Behind a Theoretical Iron Curtain

According to Sarah James the West’s view of the art of the former Eastern bloc is still too Moscow-centred

‘Give me back the Berlin Wall, give me Stalin and St Paul, I’ve seen the future brother: it is murder. Things are going to slide, slide in all directions. Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore.’ So sang Leonard Cohen in ‘The Future’ in 1992. And he was right; today’s post-communist culture is strange and difficult to measure.

The 90s saw a world forever changed with the fall of the Soviet Union, its official disbandment into 15 constituent parts following the Eastern bloc’s so called ‘Autumn of Nations’, and the fervid nationalisation and privatisation of Eastern Europe, from Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, to Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia and then Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. At the same time, this decade saw the emergence of an increasingly globalised art world with the explosion of international biennials and fairs, far removed from the 19th-century origins of the Venice Biennale, the early 20th-century birth of the New York Armory, or the emergence of Documenta and the São Paulo Biennial in the 50s.

Post-communist art thus became strangely entangled in the processes of renationalisation, the re-imagining of a new Europe, privatisation, the new logic of consumerism, and a new biennial-driven art market filled with cultural and geopolitical ambitions, mindful of the local, and desperate for new cultural capital and new art. Eastern European artists, curators, collectors and critics not only had to learn the ways of the western art market, but they had to learn fast how to fare in an all-consuming – or all-destroying – globalised capitalist neoliberal market.

The subject of post-communist art is not a new one. From 1990 to the present a multiplicity of exhibitions, projects, biennials, symposia, books, journals and online magazines directly engaging with the issues surrounding post-Soviet artistic production have emerged. While there are far too many to mention, some of the most notable exhibitions included ‘Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe’, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1995, and the first ‘Manifesta’ (see AM198), which was held a year later, with the objective of investigating the new Europe. In 1998, ‘Sensitivities: Contemporary Art from Central Europe’ was shown at the European Academy of Arts London, and ‘After the Wall’ opened at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm in 1999. The year 2000 and after saw a proliferation of such exhibitions and new biennials; in 2001 the Tirana Biennial was launched in Albania, followed in 2003 by the inauguration of the Prague Biennale. In 2004 ‘Privatizations – Contemporary Art from Eastern Europe’, at KunstWerke Berlin, was curated by Boris Groys. The following year Modern Art Oxford staged ‘Arrivals: Art from the New Europe’, introducing the work of artists from the expanded European Union: Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Slovakia, Estonia, Hungary and Malta. Notably, 2005 also witnessed the First Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art with its list of international super-curators including Nicolas Bourriaud, Rosa Martinez and Hans Ulbrich Obrist.1

Interestingly, in this long post-perestroika decade, exhibitions examining the post-Soviet or the East/West dialogue soon shifted to those showcasing national art scenes and histories or examining the specific relations between Moscow and the various Eastern European capitals. This echoed the complex processes of national restoration that swept across the former Eastern bloc. Arguably, part of the motivation for each country consolidating its own national and culturally specific art – as opposed to the homogeneous Soviet heritage – was and is bound up in their renegotiation of a Soviet past. But, as Groys has argued, it is also, problematically, a direct response to contemporary western cultural markets and institutions that requires the Russians, Poles, Romanians, etc, to rediscover, redefine and manifest their alleged cultural identity, and demonstrate their uniqueness, even if this is done at an artificially fast and market-orientated pace.

Sadly, while 20th-century and contemporary art of the Soviet Union and other former socialist states still remains largely excluded by mainstream western contemporary art history, post-Soviet art has become a highly prized commodity, just like Chinese art. But the art market’s limited understanding of post-Soviet art is almost entirely reducible to Russian art; after all, that’s where the money is. Today’s market for Socialist Realist, dissident and contemporary post-Soviet Russian art is booming, and wealthy Russian entrepreneurs and oligarchs have started to collect. Sotheby’s first sale of modern and contemporary Russian art since 1988 took place last year and attracted over 150 international buyers, and achieved landmark prices. Indeed, last year alone Sotheby’s Russian art sales around the world brought in $100m. Yet there are many conflicts running through this newly capitalist art world. Some are issues that clearly exist in the western market (but less transparently so), others are the product of the extreme and artificial processes of privatisation and restorative capitalism. Many of these issues came to a head at the Moscow Biennale in 2005, where the East and West, state and private forces coalesced in an uncomfortable fashion. The main show focused largely on non-Russian work, suggesting that the state was only comfortable to support the already safely marketable artistic capital. The second biennale was equally complicated by the same blend of state bureaucracy, authoritarian censorship (especially in relation to anti-religious material) and savage capitalism. This did not go unnoticed by organisers or commentators, and one of the curators, Joseph Backstein, even announced that the 2007 biennale’s title – ‘Footnotes’ – was meant to highlight the paradoxical demotion of art and culture in post-Soviet society, where it has been displaced by capital.

