2008-10-03 - 2008-11-09

Curated by: Magdalena Lewoc; cooperation: Marlena Chybowska-Butler

Artists: Aleka Polis, Chto Delat, Adam Adach, Bruno Ascuks, David Maljkovic, Irina Botea, Jerzy Truszkowski, Kristina Inciuraite, Liina Siib, Milica Tomić, Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor, Paweł Susid, Silja Saarepuu

Recent historical-theoretical and curatorial examinations on the contemporary art of Eastern Europe, conducted by researchers such as Piotr Piotrowski, Marina Gržinić or Zdenka Badovinac[1], consistently call for a new paradigm within which the art of the former Eastern bloc can be properly interpreted and contextualised.

While the their direct areas of exploration are not homogeneous and their conclusions are nuanced, they unanimously postulate the need for a new system; one that takes into account the significance of the political, social and ideological contexts in the process of the positioning and interpretation.

Contrary to earlier attempts that situate regional output in a Western value system – a universalist canon that doomed Eastern production to being imitative by definition – this new approach bases interpretation in political and social terms, with the Soviet and post-Soviet eras cast as the key forces influencing the region’s artistic output. Such attitudes reference reflections on recent history, which largely have been responsible for the idea of ‘otherness’ both within the region and as it relates to interpretive analysis. These reflections are important not only from the viewpoint of historical revaluation, but they also are of crucial significance in understanding the art that is currently being made here.

Public debate in the first decade of systemic transformation was dominated by a collective washing away of Communism, and on the level of artistic reflection and practice by a focus on identity issues based on individual analysis. More recent works bear witness to a significant shift of emphasis, with references to history – including the communist imaginary and the socialistic experience – arising as important coordinates of the artistic praxis. In this sense, the current ‘historically sensitive’ production enters in a dynamic dialogue with the theoretical reflection that accompanies it.

Characterising the change taking place in Russian art, Victor Misiano writes, ‘The post-communist reality of the ‘90s was a time of forced conformism. Political chaos and social decay left no space for critical discourse. Reality has nothing stable and defined that could be the subject of critical analyses and confrontation. Thinking class accepted gangster capitalism as an addition to the chance for private success, new poverty – as an addition to the freedom to create and to travel, the glory of cynicism as the liberation of ideological moralism. Any critical position ignored by attributing it to Communist nostalgia. (…) The epoch of political carnivals has finished and the post-Communist individual is starting to recognize his interests.’[2] Allowing for certain inevitable oversimplifications, these observations are applicable to the situation in the other countries of the former Eastern bloc.

Echoing this critical call for a new interpretive framework, the project Restaging the Past refers to the need for agreeing upon an ‘Eastern idiom,’ as well as the dissimilarity of the Eastern historical, political and artistic experience. It examines the qualitative changes taking place in artistic practice, the ways in which historical experience is conceptualised and the need for restoring historical continuity. Created over the last two decades, the featured works deal with the mechanisms of collective memory and collective amnesia, the construction and remodelling of history, the creation of ideological phantasms and fictions, the reinterpretation of the meaning of historical symbolic capital, and the impact of these processes on current social reality.

Notwithstanding the nuances and dynamism of individual situations before, during and after the transformation period, there exists a common experience, a common legacy and a common stigma – an ‘otherness’ that is incompatible with Western experience – in the countries of the former Eastern-bloc. Re-articulation enables these attributes to become instruments of critical reflection on current political reality, stimulating the social immune system to show vigilance amid sudden shifts toward neo-liberal ideologies. Questions of whether history repeats itself and of whether certain mechanisms continue to function return regularly. For example, Yugoslav essayist Dubravka Ugrešić’s observations on new forms of totalitarian propaganda can safely be applied to the experience of other ex-Soviet bloc countries.[3]

In Restaging the Pas this fundamental concurrence of the historical legacy of the last seventy years served as a contextual framework for artists coming from geographically and ethnically diverse areas of Europe. Their realisations situate the experience of recent history within a dynamic, multi-vector polylogue that ranges from a critical recycling of the totalitarian imaginary (Dragot, Truszkowski, Saarepuu), to a reinterpretation of the revolutionary legacy (Chto delat?, Botea, Tomić, Susid); from the impact of Utopias on the visual environment (Polisiewicz, Susid) and on individual human histories (Aščuks, Siib), to the traumatic experiences of ideological violence (Dragot, Siib, Vǎtǎmanu & Tudor) and a nostalgia for a disappearing world and sense of former community (Inčiūraitė), to the visual exhumation of ambiguous historical motifs (Adach, Siib), and futuristic visions of a return to the forgotten, repressed past (Maljković).

