Essay

A PAINTER CROSSES RED SQUARE

by Erhard Stackl

On November 11, 2009, I embarked on a spiritual journey that took me from the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York to Bucharest and from there, in a virtual form, via Paris and Bogota to London's Tate Modern.

I was searching for answers to several questions: What influence did art and artists have before, during, and after the historical changes of the year 1989?

In a panel discussion at the ACFNY, Marina Abramović, a renowned performance artist from Belgrade, maintained that 1989 did not mean much to her, even though she lived in Berlin at that time. Her crucial year was 1980, when Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito died. Abramović said that in the old times, you would know how many years in prison you would get for telling a good political joke and how many years less for telling a bad one. In the new world that followed, artists were free to do whatever they wanted to do, but on a social level their actions remained free of consequences. This opinion came from an artist who has a deeply political background, as both her parents were Yugoslav partisans.

That evening at the ACFNY, Lithuanian-born filmmaker Jonas Mekas was less gloomy. "It was the people who brought about change." he said. Mekas was citing the "butterfly effect", a term originally coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Important changes can happen in the same way that the flap of a butterfly's wings in one part of the world might in the long run lead to a tornado in another one (I prefer to compare the course of history to a complex cybernetic system, the elements of which are either reinforcing or retarding each other. It is a adaptive in the way that the elements are able to learn from experience, especially from failure). Instead of challenging the great artistm who has been referred to as America's "godfather of avant-garde cinema," I asked Mekas for the Fluxus connection to Lithuania. I knew that George Maciunas, a founding member of this international community of artists and composers (and mastermind behind the idea of converting industrial space in Manhattan into lofts for artists, was a fellow Lithuanian.

Did Maciunas have contact with the musicologist Vytautas Landsbergis, who became the country's first president once it had seceded from the Soviet Union in 1990? "Well, yes, of course," Mekas told me. In this view, what happened in the field of popular culture was more important. As soon as even he heard the songs by Bob Dylan during a trip to the Soviet Union, he saw it as a sign of approaching change.

A few days after this conversation I found myself in Bucharest, participating in another panel discussion on 1987, this one organized by the Romanian Cultural Institute. I visited the MNAC, the new museum of contemporary art, which occupies one wing of a gigantic palace constructed on orders of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In terms of size, the building is second only to the Pentagon, but in its ugliness it is unsurpassed in the world. A wide empty space on one floor was dedicated to a video installation by the Romanian artist Irina Botea.

Called Before a National Anthem, it shows the members of a choir rehearsing words and music for a new national song for Romania that the artist had asked several poets and composers to provide. Irina Botea's video was like an echo of the film Count on Us: Only Chorus by Marina Abramović, who is one generation senior to her. In her video, which was part of the exhibition at the ACFNY, a children's choir is sining a"hymn" in Serbia to the United Nations, conducted by Marina Abramović, who is wearing a human skeleton on the back of her dress.

In Bucharest, the Romanian video came with written explanation by Maria Ines Rodriguez, the Columbian-born curator who had organized Botea's show, originally seen at the Galerie nationale Jeu de Paume in Paris. Twenty years after the events of 1989, said Rodriguez, it's all about "such notions as identity and the role of the citizen in creating new symbols for a country under reconstruction." For more background the curator referred her readers to a text by the cultural theorist Brian Holmes.

It was in this essay that I finally found what I was looking for. In a talk on "Artistic Autonomy and the Communication Society" that he gave at the Tate Modern in London, Holmes at first lamented the state of affairs. Artistic autonomy, he said, is on the wane when hugo museums like the Tate Modern, the "crystal palace of globalization," depend on corporate sponsors. Artists may abhor war, but the donors from the petroleum industry have their own commitments in Iraq. Artistic creativity becomes a hot commodity. Companies like Bloomberg hold seminars for their executives in museums as a way to stimulate their creative energy.

On the other hand, whatever it is that is at stake in this world, the public is inundated "by a flood of mediated images and signs," Holmes wrote. "At first it is deeply anguishing, then ultimately anesthetizing, as the postmodern 'waning of the the affect" sets in. We work always under the pall of this postmodern anesthetic."

"So I'm saying," Brian Holmes continued, "that art can be a chance for society to collectively reflect on the imaginary figures which it depends upon for its very consistency, since this is exactly where our societies fail."

So there we are. I immediately thought of some contributions to the show on the annus mirabilis and its consequences at the ACFNY. Take the animated films by Csaba Nemes, for instance. Scenes of street demonstrations in Hungary in the autumn of 2005 are called Remake, because the participants are thinking of remaking the revolution of 1956. In reality, Csaba Nemes shows chauvinism and rightist extremism raising their ugly heads.

Some of the artists are deconstructing popular images with acerbic humor, far above the written jokes about communism that even renowned historians nowadays are using as cheap garnish for their scholarly works. At the panel discussion on November 11, 2009, at the ACFNY, it was up to Marina Abramović to take the concept of a “joke” to a higher level. Paraphrasing the title of a film by Ulay, her artistic partner for many years, she said: “An abstract painter in uniform crosses Red Square followed by two figurative painters in civilian clothes.”

 

ERHARD STACKL  Journalist for the Austrian daily Der Standard and a writer, lives in Vienna. His book, 1989: Sturz derDiktaturen (1989: The Downfall of Dictatorships), was published in 2009 by Czernin publishers in Vienna.