The exhibition Journey to the East features contemporary artists from the countries of the Eastern Partnership programme. Curator: Monika Szewczyk
In the West, ten or twenty years ago, Poland was considered a distant artistic periphery. In an interview, Anda Rottenberg recalls, “The West was, to a much greater extent, influenced by propaganda than the East. While we were never taken in by the nasty propaganda about terrible capitalism [the West] believed nothing of value could be born here.”
The real success of Polish artists in Europe and around the world only really happened during the last several years. It is probably no coincidence that this change happened when Poland joined the EU. As the EU borders shifted, the artistic West expanded as well. Therefore, the question that arises now is how to define our attitude towards the artistic East?
The exhibition Journey to the East, which was held in Bialystok Poland last August and September, later moving to Kyiv Ukraine and finally to Krakow, was an attempt to answer this question. The exhibit was not confined to the Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok, but also took place in an old power station as well as in other locations around town.
A huge map of Azerbaijan, composed of fruits and vegetables by the artist CHINGIZ, was in the courtyard of Branicki Palace which adjoins the Arsenal Gallery, as a part of the exhibit. It lasted only a few days, but the decomposition evoked vanity, one of the themes of the exhibition. At the opening ceremony, the Georgian group Bouillon did exercises incorporating religious gestures from Christianity, Judaism and Islam (Religious Aerobics).
Rashad Alakbarov, the author of One Point of View on Two Cities (East-West) also addressed the issue of East and West in an ironic way. Two lamps, alternately turning on and off, lit rubbish placed on a pedestal and cast two different shadows on the wall. One formed the outline of a city from the Orient with domes and minarets, while the other one conveyed images of skyscrapers in a big Western metropolis.
Journey to the East coincides with the famous exhibition Ostalgia held in the New Museum in New York displaying works of artists from the Eastern Bloc, from Poland, Germany, Russia and other countries. The exhibition in Bialystok already takes the new geographical divisions into account. The East in the title simply stands for the countries which are members of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership, a programme launched mainly under Poland's initiative in 2008 with the aim of bringing the states to the east of Poland closer to the EU. There are six states which sprung up after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and Moldova. Yet surprisingly, no information about this criterion can be found in the catalogue of the exhibition. It seems that places where big politics meets art often become taboo subjects. Since Poland hosts the exhibition several Polish artists also take part (incidentally they are the weakest part of the project).
The greatest common problem that the curators of the exhibition have to face is the danger of falling into a neocolonial trap. Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s work is an ironic reply to this situation. His arrangement resembles a bazaar in the 1990s with trashy goods skewed about a Fiat. The installation is called A Small Fiat 126p. A Monument to the 90s, thus confronting our slightly exotic ideas of what the East to us is. We remember this sight from Polish towns, big and small. Kuznetsov’s statement seems obvious: “You wanted an artist from the East – you got one.” However, it is quite surprising. He uses a Fiat 126p to remind the hosts of their economic past.
If there is anything that connects the six countries showcased in this exhibition, it is the state of suspicion b bbetween Russia and the EU and a common historical experience. This aspect of common history is particularly noticeable at the exhibition, in addition to the audio-visual media part. In the main exhibition room, traditional Georgian folk songs are intertwined with fragments of Lenin’s speeches.
Ruins of the old system are the best proof of the not-so-distant past. Vahram Aghasyan from Armenia photographs an unfinished housing project in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, as part of the series Ghost City (2005-2007). Several years after an earthquake, shells of buildings with their hollowed-out windows were flooded by water. Nature created yet another romantic site of ruins. Ruben Arevshatyan documents devastated water bodies and pools in Yerevan. In a video installation called The Bolshevik Ship-Nariman Narimanov, (2006), Sabina Shikhlinskaya from Azerbaijan takes her audience for a trip on a destroyed ship which once used to sail under a red star.
Some artists focus on architecture in particular. The architect Ivan Bovt, the hero of Belarusian Marina Naprushkina’s drawings based on the memories of his wife Clara, says: “It turns out that at first we create architecture and then architecture creates us.”
In this context, monuments either standing or already knocked down had to flourish. In the film What is Russian Authority (2008), Armine Hovhannisyan juxtaposes a monument of Lenin lying face down in a devastated pool with a propaganda speaker’s voice using a quotation from the leader’s speech to answer the question asked in the title. Together, with Samvel Baghdasaryan, they gathered a collection of propaganda artefacts in an exhibition room – Soviet Agitational Art: Restoration, (2008). In this way, we can learn about the ups and downs of Stalin’s monument (erected in 1950 and then demolished in 1962) from the Museum of Victory in World War II in Yerevan. It was replaced with the monument of Mother Armenia; however, its pedestal remained unchanged and the original ornamentation was left intact.
Still, the overall tone of the works collected at the exhibition tends to be less serious. Artists mainly use humour and irony. They often seem to comment on the situation with a sense of distance. However, there are no veteran-style overtones (probably due to the young age of the artists), even though a kind of nostalgia can be felt.
Anna Lazar, co-author of the concept Journey to the East, wrote in the introduction of the catalogue that “the subject we focus on at the exhibition concerns communication, understanding and love – a strong feeling that makes us behave well towards others, even against our own interest.”
Edwin Bendyk continues this idea in his text where he quotes Slavoj Žižek, in an interview, referring to Solidarity: “We-post-Communist countries … have a mission … to invent a new form of social life which could avoid the old pitfalls. Perhaps we are able to save mankind.” Bendyk holds the view that this can happen under one condition, “that new forms of life may only be the result of the work of love…because love is the only means of communication which invalidates all differences and makes even the least probable relations possible,” he adds.
We can also find ambiguous and ironic comments of this concept. Yaroslava-Maria Khomenko creates Embrace (2011), clothes for two or three people, while Anatoly Belov presents a series of sketches of his Facebook friends, revealing the superficial character of such relationships in My Friend, (2011). This project of love remains the project of the future.
The exhibition, Journey to the East is currently being held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow Poland.
Review by Karol Sienkiewicz. This review originally appeared in Nowa Europa Wschodnia Nr6 (XX) 2011.
Translated by Bogdan Potok.