In 2005, during the era of peak globalisation and a year after the first wave of former socialist countries joined the European Union, Marina Abramović realised Seven Easy Pieces, a bold series of re-enactments of her own and other artists’ performances from the 1960s and 70s at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Her success cleared the path for a wave of East European neo-avant-garde remakes during the second half of the decade, but also raised questions about the motivations behind re-enacting ephemeral performances in the institutional setting of a Western museum. While the argument was well made, including by the artist herself, that in light of the paucity of surviving photographic and video recordings of the originals, “the only real way to document a performance art piece is to re-perform the piece itself,” such faithful restagings also belong within the history of the repackaging, marketisation and depoliticisation of the radical legacy of the Eastern European neo-avant-garde. A year later, a different kind of re-enactment was acted out on the streets of Budapest, where social discontent and disillusionment with political elites metamorphosised into a series of highly unlikely revisitations of the revolutionary moments of the 1956 uprising. Immortalised in Csaba Nemes’s series of ten animated films Remake (2007), these episodes of uncivil disobedience, including taking down the red star on the Soviet war memorial, forcibly entering the premises of Hungarian state television and even driving a Soviet era tank on display for the celebration of the anniversary into a city square full of protestors, appear today as uncanny premonitions of the mass manipulation and lawlessness of the era of illiberal populism.
In 2020 a Polish artist from the neo-avant-garde generation, whose oeuvre includes numerous performances from the 1970s, was commissioned by the National Museum in Warsaw to make a very public installation that intervened demonstratively in the cultural politics of the day. Entitled Poisoned Well, this crude piece of right-wing populist propaganda art sought to stoke the culture war by reappropriating the imagery of Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora (1999), but depicting St. John Paul II not crushed by a meteorite as he was in the original, but rather in the superhuman act of throwing the space rock over his head into a pool of red water. What this act in bad faith and in bad taste also brought back was the memory of the attempt by two Polish parliamentarians waving their ID cards to remove Cattelan’s meteorite and stand up the prostrate effigy of the pontiff when it was exhibited at Zachęta National Gallery of Art in December 2000, followed by a campaign of anti-Semitic abuse that led to the resignation of director Anda Rottenberg a few months later. The reaction of the Polish artworld and civil society to this renewed provocation, after a year of increasing political interference in the management of art institutions, was equally performative. Memes on social media reimagined Jerzy Kalina’s humourless re-enactment in ever more outlandish positions, such as trying to push hand luggage into an overhead locker on a plane, while in the wake of mass protests against attempts to severely restrict reproductive rights, a group of women protesters, recalling Cattelan’s original work, lay in the water in the path of the meteorite.
In the same year as Abramović’s re-enactments at the Guggenheim, another artist from the neo-avant-garde generation active in Yugoslavia in the early 1970s was also remaking one of her best known works from the decade. Sanja Iveković’s original performance Triangle from 1979 was a pioneering piece that exposed the limits of political tolerance, the control of public space and gender hypocrisies in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and centred around the artist seemingly masturbating on a balcony overlooking the leader’s cavalcade in full view of secret agents. Entitled Triangle 2, the re-performance took place on the same balcony overlooking the hotel that Tito had passed by a quarter of a century ago, but which was now hosting 15 heads of state in Croatia for a European summit. Alluding to official indifference towards artistic interventions in public space compared to the hypersensitive communist-era authorities who had rushed to her apartment and made her come in from the balcony, the artist attempted and failed to reach by telephone the Croatian Foreign Ministry, President, Parliament and local police station to inform them about her performance, before settling down to read about the summit in local newspapers. By adapting the work to the new political circumstances, the artist commented on the growing distance between ordinary citizens and democratic institutions, presciently drawing attention to the roots of a political malaise in post-communist Eastern Europe that spread amongst communities forgotten in transition.
