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A postscript to an unfinished sentence

One point to begin, anew, an inquiry into the spaces of imagination that were breached or foreclosed after 1989, into the history of exchanged glances, emulation and stupor set into motion by this event, is to examine the metaphoric obstruction that had thwarted reciprocity in the decades leading up to 1989. An ‘Iron Curtain’ had been in the way, ominously presiding over the separation of how subjectivities were formulated and fashioned on its two sides. The echoes of both propaganda and of appeals for a common European history bounced or diffracted against an impermeable surface, one of uncertain size (but assumedly very large) and imprecise placement (but assumedly zigzagging through the very heart of what had been ‘Europe’). If indeed totalitarianisms trigger the migration of aesthetic categories into the political sphere, then this sublime object might be the last residue of the political cooptation of the aesthetic. But where is now the residue of that residue? The vast and intractable hiatus metaphorized in the Iron Curtain is incommensurate with the efficiency with which this allegorical obstacle was dismantled and expedited to the historiographic junkyard. Yet nothing is ever lost, as we know from Vladimir Nabokov’s endearingly perplex Professor Pnin. Pnin recalls, in one of the mnemonic fits that frustrate all his attempts to find a place in America, the care with which his father had removed a speck of dust from his eye – and cannot reconcile himself with the “dull, mad fact” that this “black atom” still exists somewhere. What then, a question we can ask with (remembered) indignation or with the dull frenzy that details sometimes instigate, has happened to the Iron Curtain? Where is the space where it continues to be, even if broken down into myriad reddish atoms? How is a decrepit metaphor taken apart or decommissioned, and how do metaphors dissipate into the very ethereal substance that keeps them affixed to their distant object?

Is there a warehouse for material and immaterial detritus, where the set designs of the Cold War, the nuclear deus ex machina’s, the instruments of symbolic brutality rot away? And which exactly was the function that the Iron Curtain performed, within a territory that it made theatrical by its own, oblique, name? We can assume, equally legitimately, that distinct plays, unaware of their simultaneity, were performed on its two sides, or that the Curtain separated a stage from an auditorium, keeping the play on the stage at a remove from the play of the audience and hindering their intersection in the same dramatic denouement. A curtain never to be lifted concealed from each other the elements that constitute the theatrical, the forms of mimesis whose enactment or eschewal would make a show: the transparent economy of affects, mutuality, impersonation, display and becoming. Regardless of whether the Curtain concealed spectacle from audience, play from play and audience from audience, or the space of representation from the space of infrastructure and machinery, in all these cases it spatialized disjunction at the same time as theatricality. The Iron Curtain sat in a theatre of separation. This allows us to engage, in tandem, the post-’89 choirs of communality and the arias of disgruntled patriotism, the Sturm und Drang of nationalism and the bureaucratic calculations that built the European Union, its political or economic motivations and the vapid iconography beyond which they hide, globalization and its poorly executed scenography, faltering multiculturalism and symposia on integration – to thread all these into one continent-wide opera of unity.

Whether the Iron Curtain is gradually covered by the very decrepitude it sought to mask, by a film of corrosion and rust, whether it has been repurposed, recycled to build ruinous post-industrial landscapes that Europe wishes to forget, or whether it has transubstantiated into the alkahest of a new European sociability, its work of separation is not completed. As no allegory is every fully taken apart, as the resonance of the ‘other agora’ persists indelibly in the back of minds and behind spontaneous gestures, the remnants of mimesis and disjunction are still tangible, interrupting the political and affective homogeneity of the new order. They continue to affect how subjectivities are shaped and collective destinations are imagined, to introduce intermissions and asides in the play of European becoming.  These rifts assumed many forms throughout the ‘90s, primarily as forms of staging the other, conceiving the other as central or as marginal. The East thought of the West as a laboratory for its political future, whereas the West may have construed the East as a museum if its own political history. But the complexities of how East and West coincided or were disunited in the search for political seamlessness, of shared paradigms of consensus or indignation, and how this play of synonyms and antonyms registered artistically and curatorially, in exhibitions that look like intensely exoticising affairs, are too vast for the scope of this introductory essay.

Arguably the most pertinent diagnosis of the mindset that span both political maladjustment and exhibitions bearing symptomatic titles such as Blood and Honey or In the Gorges of the Balkans, where art was dangerously close to being not-really-art, because of its proximity to, and translation of, contemporaneous news reports about fratricidal bloodshed and lingering dysfunctions, comes from Alexander Kiossev’s 1998 essay Notes on Self-Colonising Cultures. Kiossev’s East is absorbed by its own marginality – like Achilles, it is logically and structurally incapable of catching up with the turtle. The East attempts to constitute its identity in relation to what it lacks fundamentally. He says: “In the genealogical knot of the Bulgarian national culture there exists the morbid consciousness of an absence – a total, structural, non-empirical absence. The Others – the neighbours, Europe, the civilized World –, possess all that we lack; they are all that we are not. The identity of this culture is initially marked, and even constituted by, the pain, the shame and trauma of this global absence. The origin of this culture arises as a painful presence of absences and its history could be narrated, in short, as centuries-old efforts to make up for and eliminate the traumatic shortages.”

Kiossev speaks of a morbid model of civilization evenly spread across Eastern cultures, of the systematic import of models and painstaking self-colonisation. Eastern European cultures narrate themselves from the second half of the 19th century as not central, not timely and not big enough (European, but perhaps not to a real extent); but also as insufficiently alien, not distant and backward enough to be relegated to an entirely different, ‘non-European’ paradigm of political representation. They portray themselves as commensurate and inadequate at the same time. We, the East seems to mumble collectively, are not others – not our own Other, the radiant model situated elsewhere, but also not this Other’s other: just its incomplete self. What informs and propels this is of course a theological model – but one with an alien civilization in the structural place where transcendence used to be. The alien is the universal, the universal is forever alien, and what results is a disempowering alterity and a doctrine of cardinal points.

