Surveying the events and publications focusing on art “behind the Iron Curtain” suggests that the concept of East European Art has been formed through the confrontation of various temporalities and localities, being haunted by paradigmatic misunderstandings. Such experience of hollow communication that shifts understanding to a metalevel is captured by the following scene: two different looking men are sitting in a setting resembling a conference. They turn to each other, using the gestures of an intelligent communication, but instead of words the produce bubbles of saliva. The camera follows the silent conversation. What is this parody telling? What do the participants of this dialogue symbolise?
The video Conversation between East and West was shot in Paris in 1978 when Gábor Bódy, Hungarian experimental film director, accidentally met the German video artist, Marcel Odenbach. Bódy was a member of the underground art scene in Hungary and also participated at international events as a pioneer of video art, and later he launched the famous international video magazine, Infermental. Odenbach, then a student of architecture, art history and semiotics, was in Paris on a study grant. As he happened to have a portable video equipment with him, shooting the video came up spontaneously, which was later included in the first issue of Infermental. The video explains perfectly the ambivalent experience of artists from Eastern Europe invited to present themselves to the West and to each other.
Whereas the pre-war avant-garde was truly international, at the beginning of the Cold War, cultural products of the opposing blocks were mutually viewed as potentially dangerous, thus exchanges were dramatically blocked in the 1950s. In the 1960s, however, instead of restricting the mobility and the spread of information, institutions for cultural relations were established to build contacts and control cultural exchanges not only with “Friendly Countries,” but also with “Capitalist States” and “Developing Countries.” In the West already in the early 1950s, a global network of defenders and advocates of cultural freedom was formed in collaboration with the East European émigrés. Such an organisation was the Fondation pour une entraide intellectuelle européenne (FEIE), which led diplomatic missions of the “Western culture” during the Cold War. Instead of manoeuvring between possibilities offered by socialist cultural diplomacy in the form of various international biennials, or grants and scholarships for dissidents offered by the philanthropic Western organisations, neo-avant-garde artists in the 1970s developed an increasingly independent network of international relations mainly through mail art and the distribution of samizdat publications, but also through the mediation of art events and publications issued in Western Europe. They acted in the belief that despite their—to a different extent—marginalised status within their local art context, they can participate as equal actors in the international circuits of Neo-avant-garde and Conceptual art.
Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa
In this optimistic phase of international exchanges Polish art historian, Andrzej Kostołowski, and Polish artist, Jarosław Kozłowski, both based in Poznań, sent their NET manifesto to over 350 addresses in 1972 proposing a worldwide informal network of exchange between artists. Klaus Groh, artist and editor based in Oldenburg, also participated in this network and included two artists from the Socialist countries, Petr Štembera from Prague and Edward Krasiński from Warsaw, in his famous 1971 book, If I had a mind… (Ich stelle mir vor…). With the help of Štembera, Groh got in contact with several East European artists active in new dematerialised-conceptual-process based formats. Addressed through this informal mail art network, artists from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and Romania were mostly glad to contribute to Groh’s second book Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa, published in 1972 at DuMont.
However, some instances of ruptures in the dialogue between East and West also occurred. Hungarian artist János Major regarded Conceptual art just another western hype, but knew that it used photography so he thought that his photography works made out of some grotesque interest in popular taste expressed in tombstones would fit into the Groh’s collection. When Groh in return asked him to describe his “concept,” Major felt offended as he thought he was forced to produce concept art, and to provide a rational explanation whereas he was socialised in the double-speak of East European underground. So he added a manifesto to his photograph of the tomb of Lajos Kubista, claiming that no ism had been born in Hungary, but collecting facts related to this statement he also assumed a new, but in style stillborn ism, “fact art.” As Major recalled in an interview, he aimed to describe how artists in Hungary always submitted themselves to western trends but did not initiate anything. This became Major’s most famous work, included in László Beke’s Imagination project and featured in the Global Conceptualism exhibition, but much more interpreted and historicised as a statement against the limitation of artistic freedom, which forces artists in Hungary to go to West to become recognised.