The restaging of East European performances has often been undertaken by a younger generation of artists for whom acts of homage towards neo-avant-garde achievements also entailed updating their works for new times. Focusing in particular on the aspect of public space and the changes it has undergone since the fall of communism, Barbora Klímová’s project Replaced-Brno-2006 entailed re-enacting five performances originally carried out by artists Karel Miler, Jiří Kovanda, Vladimír Havlík, Petr Štembera and Jan Mlčoch in the 1970s and 80s. Re-enacting ephemeral gestures that during the socialist era had elicited a strong reaction, most notably from the authorities, was a means for Klímová to comment on post-communist “apathy that is a result of the over-saturation of urban space with commercial stimuli.” Symptomatically her remake of Karel Miler’s performance Either/ Or from 1972, that entailed the artist lying face down on and next to the horizontal line of the kerbside, was restaged by Klímová in various city locations in order to test the reactions of her fellow citizens. It turned out that seeing a body lying on the street was automatically associated with the new social problem of homelessness and therefore ignored by a hardened post-communist populace. Similarly, when replacing Vladimir Havlík’s Experimental Flower from 1981, which delicately intervened into public space by planting a flower between cobblestones symbolically addressing the fragility of creative life under socialism, Klímová chose to plant a flower in front of a bank, drawing attention to the vulnerability of individuals in the world of financial markets and pointing to the extinguishing of opportunities for spontaneous free expression in the privatised urban spaces of post-socialist cities.
Re-enactment has also been used by contemporary artists to take a critical position towards the legacy of the neo-avant-garde, as can be observed in Hungarian duo Little Warsaw’s restaging of Tamás Szentjóby’s landmark 1972 performance Exclusion Exercise-Punishment- Preventive Autotherapy in 2005. Explaining their attitude to the older generation in an interview, Bálint Havas and András Gálik noted that “artists who lived and worked in the previous (Communist) era tend to mythologise their own activity,” while Little Warsaw “seek to demythologise and de-sacralise them, in other words, approach them in a more matter-of-fact way.” Indeed, despite the fact that in many ways the remake was identical to the original, with Szentjóby again sitting with his head under a bucket ready to answer questions whispered to him by viewers or chosen from a list on the wall, much of the pathos of issues of individual freedom, fate and history that the work had daringly exposed in an atmosphere of censorship and repression in the early 1970s was lost on post-communist audiences. Little Warsaw commented on the new situation by producing a short video entitled Cyrill & Method – Re-enactment—Exclusion Exercise showing two older men with long beards talking animatedly to each other and at the bucket on Szentjóby’s head, with a soundtrack of choral music bringing further associations with the otherworldliness of medieval monks. The centralisation of state control of the media, universities, the judiciary and other institutions of a free society under the aegis of illiberal populism in the following decade has however made the issues raised by the original performance more relevant than anyone imagined at the time of its re-enactment.
The remaking in 2007 of OHO’s Mount Triglav (1968) saw the Ljubljana-based group’s subversive performance wrested back from its transformation into an iconic image of national art history and re-politicised. This re-enactment responded to a 2004 re-enactment by IRWIN of the same work, which saw the original scene, in which three OHO artists represented the “three heads” of Slovenia’s most famous peak by sticking their heads out of a cloth mountain in a snowy Ljubljana park, restaged by members of the retro-avant-garde artist group. By recreating an ephemeral performance, documenting it as a colour digital photograph and asserting their authorship, IRWIN’s Mount Triglav: Like to Like (2004), was designed to insert the achievements of the East European neo-avant-garde into global art history. Mount Triglav on Mount Triglav (2007) differed in that it was realised not in a Ljubljana park, but on Mount Triglav itself, with the three heads belonging to a Slovenian, an Italian and a Croatian artist who had shortly before all changed their name to that of the Slovenian prime minister, Janez Janša. This collective act of renaming gave a personal dimension to their retrieval of the political undertones of OHO’s performance that through the stoned, hippy faces of its members, one of whom was American, challenged the appropriation of this geological being in nationalist mythology. The target of the critique, Janša was one of the post-1989 generation of populist leaders, who after losing power in 2008, and again in 2013, was briefly imprisoned for corruption, before becoming prime minister again in 2020 and making headlines as the only world leader to tweet his congratulations to Donald Trump after he prematurely claimed victory in November’s American election.
