The Double Life of Art in Eastern Europe

Laura Hoptman – Tomáš Pospiszyl (eds.), Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2002

For a long time, art in East Central Europe has been placed on the periphery of interest of most academics in the West. The situation got even worse due to the political division of the world during the Cold War era.

Whereas postcolonial discourse crucially undermined the dominance of Western culture and changed the premises of both presentation and interpretation of visual art, Eastern European art and culture seems to lack exoticism and sufficient difference to arouse sufficient attention from Western scholars.

During the last decade, the notoriety of teleological projections of the Iron Curtain divide have been criticized by a number of renowned scholars who have been pointing out “a kind of local European Orientalism… leading to the abjection, or at least invisibility of art of the East European Other”,(Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, “Introduction: Geography of art, or bordering the Other?”, in: K. Murawska-Muthesius (ed.), Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie. Warsaw, Institute of Art 2000, p. 10.) and in reciprocity, our local tendency to conform to the universal culture of the “Western idiom”.(Piotr Piotrowski, “The geography of Central/East European art”, in: Borders in Art, p. 46.)

However, after several exhibitions focused on art from former Soviet satellites or on the dialogue between East and West (Europa, Europa, 1994; Der Riss im Raum: Positionen der Kunst seit 1945 in Deutschland, Polen, der Slowakei und Tschechien, 1994-95; Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, 1995; The Body and the East, 1998; After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, 1999, etc.) and international conferences that tried to revise and overcome the geopolitical dichotomy between centers and peripheries (Borders: Aspects of Geography of Art, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1998; East European Art and Architecture in the 20th Century, MIT, 2001, among others), it is evident today, thirteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that art from Eastern Europe is still often approached in the West as an obscure margin.

On the other hand, even on our (Eastern) side of the imaginary boundary it continues to be difficult to critically reflect its character and identity without succumbing to either self-mythologizing or blindly adopting the universalist and often imperialist standards of the Western canon.

Despite more or less successful attemptsto present Eastern European art in the West (and it is important to emphasize that most of them have concentrated on the 20th century), up until now there has been very little done about publicizing documents that are key for any serious historical research related to art activities in this region.

From this point of view, the recently published Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s can be seen as a ground-breaking initiative. The editors, Laura Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl, conceived the book as an anthology of texts written not only by art historians and critics, but also by artists themselves.

Thus they allowed the academic, highly theoretical texts to be read on the background of manifestos and expressive, autobiographical literary genres with intimate or even existentialist overtones.

As Ilja Kabakov put it in his “Foreword,” under the totalitarian conditions “a unique genre of ‘self-description’ emerged, whereby the author would imitate, re-create that very ‘outside’ perspective of which he was deprived in actual reality. He became simultaneously an author and an observer. Deprived of a genuine viewer, critic, or historian, the author unwittingly became them himself, trying to guess what his work meant ‘objectively’. He attempted to ‘imagine’ that very ‘History’ in which he was functioning and which was looking at him.” (p. 7 – 8).

The anthology is divided in six chapters that follow a certain, rather loose chronological line. “The Secret Life of People’s Culture”; “Pioneers and Their Manifestos”; “Conceptual Art and Times of Transition”; “Body Unbound”; “Onward Toward the Retro-Avant-garde!”; “An Empty Pedestal: Between Freedom and Nationalism.”

Each chapter includes between five and six essays, and is accompanied by a “study case”. Such appendixes lead the reader literally ad fontes-to authentic, often “raw” documents about concrete artistic activities, including photographs, hand-written invitations for exhibitions and wired diplomatic messages, performances, lively and often emotional discussions about specific works of art, and exhibitions.

With such an unworn conception, and with a simple, yet eye-catching graphic design by Gina Rossi, the anthology appeals as a publication that is not laden with excessive intellectualism.(For the cover, the designer was inspired by the poignant aesthetics of Russian revolutionary avant-garde, while combining gray recycled cardboard with sharp red spine and a reproduction of Dimitrij Bašicevic’s object, a red-painted globe with an inscription ‘energija’.) Nevertheless, the volume questions many biases about artistic discourses in East Europe. It has a good chance to turn into what the editors expressed in their “Introduction”-a book that “will serve as a general introduction for American and other English-speaking readers to major figures in the artistic and the critical realm.” (p. 10)

Like with any other anthology of this kind, even here one could raise objections against the selection of texts. One of the crucial arguments is the disproportion between documents devoted to art in single countries. On the other hand, it must be emphasized that the ambition of this publication was not to compile an exhaustive survey of artists or art movements and styles, or to provide a thorough analyses.