Groh’s book also caused confrontations in West Germany. Its distribution was stopped by DuMont because it did not meet the expectations of the publisher, which thought that the publication would present socialist realism. Groh trickily started the book with a quotation of Lenin, on the need to democratise arts which—in the spirit of the double-speak of East European art—could equally be understood as a “red tail—i.e. compulsory reference to Marxist-Leninist ideology—as well as a fluxus manifesto. However, DuMont also wanted to publish a book on DDR artists, but DDR cultural authorities requested as a condition of their cooperation that Groh’s book containing socially adverse art according to their cultural policy should disappear from circulation. Piotr Piotrowski also recalled some controversy: “The popularity of Groh’s book was paradoxical precisely because the book functioned within the geographic paradigm. […] it did not incorporate the discussion of the East European countries into the discussion of Europe as a whole. On the other hand, it clearly elevated the prestige of the local art scene by publicising information about the East in the West.”
Artist Meetings in the East and in the West
The optimism of the international avant-garde had not yet completely faded away when the international Performance Festival I AM (International Artists Meeting) was organised in 1978 by Henrik Gajewski, the head of the Remont Gallery in Warsaw. Approximately 50 artists from Europe, Americas and Japan were invited, alongside Peter Bartoš and Petr Štembera from Czechoslovakia, Tibor Hajas from Hungary, in addition to numerous artists from Poland. At the opening Gajewski stated that: “Poland is a country where there are great traditions of art functioning in an ideological context and not as a commercial product.” However, participants from De Appel, Amsterdam already doing research for their next year’s Oost-Europa Project could not identify with this position: “‘I AM’ completely failed to achieve its central objective: the interaction between the performers and the audience of ‘laymen.’ This brought to light a fundamental difference between the East and the West. In the West, the tradition of American conceptual art was prominent, a tradition that saw the dissemination of ideas beneficial for the artist. In opposition to that, the countries of the Eastern Bloc were truly suspicious of any form of publicity and interaction with the masses.”
De Appel’s ambitious project inspired by this Warsaw meeting, Works and Words, staged a “confrontation between artists who shared a common sensibility from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands” in 1979, and signalled even more clearly how the utopian internationalism of neo-avant-garde, mail art, and conceptualism got challenged by the geopolitical power relations of a more and more globalised art world. De Appel was a new institution opened in 1974 whose programme focused on cutting edge dematerialised trends. The “manifestation” Works and Words was initiated by Franck Gribling, artist, art historian and curator, teaching that time at the Art History Department, University of Amsterdam, also involved in the Paris Biennale, where he got acquainted with artists from East Europe. After Gribling persuaded Wies Smals, the head of De Appel, to present unknown art from behind the Iron Curtain, a working-group was formed in 1978 with the participation of Wies Smals, Josine van Droffelaar, Aggy Smeets and Piotr Olszański.
The actual organisers of the Oost-Europa Project were Aggy Smeets and Josine van Droffelaar, who located artists and art historians in each Eastern European country with the help of some artists living in the Netherlands. The organisers were determined to bring artists actually living in Eastern Europe to the Netherlands and were not interested in East European émigrés. The advisors were Dr. Tomas Straus and Petr Štembera (Czechoslovakia), Józef Robakowksi and Zofia Kulik (Poland), László Beke (Hungary) and Ješa Denegri and Marijan Susovski (Yugoslavia). Smeets and van Droffelaar made study trips to get familiar with artists working in these scenes. It proved to be a challenging task and both of the curators reported that artists in more countries were suspicious if this project would turn out to be something like the Biennale of Dissent in Venice in 1977, which they criticised heavily. Differences between how art scenes functioned in capitalist and socialist settings were also noticed during their travels: “The people in those countries have another sense of time, another rhythm of life. […] The artists I met do have all the time in the world, for each other, for discussions, all night long, and they demanded a lot of time from me, much more than I could give them.”
In the subsequent correspondence it also turned out that homogenising the whole territory as Eastern Europe was problematic. Ješa Denegri, the Yugoslav advisor, stated that the organisers should not cherish the idealistic myth about the alleged internationalisation of art, and elaborated the usual dichotomy between ideologically determined Eastern and commercially determined Western art. Nevertheless, he warned the organisers of paternalism and identifying progressive art in socialist countries with dissident movements. Though the Yugoslavian avant-garde was marginalised and regarded as alien, but it was not prohibited, thus it should not be reduced to a document of its socio-political context. Goran Đorđević, also from Yugoslavia, in his letter, which was quoted in the catalogue, stated that such a “ghetto exhibition” can only have political and not artistic significance (i.e. reaffirming the freedom of the West), since the participants were not invited on the basis of their own artistic proposals, but to showcase and exoticise their dissident status. On the other hand, in connection with his own practice, Marjan Susovski argued “that his work would be quite difficult for a Western European to understand as many of his works were based on language jokes and cultural specificity.”
