Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1980 (Book Review)

Amy Bryzgel, Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1980 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris. 2013), xiii + 303 pp.

Amy Bryzgel’s Performing the East addresses the specificities of “Eastern” performance art in relation to the socio-political transformations accompanying the protracted “transition” to post-socialism. Given its ambitious geopolitical range (the USSR, a Baltic republic, and a Central European Soviet satellite) the selection of case studies is surprisingly coherent. Bryzgel’s protagonists all explore the precarity of identity – national, cultural, sexual – in the post-socialist public sphere. Their work is at once playful and hard-hitting. Bryzgel’s research draws on extensive interviews and sheds light on critical artists’ perception of their often-ambivalent public reception. Bryzgel argues that performance art was both “agent and chronicle of the transition from Soviet and satellite states to free-market democracies” (book sleeve).

The chapter titled “Afrika and the Russian Dog: Performing Post-Soviet Identity in Russia” is devoted to two legendary figures of the 1990s: Sergei Bugaev (aka Afrika) and Oleg Kulik. Illustrated with excellent archival photographs, the chapter tells the stories of their critical exploits and contextualizes their often bizarre activities. One memorable image from 1990 shows the young Bugaev secretly entering Vera Mukhina’s famous Worker and Kholkhoz Woman (1937) via one of the metal plates between the farm worker’s legs (which he and his friend later stole and recycled in another artwork). The same artist had himself committed to Republican Psychiatric Hospital no. 1 in Simferopol, Crimea, as part of the project titled Crimania (1993) – an examination of ex-Soviet citizens’ identification with the former system and the confusion wrought by its collapse. Bryzgel moves on to reappraise the politics behind Moscow radical Oleg Kulik’s various aggressive performances as a naked dog intent on terrorizing the international art world.

There follows a chapter on two less well known Latvian artists, marking an important contribution to expanding the canon. Miervaldis Polis is the painted Bronze Man on the cover of the book, engaged in “spontaneous theatre” on the streets of Riga in the 1990s, leading some passers-by to conclude that die-hard Russians had erected a new monument to Lenin. Bryzgel also describes Polis’ unusual “state visit” to Finland to meet fellow artist White Man (Roi Vaara) and the Finnish Prime Minister at an “International Summit of Phantoms” in Helsinki. The paired artist here is Gintz Gabrāns, whose delegated performance – the Starix project – propelled a homeless man to reality-TV stardom in the years 2000-2004. In addition to Gabrāns’ drawing attention to the problem of alcoholism and unemployment in post-Soviet times, he successfully unveiled the turbo-capitalist cult of media fame. Such peculiarly deadpan exercises, verging on the politically incorrect, are characteristic of the biting humour that Bryzgel’s book invites readers to share.

The final chapter, provocatively titled “Filming Young Girls and Older Men,” is the most polemical. It entails a stinging critique of the “traditional gender roles” and values that Bryzgel argues the Catholic Church in Poland has, since 1989, sought to impose on “free, democratic society,” curtailing freedom of speech (p. 160). She goes so far as to argue that, in Poland, critical artists were better off in the 1980s than in the 1990s. Bryzgel’s case studies are Zbigniew Libera, author of important works such as Intimate Rituals (1984), in which he recorded, in often shockingly graphic detail, his daily care of his bedridden grandmother; and Lego. Concentration Camp (1996); as well as Katarzyna Kozyra, notorious for representing Poland at the Venice Biennale with a video installation showing her disguised as a naked man filming inside the men’s bathhouse at Gellert in Budapest in 1999. Bryzgel agrees with critic and curator Magdalena Ujma that, in rejecting Kozyra’s works, Polish society demonstrated its “provincialism,” and claims that people’s “divided response” was “a reflection of the transitional period in Poland, the conservatism and traditionalism of the previous era giving way to newly democratic and global way of thinking” (p. 193). She argues that in “a country where citizens were just beginning to understand the meaning of (and be able to exercise) their newfound right to free speech, what they encountered was the familiar problem (in the West) of people with conflicting sets of interests arguing on opposite sides of that shared right” (p. 193).

The author sometimes echoes historical forms of Western paternalism with such statements – albeit encouraged by the self-deprecation sometimes exhibited by Polish artists and critics alike in their frustration with their domestic audience. When Bryzgel contrasts the “developing” and “transitional” East with what she refers to as the “fully-fledged democracies of Western Europe and North America” (where, she writes, historical performative “expressions of dissent worked in concert with the basic human rights that citizens of all free Western societies shared,” p. 26), I am uncomfortably reminded of what Boris Buden in his essay “The Children of Postcommunism” called “the greatest scandal of recent history” – the infantilization of the so-called “new Europeans” that became a weapon in the cynical ideology of “transitology” based on the bipolar Cold War framework that labelled “those who proved their political maturity in the democratic revolutions of 1989-91” – “children.”(Boris Buden, “The Children of Postcommunism.” Radical Philosophy 159, Jan-Feb 2010, pp. 18-25) Buden rightly points to a certain conceit inherent in Western claims that “the people who won freedom through their own struggle must now learn how to enjoy it properly,” and that people needed to be taught how to transit from “authoritarian rule” to “really existing freedom (i.e. liberal democracy).”(Ibid., p. 19.)

With reference to the East-West framework, Bryzgel writes that “it is not this book’s mission to dismantle this binary, but to work within it”, however (p. 14). She follows Marina Gržinić’s directive to “infect” the Western canon with Eastern examples – calling this a “gradual seeping in of the East to the West, so that while the two histories remain separate and distinct, they begin to travel along the same course following the end of the cold war” (p. 30); hence, Bryzgel’s carefully considered comparisons are with canonical Western figures rather than with the work of more global contemporaries who might also have been included in the discussion: Santiago Sierra, Tania Bruguera, or Francis Alÿs, to propose just a few. Certainly, John Cage was influential in the USSR, as elsewhere, as is demonstrated by the reproduction of a wonderful photograph showing young artists entertaining him in Leningrad during a tour of the USSR in 1989. Nevertheless, the insistence on infecting “the canon” may also run the risk of further entrenching it, proposing that performance art from Eastern Europe has to be considered in relation to accounts such as the one rehearsed by RoseLee Goldberg in the late-1970s, which reads performance as a passage from Italian Futurism, through Pollock, to Kaprow. By not tracing the particular local development of performative tendencies in the three countries examined in the longue durée, Bryzgel risks giving the impression that East Europeans were latecomers to performance. While Performing the East offers wonderful insights into important artists, it does so within an overwhelmingly Western interpretative framework. Such a methodological approach undoubtedly has its strategic rationale. The book’s bold title also seems to me beg the question: has the time now come for books about the likes of Bruce Nauman, Carolee Schneeman or Vito Acconci to entitled Performing the West?