X Close

Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



The 1980s…And What Came After

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The programme of the Confrontations meeting in London brought new perspectives to our ongoing discussions of the art of the 1980s in Eastern Europe, by offering a view of the last decade of socialism from outside the region. More specifically, presentations by Marysia Lewandowska and Fedja Klikovac revealed the complexities of artistic border crossings in an era that alternated between cultural and political stasis and epochal transformation.

In her art practice, which across film, installation and interventions deals with the relation between public realms and private ownership in a variety of museum and archival settings, Marysia Lewandowska does not dwell on her own biography. We were therefore privileged that she took the opportunity of her presentation for the Confrontations group to talk about some of the less tangible connections between her personal history of emigration from Poland in 1984, taking a three day trip on an ocean liner in the company of fellow citizens fleeing the repressions of martial law, and the evolution of her artistic interests since settling in the UK. The group was in listening mode as she recounted the origins of the Women’s Audio Archive, a project that she launched in 2009 based on recordings of encounters in the artworld and academia taped during the 1980s. The archive is a record of the language and cultural specificities of the western artworld during a decade that saw the dissolution of the certainties of the Cold War era, but also the emergence of alternative positions and perspectives reflecting different histories and identities. Lewandowska’s abiding interest in the public realm, and the defence of public knowledge against privatising tendencies, come to the fore in her efforts to make the Women’s Audio Archive completely accessible and free of copyright restrictions. It is in the call to keep knowledge, culture and art free from state and market control that the autonomy-loving stream of Polish and East European neo-avant-garde thinking resurfaces in a different space and time, while the practices of self-instituting and self-archiving could also be traced to the art history of the region.

East European practices of self-instituting could also be a relevant point of reference for the career of Fedja Klikovac, who hosted the group in Handel Street Projects, a gallery which used to inhabit temporary spaces around London, but now has a permanent home on a residential street in Islington. He shared with us the prehistory of his curatorial and gallery activities, leading back to the time he spent as a participant in the distinctive ecosystem of the Yugoslav artworld in the 1980s. Born in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro that at the time was known as Titograd, he studied art history in Belgrade in the late 1970s and was part of the vibrant international and alternative art scene around the Student Cultural Centre (SKC). His artistic career, which saw him exhibit in pivotal exhibitions such as Yugoslav Documents in Sarajevo in 1989, came to an end when he emigrated to London in 1992 following the outbreak of war. Actually it would be more accurate to say that his creativity took new directions, such as running the medievalmodern gallery in Marylebone in the early 2000s, based on the concept of inviting artists to make work in dialogue with medieval artefacts.

Also on view in Handel Street Projects was a display of works by Olga Jevrić, the renowned Yugoslav sculptor, whose first solo presentation in the UK was organised by Klikovac in 2019. The Confrontations group had seen Jevrić’s work in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, and the artist’s singular sculptural oeuvre, above all her abstract works from the mid-1950s that fused metal and concrete into irregular forms, is also now represented in the collection of Tate Modern. This is indicative of the expansion of institutional collecting to encompass a greater range of periods and movements in East European art history, looking beyond the golden age of the neo-avant-garde in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Both Klikovac and Lewandowska’s presentations made vivid the presence and often still invisible influence of East European art history on the institutions and practices of the British artworld and academia, while suggesting fleeting parallels between the economic geographies of the UK and Eastern Europe, which during the 1980s underwent different but related versions of de-socialisation and re-marketisation.

Church Art in the Palace of Culture and Science

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Ivana Bago

First thing in the morning was the ideal time to visit the famous Palace of Culture and Science, built in 1955 on the model of the “Seven Sisters,” a group of skyscrapers built under Stalin in Moscow. We were there to visit the exhibition and storage spaces of the Studio Teatr Gallery, but we also used the opportunity to ride the elevator and get a 778-ft-tall bird’s-eye view of Warsaw. Following the tour of the Palace and the gallery storage spaces, where we had the privilege of seeing mannequins used in the theater plays of Józef Szajna, who also directed STUDIO Theater during the 1970s. This was also the time when the STUDIO Theater Gallery was founded, as we later learned in the presentation by the gallery director, Dorota Jarecka, held in the exhibition space.

