“After The Wall: Art And Culture In Post-Communist Europe”

Moderna Museet | Stockholm

It was midsummer, 1937, when Hitler and Goebbels went to call on the infamous “Entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art,” exhibition in Munich. In a memorable photograph of that “grip and grin,” a connoisseur wearing prim specs stands immediately behind and to the left of his Führer, pointing to something just outside the frame. Perhaps he has moved on to a fourth sculpture, describing its depraved and dishonest qualities, having already finished off the three we can see in the picture. The minister of propaganda is beyond pleased. He stands closest to the camera, still wearing his smart white overcoat, hat in hand. Folded into the broadside ideology propelled through this photo op, the minister put across an understated message: He wouldn’t be staying long enough to bother checking his hat and coat. Humiliation always gets to its point quickly. “Entartete Kunst” marked the advent of half a century of savage attacks on the arts in Central and Eastern Europe; the trace evidence of that repression still resounds.

November 9, 1989. Just about everyone remembers where they were when the Berlin Wall fell. Of course, the opening of the borders between East and West was not simply a matter of redrawing boundaries, but of closing the book on the cold war and the attendant ideological struggle from which Democracy, not to mention the market, had finally emerged victorious. “After the Wall,” the Moderna Museet’s sizable survey of contemporary art from the countries that once constituted the Eastern Bloc, was fastened to this moment in history. At first, that appears eminently sensible—the exhibition was, after all, composed of the art, film, photography, and video that had emerged after perestroika and the crumbling of the Wall. But a moment’s reconsideration makes clear that lending the November date such magnitude is the classic mistake of overestimating the short-term and underestimating the long-term effects. Going forward from such a specific moment, without ever looking back, reins in meaning, making it appear that the heart of the matter is watching the spirit of individual freedoms gush, filling the gray vacuum that totalitarianism created. This is a shortcut to meaning, even less than a half-truth of what is actually at hand.

To grasp the full implications of this exhibition, we must see it as the legacy of not one, but four dates. The first three—July 1937, August 13, 1961, and that night in early November 1989—mark, respectively, the opening of the “Degenerate” show in Munich, that summer morning Berliners awoke to find the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic building a wall to stem the flow of refugees into the English, French, and American sectors of the divided city, and the hour when Germans on both sides of that 103-mile wall began to rip it down. But a fourth date is pivotal: On May 8, 1945, half of Germany and the rest of Eastern and Central Europe officially passed from the grip of one tyranny into the grasp of another.

Fifty-five years ago, land and lives became the spoils of war when Berlin, indeed Europe, was divided among the Allied powers, which were now themselves divided between Soviet and Anglo-American—or more to the point, between Communist and capitalist—spheres of influence, creating a historical-ideological axis and along with it the crucial context that has come to shadow “After the Wall.” For more than half of this century, either the Nazis or the Communists ruled that part of the world, with history providing little relief in between. Where artistic repression is concerned, events followed a trajectory from “Degenerate Art” in 1937 to the likewise infamous Soviet bulldozing of an open-air exhibition of “unofficial art” in a Moscow suburb in 1974. With this greater perspective, “After the Wall” becomes meaningful less as a decade-long sampling of artistic freedom than as a detailed map of the devastating and residual aftereffects on artistic production in Central and Eastern Europe wrought by the hard-hearted authoritarianism and humorless subjugation that had their beginnings in 1937.

The 115 artists (from 22 countries) included in this exhibition have lived at least half their lives on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain. They are the first of three generations, some would say, to have tasted self-determination as it has been enjoyed in the West. We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that most of these artists’ parents and grandparents knew life only under Hitler, Stalin, and their legacies. And so, to agree with the curators of this exhibition, Bojana Peji´c and David Elliott, who contend in their catalogue essays that the last decade has been fundamentally a period of transition and adaptation toward “normality” for these artists, is to understate the reality. Reform is destined to take hold over a generation, not in a decade, and “After the Wall” is prima facie evidence of this.

Given the historical circumstances, you’d expect these artists to see their various practices as landmark if not seditious, but most of this work seems stay-at-home timid by Western standards. I am thinking of the Armenian Azat Sargsyan, for example. Having stenciled welcome (in English) on his overcoat, Sargsyan went prone at the entrance to an exhibition. This was his performance titled Welcome to the Wall, 1999, where visitors to the opening were obliged to step over Sargsyan’s body to make their way inside. The artist has indeed become a paradox, a “welcoming boundary,” but to what end is entirely equivocal after the Wall. He is successful at playing the role of the artist-dissident à la Joseph Beuys or Chris Burden (which we recognize by Sargsyan’s use of civil disobedience)—but, again, to what purpose? Sargsyan can no longer make art unofficial, which reduces his performance to a kind of blind communicating vessel. He is out of context by ten years, a dissident without a cause, ultimately suspended in the endless “actions” of the pseudo-radical who disrupts, but with nothing gained. In the end, it would be natural to mistake him for what he is: a nuisance. At best he is a “provisional” militant in search of an ideology.

