Both time capsule and time machine, this compact exhibition gathers work by 65 artists from former Eastern Bloc countries. As you step off the elevator into a faux spaceship based on designs from Eastern European sci-fi films of the Cold War era, you might be reminded of how such plaster facsimiles can appear thrillingly dynamic onscreen. Perhaps this will put you in the proper head space for what a newspaper handout accompanying the exhibit describes as “an asychronic narrative,” one in which “the present is understood as an overlap of multiple temporal and spatial frames.”
A slide show of Soviet modernist buildings from 1955-91 documents zigzagging stone buttresses, labial concrete roofs, and other edifices as loopy as any background seen in futuristic drive-in flicks. A number of works turn on the politics of the space race; the explanatory broadsheet notes that in the West “the specter of Communism existed as a totalitarian system of aliens,” while those in the Soviet orbit saw capitalism as “the enemy of the future of humankind in its opposition to the promoted egalitarian system of Communism.”
Thoughtful artists chaffed under the Eastern Bloc’s official social-realist aesthetic; another slide show illustrates such under-the-radar happenings as “discos where the DJs also gave lectures” and actions that were “both provocative and romantic, with frequent displays of nudity as a manifestation of personal freedom.” Some of that valiant nudity can be seen in Orshi Drozdik’s “Individual Mythology” photographs from the mid-1970s. In a shot of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin seated at the Yalta conference, she collaged her naked body onto FDR’s knee, her sunny femininity a rebuke to the Big Three’s nut-cutting realpolitik.
Many works are closely arrayed on shelves, a jumble reflecting the ethos of the show’s organizer, tranzit, a loose network of curators, arts organizations, and archives in Eastern Europe that “points at voids in canonized art history.” A 2013 video by Hungarian curator László Beke exemplifies this goal: In 1971, he asked 28 of his country’s artists to participate in “Work — The Documentation of Imagination/Idea,” requesting that they answer the concept of the title. Exhibiting this work was mostly out of the question, and those curious to see it trekked to Beke’s apartment. In the video he discusses the results, including an artist who used a primitive copier to illegally (and poorly) duplicate his identity card, and another who put down only the word “NOTHING” and long lines of zeroes.
Such principled nihilism nailed the surveillance states of yore; what a shame it still has bite in our own age of adulterated privacy.