The presentation on the history and the program of the gallery was followed by a seminar on Polish art of the 1980s in Warsaw, with Dorota Jarecka and Piotr Rypson. One of the central topics of the conversation was “church art,” or a series of exhibitions that took place in churches during the post-Solidarity 1980s – an exotic and surprising topic for all who had earlier not been acquainted with the phenomenon. Jarecka, an art historian and curator who did research on the topic, protested the term “church art,” finding it misleading: not all artists who exhibited at churches were religion, and the (Catholic) church today is not what it was in the 1980s. In Jarecka’s view, what is intriguing about the phenomenon is the way that artists negotiated the exhibitions with the church and parishioners, at the same time seeking to maintain the autonomy of art. Rypson, art historian, writer and witness of the era, disagreed to an extent, reminding us that there were artists who were also genuinely interested in Christianity, as well as alternative forms of spirituality, towards which a number of priests and parishes were also open at the time. Rypson himself was more drawn to alternative culture and told us very compelling stories about the Remont gallery, a student-run space that also housed punk concerts and distributed zines, as well as a number of other relevant spaces and events in Warsaw, and beyond.


Mapping Łódź Eighties

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Juliane Debeusscher

Tomasz Załuski’s comprehensive presentation “Lodz in the 1980s – The Local is Networked” immersed us into the atmosphere of the local cultural scene of the decade. With the introduction of martial law on December 1981, artistic initiatives sought to explore a “third way” far from any political, religious and even artistic authority – and, possibly, ridiculing it. The idea of “embarrassing art” invented by Łódź Kaliska epitomises this attitude of anarchism, surrealism and self-mockery, promoting art as “unfruitful, insignificant, stupid, uninteresting, unconstructive, incoherent” (and so on…).

Particularly interesting to me were the critical discussion on the authoritative position and legacy of the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s and the emblematic phenomena of the “Pitch-In-Culture.” Understood primarily as a means of collecting money for alcohol (vodka) and food, it manifested itself through gatherings, performances, screenings and exhibitions in private locations, like the Attic (Strych) run by Łódź Kaliska. While many projects focused on black humour, absurdity and excess, they also reflected a sense of community, self-organisation as well trans-generational and transnational cooperation that could provide a ground for a fruitful comparison or dialogue with other Eastern European initiatives of that time.

Such communal experience was not devoid of agonistic dimension, as Tomasz remarked. No consensus around common principles, but rather a particular form of “atomization” – also evoked by Piotr Rypson in Warsaw – that allowed these practices to survive under martial law and even be continued in other forms after the system’s change in the 1990s.


By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Constanze Fritzsch

A local art history and mapping of the art scene of a single city can be very problematic because of flattened art history that proposes only a very narrow narration. Nevertheless, as in translocal, comparative art history the scale plays an important role, the art history of a region or a city may permit a comparison that otherwise would not be possible as in the case of Poland and GDR. A Polish, East-German comparison is especially challenging because of the lack of significant translocal exchanges or networks as well as different chronologies due to different socio-political settings. The presentation of the Łodź art scene of the 1980s by Tomasz Zaluski provided a common ground for parallels of the art scenes of Łodź, Leipzig and Dresden beyond a strict chronology and without neglecting the very specific context. Parallels can be drawn and studied between the necessary irony and sarcasm to deal and face an over-ideologized everyday life and a disastrous economic situation in the exhibitions of the Eigen + Art Gallery or the performances of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten. As a result, in parts of all three art scenes the art practices are characterized by a disillusionment with the socialist project and a network of private initiatives, as the production of Super film in Dresden or the different groups around A.R. Penck shows. Moreover, the church serves not only as a host for art events, but also as a spiritual resource and biographical background for artists like f. e. Else Gabriel (member of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten) as well as a platform which would allow a forum to debate and communicate. This analyze of similarities can be embedded in a Europe-wide art history of tendencies, characteristics and issues of the art of the 1980s.

Galeria Wschodnia

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Hana Buddeus

After an intensive day spent at Muzeum Sztuki, we were happy to go out and experience the reality of the post-industrial atmosphere of the city of Łódź. During a visit to the Galeria Wschodnia, we were presented with an opportunity to zoom in on the image of the 1980s Łódź art scene, which we had been introduced to through the presentations that morning.

The gallery – established in the early 1980s and one of the oldest artist-run spaces in Poland – is still situated in the same location, an old apartment building on Wschodnia street. It consists of two gallery rooms, a guest room used by artists in residence, and a kitchen, the place of social interaction, under the reign of a cat, Benek, who has experienced the gallery’s entire long history. Adam Klimczak, one of the two artists who has run the space from the very beginning, was kind enough to not only show us the current exhibition but also let us enter the kitchen, where he recounted some of the adventures connected to the place. A recently published book Galeria Wschodnia. Dokumenty 1984-2017 / Documents 1984-2017, edited by Tomasz Załuski, confirms (and reassesses) the historical importance of the space.

