The Wall After the Wall

After the Wall. Art and culture in post-communist Europe. Moderna Museet, Stockholm, October 16, 1999 – January 16, 2001

“A deafening noise”: this was a complaint made by my Swedish students after a visit to After the Wall. 140 artists from 22 countries. An enormous exhibition area turned into a likeness of a modern factory: exquisitely designed museum spaces crowded with dozens of art installations, music and voices and reproduced city noises, all the clamour and clatter, the sound and fury of an assembly room in which each and every individual symbolic machine is busy making a sense of its own.

“A deafening silence”: that might be more to the point. 140 artists from 22 countries. The whole of the museum space crammed with images, a film program and a representative conference, an honest attempt at awakening shocking impressing informing and a moan of exasperation from the visitor: With all my sympathy, I still do not understand.

If I were allowed to make an essentialist observation, I would call it a specifically Swedish thing to do: confessing to misunderstanding with an apologetic smile and a guilty look on the face. The country of Ericsson wholeheartedly subscribes to the utopia of transparent democratic communication and therefore takes misunderstanding to be a failure. Unlike Russians, who are Habermasians at the bottom of their hearts and who therefore tend to suspect conspiracy even in weather forecasts, the Swedish intellectuals blame misunderstanding on themselves. The historical explanation that my Swedish friends usually supply is Neutrality. According to this version, Sweden has been removed from the world’s most recent history; it was never part of it because it self-consciously abstained from sharing with the rest of the continent the century’s experience of mass destruction and survivals.(See Renata Salecl’s analysis of the art show Interpol at the art center Färgfabriken in Stockholm in: (Per)versions of Love and HateMoscow, 1999, pp. 111-124; see also the “Open Letter to the Art World”, the documentation of the reaction of the disgusted international community in Siksi 1 (1996).)

Neutrality — neutralizing the Other — neutering the Self. It supposedly gave Sweden its affluence and security and by the same token banned it from experiencing its own Europeanism. In a certain way, Sweden even today remains a community slightly resembling Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain: the Apocalypse has not as yet happened, its “always already” still remains a theoretical possibility. In this context, the interest in those places where Apocalypse has actually taken place is enormous. It can be observed in the growing acceptance of “theory” in the Swedish academia, and there is a yearning for the “continental” as supplied by the international contemporary art scene in the public. There is an undeniable fear of Central and Eastern Europe; but at the same time an irresistible thrill that Sweden finds in occasional contacts with it. Both seem to be the reverse side of the longing for “continentality”. Witnessing Russian scandal (George Soros’ commitment to the development of East and Central European contemporary art is even more amazing since, as we know from well-informed sources (see, for example, a series of materials in Itogi, No 43, 2000), he does not like or understand contemporary art. Nor did the Komsomol during the times of the Wall.) staged at one of Stockholm’s fashionable exposition areas, Sweden looks at its own reflection in the mirror that both attracts and repulses. A complicated game of subjunctives: “This is what could have happened to us, if it hadn’t been destined to happen otherwise. Am I happy that it never happened, or am I disappointed? Or maybe it did happen to me, but I didn’t notice?” As a representation of “apocalyptic continentality”, Eastern and Central Europe gives rise to curiosity mixed with apprehension, but there is also appreciation and acknowledgment. As a rock musician recently described the Russians in an interview, they appear “nice and patient people whose life happens to be all shit and who know how to handle it”.

Another factor that makes Sweden highly susceptible to, but equally incredulous of, the East and Central European charms is its (Sweden’s) new geopolitical situation in the so-called Baltic region a situation that the Swedish politicians and global corporations are trying to use to the best advantage. The Baltic region is officially represented as something that is historically very well defined, but when it comes to proofs, there is not so much to go by. It is probably for that reason that the notoriously clever Swedish PR are so fond of the spectacular image of the Vikings: the myth of medieval mobility among the Nordic warriors sells well on the market of globalized representations and is exotic enough to provide the mass media with Disneylandesque cultural happenings when Sweden opens its offices in New York, or equips its Olympic teams, or inaugurates its international EXPO pavilions.

