Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 16, 2018
Amy Bryzgel Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. 360 pp.; 67 color ills.; 87 b/w ills. Paperback $34.95 (9781784994228)

1986, Sarajevo. Zvono rushes the field during a soccer match. For this performance, entitled Sport and Art, the band of artists sets up easels and begins to paint. They wear the colors of the opposing team. Once the paintings are complete, they run across the field and showcase them.

1986, Turgovishte. In northern Bulgaria, three groups of artists perform parallel actions called The Road. Members of Dobrudzha, Turgovishte, and Ma paint their bodies and engage in enigmatic rituals as they move through remote hillsides.

1986, Dresden. The Auto-Perforation Artists stage a series of rambunctious theatrics involving animal parts, gender-bending costume, incantations, and automatic painting. Spitze des Fleischbergs (Top of Meat Mountain) takes place during the Dresden Art Academy’s annual carnival celebration. It concludes when the four artists each black out from exhaustion.

These three vignettes are drawn from Amy Bryzgel’s book Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960, which surveys some twenty-one Eastern Bloc countries in the late Cold War era and post-socialist contemporary period. In addition to demonstrating by example the range and importance of performance art to the region, Bryzgel draws connections—both explicit and implicit—to Western corollaries that will likely be more familiar to her average reader (e.g., Conceptual art, the feminist art movement, and Dada). One of Bryzgel’s core contentions is that artists working in the Eastern Bloc “are in fact part of the European tradition of experimental and avant-garde art practices” (4). Yet, even as it demonstrates how performance art in the region may be linked to global trends, her text equally maintains the regional specificity of these practices, including in post-socialist Europe and Russia.

With twenty-one contexts to contend with, Bryzgel has assigned herself a considerable task. Doing so, however, makes unequivocal both the complexity and the significance of performance art to experimental culture in Central and Eastern Europe in the mid- to late twentieth century and now. This work clarifies a little known history. Equally important, it counters a priori assumptions about cultural production in the communist East. For one, it demonstrates that artists had agency in political systems generally understood as culturally and ideologically oppressive. Moreover, Bryzgel contests a traditional binary of conformist/dissident through examples of artists who responded to a range of aesthetic and historical concerns, often with little or no regard for the consequences of ignoring the prescriptions of state policy. Her examples are further served by a vast array of illustrations (154 in total), many likely uncovered through original field research in archives and interviews with more than 250 protagonists and thus made accessible for the first time.

Each chapter of Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 stands out from the next and may be read or taught as a discrete unit. In chapter 1, “Sources and Origins,” Bryzgel sketches a chronology of performance art in the region and introduces connections to Western or pre-Cold War art histories that she returns to throughout her text. For example, Fluxus (including Fluxus East) and Conceptual art in general figure prominently as important points of confluence. Chapter 2, “The Body,” examines surveillance states in relation to artists’ use of the body. Bryzgel’s discussion of the various ways artists inhabited public space limns a trajectory between those working in the Cold War period and those active in the post-socialist present. The desire to use performance art as a means to redefine the commons remains a pressing concern in the region. Here the influence of Piotr Piotrowski, a foundational thinker on the history and contemporary relevance of art and culture from Eastern Europe, as well as more recent scholarship by people like Klara Kemp-Welch, is evident. The next chapter, “Gender,” likewise bridges the state socialist era and the contemporary via artistic representations of gender and sexuality through body-based practice. Bojana Pejić and Beata Hock have demonstrated in various contexts that artists experimented with gender and sexuality in response to state socialism’s false promise of gender equality. Bryzgel elaborates upon this research as well as frameworks introduced by Piotrowski by identifying a current tendency, especially among male artists in Eastern Europe and Russia, to confront the region’s macho heteronormativity through performance art. Chapter 4, “Politics and Identity,” demonstrates the significance of alternative forms of self-representation through body-based practices. Here the argument is twofold. First, Bryzgel discredits the cliché that all experimental art in the Eastern Bloc was intentionally dissident, that is, politically motivated. Next, she argues that artists working in the region today are now deliberately politicizing their practices to model civic engagement and demand democracy. Bryzgel’s final chapter, “Institutional Critique,” draws out some of the distinctions between the arts institution in the state socialist system, in which the government transparently, if coercively, controlled culture, and the arts institution in capitalism, which runs the risk of determining value based on the art market.

