While making your way down the small stairwell connecting the second and third floors of the New Museum, bright red wall text demands attention before you take the final step:
PLEASE USE CAUTION WHEN TURNING AROUND THE CORNER, ARTWORK BEHIND.
The warning is well-placed: just around the bend, Edward Krasinki’s hanging installation, TITLE, constructed of mirrors and blue painters tape could present a potential collision. The series of mirrors hang just about eye level, presenting an unavoidable confrontation with your own image. That moment of walking into Krasinki’s work encapsulates the feeling of much of Ostalgia: we are turning an important historical corner, when the distance from horrific political, economic, and social turmoil somehow reaches a threshold. Curated by Associate Director Massimiliano Gioni with Assistant Curator Jarrett Gregory, Ostalgia brings together a vast spectrum of artistic reactions to Soviet control of Eastern European nations, that when placed in conversation, mark a distinct evolution in the way we think and talk about socialism’s lifespan.
How soon is too soon? When is the corner turned? On the eve of a season filled with shows contemplating the more recent tragedy of 9/11, cultural producers and interpreters face this predicament. How long does it take for the open wounds of historical violence to become communicable? Art itself can function as a healing, “transformative agent,” as the accompanying wall text describes, if not also an active participant in dismantling the tectonics of oppression. To present a comprehensive retrospective of the artistic response related to Socialist rule of the Eastern bloc provides a particular relevant way to think about our contemporary moment.
Tucked in the corner of one of the smallest of the New Museum’s three elevators is a bag of chips wrapped up in wires. It is easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention. One of David Ter-Oganyan's sculptural series This Is Not A Bomb, these faux-bombs constructed from debris of consumer culture are tucked in seemingly accidental nooks throughout the five floors the show spans. The initial experience of eyeing one of Ter-Oganyan's series is unsettling: is that supposed to be there? In a city particular attuned to the threat of violence, constantly warned to beware of suspicious packaging and strange behavior, the presence of a potentially dangerous object is quite poignant. Ter-Oganyan’s work emphasizes a theme running through much of the work: the lines between the mundane and most terrific forms of violence are sometimes so loosely drawn. When the everyday is structured by a oppressive regime, that repression becomes absorbed into the banal.
Vladimir Arkhipov’s rich photo series cataloguing Russian artifacts reiterates this focus on the everyday. The richly colored images, each encased in sparse white frames, form a seven by five grid, reminiscent of a calendar or timetable. As we find new ways to think about a history that is progressively distant, it is important to remember this close connection between horror and the banal, and the lives of people who lived under a persistent Soviet rule.
Though historical in nature, Ostalgia avoids being overly didactic. An aesthetically innovative time line, The Rise and Fall of Socialism, 1945 to 1991, wraps around the fifth floor side gallery. Designed by Petersburg-based collective Chto Delat, the chronology provides context for the works, yet avoids the potential pitfall of over-determining the interpretive framework presented to museum-goers. It helps that the show itself is organized neither chronologically nor geographically, presenting a strongly conceptual network of ideas. This distinctive curatorial choice allows for a new historical lens to be pieced together. The works explore the intimacy inherent to repressive regimes that use so many resources to structure the daily life of their citizens. There is the drive to document, to memorialize, provide eyewitness account. As a whole Ostalgia captures the complicated sense of loss so much a part of the lived experience of political turmoil.
Even as the New Museum invites us to look back, think about times past and those who have come before us, we are really witnessing an amalgamation of work that looks forward. Ostalgia looks around the corner, offering new ways to think about a future touched by the very same political and ethical dilemmas of past Soviet rule.
Images: installation view of Edward Krasinki's Untitled, 2001/3; installation view of Chto Delat's The Rise and Fall of Socialism, 1945-1991; installation view of Erik Bulatov's House (Dom), 1992, Seva's Blue, 1979, and Russian XX Century, 1998-9; installation view of David Ter-Oganyan's This Is Not A Bomb, 2011. Courtesy the artists and New Museum, New York.