For a few short days in late November, a group of Slavists gathered in San Antonio, Texas, just a few blocks from the Alamo, to discuss their latest research on politics, history, religion, and even art in Eastern Europe and Russia. The occasion was the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies’ annual conference (#aseees14), which takes place in a different city each year – last year it was in Boston, and next year it will be in Philadelphia. But this year, we all went to Texas to enjoy the good food and mild climate, while focusing on a region of the world that couldn’t seem further from San Antonio.
Ksenya Gurshtein put together a two-part panel on Conceptual Art in Eastern Europe and Russia that I was happy to be part of. It was not the only panel on art, which is really something. I have been attending this conference for the past six years, and each year there is an increase in numbers of panels relating to art history and visual culture, which is of course great for our field. The first part of the conceptual art panel took place on Saturday afternoon, November 22, and featured talks about Moscow Conceptualist artists and the contemporary performance artist Anton Litvin. Adrian Barr (Winona State University) presented his work on Moscow Conceptualism, focusing on the manner in which artists such as Igor Makarevich, Ilya Kabakov and Viktor Pivovarov explore the notion of the Soviet past as a loss or absence, and attempt to reconcile the stagnation of the 1970s with the utopian dreams of Soviet socialism. Michelle Maydanchik, Robert E. Keiter '57 Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Art at Amherst College, presented a discussion of work by Kabakov and Komar and Melamid, artists whose careers span the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, and who have worked both in the East and in the West. Maydanchik discussed the manner in which these three artists dealt with the transition from communism to capitalism, Soviet ideology to Western institutionalism, when they emigrated from East to West in the 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, she demonstrated both the continuities and dissonances between those two environments and the impact on the artists in their practice. Finally, Alexis Zimberg, a PhD student at the University of Toronto presented her analysis of recent work by Anton Litvin, an active yet relatively less-discussed (in the literature) performance artist working in Russia nowadays. Zimberg explored the manner in which the artist’s work bridges both art and activism, perhaps operating in the gap between the two.
Bright and early on Sunday morning, November 23, at 8AM, we reconvened to discuss contemporary art in Central and Eastern Europe. Ksenya Gurshtein (lecturer at University of Virginia) presented an interesting paper on artistic projects and their relation to the concept of utopia, and raised the question of whether this remains a relevant frame through which to view work by artists from communist Eastern Europe. Klara Kemp-Welch (Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art) presented a prototype of a chapter from the book that she is working on, entitled “When Archives become Books… Conceptualism and Publishing in East-Central Europe – Then and Now,” a nod to Harold Szneeman’s 1969 landmark exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form.” She examined projects by artists from the communist and post-communist periods, contrasting projects such as Andrzej Kostolowski and Jaroslaw Kozlowski's NET with recent publications that function as compilations of archives by KwieKulik and ArtPool, demonstrating the self-management and institutional independence that exists now as it did then, among artists. Finally, I gave a talk that explored work by artists from the former Yugoslavia, some whose work spans the socialist and post-socialist periods (Dalibor Martinis, Rasa Todosijevic) and others who began working after the breakup of Yugoslavia (Vladimir Nikolic, Sinisa Labrovic), looking at both changes and continuities in their work, and themes and subjects that were of interest to artists of both generations.
This year’s ASEEES conference was focused on the turning point of 1989 in relation to Eastern Europe and Russia, on this twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, and the papers in this two-part panel examined a range of issues relevant to artists during the communist and post-communist periods. While 1989 remains a significant date for artists in the region, one thing that the research of these scholars demonstrated is that when examining the “before and after” periods in the region, there is evidence of both change and continuity. While the tendency has always been to see the two “periods” in terms of radical difference and rupture with the past, it is clear that while some things have changed, others didn’t. One continuity between then and now is the struggle for existence that artists in the modern period have always faced. While in the past, artists in the East had state support under socialism, they often struggled for the freedom to create what they wanted in the manner they wanted to, and exhibit it without constraints. Nowadays, they may have the creative freedom they long desired, but their struggle for survival as artists in the neo-liberal capitalist system nevertheless remains.
Many of the scholars at ASEEES were so stimulated by this year’s presentations that they are already talking about what panels to put together for next year. So, hopefully we will see you all in Philadelphia in 2015!