After the research trips, a discussion was organised between Marina Abramović and Ulay, living in Amsterdam at the time, and Wies Smals, Franck Gribling, Josine van Droffelaar, and Aggy Smeets, in addition to other local professionals. At this event, considering the criticism received from the consulted East European professionals, an alternative theme—artistic freedom—was proposed, but the final solution was to openly reflect on this problematics, but to avoid using the phrase Eastern Europe. Thus working title Oost-Europa Project was dropped and a so called mirror concept was developed i.e. to present geographically distinct practices mirroring each other.
Initial reservations were followed by practical difficulties as finally works from only four East European countries were exhibited, and none of the Czechoslovak artists could obtain a visa, and from Hungary, László Beke, Tibor Hajas and Dóra Maurer were not allowed to travel to Amsterdam either. On the other hand, Polish and Yugoslav artists could all be present and give lectures and performances, which resulted in discontent on the side of the others, who missed the opportunity to contextualise their works.
Works and Words: Lessons in Misunderstandings
The new title of the project Works and Words referred to the intention to indicate the “philosophic and ideological background of their art, of work processes, and of the cultural and social context within which the works have originated.” A couple of the works and performances presented reflected on the challenges of this optimistic programme as well as on the above detailed dilemmas in more or less direct ways. Some artists picked upon the “mirror concept,” like Zsigmond Károlyi from Hungary, who made a video installation with two TVs facing each other. The screens showed the artist walking in and out of the frame synchronised, so that it created an illusion that the artist is walking about the place across the monitors. Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis from Yugoslavia made a performance lasting for the whole duration of the programme. They created a performative mimicry of a weather house—a folk art device traditionally used in Western Europe that indicates sunny weather with a woman figure coming out of the house and rainy weather with a man. Symmetry and asymmetry were also the central theme in Raša Todosijević’s performance, Vive la France, Vive la Tyrannie. Todosijević was standing behind two tables—on the one on the right a metal plate, on the other on the left three blocks of clay were placed—with two Dutch curators sitting on his both sides holding an audiotape. When the slogan Vive la France was played on the tape, Todosijević hit forcefully the metal, when Vive la Tyrannie was heard from on the other side, he stroke at the clay. This obviously distressing performance, which lasted about 45 minutes staged and made the audience experience the aggression of destructing ideological slogans and stereotypes.
The pedagogic symbolism of specific materials subjected to allegoric operations was also the essence of the performance by the Hungarian delegation with the lead of Miklós Erdély. Originally the organisers invited Tibor Hajas, impressed by his performance at the I AM Festival in Warsaw. Since Hajas was not permitted to travel to Amsterdam, with the help of some other Hungarian artists, Erdély presented a piece, Eskaton—Exit for Tibor Hajas, employing tarpaper, unleavened bread, lentils, carbon paper, a globe cut into pieces and turned inside out, and burning of magnesium on the instructions of Hajas. Though Erdély often provided meticulous explanations for his enigmatic juxtapositions of materials in lectures and interviews, probably because of the lack of a common language, he could not make his statement understandable in this context.
Idiosyncratic didactics was also applied by the Polish artist duo KwieKulik who were also the advisors for the Polish scene, and who also had had several difficulties in acquiring visa to participate in art events in Western Europe, but could finally be present in Amsterdam. Their installation The Light of a Dead Star reflected on the delayed reception of Eastern European art in Western Europe, presenting a thorough documentation of their practice from the 1970 on, in a peculiar way. The photographic documents of their conceptual, performative and mediatised activities were displayed on decorative, patterned fabric strips, thus blatantly diverged from the usual clean and sterile look of neo-avant-garde. In addition, they showed a portfolio of their state-commissioned hackworks—done to make a living—placed on a head with a golden face and rubbish filled back. With these gestures they stole a march on the exotisation and historicisation by the Western eye and also questioned the overused dichotomy of the commercialised Western and ideologised Eastern art.
