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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Setting the Confrontations Agenda

By , on 29 April 2019

The first session of Confrontations kicked off with a circle of introductions of this select group of scholars of East European art history, coming together at the beginning of an ambitious programme of collective research. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, the first gathering was an opportunity to introduce the agenda of Confrontations over the coming years, with the aim to uncover the contested histories of the art of the first and last decades of the socialist period across the diverse art scenes of Eastern Europe.   Anticipating from the outset the complexity and potential irreconcilability of certain positions in contested art historical evaluations, the participants were invited to confront their views through a symbolic Tug of Art History. The question that saw the group take the most opposing positions indicatively was whether abstract art could be seen as a propaganda tool of the socialist state. Intended as a gesture to establish a safe environment for the expression of discordant points of view, this group exercise was also an indication of the objective of Confrontations to activate the potential of ‘sensuous scholarship’ through an embodied art history in which researchers are immersed in direct experiences, exchanges and encounters with the objects of study in situ.        The first group seminar vividly illustrated the plurality and wealth of approaches in response to the task of proposing their own working definition of East European art history. As we went around the table, it was clear that everyone had interpreted the brief set out in advance by the convenors of Confrontations differently. In that sense, attempts to define our research area ranged from historicising the question of East European art, either relegating it to the pre-1989 state-socialist period or conceiving it as a post-1989 construct, to putting forward theoretical or linguistic distillations of the field. Also voiced was the notion that focusing on Eastern European art could be a strategic choice, in terms of pursuing particular ethical or decolonising agendas with regard to art history.

(MRF)

Tomislav Gotovac Institute

By , on 29 April 2019

After intensive discussions at MSU and pulling of the rope, we ended in the Krajiška street 29 in the former apartment of Tomislav Gotovac. Welcomed by Darko Šimičić, co-founder of the Institute and secretary of the artist’s archive, along with Zora Gotovac and daughter Sarah, we could follow Gotovac’s fascinating journey from experimental films, photostories towards performance art.

In the authentic settings of the artist’s apartment and the studio we were able to understand the birth of a visual artist using expanded media in the unique situation of Croatia since the 1960s. Gotovac’s case is one of the examples of artistic trajectories behind the Iron Curtain, influenced by politics, social change and personal standings. He was a key member of the Yugoslav neo-avant-garde and exhibited in 1976 for the first time after 15 years of continuous work. He created series of photographs, collages,  a number of experimental films and famous performances. The visit of the artist’s kitchen was an experience of its own – Gotovac’s Yugoslav Merzbau is an original and very personal collage in the space. And when Darko Šimičić pulled out of one of the closets Gotovac’s batman suite made by Zora Gotovac from underwear, we were hooked.
(Pavlína Morganová)

Pluralising Yugoslav Art

By , on 29 April 2019

A constitutive element of the Confrontations sessions are peer seminars at which the members succinctly present their research related to the particular focus of the programme and then respond to questions and comments from the others. The first such seminar was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and was focused on the uneven terrains of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav art history, with presentations by Ivana Bago on What is Yugoslav Art?, Asja Mandić on The Centre-Periphery Relations in Socialist Yugoslavia: Multiple Art Histories and Sandra Bradvić on Jugoslovenska dokumenta (Sarajevo, 1984-1989): From ‘off-space’ to ‘big-scale-exhibition’.Much discussion ensued over the relation between Yugoslav art history and that of the individual countries of the former socialist federation, and how to evaluate moves during the post-communist period to assimilate Yugoslav art to a wider East European account. Productive debate was also sparked over how the narrative of Yugoslav art history could be pluralised to include artists and communities who were excluded from the celebrated ‘second line’ traced in canonical accounts from EXAT51 through New Tendencies, Gorgona and the New Art Practice to the post-avant-garde formations of the 1980s.
(MRF)

No SR in the MSU

By , on 29 April 2019

In light of our discussions, it was extremely instructive to have a tour of the incomparable MSU collection from curator and co-author of the display Tihomir Milovac. He shared his methodology of developing a ‘collection in motion,’ and the intricacies of approaches to abstraction in the oeuvre of EXAT51 artists and the Gorgona group.


He also sympathetically fielded critical observations on particular curatorial / institutional decisions about how to represent the art of socialist times, such as why there is no Socialist Realism on display. The diplomatic response was that the museum takes 1950 as a cut-off point and that the Gallery of Contemporary Art was founded and began collecting only in 1954, so had no interest in acquiring works in this style.
Curator Jasna Jakšić offered further illumination of the research possibilities of the collection and was of invaluable assistance in organising our time in the museum. Direct encounters with the artworks and their museological presentation created a rigorous setting for discussions and it was refreshing – and paradigm-expanding – to follow an alternative route around the collection that gravitated towards those art historical episodes that preceded and followed the heights of new art practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
(MRF)