Until recently, using the language of trauma appeared the only way of talking about the past. And provided that it is accompanied by a critical awareness of the current ideological coordinates, the use of this language still retains in emotional and analytical potential. This mode of confronting the past is present in the videos of Mona Vǎtǎmanu & Florin Tudor (Process, video, 2004-2005), Liina Siib (Compromise Excluded, video, 2003), Robert Aliaj Dragot (Spring & Stalin, video, 2006)  and Bruno Aščuks (Little Bird’s Diary, documentary video, 2008). All are based on historical source material; respectively, the minutes of the trial of Elena and Nicolae Ceauşescu, declassified documents, archival TV footage and personal diaries. Yet they go beyond revisionist rhetoric by placing hard facts within a superstructure of oneiric fiction (Siib), elevating the documentary layer to more poetic registers (Dragot) or correlating, trance-like, sound and image into a message of new quality (Vǎtǎmanu & Tudor). The past is examined in these works from the position of being critically anchored in the present and observing the aporia of its current order.

Of late, the representation of the collective emotional loss and the physical wounds on nations in regional contemporary output has been losing its exclusive right to dialogue with the past. Sharing in this conversation are new and important themes emerging in the field of observation, including the progressive referencing of socialistic postulates and their revolutionary legacy, the melancholic processing of the sense of loss, and the creative exhumation of the visual, emotional and intellectual landscape of the past.

The return to Lenin suggested by Slavoj Žižek[4] has intensified interest in revolutionary symbolic capital. They are manifesting themselves in references to the Soviet legacy as a positive impulse for social change at a time when, as Žižek notes, capitalism is believed to have no alternative and is easier to imagine the world ending than the means of production changing.[5] For the Russian collective of artists, philosophers and critics known as Chto delat? (Tsaplya, Nikolai Oleinikov, Dmitry Vilensky), leftwing theories provide the fulcrum for promoting artistic activism, solidarity and a social model of participative democracy.

Meanwhile, Irina Botea bases an artistic dialogue on the revolutionary impulse and the poetics of revolutionary ferment in Auditions for a Revolution (video, 2005-2006), a filmed re-enactment made in collaboration with students of a Chicago drama school of archival footage by Harun Farocki and Andrej Ujicǎ that documents the Romanian revolution of 1989.

Milica Tomić performs a similar gesture by inviting members of the Texas establishment to recite passages from Marx’s Das Kapital (Reading Capital, video, 2005), thus placing the ideological treatise in a context similar to that in which it was born. (Despite its career in the East, Communism is a Western invention, after all.) Tomić refers also to Sergei Eisenstein’s eccentric idea of filming Marx’s magnum opus.

Also located in the context of an analytical reception of revolution are Paweł Susid’s works. A Couple of Books… (1990) and Vladimir Lenin’s Things  (painting, 1990) appear prescient in view of the current exploration, while his painting from a decade later, And Today for a Change It Seems that the Revolutions, Though Nasty, Were Necessary (painting, 2000), brilliantly captures the ambiguous potential of the economics of revolution.

Another of Susid’s paintings featured in the exhibition, The Houses of Culture and Science Cannot be Covered (2005), comments on the lasting impact of fulfilled Utopias on an Eastern European’s visual and mental environment. That this was a promised land for Utopian architectonic and urban-planning ideas is evidenced by the condition and visual qualities of many cities, one symptomatic example being Warsaw, whose digital reconstruction based on Nazi and Soviet designs is presented by Aleksandra Polisiewicz in her ongoing project Wartopia (computer animation, since 2006).

While emblematic forms construed as signs of the concentration of power and knowledge appear in Susid’s and Polisiewicz’s work in the form of architectural icons (The Palace of Culture and Science). In Jerzy Truszkowski’s projects, they return as ideologically charged visual codes. The Soviet era’s five-pointed star (Every Administration Is Above All a Form of Exploitation, 1991; Forced to Live in Something Horrible and Disgusting at the Same Time, painting, 1991) belongs to a repertoire of semantic forms present in the artist’s critical practice from the very beginning of his career, and whose use is based on an observation of the systems of totalitarian subjugation and the mind’s nihilistic tendency to rationalise any given conceptual system.

