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In the winter of 2018, a project group of six curators (Judit Bodor, Adam Czirak, Astrid Hackel, Beata Hock, Andrej Mircev, and Angelika Richter) presented a fresh account of East-Central European performance art in their exhibition Left Performance Histories, at the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (NGbK) in Berlin. The exhibition provided a fascinating and nuanced look at performance-art practices in the region, which both expanded our understanding of that history and brought lesser-studied material to light.
The entrance to the show set the scene for the entire exhibition, presenting a “labyrinth” of identity—a literal maze composed of photographs, both performative portraits and self-portraits—capturing the complex nature of sexual and gender identity, a theme that was present throughout the show. The installation also compelled visitors to embody this process of searching for the self by meandering through the various explorations of individual identity.
The labyrinth was bookended with a reel of performances by Polish artist Ewa Partum, whose work is often categorized as feminist, and with documentation of Judit Kele’s recent performance KONTRAKTUS—célébration sologame, which was enacted in the exhibition space on February 16, 2018, as part of a conference organized around the show. El Kazovskij’s stage performances were projected onto the wall opposite the film loop of Partum performing Women, Marriage Is Against You! Kazovskij was a Russian-born, transgender Hungarian artist whose work not only pushed the boundaries of gender and gender identity, but also challenged art’s disciplinary boundaries, as the artist combined theater, performance, and costume and set design into a Gesamtkunstwerk of total performance. The curators’ juxtaposition of Kazovskij’s and Partum’s performances effectively demonstrated the range of ways in which performance art uniquely manifested itself in the region, along with its varied approaches to dealing with gender.
In addition to revealing previously unknown works by underrepresented artists, the show offered an expanded definition of performance practices in East-Central Europe. Within this region, performances took place in a range of venues and at various moments. In some countries, such as Hungary, events were staged as part of exhibition openings. There have also been numerous examples in the socialist countries of fashion and design presentations taking on a performative character. Some of these events were highlighted in the exhibition, such as those by Tamás Király, Irmgard Senf, and the all-female artist group Erfurt/Exterra XX.
During the socialist period, all aspects of design, including fashion, faced comparatively less scrutiny from the authorities than painting and sculpture. Because it is implicitly nonnarrative, design could risk being more experimental. Such was the case with Király. His Red Star Dress, which was re-created for the exhibition, reveals how an artist can expand the definition of clothing in a creative way by producing a dress that is both an object of high fashion and sculptural, in that it represents the communist red star in three dimensions. This work, like the others on view in the exhibition, underscores that artists in the region have not only created pioneering and innovative works of contemporary experimental and performance art; they have also created innovative works in fashion, theater, and other genres, blurring the lines between those categories.
Beyond the Red Star Dress, in the second room of the exhibition a binder filled with photocopied pages from Yugoslav/Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic’s sketchbooks was placed on a pedestal and was one of the most intriguing objects in the show. Filled with dozens of unrealized performances, the pages speak of the potentiality of performance, which remains in suspension until it is executed in real time. It is clear from the show’s title, Left Performance Histories, that the curators wanted to address this potentiality. The title refers not only to a political leaning, but also to the artifacts of performance, what is left afterward, or in this case, what was there before it was performed.
Another element present in the exhibition was that of the participatory. Photographs from Bálint Szombathy’s The Red Kiss of History documented a new performance that played on the artist’s iconic 1972 Lenin in Budapest actions, wherein he was photographed holding a placard of Lenin’s portrait following the May Day celebrations. At the opening of the exhibition, on February 2, 2018, Szombathy carried out an action in which he kissed visitors through a hole cut in the mouth of a portrait from Lenin in Budapest. In order to present this participatory action in the exhibition, a film documenting it was shown alongside the original historic work, bringing the past together with the present, and aligning two disparate but comparable historical moments.
Left Performance Histories presented a range of performative approaches that relied on a variety of different media, including film and video projections, still images, sketchbooks, posters, and the artifacts of performance. In some cases, this worked effectively, such as in the room dedicated to Vlasta Delimar’s Walkthrough as Lady Godiva performance of 2001, which showed her moving through Zagreb on horseback, completely naked. In other instances, the objects did not convey their full performative potential. For example, Polish artist Zygmunt Piotrowski re-created three posters from the actions Think Communism (1971), Stigma (1973), and Alternative Education (1979). These posters were produced in a common format to “suggest retrospective re-readings of these performance works” (120). The original performances were quite distinct. The Think Communism poster was made for a “political spectacle” marking the one-year anniversary of the workers’ strikes in Gdansk. Stigma related to a performance the artist did with his girlfriend to mark the end of his studies, wherein the two walked blindfolded through the streets of Warsaw. Alternative Education was the manifesto of an artists’ group that Piotrowski led at the Dziekanka Student Centre. Although new readings can always be drawn from the re-presentation of material, it is difficult to discern what new reading can come from putting these three disparate objects of performance together as a new work.
The exhibition provided a good balance of the known and the unknown and included material that could all be considered under the umbrella of the “political,” either because of its relationship to political activism or because of its examination of gender, sexuality, and/or body politics. This, however, was also one of the shortcomings of the exhibition. The emphasis on the political may have left viewers with a skewed picture of performance practices in the region. While the curators acknowledged in the project description that the show was not intended to be a comprehensive retrospective, one of their aims was to counter the usual narrow representation of art from the region as a reaction to an oppressive sociopolitical environment. Indeed, many artists in the region found in performance art an alternative, free space outside the politically saturated everyday. While some examples, such as Mladen Stilinović’s On Pain, helped to round out the more politically and gender-oriented selection, it would have been good to see additional examples.
The geographic range of the exhibition was strong, including artists from East Germany, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. It was, however, lamentable to see Yugoslavia represented only by key players from Croatia and Serbia. Meanwhile, countries such as Bulgaria and Albania, which came later than most to the performance-art table, had no place in the represented performance histories, despite the fact that the exhibition attempted to include the previously excluded.
One unique aspect of the project was a focus on the caretakers of the archives, who were often widows of the artists. The curators invited two of the widows, Branka Stipančić and Zora Cazi-Gotovac, to select one object for the exhibition from the work by their partners, Mladen Stilinović and Tomislav Gotovac. Rather than relegate these caretakers to the shadows, the exhibition acknowledged these witnesses of history and recognized the active role and agency that they play in the preservation of the artists’ legacies. Furthermore, the women’s voices are also present in the exhibition catalogue, which includes an essay by Branka Stipančić.
The catalogue, published in September 2018, is an excellent performative companion to the exhibition in that it documents the process of creating it. The exhibition was part of a larger project by the team, Action Art Beyond the Iron Curtain (2015–18), in the context of which they traveled to five cities: Bremen, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, and Zagreb. They visited archives and artists relevant to East-Central European performance history, such Klaus Groh’s Mail Art Archive at the University of Bremen.
The catalogue presents brief biographies of all the artists included in the exhibition, as well as essays by each member of the project team, and essays by contributors to the February 2018 conference. The essays are short and each highlights a particular aspect of the exhibition that the curators focused on: gender, the critique of the left from the left, and the archive. The catalogue is an object of performance in and of itself, in that it captures the research and process of creating the exhibition and will remain as a trace for years to come. Although the exhibition has closed, the catalogue is “left” behind for future scholars.
Professor and Personal Chair in Film and Visual Culture, University of Aberdeen, Scotland