We from nowhere and our art
Alise Tīfentāle, Art Historian
06.07.–02.10.2011. New Museum, New York
Art from nowhere or from “countries that no longer exist.”(1) This was how Eastern Europe and the former USSR were described in the title of a review of the exhibition Ostalgia in ‘The Economist’. Having firstly satisfied our curiosity as to whether the exhibition included works from Latvia, broader questions beckon. The exhibition reveals many uncertainties, ambiguities and contradictions, and this clearly applies to the study, evaluation and representation of Latvian art from the second half of the 20th century in the international environment.

Echoes of Cold War rhetoric
Ostalgia provokes discussion and perhaps even polemic in several directions at once. Much of this may exceed the boundaries of the exhibition, because it calls for generalising and applying the issues raised by the said exhibition to the so-called cultural antagonism between East and West (by this meaning Western democracy and the Communist Bloc countries). This appears to have outgrown the reality of the Cold War to become one of the fantasies of the early 21st century creators of culture, turning into Marxist Benjaministic phantasmagoria.

Although curator Massimiliano Gioni refers to cultural differences, they are described using the metaphor of an “Oriental rug”.(2) The curator states that the metaphor originated in the English translation of ‘Imperium’ (1983) by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. It is worth noting that the author’s reflections on his travels around the Soviet Union mainly refer to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. One could reasonably object to Kapuściński’s vivid metaphor being used in the context of Ostalgia to apply to the Baltic States and Central Europe, where the culture and art have never been “Oriental”. Likewise it also makes little sense to describe the states visited by Kapuściński as “Eastern Europe”, since they have never belonged to the European cultural space. Thus countries, nations, cultures and artists from the Balkans to Estonia and from Central Asia to Germany are turned into non-existent like-minded confederates or family members – “us” – and this vast region is assigned a deceptively unifying, Oriental character. In reality, “we” have far more that divides us than unites us.(3)

The tedious continuation of this Cold War understanding of geography serves the marketing and publicity interests of Western institutions, because while the generation that experienced Cold War rhetoric and propaganda is still economically active, the former can appeal to a potential interest in the presence of an exotic ideological foe.

This means that, for the most part, “our” late 20th century art is interesting to “them” only insofar as its content is based on stereotypes, politicised and familiar signs and stock phrases which are formally if vaguely reminiscent of what is recognised in the West as avant-garde or “radical”. “Our” art must clearly indicate that an artist living in a Communist state condemns the regime (or at least treats it ironically). Because the unspoken implication is that the only globally-acceptable choice is that a good person (good artist) can only be free and happy in a capitalist, democratic state, because under communism or any other “abnormal” conditions this person is unhappy and enslaved and undoubtedly protests against the prevailing situation in his or her art (literature, poetry, architecture, design etc.). While I assume that this is often the case, there is no reason to believe that this is the only and final evaluation criterion (because this would vastly narrow down the spectrum of possible social, creative, spiritual and other functions of art).

Nevertheless, this myth is surprisingly well entrenched. It means that Western-curated exhibitions of “our” art almost completely exclude painting, sculpture and printmaking, because these art forms, innocent in themselves, were designated as “official” by the Soviet regime and were nurtured and used for propaganda. They are therefore not suitable for free and rebellious expression.

On the one hand, the exhibition aspires to be a regional, historical overview. “A survey devoted to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics,” says the press release.(4) On the other hand, the curator categorically denies taking a chronological, linear view of art history in Eastern Europe: the exhibition “is neither a history of art in the former Soviet Bloc, nor an account of the rise and fall of Communism”5 and “the exhibition refuses to rely on a linear conception of time and history, preferring a conflation of different temporalities”.

At the same time, the first work that greeted visitors was an untitled work by the artists’ group Čto delatj? (2011). This work occupied the first room of the exhibition space and looked like a modern political information office with notices, illustrations and various monitors. It was possible to (accidentally?) misunderstand this work and perceive it as an introduction and summary of the entire exhibition. Under the heading “The rise and fall of socialism, 1945–1991”, it listed facts in an honourably linear, chronological order. But in contrast to the one-way only historical path set out by Čto delatj? the rest of the exhibition presented ambiguities and a lack of clarity in its use of chronology, geography and concepts.
Artists group 'Chto Delat?' ['What is to be Done?'] (Thomas Campbell, Ilya Budraitskis, Dmitry Vilensky, Nikolay Oleynikov). The Rise and Fall of Socialism, 1945-1991. Site specific installation. 2011
Photo: Benoit Pailley
Commenting on the geographical aspect of the exhibition, the curator reminds us just how unclear, ephemeral, nebulous and elusive the chosen material is. The exhibition is described as “a cartography of a territory with geographic and historical boundaries that tend to blur and fade”, “The geographic coordinates are equally vast and complicated, because many of the nations represented in this exhibition did not formally exist until a few decades ago”, and finally, “it is a polyphonic exhibition, but rather than resolving itself into a superior, definitive synthesis as the laws of polyphony would require, it is disjointed and fragmented, since fragments are all that is left of one of its main protagonists: the overarching ideology of Soviet Socialism”. It would be difficult to leave such a relatively simplistic view of art (as merely a method for fighting a political opponent) unchallenged, moreover the “socialist ideology” the curator mentions expressed itself divergently between different Eastern Bloc countries and even between various Soviet republics.