Differing in their narrative-visual complexity from the stylistics dominant in the works of Susid or Truszkowski, the paintings of Adam Adach are like afterimages of the past. Created on the basis of archival photographs or film images extracted from today’s ever more chaotic and heterogeneous environment, Adach’s multifaceted works allude to the communist Utopia of modernisation. In combination with the artist’s ability to poetically revive events, places and figures repressed from the collective memory or distorted by it, they represent the most interesting example of historically sensitive art on the current Polish art scene and brilliantly reveal new meanings of Eastern Europe’s cultural experience (Westerplatte. Proud, paitning, 2008.)

Practicing a kind of mental archaeology, Adach extracts themes from the collective memory that are vital for the collective consciousness. A similar approach is present in Kristina Inčiūraitė’s video documentaries, which highlight people’s nostalgic relationships with the past and thus connect history with personal experience. In the series Scenes (Shut down, video, 2004), public places of relational and cultural significance (theatres, hotels, culture centres) during the socialist era that today are deserted or marginalised by the capitalist order are evoked from memory and thus gain a phantom presence. The mediums in this metaphorical séance are women, who represent the last generation that can recall life in the Soviet era. In recounting their experiences, they recreate the remembered emotional and semantic potential, thus becoming the carriers of historical continuity. Presented in an aura of nostalgia, the melancholic symbiosis between them and a world doomed to oblivion, introduces other accents to narratives that move from lofty public registers to the daily reality of communal relations and thus reveal a more nuanced picture of the era.

In the first part of his Scene for New Heritage trilogy (video, 2004), David Maljković proposes an escape into the future. The year is 2045 and a group of young men are visiting the famous Memorial at Petrova Gora, an historical and architectural icon built in the 1970s to the designs of Vojin Bakič that today is abandoned and squalid. As the result of collective amnesia, the visitors lack any knowledge or expertise to interpret the structure’s meaning and significance, to mentally reconstruct it as a meaningful whole. By placing a generation unencumbered by the burden of memory in direct confrontation with one of the most semantically charged symbols of the past era, Maljković suspends temporal continuity, drawing a sharp dividing line between historical experiences. In doing so, he exploits the surprising consequences of those processes.

Presenting works important from the viewpoint of the reinterpretation and re-absorption of history in a dynamic whole, Restaging the Past responds to a need that increasingly is felt on the artistic, curatorial and research scenes in post-Socialist countries. By stimulating a self-reflection on, and reinterpretation and redefinition of, the recent past, the exhibition highlights the key factors that aid in the process of the reversal of a regional cultural vector, which, as Piotrowski stresses, is still directed towards the West, towards the centre, rather than towards other friendly peripheral areas[6] that could be helpful in working out a new system of references for the artistic production created here in the recent past and today and better revealing its dynamics and significance.

Text by Magdalena Lewoc

Translated from Polish into English by Marcin Wawrzyńczak.

Proof read by Rick Butler.

Text originally published in Baltic/Balkans, Szczecin, 2008, ed. by Magdalena Lewoc, published by the National Museum in Szczecin.

[1] Piotr Piotrowski, Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989, Poznań 2005, p. 18 [English edition: In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, Reaktion Books]; Marina Gržinić, Reconstructed: Eastern Europe, Post-Socialism and Retro-Avant-Garde, Vienna 2000, p. 10; Zdenka Badovinac, ‘The Authentic Interest of the Museum,’ in: Art Institutions of Eastern Europe, ed. Alenka Gregorić, Karlsruhe 2008, p. 14.

[2] Victor Misiano, ‘Reality Revisited – Russian Art in the New Decade,’ in: IDEA arts+society, no. 19, 2004, available online at http://www.idea.ro/revista/index.php.

[3] See for instance D. Ugrešić, Kultura kłamstwa (eseje antypolityczne), Wrocław 1998, p. 64. [English edition: The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, Pennsylvania State University Press 1998]. 

[4] V.I. Lenin and Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates: Žižek on Lenin, the 1917 Writings, Verso 2004.

[5] After: Marina Gržinić, ‘Synthesis: Retro-Avant-Garde, or Mapping Post-Socialism in Ex-Yugoslavia,’ in: ART Margins, www.artmargins.com/content/feature/grzinic.html.

[6] P. Piotrowski, Awangarda…, op. cit., p. 30.