Edward Balassanian writes in the “After the Wall” catalogue that Sargsyan is “against all oppression, and the conditioning of minds,” but such a position is so frothy as to sound insincere. In “After the Wall,” Sargsyan is not the only one with an inaud-ible ideology. I think back to Igor Moukhin’s unremarkable photographs of disintegrating Soviet monuments (Fragments of Monuments, Moscow, 1992) and to Zbigniew Libera’s Lego Concentration Camp, 1996; the phrase “against all oppression” would serve this art well as a comprehensive, full-on critical reading. But then again, in all fairness, the undemanding interpretations this work invites must be leveraged against extenuating circumstances that exert pressures from well beyond the art world. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a culture emerging in the aftermath of the cold war, that era of simple consensus, when, depending on where you happened to live after May 1945, you believed either that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were the aggressors, or the United States and nato were. In the short term, it just may not be possible—nor even desirable—for a sophisticated new ideological position to tie things together so neatly.

Most of these artists are nevertheless pioneers, in that they are engaged in compulsory development within a cultural hothouse of their own construction, each a cog in the gearbox of the post-Communist era. This exhibition, then, documents the “ripening of the East,” where nothing yet seems resolved. To put it into a contemporary context, think for a moment about Russia, which catapulted itself, perhaps too hastily, over the rubble of Communism headlong into democracy and capitalism, until that destiny all too quickly began to flag. Its political and economic reforms gave way to a level of corruption more typical of a banana republic. With the nation’s domestic politics heated, and the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, no one in the West, and perhaps no one in the East, believes Russia circa 2000 is the Russia that will ultimately prevail. It is a work in progress, fully engaged in a live rehearsal before a world audience, trying on versions of what it is likely to become. And whether that will be a nuclear-armed kleptocracy, a nuclear-armed plutocracy, or a nuclear-armed democracy remains to be seen. But no matter how dubious Vladimir Putin’s commitment to democracy may be, few seem to think that there’s any chance of a return to ’37, ’47, or even ’87. In light of the consensus that there is nothing to recover from the modern past, and with a future circumscribed by democratic ideals fueled by high-octane capitalism, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s musing, that history ended when the Berlin Wall fell, begins to ring true.

Fukuyama’s observation brings to mind a compelling video installation from “After the Wall”: Anri Sala’s IntervistaFinding the Words, 1998. In a poignant passage from this work, the Albanian artist’s mother looks deep into the camera’s eye and with a pitiful expression of utter disillusionment says, “I’m frightened because I don’t see a way out. I don’t understand what’s happening anymore”—a fitting epitaph for the end of history, for this is the voice of someone who has been left behind. Sala’s documentary work is at once achingly sensitive, unflinchingly brutal, and psychologically loaded. It tells the story of his chance discovery of a black-and-white film made in the late ’70s, when his mother, then an activist in the Albanian Youth Communist Union, attended a state-sponsored trip to Germany. The footage shows her attending party rallies, being honored at awards ceremonies, conducting interviews with the press. But the film is silent, and the triumphant, optimistic voice of his youthful Communist mother is rendered mute until Sala recovers it through the skills of a lip reader at a school for the deaf. Suddenly, something like the ferocious sentiment of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape comes spewing out of Sala’s video, as his mother confronts history and its relative truth. The black-and-white film becomes a blunt cross-examination of her past life, a life that the last decade has rendered unthinkable. “Those aren’t my words,” she pleads to her son. And they probably weren’t.

It’s all quite unvarnished. And this is precisely how Sala’s work gathers critical mass. His mother finally acquiesces, admitting that “we are the generation that carried the weight of guilt and errors.” With history at an end for her, she tries to kindle hope in her son and to justify her life to him; her voice flickers with the effort to muster hard-earned wisdom: “I think we’ve passed on to you the ability to doubt . . . always question the truth.” Sala’s video ends, but it doesn’t drive toward conclusions—it awaits them.

In the booming economy of the world’s most powerful nation, the cold war has been reclassified as “remnant,” the stuff of TV specials on the History Channel. And as we adjust to the nation’s new position in the world, it is surely unsettling to watch North Korea and Iran test longer-range missiles, terrorists demolish two US embassies in Africa, and the Pentagon direct NATO’s air war over Kosovo. In January 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned that “we face a serpent’s den of perils—some fueled by technology’s advance, some by regional rivalry, some by naked ambition, and some by outright hate.” And as fraught as this may seem, for our former foes the aftermath of the cold war has had far deeper and more destabilizing implications. Wherever we look in Eastern and Central Europe, be it Russia, Hungary, Latvia, or Macedonia, as these governments open up we see political hotbeds in the throes of short-term triumphs and misfortunes. “After the Wall,” too, is an expression of something provisional. Perhaps at the moment we should expect nothing more, for as social, economic, and political conditions continually adjust and readjust, so too will the interim state of the culture. In this sense, “After the Wall” should command attention if not admiration.

Ronald Jones is an artist and frequent contributor to Artforum.