‘Ostalgia’: A Walk Around the Bloc


The Basel Art Fair and the recent record-setting London auctions point to yet another art sales boom. If that wasn’t enough dependence on the world’s super-rich, there’s the ominous-sounding Merrill Lynch/Capgemini World Wealth Report to tell us that, since the financial crisis of 2008, wealth has been concentrated into even fewer hands. As art turns away from financial equitability, at least one museum has bucked the trend toward (always) lionizing money over ideas. The New Museum—running against its previous grain of presenting shows of trophy art and faddishly referential collage—has stepped up to provide this summer’s most thoughtfully radical exhibition. Communism, anyone?

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Uttered by a character in a Milan Kundera novel, the words turn out to be a mouthful for the ages. A slogan that cuts equally against Eastern and Western banishments of history, it also serves as an apt introduction to “Ostalgia” (through September 25), the New Museum’s survey of art about the fall of Communism and the cultural, aesthetic, and psychological responses that have followed in its wake.

Titled after the German (or more properly East German) neologism ostalgie, “Ostalgia” makes direct reference to the human longing and nostalgia that have followed the dissolution of power in the former Eastern Bloc. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s associate director, the show provides a complex look at a phenomenon that encompasses global-size cruelties and dreams deferred. In previewing “Ostalgia,” we asked Gioni about the show—his insight helped us see “Ostalgia” as not just a show of Eastern European art, but as a portrait of peoples far more like us than the art world’s jillionaires.

‘Ostalgia’ speaks to the most important global, social, and cultural transformation since World War II. Tell us about the title. The term ostalgie is a play on words. It combines ost, which is German for “East,” and nostalgie, which obviously means “nostalgia” in German. The term began being used in the early 1990s to describe a feeling of longing for the time before the Wall came down. Initially used to describe a sense of displacement, it eventually went on to describe a more popular nostalgia for aspects of everyday life during the Cold War. It’s in this pop sense that ostalgie is used to describe movies like Goodbye Lenin! or The Lives of Others. In the West, we find it very difficult to understand that living in the former Soviet Bloc also meant living in a completely different value system, one that had aspirations and dreams that were as legitimate as ours. I had been thinking of a large exhibition about Eastern Europe for many years, but the final inspiration came from a work by the artist Phil Collins called Marxism Today (Prologue). It’s composed of a series of interviews with teachers from the former GDR and is a touching choral psychological portrait of what it must feel like to see your entire life, your entire value system, be wiped away by a sudden historical cataclysm.

‘Ostalgia’ takes as its temporal ‘epicenter’ the year 1991. Why is that? The year 1991 marks the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the annulment of the Warsaw Pact, the first unified German parliament. Twenty years hence, on the streets of Moscow—and in the capitals of other former Communist countries—it’s increasingly difficult to find traces of what the past looked like. Entire worlds of experience and knowledge have faded away. To a certain extent, “Ostalgia” is a sort of ethnographic museum of a disappearing civilization. In terms of works related to that fateful year, there’s Michael Schmidt’s photo essay U-NI-TY, which serves as a chronicle of the unification of Germany. At that time, Jonas Mekas started filming every American TV program about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Erik Bulatov began painting his great work House.… But this is not a linear history of art in the former Soviet Bloc. The point of the exhibition is to move through history the way we move through personal memories, by sudden jumps and blurred recollections, by flashbacks and flash-forwards. Many of the artists working in these countries went through a complex process of re-appropriation of history, of rewriting of the official history, where the past still remains open for interpretation. I wanted the show to operate in a similar manner.

The show also includes artists who grew up in Western Europe. How does that work? Contemporary art in the 20th century has always tried to create dialogues that are transnational. When you study the art of the former Soviet Bloc, you realize that artists were often isolated, but they created very successful alternative networks of information with artists abroad. Ultimately, the Soviet Bloc and its dissolution is a topic that matters as much to the West as to the East, if only because the idea of a unified East was very much the product of a Western narrative.

In the catalog for ‘Ostalgia,’ you say that the structure of the exhibition emulates the territory it attempts to give voice to. It is largely constructed as an archive. The second floor of the museum is made into a series of rooms where works are presented in rigid ensembles, duplicating a sort of bureaucratic organization based on grids, lines, large catalogs. This is where we present Mladen Stilinovic´’s 449-page Dictionary of Pain, Boris Mikhailov’s photographs from the 1970s, Vladimir Arkhipov’s archive of found objects, Evgenij Kozlov’s erotic diary, and Aneta Grzeszykowska’s family album, in which she erases herself from every picture.

Many of the works harken to a time when totalitarianism turned art into samizdat: a message passed from person to person that partly relied on censorship for its spiritual legitimacy. What is the connection of art during that time to our blue-chip, market-oriented present? There is, of course, a slightly polemical choice in presenting this kind of work in New York today. Many of the artists in “Ostalgia” demonstrate that you can make work with almost nothing. This is an exhibition in which production values are very low, that provides a very recession-friendly aesthetic. Also, some of the artists in “Ostalgia” have literally put their life on the line to make some of the works on view. I think it’s useful to be reminded sometimes that the responsibility of the artist goes far beyond the price of their work.

Are there lessons to be drawn from this exhibition and art’s place today? I feel uncomfortable extracting specific lessons from these works, especially as many of these artists made art especially to escape from propaganda. They wanted to be misunderstood, they wanted to be ambiguous…. Artists interpreted completely different roles to the ones we know in New York. Artists working under repressive Communist regimes came to occupy a special place in their respective cultures. They were completely ostracized, but that isolation conferred a unique ethical power on them.