It is perhaps important to note that this is not an exit from modernity, but the core engine of modernity in reverse drive, a perfectly modern act of self-definition made to implode, by delegating the legitimacy of the definition, by situating the criteria that could verify it beyond the reach of the definition. A decade and a half after Kiossev’s text, we could ask what, in the reciprocal theatrical model sketched above, would be the opposite of self-colonisation, and what the colonist – who never came to take possession of real and symbolic territory – was thinking.  Things changed, or simply lost stringency, and some of their dramatic intensity, around the year 2000. If art is indeed of reflection, or in this case an almost-prophesy rather than mere document, of societal and cultural changes that are still in the process of unveiling themselves, then it might be worthwhile to study the shift in Eastern art from formulas that immediately lent themselves to inclusion in the exotic canon, to investigations into the recesses of subjectivity, and the simultaneous processes via which a new generation of artists reframed the question of self and articulated a different political consciousness from that of the preceding generations. In lieu of a conclusive statement, and emulating to an extent the profitable open-endedness that animates the dialogue between the two collections in the present exhibition, I would like to take a cue from works by two artists in the show and frame these as historiographic cardinal points, as extremities of a historical space that is not bound by either the laments of dispossession and evacuation, by litanies of frustrated aspirations, or by avatars of the apocalyptic messianism that accompany, as inescapable atavisms or as constitutive sign, each manifestation of our never-ending crisis. Both my examples suffuse history-making and history-writing with imagination, which is not to say that they fictionalize history: what is fictionalized is the rapport and transaction between the elements that structure remembrance and prognosis, between their conditions of possibility.

CiprianMuresan’s COMMUNISM NEVER HAPPENED is a text piece, realized in vinyl cut from Romanian political propaganda records. The text could just as easily headline a political agenda or announce the inauguration of a gigantic shopping mall. It is pure, implacable revisionism – one without an ideology – or a complex anachronism, indicating the ways in which post-communism and globalization endlessly complicate each other. Bound up with the certainty that communism did happen, it signals the emergence of a generation of Eastern European artists that no longer reflect on trauma and functions as a slogan that bypasses both political disputes about the left today, after communism ceased to happen, and personal histories affected by the brutality with which the extreme political conditions manifested themselves. Its counter-factual implosion has an immediate consequence: if more people agree that “communism never happened”, the possibility of a community discreetly arises, but a different kind of community than the model imagined in the daily exercise of communism, and an alternative to model of post-Marxist communality endlessly tested in current artistic experimentation. The work appears as a proposal to move on without forgetting, by un-forgetting: to undo the fixity with which trauma is regarded, and regards us in exchange, the static irresolution binding the subject and the trauma in place. It breaches a circular space of mobility and resonance around an object that it no longer plans to elucidate, to clarify, to validate or indict. The object is, in a kind of historiographic perjury, declared over, not there, definitively closed upon itself, yet also still present as absence, as fold that resists our examination. This puzzling non-negative definition of our condition, possibly generally European rather than confined to the Eastern side, suspends in disquieting denial the other certainty, that liberalism is happening, shifting the terms in which we conceive the direct descent of a future from a past. The work institutes a site of enunciation from which things not yet said can be formulated, and perhaps from which things said can be un-said. Different from fiction, from the rhetoric of the manifesto or the counter-manifesto, different from history proper, the work holds all these discursive possibilities and their respective levers in balance, so that they illuminate each other and imagine the other’s alternative.  

Mircea Cantor’s Monument for the End of the World is a model of the Korean city of Busan, above which a wind chime, suspended on a crane, towers menacingly. At the scale established by the work, only a cataclysm could set the chime into sonorous motion, yet the same cataclysm would wipe out the life of the city. A symbol of domestic comfort transformed into a warning of collective obliteration, the chime replicates in a different paradigm the ambitious vertical thrust promised by Tatlin’s model for a Constructivist tower to the Socialist International. Similarly it disregards what can be built and what can be seen by a group of people, rather than by the Angel of History: it radiates self-referentiality and iconic improbability. Yet something is deeply and purposefully amiss in the Tatlin analogy suggested by the work, something that has to do precisely with scale and its inversions. Instead of a confident push upward (Tatlin’s model measured almost 4 meters), Cantor’s work is scaled down in relation to the ready-made, regular-size chime. The apocalyptic overtone is confused with the connotations of idyllic domesticity. Rather than Modernist, revolutionary escalation, Cantor’s retro-futurist piece invokes the set design for an old science-fiction film, with tiny housing blocks being thrashed around by doll-size monsters. The reduction of the cityscape and the resulting disproportion – and defamiliarization – of an otherwise standard chime deflate the destructive projections in science fiction, the narrative euphoria with which the world is rendered powerless at the hand of immense beasts it has created or unwittingly conjured. Conversely, the toy, and the set of gestures associated with toys, are inscribed into the monument. There is an oscillation here between the heedless metaphors of Modernism – Constructivist or sci-fi – and their interrogative suspension, to-ing and fro-ing between images of social renewal, impending doom and the exercise of privacy.Alternating between catastrophic tremor and domestic peace, the piece indicates a simple yet compelling fact: the fundamental equivalence of all predictions about the future. It shifts focus from prospective time to the contemporaneous use – or instrumentality – of predictions, to the futures we work towards every day, to the energy they stem from or can release, to the potential that they can activate here and now. Futures are unpredictable in so far as they are creative, to be designed with the instruments granted to us by politics or art, in the most expansive sense of the two words. All this, under a ‘variable sky’. 

Mihnea Mircan, 2012