Museum of Parallel Narratives

Museum of Parallel Narratives

In the framework of L'Internationale
Petr Štembera "Joining (with Tom Marioni)", 1975

The exhibition Museum of Parallel Narratives. In the framework of L’Internationale brought together more than a hundred works by some seventy artists and offered an overview of the avant-garde art produced in Eastern Europe from 1961 to the present. The majority of works were drawn from the Arteast 2000+ Collection at the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, but seven were created specifically for the exhibition: four of these engaged in a kind of self-historisation and creation of parallel archives (Artpool, Zofia Kulik, Július Koller and Lia Perjovschi) and three were “fictitious mini-collections”, which set up connections between Western and Eastern artists (Alexander Dorner, IRWIN and Mladen Stilinović).

This exhibition was the first project organised within the framework of L’Internationale, a transnational organisation founded in 2009 in order to instigate new narratives, latitudes and chronologies of the art history of the second half of the twentieth century, and to encourage collaborations among museums and archives. The founding partners of L’Internationale are Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, the Július Koller Society (SJK), Bratislava, the Van Abbemuseum (VAM), Eindhoven, the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst(M HKA), Antwerp and the MACBA.

Most of the works included in the exhibition at the MACBA had been created during dictatorial regimes and confronted the lack of freedom through performative experimentation, political dissidence, poetic practice and a spirit of constant physical and conceptual research.

The exhibition Museum of Parallel Narratives presents a selection of works from the Arteast 2000+ Collection of the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, the first-ever collection of postwar avant-garde Eastern European art, and seeks to discover what sort of art system, if any, accompanied the production, presentation and musealisation of these artworks. Museum of Parallel Narratives speaks of artists who worked on the edges of a well-ordered world and its art system, and, indeed, addresses its own position at the edge of an era that has seen an acceleration in the establishment of an art system in the space that can still be justifiably called ‘Eastern Europe’. The exhibition is also connected with the principal idea behind the wide-ranging project, L’Internationale, of which it forms a part.

With all of these elements, the exhibition goes beyond the usual attempts to present Eastern European art, which in the main have sought only to offer a condensed version of the art of the region, without engaging with the complexities of its context. While providing a comprehensive overview of postwar avant-garde art in Eastern Europe, Museum of Parallel Narratives also sets itself the task of presenting new knowledge about the region. The exhibition draws attention to the fact that museum collections are tools for producing new knowledge and new working methods, and are not only a means for consolidating that which is already known. In this way, museums increasingly acquire, along with their representative function, a performative role as well.

Let us look first at the kind of art that is presented in the exhibition and then at how the micro-politics of this art influences the logic behind what the museum collection does. The exhibition presents sixty-two artists and eight artist groups representing most Eastern Europe countries: it includes more than a hundred works, mostly originating between 1961 and 1986, but also several more recent items. The represented period is in keeping with that of the long-term research programme of L’Internationale, which addresses postwar avant-garde art between 1956 and 1986. This was a time when dictatorial regimes of various kinds presided over a large part of the world, but it was also a period marked by the postwar belief in a new modern era, one in which advanced technologies played an increasingly dominant role, the world was better connected by new transportation and communication systems, and the mass media was gaining power: a time of both politically and economically isolated spaces and expanding globalisation.

While it is true that the postwar avant-garde movements presented here were opposed to the existing regimes, this opposition was not always expressed through an explicitly political content. What made them political was the fact that they employed various gestures to create certain micro-political situations. In this regard, the works in the exhibition may be divided into a number of separate groups.

The first group (Marina Abramović, Geta Brătescu, Ion Grigorescu, Tibor Hajas, Sanja Iveković, Kwiekulik, Jan Mlčoch, Karel Miler, Petr Štembera, Ilja Šoškić, and Raša Todosijević) presents body art and other forms of performance art. In this kind of creative practice, the artists intensified the experience of social isolation, marginalisation, and vulnerability. In their performance work these artists consciously relived everything that characterised the grey, everyday life of socialism, thus making visible the lack of freedom in society and various forms of social pressure.

The second group (Sano Filko, Alex Mlynarčik, and Vlasta Delimar and Željko Jerman) presents unique forms of happenings and rituals that were based on appropriating the socio-political reality and its phenomena. These artists were not trying to change the environment in which they lived; rather, they used it as a kind of ‘found society’. Such happenings represent, essentially, real-time excerpts from the found society, within which the artists directly observed various relationships, including themselves, trapped in different social contradictions.

