The People’s Republic Of: Ostalgia at the New Museum

by Sarah Hassan, August 2011

Taking its title from the German term ostalgie, meaning nostalgia for life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, Ostalgia, currently on view at the New Museum, seeks to create a transnational dialogue between artists who lived and worked in the former republics. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, with Jarrett Gregory, Assistant Curator, Ostalgia includes the work of more than fifty artists from twenty countries. Desiring to be a state of mind rather than a definitive place in time, Ostalgia is not a history lesson, but rather a collection of private anxieties and public decrying. Dominated by video installations and projections, the galleries house a bevy of mediums ranging from photography, sculpture, interior design and painting, many of the pieces reflecting a gritty, home-grown approach.

With the head-scratching that ensues when western audiences attempt to make sense of the thorny history of Eastern Europe, it is easy to get caught up in the ambition Ostalgia so clearly represents. At once an homage to unification and how simple things appeared when life consisted of bread lines and communal apartments, it is also extremely contradictory, illustrating the ugliness of civil war, the effects of propaganda and the loss of identity and country. From the New Museum’s press release, Ostalgia goes “zig-zagging across distant geographies and personal histories, and composes an imaginary landscape, tracing the cartography of the dreams that haunted the East, for ultimately Ostalgia is an exhibition about myths and their demise.” With this so-called zig-zagging however, artists and their work get caught in the crosshairs, and Ostalgia falls short of its intention by becoming its own elephant in the room. Poland in 1967 was not Sarajevo in 1997, just as Berlin in 2010 was not Moscow in 1981. Blanketing the galleries with the desire to surpass the bylaws of history and instead let the individual pieces “talk to each other” allows the viewer to assume that geography, when it comes to art, is of no importance, an idealistic thought at best when dealing with a specific area on a map during a period of fifty crucial years. Some of the countries these artists presently live in did not even exist while their art was being produced, an existential crisis underscored by Ostalgia‘s own attempts at stated cartography.

The exhibit, which would take any number of days to truly cover and comprehend, is not without successful pieces. Many of these are extremely personal, such as the tender black and white photographs of Russian beach goers by Nikolay Bakharev, the erotic sketches of communal living ripe with boyhood fantasies from Evgenij Kozlov’s Leningrad Album and the beautifully bizarre self-portraits of Alexander Lobanov, a self-taught artist influenced by Soviet militaristic propaganda from his youth to his institutionalization. Aligned with more contemporary headlines are the artists Jasmila Žbanic and Mladen Stilinovic coming from two of the most tragic and conflicted countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Stilinovic’s words on 449 English dictionary pages have their definitions whited-out and replaced with a hand-written “pain,” turning language into an incapable medium when remembering the horrors endured by a disbanded Yugoslavia. Žbanic’s 1997 video account of Bosnian school children who were so traumatized by the bombings during the war remind the viewer of the great potential of art to speak for the masses: those who are history’s key witnesses are sometimes rendered unable by history to speak for themselves.

It is with these pieces, along with others such as a selection of Boris Mikailhov’s frank and uninhibited photographs of from Suzi et Cetera taken in pre-Glastnost Ukraine and Vladimir Arkhipov’s simple homage to innovation with his snapshots of household items made from unexpected Soviet-era materials, that the exhibition illuminates everyday life during this murky era. Westerners may applaud the easterners’ handling of dire straits, but the idea that those same people genuinely long for a time of uncertainty and stifled political unrest makes Ostalgia an unsettling spread. The attempt to identify one’s individual place in a communal republic is a fresh wound oozing old blood on many of these works, and the suggestion that true ostalgie exists for these artists turns the galleries into theaters of self-denial.

But longing for the past is a shared state. Eventually, memory does not hold tight to the government which one lived under, but rather the innocence lost and the items and objects which litter the cabinets of youth no matter their political origin or socio-economic importance. Ostalgie for these artists isn’t necessarily a dream of a former nation-state, but rather where they lived with their parents, where they lost their virginity, the first time they saw a fire. In the period Ostalgia presents, artists were social witnesses and cultural watchdogs who recorded the events of history from the underground and the front lines. Their work became a diary of truth-telling, and those truths, from food shortages to genocide, were bitter in the mouth, and subsequently difficult to forget. Ostalgia is, in the end, a collective attempt to romanticize the past, no better than the propaganda many of the artists forged and painted over to reveal what happens to those who foot the bill of a government’s attempt at glory. Perhaps it is our own western ostalgie creeping up in these footnotes, unwilling to forget our former innocence at how grand we believed the future would be.

7 July—25 September 2011
New Museum
235 Bowery, New York