Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 1, 2012
Jarrett Gregory and Sarah Valdez, eds. Ostalgia Exh. cat. New York: New Museum, 2011. 120 pp.; 20 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9780915557967)
Exhibition schedule: New Museum, New York July 6–October 2, 2011
Mirosław Bałka. Black Pope and Black Sheep (1987). Wood, carpet, textile, steel, and paint. Black Pope, 63 1/2 x 23 5/8 x 38 1/4 in (161 x 60 x 97 cm); Black Sheep, 37 1/2 x 13 1/2 x 37 1/2 in (95 x 34 x 95 cm). Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

The New Museum’s exhibition Ostalgia represents one of the largest North American exhibitions of art from the areas of former Soviet influence, both in regional (countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union or Soviet satellites, as well as ones that did not fit into either of these categories) and historical breadth (1991 is the key moment, although included works span from the 1960s to the present). Drawing its title from a term adopted in Germany in the 1990s that came to refer to the fetishization of objects from everyday life in East Germany under Soviet influence (the term’s pun derives from the German Ost, or east), the exhibition takes on the contradictory historical and psychological project of this fetishization.

Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s associate director and director of exhibitions, curated the exhibition. He acknowledges that although the artists included would balk at being called nostalgic for the Soviet era, complex questions about memory and the development of identity, in both temporal and regional dimensions, inevitably arise. In his catalogue essay, Gioni describes Ostalgia as structuring itself as “an album of memory, an archive or atlas, a cartography of a territory” (24). The exhibition brings together diverse media from various nations, states, and historical periods in order to “sketch a psychological portrait of the region, and in doing so, expose the myths and memories that unite a diverse range of artists,” as Gioni further explains (20).

In this way, the exhibition enters into dialogue with exhibitions that began almost immediately following the first revolutions of 1989: examples include Europa, Europa: The Century of the Avant-garde in Central and Eastern Europe (Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, Germany, 1994), Body and the East: From the 1960s to the Present (Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1999), and After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe at the Moderna Museet Stockholm (1999), which remains one of the largest exhibitions to deal with this region in terms of post-Communist artistic production. But survey exhibitions dedicated to an overview of the entire region of former Soviet influence have been relatively scant in North America (with the traveling exhibition Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, curated by Laura J. Hoptman at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1995, representing the first and, to this point, largest survey of this history in North America); thus Ostalgia represents a landmark exhibition both for the New Museum as well as for the history of Central and Eastern European art outside of Europe.

Key questions recur across all of these exhibitions: What is the definition and role of (individual and group) identity in art from Central and Eastern Europe, especially in relation to its perceived “otherness” to Western art history? How is art created under and in light of forms of political repression? And does art from this region, and this history, always serve a representative or political function? In entering this discursive history, Ostalgia is not unaware of these previous exhibitions, and its slim catalogue includes several brief essays that reflect on the exhibition of art from Central and Eastern Europe by curators involved in some of the aforementioned (as well as other) shows. While questions of identity, social and individual, and the conflict between these poles are still paramount for Ostalgia, it does away with a regionally specific organization by not displaying artists along national lines; instead, they are identified by their country of origin on the labels accompanying their work. The exhibition also includes pieces by such artists as Phil Collins, who hails from Great Britain and thus cannot claim to be of this region. Collins’s Marxism Today (2010), a video that consists of interviews with former teachers of Marxist politics and economics in East Germany interspersed with stock archival footage from this time period, might arguably represent the work that most clearly embodies the term Ostalgia as utilized in the exhibition. In the video, the psychological toll placed on three women in East Germany by the transition from the Soviet to post-Soviet systems is represented through interviews and interspersed with archival materials of this period and society. The difficult position of the individual women, thankful for changes in their political regime but simultaneously psychologically devastated by them, is a viewpoint that carries throughout the exhibition regarding individual trauma suffered during Soviet rule and subsequent political changes.

