Book Review: Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe

8 Sep

Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe – An Important Addition to Every Art and History Library

By Lorette C. Luzajic

One of the best ways to learn about history, geography and culture is through art. The personal interpretations expressed through art give depth to the politics, traditions, and experiences involved in history and its culmination in current events.

Black Dog Publishing’s Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe showcases a broad selection of mediums, arranged in this way rather than by artist as a way of  “paying testament to the fluidity of borders and geographical regions that the book looks to highlight, and furthering creative discussion through the juxtaposition of artists’ nationalities and works.”

This anthology is especially vital because of the simple fact that communism, which has had an iron fist- or hammer and sickle- on Eastern Europe, censors individuality and dissent. Artists in these regimes worked in secrecy and in danger. The tight reins and severe restrictions- torture and prison and death- on freedom of press and other modes of communication effectively silenced truth and creativity. In this context, the work shown in this book symbolically honours all the work that never saw the light of day. For this reason, I also see this book as a celebration of the collapse of these systems.

The anthology features work from all over the Eastern European map, including Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Moldova, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Albania, Ukraine, and Romania.

The collection intuitively begins with a map, followed by a  timeline of events from the past century in Eastern European history, helping the average reader keep track of details such as when Estonia or Croatia declared independence, when communism dissolved in Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, and when the economic collapse in Albania occurred. This table makes a  handy go-to guide when getting intimate with the book’s art, placing the work into context and giving us a frame of reference for study.

Sarajevo- born Braco Dimitrijevic rose to acclaim with his innovative series, Casual Passer By. By examining the “cult of personality that consumed Yugoslavian society, Dimitrijevic began to work on the idea that he would replace the portraits of dignitaries that covered billboards everywhere with portraits of street pedestrians chosen at random.”

Casual Passer By Series – Braco Dimitrijevic

His work is an interesting starting point to consider the messianic megalomania that has pervaded the cults of communism and dictatorship. The phenomenon of political savior cults, where the masses adore a leader and turn a blind eye to their brutal totalitarianism, or even to grand-scale torture, has been a curious demonstrator of how malleable we are when given hope and robbed of the freedom to think and reason. Audiences not familiar with Josip Tito and other icons of war-torn Yugoslavian history will be able to visualize the phenomenon by summoning Mao, Castro, or Hitler- the Fuhrer (savior) himself. Saddam Hussein, too, was in love with his own image, and like these others, tried to erase the individual identities of followers and merge them into a collective identity. In addition to using propaganda, terrorism, and torture, such leaders are obsessed with their image, and flags and photos and shrines hail them as king and messiah throughout their dominion.

Dimitrijevic turned all of this on its head by creating a series of flags, posters, picket signage, wall plaques and sculptures mimicking the style of political propaganda, but featuring the names and faces of totally random passers by. Traffic driving up to the Arc de Triomphe or pedestrian traffic in the streets would all participate simply by coming into visual contact with these familiar markers, only to ponder the face or a name of a completely unknown personality.

Alexander Kosolapov, born in Moscow, also plays with the imagery of personality propaganda. Now living in New York, he juxtaposes American advertising and iconography like Warhol, Mickey Mouse, Coca Cola, and McDonalds  with propaganda and classical art. The pieces featured in this collection show a poster featuring  a   Warholian-style silkscreen portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, entitled “Gorby,” and a bronze sculpture of Minnie and Mickey Mouse as farmers wielding hammer and sickle.

Mini and Mickey, Worker and Farmgirl by Alexander Kosolapov

Readers unacquainted with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, from Bulgaria and France respectively, have the chance to be drawn into this duo’s unusual imagination. The pair is unique in art history for the grand scale of their works, many of which involve wrapping edifices like Germany’s Parliament, or whole beaches, in flowing swathes of fabric. The grandiosity of their work is staggering, involving more than the simple labour of the artwork installation itself. The artists’ work also included negotiating politicians and bureaucrats for permission to create in a public space.

The Gates project in New York took decades to procure permits, and the work itself meant draping orange fabric from over 7000 central park gates, according to Mental Floss Magazine. Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe shows my two favourite pieces, including Surrounded Islands. This work is consistent with the artists’ preferred style of expression, but the scale of it is mind blowing: the couple draped eleven Florida islands in pink fabric. The project involved removing forty tonnes of waste from the waterscape, and then surrounding the islands in over 6 million square feet of neon pink.

