I was recently asked by the Power Plant to lead Sunday Scene, a weekly response to their current exhibition(s). By inviting people from other art/culture/academic communities, the idea is to draw provocative connections between the Power Plant’s programs and broader cultural and intellectual debates. In this case, I was responding to Rearview Mirror: New Art for Central and Eastern Europe, which is curated by Christopher Eamon. As a curator myself, my interest naturally gravitates toward Eamon’s framing of the show, and my hope was that the audience could use the Sunday Scene discussion as another lens through which to view the works afterward (or, if they had already seen the show, to augment their understandings of it). What follows is a text I used to guide my presentation, which focused on Eamon’s introductory wall text (excerpts in bold).
To begin, I would like to acknowledge our presence on the land of the First Nations of New Credit.
And then, to begin at another beginning, what does the name of this show mean? Eamon is using the metaphor of the rearview mirror to invoke an imaginary place still present, a Socialist period fading but not yet gone from the memory and lived experiences of a young-ish generation of artists. The transition from a Communist past to a capitalist present is the considerable, common point of reference that these artists share.
For most of the artists included in this exhibition the East is a Western fabrication based on an outmoded Western imaginary.
This is a ripe introductory sentence.
Eamon is using the Western imaginary as synonymous with hegemonic narratives in the art world that originate from Europe and North America. Flippantly, these are the stories of middle age, middle class, Christian white guys. Which is to say that I don’t think he is speaking specifically about Western Europe. It’s a bigger monster he is slaying.
Though, the idea of the East that Eamon cites is located in Europe. Part of his point is that “the East” erases the distinct political, economic and cultural histories of the countries subsumed under the term. It is this homogenous idea of “the East” that he pronounces impotent. Dead even. This exhibition is not really an overview of a region; it is more an antidote to the sameness of the mythology of “the East.” Instead of the term referencing a geographical location, Eamon uses it as a description of “experimental approaches in non-traditional media.”
I wonder: does the experience of a cultural paradigm shift breed experimental thinking? Does the experience of living through revolution correlate to means or methods of creative expression at the fringe?
And, is the idea of a cross-border kinship (however weak or vague) between “Eastern” nations truly a Western invention? Did a previous sense of communion evaporate along with the Thaw, or did it never exists at all?
Culturally speaking, there was another reality beyond the monolithic socialist culture one imagines, one that several generations thought unalterable (at least in their lifetimes) until the events of November 1989.
I am confused by this sentence. Cold War mentality assumed the possibility of change, either by force or by persuasion, in either direction, be it the further spread of communism or capitalism. I am not sure who Eamon is suggesting thought change improbable because as I remember it (granted, I was very young), the Cold War was characterized by a sense of inevitable change. The stakes were high–the nuclear clock was near striking midnight. The only question was of which change? And when? And, change did come.
1989 is, of course, the year that the Berlin Wall fell and it was a harbinger of the end of the Cold War. American scholar Francis Fukuyama has this idea about the end of history, which he thinks was signaled by the fall of the Berlin Wall. He argued that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end, with the world settling on liberal democracy as the ultimate paradigm of social organization.
Yet, in the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, Andrezej Szczerski, a professor of Art History in Poland, argues that 1989 was actually the beginning of history because in the totalitarian realities of the previous epoch, history had been particularly censored. But once the regimes disappeared, history could begin again, influencing the emergence of contemporary identities in “Eastern” societies.
Where does Eamon fall between these two ideas? Between a post-Communist world at the beginning or end of history? I think he sits comfortably in the middle, arguing for the end of one way of historical thinking (the idea of former Communist states as a undifferentiated mass), thereby making room for a contemporary mode of thought that listens carefully instead of speaking dictatorially. As if we had learned some lessons from history.
How this manifests here is that Eamon wants to maintain a sense of the cultural differences between these artists despite histories in proximity and despite a confluence of artistic strategies. This is his major project. To maintain cultural difference despite things in common.
But, this is not to revivify “the East.”
Rather than attempt to classify “Easterness” in some way, this exhibition focuses on a new generation of artists and their practices.
This is Eamon’s first tactic in service of his project: to allow a sense of identity to emerge out of the works themselves, rather than try to orchestrate or name a zeitgeist. Eamon suggests that this is not a thematic exhibition, though it does function as an explanation machine, albeit a humble one. For instance, though this show features a number of artists from Poland, Eamon avoids grandiose statements about what it means to be a Polish artist outside of the display of certain works made under the heritage of a homeland. The point of this exhibition is to take assumptions elsewhere, not to reconfirm them. The measure of success must be that it does something to our understandings.
