Subjective Histories: Self-historicization as Artistic Practice in Central-East Europe

Daniel Grúň (ed.), Subjective Histories: Self-historicization as Artistic Practice in Central-East Europe, Bratislava, Veda, 2020, 320 pp.

book cover

The image on the cover of the book Subjective histories: Self-historicization as Artistic Practice in Central-East Europe shows an empty escalator. Its constant up and down movement might visualize the quest that all the texts in this book seem to share: to highlight the parallels between different artistic activities before 1989 and their meaning from a present point of view. The cover photograph (by Peter Sit) is from a performance by Slovak artist Matej Gavula, together with APART Collective, called Sunday, which took place in Bratislava, in 2015. The only possible way to look at time is simultaneously, where past, present, and future are inseparable and appear to occur at the same time, rather than in progression. However, if one looks closely at the image, one observes a set of fingertips reaching out from the airway in front of the escalator, as if someone is trapped inside. This gesture, connected to Gavula’s sometimes nearly invisible public interventions in the city of Bratislava, might be linked to the historical movements of the time, but it also functions as a metaphor for the promises and possibilities of freedom. As this collection of essays asks, how can art provide a sense of personal freedom in difficult times?

This volume of ten essays can be examined in relation to the recent art historical research focusing on the region of Central-Eastern Europe, often connected to Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski’s legacy. Books that examine the state socialist era from a critical and often global perspective include Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present (Routledge, 2018), edited by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas, and Performance Art in the Second Public Sphere (Routledge, 2020), edited by Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak. This is the context in which Subjective Histories, edited by art historian Daniel Grúň, tries to present the role of archives from a seldom-discussed viewpoint.

The essays examine various artistic practices and also function as a mind map of the different understandings of artists’ archives. Thus the notion of the archive functions as the main theme, yet as Grúň describes it, the book focuses specifically on how artists self-historicized and on the various (alternative) and meta-institutional frameworks these archival practices gave birth to. Grúň himself has been working extensively with the archive of Slovakian artist Július Koller (see for instance the exhibition Július Koller: One Man Anti Show, 2017, MUMOK, Vienna, co-curated by Kathrin Rhomberg, and Georg Schöllhammer) and is the co-founder, researcher, and curator of the Július Koller Society, which functions as an experimental contemporary art space in Bratislava and presents artists and projects that use archival material in a critical way.

The book moves away from looking at artists’ archives only from the perspective of memory politics and the artistic gesture of appropriating archival materials. Rather, it emphasizes the shifting role archives play within an individual artist’s oeuvre as well as their present reception. Among the many questions addressed throughout the texts, some of the most pressing are: What is the relationship between artists, their artworks, their archives, and the process of archivization? How do the binary oppositions between art and life, public and private, official and unofficial shift within these practices? How did these artists experiment with different mediums, challenging rigid categories from art history to create new networks and collaborations?

A great advantage of the volume is that it covers a wide range of artists and practices from Central-East Europe, highlighting various approaches related to archives and their afterlife. Through these in-depth analyses, one can not only learn about the process of self-historicization and self-reflection as neo-avant-garde tendencies, but it also provides information to understand better the unofficial art scenes of the socialist period. Moreover, these selected case studies help clarify the relationship between art and power, the difficulties and compromises artists had to face in the past – which also affected their decisions and methods of archiving their own works themselves (instead of official institutions) – even though these subjects are not addressed explicitly. As Grúň summarizes in his introductory essay: “[F]or artists, taking over archiving also meant interfering with the dominance of institutions over the manner and character of establishing one’s place in historical narratives, and taking over the role of researcher” (p. 14). Thus self-archiving, according to Grúň, can be seen as a political strategy opposing the official narratives and institutions run by the state. Thus these case studies and the archives discussed can be understood as practices of resistance, which in various ways test the limits of (self-) representation and experimentation within the context of authoritarian systems.