Situated Knowledge

By , on 29 April 2019

A guest talk by artist and researcher Darko Fritz drew the group closer to the influential New Tendencies series of exhibitions and symposia held in Zagreb from 1961. In an impassioned presentation delivered in front of the works themselves, he laid out the lifecycle of the movement from inception to crisis, the local politics around New Tendencies and its relation to other artistic formations.  He also addressed the way in which the movement was eventually subsumed into other stylistic categories, like Op Art, within an international context. Reflecting also his own  background in New Media Art, Fritz emphasised the exceptional contribution of New Tendencies to the development of Computer Art.
Another engaging talk was by curator Ivana Janković on Croatian artist Antun Motika, whose singular post-war experimental practice, involving work with organic materials and slide projections, does not easily fit into existing local art historical narratives of the period. For the participants, with their broad comparative perspective, Motika’s approach revealed unexpected points of connection with the interests of other East European artists of the post-war period in the overlaps of art, nature and science.
(MRF)

Before the Nineties

By , on 29 April 2019

The group had a further chance to connect with the Zagreb art scene during an Open Seminar held at the Institute of Contemporary Art Zagreb. After an insightful and in depth analysis by art historian Leonida Kovač of the singular oeuvre of Edita Schubert (1947-2001), an artist whose practice still awaits international recognition, the evening carried on with an engaging conversation exploring the heterogenous streams of eighties art with curator and director of the ICA, Janka Vukmir.

The issues that were addressed included the importance of alternative art venues such as the Gallery of Extended Media in providing a platform for subcultural trends and the visual arts. Furthermore, what can be salvaged from the interrupted legacy of the time before the nineties?

Afterwards our speakers joined us for a memorable dinner. On our last night in Zagreb, everyone was full of impressions and keen to exchange notes and deepen acquaintances with fellow members of Confrontations.
(MRF)

 

 

 

Institute of Art History

By , on 29 April 2019

Still in Zagreb, next morning we visited the Institute of Art History, where the group met with art historian Sandra Križić Roban for a seminar on the history of the Institute and the art history journal, Život umjetnosti, of which until recently she was the editor in chief.She emphasised the role of particular individuals in determining and building up the profession of art history after the Second World War, while discussion also shifted towards the confrontation between EXAT51 and Edo Murtić over their designs for a mural in the Ritz Bar nightclub in 1953 as epitomising the struggle between competing streams of modernism in Yugoslavia after the Stalin-Tito split of 1948.  We also had a tour around the building, one of the most representative achievements of socialist-era architecture and design, which opened in 1961 as the Moša Pijade Workers and Peoples University.  The tour even took us into the basement of the institution, a trapdoor into a past world and a reminder that the infrastructure of the present is built upon the material world created by socialist modernity.
(MRF)

 

East-West Dinner

By , on 29 April 2019

A working dinner on our arrival in Ljubljana was an opportunity to engage with the work of renowned Slovenian curator and theorist Igor Zabel (1958-2005) and revisit from a contemporary perspective the historiography of East European art and its origins in the critical debates of the first post-communist decade. Participants took turns commenting on short theoretical extracts of his writing, with Daniel Véri and Magdalena Moskalewicz assigned the following to analyse: “An Eastern artist now becomes attractive for the West, not as somebody producing universal art, but exactly as someone who reflects his particular condition. He is not an only an artist, but particularly a Russian, Polish or Slovene artist, or simply an Eastern artist.”

The participants also had a chance to meet Urška Jurman of the Igor Zabel Association for Art and Theory and receive a copy of Extending the Dialogue, including texts that had already been discussed in our session on defining East European art history.
(MRF)

 

Moderna galerija

By , on 29 April 2019

As curator Marko Jenko explained, the permanent collection of Moderna galerija has a novel layout that gives the visitor the choice of either following the meandering path of a heterogenous local art history from the fin de siècle to the breakup of Yugoslavia, or taking a lateral short cut travelling straight from the modernist avant-garde of the 1920s through the Partisan art of the Second World War to the neo-avant-garde group OHO and Neue Slowenische Kunst in the 1980s.
The focus of Confrontations meant that the group was just as interested in engaging with the less prominent styles and more problematic artistic phenomena from the Informel and Slovenian Dark Modernism to the eclectic painterly styles of the 1980s.The participants also found instructive the social, political and art-institutional chronology of Slovenian art in the central hall that poignantly ends with Slovenian independence in 1991.
(MRF)

 

Metelkova Group Seminar

By , on 29 April 2019

After the insightful introduction to Slovenian art through the Modern galerija’s collection and a visit to the neighbouring International Centre of Graphic Art, which through its long-running biennial conveyed the intricacies of exhibition diplomacy in non-aligned Yugoslavia, the group headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM). The Confrontations seminars continued in a comparative spirit by examining the specificities of Croatian and Slovenian views of Yugoslav art history, as well as expanding the discussion further. Constanze Fritzsch spoke about Socialist Realism: A sublation of art into life as an abstract painter like Hermann Glöckner would have understood it?, complicating the established narratives of the distinctions between socialist realism and abstract art. Daniel Véri spoke about Conflicting Narratives: The Memory of the Holocaust in 1960s Hungarian Art, distinguishing between the restrictive format of official monumental commemorations and the more testing approaches to Holocaust memory in the work of experimental artists.

