Exhibit about Communism reveals Eastern traumas and desiresIrina Lotarevich
In the midst of this summer's megastar solo exhibits, the New Museum is hosting a smartly curated group show. Comprised of works from over fifty artists from twenty countries, Ostalgia offers a compelling survey of Communist Bloc-inspired art.
The title of the exhibit originates from “ostalgie,” a German word referring to nostalgia for life in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union, new nations were formed, while existing territories were amended, and whole constitutions were scrapped. Widely disparate in location, age, and fame, the artists on display contribute to a nuanced documentary of the subsequent changes faced by residents of this former nation. Contradictory viewpoints between the different artists are the exhibit's strength as it refuses to either praise or vilify the utopian promise of Communism. Instead, it offers a holistic view of the confusion faced by the people whose lives were uprooted during this period.
Some of the artists featured in Ostalgia lived prior to the fall of the Communist Bloc, where they faced censorship and were forbidden from dealing with political or taboo subjects. As a result, many practiced in secrecy and were not able to realize large works. Sculptor, Hermann Glöckner’s fascination with geometric abstraction was condemned by Nazis and Communists alike, and consequently, his output was limited to tabletop maquettes constructed out of knickknacks and cast parts he had found.
Photography, not yet considered art, avoided such regulation, leading to greater freedom within the medium to explore taboo topics. In the series Women at the Treff-Modele Clothing Factory, Helga Paris used photography to go against the grain of typical propaganda portraiture by offering candid portraits of women laborers. Other photographers, like Boris Mikhailov, tested the boundaries of artistic freedom by shooting naked subjects posing in plain, poverty-ridden environments. Forbidden erotica shows up again in the works of performance artists Andris Grīnbergs and Evgenij Kozlov, who at 18, completed six years of work on The Leningrad Album, a portfolio of highly imaginative pornographic drawings.
Significant contributions also come from younger Eastern artists who were children during the dissolution and now use their artistic practice to interrogate their own perception of the times. In the resonant Pink Wave Hunter, Georgian artist Andro Wekua recreates five buildings from his childhood hometown, which were destroyed by air strikes during the Georgian-Abhkazian conflict of the 1990s. The sculptures, heavy with steel, wax, and fiberglass, have physical presence and weight that successfully impart the emotional mass of memory. In an ongoing project titled Man From the Internet, Andra Ursuta draws and re-draws an internet image of a Chechen rebel soldier’s decomposing body. After, After features filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić reliving her own wartime experiences by interviewing schoolchildren who lived through the inhumane atrocities of the Bosnian War.
Not all of the art was done by Eastern Europeans. Phil Collins’ video Marxism Today (Prologue), one of several works by Western artists on display, presents interviews with former teachers of Marxist-Leninist economics who lost their jobs after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The interviews reveal the women's disorientation after the reunification of Germany, and their struggle to adjust to a new capitalist lifestyle under the system’s disparaging view of all things Communist.
Ostalgia aptly refuses a singular viewpoint, thereby succeeding in conveying the messy particularities of Eastern European ostalgie. It remains comprehensive despite the huge, diverse group of artists being wrangled into the small, inconvenient interior of the New Museum. This exhibit is a pleasant surprise from the museum, whose oft-poppy art exhibits do little to revive its presence in the art community. Ostalgia is on view until September 25.