SocialEast Seminar on Art and Revolution

Manchester Art Gallery
3 February 2007

The SocialEast Seminar on Art and Revolution took as its primary focus the legacy of political, social and cultural revolutions for art and visual culture in Eastern Europe. This included discussion of the role of the historical avant-garde, the specific trajectory of Conceptual Art in Central Europe, and the re-evaluation of Socialist Realism as an art historical problem in the context of modernism, post-modernism and the polarised aesthetics of the Cold War.


Conceptual art at the Crossroads
Edit András ( Institute of Art History Budapest )

The paper uses the popular iconographical type of Greek mythology as a metaphor to explore the hidden dilemma of contemporary conceptual art (whether to smooth into the entertainment industry of art and gaining popularity or follow the rocky path of subversive traditions), and the dilemma of the interpreter (how to decide who is the true inheritor of the revolutionary legacy and who is just disguised by its rhetoric).

The paper exposes some controversial, twisted or enigmatic positions within the "Eastern" variant of conceptual art, while exploring some contemporary Russian and Hungarian artworks loaded with opposing analyses and associated with harsh debates or scandals. Artworks will be discussed from artist-duos, such as Russian-American Ilja and Elena Kabakov, and Komar and Melamid, based in New York, Russian Oleg Kulik (backed and supported strongly by his wife, Ljuda Bredihina), the painter-duo Dubosszarszky and Vinogradov, based in Moscow, and the Hungarian artist-duo, Little Warsaw, based in Budapest.

Llano del Rio. The Indestructible Ruins of Utopia
Michael Blum ( Vienna)

Vera Mukhina: Art between modernism and Socialist Realism
Bettina Jungen ( Institute of Art History University of Zurich)

In my presentation I will distinguish form and mentality of modernism and Socialist Realism out of Mukhina’s works from 1925 to the end of the thirties. Vera Mukhina (1889 – 1953) is today largely seen as sculptor of Socialist Realism. However even her famous sculpture Worker and Kolkhos Peasant Woman (1937) didn’t correspond completely to the official art of the thirties. The changes of the model required by the jury, and the dealing with the sculpture after the World’s Fair in Paris are verifying this. Actually, Mukhina was an artist between modernism and Socialist Realism. In the twenties Ternovets called her a progressive sculptor, since her work matched the current artistic tendencies in European sculpture. Throughout her career she used modernist methods, “priëmy” in Shklovskii’s sense, amongst others cubism and futurism. Therefore the official attitude to her work was ambivalent.

When Mukhina got an assignment she always had to make changes to her models in order to be in conformity with Socialist Realism. The analysis of these changes shows to what extent modernist elements were allowed in the official Soviet art, and which elements had to match under all circumstances the ideological norm. Thus we get a macro-view on the borders between ideologically correct and not correct Soviet art or, in Mukhina’s case, rather between modernism and conformity.

Readymade Rituals: Jerzy Bereś in Dialogue with Marcel Duchamp
Klara Kemp-Welch (UCL London)

This paper takes as its starting point an action in which Jerzy Bereś, characteristically naked, took from around his neck a sign reading ‘ready-made’ and cast it into a small fire at his feet. He then sat down to a game of chess, opening the first of three polemical ‘manifestations’ he called Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1981, 1988, 1990), which discuss consequences of readymade strategies as reconfigured in a socialist context. The target of the critique are systems which tend towards an instrumental treatment of man (and nature): socialism and industrialisation. Using the figure of Duchamp, Bereś also raises crucial questions concerning the responsibility of artists (the historical avant-garde) and politicians (the legacy of Yalta) for ideas which have swelled, over time, far beyond their original scope. This exploration of the fragility of subject and object positions has a self-reflexive dimension, in which the problem of the fetish emerges as key – played out across the body of the artist.
Bereś’s paradoxical marriage of Duchamp’s cool material strategy with ritual symbolism and moral rhetoric, along with the seemingly unproblematic conjunction of action, text and speech, make these manifestations ideal sites for an exploration of the contradictions inherent in conceptual practice more broadly, and of paradoxes particular to Central European work.

Drawing Conceptual Lessons from 1968
Marian Mazzone ( University of Charleston )

The terminated revolution of 1968 was a demonstration of the impossibility of reform from within the socialist system, and a lesson to the Czechoslovak population on the lack of constructive possibilities within that system. My paper will argue that artists also internalized that lesson, inspiring changed strategies of art making that focused on an “anti”- approach to art, including anti-happenings, mathematical formulas, cryptographic signs such as the ?, and other ephemeral marks and acts that signal a full engagement with conceptual art. Focusing on the work of Milan Knížák and Július Koller, I will discuss their practices of conceptualism as a means (in the words of Koller): not to create “a new art….but a new life, a new creativity, a new cosmo-humanistic culture” to counter the banal repressiveness of the state. Both artists launched new phases in their work in 1968-69, prompting my inquiry into their reasons for change, and the new methods of working they cultivated. For Knížák and Koller, conceptualism becomes an important means to attest to their humanity in contradistinction to “normalization” in any social system, and in the process assume the role of thorn and/or provocateur that they continue to this day.

Utopian Aesthetics or an Aesthetic Utopia?
Malcom Miles ( University of Plymouth)

The paper takes its point of departure as a tension between Ernst Bloch’s view of art as shaping hope for a better world (in The Principle of Hope [1959] 1986 - completed in the GDR), and Herbert Marcuse’s idea of society as a work of art (in his talk at the Roundhouse, 1967). Bloch sees radical change as like a redemption from the future, and attacks Socialist Realism; Marcuse writes of an art which ruptures the codes of perception when political change is off the agenda. But Bloch is not explicit about the role of art in social change, and Marcuse does not say what he means by society as a work of art . The paper reconsiders Bloch’s objection to Socialist Realism, and Marcuse’s allusions to art’s subversive force. Refusing the conventional division of the social and aesthetic dimensions (as a mis-reading of critical theory mirroring the dualism of the Cold War), it notes the role of the communal kitchen in the Soviet apartment bloc (*) as a site of idea exchange, and likens this in general terms to the role of the love story as site of freedom in Marcuse’s essay on French literature under the German occupation (in Collected Papers vol. 1). The conclusion is that if a society is in part shaped in domestic spaces then so, too, a revolutionary awareness is immanent in everyday cultures.
(*) Gerasimov, K. (2002) 'Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment', in Crowley, D. and Reid, S., ed.s, (2002) Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc ( Oxford, Berg), pp.207-230

Revolution – The Day After
Dorota Monkiewicz (National Museum Warsaw)

This paper looks at the search for new symbols to represent the leftist ideology in the context of a post-communist country at the turn of the 80s and 90s.

Art AND Revolution
Gerald Raunig (EIPCP, Vienna)

"Thinking of revolution as a machine implies conceptualising revolution neither dramatically as a force of nature, as a major caesura, nor bureaucratically as a process that can be thoroughly rationally planned, as a more or less orderly takeover of power. Instead, the concept of the revolutionary machine brings the discursive and activist lines into view, which have grasped revolution as an uncompleted and uncompletable, molecular process, which does not necessarily refer to the state as essence and as universal, but which emerges before the state, outside the state." (Gerald Raunig)

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