Published November 29th, 2023 by Russ White
The survey exhibition charts nearly 100 artists’ output across six Eastern Bloc countries during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, presenting a complicated tapestry of experimental art behind the Iron Curtain
You simply cannot have a spy thriller without a cluttered wall of photographs. Typically tacked up on a pinboard between newspaper clippings and marked-up maps, the collection of clues must then be connected, point to point, by an intricate, impossible web of red string. Nevermind that no one actually organizes evidence this way — as 20-year CIA veteran Gail Helt told Slate last year, their job is “intelligence, not arts and crafts” — this trope has nonetheless stuck in our collective imagination, dating back at least as far as 1979’s BBC version of the Cold War classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A conspiracy is afoot, we are convinced, if only our heroes can visually untangle the plot.
Curators find themselves in a similar position, tasked with presenting a series of disparate documents in just the right order, to thread connections from work to work. In the new exhibition Multiple Realities: Experimental Art in the Eastern Bloc, 1960s —1980s, the Walker Art Center’s Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś has set for himself a pinboard roughly half the size of Europe. Included here are works by nearly 100 artists from six different countries: East Germany, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary.
And that pinboard is indeed full of photographs. Photos, films, and collages make up the majority of the work in the show, many as documentation of performances. There are absurd happenings like playing an upright bass while laying flat on the ground, confrontational subversions of public space like facing backwards on an escalator, and flagrant actions making a mockery of strongman iconography like lazing about town with a placard of Lenin's face. Other installations resemble contact sheets, showing a full session of studio portraits or the process of shaving one’s entire head. Elsewhere are experiments in music, sculpture, textiles, mail art, and early computer-based art. I’ll warn you: it’s a big show, and there is a lot to take in.
Top: A selection of photos and mixed media collages by Teresa Gierzynska (Poland), 1977–1983. All works courtesy the artist and Gunia Nowik Gallery, Warsaw. Bottom: Orshi Drozdik (Hungary), Szempillantás és sóhajtás-sorozat (Blink and Sight series), 1977. Photo collage. Courtesy the artist, Budapest; and Einspach Fine Art & Photography, Berlin.
To place artworks together in a gallery is to assert (or create) a connection, even when the artists’ lives may never have intersected. The curatorial team, which also includes William Hernández Luege and Laurel Rand-Lewis, decided to take us not from country to country or decade to decade but room to room, organizing the show into four thematic sections: surveillance, sexuality, community, and technology. If you’re trying to pay close attention, I can see this show leaving you feeling discombobulated, as one friend of mine attested. We skip from one practice to another, from one nation to the next in a matter of feet — from a Croatian photographing a performance in late ‘70s Yugoslavia, for instance, to a German in the early ‘90s making collages with her East Berlin secret police files from ten years earlier. The red threads, if they existed, would string clear across the room and make the whole show impassable.
Nestled in between each section of the show are “content rooms” that actually do kind of resemble a detective’s evidence board, pairing brief historical synopses with archival photos and ephemera pinned to standing wooden lattices. Here, the curators illuminate this archive of artworks with a little bit of context about the particularities of each place and time. Any communist utopian would be well served to read these histories — even the Soviet states couldn’t see eye to eye, particularly Hungary with its “Goulash Communism” and Czechoslovakia with its Prague Spring and “Socialism with a Human Face.” Given the show's explicit focus on art “in the Eastern Bloc,” politics is inescapable. As Pyś explains in the exhibition catalogue, “Invoking the ‘Eastern Bloc’ in our exhibition title fulfills a similar purpose: it conjures a geographic and temporal picture while also pointing to a set of ideological constraints under which art was made.”
Top: Installation view of works by Sanja Iveković (Croatia/Yugoslavia), Ewa Partum (Poland), and Natalia LL (Poland). Bottom: Janina Tworek-Pierzgalska (Poland), Miejsca (Places), 1975. Tapestry, wool, steel (11 elements). Courtesy Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź.
Common themes do emerge across multiple works, most notably a focus on the body as a political, social, and personal object. You don’t have to live under a communist regime to understand the body as a site of control — abortion restrictions, mass incarceration, and transphobic laws are just some of the methods the Christians and the capitalists still use today. No surprise that the work made by women and queer artists stands out in a show full of small, bodily rebellions: a woman standing nude on a crowded street, a Brancusi-esque Erotic Pillow on its pink pedestal, and a bronze Human Egg each use the female body as a means of confrontation. Gabriele Stötzer’s photo series shows glamour shots of a man posing in women’s underwear against a spare white background. Years later, Stötzer discovered that her subject had been a Stasi informant the entire time. The private playfulness of the queer artists here brings tenderness and joy to the exhibition, records though they are of joy locked away in closets or used as vicious leverage by those in power.
The exhibition stands as a document of the many ways that individuals pushed back against the state — by flouting mores, by sneaking in subtexts, and by watching the watchers. One installation in the surveillance section shows secret photos taken of plainclothes agents during a crowded event in Romania. Another juxtaposes polaroids taken by the East German Stasi during secret home inspections beneath Jan Ságl’s photos of his own home ahead of the presumed intrusions by Czech police — the former so the cops can cover their tracks, the latter to see what they’ve disturbed. Proper spy versus spy stuff, and spooky as hell. In the corner, wrapped in gauze on a steel table, a block of ice the size of a cadaver slowly melts.
