Central and Eastern Europe:
A region without a past?

  • Central and Eastern Europe:

This panel seeks to address the consequences of exclusion of the tradition of engagement from official art-historical narratives after 1989.

What is the reason behind the marginalizing or otherwise biased approach to this tradition? Why has this part of the artistic heritage been suppressed from official narratives? How do reactions to this mostly unwanted heritage differ locally depending on socio-political conditions and historical circumstances? How does it influence institutional policies and exhibition practices in each of the countries? Finally, what experience can be gained from forgotten narratives and rejected traditions, and what can we learn from them today?

Registration for the conference events is required. The registration form will be launched one week before the event date. The number of participants is limited.

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Nataša Ilić

is a curator, critic and a member of the curators collective What, How & for Whom / WHW, a non profit organization for visual culture, formed in 1999 and based in Zagreb and Berlin. She has worked internationally in various contemporary art contexts. With WHW, she curated the 11th Istanbul Biennial in 2009 and the Croatian Pavilion for the Venice Biennial in 2010 and since 2019 she is a director of Kunsthalle in Vienna. In her work she has been particularly interested in artistic practices located outside the centers of power and setting up exchanges with geographies, histories and knowledges that have less visibility and recognition than activities in the main western capitals.

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius

teaches art history at Birkbeck College, University of London. She was Curator and Deputy Director of The National Museum in Warsaw, as well as Guest Professor at the Humboldt University Berlin. Her publications include Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeographie (Polish Academy 2000); National Museum in Warsaw Guide: Galleries and Study Collections (National Museum in Warsaw 2001); Kantor was Here: Tadeusz Kantor in Great Britain (Black Dog 2011, with Natalia Zarzecka), From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum (Ashgate 2015, with Piotr Piotrowski); Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe (Routledge 2021).  

David Riff 

is a writer, translator, artist, curator, and former member of the art group Chto Delat. He is currently senior curator at steirischer herbst since 2018. Among other shows, Riff cocurated the 1st Ural Industrial Biennial in Yekaterinburg (2010, with Cosmin Costinas and Ekaterina Degot) and headed the first Bergen Assembly together with Degot (2013). Over the last decade, Riff has been translating and researching the work of the Soviet aesthetic philosopher Mikhail Lifshitz, about whom he made a large-scale exhibition at Moscow’s Garage in 2018 together with artist Dmitry Gutov. Riff lives in Berlin.

Carol Yinghua Lu

is the director of Beijing Inside-Out Art Museum and recently received her PhD in art history from the University of Melbourne. She is an art historian and curator. Lu was on the jury for the Golden Lion Award at the 2011 Venice Art Biennale, and was also a jury member of the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of Architecture of 2018. She was the co-artistic director of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale and co-curator of the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale in 2012. From 2012 to 2015 she was the artistic director and chief curator of OCAT Shenzhen. She was the first visiting fellow in the Asia-Pacific Fellowship Programme at the Tate Research Centre in 2013, and was among the first recipients of the ARIAH (Association of Research Institutes in Art History) East Asia Fellowship in 2017. She has served on the jury for the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award, Hugo Boss Asia Art, and the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Carol Yinghua Lu has collaborated with Liu Ding in a study of the legacy of socialist realism in the practices and discourses of contemporary art in China entitled “From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: Echoes of Socialist Realism in Chinese Contemporary Art.”

