Roads to Convergence behind the Iron Curtain: Remapping Conceptual Art in the Era of (Post)Socialism

Maia Toteva, Texas Tech University, USA,

In 2010, the critic Peter Osborne argued that contemporary art is post-conceptual. Notwithstanding broad generalizations, it is undeniable that key traits of contemporary art are rooted in the notion of “global conceptualism.” Two decades after the closing of the blockbuster exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, scholars still ponder the dilemma that propelled the show’s ambitious agenda. Was conceptualism a unified movement that emerged in the West and spread worldwide, or did unique local circumstances give birth to multiple conceptual trends in distant geographic regions? What factors facilitated the development of a global phenomenon, and what transcultural considerations prompted the shift from the formalist preoccupation with material objects toward broader attention to the ideas and conceptual framing of artworks?

Reviving the quandary, this session reconsiders the conceptual practices of the Eastern Bloc before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  How did conceptual trends born in (post)socialist countries (e.g., “Sots Art” or “Moscow Conceptualism”) relate to Western conceptual art, and how did such movements fit into the globalist narratives advanced by transnational alliances, international markets, and neoliberal ideologies?  If Anglo-American conceptualism emerged in reaction to formalism as articulated by Clement Greenberg, while modernist movements in the Communist Bloc waned disrupted by Socialist Realism, what conditions prompted the inception of a “flexible and elastic” Eastern European conceptual art as a strategy of interrogating systems of socialism, capitalism, and political oppression? Raising such questions, we seek to reassess the role of (post)conceptual art in the eras of post-truth and post-socialism.

Speakers & Abstracts

Cosmism: Mutable Conceptualism of Immortality

Julia Tikhonova Wintner (Eastern Connecticut State University Art Gallery)

The history of Sots Art and Moscow Conceptualism remains iconic. Less well-known is another, no less important intellectual longing of that period, Cosmism. Its early foundation was conceptualized by Nikolay Fedorov’s turn of the century philosophy – an amalgam of mysticism and traditional Russian Orthodoxy.

Cosmism has found a second life among the Russian intelligentsia seeking alternatives to the stifling conservatism of the Putin regime. In Cosmism: Mutable Conceptualism of Immortality, I argue that it is a new form of Russian conceptualism deployed as a refuge for those artists trying to recuperate from the political and social chaos of the early 2000s. I will investigate the work of two influential Russian artists, Anton Vidokle and Arseny Zhilyaev. Vidokle, founder of the e-Flux platform for profound conceptualism, has created five films, hosted multiple conferences, and published books centered on Cosmist beliefs. Zhilyaev, who is also a curator and theorist, brings Cosmism to life via elaborate didactic sculptural installations.  Both artists embrace a nostalgia for the religious symbolism of pre-Soviet Russia. Zhilyaev’s current exhibition at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art follows the pallete of Russia’s imperial colors: black, and white. 

Vidokle and Zhilyaev are my contemporaries – we have lived through the same Soviet era experiences. Like them, I interrogate various forms of conceptualism. I respect their creative ambitions and their performance of the prophetic role of artists – even if they are temporarily besotted by the sirens of neoliberal recognition and funding. 

From Postutopian Conceptual Art to Post-Soviet Retrotopias: the Case of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU

Alexandre Zaezjev (University of Geneva, Switzerland)

Ilya Permyakov (Independent Scholar, DAU (Phenomen Films))

Boris Groys has famously branded conceptualist trends in unofficial Soviet art such as Sots Art and Moscow conceptualism as “postutopian”, differentiating them both from “the utopian art of the avant-garde and Stalinism” and “the anti-utopian art usually associated with the postmodernist situation” in the West. Subverting the promise of a better future that dominated the official public discourse, Soviet postutopian art did not reject utopian thinking but, somewhat paradoxically, salvaged and repurposed the utopianism that the cultural condition of late socialism has made hollow.

In the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the longing for a utopia fueled the imagination of many Russian artists and critics of the (post)conceptual wave. Making claims such as “utopia is dead, so long live utopia” (Viktor Miziano) and “the future of contemporary art is in the will to utopia” (Anatoly Osmolovsky), this cultural milieu, nonetheless, was staunchly refusing to imagine the future, preferring instead to recycle the past.

