PRINT May 2018



View of “Poetry & Performance: The Eastern European Perspective,” 2017–18, Nová Synagóga, Žilina, Slovakia. Center: Vlado Martek, Ponos (Pride), 1976. Photo: Peter Snadík.

IN ŽILINA, a gray industrial city in northwestern Slovakia, stands the Nová Synagóga, a Neolog synagogue designed by the illustrious German architect Peter Behrens (1868–1940). Constructed between 1928 and 1931, the building blends historicism and modernism: The pronounced dome, inscribed with a golden ornamental motif of the Star of David, is reminiscent of the previous generation’s taste for Byzantine-inspired synagogues; its severe rectilinear exterior and relatively monochromatic facade, meanwhile, broadcast the building’s association with the International Style. Able to house 450 men and three hundred women, Nová Synagóga served during its earliest years as public proof of Slovak Jewry’s “modernity,” while also announcing their new political affiliation with the recently created nation-state of Czechoslovakia.

But Nová Synagóga also bears a darker history. On May Day of 1934, Behrens joined the (illegal) Nazi Party in Austria; by 1936, he was supporting Adolf Hitler’s plans to transform Berlin into “World Capital Germania” with a commission for the new headquarters of the German electric company Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft. Under the wartime Slovak state (1939–45), the promulgation of the “Jewish Code” systematically stripped Jews of their rights. A transit concentration camp was established in Žilina, from which thousands were sent to their deaths in Poland. Of the thirty-five hundred Jews living in the city before the war, only some seven hundred returned when it was over. It is estimated that 83 percent of Slovakia’s Jews, or seventy-five thousand people, were exterminated in the Holocaust. At some point, the Nová Synagóga’s bimah—the stage from which the Torah is read—was demolished, and the building went through many transformations after the war. It has functioned as a university lecture hall and as a cinema; it has never again served as a house of worship.The most recent renovations, completed in May 2017, were bolstered by the discovery of Behrens’s original drawings and resulted in the synagogue’s “restoration” to its original state. With freshly whitewashed walls, an ancillary project space, and a cozy café, it now serves as a kunsthalle for contemporary art.

The exhibition simultaneously revived the Nová Synagóga and disregarded the genocide that silenced so many.

In this context, the group exhibition “Poetry & Performance: The Eastern European Perspective” was significant for its simultaneous revival of the building as a locus of a performative community and for its negligent disregard of the genocide that silenced so many. Curated by scholars Tomáš Glanc, Daniel Grúň, and Sabine Hänsgen, the show assembled more than forty artists, poets, and collectives active in Azerbaijan, Croatia, the Czech Republic, East Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine between 1945 and 1989 alongside several contemporary practitioners. Proceeding from the premise that “poetry and performance played a significant role in the unofficial or partially tolerated cultural scene,” the exhibition focused on strategies that countered the ways in which language was instrumentalized by the state under Communist rule; less explicitly, it also addressed the current surge of authoritarian nativism across Europe.

Mladen Stilinović, Rad je rijeć (Work Is Word), 1982, paint on wood, 4 3/8 x 16 1/2".

The show was organized into six sections: “Writing-Reading Performance,” “Audio Gestures,” “Interventions in the Public Space,” “Cinemato/graphic Poetry,” “Body Poetry,” and “Language Games.” Most of the works from the 1960s onward were low-tech photo and video documentations of performances, sound pieces recorded on vinyl and cassette tapes, and various print media, while contemporary works included in situ wall drawings, sculptural installations, and live events. The exhibition spread across two floors: Its focal point was a towering white plinth, which displayed videos on each of its four sides, situated directly beneath the synagogue’s dome. A constellation of vitrines containing ephemera radiated haphazardly from it. Looming over the space, the plinth evoked the monumental power of the state while at the same time echoing the form of socialist housing blocks and recalling the disempowered people who live in them. The exhibition’s design thereby set the stage for visitors to consider how these artworks exposed and tested the relationships between centralized authoritarian mechanisms and the citizens of these nations.

Under the ideological tenets of socialist realism, artists and poets were required to use a strict representational idiom to idealize the Soviet Union. Hungarian poet, artist, and performer Katalin Ladik flouted the diktat with a double dose of abstraction. In 1976, she produced Phonopoetica: Foniča Interpetacijd Vizuelne Poezije (Phonopoetica: Phonetic Interpretation of Visual Poetry), a vinyl record produced in an edition of fifteen hundred, on which she used her own voice to “interpret” the work of Gábor Tóth and Bálint Szombathy, whose output aligns with Concrete poetry and Fluxus; the result is an amalgamation of nondescript sounds, purrs, punctuations, and wails laid over music samples, which refuse to deliver a clear message.

Cover of Katalin Ladik’s Phonopoetica: Foniča Interpetacijd Vizuelne Poezije (Phonopoetica: Phonetic Interpretation of Visual Poetry) (Galerija Studenstkog Kuturnog Centra, 1976).

