Interview : The Promises of the Past



Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, how should we rethink of the ancient opposition between the East and the West? At the time of globalization, what perspective should we adapt when looking at the art of the former Communist countries? How should we inherit these artistic practices? Featuring works by more than 50 artists, photographers and video artists from different generations and from several Central and Eastern European countries, the exhibition Promises of the Past tries to define a place for a past that is not yet finished and still challenges contemporary artists. With the intention to increase the polyphony and discontinuity opposed to a linear view of history, the title which is borrowed from the philosopher Walter Benjamin asks how this discontinuous history is now updated.

This fresh perspective between the past and the present provides an opportunity to discover the challenges the artists from the former Eastern Europe faced before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such approach sheds new lights on the specific cultural context that does not always conform to the ideas and the habitual imaginations that we have for the art "of the East." One would be easily struck by the desire of artists from these countries to create and to be autonomous. And one should also be aware of the heterogeneity to maintain a sphere of autonomous art rather than a dissident art that the West has always known. More precisely, such autonomous attempt can be seen in the anti-art movement that began in the mid 1950s with Mangelos in Zagreb and then the Gorgona group and its anti-magazines, and relayed in several countries, such as in former Czechoslovakia where the artist Július Koller engaged in the anti-happenings.


Cesary Bodzianowski, Rainbow, Bathroom, Lodz (1995). Monika Chojnicka Courtesy : Foskal gallery foundation, Warsaw, Poland

Cesary Bodzianowski, Rainbow, Bathroom, Lodz (1995). Monika Chojnicka Courtesy : Foskal gallery foundation, Warsaw, Poland


The desire to identify these issues determines the curatorial direction of the exhibition: it is neither to follow a chronological presentation nor to draw a geographical map, but to propose seven themes that brings together 160 pieces of works whose diversity is invigorating. The exhibition opens with a questioning of modernist utopias, offering critical perspectives and nostalgias on the modernist project to include artistic creation in social life.  Thus Lamps-Mouth (1966) of the Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow, the wanderings of Serbian artist Nesa Paripovic following an imaginary line through Belgrade (NP 1977, 1977) and the contemporary ruins photographed by the young French artist Cyprien Gaillard (Cairns, 2008) are part of the same story. The journey continues with Dimitri Prigov and Július Koller, who purposely escape the guiding roles the society assigned to them by fleeing to the parallel worlds imbued with a spirituality that may as well joining the mysticism and the social criticism. Another segment is devoted precisely to the anti-art, unique to the practices of artists from the region, while the next section questions the boundaries between the public and the private space as well as explores their respective limits.


Ion Grigorescu, Boxing, 1977 (Still Images). 8mm film on DVD, 2'44''. Courtesy of the artist.

© Ion Grigorescu, Boxing, 1977 (Still Images). 8mm film on DVD, 2'44''. Courtesy of the artist.


The weight of the collective over the individual is also in question.  The video works of the Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu are close to delusion and madness. His film Boxing (1977), largely unknown to the public, is a superposition of negatives showing the artist naked, in the process of boxing against himself. An acute illustration of the 'schizophrenia living in Communist Romania’, as claimed by the artist himself. The film is alternately moving and disturbing.  Among others, the practice of private gesture that seemingly innocuous and rebellious in nature opened the public space for artistic creation, such as in the micro-actions of the Czech artist Jiří Kovanda in 1970s. The Hungarian artist Tibor Hajas also blurs the boundaries between public and private spheres when scrolling bystanders before a fixed camera in Auto-fashion (1976).

The discourses around the feminine issues and the various feminist attitudes are another major theme. The rise of feminism and women emancipation in the mid-1960s facilitated the debates on women’s issues in the revolutionary Eastern Europe in the 1970s. A “Modern Woman” attitude was popular amongst some avant-garde female figures, such as the Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, who adapted the Nouveau Realisme style in her artistic practices by combining the body and erotica in a humorous way to explore the potentials and constraints of the female body. The former Yugoslav artist Sanja Ivekovic used video as her main artistic practice to expose the objectification of the female body in the 1970s mass media. At the same time, the Polish artist Ewa Partum staged bold feminist actions in the public space.


Ewa Partum, Self-Identification, 1980, Photomontage - 40 x 50 cm, Collection de l'artiste (exposition les Promesses du passé, au centre Pompidou, Paris) Courtesy de l’artiste

©Ewa Partum, Self-Identification, 1980, Photomontage - 40 x 50 cm, Collection de l'artiste (exposition les Promesses du passé, au centre Pompidou, Paris) Courtesy de l’artiste.


Under the totalitarian communism, there were people who risked their lives to criticize the political system and the institutional structures. Hungary in the late 1960s, especially before and after the Prague Spring, witnessed a strong desire for freedom and democracy. The Hungarian artist Tamas Szentoby, led by the spirit, created art works that incorporated political and institutional critiques in a creative way to escape censorship but finally subjected to exile. The same strategies and fates could be seen in the other figures such as the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia artist Braco Dimitrijevic, the Hungarian artist Tibor Hajas and Endre Tot. Today, a new generation of artists are taking up and furthering on the tradition of political and institutional criticism, sometimes in a more radical way, such as the Romanian artists Dan Perjovschi, Daniel Knorr, or Mircea Cantor, who filmed a black flag burning (Shadow for a while, 2007) in the symbolic critique of the ideological void and the ultimate resistance.


Endre Tót - Zero Demo, Viersen (courtesy Centre Pompidou)

© Endre Tót - Zero Demo, Viersen(courtesy Centre Pompidou)


It’s not a coincidence that contemporary artists from the former East emerged on the international art scene as the important new driving force after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Artists are now free to travel and to be exposed to all kind of artistic developments, but they all have proposed a very different approach and practices that based on another heritage differed from the West. Most of the artists, each in their distinctive way, have renewed the artistic practices and artistic forms for the 21st century.

The Promises of the Past forges links between countries and eras while refusing to give it a look of continuity. It is a challenge for the curators as well as the visitors to leave the comfortable pattern of history as a continuous process – a pattern appears to overlap beautifully and logically. Here, visitors witnessed that history is made ​​of ups and downs, flashbacks, suspensions, bifurcations, and it is not based on continuous technological progress as the liberalism wanted to believe. Yet ultimately, the curators managed to create a narrative, albeit in broken lines, more like life itself.


Promises of the Past :
A Discontinuous History of Art in Former Eastern Europe

14 April – 19 July 2010
Exhibition Opening: 13 April 2010, 6 pm
Centre Pompidou - Paris