Above: (Top) Jan Ságl (Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia), Selections from Domovni prohlidka (House Search), 1973, printed 2022. Black-and-white photographs, black-and-white inkjet prints. Courtesy the artist, Prague. (Bottom) Simon Menner (Germany), Secret House Searches from the Images from the Secret Stasi Archive project, 2011-202, printed 2023. Digital prints. Courtesy the artist, Berlin.
Below: Gyula Konkoly (Hungary), Vérző emlékmű (Bleeding Monument), 1969/2023. Metal, ice, cotton wool, gauze, potassium permanganate, plastic sheeting. Courtesy the artist, Budapest. Seen here on November 9 and November 26.
Halfway through, the exhibition grows more light-hearted, with bright illustrations, ping-pong tables, body-painting hippies, and a room full of blinking and blonking computer-based art. I can imagine the sudden buoyancy undercutting the severity in the first two galleries for some viewers; at the same time, it also rounds out the narrative of artistic life across this great span of years. Experimentation took many forms, as did resistance.
Wiktor Gutt and Waldemar Raniszewski (Poland), Malowanie Ciała (Painting the Body), 1981. 31 color slides. Pola Magnetyczne, Warsaw.
Filled as it is with antiquated media (the slide projector televisions are particularly fun), the exhibition reports back a mostly black and white world of weirdos throwing their bodies against their governments, their countrymen, and, for sheer pleasure, against each other. Occasionally it all intersects in a single piece, as in Sanja Iveković’s documentation of the artist drinking whiskey and feigning masturbation on a balcony overlooking the motorcade of Yugoslavian President Josip Broz, commonly known as Tito. We get views of the artist, the President's convertible, the crowded street below, and a lone figure on a nearby rooftop. The police demanded empty balconies for the parade, and within fifteen minutes, the police were knocking on her door, ordering her inside. It’s a strange little vignette, and for Minneapolis, it might ring a faint bell — recalling our own moment of martial law, when residents were ordered off their own front porches at gunpoint during the early days of June 2020. Another thread to connect and untangle, from the police states of yore to the Cop Cities of today.
One thing that has always struck me during moments of art world controversy — Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial comes to mind, or Sam Durant at the Walker’s own Sculpture Garden, for instance — is the confirmation that people really do care about art. They care enough to call it out — even to tear it down — when an artwork oversteps, leading on occasion to difficult, beautiful moments of collective learning and cultural evolution. It can be easy to forget, when we’re locked inside our little rooms making our little pictures, that art has real power. It still astounds me the degree to which the strongmen of the 20th century feared that power, taking pains despite all their military might to declare what art should be and largely outlawing that which it should not. Many of the artists on view here suffered as a result, through limited opportunities, surveillance and harassment, and in some cases imprisonment.
Insofar as this exhibition takes a stand on matters of politics, the curators side with the individual against the authority. Works made in the style of socialist realism prescribed by these various regimes are absent, save for one painting and a series of linocuts that both carry subversive subtexts and one boring landscape painted by an artist who moonlighted as a much more mischievous community organizer (and ping-pong enthusiast). No artists here speak in favor of their governments.
The question of efficacy then bubbles up: how many little dents did these artists make in the Iron Curtain before it fell? To quantify that may be asking too much. To a piece, this is all work on a human scale, reacting with humor and cunning and caution to the slow, brutal inertia of society. The exhibition presents an impressive archive built on an astounding amount of research. Some works had been lost under floorboards or squirreled away in attics for decades, only now seeing the lights of a museum gallery.
There’s a sense of finality here, of history bagged and tagged, and I wish for these artists and their artworks the chance to be free of the wretched statesmen and secret police that haunt this work’s shadows. The American artists upstairs in the Walker’s Dayton Collection show hang free from that burden — Warhol, Guston, Puryear, Nevelson, and others — and I wonder, when the American experiment comes to its inevitable end (sooner or later), how the ugliness of our systems will be used to frame the work we are now making. Of course, if we’re at all worth our salt, we should already be asking ourselves that question.
The show provides a history lesson (several, in fact) through the eyes of the people that lived it and the curators who tracked them all down. Near the end of 1984, the villainous Thought Police agent O’Brien declares, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” He’s not entirely wrong, and it is tempting to look back at this period as the proof (though we need look no further back than today's headlines, sadly). But as the title suggests, Multiple Realities offers an alternate vision of infinity: climbing up the steps out of the surveillance gallery, past the melting body of ice and the secret police polaroids, Jolanta Marcolla is there to greet us. In a grainy black and white video, up against a brick wall, she smiles and blows us sweet kisses over and over, on repeat — forever. (Or at least until March.) ◼︎
Jolanta Marcolla, Kiss, 1975. 16mm film (black and white, silent) transferred to digital.
Multiple Realities: Experimental Art in the Eastern Bloc, 1960s —1980s is on view now through March 10, 2024, at Walker Art Center.
All photos by Russ White. This article has been edited to correct the nationalities attributed to Ion Grigorescu and Jan Ságl.
Banner image: Matei Lăzărescu (Romania), Masa de bacaterie (Kitchen Table), 1978. Oil on canvas. Collection Ovidiu Sandor, Timișoara.
This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
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