“Beyond Belief”

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

In “Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe,” curator Laura J. Hoptman mounted an exhibition that included artists from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, all while embracing the questionable premise that Eastern Europe is a heterogeneous region with “ephemeral” borders. Though one might agree that such countries as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria have little in common, apart from being located on the “belt” that separates Western Europe from Russia, they do not simply constitute a region “traditionally referred to as ‘East’ or ‘East Central’ Europe” (it’s also more than a little odd to omit not only former East Germany and Yugoslavia, but the Baltic Republics). As poet Czeslaw Milosz has convincingly argued, the Eastern bloc nations, many “created” after World War II, form a specific political entity: “all the countries that in August 1939 were the real or hypothetical object of trade between the Soviet Union and Germany.” The existence of just such a region, shaped by myriad political and historical events, in fact informed “Beyond Belief,” though this was never fully acknowledged.

This exhibition aimed to present “emerging” artists and artist collectives of the so-called post-Communist generation. Yet not only are most of the artists included already quite well known in the West, but, more importantly, they are, despite their youth, in many ways “products” of the old system in Eastern Europe. Their art reflects the collision of old values and those created by the free-market economy and democratization. Indeed, most of these artists belong to a sort of new East European “artistic mainstream,” vigorously promoted by both local and Western curators and critics. Czechs David Cerny and Martin Mainer, for example, have shown in the US, while the Hungarian group Ujlak has mounted shows in Western Europe. Others—Roza El-Hassan, Zbigniew Libera, the artist collective sub-REAL, and Nedko Solakov—have exhibited at the Venice Biennale. If the work of these artists unquestionably merits attention, it is also clearly shaped by Western trends, reflecting the demands of achieving success on an international plane.

The only link among the disparate works in “Beyond Belief” was a subversive irony created through hidden references to concrete subject matter. This strategy, once a means of evading the scrutiny of censors, is today the result of a growing mistrust of new alliances between Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, including artistic and cultural cooperation. This tactic pervades such works as Bubanova Tauchmannova’s Slovenske, 1991, which presents a bucolic picture of a small Slovak village over which floats a twelve-star emblem of the European Community, shining in the sky like a symbol of an ever-elusive economic unity. Libera’s installation included a row of life-size Barbie dolls altered to resemble products of a factory specializing in sex dolls. (The Polish title—“Ciotka Kena” [Ken’s aunt]—has a double meaning, as “ciotka” is both the word for a relative and a derogatory word for homosexuals.) Cerny’s Jesus Christ, 1992, is modeled on do-it-yourself kits, containing ready-to-assemble body parts and accessories. A sort of ironic devotional object, it alludes to the reevaluation of religious traditions currently underway in Eastern Europe.

Other works in the show addressed such diverse issues as the destructiveness of nationalism in post-Communist society, the impact of technology on contemporary life, and the division between high and low. While the artists position themselves as sensitive insiders responding to current changes at home, they also comment on their reception in the West. This double-edged reflection was best conveyed in sub-REAL’s installation News from Dracula, 1994. The work contained a gymnastics horse covered in sheepskin and equipped with a small monitor. From the monitor emanated a recording of the sounds of battle, much like those that accompany the dioramas at Bucharest’s National Museum of Military History. The horse was surrounded by wooden spikes, arranged in a manner that recalled the fortifications around ancient castles. An allusion to two “icons” of Romanian culture, the legendary Count Dracula and gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the work mocked Western stereotypes of Romanian culture, exposing them as elements of universal kitsch. By distancing themselves from the tried and true image of the East European artist as dissident, the Romanian artist collective seemed to proclaim “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism,” as if to echo the disappointment of the heroine in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being upon reading in the catalogue for her first Western show that “her paintings were the struggle for happiness.”

Marek Bartelik