Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Whose Ostalgia?

The opening of Ostalgia, a landmark exhibition at the New Museum which brings together works by more than fifty artists from the former Soviet Republics, Russia and a few from Western Europe – has generated a lot of buzz and overwhelmingly positive reviews in the U.S. press. Milestone institutions such as The NYTimes, The New York Observer or Artforum, praise the curator - Massimiliano Gioni’s accomplishment to organize a show on the former East that „looks and sounds terrific.” (NYTimes)[i] Indeed, it is really exciting to see an exhibition of this magnitude on the art of the former East being showcased in one of the most prominent capitals of culture today. Ostalgia takes up no less than five floors of the museum, running from July 6th to September 25th of this year.

At the same, for intellectuals invested in the region, an exhibition that puts together a range of works from 1960 to the present from over 20 Eastern countries in no chronological order, relegating them to a concept that was coined in a particular historical moment after the fall of the Berlin wall – raises serious questions. In the opening chapters of the Catalogue for Ostalgia, New Museum Director Lisa Phillips explains the scope of the project: “This exhibition is not an authoritative history of the Communist period, but instead seeks to sketch a psychological portrait of the region, and in doing so, expose the myths and memories that unite a range of artists.”[ii] This claim brings to mind a host of essentialist traits that critics have used time again to describe “Eastern Europe” – in particular the fascination with the socialist past and its grasp on the (western) imagination as a terra incognita.

In this piece I will attempt to untangle some of the vectors that run through Ostalgia – paradigmatic of retrospective exhibitions on the former East as a product of the Cold War - related to gendered geographies, the politics of art and exhibition practices, and the challenges contemporary eastern artists face today. These are by no means parallel lines of questioning, but their interweaving provides further exciting fields for discussion – that might push us forward from the innocuous claims of a “psychological portrait” of the region. As I envision this article to be the beginning of a debate with the reader who will probably has not seen Ostalgia, I invite him/her to explore the images of artworks in the exhibition attached to this piece before going further, to form an opinion about the visual argument the curator is making.

Let me begin by pointing out that, unlike US critics’ claims to the novelty of the show – “Art from the former Soviet Bloc is having a moment”[iii] - retrospective exhibitions on the East have 15 year old history in Western Curatorial Practice. To give just a few examples, “Beyond Belief: East Central European Contemporary Art” in 1995 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago or more recently at the Pompidou in 2010 - “Les Promesses du Passé: Une Histoire Discontinue de L’Art Dans L’Ex-Europe de L’Est” (The Promisses of the Past: A Discontinuous History of Art in the Former Eastern Europe). There is nothing new in crafting exhibitions around the solidified descriptive categories –“memory,” “history,” “identity” – that have come to be associated with the Socialist and Post Socialist East. Another general condition for these exhibitions is their location is almost exclusively in Western capitals of culture and are usually supported by powerful corporate bodies – such as “Gender Check: Masculinity and Femininity in the Art of Eastern Europe” which took place at the MUMOK in Vienna in 2009/2010 and was funded by the Erste Foundation.

This brings me to a poignant statement made by a young Romanian artist and theoretician, Veda Popovici, writing about the precarity of local contemporary art institutions. Popovici suggests these cannot hope to host such exhibitions, explaining that “in the context of the post-89 process of historicization of art in Romania, a visible history of recent art (starting from the 60s) is still missing, consequently a cannon towards [which] one would relate to […] also is missing.”[iv] Speaking as an artist and a writer of art history, Popovici goes on to emphasize the lack of historical models usually available through exhibitions - as one of the important challenges contemporary artists from the East are faced with today. In other words, while contemporary art pertaining to the former East is clearly mapped out in cultural capitals of the West, the local scenes are more often than not bereft of such models, through which artists, curators and theoreticians could better engage their own cultural legacy.

