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Ostalgia Trips

by Agata Pyzik

Valentin Petrovich Viktorov, Creative Forces of Socialism are Endless! (1959)

The end of August marked the 31st anniversary of the Gdánsk Agreement, the accord which is usually seen as having kick-started the demise of communism. Today, Adam Michnik, millionaire and owner of Agora Media LLC, speaks at the Edinburgh Book Festival as a ‘famous dissident’, while Poland takes over presidency in the EU. But somehow no one questions why, in contemporary capitalist Poland, none of the workers’ postulates in the Gdánsk Agreement of 1980 have been achieved. The more distant the collapse of the Berlin Wall becomes, the more miraculous the events around 1989 seem to be.

Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

The more capitalist these former republics become, the more nostalgia for communism seems to grow. It ranges through art and theory, film and design, books and anthologies, all of which respond more often to communism’s aesthetic than to its political meaning. In an essay titled The Two Totalitarianisms, published in the London Review of Books in 2005, Slavoj Žižek wrote: ‘Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why? To take another example: in Germany, many CDs featuring old East German Revolutionary and Party songs, from “Stalin, Freund, Genosse” to “Die Partei hat immer Recht”, are easy to find. You would have to look rather harder for a collection of Nazi songs.’

Stall at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

The irony is that Žižek consciously built his career on this post-Soviet sentiment, while being one of its more lucid critics. But this time he was only half-right: it was, after all, Goodbye Lenin! rather than Goodbye Stalin!; likewise, Downfall (2004), Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film about the last days of Hitler, which inspired one of the most persistent Internet memes, could itself be considered a kind of Goodbye Hitler!. In the current issue of ArtReview there’s a transhistorical ‘round-table’ in which Hitler, Stalin and Mao discuss modern art. None of this is considered taboo any more. Go to Berlin, Prague or Tallinn and you’ll see souvenir shops selling – alongside the omnipresent Che Guevara T-shirts and busts of Lenin – Bundeswehra or even Nazi uniforms; we find Soviet propaganda calendars together with other ‘anti-capitalist’ gadgets. Far from being a light indie film, Goodbye Lenin! was in fact a very interesting take on alternative history, with the protagonist desperately trying to cover up the reality of the fall of the Wall. It is even more interesting that Berlin, whose division has become a symbol of the Communist era, has in recent years become a playground for creative types (from the Former West especially), who consume the remnants of the radical chic of Karl-Marx Allee, Checkpoint Charlie souvenirs or play a little more ‘dangerous’ tourism, like going to derelict embassies or to the ex-CIA site in Teufelsberg. Squats are more neat than most London housing, and never-ending parties are supposed to evoke the golden age of techno, with the ghost of David Bowie’s ‘Berlin trilogy’ looming there somewhere. All these gestures don’t matter: they exist in a complete historical vacuum.

Ostalgie means and captures much wider contemporary cultural phenomena than the mere recuperation of the once-rough life under the system. That we’re now drowning with various Ostalgie projects symbolizes the weakness of contemporary, nostalgia-driven culture of constant revivals (show me a musical genre or style in art or architecture that hasn’t been revived in the last ten years). This is also related to the so-called hauntological current in culture, itself a coinage from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1994). So is Soviet-focused nostalgia wrapped up with kitsch and appropriation, or does it express something more important: a need for an alternative to a collapsing capitalist system, a need for evoking a past that never actually happened? But instead we all behave like we believed Francis Fukuyama’s much-ridiculed vision of the end of history: everything happened already, we can only rehearse it once more, like living in one gigantic museum.

Roman Cieślewicz, Superman USA/CCCP (1968), included in ‘Cold War Modern’ (2008) at the V&A, London

