It is a good 25 years since the categories “West” and “East” underwent a decisive shift. It has taken almost as long to overcome the restrictive and patronising terminological straitjacket of so-called “Eastern Art” or, worse still, “Art from the former Eastern Bloc”. The difficulties involved in the ongoing search for fitting terms to describe artistic production from this region, even almost a quarter of a century after the fall of the Iron Curtain, speaks volumes. After all, the geographical circumlocution “Art from Eastern Europe” is nothing more than a work-around that tends to conceal the deeper problematic issue – namely securing a definitive place for this work in the contemporary art canon – rather than actually contributing to shedding light on the matter.
In cooperation with Kontakt. The Art Collection of Erste Group and ERSTE Foundation, whose focus is on precisely this area, the Spring edition takes a fresh look at the problem outlined above. In the process it examines the changing parameters in the various modes of viewing art from this area – regardless of whether such perspectives are primarily historical (“part of the former Eastern Bloc”), ideological (“post-Communist”) or geographical (“from Eastern Europe”). Whatever form the appropriate terminology may finally take, the central issue at stake here relates to questions that still await a satisfactory response: Which new narratives have taken the place of the old West-East paradigm since 1989? To what extent has global art historiography rendered regional markers obsolete? Can the oft-invoked terminological frame of (not primarily regionally marked) “contemporary art” serve as a meaningful designation for the specific aspects of the geo-political contexts in which production is embedded today? And to what extent are such embeddings not themselves based on simplifying categorisations?
This series of questions was explored by renowned theorists and art historians in two events jointly organised by springerin and Kontakt last July and January. The aim was to trigger a kind of “parallax” view: not in a sense locating the “East”, or rather its art, in a static fashion from fixed individual perspectives, but instead adopting “dual-perspective” views to limber up entrenched conceptual constructions. The observers, who were invited to engage in public dialogues, were asked to select their points of departure freely and could also change these in the course of the conversations; the intention was for the object of their observation – the positioning of the “East” through the prisms of history, ideology and art geography – to be affected by their reflections too. It was however clear that this kind of displacement should not simply lead to ersatz incorporation into the paradigm of “global art”, and nor should there be a reduction to one “East” that would leave actually existing plurality out of the picture.
The five conversations reproduced here differ in the focus adopted. Peter Osborne and Nataša Ilić tackle the larger geopolitical frame of involvement within which the “East” has been and remains situated today in terms of art and exhibition politics. Ekaterina Degot and Cosmin Costinaş, both devotees of practical exhibition-making, consider which operative function may be played by positively claiming the “East”. An enlightening clash of perspectives also emerges in the dialogues between Branislav Dimitrijević and Rasha Salti, and between Keti Chukhrov and Anthony Yung: in the first instance, by recalling the historical worldwide solidarity that used to span Eastern European countries and parts of the Arabic or “third” world; in the second instance, by an exploration of the continuing ramifications of the ideological legacy of the discussants’ countries of origin (Russia and China) in all their incoherency.
Last but not least, in their parallax discussion Boris Buden and Marta Dziewańska take the changing historical constellation of the “East” as their point of departure and ponder how history and the present can be productively opened up to each other. Completing the edition, in an interview with the doyens of Czech contemporary art, Jirí Ševčík and Jana Ševčíková look at the practical dimension of “opening up to Eastern Europe” on the basis of their own work. A further historical spotlight is turned (visually) on the performance pieces of Romanian artist Paul Neagu, whose works, like those of many other artists represented in this edition, figure in the core collection of the Kontakt Art Collection.
Our heartfelt thanks go to Kathrin Rhomberg, Walter Seidl, Julia Jachs, Hephzibah Druml and Karolina Radenković from Kontakt; it would have been impossible to create this edition in this form without their support and cooperation. A shared concern that links the collection to the conceptual thrust of this magazine is to be found in constant questioning and reflection on the shape that might be taken by a fitting conception of the “East”, specifically a notion that should not be cast-in-stone for all time. A conception that is equally aware of its own simplifications and of the recontextualizations that are not only necessary again and again but must be redefined with heightened acuity.