Meanwhile, the recurring argument in glossy catalogues printed in Paris, Vienna, Chicago or New York, goes that there exists a common essential condition engendered by the pre-1989 division that carries on to this day in contemporary art (even though the same organizers emphasize the cultural, social, ethnic diversity of this region – leaving the reader with a big paradox on their hands). The aforementioned condition has traditionally been subsumed under the term Eastern Europe (including Russia) in relation to another familiar phrase the “Post-Socialist Condition” and is now continued under Ostalgia, which still preserves the Eastern specificity (Ost) in the title. Moreover, despite the organizers’ claims to the contrary, the division between West and East in these retrospectives is extremely palpable, and one is far from a post-binary, post-political situation when experiencing them.

What is at stake then in these solidified descriptive parameters?

Let me begin from the core concept of the exhibition which for Massimiliano Gioni evokes “a sense of a cultural and social transformation of gigantic proportions: only the most traumatic revolutions leave such deep traces that change our language, spawning neologisms and relegating other terms to oblivion.”[v] In connection to Ostalgia’s main theme, Agnieszka Gratza - writing for Artforum - poses a revealing question:

“Much of “Ostalgia,” the New Museum’s summer exhibition dedicated to art from and about the Soviet bloc, makes for predictably grim viewing. How can we account, then, for the sense of longing and nostalgia triggered by day-to-day imagery of life within a communist regime that hardly seems a lost paradise?[vi]

But whose nostalgia are we talking about here? Whose lost paradise? Artists in the exhibition such as Ion Grigorescu (RO) or Andrei Monastyrski (RU) who performed actions on the outskirts of the sphere of State control in the late 1970s (the first in the privacy of his apartment and the latter as part of Kollektivnye deistvia (Collective Actions Group) in fields outside of Moscow) – can hardly be considered nostalgic. Their works were produced in a time of severe repression in the Romanian and Russian contexts, where artistic production of the unofficial circles was for many the only breath of escape from official control. Moreover, I strongly doubt any of these artists harbor any nostalgia for that system – during which the social utopias of the Left were betrayed by authoritarian governments. In an interview with The New York Observer, Dmitry Vilensky, member of the St. Petersburg based collective Chto Delat?/What is to be done? – whose installation “The Rise and Fall of Socialism” is part of “Ostalgia,” puts it more to the point: “There are so many opportunities for art today. I grew up with the old system, so I have no ostalgia. None at all.”[vii] What is to be done then, with Ostalgia?

Perhaps it is worth re-examining the root of “ostalgie,” which Gioni placed at the center of the New Museum exhibition - to complicate the curator’s unidirectional use of the term. If one looks closely, the history of this idiom points in other directions, away from a solely Eastern symptom placed an indeterminate temporality - as Gioni claims : “ the sense of longing that gives many of the works in the show an unmistakably romantic, lyrical quality that seems to pervade much of the artistic output of the former Soviet Bloc.”[viii]

Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the East was coined in the 1990s by West Germans to define the condition of their Eastern peers, who expressed yearning for the utopias of communism - which seemed to have too quickly vanished from the cultural horizon. Perhaps one of the most famous symbols associated with Ostalgie today is the Berlinese Amplemann (Ampelmännchen), or the Little Trafficlight Man, a beloved Eastern iteration of the generic human figure found on West German pedestrian crossing lights. In the mid 1990 in the German capital, activists succeeded to restore the Amplemann in the former East Berlin, protesting against the process of standardization of their cultural heritage according to so-called superior values of the West. However, it was not only East Germans who deplored the traumatic loss of their culture and its social utopias. Westerns in Germany, Britain and France – who had recently lost the welfare state - also began fantasizing about an Other Europe, an alternative to capitalism, where women and men worked together for a better future. It was not just a desire for the exotic other lifestyle– but a collective sadness around the death of an idea, of the promise for an egalitarian world that persisted in the mental charts of leftist intellectuals.

In the video work “Palast” (2004), which is part of the exhibition at the New Museum, British artist Tacita Dean recorded the last days of the Palast der Republik (The Palalce of the Republic), the seat of the former parliament of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) – which was demolished between 2006 and 2008. The old Palast was to make room for a Prussian-era Stadtschloss (Castle) – despite public outcry throughout the time it was being dismantled in Berlin. In “Palast,” Dean used the shimmering reflections on the rusty façade of the landmark East German building as markers of a deconstruction, the vanishing of a culture – quite literally as the building was being taken apart.