Utopianism after the end of utopia in post-Soviet contemporary art thus emerged not as a prospective, but as a retrospective phenomenon; a phenomenon similar to what Zygmunt Bauman has labeled retrotopia. Exploring the Moscow artistic scene and focusing particularly on the multidisciplinary project DAU (2005 – ongoing) by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, our paper inquires whether this fixation on the past is a critical strategy, interrogating the totalizing narratives of modernity, or a way of sneaking in the fascination with utopian aspirations of the 20th century through the back door of (post)conceptualism and into the immediate present.

Conceptualism in Central Asia and Local Hybridity

Alexey Ulko (Arts and Culture Development Foundation, Uzbekistan)

Conceptual art practices in [post] Soviet and [post] colonial Central Asia are less known than their predecessors in Russia, Eastern or Western Europe. The region’s specific cultural context ensured that its conceptual art has always had a hybrid character. The principal dichotomy was whether conceptualism in the region should be ‘pure’, international and therefore potentially non-specific or if it should reflect some kind of local identity.

Along with their Russian counterparts, Central Asian conceptualists ‘emphasise the moral implications of metaphysical contingency, which undermines totalitarian and hegemonic discourse and promotes self-irony as a mode of humility’ (Epstein). However, their acute awareness of the complex cross-cultural context has always coloured their art with strong [post] colonial overtones.

I will trace the development of conceptual practices from the works by Almaty-born Sergey Maslov to Elena and Victor Vorobyev’s experiments with space and text and Alexander Ugay’s research of multiple identities and formal transformations. In Uzbekistan, the key figure has been the Sotsart follower Vyacheslav Akhunov and video minimalists Oleg Karpov and Alexander Barkovsky. Valery Ruppel and the Group 705 from Bishkek provide a necessary self-irony to the genre.

Only the younger generation of artists in the region (the School of Artistic Gesture in Almaty, the Bishkek Contemporary Art group and the CCA Lab in Tashkent) have managed to amalgamate the [post] Soviet, [post] colonial and conceptualist discourses in a more coherent whole. Their works can be more related to post-conceptual art and therefore the legacy of conceptualism in the region remains rather undefined.  

Olga Jevric’s ‘Spatial Compositions’
Nela Milic (University of the Arts, London)

Jevric’s sculptures were shown at PEER and Handel Street projects galleries in London in 2019. The exhibitions were co-curated by Fedja Klikovac who brokered the relationship between Jevric, Tate and Henry Moore Institute that acquired some of Jevric’s work made between the 1950s and 1970s. I engaged PEER’s communities with Jevric’s work and discovered the tension between her local and international representation. Jevric sought to explore spiritual roots and cultural foundation of the environment besieged by WW2 in which her work developed with historical responsibility. However, her career in Yugoslavia suffered because she focussed on exploring the matter and the space, siding with art-informel and conceptualism, rather than supporting state’s ideological urgency for glorifying its anti-fascist struggle. Her abstract sculpture largely connected to the global conceptual movement, resulting in numerous study visits around the world. Proclaimed an “artist thinker” due to her investigations of materiality in space articulated as ‘spatial compositions’, Jevric was one of the few female members of Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU). Her work was cumulative and monumental, taking intellectual ground as well as physical relation to making, therefore challenging Western notions of conceptualism as solely idea-centred, anti-materialist enterprise. She also rejected local political party engagement (Communist, Socialist, Progressive) which testifies of the integrity of her practice and philosophical work. My paper places contemporary lens to the presence of the WW2 in her work as the link to the global art scene at the time, evident at the 29th Venice biennale where she represented Yugoslavia.

Happsoc I. (1965): Agonism and Socialist Realities within a Slovak Happening

Sam Čermák (Queen Mary University of London)

Due to the totalitarian history of Late Soviet Europe, much performance art scholarship on Czechoslovak art attributes the project of political dissidence to alternative art from the milieu (Goldberg, 2011; Weibgen, 2009). While it is true that some alternative art from the Socialist republic was deliberately antagonistic, much of the art created during the period was apolitical (Bishop, 2012; Bryzgel, 2017). Using the theory of agonistics (Mouffe, 2012), I examine how Mlynarčík strategically created work that explored mandatory holiday as a Socialist reality, which allowed him to agonistically contest communism as a utopian philosophy that facilitates a convivial community relationships rather than a political ideology.