The way that concepts are used also generates confusion instead of rational clarity. According to the introduction, the exhibition’s title comes from a German neologism with a very specific geopolitical and chronological significance: Ostalgie or Ost + Nostalgie, that is East + nostalgia. “The term began to spread through Germany in the ’90s, and was used to describe a longing for the era before the fall of the Wall”. However, the curator plays out two simultaneous dialectical jokes at once, since the exhibition is not really based on either Ost or Nostalgie.

Firstly, about Ost: the exhibition “intentionally deviates from the traditional format of geographic survey shows”, and includes Western artists as well as works from the former Communist Bloc countries and the USSR. A historically authenticated fact is confronted by its interpretation and commentary by today’s outsiders. Therefore, despite the associations elicited by the title, the geopolitical factor turns out to be unimportant, and universal considerations such as artistic interest in time, memory and its representation are brought to the fore.

Secondly, regarding Nostalgie: the exhibition is directed practically in opposition to its title: “None of the artists in the show would identify with a nostalgic stance.” Even though, further on, referring to Boris Groys’ statements about conceptualists in Moscow in the 1970s, the curator states that “perhaps it is this 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”. Use of the decidedly subjective concept “longing” as a unifying motif takes us even further away from the possibility of a somewhat rational structure. To untangle the resulting knot of contradictions, we must turn our attention to the exhibition’s chronological aspect.

The chronological reference point is taken as 1991, from which the view goes back into the past to the 1960s and 70s and forward up till today. The exhibition consists of two roughly equivalent groups of works: from the late 1960s, the 1970s, and 80s (the numerically smaller of the groups) as well as from the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century.

To understand the heart of the matter, one must try to understand who was doing the longing, for what and why. In the works created before 1991 we can perhaps identify a longing for “something else”, which maybe was not always clearly formulated. At the same time we can assume that, for example, the longings of the Moscow conceptualists differed from those of the modernist Hermann Glöckner in the German Democratic Republic or Andris Grīnbergs in Riga.

On the other hand, some of the works created after 1991 by the younger generation artists, often working in the West, tend to aestheticize, romanticise or even fetishize fictitious memories of the totalitarian regime (for example, the video work Palast (2004) by British artist Tacita Dean, or Flaga (1972–2000) by her compatriot Simon Starling – a Fiat 126 which had been in Poland). This opens up opportunities to use biographical, documental materials to create polysemic, multi-layered works. For example, the documentary video work Marxism Today (prologue) (2010) by British artist Phil Collins includes interviews with former teachers of Marxist theory in East Germany, which tell of dramatic changes in the lives of concrete persons whose profession and stable jobs simply evaporated at the moment of change… Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The two groups of works produce a mutual contradiction. The viewer’s inner voice agrees with the curator’s implicit assumption that before 1991 artists in their works expressed a desire or longing for an end to the Soviet regime, but once they had experienced this ending the artists were as if expected to reflect on and somehow long for that past.

However, the issue remains open for memories, longings and fantasies. With some pathos the curator indicates that “the artists in Ostalgia are excavators of the past: their works are eulogies and requiems for a disappearing world”. Such a romanticized view is completely possible, still it’s not one that is always adhered to, and not everyone would agree with it. Memories of life under totalitarianism can be contradictory, both traumatic and grotesque at the same time, as Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic revealed in her book ‘How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed’(6), to which Gioni refers in his introduction to the exhibition. Continuing the succession of inconsistencies, the curator mentions Svetlana Boym and indicates that “memory is actually a political issue”. Therefore, on the one hand we have the individual, subjective and emotional, while on the other stands the collective and the political.

Possible parallels
Boris Groys points to the absence of an art market under the Soviet system as one of the main factors leading to the lack of compatibility and understanding between “Eastern” and “Western” art histories. Just as vital a role was played by a divergent understanding of art history, which in the West was based on the carefully nurtured and guarded modernist canon, but in the Eastern Bloc – on the principles of socialist realism. Artists on this side of the Iron Curtain did of course have access to information about contemporary art in the West, but this was fragmentary, incomplete, haphazard and removed from contextual reality. In the Soviet environment, even if the formal approaches of Western art were known, their origins, background and motivation remained obscure.