No wonder that exhibitions and publications about life under socialism have become very popular. These include: the breakthrough text, Modern Art in Eastern Europe, by Steven Mansbach; Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation (2001–3); the MIT-published East Art Map by the Slovenian group IRWIN; as well as a series of books by Piotr Piotrowski, most notably In the Shadow of Yalta (2003, published in English this year). The most renowned among the exhibitions was the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945–70’ (2008), curated by Jane Pavitt and David Crowley. An international group of intellectuals, including Boris Groys, Boris Buden, Renata Salecl and members of Chto Delat? collective, have participated in a number of ‘Former West’ conferences, organized by Maria Hlavajova and Charles Esche, theorizing about the condition of the Former East. There was also a project and a conference titled ‘Avant-Garde in Bloc’ (2007) in Warsaw, organized on the occasion of opening of Edward Krasiński’s studio and Avant-Garde Institute, run by Foksal Gallery Foundation. Last year saw ‘Star City: The Future Under Communism’ at Nottingham Contemporary and a publication of a lavish book, as well as a conference (titled ‘A Futurological Congress’, after Stanislaw Lem’s book), while Vienna’s MUMOK organized ‘Gender Check’, a major survey of women artists from the Eastern Republics. What followed was a lot of similar projects in the former republics. In Poland, there were shows like ‘Modernisations’ (Museum of Art in Łódź, 2010) and ‘We Want to Be Modern’ (National Museum in Warsaw, 2011).

Christian Tomaszewski and Joanna Malinowska, Mother, Earth, Sister, Moon (2009), included in ‘Star City’ (2010) at Nottingham Contemporary

Just as Žižek has already published 30-odd books, in which he calls for a reevaluation of the idea of Communism, one might well ask: is this an infinite project, serving only the perpetual Ostalgie business? How many times is the same ‘Idea of Communism’ (the title of a book by Tariq Ali) being sold to us? Not to mention at least a dozen recent major shows on Ostalgie, most notably ‘Rear Window’ in Toronto’s The Power Plant and the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni-curated ‘Ostalgia’ (both coming to the phenomenon rather late). Presenting art from Soviet and post-Soviet countries, the latter puts forward a parade of ‘artist-dissidents’, from Andrey Monastyrsky to Chto Delat. The show’s statement deserves reading, as it is a catalogue of the various forms of Former East misrepresentation. Promising to expose ‘local avant-garde practices and highlights international affinities, which indirectly question the centrality of Western art historical paradigms’, ‘Ostalgia’ blurs rather than reveals what artistic practice behind the Iron Curtain really meant. But somehow even the most sophisticated conferences, such as those organized by Muzeum of Modern Art in Warsaw on Alina Szapocznikow (in 2009) and Włodzimierz Borowski (2010), showed Western scholars using frequently clichéd comparisons and guesswork rather than real knowledge of the context.

Alina Szapocznikow in her studio

At the same time, for the last six months London’s BFI has been hosting a season wholly devoted to Soviet cinema: first, early Russian classics, then, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, a series titled ‘KOSMOS’, featuring space-race films made behind the Iron Curtain. The multinational travels in these Soviet versions of Star Trek also came back in the recent project Unknown Fields, a design studio styling themselves as a ‘division’ who this summer went on an ‘expedition’ to Chernobyl and to the former Soviet space programme city Baikonur, with a poet, a writer, an artist and many more on its board, all wearing special suits, and for whom the Soviet Union is just as much an ‘unreal and forgotten landscape, alien terrain and obsolete ecology’ as Arctic Circle, Australian Neverland or Alaska.

Baikonur, the city that is the site of the Soviet space programme

I want to note that the former USSR is neither an alien terrain nor an obsolete ecology. It is being populated by ordinary people, whose life was thoroughly scattered and jeopardized, by both the collapse of a communist economy and the introduction of capitalism. Western intellectuals can behave like it was a playground for their alternative tourism, but even the most intellectually valuable of those projects can seem either exploitative or to miss the importance of context.

What exactly attracts foreign scholars to the Former East? The reasons are many. One is that most of Western 20th-century art has been really thoroughly described: conceptualism, outsider art, previously unrecognized artists – all have been heavily exhibited and researched. Artists from the Former East often remain little known. Part of it is also due to the legacy of Marxism in the West. There are a number of Western scholars who are renowned specialists and researchers in the field – including Charity Scribner, Susan Buck-Morss and Boris Groys, whose controversial Total Art of Stalinism (1988) basically charges the Constructivists with Socialist Realism (Groys couldn’t have foreseen the more recent appreciation of the latter). One publication that perhaps opened the door to the more uninhibited Ostalgie projects was Svetlana Boym’s sensitive The Future of Nostalgia (2001), although it was intended more as warning than lure.