(MRF)

 

Utopian and Dystopian 1980s

By , on 29 April 2019

A seminar with Marina Gržinić and Jovita Pristovšek offered a compelling interpretation of the development of the Slovenian artistic scene during the 1980s, as well as introducing the Confrontations participants to the microhistory of the Metelkova site and the complex relationship of the museum to local social movements. Gržinić shared some of her own memories and experiences of the eventful 1980s, emphasising the role of Škuc gallery in giving a platform to alternative currents and the sub-cultural challenge to the heteronormative values of both socialism and capitalism in the period, noting that, ‘if post-modernism was political anywhere, it was under socialism.’

(MRF)

Southern Constellations

By , on 29 April 2019

During our stay in Ljubljana we visited the exhibition Southern Constallations at Moderna galerija – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. This impressive show, curated by Bojana Piškur and based on her long-term research, presented the role of arts, cultural collaboration, exchange and diplomacy in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement. The movement was a political initiative, founded officially in the early 1960s, in which countries belonging to neither of the two Cold War blocks were involved. They were mainly Third World African and Asian countries but also Yugoslavia which pursued its “third way”. And it was from the perspective of Yugoslavia, quite obviously, as one of the non-aligned countries which had initiated the movement, that the exhibition approached the whole issue. The show combined historical documentation of different cultural exchanges and initiatives within the network of the non-aligned countries, along with some artworks from between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, and contemporary artists interventions.


For me, given the context of our Confrontations project and the issues we were dealing with during our visit to Zagreb and – especially – to Ljubljana, Southern Constellation really pinpointed the question of East European art history. It is significant that Moderna galerija, which has been playing an important role in the formation and development of studies on East European art of the second half of the XXth century (e.g. the exhibitions Body and the East, 1998; Interrupted Histories, 2006), seems now to be taking a different direction and trying to rediscover Yugoslavia’s participation in a global but at the same time non-Western network. I quess that one of the agendas behind looking for such a forgotten, “interrupted” history of another globality is to position one’s own local art production within the narrative of global art history on one’s own terms: to stress one’s specificity and difference with regard to Western globalisation by showing one’s connections to the “Third World”, “postcolonial”, “(semi)peripheral”, “Global South” etc. networks, but also, by the same token, to avoid the reduction of all Europe to Western Europe, not so uncommon in postcolonial studies. In this sense, the exhibition staged what seems to be a need for reinventing East European art history studies, especially ones that deal with the socialist period. Obviously, this need is not new, it has been with us for some time but it poses a task that is far from complete and yet to perform. It is a task of writing a history that still aims at establishing the specificity of a given local – national or regional – East European art phenomenon but shows it in its actual translocal connectedness, or transnational interdependency, not only within the Eastern bloc and across the West/East divide but also within other global networks next to it or beyond it. This can be, of course, applied not only to the art of Yugoslavia but also to that of other East European countries as well. After all, despite its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia was no exception here.

(Tomasz Załuski)

MSUM+

By , on 29 April 2019

Moderna galerija director Zdenka Badovinac gave a first hand account of the institutional history of a museum that was instrumental in shaping the course of East European art history during the first post-communist decades, through exhibitions such as Body and the East and the founding of regionally-focussed Arteast 2000+ Collection. Curator Igor Španjol specifically introduced the series of four exhibitions revisiting the art of the 1980s that were recently staged by the museum.
Our final afternoon at MSUM+ also included a guest lecture by art historian Beti Žerovc, who generously shared insights into the importance of various deep historical, geopolitical and distinctly local factors in the course taken by Slovenian art, embedded at the crossroads of German-speaking and Slavic cultures.  We came together in a circle to evaluate the events and collective experience of the first Confrontations sessions in Zagreb and Ljubljana.
(MRF)

IRWIN Studio

By , on 29 April 2019

On our final evening we had the opportunity to meet Dušan Mandić, Miran Mohar, Borut Vogelnik and Andrej Savski from IRWIN, and to quiz them about the origins of the group, their experiences with the Slovenian and international art scene during the 1980s, as well as their current practice and perspectives on contemporary political and social challenges. It was fascinating to hear their views on the circulation of artistic movements in the Yugoslav cultural space of the early 1980s, the role of class origin and privileges in the supposedly egalitarian social structure of communist Yugoslavia, as well as their explanation of the relationship between Laibach, IRWIN and NSK as overlapping but independent entities. During our time in Ljubljana we saw IRWIN artworks prominently exhibited in the permanent collection of museums, heard curatorial and art historical presentations contextualising their practice within the cultural upheaval of the Yugoslav 1980s and even got to experience the generosity, humour and warm glow of a long-lived artist group that does not shy away from critically intervening in the construction of East European art historical narratives. 

(MRF)