It is safe to say Ostalgie has quickly dissolved in popular imagination in the past 10 years – and the “fodder” as Gioni suggests about ostalgic films like “Good-bye, Lenin!” (2003) – is actually a remarkably global response to a not easily palatable period. This time is associated with what Russian-born writer Alexei Yurchak describes as : “the realities where control, coercion, alienation, fear and moral quandaries were irreducibly mixed with ideals, communal ethics, dignity, creativity, and care for the future.”[ix] Yurchak’s book, “Everything was forever until it was no more – The Last Soviet Generation” is a landmark publication that avoids the essentialization of Cold War binaries -fleshing out the lived realities of Soviet citizens beginning with the 1960s and up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. His book also disturbs the division between official and unofficial artists and cultural communities – a dichotomy implicit in a show like Ostalgia – in which resistance to the system is one of the big unmentioned factors in selecting the works. In this piece, I declare myself partially guilty of perpetuating the “East” and “West” terminology – I do so to foreground the tension which still persists in these categories, through which I hope to trouble the rhetorical division between them.

What I want to get at is that Ostalgia can also be interpreted as a symptom of the West’s longing for the cultures of the East– which still holds a powerful sway over its imagination. Further, I claim that we are witnessing a reinstatement of the East, in this case to compensate and re-energize the tired visual production in one of the key cultural capitals in the West. So much can be inferred from Holland Cotter’s review of the exhibition, writing for the NYTimes: “[Ostalgia] also conveys a depth of thought and feeling that seems unavailable to most of what’s in New York galleries right now.” Cotter suggests that American art has become formulaic - “in countless variations on modernist painting in all kinds of flavors: figurative, abstract, expressionist, geometric” – and that galleries now are filled with art that is all about surplus value, unlike the works in Ostalgia, “grounded in realities larger than themselves.”[x]

On the exhibition website, the organizers go even further to claim that Ostalgia questions “the centrality of Western art historical narratives.”[xi] For scholars invested in the region, the veracity of this statement has been more than obvious for quite some time –for example IRWIN’s seminal project “East Art Map” (2006) quite effectively proves the constructedness of Grand Art Historical Narratives as Western enunciations. But it is always nice to get a nod of approval – late rather than never.

Fascinating for American critics is another almost cliché observation: that great art in the East was produced without the presence of an art market. As Agnieszka Gratza puts it: “Made by established artists and amateurs alike in the absence of commercial gallery spaces and financial initiatives, they go to show that art can exist – and even thrive – without a market.” While that certainly may have been partly true 20, 30 or 40 years ago, this statement folds the reality that contemporary art from Eastern Europe is most definitely for sale, confirmed by the number of galleries and museums that showcase and acquire works (both object-based and conceptual pieces) that are seen as a product of the Cold War unofficial culture. I am not a purist in making this statement - as I happen to work for such an museum of eastern non-conformism.

But I also want to point towards the other side of the coin: that for most socially and politically engaged artists working in the former East today, survival and precarization are newly-accurate terms to describe their art communities. These artists have to constantly struggle for exhibition spaces, studios, and funding for projects – not to mention that a lot of them have two jobs, their artistic labor and a second form of employment for subsistence. It is beyond my scope in this piece to enter in a more comprehensive discussion of these experiences, however, statements to the effect of Gratza’s naïve contemplation of how great art can be a product of desperate times gloss over deeply troubling realities.

