Go West Young Man
Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe, the third title from Black Book Publishing’s ArtWorld series, surveys the Eastern European region. Whether it’s truly possible to unify the art of such a vast spread of different cultures and language is questionable, but raising, not avoiding the question is one of the positive contributions of this book.
Text: Michaela Freeman | Images: Various
It starts with a useful timeline of important political and cultural milestones in the East Europe’s history, from the 1930’s to the present, followed by Boris Groys’ introductory essay, Haunted by Communism. He argues that even after over 20 years since the fall of Communism, memories of this shared experience still influence the art made in the region. Some are too young to remember the hardship of making art under Party rules, instead they draw their influence from the environment and traditions which might still have traces of a past, not fully expurgated. Others are openly borrowing from the original Communist ideology to critique the present capitalist conditions (such as the work of artists groups Lifshitz Club and What is to be done?).This tendency goes back to the 1970’s when Russian artists (including Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid) called their art ‘Sots Art’. They appropriated the Soviet propaganda's visual language, in their own take on Western Pop Art. At the same time, Polish duo KwieKulik also explored the official language, incorporating it into their performance and installations. When their son was born in 1972, for the next two years, they used photographs of his actions to further investigate the relationship between art, science and the linguistic theory of signs.
The rapid inclusion of East European artists in the Western art market occurred in the early 1990’s and has been a traumatic experience for some. The previous evaluation system of art relied not on commercial worth but on a ‘symbolic economy’ with rules based on social recognition and political relevance – applied to both official and dissident art. The Communist past ‘haunts’ Eastern European and Russian art, even if the artists choose to ignore it, suggests Groys. Serbian Milica Tomic´’s photography, video and performance highlight the questions around the nationality, identity and ethnicity, all still very sensitive issues in the former Yugoslav countries. In the I am Milica Tomi´c video, she repeats her name and nationality 64 times, replacing the nationality each time and causing a new wound to appear on her body as a consequence of each declaration. Katerina Sedá,an up-and-coming artist from Czech Republic, examines family relationships as well as general social alienation in her game-like experiments. She draws not just members of the public but whole communities into her work, providing ladders to a group of neighbours, for example, to help them overcome fences between them, in both physical and psychological way. Thinking big is also Polish Krzysztof Wodiczko who projects historical images onto significant building façades and monuments, including Nelson's Column in London, The Lenin Monument in Berlin and Arco de la Victoria in Madrid. More recently, he’s been focusing on issues of communication and authority in the society.
Groys compares the current East European art scene to an early 19th century Europe, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, when Romanticism evolved with its alternative and dreamy scenarios. Today’s equivalent in the post-Communist countries would be the significant multitude of participatory art and radical political attitude projects.Included in the book are also artists that have lived abroad but whose work remains informed by their East European upbringing. Such is the case of Christo, living in the USA but originally from Bulgaria, who together with his French-born wife Jeanne-Claude made their name with larger-than- imaginable installations. One of their most monumental projects is the 'wrapping' of 11 islands near Florida in 1980-1983, where they used 585,000 square metres of fabric.
All in all, fifty profiles of East European artists are arranged here by medium and style, not by their country, in an attempt to ‘transcend geographical and regional pre-conceptions’. They range from famous practitioners, such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Miroslav Bałka and Ilya and Emelia Kabakov, to those that are perhaps less notorious. It’s these less familiar discoveries and numerous illustrations that make this volume a truly valuable resource for anyone interested in exploring this region’s contemporary art scene.