Mladen Stilinović also addressed the problem of historicisation and recontextualisation with didactic operations on symbols. Performing for the first time for the Western public, he started to re-enact his The Foot-Bread Relationship (1977), but stopped before the blasphemous act of kicking a loaf of bread and stuck the photo-documentation of his action on the wall. The retention of hard to access meanings was also used as a symbolic gesture when he demonstratively gave his lecture The Discourse about Language and about Power in Croatian, thus questioning the possibility of equal dialogue. To get the message through and in turn to grasp the right meaning was a challenging task also in relations between artists from different socialist countries, as interviews conducted with participants revealed. Contradictory local interpretations of modernity, progression, avant-garde and being up to date deriving from differing political restrictions on culture caused fierce debates as the Polish filmmaker Józef Robakowski recounted. The representatives of the Workshop of the Film Form in Łódź engaged in minimalist analytical experiments and rejected all the illustrative-narrative traditions of filmmaking, whereas the Béla Balázs Stúdió from Budapest experimented in a lot of cases with renewing the language of story-telling. Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis also reported on their experience encountering artists who developed a secret language of their own as a valid attitude in isolated societies, but ineffective in such international situations.
In the short introductory text of the exhibition catalogue issued in 1980, the editors (Josine van Droffelaar and Piotr Olszański) interestingly used the seemingly less politically charged term Central Europe, instead of Eastern Europe without reflecting what distinct problematics it incurred. More in depth studies were written by local advisors, who were also asked to compile chronologies that can reconstruct the recent history of the art scenes of their countries with a special focus on conceptualism. Regarding the Czechoslovak participation, these texts by Jaroslav Andel and Tomás Straus were almost the only means to contextualise posteriorly the films, photographic works and documentation sent by post. In his essay on Czechoslovak art scene Andel contemplated on the validity of national / territorial framings in the globalised art world and also their association with nationalism. Andel stated that “the pieces from socialist countries that look similar to the Western ones may have different meanings in their original contexts” and raised the question whether the different meanings of the same expression could be explored in the respective conceptual framework. He also noticed the loss of optimism and faith in collectivism still predominant in the 1960s but replaced by alienated existentialist individual rituals of the performance movement aestheticised in gallery settings in the 1970s. The significance of contextual differences, which is proposed as the next possible turn through which already historicised avant-garde non-conformism could again be subversive, allowed Andel to distinguish the roots and orientation of Czech and Slovak conceptualism, described in dialectic comparisons. Andel’s account was complemented with that of Tomás Straus, who called attention to inorganic interruptions in the development of East European avant-gardes, and to reflections on medialisation, historicisation and recontextualisation embedded in most recent practices.
The press reviews of the event raised questions that are still of critical relevance today in relation to language and power, individualism and internationalism, representation and documentation: “It is clear that the term ‘East European’ art is a misnomer, not so much because of the different circumstances in, say, Poland and Yugoslavia, but more because the new artistic languages currently in use are internationally recognised and operate outside of national cultural institutions.” Since then, Larry Wolff’s 1994 book Inventing Eastern Europe proved that Iron Curtain only embodied a demarcation line present from the Enlightenment. Further, sociologist Alexander Kiossev, among others, pleaded for applying critical theories of colonialisation and orientalism to the history if this region, undermining the universality of the Western canon of modernism. Nonetheless, the questions whether Eastern Europe as an interpretative context for historical or contemporary art practices can have today an empowering potential, and whether the sphere of post-colonial and globalised contemporary art allows any valid and authentic possibility for artists to represent something more than their own individuality are still troubled by old and new trends in hegemonic memory politics as Jelena Vesić succinctly described. “Art museums through their monumental white spaces are re-producing the ‘second life’ of the documentation of ephemeral actions, informal happenings, and ‘secret’ exhibitions over and over again; they monumentalise grained black and white images of Eastern European art experiment in order to confirm their own fantasy-search for what is invisible, forgotten, non-represented, suppressed, censored, and therefore truly free. (…) Within this logic, the East European art enters the global (Western) museum not as the traditional piece of excellence, but as a document of dissidence.”
Zsuzsa László is a researcher, curator and art critic based in Budapest.