Go East

What could have been


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“Ostalgia” is a dangerous art show. The name alone tells you that. It is troubling that a term such as “ostalgia” exists at all. The term first gained popularity in Berlin after the Wall came down in 1989. By the mid-1990s, some people were feeling nostalgic for the divided Berlin that had so suddenly passed away. The term östalgie was born. Öst is the German word for East, so Östalgie was a coinage referring to that feeling of having lost a part of the city, the East part.


That specific form of nostalgia made some sense in Berlin. Whatever the horrors and heartbreak of the Berlin Wall, it was a modern icon. The divided city of Berlin was the unofficial headquarters of the Cold War. When the Wall came down, there was general euphoria. The divisions of the past were being overcome. East Berlin was quickly pulled into the Western orbit. Berlin became whole again, but the price of wholeness was the loss of its importance as a Cold War capital. As the entire city was Westernized, it simultaneously became less unique.

Fast forwarding to the present, many still feel a sense of confusion and loss for the forgotten world that was the communist east. The “Ostalgia” show at the New Museum explores that feeling in the art of persons from the countries of the former Soviet Bloc — countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union itself. The press release for the show explains itself: “Zig-zagging across distant geographies and personal histories, ‘Ostalgia’ composes an imaginary landscape, tracing the cartography of the dreams that haunted the East, for ultimately ‘Ostalgia’ is an exhibition about myths and their demise.” This is roughly as meaningless an explanation as it sounds. But we can be sympathetic to the nervous tone and imprecise language. That’s because “Ostalgia” the art show, just like “ostalgia” the word, is about feelings of longing for a past we are supposed to despise. It is the longing that ought not be named.

There is a serious proposition here, a serious question. Was there something good about communism? Was there something decent about the form of life that existed behind the Iron Curtain? As a political question, this can be answered definitively in the negative. Soviet-style communism was a failure by definition. It couldn’t sustain itself. It was also a system that relied — in its Stalinist period — on outright terror. Its totalitarian tendencies continued past the Stalinist days. Even in the relatively benign incarnation of the ’70s and ’80s, the world of the Soviet Empire was a world of political repression and the stifling of civil society. We are all aware of these facts. Indeed, they are so comfortable that we never seem to tire of repeating them. That is also why an art show such as “Ostalgia” hides behind imprecise language and an ambivalence of purpose. It is a show that doesn’t want to be caught taking the wrong political line. We are assured — in the explanations of artwork, in the press releases, in the catalogue, and in much of the work chosen — that this is a show that will do its job in critiquing the evils of communism.

But that is not what drove the curators at the New Museum to put up a show called “Ostalgia.” No one is interested in a show that condemns the politics of a civilization that no longer exists. In fact, the core impulse of “Ostalgia” is to explore a feeling that has nothing directly to do with politics at all. What art can show us about the society of the former Soviet Bloc is something that discussions of politics and society don’t have immediate access to. Art can show us the immediacy of life as it was felt and experienced in that time, in that place.

What we find in “Ostalgia” is surprising. We find a great deal of ease. I’m not talking about material comfort or an “easy life.” I am talking about human ease, to coin a term. Take a series of photographs (the “Relationship” series) by Nikolay Bakharev. One shot from the late ’70s shows what seems to be a picnic in a park. Two young men are leaning against a tree. The one standing between two branches looks out at the camera, sort of, or just past it. The point is that he is both aware of the camera and indifferent to it. This is an attitude that would seem to be very difficult to fake, especially for someone who is not a professional model. So we can assume that his relative indifference is genuine. He wears a bathing suit but is not particularly concerned about his near-nakedness one way or the other. Looking at the picture, you want to say that he is just there. Even as he poses between the trunks of the tree he looks utterly at ease with whatever image of himself is going to be captured and preserved for posterity. He is presenting himself to the camera in a way that doesn’t present anything, if that is possible. His gestures and his facial features confront that camera in the same way that they might confront a friend, or nothing at all. He would be there between the trees even if a camera were nowhere to be found, even if he were alone and simply being in nature. I don’t want to say that he is showing us his “true self.” Maybe we can say that he is showing us his “self unencumbered.” The second young man holds his left arm behind his back, grasping the tree branch on the right side. It is a gesture so utterly innocent, so simultaneously exposed and self-confident that it is difficult to give it a name. We don’t encounter that kind of un-posed posing in daily life very much anymore.