In the third group (Josip Vaništa [Gorgona], Neue Slowenische Kunst groups [IRWIN, Laibach, Scipion Nasice Theatre], the OHO Group, Walter de Maria and Andrei Monastyrsky) we find group art actions in which the collective methods of the work became the central theme of the art. In these works, the micro-political situations, which acted as a counterweight to the macro-political environment, become foregrounded. Through these actions a method of group working was developed that offered an alternative to the dominant ideology of collectivism. Here, too, belong various self-organised working methods that filled some of the gaps in the still-undeveloped art system.

While under socialism the authorities might tolerate the presentation of so-called unofficial art in marginal spaces such as youth clubs, student centres, artists’ studios or private apartments, a much stricter attitude was taken toward events in the public space. As a result, all the actions in the public space that are presented in the fourth group (Braco Dimitrijević, Tomislav Gotovac, Jiří Kovanda, Milan Knižák, Paul Neagu, the OHO Movement [Naško Križnar, Milenko Matanović, David Nez, and Drago Dellabernardina] and Goran Trbuljak) instantly acquired a political, anti-institutional and anti-ideological marking. Many street actions of this kind, whether representing minimal departures from everyday routine or, indeed, provocations, helped passers-by to mentally shift the boundaries of what was permissible.

In the fifth group (Stanislav Droždž, Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos, Josip Vaništa [Gorgona], Julije Knifer, Miklos Erdely, the OHO Movement [Marko Pogačnik, I. G. Plamen, Franci Zagorčnik], Nuša and Srečo Dragan, Vlado Martek, Jiří Valoh and Endre Tot) we find work in which the use of language and materiality present an opposing position to established modernist forms of art, and which were, in general, directed against the art establishment. By relocating the language of politics into an art context, these artists were usually trying to draw attention to the emptiness of that language. Through visual, concrete poetry and the use of the material aspect of paint, paper and film ribbon, they underscored the independence and non-ideological nature of things in themselves.

Socialist reality was dominated by the imaginary of a drab and mundane existence touched by signs of Western consumerism. In the sixth group (OM Production, Natalia LL, Tomislav Gotovac, Josef Robakowski, and Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis) can be found works that are based on the use of photography, film and video in an investigation of the media image in the socialist socio-political context – a context with little inclination for glamour or spectacular media images. When mass-media images appeared in artworks, they served precisely as comments on the duality that was defined by an ideology of modesty, on the one hand, and unrealised desires for glamour, on the other.

In the decade before the fall of the communist regimes, art became more explicitly political; at the same time, it operated as an important lever of the civil society in its fight for democratic change. The seventh group (Borghesia, Ion Grigorescu, Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, Neue Slowenische Kunst [the groups IRWIN, Laibach, New Collectivism and the Scipion Nasice Theatre], Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov, Mladen Stilinović, Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade, Ilya Kabakov and Vladimir Kupriyanov) takes as its theme various forms of totalitarianism (whether communist, Nazi or capitalist). The retro-avant-garde and Sots artists especially, but also certain representatives of the alternative culture of the 1980s, combine the imaginaries of different totalitarian societies so as to draw attention to the ever stronger and ever more obvious contradictions in socialist society.

The significance of the Arteast 2000+ Collection of the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana lies not only in the fact that it is one of the pioneering collections of Eastern European art, but also in the fact that it originated in the region itself. Thus it heralded a move toward the establishment of an art system in Eastern Europe. It is best to avoid such terms as ‘the former East’; after all, the label ‘Eastern European art’ became a relatively standard term only after the fall of the communist regimes. If, previously, the art of this region shared a similar political context, today, in post-communist times, the similarities and common interests derive from an urgent need to construct a well-functioning art system. One of the essential elements of any art system is the historicisation and collecting of the art in a given region. For this reason, the establishment of the Arteast 2000+ Collection represents a watershed in the historicisation of Eastern European art. In the formation of alternative, anti-hegemonic positions, the processes of historicisation must include not only the history of art but also the history of the social conditions surrounding its production. In the time since the Arteast 2000+ Collection was first conceived, there has been a great deal of research on Eastern European art that now affords us a fairly complex view of the subject. But very little analysis has been devoted to the art system of the region. The Museum of Parallel Narratives exhibition offers both a comprehensive presentation – for the first time in ten years – of this pioneering collection of Eastern European art and a new understanding about the lack of a functioning art system in Eastern Europe and the current efforts to establish such a system.

