New York Times: An Exhibition in Need of a Map



(originally published in the New York Times)

POZNAN, POLAND — The premise of the exhibition “Erased Walls,” being held during the Mediations Biennale here until Oct. 30, is laudable. Instead of looking back at the art executed in Central and Eastern Europe before 1989 — the focus of many recent shows, including one this year at the Pompidou Center — “Erased Walls” is touted as exploring art from the region since 2000, in geopolitical, economic, cultural and artistic contexts.

While “Erased Walls” includes some interesting pieces that do explore these issues, it falls short of its desired goal.

The most glaring problem with the exhibition is that there is no coherent definition of what “Central and Eastern Europe” means in the 21st century. (The show is running simultaneously at the ConcentArt Gallery in Berlin with different works, moves to Bratislava, Slovakia, next month, and then reopens in Berlin with many of the same works in February.)

In political and economic circles, there are varying interpretations as to what countries even make up the region. Does it include countries of the former Yugoslavia, for example, or even European Russia? But “Erased Walls” refuses to address the debate.

“I wanted to give a chance for curators from across the region to speak of things that moved them,” said Tomek Wendland, the director of the biennale, when asked to explain the lack of contextual background. He said that the eight selected curators “each have offered their own perspective.”

That in itself may have muddied the waters. Some theorists argue that “Central and Eastern Europe” — a term for what used to be known simply as Eastern Europe — exists now only as a historical and geographic construct. But nowhere in the catalog nor on any of the few placards is this debate brought out for visitors. Curiously, several of the artists exhibited are from places like Israel, Canada and Britain, with no explanation as to why their works are included in the show.

One of the stronger pieces that does touch on the debate is “Forbidden” (2010) by the Polish artist Pawel Kowalewski. His sign, outside the entrance of the Zamek Cultural Center, the main exhibition space, reads simply “Europeans Only.” The exclusivity of the European Union is something that was debated and dissected in both 2004 — when eight of the 10 new member states that joined the E.U. were former Communist countries — and in 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria were integrated. Mr. Kowalewski’s idea came from a sign found at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Marek Kvetan of Slovakia also explores this European theme with his “On That Place of Ours” (2007) installation. The artist used a computer program to create a color that combined the colors of the Czech and Slovak flags to create a sickly-sweet pink that he then painted on a wall. The paint buckets, left on the floor, are covered with dictionary definitions of each country and their state flags. Mr. Kvetan seems to be commenting on the still-strong cross-pollination between the two republics that once made up Czechoslovakia.

Another thought-provoking piece in the exhibition takes on an entirely different theme, questioning the changes brought by technology since the fall of the Wall. “HomeNet … TV” (2010), an installation by the Berlin-based Lithuanian artist Ola Lewin, is a mirror image of her apartment in Berlin. Via a live Skype hook-up, she greets visitors and invites them to discuss modern modes of communication.

In Grupa 4’s “The Death of the Son of a Bitch” (2009), the Poznan collective of three artists has taken the front bumper of an aging BMW and, with a loudspeaker roaring the sounds of a revved-up engine, plays with the regional stereotype of rampant consumerism.

The piece reflects a viewpoint put forth by many of the artists in the show: that democracy may have brought many rewards, but it brought its share of problems as well.

Despite its shortcomings, the exhibition does highlight for a wider audience issues that artists from Central and Eastern Europe — whatever that means — are grappling with in the 21st century.

Erased Walls. Zamek Cultural Center, Poznan, Poland. Through Oct. 30.