Happsoc I. was a conceptual happening organised in Bratislava in 1965. Zita Kostrová, Alex Mlynarčík and Stano Filko conceived of Bratislava as an art piece, claiming all of its material and social conditions as part of the piece. Happsoc I. spanned across 7 days and was delimited by two public holidays – the Labour Day and the Liberation Day on 1 May and 9 May respectively. The happening was represented through mail invitations sent to over 400 people, inviting them to participate in a conscious enjoyment of everyday realities throughout the seven days. I argue that in the context of the totalitarian Socialist government, the artists liberalised the concept of festivities by inviting but not coercing people to join in a celebration. In another happening entitled Eva’s Wedding (1972), he used a wedding celebration as a site for intervening in the urban public space. This contestation based on local traditions facilitated a communal experience of conviviality, joy and mutual care. Mlynarčík uses happenings to create an agonistic counter-hegemonic second public sphere for the exploration of communism as a philosophy focused on the commons rather than Communism as a political ideology

Conceptualism, Neo- or Pseudo-avant-garde? Remapping 1970s Artistic Practices from the Polish People's Republic

Radek Przedpełski (Trinity College Dublin)

The paper discusses divergent (re-)mappings of 1970s conceptual practices in The Polish People's Republic gauged at three moments: (1) the heyday of Gierek's "Real Socialism;" (2) immediately prior to the Martial Law of 1981; (3) at the heyday of post-socialist neoliberal governance in Poland. I will first discuss Stefan Morawski's 1975 Peirce-inspired meticulous comparative cartography of Western and Polish conceptualism, whereby the latter is conceived as a subset of "avant-garde expression" and conceived very broadly. Morawski presented his subsequently revised account during a discussion between prominent Polish art critics and theoreticians organised under the auspices of the Sztuka (Art) journal in 1981, whose conflicted perspectives expose the 1970s practices as a contested field of ontological indeterminacy. I will juxtapose Morawski's topography with Łukasz Ronduda's 2009 Żiżek- and Badiou-inflected mapping of 1970s Polish neo-avant-garde practices which excludes (narrowly framed) conceptualism as sterile and autotelic. The juxtaposition will allow me to interrogate art-historical encounters with the 1970s art as conceptual practices in their own right, diagramming different socioeconomic realities and proposing different discursive and affective economies—ranging from the socialist cybernetic modernity to the capitalist lure of reified sexuality.

Recuperating the Effaced Conceptual Art of Jan Sawka and His Collaborators of the Polish “Generation of ‘68”: A Prospectus

Frank V. Boyer (State University of New York-New Paltz)

According to his own accounts, from 1969 until his expulsion from Poland in 1976, Jan Sawka (1946-2012), the prominent American artist, co-created with an elite group of artists many works of widely disseminated dissident art that centered around performance. These works are scarcely documented in the art-historical discourses of Poland and of the former Soviet Bloc.

In order to recuperate these works, this paper constructs a critical approach based on canonical works of conceptual art and articulated around the metaphor of the frame. It then applies that critical approach to the performative works in question, as they can be reconstructed from the available materials. This process establishes the family resemblance between the works in question and canonical conceptual works, further establishing that description and interpretation of these works in terms of conceptualism, conceived of as a set of artistic practices and as international tendency, is truly revelatory of the place of these works in the relevant histories of art.

This paper also discusses some of the reasons, rooted both in the particular trajectory and nature of Polish society and in the arc of Jan Sawka’s career, for the present relative lack of attention to these works. It makes a case for the recuperation of the dissident exploits of Jan Sawka and his collaborators of the “Generation of ‘68” and argues for vigorous efforts to complete and correct the record, advocating the incorporation of these important works into the canons and narratives of Soviet Bloc dissident and conceptual art.



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