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius
The Battle of Dustjackets: Eastern Europe as Socialist Europe

While researching the significance of French Socialist Realist painting for the art world in Poland in the 1950s, I encountered an article by Louis Aragon in his Les Lettres françaises of 1959, which was republished in the Polish literary journal Nowa Kultura a few weeks later. It argued, in the writer’s persuasive prose, that Socialist Realism should not be approached as a given, as a laughable recipe for politically correct art, but as a critical concept, dynamic and open for interventions. Although this was the time when Nowa Kultura was ‘trying to reheat Socialist Realism and worn-out slogans about writers’ role in society’, I was struck by Aragon’s attempt to present the vilified doctrine as a process. This idea keeps returning in my current research into visual knowledges about Eastern Europe, conveyed by maps, travel images, cartoons, as well as by covers of academic books on the region. I approach the latter as visual images which, regardless of their problematic relationship to the contents of the books, contribute to the battle for signification in purely visual terms. This paper looks specifically at the covers of books and exhibition catalogues which deal with Socialist Realism, published both within the region and outside if it, long after this ‘ism’ has been roundly condemned for its submission to Stalinism, and is being scrutinised in relation to social engagement of art, to the aims of the avant-garde, to modernity, body, gender, transnationalism, as well as examined from global perspective. Taking cues from Aragon, the paper pays special attention to the endless transformations and the interventionist potential of the socialist signifier as a recurring component of the image of Eastern Europe.

David Riff
A Philosophy of the Breach? Mikhail Lifshitz and the Recuperation of Marxist Aesthetics

“If a philosophy is to emerge, a breach in the real world must have occurred,” G.W.F Hegel noted nearly two centuries ago. This sounds prescient enough in the light of all the theories produced in the wake of later social upheavals and epistemic breaks—most recently, after the so-called “fall of communism.” But there is very little in this proliferation of interpretations that would actually explain the meaning of actually existing socialism, the necessity of its emergence and the inevitability of its demise. A rare exception is the largely forgotten work of the Soviet philosopher and cultural critic Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983), the recovery of which over the last fifteen years has resisted the ongoing decommunization of intellectual life. Lifshitz’s own lifelong endeavor was the recuperation and reconstruction of the aesthetic subcurrent in Marx and Engels’ writing, which, as he believed, could be arranged to reveal an aesthetic alternative to both Western-style modernism and home-grown socialist realism. Marx, he was convinced, had continued thinking about the “end of art” where Hegel left off, recognizing capitalism’s fundamental hostility to culture. But this insight did not mean he was a modernist before his time, as many avant-gardists were claiming, but rather a defender of classical art as understood by Hegel—an art of embodied ideals arising in rare moments of freedom between systems of oppression, from the gaps and breaches in reality. The October Revolution, in Lifshitz’s view, was such a moment, rife with the potential for a communist Renaissance in which all the wealth of formerly exclusive elite culture would be cleansed by the self-activity of the oppressed. But this potential, once actualized, could easily go wrong as Lifshitz also clearly recognized. Another key element in Lifshitz’s thinking (and one shared with his close friend and collaborator Georg Lukács) is the Marxist understanding of revolutionary tragedy, as articulated by Friedrich Engels in his correspondence with Ferdinand Lassalle, “the tragic clash between the historically necessary postulate and the impossibility of its execution in practice,” or as Lenin would put it in a marginal note, “the gulf (chasm) between the immensity of the task and the poverty of our material and cultural means,” a gulf with tragic implications of which Lifshitz was more than aware. As he would later write in his notes commenting the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, “choleric revolt on the one side, fake communists on the other. How many bodies must we throw into the breach to bridge the chasm between them?” My input will briefly introduce Lifshitz’s work and talk about how one might derive an emergent Hegelian philosophy of the breach from his recuperation of Marx’s aesthetic and its understanding of tragedy.

Carol Yinghua Lu
The long shadow: The legacy of Socialist Realism in contemporary art in China

“From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: Echoes of Socialist Realism in Chinese Contemporary Art” is a research project initiated by artist Liu Ding and art historian Carol Yinghua Lu. This ongoing research examines the historical narratives and ideological construct of Chinese contemporary art in a timeframe of seven decades since 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It considers the structural forces that came into being with the formation of Socialist Realism as a dominant principle of artistic practice throughout the three decades since the 1940s, and how such structural forces and ideological constructs remain the primary foundation for artistic practice and evaluation in contemporary times.