In the meantime, the Baltic region does exist, and it exists as a fact of modern history, including the most recent one. But this is primarily a history all written in the language of silence. Silent collaboration with the Nazis during the war. Silent approval of Stalinism among the intellectuals. Silent harassment by alternatively Russian and NATO submarines during the Cold War. Silent acquiescence to the physical proximity to numerous Chernobyls at their varying stages of collapse. Silent anxieties concerning the possible invasion by East European refugees after the fall of the USSR. Silent relief when this does not happen. Silent interventions in the East European economies in reform. The silent and traceless disappearance of the mysterious Wallenberg in the mires of Lubjanka archives. The equally silent disappearance of Swedish adventurous businessmen and researchers in the mires of post-totalitarian criminality in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Riga, etc. And, finally, the silent acceptance of the uneasy fact that inside its post-communist political and economic surroundings, the Country of Ericsson, together with its North-Eastern neighbour, the Country of Nokia, increasingly represent the image of Normalcy in the eyes of their Baltic partners.

The burden of being Normal. Since among the post-USSR nations there is a growing disillusionment in the neo-liberal “Americans”, the social-democratic Swedes can now claim the role of the father image in the Baltic region. Surrounded by a circle of world’s most dysfunctional economies and quite violent societies, Sweden has to accept the role of a flagman ship leading the whole fleet towards a better future. Written on the proudly hoisted flag is, “Allt som det ska — Everything as it should be”. However, it is precisely the meaning of that modal operator “should that seems to be seriously worrying today’s Swedish intelligentsia.

Probably, in anticipation of such a reaction David Elliott, Moderna’s director and the head curator of the project, was warning the audience NOT to go to the exhibition until they had enough sense of humour. Being Swedish nowadays is a challenge. And the anxiety of this awareness being so noisily confirmed inside the new Moderna whose memory still preserves the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s, was, I think, an unexpected but important result of After the Wall.

Faithful to its name, Moderna Museet exposed the selected art objects precisely as objects of modern, not contemporary art. They were put on display as if they were absolute statements without any accompanying texts (apart from the minimalist information about the artist’s name, year of birth and country of residence, plus short artist statements in a separate brochure.) In other words, the texture as such was not chosen for representation. The pieces were denuded of their aura of stories: interests, intentions, intrigues, and indecencies that accompany any art project from the moment of conception. What was the story behind such a gesture of “de-storying”? What kind of censorship was it that intervened in the statement of the expositioner? Was it the censorship incorporated in the discourse of Modern art itself that disconnects product and production? Was it a museum’s institutional dislike of the marketplace that divorced the art work from its political economy? Or was it, on the contrary, the knowledge about the pieces’ relatively low art market value and an instinctive desire to increase it by exposing them as if they were already illustrations in collector catalogues?

In the meantime, the principle of collection and demonstration was ringing a very distinct bell. Younger artists, whose development was not impaired by the corrupting influence of Marxism-Leninism. An event celebrating an anniversary. A parade of achievements of emancipation among the artistic youth. Also, a parade of social, economic, and moral problems remaining to be tackled by the artistic youth. Horizons, perspectives, and visions opening up before the artistic youth. A quota of representation of artistic youth from each country. A strictly observed principle of politico-geographical equality. Was it really an intended quotation from the practices of the official young artists‚ shows at the Moscow Manezh during the 1980s? At that time, the hero was the Komsomol. Who is the hero now, then?

I would suggest that the hero’s name is George Soros. This proper name, incidentally, occurs in the preface to the catalogue long before any participant is mentioned in person. The word “Soros” seems to function in this context as still another key word, another name of the father, a signifier covering almost all of the signifieds that constitute the reference of East and Central European contemporary art. But this is merely a suggestion. In general, Soros was represented, over-represented, in fact, by a figure of reticence.

A regrettable blank and neglect of priority, on top of that (For an analysis of the cultural bureaucracy as a language game, see Anders Kreuger, Implementation. The Art of Contemporary Bureaucracy. Lecture at the Malmö Art Academy, October 19, 2000.) because prior to any critical analysis of the cultural situation in Eastern and Central Europe, prior to any analytical intervention by post-colonial theorists and deconstruction professionals, prior to conferences, forums, and educational programs, it is from the package of application materials to the Soros foundation that the East and Central European artist pick up the words “identity”, “subjectivity”, “stereotype”, “critique”. That very international language of critical representation that After the Wall chose for the explication of its own intentions.

“Subjectivity”, “identity”, “tradition”, “stereotype” come from a vocabulary that is actuallyproduced by an overlap between the language of cultural critique, on the one hand, and the institutional jargon of cultural bureaucracy, on the other (4). These terms connect established cultural institutions much more efficiently than they disrupt them. By using such names, one can effectively achieve both disruption and institutionalisation institutionalisation via disruption, establishment inside the institutions of an establishment critique. “Identity”, “multiculturalism”, and “traditional” serve the purposes of globalization, national exclusiveness, and cultural and linguistic fundamentalism. Moderna’s project uses these terms as absolute denominators, ignoring the grey zone of interpretation that surrounds them.