What often happens here is that writers take only the picturesque elements of the era, isolating them from the less photographically attractive. This is evident in Frederic Chaubin’s CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (2011), a book of ‘cosmic’ Soviet architecture, or Richard Pare’s archival project on Constructivist architecture (The Lost Vanguard, 2007). What ensues is writers dangerously fetishizing ‘ruins’ and decay, such as Brian Dillon [a regular contributor to frieze], who has recently edited a book in MIT/Whitechapel’s ongoing series on – what else? – ruins, and published a novella, Sanctuary (2011), inaugurating a new genre of ruin-travelogue. Many of the art or writing on the Former East has shown that the Ostalgics perceive the Former East as something petrified and stable, as if nothing has changed in political terms. There’s very little attention paid by artists and philosophers to what it is like to live in Poland, Russia, Ukraine today. So are we still recovering from communism, or are we living in a completely different era that the ‘West’ is not allowing us to live?

The first signs of Ostalgia were visible even before the whole affair ended, in pop music, punk and post punk: think of the Human League recording The Dignity of Labour (1979), an album about the Soviet space programme, and then putting Yuri Gagarin on the sleeve; Subway Sect’s Vic Goddard painting his clothes in grey after a school trip to Russia; Scritti Politti’s debut single ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (1978); Joy Division (who of course were originally called Warsaw); or David Bowie’s countless references to Cold War Europe in “Heroes” and Low, most obviously ‘Warszawa’ (1977).

For me, Modernist ruins were the reality of childhood and early youth. The strong anti-communism of post-1989 Poland made them a remainder of a hated regime – so why not let them decay? As a citizen of Poland, it was only in the UK I learned that I’m still from ‘The East’ – meaning not eastern Europe, as in the geographical part of the continent, but the East as a geopolitical, Cold War-era term. One intriguing phenomenon is how the Former Easterners also suffer from nostalgia (though many of us preferred the pop culture of a romanticized West). Only exhibitions like ‘Cold War Modern’ made me realize how colourful and attractive actual Soviet design and living could be. Soviet cities were made of stone, concrete and various shades of grey, where every smallest bit of colour acted a shock and was meaningful. But if you go to a contemporary post-Soviet city, such as Warsaw or Kiev, what strikes you is the overabundance of billboards and advertising, a complete trashing of any possible empty or public space. Western Europe can afford social policy and decent public space but, in the Former East, the communist past is being used as an excuse for the worst abuses of power.

One may say that this widespread interest is just another example in the long history of recuperation of radical culture by the mainstream, from Adorno to radical chic – the commodification of things once revolutionary. But it is not naiveté that brings us to make this point. We live in a time of great civil unrest, of economic meltdowns, where capitalism seems to be undergoing a similar terminal crisis to that of communism 20 years ago. It is no coincidence that the children of the Reagan-and-Thatcher era are now protesting against the final erasure of the welfare state’s basic prerogatives. 1989 didn’t only happen in Eastern Europe, and for the West the 1980s was a tumultuous period: miners’ strikes in the UK, the failed socialist reforms of Mitterand, and their replacement with ruthless economy, whose legacy is responsible for the current catastrophe. It would be understandable if this was children of (as Margaret Thatcher famously said) ‘There is no Alternative’, looking at the last moment people believed in the future. But there’s actually a near-complete lack of a serious consideration of the socialist past as a source of inspiration. Instead we have artist projects on nostalgia or, elsewhere, a blatant capitalism which faces an undead corpse of communism, that haunts it but is unable to be taken seriously. Capitalist realism seems to be the direct follow-up to socialist Utopianism – the greatest Utopia of them all, the Utopia of the ‘end of history’.

We must be honest with ourselves: socialism was not an isolated Eastern phenomenon. We can find remnants of socialist policies everywhere in Europe, and this is perhaps what makes the subsequent nostalgia universal. At the same time we should be suspicious of this nostalgia. Maybe nostalgia for Communism expresses only the mourning for the past, rather than a wish to get back to the grey blocks and the politics that enabled them. If this is so shallow, one may ask, why bother? Let them collect their figurines. Much more interesting is that, as Ostalgie rises in the West, simultaneously anti-communism and right-wing politics are on the rise nearly everywhere in the Former East; together with the oligarchs, turbo-capitalism eats the last bits of the Former East’s social policies. What we need is a bold look into the present, at how capitalism abuses both East and West.

About the author

  • Agata Pyzik's photo

    Agata Pyzik is a writer who contributes to The Guardian, The Wire, New Humanist. She’s the author of Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (Zero 2014).

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