"We from Nowhere and Our Art." Review of exhibition Ostalgia at the New Museum, New York, July 6 - October 2, 2011.
Published in Studija 81, no. 6 (2011).
We from Nowhere and Our Art
Art from nowhere or from “countries that no longer exist.”(1) This was how Eastern Europe and the former USSR were described in the title of a review of the exhibition Ostalgia in ‘The Economist’. Having firstly satisfied our curiosity as to whether the exhibition included works from Latvia, broader questions beckon. The exhibition reveals many uncertainties, ambiguities and contradictions, and this clearly applies to the study, evaluation and representation of Latvian art from the second half of the 20th century in the international environment.
Ostalgia provokes discussion and perhaps even polemic in several directions at once. Much of this may exceed the boundaries of the exhibition, because it calls for generalizing and applying the issues raised by the said exhibition to the so-called cultural antagonism between East and West (by this meaning Western democracy and the Communist Bloc countries). This appears to have outgrown the reality of the Cold War to become one of the fantasies of the early 21st century creators of culture, turning into Marxist Benjaministic phantasmagoria.
Although curator Massimiliano Gioni refers to cultural differences, they are described using the metaphor of an “Oriental rug”.(2) The curator states that the metaphor originated in the English translation of ‘Imperium’ (1983) by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. It is worth noting that the author’s reflections on his travels around the Soviet Union mainly refer to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. One could reasonably object to Kapuściński’s vivid metaphor being used in the context of Ostalgia to apply to the Baltic States and Central Europe, where the culture and art have never been “Oriental”. Likewise it also makes little sense to describe the states visited by Kapuściński as “Eastern Europe”, since they have never belonged to the European cultural space. Thus countries, nations, cultures and artists from the Balkans to Estonia and from Central Asia to Germany are turned into non-existent like-minded confederates or family members – “us” – and this vast region is assigned a deceptively unifying, Oriental character. In reality, “we” have far more that divides us than unites us.(3)
The tedious continuation of this Cold War understanding of geography serves the marketing and publicity interests of Western institutions, because while the generation that experienced Cold War rhetoric and propaganda is still economically active, the former can appeal to a potential interest in the presence of an exotic ideological foe.
It means that, for the most part, “our” late 20th century art is interesting to “them” only insofar as its content is based on stereotypes, politicized and familiar signs and stock phrases which are formally if vaguely reminiscent of what is recognized in the West as avant-garde or “radical”. “Our” art must clearly indicate that an artist living in a Communist state condemns the regime (or at least treats it ironically). Because the unspoken implication is that the only globally-acceptable choice is that a good person (good artist) can only be free and happy in a capitalist, democratic state, because under communism or any other “abnormal” conditions this person is unhappy and enslaved and undoubtedly protests against the prevailing situation in his or her art (literature, poetry, architecture, design etc.). While I assume that this is often the case, there is no reason to believe that this is the only and final evaluation criterion (because this would vastly narrow down the spectrum of possible social, creative, spiritual and other functions of art).