The Topography of Central European Art

Marina Grzinic, Guenther Heeg, Veronika Darian (eds.), Mind the Map! History Is Not Given! A Critical Anthology Based on the Symposium. Leipzig: Institute of Theater Studies, 2006.

Central Europe: What is it? The whole collection of the small nations between two powers, Russia and Germany. The eastern-most edge of the West…Is it true that the borders of Central Europe are impossible to trace in any exact, lasting way? It is indeed! Those nations have never been masters of either their own destinies or their borders. They have rarely been the subjects of history, almost always its objects. Their unity was unintentional. They were kin to one another not through will, not through fellow-feeling or through linguistic proximity, but by reason of similar experience, by reason of common historical situations that brought them together, at different times, in different configurations, and within shifting, never definitive, borders.

–Milan Kundera. The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (Translated from the French by Linda Asher)

What is the face of Central Europe today? Is the art of its countries renowned and valued in the West? Has anything really crucial happened regarding understanding this art and its unique condition apart from a few names from former Communist countries coming into fashion?

Milan Kundera pointed out the non-finality of Central European borders and consequently the inability to establish the fixed topography of that constantly transformed region. Despite this ever-shifting terrain, the IRWIN group from Ljubljana (Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Borut Vogelnik) has drawn up a map representing the artists and phenomena characteristic of Central European art. This is how the idea of the East Art Map originated, an undertaking which was supposed to become a starting point for a thorough comparison of the situation and condition of Eastern and Western art.

In October 2005 a symposium took place in Leipzig, Germany, which was appropriately enough entitled Mind the Map! History Is Not Given. The meeting resulted in a book with the same title issued in 2006.

The publication consists of several parts: introductions by the editors and initiators of the Leipzig conference, the papers presented, the transcriptions of discussions, as well as articles written by other authors who did not participate in the symposium, but who were asked to comment on its points. Evidence of artists in attendance can be traced thanks to the photographs and the documentation of their activities in the Schaubühne Lindenfels. All in all, the structure of the book itself reveals one of the fundamental ideas that motivated the organizers of the symposium in the first place, namely the emphasis on interdisciplinary cooperation between artists, art theoreticians, and critics. Contributing philosophers, art historians and critics, experts in the fields of culture and theater, sociologists, political scientists and estheticians all explored the influence of the social and political situation, as well as the history of the condition of contemporary art in Central Europe interpreted by artists and theoreticians of different generations. Thanks to such a wide range of interests represented by its authors the book is multidimensional, offering different paths followed to address the discussed questions.

Mind the Map! is an attempt to draw up a map of an unknown area, an initiative that required putting stereotypes aside and trying to grasp the pulsating process occurring presently in the surrounding reality. One should go beyond the limits, set them anew and then challenge or question them again to create a map that would only guarantee preliminary guidelines, one that could open or intensify a discussion about Central European art compared with Western art. The book was meant not only to record the event of the Leipzig symposium, but also to provide a platform for future discussion with a great emphasis on blurring and moving the line between artistic theory and practice. The title alone – Mind the Map! – indicates the openness of the project; it encourages or invites readers to make up their own maps with the most essential points on them: the names of artists, artistic trends or groups. On the one hand, it is safe to say that such a map already exists, since it consists of sometimes excellently worked out art histories of particular Central European countries. On the other hand, there is clearly no map offering certain “landmarks” which could enable comparative reflection concerning not only the East and the West, but also the diverse organism of Central Europe itself.

The subtitle History Is Not Given suggests in turn that writing history is a process, that history is not a self-contained whole, something “ready-made,” or pre-approved for all. This particular history still needs to be written; it keeps waiting for attempts at grasping its inner complexity. A valuable aspect of this publication is the invitation to authors or contributors representing different generations, some of whom remember life behind the Iron Curtain, as well as others who can look on the situation from a further perspective and comment on it from the angle of their own experiences gained after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reflection shared by the “witnesses” of the past era is interwoven in the book with the thoughts expressed by the youngest participants of the discussion, those who feel at home in the globalized world. In this way individual texts, ranging in focus from the extreme political involvement and ideology of research to the exploration of the categories of time and space in the light of Russian artists’ activities, were able to identify the tensions between regionalization and globalization, pose questions regarding the complexity of the notion of Central Europe, and test various tools for analysis. Drawing up the map proceeds with the use of terms commonly employed by the contemporary humanities, i.e. gender, ethnos, class, performativity, non-place, etc., and includes references to philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The contributors to the publication seem aware of how their own backgrounds help to inform their perspectives. Many of the authors have had emigrational experiences that made their articles even more engaging. Readers invariably get involved in the inquiries made by a Serbian living in Graz (Mirjana Peitler) concerning Russian artists, or in an Austrian (Roman Grabner) writing about a Russian, or in Veronika Darian’s highly conscious reflection related to the issue of her own identity and its influence on the discussion.

Additionally, special significance should be attributed to the fact that the symposium took place in Leipzig, a city that became desolated after the unification of Germany. Leipzig is a city that artists took a liking to, one which suddenly witnessed the birth of one of the most distinctive and strongly promoted artistic phenomena of the last decade – the Leipzig painting school. The book itself also enhances the exceptional prestige of the Austrian city of Graz located near Zagreb and Ljubljana. Werner Fenz turned it into a symbol of the long-lasting cooperation between the former Yugoslavian countries and the “Western” Austria. Moreover, despite the fact that the discussion concerned Central European art, the participants seemed to bear the marks of their own nationalities and – simultaneously – to lose them thanks to their being deeply rooted in the contemporary world and their ability to feel fulfilled in it. The contributing artists and theoreticians could easily be described as nomadic, and this term can also – figuratively speaking – refer to their ways of thinking. They revealed no hesitation to go beyond the limits and then report about this in their papers. What is more, the question about the grounds for supplementing and drawing up the map postulated by the IRWIN group keeps coming back. What has remained at our disposal? What access do we have to the works and activities of the past? How should we mark on the map the documentation of these actions, which do not fully correspond to the ephemeral and elusive works any more?

Mapping the artistic area of Central Europe seems to issue a challenge, a fact aptly emphasized by Antje Dietze who quoted Jacques Derrida: “Inheritance is never given, it is always a task.” The latter sentence was responded to at the Leipzig symposium, which resulted in the Mind the Map! History Is Not Given publication meant to be a critical anthology and designed to intensify the discussion between the East and the West remaining on equal terms with one another, and in no case to become a monograph aspiring to sum up the issue.

For that reason the East Art Map is a process and a task, the completion of which is going to take many years. The Mind the Map! History Is Not Given publication can for a long time function as an impulse for posing new questions or initiating a dialog thanks to which the West will no longer perceive Central European art as a curiosity or fad, but will grant it equal status as an area full of fascinating artistic phenomena. Paraphrasing Milan Kundera’s words, one might say that in this case the impossibility to delineate the borders and their non-finality will turn to the advantage of both the IRWIN group project and the Mind the Map! publication.

Translated by Anna Bernaczyk.