Surrounded Islands – Christo and Jeanne Claude

Wall of Oil Barrels- Iron Curtain is an earlier work, a 1962 installation consisting of heaps of oil drums forming an Iron Curtain, an “art barricade” referring to Christo’s upbringing under communist tyranny. It’s symbolism lies in its transformation of “the street into a dead end.” Communism punishes individuality, dissent, and any art not sanctioned by government approval, effectively muzzling any reform, progress, or creativity. Communism is  a  wall, since it refuses people both the liberty to leave the state, and liberty itself.

Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov began his career “in satirical criticism of the Soviet regime.” Stalked by Russia’s secret police, using his camera was a “forbidden hobby.” After the collapse, he reveled in the medium as a “forum for free exchange” and began photographing Case History, depicting the effects of communism and its aftermath on the people in his hometown Kharhov, Ukraine. The series has been controversial because of its “harsh realism.” The subjects are often the “ravaged bodies of the homeless.” Mikhailov says, “It is a disgraceful world…these living beings are degraded, ghastly, appalling. This ‘fauna’ is specific especially to the period of quasi-general diffidence, specific for most of the post-communist world.”

Boris Mikhailov – from Case History

But artistic expressions of Europe’s political past are far from uniform. As Boris Groys points out in the book’s prefacing essay, Haunted by Communism, under socialism there was no art market, and some artists had difficulty adapting to the market paradigm. Groys says that the “social catastrophes and disappointments of the revolutionary twentieth century” left great desolation spiritually and intellectually. He questions whether these “disappointments” were mere interruptions in the varying cultures of Europe, suppressions of authentic culture, or if the legitimate goal of the movement in the first place was ostensibly  to “overcome traditional national differences” and “foster a new, global, communist humanity as the protagonist of a new history.”

“Realistic historiography,” he writes, has made it “characteristic for historical narratives…to treat communism simply as an ideological façade for Russian imperialism.” Yet some artists, he explains, refuse to critique communism’s epic failures, unlike those who look at the past through “the prism of moral accusation.” Such artists “try to remobilize the communist ideology for the critique of capitalist conditions,” attempting to “purify it from historical distortions.”

Support for socialism and other aberrations of justice, however, must not be mistaken for innocuous alternate interpretations. Groys refers to “realistic historiography” – as if there is any other kind. There isn’t. While emotions and responses to situations vary into infinity, reality itself is reality. Either something happened or it didn’t. Judging communism by its philosophical interpreters rather than by its perpetrators is to deny reality.   As Milton Friedman sagely stated, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

Mass executioners like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che, Saddam, Ahmadinejad and  Bin Laden are all idolized by starry-eyed utopia chasers who ignore evidence, results and reality. These act as apologists for evil.

Others do not ignore evidence but excuse it; these are what writer Daniel Goldhagen called “Hitler’s willing executioners.”  Indeed, there are some who are drawn in specifically because of the lengths to which evil madmen are willing to go for their beliefs. These cherish mass slaughter as a means of purging unbelievers or other “threats” to the paradigm they share with their antichrist.

But those who experienced these monsters firsthand have  been victims of dehumanization. Some were tortured, amputated, confined and raped. Witnessing starvation or torture or the murder of  family left many with irreparable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even those who weren’t physically violated  were not free. Communism’s core tenet is the erasure of individuality, dangerously disguised as a pursuit of “equality.” Many regimes denounced romantic love, like Mao’s, which also delighted in cannibalism, a grotesque illustration of the “we are all one” illusion that was used to seduce the masses into believing.

When dehumanization occurs, through torture or through brainwashing or through captivity, a person’s very faculties of reason are destroyed. Then a door can be left ajar and yet the battered woman or the prisoner cannot walk away or renounce their cruel master. This is the ultimate culmination of cults like Islamism and Fascism and Communism. When your subjects can literally walk away but now choose to carry the ideological  torch and work to find new recruits for that ideology, their very minds and souls have been infiltrated.

This anthology gives us a tour into the darkness and the hope for humanity upheld through Eastern European history.  The overwhelming impact of the art featured in this book is its firsthand record of life under tyranny and collectivism, and the desperate struggle to regain or find an identity once unchained.

Many who are born into liberty and abundance romanticize communism. The artists among us are too often guilty, of “activism” and of creating art aimed at the dissolution of capitalism and other cultures of freedom. This book reveals the harsh truth that we are ungrateful fools in desperate need of history lessons. What a remarkable achievement.

Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe

Editors: Phoebe Adler and Duncan McCorquodale

Black Dog Publishing, 2010

You can get the book here: Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe

Lorette C. Luzajic is a visual artist and writer from Toronto, Canada. Visit her at ideafountain or at Amazon.

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