Last year, I was invited to curate a show as part of the series “Curators from Central and Eastern Europe” in Berlin. (http://www.artlaboratory-berlin.org) The organizers, aware of recent developments in critical art and very much in touch with the art coming out of the different countries of Central and Eastern Europe, did not insist on a traditional approach, such as to invite artists from the European “East,” to discuss updates in the “post-communist condition,” the so-called transition, or EU accession. Nor did they wish to organize the exhibition around an “Eastern” theme. I was given absolute carte blanche. However, I was still asking myself what exactly “curator from EE” could mean today. Could I simply say “nothing in particular” and do a curatorial project unrelated to any kind of “East,” ironically implying that my Russian origin guarantees “Eastern-ness” in whatever I do? Since the 1990s, the East/West problematic in the European art discourses has passed several stages, from mutual “discovery” through “general presentations” of the East to the West, to the method of regarding some “western” issues through an “eastern” lens, none of which makes sense today.
With this heritage in mind, a thematic approach can be very misleading. I decided to come up with a knot of notions, in my mind interesting for their own sake, but still charged with a specific, local, historical context. For example: event-as-rupture versus ritual, or ritual as a socially magnetic event reinforcing a sense of collectivity versus stereotyped formality. Without heavily theorizing the artworks selected, I simply described them from a specific angle, highlighting those elements that create a number of cross-references so that the viewer familiar with East/West discussions could easily decipher those links. As such, nothing is assigned as having the “Eastern touch,” instead, the works twist in thematic threads, each dealing with and acknowledging multiple historical lenses.
In everyday language, an event is a notion that embraces two different meanings—a happening that violates limits or, conversely, invigorates them. One is destructive, the other restrictive; one is closer to the chaos of a revolution, the other to a meticulously performed ceremony with a set of rules. These works I chose deal explicitly with the second meaning: they comment on contemporary rituals with pronounced interests in social codes that often re-emerge in times of crisis and insecurity. Some of the works gathered here reflect on today’s ritualistic behavior when so-called “flexible personalities” engage in a performance of specific and mainly self-imposed rules. (On the notion of flexible personality see http://www.geocities.com/CognitiveCapitalism/holmes1.html)
The artist group Reinigungsgesellschaft observes visits to a newly built Japanese garden by the inhabitants of the Berlin district of Marzahn. Marzahn-Hellerdsorf is an area in the East of Berlin built in the 1970s as an attempt by the DDR government to “solve the housing problem” in the country and which today is witnessing a massive drop in population. In an attempt to create new “places of interest” and curb the identity of the area, the authorities built “Gardens of the World” a park, which includes the Japanese garden. (See http://www.gruen-berlin.de/marzEN/index.php) This Japanese garden is called the “Garden of the Merging Water.” Curiously enough, the “commissioned symbolism” of the “merging water” refers to the two Germanies’ merging after years of separation and divide. Reinigungsgesellschaft’s “The Japanese Garden” comments both on the obsession to create new rituals and on the difficulties of inventing a new symbolic order. In the video we see a guard at the entrance reciting the park’s rules over and over to a rather uninitiated public. He repeats, “Pebbles symbolize the water,” urging the visitors to comply with an artificial ritual and do it “right.”
This video, like the one by Katarina Zdjelar, highlights the artificiality of the stereotyped formalities imposed on the visitors: they are deliberately designed to provide moments of ritual solidarity yet remain disconnected from local social or historic reality. In Katarina Zdjelar's film “Everything’s Gonna Be” an amateur singing group in Norway performs John Lennon's “Revolution” with a complete lack of conviction or enthusiasm. The performers don't quite master the lyrics and seem insecure about the melody. Lennon’s lyrics are displaced in this ritual of collective singing. This collective singing is in fact a common pastime and form of expressive therapy for elderly people in Norway. The intricate story of the original song becomes part of Zdjelar's work (the ages of the performers indicate they might perfectly remember the release of the 1968 song.) Three versions of the song exist—the mellow acoustic version “Revolution 1,” the electric “Revolution” with its distorted guitars, and the heavily experimental “Revolution 9.” (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0of3Z76vtOw&feature=related) Quoting Lennon's sceptical position today, Zdjelar's video underscores the uneasiness of using the term now because of its inflation and overuse in advertising. (See BMW’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WcAvV7HoGA; Nike’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oIx4GJ0gos and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMXhtFik-vI; and Air Canada’s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXZ4oRLZO_Q)
By highlighting the refrain “It’s gonna be alright,” the video reflects on the choir's performance as a failed ritual without symbolic charge, neither related to local reality, nor grounded in tradition. Also alluding to the 1960s is Ana Hušman's film “Lunch,” a highly artificial and mockingly didactic take on everyday rituals. The script for her “perfect lunch” comes from a 60s-era book of etiquette. The actors' costumes allude to this period while the set-up of the video reminds one of a sitcom or an old-fashioned educational film. If Zdjelar's assiduous chorus illustrates contemporary changes in the nature of limits, Ana Hušman's “Lunch” mocks the voluntary “ceremonial behaviors” that contradict (clash?) with “limitless living and choosing” promoted today.
Introducing the notion of the “subjective event”—an experience which can’t be proven and whose very existence is not certain—circumscribes a field of tension between the mise en scène of the quotidian and the intangible actions that serve as material for these artists’ works. Yevgenyj Fiks and the group Demokratisk Innovation enact subversive gestures or interventions almost invisible to the general public. Using custom-produced stamps that feature the faces of former leaders of the American Communist Party to pay his bills, Fiks turns a ritual of the capitalist world order (paying bills to corporations) into a commemoration of the American Communist movement. (See http://www.cpusa.org) The artist has been paying his bills in this fashion for over 7 months, sending the portraits of US communist leaders to corporations such as Time Warner, Con Edison, or T-Mobil.
Finally, some works re-contextualize highly visible public happenings as subjective events. The footage of heads of states’ visit to France, used by Franck Leibovici, or the forced ritual of body searches at airports recorded by Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev change the possible readings if the appropriated document’s through displacement. (See http://www.eu2008.fr/PFUE/lang/fr/accueil/PFUE-07_2008/PFUE-13.07.2008/s...)
The rituals observed by this collection of artists are shown to be stereotyped formalities and meaningless repetitions, never the action they promise to be. These moments of possible action never taken up are also portrayed in Kent Hansen and Jo Zahn's video “Ceci n'est pas une interview.” Handing the camera over random people as an instrument of potential emancipatory action, the video gradually unfolds an atmosphere of expectations frustrated as the groups never transcend the alienated passivity of spectators, no do they manage to agree on an active attitude.