By Ariella Budick
The German word Ostalgie was coined to describe the bittersweet sense of longing and loss for the former Soviet bloc. “Ostalgia”, an English twist on the term, is the title of the tantalising exhibition at the New Museum in New York, which surveys art produced in or about the nations that a dying empire shook out of its tattered sleeve. Curator Massimiliano Gioni, inspired by gloomily wistful authors such as W.G. Sebald and Vladimir Nabokov, is steeped in the melancholy of exile. His idiosyncratic sensibility inflects this show, whose most successful parts trigger the ruminative thrumming Gioni does best. The rest is conceptual, historical and crummily incoherent.
Many of the artists of Ostalgia use the multi-paned lens of homesickness to survey places that no longer exist. Petrit Halilaj, born in Kosovo, recovered a collection of butterflies once housed in the natural history museum in Pristina, a much-loved boyhood haunt that glowed in his memory. The museum was demolished to make way for a convention centre, but Halilaj managed to find the old vitrines where they languished in a municipal storage facility. He photographed each pinned insect, now decayed into brownish dust and delicate wing, and reproduced the collection at the New Museum as projected slides. For Halilaj, as for the great lepidopterist-in-exile Nabokov, hunting butterflies is a way to fix the past.
Perhaps inevitably, Ostalgia is a deeply literary exhibition, and for Vladimir Arkhipov, a set of unlovely homemade tools steps into the role of Proust’s madeleine. Arkhipov grew up in Soviet Russia, where, he reports, everyone was a manic inventor, twisting toothbrushes into coat hooks and forks into TV antennas. He finally understood that the makeshift gadget was a vernacular genre, a form of “unintentional folklore”. Now he scours Russia for thousands of these improvised ready-mades, plugging them into a photographic encyclopedia of ingenuity. Each item is an aesthetic object born of need and repurposed as a fragment in the archaeology of fallen empire.
A plaintive yearning for the certainties of yore permeates the art on view. Phil Collins’s powerful video features three women who taught Marxist-Leninist economics in the former German Democratic Republic. When the Berlin Wall fell, they were turned loose, unprepared, into an alien ideological habitat. They all proved resourceful in forging new identities. One started a dating service, one retrained as a social worker, and the third, who had a doctorate in economics, transitioned very successfully into the banking system. The banker, oddly enough, is the most nostalgic of the three, lauding her free education, the intellectual tools she inherited, and the sense of meaning she once attached to her work. Collins intercuts his interviews with archival footage of 1970s GDR educational TV, where the propaganda was so subtle it masqueraded as freedom of thought. At crucial moments, the nattering of the educators fades out and the haunting soundtrack, by Laetitia Sadier and Tim Gane of Stereolab, washes over past and present alike.
The strongest elegiac strain in the exhibition is also the most abstract: young artists’ desire for meaning. Under Communism, work made in secret circulated among a small group of intimates. It emerged out of inner necessity, elicited by the pure urge to make personal, aesthetic or political statements. Artists may have endured censorship and repression, but they were also independent of the market’s intransigent demands. Boris Groys, an expert on post-Soviet art, explains in a catalogue interview: “I see more and more young artists who say ‘we don’t want to accept the role of the commodity producers … so they look back to the 60s and 70s, to the socialist or communist period, and try to re-enact the same methods and practices under new conditions.”
That impulse has triggered a revival of conceptual art, and the show includes a number of stale relics: Tibor Hajas’s videos of Hungarian strangers in a public square, the Romanian Ion Grorescu’s private films of himself boxing in the nude, the Czech performance artist Jirí Kovanda’s public “actions”, such as blocking foot traffic by standing on a sidewalk with his arms outstretched. This mid-century conceptual fare looks seductive now to younger artists who feel imprisoned by the free market.
There’s something doomed, though, about yearning for an urgency born of repression or emulating an art that couldn’t possibly – and therefore needn’t – sell. Aneta Grzeszykowska, born in 1974 in Warsaw, has assembled hundreds of her family’s snapshots and laboriously edited her face and figure out of every one. Essentially, she has turned herself into a non-person, the way Stalinist bureaucrats of her grandparents’ generation simply erased political undesirables. The result is an oddly anachronistic and scattershot form of protest: Is her problem with the anonymising power of the collective state or with the capitalist cult of celebrity? Her project lies at the heart of this paradoxical exhibition: she is struggling for recognition by harking back to a time when individuals were routinely crushed.
Ostalgia continues until September 25