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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Breaking the Rope

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

Picking up the threads of the conversations about East European art history from the first session of Confrontations, the focus of the initial seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague was on attempts to locate East European art within global art history. This entailed discussing the legacy for East European art of the tripartite division of the Cold War, the relation of East European art to other global non-Western art regions and collectively analysing methodologies and curatorial approaches to reframing East European artistic identity three decades after the fall of communism.

Taking sides on the issues of whether belonging to the Second World during the Cold War was a privileged position for East European art, is East European art closer to the Euro-American axis or to the art histories of the global South, and how relevant is the decolonial project for the region, again saw the engagement of participants in a symbolic Tug of Art History. The impassioned position-taking on art historical dilemmas this time ended up breaking the rope.

Discussions that arose confronted the theorisation of decoloniality with the actual situation on the ground of East European art history. There were calls to pluralise decolonialisms, warnings about the dangers that the decolonial project could turn into nationalism and a desire expressed for political, ethical and microhistorical approaches that would allow for other narratives to emerge.

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Archiving Valoch

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

For many decades Jiří Valoch has been a “living institution”. He combined different roles in his professional career: a poet, musician, visual and textual artist, art critic, theoretician and curator, artistic culture organizer, pedagogue, art collector and archive builder. He is also an exemplary figure for the “Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History” research project in so far as he managed, between 1960 and 1990, to create and animate a vast transnational network of contacts, exchange and cooperation, not only with partners from other countries of the Eastern bloc but also from Western and Southern Europe or Latin America.

The thing that bears the greatest testimony to Valoch’s networking activities is his vast archive of art documentation, letters, exhibition catalogues and books on art. Regrettably enough, the archive – along with his art collection – is now divided and deposited in a number of places, the most important parts being kept in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, the J. H. Kocman Archive and the National Gallery in Prague. At present, one can hardly imagine an actual institution which would reintegrate Valoch’s dispersed heritage, be devoted to commemorating his multifarious achievements and take them as a reference point for its own contemporary concept, mission and programme. Yet it is exactly such an institution – or an interinstitutional cooperation project – that would be the right site to present the totality of Valoch’s transnational networking activities, at least in the form of a temporary exhibition.

During our visit to the Moravian Gallery in Brno we also had a chance to see the Jiří Valoch Archive itself. It was an unforgettable experience: a long corridor-like room with rows of book cases and card boxes filled with all kind of archival items, with a characteristic smell of old paper and a feeling of hopelessness in the face of an unorderly overabundance of research material. As we were informed by the curator of the archive, Jana Písaříková, the gallery team are indeed at the very beginning of systematic ordering and tagging of the items and researching their content. The situation reminded us about other archives of East European art that are still being discovered or made available for exploration and, more generally, about how much primary sources research is still to be performed here. Contrary to some beliefs, we are not done with it and cannot simply proceed to a next stage of synthetic and comparative analyses. Both, it seems, must be done at the same time.

(Tomasz Załuski)

Setting the Confrontations Agenda

MajaFowkes29 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)

MSUM+

MajaFowkes29 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)