Exhibition: From east to west, art remains political
18 June 2010
In Paris the "Les Promesses du Passé" (Promises of the past) exhibition examines the development of artistic creation and the continuing ambition to change the world in a Europe marked by the Iron Curtain and the East-West divide.
"In Eastern Europe, people still believe that art can change the world" – it may be a generalisation, but the label which accompanies the cycle of Albanian art works presented in Paris has a certain haunting quality. "The case of Tirana," one section of "Les Promesses du Passé" exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (until 19 July), focuses on a project initiated by the mayor of the Albanian capital, Edi Rama, an artist who studied in the West, to transform the drab grey facades of the city centre into colourful works of art. It is the only one dating from after 1990 and of all the works on show, it states most clearly its ambition for social change. But this goal is more than just a convenient label, because the reality is that regardless how you name this part of Europe, it continues to be marked by a profoundly social and political artistic perspective.
With a title drawn from the work of Walter Benjamin, which questions the notion of historical continuum, both in a general sense and in the art history sense, "Les Promesses..." features works by a large number of artists from the former Eastern Bloc: including Serbian Marina Abramović, Romanian Ion Grigorescu, Croat Mladen Stilinović and Romanian Daniel Knorr. The latter's contribution is a tear-gas filled pipework installation specially constructed for the Pompidou Centre – which is itself marked by the external pipework that is the leitmotiv of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers' design. These are displayed alongside works by France's Cyprien Gaillard and Yael Bartan, which explore "Eastern European themes."
With its futuristic building in the commercial and historical heart of Paris, the Pompidou Centre is a dazzling combination of tourist attraction and revolutionary visual arts institution, although it tends to invest in classic contemporary pieces. In this complex museal context, "Les Promesses du Passé" attempts to 'reinvent the wheel' by setting itself the difficult, if not impossible, task of redefining art from beyond the former Iron Curtain and integrating it, if not in the Western canon, then at least in the consciousness of the Western museum-going audience. In so doing it addresses the question of alternative views of "Eastern" art, which has recently been highlighted by the emergence of the retro-avant garde, a concept with which the Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) collective invented their own context, effectively refusing to be engulfed by the complex Western canonical schema.
Whether the region is perceived as the product of a bloc (both communist and post-communist), or of nation states (in 1983, the Pompidou hosted an exhibition entitled "Présences polonaises" (Polish presences)) – it is clear that there is the need for the periodic reconceptualization of art associated with the Eastern part of the European continent. The paradox is that from a Western point of view, the communist past of trauma, memory and nostalgia remains the single most convenient theme. But clearly, there is no escape from the politics that colours the facades of the buildings in Tirana.