This is not to say that people in the former Soviet Bloc were without worries or unconcerned about how they presented themselves to others. Communist life demanded that citizens take up a public persona of good-citizenship that was often so absurd and contrary to the actual facts of daily life that it required willful schizophrenia just to pull it off. There was a lot of pretending in life behind the Iron Curtain. But there was a realm of privacy in the former Soviet Bloc in which people seem to have been able to escape that social pressure and be free from the need to act out any role at all. In the private sphere, the pressure of being this or that was suddenly released. Maybe the freedom came partly from the fact that the private sphere did not, officially, exist. And that is when what I am calling “human ease” emerges. It emerges when “just being” can take precedence over “being X” or “being Y.” That guy standing between the trees in the Bakharev photo is not “a plumber” or “a party official” or “an aspiring actor” or “a disappointed guy who had a lot of potential.” If anything, the photograph makes me want to describe him as “a human being, being human.”

Many of Bakharev’s photos from the ’70s and ’80s have this quality. The same thing can be found in the film clips put together by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, (“Enthusiasm. The Films of Love, Longing, and Labour,” 2004). Cummings and Lewandowska rescued and restored a number of amateur film clips from communist Poland. In them can be found the same postures and attitudes of human ease that are so striking in the photographs of Bakharev. Being films, we get to see people moving. It is possible, watching these clips, to say that people moved differently in the Eastern Bloc and especially in their moments of privacy. Is it possible to say that the movement is both awkward and fluid at the same time? Like the un-posed posing of Bakharev’s photographs, the movement is distinguished by a lack of prepossession. Rarely do the people in these films seem as if they are watching themselves move, or second-guessing how their acts of movement might look on film, even though they are often aware of being filmed.

The same phenomenon is revealed in the snapshots by Boris Mikhailov. Mikhailov has a taste for perversion and deviant behavior that gives his photographs a special quality. But even his snapshots of people being naughty in the ’60s and ’70s project the same human ease. Taking nude pictures was, technically, illegal during the days of the Soviet Union. But many of the nude subjects Mikhailov captures project no defiance whatsoever. Something different is going on. They are expressing their freedom not by challenging the politics of the day but by challenging the idea that they need to be political at all. They are under no constraint. And being under no constraint, they have little if anything to prove, to themselves or to anyone else. They confront Mikhailov’s camera as guileless and unassuming as children. Indeed, there is a childlike quality to all of these photographs. Maybe it comes from the fact that children don’t yet know exactly who they are when they stand in front of the camera. Mikhailov’s subjects are like that — they do not know who to be. Unlike children, however, they seem to recognize this as an achievement. They accept that relative simplicity of being. They are proud of it. They have joy.

In a contemporary culture in which we are constantly told about the virtue of creating our own identities, of making ourselves whoever we want to be, it is striking to see the self-presentation of human beings living in a society that did not recognize that same virtue. The idea that each human being is in charge of his or her own identity, his or her own “brand,” did not exist behind the Iron Curtain. You had to play your public role, you had to utter the public lies, and then the rest of the time, the stakes dropped way down. There wasn’t much further pressure to be this or that. Individual ambition had few avenues for expression anyway. Working on your personal brand would have been a waste of time. In fact, it would more than likely have been counter-productive, making one into a suspicious character.

So, we must confront another difficult idea. It was, in fact, the political repression that made the moments of “human ease” in the private sphere possible. The stultifying pointlessness of public life in the Soviet Bloc, its stupidity and its demand for constant lies was the cost. That was the price every citizen had to pay. Because everything was at stake in one’s public role as citizen, there was almost nothing at stake in being a human the rest of the time. Do, therefore, the souls of actual human beings qua their humanness stare out of the films and photographs of that period? Because these people don’t have anything to gain, they don’t try to gain much. Because they don’t have any reason to protect themselves from the camera or from the potential viewer, they project something internal, something that seems very, very real.

This is what we see in the lost world of the Soviet era. It is impossible to want it because wanting it means wanting a whole structure of repression and totalitarianism in order to get it. It would be crazy to choose bad politics in the hope that one might get a few moments of human ease in the backyard now and again.

But art is indifferent to our desires and indifferent to the problems of politics and society. Art simply shows us what is there. The artists of the Soviet Bloc could not help but capture the special private world that existed in the decades of the waning of that empire. The photographer or filmmaker was able, in those private moments, to fade out of existence and to capture human beings presenting themselves to the camera as if it were of no consequence. Try to do that now. It is extremely difficult. Even without the knowledge that your photograph will probably be uploaded to Facebook, it is extremely difficult to pose for a picture without thinking about how you want to be and who you want to be seen as. And that is what we long for, despite ourselves, when we look back to that time. We want the human ease just to be. We see something essentially human gazing out at us from a lost world. We can’t be that way, we don’t know how to be that way; it is impossible, maybe, to be that way. But we want it. • 22 July 2011