Returning to Ostalgia, I cannot but remain skeptical of the presentation the organizers have put on the works – whose installation is in desperate need of some chronological or generational if not regional structure – especially given the fact that local audiences are probably unfamiliar to most of the artists and their contexts. While what Gioni suggests is an exciting proposal – an inter-generational dialogue between artists from different corners of the East – it is hard to come out of the show with the feeling of productive cross-temporal encounters. As a whole, the show more intensely promotes the idea of a body of symptoms, as the curator wants us to observe the “naked bodies animated by extreme desires, or bored bodies shaken by pointless gestures and uncrontrollable physical twitches,” or the effect of works such as “Alexander Lobanov’s manic drawings, which stage a process of assimilation through which ideology literally becomes part of the body, embedded in the subconscious and in the obsessions of each individuals.”[xii]

When reading these descriptions I cannot but conjure up an image of Massimiliano Gioni, the sassy, young Milanese-born curator occupying the psychologist’s chair across from Eastern Europe, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown sitting on the patient’s couch: “Never fear, darling, the Man from the Cultured West is here to figure out all your mental disturbances, while sketching your psychological portrait - “torn between isolation and engagement” [xiii]- naturally.” This is of course, a caricature, but I don’t think I am too far off to suggest that it is easy to slip into solipsism with a tinge of machismo in this case, if one goes along this exclusively psychological avenue of presentation.

In fact, political engagement is quite poignantly suggested by one installation in the exhibition which occupies the 5th floor of the New Museum. For me, this was one of the most exciting moments of the show– a counterpoint to the lack of a historical, political or chronological structure of Ostalgia in general. Entitled “The Rise and Fall of Socialism 1945-1991,”[xiv] the installation realized by the aforementioned collective Chto Delat? comprises of videoworks and a brilliantly researched timeline that mixes political, cultural and social aspects of life under socialism in the former East – with the added twist of also representing Western interventions into the historical development of this political philosophy. For example, the marginally known overthrow of the dictatorship in Nicaragua by the socialist Sandinista Liberation Front in 1979, which were shortly afterwards neutralized by the right-wing Contras – in turn materially and politically backed by the US government. More than an innocent collection of facts, images and videos, “The Rise and Fall of Socialism ” puts an entirely new perspective on Ostalgia – giving it a historical and political dimension which seemed to have been evacuated from the installations on the lower levels.

All in all, Ostalgia gives one a productive field for debate: What distinguishes nostalgia from memory in representation? How does the former East re-enter History? What are the politics behind laying claim to the cultural traditions of this region in the West? And how do these cultures transform our understanding of the terms East and West – which continue to transgress their neatly defined theoretical boundaries - demanding the viewer’s immediate engagement into the debate ?



[i] Holland Cotter, “When Repression Was a Muse,” NY Times Art&Design, 21 July 2011, accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/arts/design/ostalgia-at-new-museum-focuses-on-soviet-bloc-review.html?pagewanted=all

[ii] Lisa Phillips, Director’s Forward, (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg 20

[iii] Andrew Russeth, “East is Best: Art from the Former Soviet Bloc is having a moment,” July 2011, accessible online: http://www.observer.com/2011/07/east-is-best/

[iv] Veda Popovici, “The Spectral Institution: Framing a Critical Artistic Strategy or the Contemporary Art Scene in Bucharest,” unpublished dissertation, June 2011, University of the Arts, Bucharest

[v] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia, (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg. 24

[vi] Agnieszka Gratza, “Ostalgia,” Artforum, August 2011, accessible online: http://artforum.com/picks/id=28699&view=print

[vii] Quoted in Andrew Russeth, “East is Best: Art from the Former Soviet Bloc is having a moment,” July 2011, accessible online: http://www.observer.com/2011/07/east-is-best/

[viii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia (New York: New Museum, 2011), pg. 25

[ix] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More – The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005) pg 10.

[x] Holland Cotter, When Repression Was a Muse, NY Times Art&Design, 21 July 2011, accessible online: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/22/arts/design/ostalgia-at-new-museum-focuses-on-soviet-bloc-review.html?pagewanted=all

[xi] Ostalgia, Press statement, July 2011, accessible online: http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/440/

[xii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia (New York: New Museum, 2011) pg. 29

[xiii] Massimiliano Gioni, Ostalgia(New York: New Museum, 2011) pg. 29

[xiv] Chto Delat?’s work is accessible online at: http://www.chtodelat.org/images/Rise-and-Fall-links.pdf

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