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Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe

Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe

by Nikos Kotsopoulos, Editor
Black Dog Publishing, Art World Series, London, UK, 2010
240 pp., illus. 240 b/w, col.  Trade, £29.95
ISBN: 978-1-906155-84-1.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe is an insightful compilation of Eastern European art made from the 1960s to the present day. From Russia to Poland and Romania, and from the Czech Republic to Yugoslavia and East Germany, it is an attempt to see through the eyes of artists, critics, photographers, and curators the changing realities of the eastern side of the European continent. Complemented with a map, a timeline, and artist biographies, the book also features excellent essays from respected writers, which put the selected artworks into a socio-historical context, in particular, those of Boris Groys, Zdenka Badovinac and Eda Cuffer who highlight the dominance of Western art in shaping 20th century art in Russia, Europe and America.

Groys' essay is key to understanding the notion of 'Eastern European countries'. Sharing borders does not mean that people from neighbouring countries think and live in the same way. Groys takes the same approach about the Eastern European states and, in particular, their contemporary art. He claims that their individual identity needs to be acknowledged and that we should not put them all in one 'block' in order to easily differentiate them from those on the Western side of the European Union. However, their experience of Communism the Soviet type, which is a layer above social and cultural identity, unites and differentiates them from the outer world – Communism ideology aimed to erase any traces of individuality. Historiography finds no place for Communism as such as it relies on concrete facts, so Communism is often perceived as an ideological facade intended to camouflage solid national interests. Many observers argue that the notion of Eastern Europe should be forgotten so that Eastern European countries can return to their individual cultural identities. Contemporary Eastern European artists themselves are ambivalent about their relationship with their Communist past, hence their tendency to solely express individual cultural traditions and identities and to ignore the ground in the Communist past. This ambivalence transpires through their artworks, which look utopian and dystopian at the same time.

For example, cohabitation between abstract forms and human faces reveals itself as utopian and dystopian in the work of Pavel Pepperstein, which seems off-the wall and witty but contains more serious undertones. Ambivalence is also found in Artur Zmijewski's work, which plays with contradictions unresolved. Milica Tomic focuses on the intangible issues of identity, nationality, and ethnicity, which can profoundly affect people's daily realities. Mircea Cantor's work deals with strange encounters and displacement such as a city recomposed within moving mirrors, possibly to make out at one moment and distort the next. The use of irony is also a means for artists to distance themselves from the official ideology and, at the same time, refer to its almost forgotten utopian, avant-gardist potential. Some artists look at the Communist past through the prism of moral accusation. Others remobilise the Communist ideology for the critique of the present capitalist conditions as exemplified by Alexander Kosolapov's sculpture of Minnie and Mickey Mouse in a Social Realism fashion and portrait of Gorbachev in Warhol style. Adrian Ghenie's distorted Elvis questions the authenticity of images portraying fame. Vladimir Dubossarsky's and Aleksander Vinogradov's choice for painting as a medium is part of a calculated strategy to reflect on the changing state of Russian society. Boris Mikailov and his highly realist photographs focus upon homeless and poverty, criticising the general diffidence of the post-Communist world. In this case the artist does not reflect on the ambivalences of the utopian politics in that he attempts to purify it from its historical distortions. Emotional and spiritual transformation born out of this questioning is explored through spatial awareness with artists such as Miroslaw Balka and Marina Abramovic.

Despite it being disregarded, the Communist past haunts Eastern European and Russian art practices due to the increasing internationalisation of Eastern European art. The art market experience has been new and quite traumatic to Eastern European artists. Groys points out that the memory of this non-commercial mode of art existence is still fresh in Eastern Europe and that may constitute the most obvious specificity of Eastern European art that is ideologically charged in a way that Western art is not. These memories have complexity and depth that utopian abstractions are lacking. Thus, the globalisation of Eastern European art means not only its submission under the rules of the international art market but also a reactualisation of the experiences of its Socialist past.

Badovinac and Cuffer examine the dominance of Western art in Modernism during the 20th century. More specifically, Badovinac focuses on the unilateral dialogue at play between Western and Eastern parts of Europe that only made Eastern art visible when it fitted within the frameworks dictated by Western European and American trends. With the current climate showing a return to localisation, the simple model that labels Eastern Europe as 'the other' no longer works. Eastern European art needs to be looked at as a patchwork of different states; hence, a multilateral dialogue East-West is necessary. Eastern European artists take also this opportunity to assert strongly their position as individuals. Cuffer gives an historical insight into the difference between Modernism and avant-garde art movements. The former aimed to ban the old norms and clichés, and the latter was an assault on existing social order that give birth to utopian political ideas, such as National Socialism, Fascism, and Capitalism. She shows how art was used by political leaders as a propaganda tool to convey these new ideas in Eastern Europe, in particular the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and America.

Ideas and emotions expressed in these artworks relate to memories, identities issues, and cynicism towards the establishment as well as hope. These artists are all connected directly or indirectly to a Communist Soviet type regime but their messages are not un-familiar to us reflecting a current trend in global contemporary art. However, Eastern European contemporary artists are more assertive in taking ideological and political stance towards the establishment and society as a whole than the Western artists. They seem to still be on the edge of a Capitalist system––a position that allows them to step back from and observe it more objectively, reasserting not only their authority as individuals but also upsetting Western European art convictions. As Eda Cuffer explains “… But when different notions of art started getting through the Western filters forcing a critical re-examination of the legitimacy of long held convictions and institutionalised narratives, when the stories coming in from the tributaries started shifting the whole direction and flow of art thinking, this proved frustrating for individuals shaped by laboratory cultural experiences ….”

Richly illustrated profiles showing more than 50 leading artists contextualised by experts on the subject, Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe questions and opens a debate about existing stereotypes associated with Eastern European countries. It is also an important and reliable source of information to anyone who seeks to understand the ever-increasing presence of Eastern European artists on the global contemporary art market.

Last Updated 4 June 2011

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