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West and East, or Archaeology of a Myth

Published in : Anna Ptak (ed). : Re-tooling Residencies, CCA Ujazdowsky Castle, Warsaw 2011, p.231-233

Today, it may seem a little dated to consider a topic that used to be popular in Europe during the dynamic changes of the 1990s. More than two decades after the breakthrough events of 1989 and the subsequent period of intense effort to establish contacts with the art world of the West, it seems that the prevailing difference between the centres of Western culture and our Eastern environment is embodied in the normalisation of the centre and periphery, in the sense of both economic and cultural development. The youngest artists attempting to establish themselves in the art world no longer suffer the psychological barrier of ‘frontier’ awareness so typical of previous generations (which may have experienced a curtailed lifestyle under the past regime, albeit in their childhoods). The mobility of the international art world opens up in all possible directions at the same time as fascination with a journey to the ‘West’ fades; with equal ease, the student of art will choose to stay in Rotterdam or Budapest. What matters are the specifics of a given environment and the profile of the region surrounding it. Some Eastern European artists of an intermediate and younger generation have already earned their position in the upper echelons of the international art world, by having foreign gallerists and regularly exhibiting in renowned art museums. In addition to this, after so many years of foreign residencies, travelling to biennials, Documentas and other exhibitions abroad, members of the older generations now feel at home in a foreign environment. In light of the above, the continual definition of East versus West seems anachronistic when viewed within the narrow and elitist milieu of the contemporary art scene. By contrast, a sensation of solidarity between the former West and East is being manifested by the current economic crisis, connected to the rebirth of a strong, left-orientated intellectual movement throughout Europe, which finds its echo in the art world. The variety of networks between the individual art scenes in the former Eastern Bloc and their Western counterparts, also contradict this binary comparison, but differences in the quality of relationships remain. And so, the striking abundance of Polish artists in Western art galleries does not quite compare with the more intimate and withdrawn Czech and Hungarian positions. Individuals, such as Roman Ondák, who achieved a place at the forefront of global art developments, certainly do not represent the ‘exotic East’; on the contrary, they play by the same rules as any other members of this elite. Put simply, in the social environment of contemporary art, we can barely find any convincing reasons to maintain the distinct categories of East and West. Nevertheless, if we step down from the ivory tower of the art world, we can find common roots in the experiences of the former Eastern Bloc and its normalised peripheral status. By this, I mean the tremendous abyss that extends between contemporary art and the more general ‘cultural’ public. In the Czech Republic, the Uroboros serpent, eating its own tail, may well serve as a metaphor for the autonomous isolation of art from a public longing for ‘culture’. With great appetite, it feasts on its own body in those regions of Europe in which sufficient economic prosperity and cultural tradition provide all the basic prerequisites for an autonomous art world. The hypertrophied body of civic society and its related cultural habits (here also little developed) do not offer any alternative diet. Here, the ‘culture’ of broader society is not developed and structured enough to enable comparison between attendance at a theatrical performance or a contemporary art exhibition. However, this cultural atrophy must be apprehended in its totality, with both the viewer and the exhibition curator preparing an exhibition seemingly designed for a viewer, while both being equally confined by their preconceptions. Thus, we are confronted with questions: Is the current state of art in the Eastern part of Europe caused by us continuing to find ourselves, without realising it, on the otherside of a mirror through which only a chosen few can pass? Or was the mirror shattered by the events of 1989 and are we only moving against the broken fragments, still attached to the frame, which prevent us from having a direct and objective view of the situation? This paradox, in which we continually have to ask about the authenticity and value of our position, may, of course, also be very inspiring. The East is certainly no longer what it used to be; nevertheless, the elementary rules of cartography determine that we cannot change geographical facts merely by turning the map upside down. The either/or situation has created a reality in which we must ask ourselves whether we are holding the right map in our hands and, rather than considering its correct orientation, perhaps we should analyse its inner structure.

Viktor Čech