The notion of the active, dynamic archive, as well as the process of activation both by the artists as well as by researchers and art historians today, becomes a crucial theme throughout the book. Yet, all the contributors stress that we should not fall into the trap of fetishizing archival documents and artistic strategies of self-archiving; instead, we should keep a critical distance.

The book is organized around four thematic “planes” (as the editor puts it): institutional strategies, subversive practices, archive and place, and archive and history. The essays within these planes are interconnected and also encourage the reader to form their own “categories.” That is why I would like to suggest the following “thematic threads” running through the essays: the process of unlearning rigid art historical concepts (as well as a new understanding of mediums); the idea of performativity and the question of public space; and the establishment of new networks (institutions) and collaborations in the region.

Some of the more captivating essays are those that try to rethink and destabilize certain art historical notions, which are not necessarily related to archiving and self-historicization at first glance. One example is Serbian artist Goran Đorđević’s strategy – described by Branislav Dimitrijević in his essay “Attitudes Against Art: Goran Đorđević until 1985” – about how copying famous artworks, and the use of repetition and imitation, could become a subversive act. The deconstruction not only of the “object fetish” of the artwork but also of the figure of the artist has a special relevance from today’s point of view, when despite the various collaborative turns, in many cases, artists still approach their work in a highly individualistic way. Another example is Darko Šimičić’s fascinating essay on how Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac “appropriated” newspapers both as a medium and as a “space” in which to present himself and his work, thus creating a self-referential matrix, a nonlinear way of thinking about his practice. Several artists discussed in the book question the principles of the medium they use, including Czech artist Petr Štembera who explored the medium of photography in an experimental way. His uses of photography ranged from the process of documentation to autonomous works, as well as to reflecting on the complex relationship between the performer-photographer-spectator, highlighting the various ways the medium of photography can be understood, while also emphasizing how documentation and archiving are always interconnected phenomena.

Another thematic thread worth mentioning is about how performativity, the body in space, and public space, in general, becomes a crucial factor in several artistic practices. Edit András’s analysis of Polish artist Zofia Kulik’s work moves away from the dichotomy of the masculinized public space and feminized private space and focuses on how these notions can be dislodged in the context of state socialist countries before 1989 and what “semi-public” and “semi-private” can mean (p. 150).  Performativity, rituals, public-private spaces, and gender are also important aspects in Alina Șerban’s essay describing the Romanian artist Alina Lupaș’s interdisciplinary practice, and the ways she rethought and restaged certain artworks throughout the years. Repetition, reiteration, ritualistic aspects of self-archiving come to the fore in analyzing the series The Solemn Process (1964-74/1976, 1980-85, 1985-2008), which the artist reworked repeatedly according to the location and the occasion in which the work was exhibited, as well as how her relation to the subject of the work had changed. The theme of venues outside of art institutions and the relationship between art and ecology could also be linked here as described in the text by Mira Keratová about Slovak artist Peter Bartoš’s projects focusing on living nature, animal breeding, and landscape cultivation. Bartoš’s practice of working with maps, topographies, and liminal spaces between the art world and the public realm can bring forth a new understanding of how we think about environment, ecology, and public space.

Activating networks and engaging in various forms of communication and collaborations also play a significant role in the selected artistic practices, not only between individuals within the region but also within one’s own artistic oeuvre (in other words, collaborating with yourself). The relationship between the Czech artist Jiří Valoch’s artistic practice, his theoretical work, and his archives shed light on the various entanglements between art and life in the essay by Jana Písaříková. Hana Buddeus also gives insights into the networks established within the region in her essay about Czech artist Petr Štembera and, along with other chapters in the volume, emphasizes and draws a parallel with the current need to re-establish these connections in the present, moving away from symbolic gestures and initiating collaborations between institutions, artists and networks as we slowly realize that by sharing a common past, it is easier to construct a common future. In Emese Kürti’s text about Artpool Art Research Center in Budapest—the most well-known example of an alternative and open archive space—she argues that networking, collaborations, and a horizontal working method are parts of an institutional strategy, where also the act of collecting and preserving becomes a tool to activate the archive and discover various hidden layers in it by researchers.

