BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 01 JAN 00
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Issue 50

After the Wall

BY Ina Blom in Reviews | 01 JAN 00

A large group show titled 'After the Wall - Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe', initially sounds dated. Do we really need another show devoted to that great European other - the East? Doesn't such a premise suppress the different cultural climates that have developed in the various countries? In short, you could easily expect the exhibition to construct yet another restrictive image of the East.

However, it became evident that the organisers worked their way through these obvious and uncomfortable questions. While a show such as 'Manifesta' attempted to create a European network which integrated artists from the former Eastern Block, the idealism of such an aim was put into perspective by the attention the curators paid to the inequalities which still exist between the East and West. The catalogue essay by curator Bojana Pejic is enlightening: she explores the exhibition's problematic rehearsal of what might seem like obsolete political dichotomies, whilst arguing the need to complicate the image of a post-Communist normalisation of the cultural landscape ten years after the fall of the wall. One complicating element is the fact that while art institutions of the West have now, by and large, integrated a post-Colonial perspective into their practices, it's a perspective attuned to the effects of Colonialist relations with Africa, Asia and Latin America, not to Colonial divisions within Europe itself. As Piotr Piotrovsky points out in another catalogue essay, neither the new language of multi-culturalism or globalisation can account for Europe's problematic multi-nationalism.

Clearly the post-Communist Europe targeted in this exhibition is not simply isomorphic with the geographical territory east of the Iron Curtain, even if all the participating artists were subjects of former Communist regimes. Comprising 170 works from 23 countries, the exhibition included pieces by well-known artists such as Jan Toomik, Plamen Demjanov/Svetlana Heger and Olaf Nicolai, alongside the work of local artists such as Agnes Szepfalvi, Maja Licul and LN Women's League Project. Filling the museum with a series of compartmentalised mini-exhibitions and spread throughout Stockholm, the show was too large to sum up in a few words. As the exhibited works indicated neither a distance between East and West, nor an all-encompassing familiarity with a newly united art-Europe, it became apparent that many Europeans are, to a certain extent, suffering from a post-Communist loss of identity. The most interesting thing about this exhibition was the way in which this loss was made apparent. From my own Western-European perspective, it was felt most painfully when the artistic fashions of just a very short time ago - body art and photographic appropriation in particular - were returned in a way that cut into a smug sense of having moved beyond all that. Nothing seems more embarrassingly dated than what is just left behind, yet in this case it was difficult to use dating simply as a measure of lack of originality or relevance.

Take, for instance, the work of Rassim Kristev, in which he documented the slow and painstaking transformation of his own skinny body into the perfect, hairless muscular bundles of the average title-claiming bodybuilder. The artist's transformation was only possible thanks to a regular supply of special imported nutrients for bodybuilders - how does his will-power explore the predicament of his own time and place, in this case Kristev's native Bulgaria? The question takes on additional meanings when you learn that Kristev has also used his body as a kind of register for certain crude social facts about his own country: for example, a video from 1995 shows him sniffing glue until he hallucinates, a process familiar to the hundreds of child beggars who roam the train station areas.

The Romanian group SubReal use the photographic archives of the former official Romanian art review ARTA as the basis of their work. Their images are not only open to the kind of historical revision that is typical of this kind of archival/conceptual work, but also, ironically speaking, to a reading which invests them with meaning and artistic value simply because an international art context exists into which such conceptual strategies automatically fit. The fact that they fit disturbs our notion of the new fluidity of the post-Communist-exchanges.