At the end of October, I had the great pleasure and honor of participating in a conference organized by Piotr Piotrowski, hosted by the Galeria Labirynt in Lublin, and generously funded by the City of Lublin and the Polish Ministry of Culture: “East European Art Seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present.” Over the course of a long weekend, a group of scholars discussed issues related the position of East European art, disrupting the normative binaries of East and West, and presented their latest research in the field. It was a fantastic and rich event, and as the talks were all recorded, I believe they will be available online at some point. So, watch this space.
I thought it was fantastic that the conference took place in Lublin – not the capital of Poland, Warsaw – since one of the issues we were addressing in the conference was that of center and periphery. One of the participants, being so impressed with both the city and gallery’s impeccable hospitality, declared Lublin the “new Berlin.” So, definitely watch this space!
Two themes seemed to emerge from the conference. One, which was evident from the papers presented, were the myriad connections, collaborations, exchanges, and cross-pollinations of art that occurred between East and West during the Cold War. It was clear from these presentations that the Iron Curtain was not even porous, but in some instances inconsequential – as artists found ways to create, grow and interact across this boundary. That is not to deny the great difficulties faced by artists and citizens alike under the various communist and socialist regimes across the region, it is just to say that many artists found ways to act as if these barriers did not exist.
Mariusz Tarkawian captures some significant moments of dialogue at the conference
The other theme that continued to be revisited was the question – which was raised several times during the event – of precisely who can write the history of Eastern European (Central and Eastern European, East-Central European, etc.) art. As an American art historian who has spent three years living in Poland, five years living in Latvia, has traveled significantly across the region, and speaks several of its languages, this question was particularly pertinent to me. I was relieved to hear that most present – and the vast majority of those present were from the region, with only a few exceptions – agreed that this topic is open to anyone, so long as they work accurately and correctly. I have always found the question of whether a Westerner has the right to write the history of the East peculiar, but of course I understand where it comes from. While on the one hand, most medievalists (can I boldly say “all”) never lived through the Middle Ages, and no one questions whether an Eastern European has the right to write about Michelangelo or the Italian Renaissance, this question has arisen because of some unfortunate scholarship that came out in the 1990s, immediately following the opening up of the region to the West.
While on the one hand, as a scholar, I believe firmly in thorough academic rigour, and would never defend sloppy work, on the other hand, I know from experience how hard it is to get the proper materials and information to write the story accurately and correctly. Even with all of the long, hard, in depth work I have done in the field, I have gotten it wrong sometimes. As much of this history (of experimental art) is still an oral history (being unofficial, it wasn’t often recorded or written down, and exists in the memories of those who were there to witness it) it often occurs that facts get mixed up, as human beings are flawed, and memory fails. I have often witnessed several locals discussing events that occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and even they cannot agree. So, if they don’t have an accurate or authoritative picture, how can we (the outsiders)?
I think the answer to this question is to keep working. As a lecturer, I try to share as much of the interesting material that I encounter on my students, so that they will take an interest and begin researching in these areas. Many of my students are from Eastern Europe, so they will have the languages to do original research. Publications help to get the material out, and, as Piotr Piotrowski has argued, it should always be translated, so that others can have access to these local histories. Finally, as scholars we have to keep digging, keep asking questions, keep pursuing these histories, because as they slip further and further into the past, they run the risk of being eternally forgotten. The papers presented at “East European Art seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present” in Lublin demonstrate that research in this field is alive and well, and these stories will be told.
As a lovely surprise, artist Mariusz Tarkawian made drawings throughout the conference, and captured some significant moments of discussion.