The opening lines of “From a Great Mind,” a song by the Siberian folk-punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, run something like this when translated from Russian:
From a great mind, only madness and jail,
From a reckless head, only ditches and barriers,
From a beautiful soul, only scabs and lice,
From universal love, only bloodied physiognomies.
A similar sentiment animates “Ostalgia,” the recently opened exhibit at the New Museum in New York. The name for the show is taken from the German neologism ostalgie, a portmanteau of east and nostalgia meant to evoke a longing for life in East Germany, particularly its daily rituals and their trappings. But the show—and this is probably true of its namesake concept—is not really about a longing for communism. It is rather about the hunger for the kind of meaning that can only emerge from meaning’s suppression. Repressive regimes raise the stakes: under them, art is not something artists are paid to create, but something that extorts a price—perhaps a terrible one—from the artist. Ostalgie is not for the totalitarian government but for the clarity that emerges from the knowledge that great minds risked the gulag, the madhouse, the blindfold, and the rifle with every act of artistic creation.
“Ostalgia” opens with a mural timeline that begins roughly with the Yalta Conference and progresses to December 1991, marking the official dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nineteen ninety-one is, according to the catalogue introduction by Massimiliano Gioni, the show’s curator, “the temporal epicenter of the exhibition,” the rupture between the “Before” and the “After.” That the works are not presented chronologically makes for a potentially nifty game: viewers can attempt to guess which pieces were made when without the aid of curatorial labels.
But “Ostalgia” turns out to be almost ahistorical, and not only in its subversion of a linear narrative. “Our relation to history remains retrospective, but also anticipatory,” proclaims an adage from Pages magazine, a bilingual, English-Farsi publication founded by two exiled Iranian artists. Stenciled onto the fifth-floor wall, the quote ushers the visitor in to the exhibition. Like Faulkner’s “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” the sentiment hints at the show’s thesis: that an era’s traumas and triumphs never really disappear but merely assume a new disguise.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc—and to some extent, all of the art included in the show, even when it was made before 1991, concerns itself with a phase of the collapse—was a trauma on par with the trauma of its creation. And like all seemingly ineffable things, it demands that artists return to it, working and reworking it until it becomes more pliable. Say what you will about the Soviets, they knew propaganda and how to propagate it: so successful were their teachings that those lessons have long outlasted the official ideology. I grew up largely in New York, having immigrated to the United States in 1990; I attended only the first two grades of a Soviet school. Still, when I stumbled on footage of Lenin’s statue, toppled and swinging by a crane, I held my breath. No matter that more than twenty years had passed since the monuments came down, that in the meantime his crimes had come to light; it is still hard for me to think “Lenin” without giving him the honorific “Dedushka,” the grandfather of us all.
That footage is part of Deimantas Narkevivičius’s Once in the XX Century, a clever bit of manipulation in which the artist reverses a recording of the statue’s toppling to make it seem as if the monument is being restored, much to the delight of the crowd gathered in a Vilnius plaza. This Lenin literally flies in the face of history, disorienting the viewer with his unexpected re-ascension. But of course that disorientation is a key question for “Ostalgia”: How do we remember, let alone memorialize, an era of history after it has been forcibly swept away?
The best pieces in the show grapple with this potential of disappearing. The most powerful of these, to my mind, is Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Album, which consists of two hundred and one photographs from which the artist has been assiduously removed. The pictures in the album at first appear to be nothing more than a collection of family snapshots, all alike in their Soviet-era aesthetics, bound by the interchangeability of colors and clothes. But, leafing through, you begin to notice a peculiar imbalance in some of the compositions—an absence, an excision. Perhaps this is, as the curators suggest, a reference to Communist Party purges, when supposed offenders were erased from the records. But Grzeszykowska’s work also recalls “The Jolly Corner,” the Henry James story in which the protagonist comes face to face with the ghost of the man he might have been had he never left New York for London. Through the images, Grzeszykowska imagines what it might be like to have never existed in her home country. This fantasy is given depth by the fact that the country she grew up in—Poland in the late seventies and eighties—is itself a kind of ghost, vanished and replaced by a nearly unrecognizable nation.
The unifying aesthetic of “Ostalgia” is tenacity in the face of struggle, suffering, and censorship. But like Grzeszykowska’s home photos, which document the routines of private life, many of the works unveil the daily rituals that became a triumphant form of resistance. Take, for example, Nikolay Bakharev’s circa 1980 photographs of people relaxing at the beach, the only place Soviet citizens might appear unclothed in public, or Boris Mikhailov’s snapshots of the nook and crannies of Kharkov life, the risqué images, like the nude shots of his wife, that got him fired from his job as an engineer. The honesty of these works redefines Soviet realism, and their refusal to contrive or pander becomes a form of protest.
What the show at its finest articulates is the persistent desire for the sort of sincerity and ingenuity that some feel emerged from a lack of choice, a state-enforced spartanism, and a paucity of consumer goods. This is embodied in Phil Collins’s Marxism Today, which documents the experiences of former GDR professors of Marxism postreunification. In a particularly evocative segment, a woman describes her husband’s suicide and losing her university post, twin devastations wrought by the demise of a system she had loved. And so it is that sometimes freedom, with its cornucopia of possibilities and its tyranny of options, reveals itself to be a contemptible burden. Sometimes it reveals itself to have been a lie.
Perhaps it’s not the East we’re longing for, after all, but a memory of what we once so fervently believed about the West.
Yevgeniya Traps is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center-CUNY.