But just as Museum of Parallel Narratives does not aim to provide an encyclopaedic survey of Eastern European art, it also does not try to describe all the complexities of the problems surrounding an undeveloped art system. Instead, the exhibition focuses primarily on the role of museum collections in this system. The lack of a well-developed art system in Eastern Europe has had at least two important consequences: first, postwar avant-garde art was for the most part absent from Eastern European museums, nor was there any systematic historicisation of this art; and second, a number of artists responded to this lack by assuming the role of curators and archivists themselves in order to, at least partially, fill the gaps in their local histories.

Among other things, Museum of Parallel Narratives asks how the history of art originates. In order for a work of art to become part of the history of art and its collection, a certain frame of reference must exist for which there must in turn be an art system with an ideological and capital-based framework. In Eastern Europe there was no such framework, at least not in any form that was comparable to the West. We know about certain artists and artworks today, not because we have seen them in museums or read about them in books, but largely because other artists have made reference to them. In this way a parallel history of Eastern European art came into existence. In order to describe how this narrative originated – let’s call this narrative self-historicisation – along with the artworks from the collection the exhibition presents individual projects by artists who devoted a large part of their creativity to precisely this practice of self-historicisation. This term implies an informal system of historicisation performed by artists who, lacking a suitable collective history, have been forced to seek their own historical and interpretive contexts. Because the local institutions that should have been systematising postwar avant-garde art and its traditions either did not exist or were disdainful of such art, these artists were compelled to collect and archive documents associated with their own art, the art of other artists, broader artistic movements or the conditions of producing such art.

A number of significant Eastern European artists, such as Artpool (Győrgy Galántai, Júlia Klaniczay), Zofija Kulik, Július Koller and Lia Perjovschi and CAA, devoted a large part of their activities to creating archives that today serve as extremely valuable resources concerning the unofficial art in the various socialist countries as well as its conditions of production. Especially in the 1980s, artists felt a strong need to self-contextualise their own art production. This interest has undergone a resurgence in the past decade, with artists of different generations conceptualising their work as, among other things, a tool of historicisation. For the Museum of Parallel Narratives exhibition, Alexander Dorner, the IRWIN group and Mladen Stilinović have developed special projects, categorised here as fictive histories. In these projects, the artists – who have often dealt with the processes of historicisation in their work – draw particular attention to the ideology of art collections and, at the same time, to the communicative power of art. Their works present fictive mini-collections, as it were, in which connections that not so long ago would have been impossible between Eastern and Western artists are now realisable. These artists were given the task of selecting works from the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Antwerp (M HKA) that belong to the trans-institutional organisation L’Internationale. The three projects show us, among other things, that even when the individual works were created in relative isolation, they nevertheless shared a surprisingly extensive commonality with works from other spaces. We can only speculate what it would have been like if, at the time of their creation, it had been possible to see them together in a single museum collection. With these three new projects, the exhibition Museum of Parallel Narratives, which itself is one of the projects organised by L’Internationale, is already testing new possibilities for communication between various Eastern and Western collections.

In a special segment of the exhibition, alongside the artworks and their descriptions, are to be found diagrams of the artists relating to the musealisation of Eastern European art. These primarily contain information about the presence of works by the individual artists in public and private collections – in the artists’ own local spaces, in the West and elsewhere around the world – as represented over the different decades leading to the present; this information is based on questionnaires sent to the individual artists and provides an important report on the workings of the art system in the region. As was to be expected, the representation of individual artists in public and private collections was extremely low before the fall of the communist regimes. Beginning in the 1990s, however, interest in their work, as seen both in local and in foreign collections, grew considerably. Extensive growth could also be seen after 2000, the year the Moderna galerija in Ljubljana established its Eastern European collection. Such an examination of the growing presence of individual artists in art collections also helps us to understand the construction of the Eastern European narrative. Here, of course, the parallel historicisation by the artists themselves and their projections for the future have particular significance. And all of this, taken together, forms the vision of a future museum collection based on the resonance between various narratives.

Curator: Zdenka Badovinac.

Organised and produced by: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA); Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana; the Július Koller Society (SJK), Bratislava; the Van Abbemuseum (VAM), Eindhoven; and Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst (M HKA), Antwerp.

This work programme has been funded with support from the European Comission. This publication [communication] reflects the views only of the author, and the Comission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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14 May 2011 – 2 October 2011
Museum of Parallel Narratives
14 May 2011 – 2 October 2011
Museum of Parallel Narratives