Exchange Gallery

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Pavlína Morganová

As Tomasz Załuski put it in his essay On Art History and Its Advantages for Living, Józef Robakowski is a one-man institution: he is an extraordinary multimedia artist, gallerist and archivist at the same time. In 1979 he founded along with Małgorzata Potocka The Exchange Gallery. Located in their studio apartment on the 9th floor of the Łódź tenement building called Manhattan, it invited artist to exchange ideas in original presentations as well as all kinds of textual and visual archival records.

Now into his 80s, the artist accepted the group on Friday evening and generously answered all our questions about the history of the Workshop of Film Form, The Exchange Gallery and his own work. I was especially interested in the series of his famous films From My Window shot from the windows of the apartment from 1978 until 1990s. Robakowski started to film the series on film camera and later in 1980s switched to video camera. His apartment is not just witness of many artistic experiments, exchanges, exhibitions, but also the site of creation of his extraordinary audiovisual pieces.

Nothing Can Stop Us!

By confrontations, on 5 November 2019

I will remember the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava as a space of stimulating intellectual exchange, punctuated by surprise and laughter. The two days of presentations and discussions at the Kornel and Nada Földvari Library on the Gallery’s first floor bear the mark of the disturbingly hilarious presence of a beautiful stuffed horse, poised next to the larger-than-life portrait of Mr. Földvari dressed as an “Indian.” Despite Földvari’s evident passion for the “Wild West,” the horse was not his idea, but was placed there as a nod to the stuffed giraffe dominating the entrance of the Natural History Museum since socialist times. This same giraffe was supposed to become an inhabitant of the Bratislava Zoo but died upon arrival, ending up as an enduring, and most popular, museum exhibit.

Things seemed to reach their logical conclusion on the second floor of the Gallery, where Nothing Can Stop Us, a retrospective exhibition of the Slovak pioneer of “new expressionism,” Laco Teren, opened with a sculpture of a laughing horse, or rather, an upside-down centaur, a creature with human legs and equine torso and head, sticking out his tongue at the visitors. Tongue-in-cheek indeed best describes this exquisitely installed exhibition, curated by Katarína Bajcurová, who gave us a tour. The blazing colors of Teren’s paintings and his humorous, cocky, end-of-history reshuffling of symbols of class struggle and socialism look like Laibach/Irwin on LSD, as if to suggest the need to not simply end, but to thoroughly launch ourselves out of history, laughing.

I guess our itinerant quest for Eastern European, socialist art in Confrontations is something of a hybrid of the two horses: one negotiating with the geocultural crossdressing and taxidermy of the socialist past, and the other exploding it in order to transform it into some as yet-unseen but exhilarating future. Nothing can stop us!

(Ivana Bago)

Introducing Syzygia

By confrontations, on 5 November 2019

We were joined by two members of the Syzygia group, Rudolf Sikora and Gabriel Hošovský, for a working dinner to reflect on the intergenerational and cooperative spirit of the Bratislava art scene at the end of the 1980s. Founded in 1986 by four younger artists and Sikora, the name Syzýgia derived from the astronomical term for contradictory phenomena, which stood here for the local conflict between modernist and postmodernist outlooks. Standing up against ideological control, their shows, originally held in the older artists’ studios, offered a neo-conceptualist riposte to the neo-expressionist trend in painting. Although the group stopped exhibiting together shortly after the revolution of 1989, their collaborative achievements are documented in a bilingual catalogue, which the editor Lýdia Pribišová introduced to the Confrontations participants.


Slovak Lessons in Late Socialism

By confrontations, on 5 November 2019

Guest lectures by Slovak art historian Ján Kralovič and curator Mira Keratová gave the group the opportunity to become immersed in the specificities of the art histories of the late 1970s and 1980s in Bratislava and the life and work of artists whose careers traversed the period from Normalisation to the Velvet Revolution.

Mira Keratová focused in her presentation on Ján Budaj, an artist whose attempts to cross closed international borders brought him into contact with the secret police, religious groups and alternative communities in Slovakia and abroad. She also shed light on his influential role in the Velvet Revolution as a leading figure in the environmental and civic protest movements of the 1980s, including as a producer of samizdat publications and initiator of the group Temporary Society of Intense Experience.

Ján Kralovič took the group on a virtual journey from the 1970s to the 1980s in the alternative scene of Bratislava, sharing with us rare images of the ephemeral exhibition spaces set up in the homes of artists. The questions raised by the Confrontations participants included how official attitudes to rebellious artist collectives and non-official spaces changed between the 1970s and 1980s, with Kralovič pointing to 1986 as the threshold year, after which there was no longer a compulsion for experimental artists to take shelter from the authorities in under-the-radar apartment galleries.


Before the Nineties

By confrontations, 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.




Moderna galerija

By confrontations, 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.


Utopian and Dystopian 1980s

By confrontations, 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.’


IRWIN Studio

By confrontations, 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.