The Title is Programmatic

Privatisierungen, 16 May – 26 June 2004, Kunst-Werke, Berlin

In the course of the scientific project “The Post-Communist Condition,” which deals with cultural reactions to the political and social situation in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, the art and media theoretician Boris Groys launched an exhibition on contemporary art.

The exhibition, called “Privatisierungen. Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Osteuropa” (“Privatizations. Contemporary art from Eastern Europe”), was shown in the Berliner exhibition hall Kunst-Werke from 16th May until 26th June.

“Privatisierungen“ concentrates on projects, mostly photographs and video art, that present what Groys calls a kind of “private appropriation” of quasi-official modes of symbolic world construction in the transitional period from (Post-)Communism to Capitalism.

Unfortunately, the thematic and medial focus, alongside a poor spatial organization in the hall and a prominent representation of the curator himself as a part of the exhibition, convey the idea that the title is to be read literally.

The exhibition presents a variety of artistic projects from Eastern Europe on three floors. On the first floor the viewer may examine, for example, the installation “Pastan 2” (2004) by Erboryn Medibekov.

A white screen hangs in the middle of a white cell. A video is being played from both sides that shows a man slapping another man in the face while insulting him in an old Mongolese language.

While the visitor may walk around the screen, there is no possibility to get beyond the situation. Viewers are left with an impression of helplessness, the response to which can only be to leave this room. As in Meldibekov´s work, oppression and violence – in a physical or psychological sense – is part of many other projects in this exhibition.

The entrance to the second floor is marked by a yellow-black line, known from frontier crossings, telling the viewer to halt. It is part of the installation “Looking for a husband with EU passport” (2000 – 2004) by Tanja Ostojic.

In a detailed arrangement, the artist presents material documenting her quest, from e-mails with potential candidates to a photograph of the married couple. This artistic project concludes with the Ostojic’s actual marriage. This project operates in the intersection of social, political, and aesthetic dimensions or aspects of everyday life.

Another interesting video project is “Me and AIDS” (1996) by Artur Zmielewski, which also focuses on the violent dimensions of life. In a room resembling a gymnastic hall, two naked persons interact with each other. While one is walking across the room, the other runs up to and plunges into him or her, pressing the pelvis against the other person’s body.

At the moment of the collision the motion of the picture changes, presenting the ongoing scene in slow motion, thus elongating the downfall of the two persons that occurs afterwards. Zmielewski shows in a reductive language how AIDS changes a person’s life. While the playing time is almost the same before and after the collision, everything that happens “afterwards” is presented in a dense semantic atmosphere.

Zmielewski investigates the change in perception and life´s transformation into a painful precipitation. While being often neglected in “the West,” AIDS is a part of life in Eastern Europe

The works presented deal with questions mostly concerning the socialist heritage and the demands of the new situation. The place these problems become virulent is everyday life. The search for identity and corporality as well as the violence of media language, for example, seem to be some of the most prominent themes.

What is stunning, perhaps or at least for the “Westerneye,” is the concentration on real life experience(s) and their often violent dimensions in contrast to an almost clinical and solipsistic aesthetization shown in many projects.

As the organizers suggest, artists in Eastern Europe seem to understand symbolic orders as raw material for private usage within the changing social conditions irrespective of a socialistic or capitalistic background. According to Groys, photography and especially video are the adequate media to realize these appropriatic strategies.

The exhibition gives an interesting insight into the cultural and artistic situation in parts of Eastern Europe and presents many potent works, and yet it raises doubts. Three main aspects may be critically commented upon: Firstly, the usage of space. Secondly, the strategic value of the medial focus. Thirdly, the omnipresence of the curator.
In the exhibition hall, the space provided for any particular work is relatively small. For example, on the first floor, the works by Dmitrij Gutov and Pavel Pepperstejn, are presented in one passage, leaving almost no room for the viewer. Another position would perhaps give the viewer a possibility for a more differentiated and profound understanding not only of the broader context but also of the particular work.

Thus the recipient is left with the impression that it is mainly the exhibition itself that is being thematized. Taking a look at the interrelation between medial and thematic aspects, this kind of indifference or confusion can be noticed, too.

As Boris Groys points out, video seems to be a medium that – with its “private” usage and fictionalistic setting – could help destabilize other notions or orders, particularly political and economical ones, by explicating their relative stability.

But in criticizing the “anonymous, collective, governmentally regulated cultural production of the socialistic time,” and obviously its capitalistic counterpart as well, the artistic world order re-binds itself to these relations because of the need to keep in mind the alleged “official” reading.

For example, in his work “Positives” (2003), Zbigniew Libera gives the recipient the possibility to be reminded of cruelty or violence by the scenes depicted on canonical photographs like that of the Vietnamese girl running away by contrasting these situations with similar but “positive” ones. (On its counterpart the girl is smiling.)

It could be assumed that this project succeeds in transforming the positive-negative-opposition into an impulse, perhaps, reminding the recipient of his own contradictory usage of media production. By adding a video that shows the counterparts, Libera ensures that the viewer is “contaminated” at first so that he can be rescued or re-educated.

The totalitarian, violent, or nihilistic aspects of mass communication have become well known artistic topics and techniques at least since Soz art, respectively Pop art. Some of the projects seem to quote a formerly progressive technique which is used not as much as for a critical destruction of a symbolic order, as for the establishment of another one.

To demonstrate, in her work “Gen XX” (1997 – 2001), the artist Sanja Ivekovic depicts model-looking women in the photographic language of fashion. The women, according to an additional text, were accused of collaborating with anti-fascist forces and therefore were executed. Since this project mono-dimensionally iterates a canonical technique, the criticism of violent aspects of the appropriated language seems to function as an affirmationof the art’s potential.

This conservative gesture is characteristic for the concept of the exhibition itself. In the project “Die Ausstellung eines Gespräches” [Groys with Kabakov and Pepperstejn] by Boris Groys (2001/4), the curator exemplifies and incorporates the (meta-)appropriatic dimension of this exhibition by including himself as part of the exhibition. Groys seems to interpret (most of) the works as if they were continuing “unofficial” discourse strategies of criticism and destruction.

Calling these strategies “private” is another means of superficially pretending progression, because this notion suggests the hierarchy that during Socialism connoted a definite value judgment. Furthermore, from a schematizing viewpoint, the usage of the notion “privatization” reminds one of the positive aspects it conveyed during the cold war, quite often signaling systemic change and positive value.

Not only geopolitical changes but also self-critical doubts are aroused about the alleged “winner” of this conflict. Therefore, the title “Privatisierungen” functions as a conservative quotation.

The question arises as to whether referring almost exclusively to this concept of appropriation does not hinder finding a model of description and analysis more adequate to the new circumstances. This exhibition runs the risk of cementing expectations instead of conveying a differentiated and differentiating approach to the situation in and the art form Eastern Europe.

In my view, “Privatisierungen” goes hardly beyond the inter-relationship between communist and capitalist aspects, and thus it offers, unfortunately, a fairly mono-dimensional approach. It would have been helpful to provide a catalogue with some additional information that would describe the asserted modes of inscription into the appropriatic background.

The catalogue actually produced intensifies the final impression of this somehow interesting, somehow poorly organized exhibition by manifesting the gesture of claiming without contextualizing. To draw a conclusion, “Privatisierungen” seems to be focusing on the art of appropriation in making an exhibition rather than critically displaying contemporary artistic projects.

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