Rather, the editors sought to capture problems that framed both the theory and practice of art in the countries of the former Soviet empire during the forty years of Communist dictatorship. They especially hoped to differentiate the art paradigm in this part of the bi-polarized world from art in Western democracies.

From this perspective it is possible to criticize the fact that, for instance, there is only one essay related specifically to the Hungarian art scene (the notes byconceptual artist Miklós Erdély), while Soviet and Polish art occupies almost half of the anthology.

However, in order for Western readers to understand both the political climate and context of art as well as the mentality and identity of authors behind the Iron Curtain, it is more important to focus on a complexity of issues as opposed to proportional representation of countries or nationalities.

As Hoptman and Pospiszyl explain, their “criteria for inclusion were straightforward: we chose landmark texts that labeled movements, challenged received ideas, and changed the way art was made and thought about by influential writers respected in their communities and nationally.” (p. 10)

Despite the richness and diversity of texts included in Primary Documents, there are two more problematic aspects of the anthology: The predominance of attitudes emerging from avant-garde and experimental practices and the presentation of art that, in most cases, is resigned to traditional media, such as painting or sculpture.

Although none of the texts or editorial commentaries deploys such a dogmatic point of view, it would be helpful and interrogate the editors’ apparent preference for conceptualism and performance art. Face to face with a variety of genres, techniques and disciplines used by non-official and underground artists, such a one-dimensional orientation is dangerously close to replicating one art historical canon with another.

It is impossible to focus in detail on all the texts in the anthology. However, some are so remarkable that at least a brief mention of their basic theses might stimulate a revision of many, deep-rooted academic methods, and, I hope, also be a reason to read the book.

The first chapter opens with Yuri Sobolev’s essay “on island mythology”, “Virtual Estonia and No Less Virtual Moscow.” The essay suggestively resuscitates the relationship between art and life. Under “unfree” conditions filled with aesthetic clichés and conventions imposed by the authorities, the utopian ideal of merging art with life carries a heavy burden of nostalgia and domestic isolation.

The problem of the inner crisis of independent art, which is partially implicated by Sobolev, is critically elaborated in Andrei Erofeev’s text “Nonofficial Art: Soviet Artists of the 1960s”. He touches upon a significant and difficult dilemma which most of the independent intellectuals had to face: Either to acknowledge his/her solitude and forced “domestication” in one-room apartments of communal social houses, and thus run the risk of dilettantism; or to search for support in abstract thinking-an option which the majority of artists chose.

According to Erofeev, “The generation of spiritually crushed avant-gardists of the Stalinist era and of cultured artists in general, who were in contact with the historical movements of Modernism had long since dispersed all around the world, and there were no longer any links with them. The artists succumbed to the sensation of a complete and hopeless loneliness, which still reigned in their souls even when they became free… When they were at least free to communicate with the world at large, they could not overcome the psychological complex which made them feel like bastards deprived of any support from the fundamental traditions of twentieth-century art.” (p. 44)

The author’s conclusion might be sad and perhaps disappointing, but it shows, nevertheless, that even the “second culture” was able to erect its own untouchable myths and canons even before the fall of Communism. Even if these myths originated from the sincere humanist ethos of nonofficial art’s representatives, it is important to unveil their sources and reasons, and to overcome their limits.

In the 1970s and 80s, conceptualism has become one of the most dominant artistic genres. Although its formal strategies on both sides of the Iron Curtain had a lot in common, their East European versions carried with them some specificities.

This difference is documented by several texts in the third chapter of the anthology, including Boris Groys’s analysis of romanticism of Moscow conceptualists, Lev Rubinstein, Ivan Chuikov, and Francisco Infante, or Andrzej Turowski’s study on socially engaged work of Krzystof Wodiczko in a broader context of Polish art of the 1970s.