The spectator immediately senses that something is wrong. The curators want to produce an impression of mutual, if somewhat painful, satisfaction: Europe is satisfied with the arrival of new fresh forces into its artistic arenas; “new fresh forces” satisfied with the possibility of sharing their anxieties with a much wider and more sympathetic audience than the one they supposedly confront at home (if at all). But is this really a happy reunion? And why do I, the spectator, develop a feeling that the artists here represented are not “critically aware”? They seem to be mad not at “the newly rich, the growing poverty” and the remains of “the ideology [they] grew up with”, as the catalogue suggests. For some reason, the artists are mad at me, the serene and innocent art lover who came to the exhibition and paid her SEK 60 because she wanted to make a gesture of solidarity with the artists in their “revision of artistic subjectivities and the development of new identities”. Why do I feel guilty? What is it that I do not understand? And why, chosen to represent democratic values within the walls of one of Europe’s most expensive cultural institutions, — why do the after-the-wall artists sound so sarcastic?

One way or another, the exposition at Moderna Museet gave me an impression of multiple lonelinesses. Take, for instance, the loneliness of the above-mentioned George Soros, the solitary ranger of liberal values in the post-communist wilderness, managing the East and Central European art scene almost single-handed. The loneliness of an artist, a Soros grantee, producing his statement in the desolation of United Europe’s backyards. The loneliness of an art critic doing the work of articulation in the artist’s stead, because the latter does not speak English. The loneliness of a de-territorialized free-lance curator working on the hopeless project of giving a democratic representation to something that is non-democratic and unrepresentable in principle. The loneliness of an internationally renowned (but also de-territorialized) museum director desperately fighting to modernize Moderna, the national symbol of Sweden’s (and nobody else’s!) modernism. Last but not least, the loneliness of the viewer trying to make sense in the snowy-white room of an excessively technological exposition area — reading whatever meaning she can into this over-statement of the technology of representation. “Oj, oj, oj”, as a popular Swedish expression goes.

A propos expressions.

Next to the bus stop that is nearest to my home in one of Stockholm’s suburbs there is a notice board that is usually covered with public messages announcing local charity markets, meetings of green activist groups, courses in self-defence for women, free samples of new weight control miracles, or heartbreaking news about the disappearance of pets. Since buses do not come too often (connecting one suburb with another suburb, one ghetto with another ghetto, an essentially after-the-wall problem, by the way), I have sufficient time to get acquainted with the drama of local social life. During my tedious waiting mission I am obviously not the only bored soul: almost invisible beneath the scaly skin of old notices I discern an inscription scraped on the cardboard with a key, in Russian. It says: “Mir”, “Trud”, “Maj” [“Peace; Labor”; May”], and well, you know what.

A message that resounds but also provokes After the Wall‘s keywords of “identity”, “social welfare”, “gender”. My compatriots carry these scriptures around on their new nomadic routes. Why should they? We all nowadays safely belong to a generation that was not, according to the catalogue, “directly influenced by the old system”. Moreover, nowadays, “we all have the right to represent ourselves, and new forms of personal aesthetics and politics are emerging”. And still, it remains “Mir”, “Trud”, “Maj” and “You-Know-What”.

A shibboleth, a secret sign left by one pathfinder to another pathfinder, a signal of togetherness sent at random into the emptiness of the “host culture”. I do appreciate this gesture, this invisible nod from a brother-in-arms: the art of waiting for the bus is something we both are very good at, and we mastered that art many years ago in a world where all practices were conducted under those very mottoes. My “then” smiles an ironic smile at my “now”. Was that “then-world” really so much “behind-the-wall”? Is my reality “now” really as “after-the-wall” as After the Wall claims it is?

Together with “Mir”, “Trud”, “Maj”, the Wall is here, the unmistakable presence of “then” in the symbolic landscape of “now”. In fact, this is a very quiet presence, as distinct from the noisy artistic interventions staged by art galleries and museums. In everyday life, the Wall penetrates swiftly, efficiently, invisibly, and inaudibly. Babylon returns in the silence of white noise, the cumulative effect of overlapping sounds: the muffled rustle in the background of a record, the eternal sh-sh-sh that fills in the pauses, interrupting, mocking, and negotiating whatever “hosting” well-tempered piano it happens to populate.

The author apologizes to each and every of the 140 Central and East European participant artists of whom not a single one happens to be mentioned in the text.

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