As Collins’s contribution attests, Ostalgia is dominated by documentary media (especially film, video, and photography), presenting these forms as the primary means through which psychological and artistic issues are confronted. One of the most affecting pieces is Polish artist Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Album (2006), in which the artist has carefully removed the image of herself from various photographs of family and social events, the photographs framed in a personal family album. The now-traditional modernist concept of the artist as psychological outsider is imposed upon outsider and folk art genres as a result of certain curatorial choices. Such a literalization of psychological “otherness” is represented by Czech artist Anna Zemánková’s pastels on paper from the 1960s and 1970s. The wall text describes Zemánková’s artistic practice (undertook as an amateur in the private space of her home) as a therapeutic method through which to overcome her depression. Similarly, Alexander Lobanov’s collages made from gouaches and pencil drawings, which often include portraits the artist intermixed with images of Soviet symbols and revolutionary heroes, were created while the artist was a patient in a mental hospital in Yaroslavl, Russia; again, they are framed by the exhibition as a form of “art therapy.”

Following previous exhibitions of Eastern European art, Ostalgia tends to conflate individual identity and a traditional definition of the artist as an existential, Baudelairean hero—albeit in a far less self-aware form than earlier efforts. The artist is positioned as neo-Romantic outsider without reflection upon the ideological and social significance of this historicism or the stakes underlying its formation. In addition, Ostalgia does not contend with the complications of group identity. While works from the members of the Russian Collective Actions group are included, they are exhibited as unique works by individual artists. Apart from the impressive and experimental timeline of “Communism” on the exhibition’s top floor, contributed by the contemporary Russian art collective Chto Delat? (What is to be Done?), the concept of collectively produced artwork remains surprisingly absent, despite its prominence and importance in pre- and post-Communist Central and Eastern European art (e.g., the Slovenian groups IRWIN or Neue Slowenische Kunst, or the Russian duo Komar and Melamid, who dealt with socialist realist tropes through parody).

In addition to the problematic terms within which collective identity is approached, the exhibition’s (admittedly novel) eschewing of geographical distinctions and focus on a thematic rather than regional or historical coherence tends to collapse the specific political situations from which these works arise. To be fair, the abovementioned timeline by Chto Delat? serves as a rigorous political background; however, its sheer breadth and position on the top floor of the exhibition does not contribute much to the understanding of individual works installed on the floors below. The exhibited works thus acquire a generic “political” thrust, the artists presented as dissidents opposing a generalized social oppression, rather than working from any specific political motivation. This development also poses “underground” art, which usually emerges outside the orbit of the state’s official cultural policies, as automatically “revolutionary.” In other cases, artists are presented as explicit actors in political movements in which they played no actual role (for example, the Polish artist Mirosław Bałka’s 1987 sculpture Black Pope and Black Sheep is described in a wall text as engaging in Solidarity politics in Poland; but it is well known that Bałka himself claims to have been aware of, but not involved in, that movement). If anything, the political and social situation of repression experienced in the Soviet Socialist Republics (and Russia especially) seems to stand in as the general political and social background to all of the works. This is not surprising considering the exhibition’s overwhelmingly heavy representation and prioritization of art from Russia. Emblematic of this slippage is work like Andris Grīnbergs’s photographic documentation of the “happenings” staged in his small, hippie community in Latvia. Given the context within which his work is presented, the viewer gets no sense of the emancipatory, or even just light-hearted, form of escape that these performance events might have provided for their participants. Placed in a hallway next to Nikolay Bakharev’s Type and Relationship photographic series (1970s–present), which depicts groups at the beach with almost pathological detachment, Grīnbergs’s otherwise light-hearted images are inevitably impacted by the melancholic separation of the viewing subject from leisure that Bakharev relays.

The majority of criticisms leveled against exhibitions such as After the Wall (1999), within and outside Eastern Europe, concerned its inadequate treatment of the ambitious breadth of nations and time periods exhibited, and the collapsing of varying political and social orders into a single monolithic history. More than ten years later, these same criticisms unfortunately apply equally to Ostalgia. The exhibition serves as a much-needed North American introduction to the art and ideas of the formerly Soviet region; however, despite its best intentions, the flattening of history, along with the curatorial frame of psychological individual trauma, perpetuates received ideas about the bleakness of everyday life in the Eastern Bloc and fetishizes trauma itself. What is excluded is a richer understanding of the everyday lives of the regions represented.

Alexandra Alisauskas
PhD Candidate, Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester