is on the bottom of many other financial and organizational problems referred to by other authors, namely that “contemporary art … does not count as an area of culture that is deemed important or representative.” Although she adds that this attitude might now be starting to change, “Public funding does not adequately support international visibility” (188).

Arrivals>Art from the New Europe is an unusual kind of book. It is neither a catalogue nor a monograph; neither is it a collection of essays. It is a form of dialogue. The artists are introduced by an English author, while the short essays are written by a local art critic, thus simultaneously showing a local viewpoint and an outside one. The book disseminates information and ideas, visually as well as verbally. At first sight it might appear surprising to include discussion of contemporary art from Cyprus and Malta along with Eastern European countries. However, this juxtaposition allows the reader to learn a lesson regarding marginally positioned cultures, one that suggests that comparing Poland and Cyprus, or Estonia and Malta, is not as absurd as one might surmise. It takes the vantage point and the unbiased attitude of a third party to bring to sight the parallel aspects of becoming free of a long Soviet occupation and a long British/French rule respectively, both resulting in raising the questions of identity, history, and self-presentation.

Luxurious vividly colored blank pages, which function as logistical divides, make the book an artful object. Giving space and attention to artists from the “accession countries” is a welcome and much appreciated gesture. It will hopefully be followed by similar events and a wider selection of publications that will include the art and artists of the new EU countries and document their actual integration within the international art world.

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