Feature

Exhibit of the week: Ostalgia

An eye-opening show at the New Museum juxtaposes works from Soviet and post-Soviet times by Eastern Bloc artists.

New Museum, New YorkThrough Sept. 25

Sentimentality’s a funny thing, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. While the fall of communism was roundly hailed in the West as a triumph, the reality for those in the former Eastern Bloc was far more complex. An eye-opening show at the New Museum explores that fraught dynamic, with hundreds of works that can be seen as the response of the artists “to the stresses of living under Soviet-style socialism or to the stresses of living without it.” Communist-era works were often slyly conceptual, to keep censors off-balance. After authorities put much of occupied Prague under surveillance in 1968, Jiri Kovanda took to the streets to document himself engaging in a series of “barely perceptible disruptive gestures”—he “traced tiny images on a wall with his fingernails; he shed silent tears”—then displayed his defiance in captioned photographs that assert his personal sovereignty “in ways almost impossible to pin down.” The post-Soviet works, by contrast, wax nostalgic for a time before capitalism made collector tastes, not artistic purity, the overriding concern.

Though the show’s title, “Ostalgia,” is a term that combines the German words for “east” and “nostalgia,” it’s not rule by Moscow that these artists yearn for, said J. Hoberman in The Village Voice. They instead ache for a “youthful, formative reality” that was lost when their repressors receded. Particularly poignant is a 2010 video work featuring interviews with former East Germans who spent their careers teaching Marxist-Leninist economics; after unification, they were forced to confront the possibility that, as one woman puts it, “your entire life was just a mistake.” A 2004 work runs in reverse ’90s footage of a Lenin statue being dismantled, so that it looks as if the crane is carefully lowering the statue back onto its pedestal. The point, said John Zeaman in the Bergen County, N.J., Record, seems to be that enough time has passed that such history is safe to revisit.

Better old statues than “stale relics,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Much in this show feels “crummily incoherent,” as strong pieces that were “steeped in the melancholy of exile” share space with derivative, overly conceptual efforts. Tibor Hajas’s 1970s videos of random Hungarians in a public square? At least they have vintage appeal. Aneta Grzeszykowska’s 2006 effort to disappear herself by digitally erasing her own image from hundreds of family photos? That’s just anachronistic. There’s simply “something doomed” about trying to make an individual name for oneself in a free market by “harking back to a time when individuals were routinely crushed.”

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