An interesting argument provides Suzana Milevska, the curator at the Museum of the City of Skopje, in her three-year-old essay, “The Readymade and the Question of the Fabrication of Objects and Subjects”. She writes that the meaning and significance of the ready-made, one of the pillars of conceptual art in the West, is radically different especially in the Balkan region, where post-war industrial production was hardly applicable on the capitalist sphere of the free market.

Milevska argues that “the ready-made might be not the most appropriate medium for the art activities in the Balkans in the technological sense, but it is appropriate in terms of the content…It can express the specific reality of countries affected by continuous economical and political instability, especially if the industrial shapes and their difference from perfection are used within profoundly conceptualized artistic projects. Focusing on the readymade as an artistic mode of expression was expressed in (Igor) Tosevski’s Dossier ’96 .

Its method of investigating the possibilities for a perfect mode of production, along with other problems initiated by the switch to a market economy implies there are other ways of using and interpreting the ready-made: e.g., the treating of State symbols as ‘unready’ readymade products… The absurdities and paradoxes of life and art in the Balkans are emphasized by the medium of readymade. The tendency toward a society of high-tech objects and the not-so-perfect every-day life of their consumers are inevitably in conflict so that partial information about globalization and its technological advantages often sounds unconvincing and hollow in such social, economic, and political conditions.” (pp. 190 – 191)

The fourth chapter entitled “Body Unbound” focuses on experiments with the body that had very little or no institutional support in Eastern Europe. In fact, the chapter argues that this work was often conceived as a threat to authorities.

Working with the artist’s body signified, in Pospiszyl words, “more that just the elevation of intimacies or a new tool of feminist critique; the body was also now being used as a general and radical expression of subjectivity.” (p. 197)

In his essay Encounters with Action Artists, originally published in the book Telo, vec a skutecnost v soucasném umení [Body, Object, and Reality in Contemporary Art] in 1983, Czech philosopher, Petr Rezek, theoretically reflects the activities of Action artists in Czechoslovakia, and shows how the “shift away from image toward action creates a situation in which it seems impossible to get hold of anything and where nothing seems to be at hand to guide us.” (p. 225)

Although action art and other activities exiled from the galleries and museums in Eastern Europe reached an almost existential dimension while concealing the link between human experience and the humdrum details of everyday life, they did not lack a dose of festivity.

The actions performed by Czech artists, Jan Mlcoch and Petr Štembera, balanced on the sharp and uncertain edge between life and death (or pleasure and pain), and yet, their experiments with their own bodies (tied, suspended, cut, burned, blinded), in which they tried to excavate their corporeal predicaments, were not morbid or pessimistic but rather ceremonial.

As Rezek concludes: “The meaning of a celebrationresides in its relationship to the whole, in the reenactment of a historical event and the representation of one’s place within a totality. Life proceeds from celebration to celebration, for celebration endows with meaning and thus provides a foil for everyday existence, but otherwise leaves behind nothing of concrete substance.” (p. 224)

Such a transcendental character of 1970s action art reflected the “moment one succeeds in being ‘nowhere'” (Rezek), and overcomes the pain and traumas of quotidian existence. However, action and performance art in Czechoslovakia and other countries in East Central Europe also had another dimension that emphasized the political and social significance of the body.

Unlike in the West, the problem of body politics and the sexual definition of both the female and male body have been only sporadically reflected by Eastern European art historians and critics. This crisis seems partially due to the fact that feminist theories and politics of gender identity have been developing without much (if any) success, while some attempts to conceive of new gender and sexual politics easily succumb to old phallocentric models.

Besides a photo-essay, “Double Life: Documents for Autobiography 1959-75”, by a Croatian feminist artist, Sanja Ivekovic, there is another essay in the fourth chapter that directly addresses gender issues. In his essay, “Male Artist’s Body: National Identity vs. Identity Politics,” Piotr Piotrowski shows that art most often draws on the hierarchical duality between body and soul, and on the Cartesian idea of the subject.