Bryzgel’s scope is both geographically and temporally broad. As the author states in her introduction, never before have these twenty-one countries been considered together. This breadth is both the text’s virtue and its pitfall. With so much ground to cover, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 tends toward the encyclopedic. Although her descriptions of performances and events are often rich, the task of knitting together so many examples sometimes bogs the text down in details. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the depth of her overviews. For example, from my perspective, her sections on East Germany suggest Bryzgel concentrated her research on the most frequently documented artists. This may be an issue of language more than anything else. Nevertheless, Bryzgel could have employed her field research, and specifically the interviews, more extensively throughout the text to demonstrate her reasoning for selecting specific examples.

Certainly Bryzgel does not promise a comprehensive accounting of performance art in the region, but rather an introductory one. Should this book inspire scholars to conduct further research into any of the twenty-one countries (past or present) it explores, it will have done its work. As an English-language reference then, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 will serve the budding inquiry well. The images alone are an invaluable font of new knowledge.

In terms of inspiring further research, while Bryzgel’s connections to Western art histories are important, they demand expansion. For example, although the visual and material parities between artists working with the environment in the Eastern Bloc and Land artists in the West described in chapter 2 are intriguing, Bryzgel would have done well to gloss Land art’s relationship to Minimalism, as well as to the Conceptual art movement’s critique of the arts institution. Such insight would clarify the comparison, including those places where visual similarity falls flat. In fact, comparing the work of artists from Eastern Europe to those in the West has consistently undermined the novelty of the region’s contributions to global art history. Of course, Bryzgel is fully aware of this tendency to call art from the East derivative. The work she does to situate this history within a trajectory more familiar to her Western readers is thus not only important, it is critical. Nevertheless, the confluences she conjures with the West may have been better articulated through more in-depth analysis of her counterpoints. For example, her recurring use of the American artists Chris Burden, Jackson Pollock, and Carolee Schneemann ultimately read a bit hollow. Here, Bryzgel could have either taken a closer look at these “household” names of performance and action art or might have drawn in a greater number of examples for comparison. Similarly, elaborations on some of the recurring concerns of performance art—such as public versus private space, audience, and the relationship between artists and the state—would have helped to demonstrate how economic, political, and ideological differences between East and West differentiate visibly or materially similar artistic practices.

Bryzgel’s discussions of performance art in the post-socialist context are arguably her most innovative. Described within a trajectory that begins in the Cold War era, her analyses of performance artists working in the post-socialist present demonstrate the continued relevance of the genre in the region. Performance art, which became a mechanism for personal expression and cultural autonomy in the state socialist era, maintains a related, if more politicized, purpose in contemporary Eastern Europe and Russia, where threats to civic freedoms and a lack of transparency in government wreak havoc on democracy. It is interesting, for example, to consider as Bryzgel does how artists such as Marko Markovic or Petr Pavlensky, whose work explores issues of abjection and self-harm, relate to the legacies of state socialism’s cultural constrictions. These lineages are complex to say the least. Bryzgel’s scholarship offers some critical openings to the Eastern Bloc’s cultural history, which remains largely opaque to the Western reader raised on narratives of American Cold War warriors.

Bryzgel’s text will interest especially those invested in the rapidly expanding field of Central and Eastern European art history and Cold War cultural studies. Its wide swathe of information illustrates the variety and intrigue of performance art in the Cold War East and will surely entice many curious onlookers to storm the field. 

Sara Blaylock
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, University of Minnesota–Duluth