For this reason, there are two distinctly different voices in the exhibition. The first is from the past and it is authentic, representative of its time, isolated in its origins and incompatible with the Western canon. The second is the contemporary voice, career and capitalist art market driven, in dialogue with the dominating “general art history” (meaning, of course, Western art history). The two voices have few meaningful points of contact, and I believe that formal analogies based on the use of a certain technique or medium – video, photography, collage or drawing – are deceptive. For example, the exhibition includes two textile works by avant-garde Romanian artist Geta Brătescu (Portraits of Medea I and III, 1980), but the biographical notes in the work descriptions inform us that in the 1960s and 70s Brătescu experimented with film and photography in works similar to those of Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and Vito Acconci. It is not difficult to draw formal parallels(7), but they require factual justification and interpretation. One may ask whether the author was informed about the work of the said artists, if she saw their works or gained inspiration and impressions from them. In other words, was there genuine interaction? Or perhaps the artist’s sources of inspiration were entirely elsewhere? Naturally, Ostalgia gives no answers to these questions.

The artist – outsider, amateur, lunatic and fighter
Let us return to the notion touched upon in the introduction, that a Soviet artist had to be a political fighter in order to be of interest to a Western audience. Gioni states that, “in countries governed by a Soviet-style Socialist system, the artist – or better the artist that is not a recognized academician – is essentially invisible, existing for no one but a tiny circle of peers who congregate outside of the official system. Precisely because they are outside the world of academia and its recognized hierarchy, artists live in a strange limbo.”

Of course, not everything that existed outside the academic art troika of painting, printmaking and sculpture was completely marginalised. However, a relatively high degree of creative freedom was possible in art forms assigned [the more lowly] amateur or hobby status by the Soviet hierarchy, such as photography, amateur cinema, non-traditional theatrical art (pantomime) and others.

This division between amateur and professional art was highly significant, at least in Latvia it was, and its effects can still be felt today. The Soviet hierarchy of artistic media has remained as it was, with state and municipal institutions, private collections and academia usually favouring painting, while other contemporary media are left in the hands of underfinanced NGOs and individual initiatives. Although the curator of Ostalgia does not take a detailed look at this phenomenon, at least two of the exhibited works remind us of the issue of amateurism.

Firstly, the anthology of Polish amateur short films ‘Enthusiasm. Films of Love, Longing, and Labour’ (2004) by artists Neil Cummings (UK) and Marysia Lewandowska (Poland) is an interesting case. Since its premiere in Warsaw in 2004, this amateur film anthology has been screened in Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, London, Montreal and the European contemporary art biennale Manifesta 7. The paradox lies in the fact that the amateur films themselves are not works of art, they only become art as raw materials for Cummings and Lewandowska, i.e. the work of art is the selection made by the two authors. The finished piece is presented as the work of Cummings and Lewandowska, and in catalogues and publications the names of the actual authors of the short films are nowhere to be found.
View from the exposition. In the foreground: Thomas Schutte. Three Capacity Men. Installation. 250x250x250 cm. 2005
Photo: Benoit Pailey
A second, no less interesting case is the series of photographs by Russian artist Viktor Arhipov. The photos are of homemade objects fashioned by Soviet citizens, unique things combined, adapted and improved from other objects or waste products. The name of each photo mentions the object’s maker, and the items themselves reveal a wealth of imagination and practical survival skills in conditions where essential things were not available for sale, unaffordable or in some cases had not even been officially invented yet. Commenting on Arhipov’s photographs, the curator notes that, “the objects collected by Arkhipov can also be seen as a tribute to popular inventiveness and creativity: a dream of a truly social sculpture, or the proof that every man is an artist, as Joseph Beuys would have said”. Perhaps the designation of these artefacts, borne out of grinding poverty and despair, as “social sculpture” comparable with “small spontaneous Fischli and Weiss pieces” is deserving of Aleksis Osmanis’ acid formulation “aesthetic cynicism”(8). This is especially so in a situation where the authors of these strange but functional objects are not considered to be artists; no, the artist is someone who has collected these materials and made them easily understandable for a Western audience that since Blossfeldt, Sander and the Bechers has learned to view topological photographic series as artworks.