The use of linguistic strategies to interrogate the dysfunction of socialist communication systems was common among Eastern Bloc artists. Slovakian L’ubomír Ďurček’s 13 February 1985, an error-riddled text composed of the word PRAVDA (truth) typewritten repeatedly on a piece of cheap paper, reveals the gap between a concept and its enactment and, by extension, critiques the state-sanctioned media’s manipulation of facts. Pravda, of course, was the official newspaper of the Communist Party, and the artist took aim at the veracity of the publication’s communiqués in Visitor (Five Visits), 1980, for which he dropped by five random apartments in Bratislava, greeting tenants with his mouth full of the paper’s pages. The only legible words on the papers, DAL ÚSTREDNÝ—“released [by] the Central”—began a phrase his audience would have readily concluded with “Committee of the Communist Party.” By casting citizens as “readers” who complete the creative act of writing, Ďurček revealed how deeply embedded party lines were, while simultaneously inviting alternative authorship.

Cover of Polet, May 23, 1986. Tomislav Gotovac.

Public space was also controlled to varying degrees by the state, and one’s “performance” as a citizen was closely monitored. Between 1985 and 1987, the Moscow-based Dmitri Prigov (known as Dmitri Aleksanych) handed out note cards to passersby and pasted them onto utility poles and trees. They bore messages in Russian such as CITIZENS! YOU LOVE, YOU ARE LOVED—THIS IS VERY DANGEROUS, IT IS A RARE OCCURRENCE. In November 1986, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic for his actions. By mimicking the state’s usual exhortations regarding productivity, discipline, and loyalty but exchanging those aspirations for a call to intimacy, the artist was bound to face punishment.

The hard-line stance against dissent was softened in Tito’s Yugoslavia, which permitted public performance and, crucially, allowed artists to travel. Thus, for his 1984 piece Superman, the Zagreb-based Tomislav Gotovac walked the city streets wearing a somewhat frumpy version of the titular DC Comics character’s costume while brandishing a hammer without the threat of retribution. In the ’70s, Mladen Stilinović exhibited his diverse language-based works, including roughly made cardboard signs, collages of texts on paper, and handwritten sentences on office stationery and newspapers, in Paris, Warsaw, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. His series “Written in Blood,” 1976, comprises statements that the artist scrawled in his own gore—NO ART WITHOUT BLOOD, EVERY WORK IS BLOODY, AND I’LL PAY THIS IN BLOOD—as well as photographic documentation of Stilinovic´ cutting himself with a razor, physically enacting the potential human toll of emancipatory doctrines. The living conditions in nonaligned countries were different from those behind the Iron Curtain, which suggests that we need to assess the ways that poetry and performance created spaces and channels of agency within the various oppressive mechanisms of the socialist states. To see Croatian and Serbian artists—then citizens of Yugoslavia—included in the exhibition given its political category of the “Eastern European Perspective” without any critical, or historical, distinction was discouraging.

English version of a poem from Dmitri Prigov’s series “Appeals to the Citizens,” 1985–87.

Although “Poetry & Performance” was far-reaching in its wealth of materials and commitment to underrecognized practices, it deployed avant-garde and contemporary art, defined in part as counterhegemonic and anti-institutional, to legitimize the use of Nová Synagóga as a kunsthalle rather than to grapple with the historical conditions that led to the building’s current function. This was a flagrant, and ironic, failure. Regrettably, it was the pedigree of its architect, Behrens, rather than Slovakia’s desire to come to terms with the state-sanctioned extermination of its Jewish population, that earned the Nová Synagóga its landmark status. Such historical amnesia pervades many contemporary art exhibitions in post-socialist countries, but what is surprising is the repressive role now played by the local neo-avant-gardes, who are historicized as emerging from the ashes of World War II as if from a tabula rasa. Nowhere in the exhibition’s labels, wall texts, brochure, or curatorial narrative was the mass decimation of the Jews and other “undesirables” in the represented countries addressed. Instead, Soviet domination was presented as a repressive system confronted by a sui generis postwar avant-garde.This kind of deracinated hermeneutics, which has been the subject of extensive critique in Western Europe, neglects the structural connections between pre- and postwar conditions in the formerly socialist states. Specifically, here in Žilina, there is a need to reflect on the complicity of the wartime Slovak state, the transformation and continuation of the power formation that arose between 1945 and 1989, the current erasure of memory, and the glorification of select historical episodes under the conditions of neoliberalism and nationalism.Rather than serving as a mute backdrop for the art, the Nová Synagóga could have been activated—its history included and opened up for viewers—to make visible the twin processes of nation building and racism that propel European fascism, then as now.

Nuit Banai is professor of contemporary art in the department of art history at the University of Vienna.