In his opinion, the majority of interpretations of body-based art supports the traditional role of man as an active historical subject, and makes him a universal parameter of art. Analyzing the work of a Polish artist, Jerzy Beres, and a Romanian, Ion Grigorescu, Piotrowski concentrates on the possibilities of how to visually subvert the dominance of the male gaze and the objectification of the female body.

He also attempts to resist the pressures of both heterosexual eroticization of subjectivity and the entire society. Finally, Piotrowski’s analysis is designed to undermine both the authority of the regime and nationalist fundamentalism that was born in East Central Europe after the fall of Communism.

Controversies that recently accompanied several exhibitions of Socialist Realism, or totalitarian art in East Central Europe, documented that reconciliation with the Communist past is far from closed or resolved among local intellectuals and art communities. In fact, the volume argues that the official art of regime proponents still arouses many burning questions.

The last two chapters of Primary Documents deal with these issues in a particularly timely manner. The essays written by the art couple Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Romanian critic and artist, Calin Dan, and one of the most radical Russian public and political artists, Anatoly Osmolovsky are very timely.

Sharp debates about the activities of the Slovenian group, Neue Slowenische Kunst (artists from IRWIN and its musical counterpart, Laibach) are represented in the anthology by texts from Slavoj Žižek, and, again, Boris Groys. These debates, together with the question of how the former East Bloc countries face the Western imperative without giving in to nostalgia and blind nationalism, are also raised by a Lithuanian critic and curator, Helena Demakova. Bulgarian theorist and artist, Luchezar Boyadjiev also strongly resonate in our presence.

Through the prism of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Žižek focuses on the use of Hitler and Stalin iconography in the collective projects of the NSK. In contrast to other authors who have interpreted them as a postmodern parody of totalitarian rituals and an expression of cynicism, or suspected them to be an explicit propaganda of fascism, Žižekoffers a surprising conclusion.

According to Žižek, the NSK represents exactly the opposite: While confronting the public with totalitarian symbolism, the artists reveal the people’s desire for the “Other” and their perverse obsession with an authority that wants to punish such Otherness.

In his essay, “The IRWIN Group: More Totalitarian than Totalitarianism”, Groys, a German philosopher and one of the first theorists of Ilya Kabakov’s work, takes the point of view that reflects his often-criticized, yet remarkable theory about a linkage between the avant-garde and official, regime-supported art.

Groys uses examples of IRWIN work mainly to show that the boundaries between Western and Eastern cultures have never been as impermeable as has been claimed. The specificity of Eastern European art lies perhaps somewhere else than most of us would want: “At a time when one sees frequent expectations of an influx to the West of new artistic forms from Eastern European art which were preserved untouched thanks to a national tradition which was not integrated into the international artistic process, the artists of the IRWIN group are showing the cultural history of Slovenia-as is characteristic for the other countries of Eastern Europe as well- constantly imported artistic models from the West as well as from the East, by no means considering itself to be some sort of isolated cultural space. The cultural situation in Eastern Europe is not determined by any specifically national or traditional artistic forms, but by the use of defined elements of internal artistic language in the framework of other strategies and contexts, in different combinations, with different intentions, and for the illustration of different ideologies from those that have their place in the West.” (p. 291)

Although the anthology was designed mainly for the Western public, many of the texts and remarkable arguments reflect the little known positions of many Eastern European scholars. Primary Documents convincingly shows how important it is even for academics, artists, or curators working in this part of the world to get acquainted with “primary” sources before making any definitive statement about the specificity or uniqueness of art that we are surrounds us. Look more at information here

Moreover, the book underlines how crucial knowing and reconciling both local history and the activities and problems of the art scene throughout the “rest” of Eastern Europe can lead to a better understanding of the experience of artists during the forty years of Communist dictatorship.

Undoubtedly, the anthology, Primary Documents, contributes to a critical revision of the current status of centers and peripheries in art historical research. It also portrays the regions of the former Hapsburg empire that are now called Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, or the Balkans, as places with specific identities whose meaning changes according to both interpretational and ideological framing. As we know well enough, even apparently neutral geographical terms have their undeniable economic and political meanings.

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