Going even further in the direction of outsiderism, the curator has included several works by real marginals (i.e. people who would be considered marginal in any society or political system). In a way, Ostalgia almost literally illustrates Hal Foster’s essay about the “aura of mysticism and romance” created in the Romantic era about various types of the Other, which was continued by early 20th century modernists with their “idealization of the art of the mentally ill”(9) and the subsequent heightened interest in the creative work of three groups of social outsiders – the mentally ill, the primitive, and the child(10). The first group is most directly represented by the works of Alexsander Lobanov and Anna Zemankova, the second stylistically by Evgeny Antufiev’s dolls, while the best examples of the third group are Evgeny Kozlov’s pubescent erotic fantasy comics.

It could be asked whether the inclusion of such works serves to marginalise the entire post-Soviet space to an even greater extent. However, it may be that gathering together social outsiders with artists is a consciously critical gesture. For example, in the West “the art of the insane is constructed as an aesthetic category through a set of discourses and practices which turn on the question of authenticity: the art of an asylum patient is valorized as an “authentic” art through which the “inauthentic” character of bourgeois society and the modern institution of art is revealed”(11). In this case authenticity is connected with insanity as the imagined ultimate expression of freedom, freedom from society and all conventions. Researchers tend to discuss “an aestheticization of madness, a process wherein insanity is constructed as a form of artistic strategy with little or no regard for the injurious effects of mental illness in the life of the asylum artist”(12) and its impact on the patient and their quality of life. The link between insanity, outsiderism and non-conformism is promoted and reinforced by the art market: “The social construction of the art of the insane belongs to a history in which the “otherness” of marginal individuals or groups is celebrated in order to mark off their distance from the dominant culture”(13). In a sense this is exactly what happens in Ostalgia: in order to justify the showing of each work, the curator uses the otherness, the deviation of a work or its author from so-called “official culture” as an argument.

An end to all contradictions
Ultimately, the curator concludes that in all of the aforementioned ways “the artist – though forced to the margins – feels invested with an ethical duty to single-handedly oppose the regime”. But he immediately adds a contradiction: “Many of the artists in Ostalgia insist that their work has nothing to do with the political climate that surrounded them. It is difficult to determine if, through these assertions, the artists are attempting to liberate their practice from one-dimensional interpretations, or if they actually were able to keep their work separate from the events around them. Certainly the question of art’s autonomy resurfaces throughout the exhibition, and one could be tempted to describe the works in Ostalgia as a series of psychological portraits torn between isolation and engagement.”(14) Quite possibly this question may not have been raised at all if the curator had set clearer boundaries or at least tried to identify and juxtapose the principles of isolation and engagement. However, that would have resulted in a completely different exhibition which in turn could have been criticised for being too schematic and didactic.

/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/

1 A. R. Art from countries that no longer exist. The Economist, 30 August, 2011. At:
2 Gioni, Massimiliano. Ostalgia. In: Ostalgia. Ed. Jarrett Gregory and Sarah Valdez. New York: New Museum, 2011, p. 24.
3 One of the voices in the international academic environment protesting against this simplified Western view of “us” – the mythical “Easterners” – belongs to Piotr Piotrowski, who accents the Communist Bloc’s divergent political, economic, social, cultural and artistic experience. It is therefore pointless to speak about an overall “Eastern European” art history, a view with which I completely concur. See: Piotrowski, Piotr. How to write a history of Central-East European art?. Third Text. Vol. 23, 2009, January, No. 1, pp. 5–14.
4 Press release of 18 April, 2011, at the museum’s website
5 Here and hereafter, curator Massimiliano Gioni is quoted from the exhibition introduction. See reference 2.
6 Drakulic, Slavenka. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
7 According to the father of the social history of art T. J. Clark: “Flirting with hidden analogies is worse than working openly with inelegant ones, precisely because the latter can be criticized directly. In any discourse analogies are useful and treacherous at the same time; they open up the field of study, but may simply have deformed it; they are a kind of hypothesis that must be tested against further evidence.” – Clark, T. J. On the social history of art. In: Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology. Eds. Francis Frascina, Charles Harrison, and Deirdre Paul. New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 250–251.
8 Osmanis, Aleksis. Varas ideoloģija un metamorfozes latviešu glezniecībā. Grām.: Glezniecība: Laikmeta liecinieki: 20. gadsimta 60., 70. un 80. gadi: Latvijas Mākslinieku savienības mākslas darbu kolekcija., Red. Inese Baranovska. Rīga: Latvijas Mākslinieku savienība, 2002, p. 24.
9 Foster, Hal. Blinded insights: On the modernist reception of the art of the mentally ill. October, 2001, Summer, No. 97, p. 14.
10 Ibid., p. 3.
11 Bowler, Anne E. Asylum Art: The social construction of an aesthetic category. In: Outsider Art: Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture. Ed. Vera L. Zolberg and Joni Maya Cherbo. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 29.
12 Ibid., p. 30.
13 Ibid., p. 31.
14 Ibid., p. 29.
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