Karol Radziszewski’s re-performance in 2014 of Natalia LL’s work Dreaming (1979) grew out of a longer collaboration that included the film America Is Not Ready For This (2011), in which the younger artist retraced Natalia LL’s journey to New York in 1977, conducting interviews with artists and gallerists she met to probe issues of feminist art, queer consciousness and conceptual art, as well as to investigate the obstacles facing East European artists in launching their careers on the international art scene both during the Cold War and in the post-communist period. It was the parallels rather than the differences between their experiences as artists that Radziszewski also highlighted in his re-enactment, in which he lay apparently fast asleep in an exact copy of the glass capsule used by Natalia LL in her performance in Permafo Gallery in Wrocław, wearing the same outfit of a white robe and colourful socks, with a garland of flowers on his head. Radziszewski’s faithful restaging could also be placed within the wider exploration in his practice of queer identities and histories in Eastern Europe, which in the wake of the populist takeover in Poland has taken on new political significance. His solo show at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw that dealt with queer archives, which closed at the end of March 2020, took place against the backdrop of rising homophobic violence in Poland that saw several municipalities declare themselves LGBT-free zones.
Whereas the historicising re-enactment of East European performances of the previous decade turned ephemeral actions into tangible artworks that could be more easily traded and displayed, the politics of Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuș’s work for the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 2013 consisted in dematerialising the art objects that crowd the canons of art history and reducing them to the fleeting movements of live performers. An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale reduced more than a century of “bronze and oil on canvas, marble or steel, smoke and screens, hyperbolic paintings, majestic sculptures, delicate objects, immersive installations or conceptual art, performance, live art or happenings,” to the economical movements, gestures and phrases of a group of performers. Amongst the works of East European artists re-enacted in the pavilion was a socialist realist Welder statue from the 1950s, Dan Perjovschi’s rEST drawings made on the floor of the Romanian Pavilion when he represented the country in 1999, Nedko Solakov’s 1998 Enactment of A Life (Black et White), and Anri Sala’s short film Uomo Duomo (2001) of a homeless man asleep in a church. As the curator Raluca Voinea pointed out, highlighting the radical potential of re-enactment, the exhibition did not require any expensive equipment, transport or customs paperwork to be realised, but depended instead on the precarious labour of the Romanian performers working in Venice “for a survival salary plus the plane ride and a bed.”
It was not a neo-avant-garde performance or work celebrated by the international artworld that was brought back to life in Pirici’s Pulse (2020), but rather a half-forgotten late-socialist war memorial. This choreographic project involving 50 performers was realised at the Monument to the Victims of Nazism in Kaunas, a thirty-two metre high sculptural ensemble erected from 1984 that remembers the 45,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries who were executed at the Ninth Fort during the war. The performance took the form of a slowly unfolding, organic movement, spreading up and enveloping the concrete structure of the monument, pulsing in an abstract circle reminiscent of the hora dance. For the artist, this act of “enlivenment” posed the question whether “a moving, sculptural addition of life presence and living bodies could support the monument in its anti-Nazi task.” The urgency of preserving the memory of the Holocaust in the face of the attrition of historical amnesia and the online upsurge in neo-Nazi denialists is shown also by the fact that the memorial itself was recently defaced with swastikas and vandalised, an act of physical and epistemological violence that this performance could also be said to counter and collectively heal.
While there might have been a moment in the mid-2000s when it looked like market-driven re-enactments would extinguish the radicalism of East European performance art, since then the political potency of such practices has been rediscovered, spilling out of artworld settings to be adopted by political movements of all colours. As has been shown, artists have found ways to evade the logic of repackaging ephemeral performances as tangible art pieces suitable for collection and display in museums, preserving instead the specificity of works that emerged in the non-capitalist system of actually existing socialism and reactivating their critical potential to address current political challenges. Rather than attempting to accurately recreate original works from the socialist period, re-enactments have been updated to reflect on social and political questions of the post-communist era, often through a dialogue between neo-avant-garde and a younger generation of East European artists. Performance practices have also been activated in revisiting the artistic heritage of the socialist period in order to criticise the amnesia and populist distortions of the present.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes are London-based curators, critics and art historians specialised in East European art history and contemporary art and ecology.