Yet the Moscow-centred Russian art world continues to dominate the West’s post-Soviet imagination, displacing and marginalising the artistic worlds of the rest of the former Eastern bloc. A case in point is that of Ukraine, which more than any other Eastern European country lived in Russia’s shadow and which experienced a severe economic crisis following independence. Odessa and Kiev were enormously important artistic centres before and during Soviet times. Some of the practitioners who have played a huge role in the Soviet avant-garde, the unofficial art world and the contemporary art scene are often assumed to be Russian – from Kasimir Malevich to Ilya Kabakov, Oleg Kulik and Boris Mikhailov – but they are actually Ukrainian. The contemporary art world of Ukraine is a fascinating one, and one of the first to experience a post-perestroika form of postmodernism, with the Paris Commune collective of artists that played an important role in the early 90s, Ukrainian ‘New Wave’ painting and its neglected artists, such as Ilya Chichkan, Alexander Hnilitsky and Igor Gusev, and contemporary painters and photographers such as Katja Solov’eva and Julia Kissina. The history of Ukrainian art is still to be written, not only into western art history, but also into most post-Soviet art historical accounts. Even the most cursory reading of Ukrainian art history reveals an intriguing and complex counter to the Russian experience, within which the reception of western Modernism and neo-modernism played a much more central role throughout the years of Soviet rule than in other socialist states.

Ukraine’s exclusion from western art history is only a by-product of its exclusion from the western art market. Without the significant amount of state and private investment that has consolidated Russia’s present art market, the Ukrainian art world is pushed to the periphery. Recently, however, just as in Russia, Ukrainian oligarchs have begun to invest in art. For example, the billionaire media mogul, politician and steel magnate Viktor Pinchuk opened his Kiev-based Art Centre in 2006, staging a strange mixture of glitzy blockbuster shows of Western stars and contemporary Ukrainian artists. Alongside such forces, important non-governmental organisations such as EIDOS – founded in 2005 by the professor, critic, collector and gallerist Ludmila Bereznitsky – have emerged. It seeks to promote Ukrainian contemporary art within a research-driven framework that seeks to unravel the complex field of post-Soviet culture within the national, international and global contexts. EIDOS has also initiated many conferences, round tables and publications in Ukraine on the difficulties faced in the development of new curatorial, institutional and discursive initiatives within the post-Soviet context.

Just as in other Eastern European countries, the situation in Ukraine highlights the profound differences that still underpin the curatorial, institutional and art administrative spheres that surround the production of contemporary art in the East and West. But there is perhaps an even greater division still separating these art worlds, and that is the discourse – the cultural theory – that surrounds, promotes and packages contemporary art. The reception and experience of Poststructuralism and Postmodernism in each Eastern European country is culturally specific and complex. The hegemonic form of Postmodernism and cultural studies remains a western, and more specifically an Anglo-American, phenomenon. The central ideologies of postmodernism – différance, heterogeneity and pluralism – are simply incongruent with the universality of Communism and consequently complicate and frustrate the theorisation of the post-communist condition. Eastern European commentators argue that in the practice of Eastern and Central European art criticism, a persistent survival of the elements of Modernism is apparent – not Greenbergian, but social utopian. The situation is by no means straightforward, as in today’s context such apparently modernist Eastern European discourse ends up looking to the cultural, regional and local, while western Postmodernism – which should champion the local and different – emerges as favouring universals such as the ‘new’ and ‘global’.

That much is finally being invested in a more nuanced exploration of post-communist art and its theoretical and geographic complexities is clear, as many crucial academic projects continue to emerge. In 2000 the online forum and journal Art Margins, dedicated to central and Eastern European visual culture, was founded. It is now amassing an impressive archive of expert essays and reviews on previously neglected subjects, from Hungarian Pop Art, the body in contemporary Romanian practices, to Russian cinema or Bulgarian video art. Art historians have increasingly started to turn to those neglected histories of Eastern European avant-garde and modernist art practices. The conference East-European Art and Architecture in the 20th Century was held at MIT in 2001, and, in 2003, the symposium East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe, took place at MoMA New York, on the occasion of the publication of Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospiszyl’s Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s. Also in 2003, an ambitious collaborative project, The Post-Communist Condition, led by Groys, began at the Centre for Art and Media Technology Karlsruhe, yielding an exhibition, seminars and important publications. In 2006 the SocialEast Forum was initiated by Reuben Fowkes, and this year Jutta Vinzent of the University of Birmingham will lead the research project and exhibition Overcoming – Remembering – Mourning: Contemporary art from six post-dictatorial European Countries.2

The West’s engagement in the post-communist art of the East is not simply a matter of expanding art history’s reach, nor is it a new commodity waiting to be curated; instead it is a necessarily political project that reveals the artificiality of the western art market and the market-orientated ideological nature of much western art and criticism. Examining post-communist artistic production allows us to deepen our understanding of art’s relationship to the social and political. Surveying the still emergent art worlds of Eastern Europe offers practitioners, curators and critics a way of critically reapproaching and making visible the ideological mechanisms of power that define the production and consumption of art in the West. Crucially, overcoming the theoretical iron curtain that still divides East and West enables us to figure the future of art in a global market where, as Groys recently announced, the balance of power between economics and politics in art has become horribly distorted.3

1. A useful list of biennials, fairs and Eastern European art exhibitions has been created by Rafal Niemojewski, see his ‘Select Chronology of Art And Politics After 1968’, in The Manifesta Decade, MIT Press, 2005.
2. See www.postcommunist.de, www.socialeast.org and http://overcomings.blogspot.com.
3. See Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press, London, 2008.

Sarah James is a Humboldt research fellow based in Berlin.

First published in Art Monthly 317: June 2008.

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