As an example, I had imagined that the work in the show would be much more overtly political, that the spectre of communism and transformation would be on the lips and tongues of these artists. Instead, I see a range of mediums that reflect familiar artistic tropes where the ghosts of a former era are buried so deep as to be almost undetectable. This show is not a eulogy or requiem for a disappearing world, and that is checking my assumptions of what I thought I would find here.
[Rearview Mirror is] based not on geopolitical location, but on the manner in which the artists work.
I touched on this before, Eamon’s idea that this exhibition is not an overview of a region, but an antidote to a mythology. But I think that denying that the organizing principle here is geopolitical, is not self-serving.
I disagree with this claim of Eamon’s. The subtitle of his show is “New Art from Central & Eastern Europe.” The geopolitical location of the artists is foregrounded.
But, what I think Eamon is trying to do is, instead of using location to mark sameness, he wants to point to this space and these nations in a way that complicates our ideas of them. The impulse of proximity is reversed, from understanding or likeness, to discord and negotiation; from generalization to specificity.
Culturally, there is not a lot in common between Poland and Kosovo, or even between Poland and a closer neighbour such as Romania. Indeed borders drawn after World War I and redrawn after 1945 outline specific political and cultural histories.
There seems to be an artificial differentiation of scale here. Surely the experience of living in any one country is different from living in another, but within any country, experiences vary widely as well. Taking Eamon’s injunction against monolithic thinking seriously, then simply reducing the size of the monolith does nothing to moderate its insidious effects.
Pointing back to Eamon’s introductory sentence, “For most of the artist included in this exhibition the East is a Western fabrication based on an outmoded Western imaginary,” he commits the very act he is arguing against. There are any number of discourses taken up in “the West” that aim to counter the type of thinking that would sees post-Communist states as a mess of sameness. I know what Eamon is pointing toward, and you probably do too, but using conjugations of “the West” to point toward it is lazy and self-destructive. On my understanding, at the least, what this show wants is a careful and considerate use of language.
In each case all of the artists think and work outside “the Bloc.”
Which is to say that these artists are having particular conversations with the context within which their works are produced. Rearview Mirror can be seen as a display of what might amount to regional dialects, from a broader, general region of the world.
This brings me to another tactic of Eamon’s that he employs in service of his imperative to maintain a sense of the cultural differences despite commonalities. This is in addition to underdetermining what “Easterness” means to these artists. What he does is amend and expand the descriptor of Eastern Europe to become Central-Eastern Europe. By adding the “Central-” qualifier, Eamon challenges basic notions of where and what “the East” is. Or, another way, “the Bloc” is outside of itself, and thereby, possibly, becomes meaningless (at least in the present tense). What new ways of understanding the world rise up in the aftermath?
From here, I am interested in other strategies for reading the work in the exhibition, which still account for Eamon’s framing. Here, briefly, are some ideas to consider as you move through Rearview Mirror.
What if we were to give up the distinction of being “Western?” We are to the east of Japan, afterall. What if we did away with those descriptors entirely? What if we relinquished the power of our relative position, even just as a thought experiment? Our world is a globalized one, so in what ways can we reposition ourselves in relation to the work we are seeing that account for this?
Following from this, what if we could cultivate a way of listening that makes room for incommunicability? Is there a satisfying way of looking at these works that acknowledges a fundamental lack of understanding? (This is instead of a polite deferral of engagement because the work is outside our intellectual comfort zone.)
That being said, I feel mostly completely unmoored in trying to navigate the regional specificities that these works are engaging. I would have been happy to read wall labels that contextualized the local discourses that these practices are contributing to.
Rearview Mirror presents a wide variety of work from another part of the world, and this exhibition will be presented at least twice in Canada (here at the Power Plant, and then again at the Art Gallery of Alberta in 2012). Why show this work here? In this regard, it might be useful to construct a cultural metaphor for understanding. I cannot know what it means to be from Central-Eastern Europe, but what I can do is draw a line from here to there. In Canada, for me, the obvious connection to make is to our own history of grossly simplifying an extraordinarily complex relative periphery. What of Canada’s relationship to Aboriginal cultures might be useful in trying to read the experiences of a historically oversimplified relative periphery elsewhere?
A simple tactic for breaking down monolithic thinking is intimacy, to have an experience with a particular work through the lens of your own experiences, to listen closely to how the work resonates in your own body.
And lastly, there is always close reading (a cool and formal analogy to the previously suggested intimacy). This is really a whole subset of tactics that are an embodiment of rigourous, enthusiastic, fastidious and humble attitudes.
Finally, I am curious what this show would have looked like if Eamon had incorporated post-colonial discourses into a reading of what is happening socially and economically in post-Communist states. And, many of the countries represented here have become members of the European Union. Does the EU provide a useful or useless paradigm for a simultaneous recognition of difference, coupled with an imperative for equality?