The last essay by Ivana Bago is a bit more difficult to categorize and rather functions as an epilogue. It links the selection of case studies more to the present and captivatingly discusses the history covered in Subjective Histories within the context of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992–1995), a tragic event that still has not been properly addressed. The Four Faces of Omarksa “working group,” initiated by Serbian artist Milica Tomić, is presented in Bago’s essay as a research-based, collaborative group whose main goal is to uncover and present marginalized and hidden narratives related to Yugoslav history through the case study of Omarska, a mine that served as a death camp during the war. As Bago summarizes: “Hence, Omarska became the location from which it is possible to tell ‘the whole story’ of Yugoslav history, which was otherwise kept obscured by various forms of simplification, the most prominent of which is the one which explains the war by alleging the existence of eternal conflicts and hatred among the South Slavic ethnic groups, now emancipated as nations.” (p. 298) Michel Foucault’s idea of subjugated knowledge, or “knowledge for which there is no room in the hegemonic epistemological regimes that govern the narratives on Yugoslavia’s break-up and war,” (p. 300) could be helpful for understanding the practice of the Four Faces of Omarska working group, as well the self-historicizing methods supported by the other contributors – both artists and theorists – in this book.

One important “plane” missing from this volume—but that could have been addressed—is that of the exhibition as an archival medium. Although some authors reference certain exhibitions and curatorial projects (many initiated by the artists themselves), it would have been illuminating to discuss exhibitions devoted to artists’ archives and personal archives. How can exhibitions and other curatorial strategies shed light on the process of self-historicization, and in what ways can a dynamic, living archive be presented within the frameworks of an exhibition? Further, in the face of the growing number of such exhibitions and curatorial projects, can we still say that we consider these archives as counter-archives? Or through the process of entering into an institution or exhibition, will they be automatically canonized and change the way we perceive these formerly underground artists’ archives?

While the case studies chosen mostly focus on well-known and now-established artists from the period, what makes this volume unique is the diverse scholarship through which the authors analyze East European archival art practices and the subject of self-historization. This makes the book intriguing even for those readers who are already familiar with the art historical background of the socialist period and the presented artists.

Subjective Histories: Self-historicization as Artistic Practice in Central-East Europe provides close, in-depth readings of such practices and offers fresh perspectives and new methodologies. Together, the essays describe the activation of counter-archives as alternative institutional systems that first emerged as a necessity and later found their own “independent” ways to the present. As Grúň states, “an archive of an artist can then be seen as an organizing structure, which is in principle non-discursive and non-narrative, and whose internal temporality is fully tied to the material and method of archiving” (p. 16). This sense of non-narrativity and multi-temporality is one of the most interesting aspects of the essays, contributing to the investigation of the art history in Central and Eastern Europe after 1945.

Flóra Gadó

Flóra Gadó is a curator, researcher, and art critic based in Budapest. Since 2018 she works as a curator at the municipal contemporary art center Budapest Gallery and recently obtained her doctoral degree in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Eötvös Loránd University. She curated several exhibitions both in Hungary and the neighboring countries, including TIC Gallery (Brno), Julius Koller Society (Bratislava), and within the framework of OFF-Biennale Budapest. In the past years, she took part in several curatorial residency programs, including MeetFactory in Prague, Brno House of Arts, KAI Tallinn, and the East Art Mags program for art critics in Romania and Poland. Between 2016 and 2019 she was the Vice President of the Studio of Young Artists’ Association, Budapest. Currently, she is a lecturer at Budapest Metropolitan University and co-editor of the journal Café Babel. As of Fall 2021, she takes part in the Curatorial Practice Program at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, University of Bergen. Her field of interest is centered around memory politics, artistic strategies to deal with the past as well as examining issues related to mental health, healing, and radical care.