Der Riss im Raum

The difficulty with shows like “Der Riss im Raum: Positionen der Kunst seit 1945 in Deutschland, Polen, der Slowakei und Tschechien” (A split in the room: the positions of art since 1945 in Germany, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics) is that they seldom live up to the expectations raised by their titles. There are too many works and too many issues to deal with; it is also very difficult to engage in a dialogue with art that still awaits a more serious critical response in the West (as is the case with work from Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and former East Germany). Attempts to address these problems often require a level of compromise that ultimately leads to a sense of dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, this show was no exception.

The exhibition included paintings, sculptures, installations, and video presentations by 49 artists. The show drew mostly from work done during three periods of significant sociopolitical change: the late ’40s, the ’60s, and the years since the fall of the Berlin wall. “Der Riss im Raum” was intended to be “an open forum in which individual positions can come in contact with each other, with room left to identify existing breaks and divergences.” To facilitate a dialogue among individual artists, works by artists of various national origins were often displayed more or less chronologically. This art-without-borders spirit was perhaps best symbolized by Joseph Beuys’ Polentransport1981, 1949–81, a collection of some 1000 works donated by the artist to the Museum Sztuki in Lodz in the summer of 1981, shown in Germany for the first time in this show. The exhibition’s premise was rather questionable: it was founded on the notion that official state doctrine and the individual activities of the artist necessarily stand in strict opposition to each other. Freedom was defined as “ independence from esthetic doctrines” and responsibility as “honesty with respect to history, the social situation and the work.”

In selecting art work from the former socialist republics, such an approach enabled the curators to gloss over the complexities of making art under a repressive regime and to focus, instead, on some isolated examples of works by, among others, such internationally renowned artists as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Magdalena Jetelova, and Josef Koudelka. The show’s premise also signaled a failure to engage fully the consequences of Germany’s division into two ideologically opposed states. The selection of German artists emphasized the diversity of art in postwar Germany, accentuating the differences between the East and the West, while crediting West German artists with defining the new German sensibility, one that takes into consideration the inner antagonisms of contemporary capitalism. Paradoxically enough this is the same capitalism that is now embraced in Eastern Europe and begins to condition Polish, Czech, and Slovak artists. One could not, in fact, escape the feeling that, in celebrating the removal of ideological borders, it is the West that has granted itself the spiritual and even moral authority to define artistic standards. This was evident, for instance, in the exhibition catalogue, in which East German artists were accused almost en masse of reflecting the “old German apolitical discipline, fixed on linear principles.” It was also evident in the works by young Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles selected for the show, which seemed to indicate that in order to qualify the work had to resemble artistic production in the West.

The exhibition’s most significant contribution was the inclusion of some lesser-known artists from former socialist countries, such as the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, whose figurative sculptures from the late ’60s and early ’70s make profound observations on female identity, or the former East German Carlfriedrich Claus, whose prints from the ’70s are invested with exceptional calligraphic beauty. “Der Riss im Raum” helped also to reexamine the early works of two of the most famous East Germans, Gerhard Richter and A.R. Penck, who as former refugees could be viewed as the show’s paradigmatic artists. Interestingly enough, the former held up well, while the latter seemed to lose something of his power in this context.

Marek Bartelik