Orient. Installation view. Photo - Ansis Starks

Meditation on the Eastern European identity 0

Conversation with Czech curator Michal Novotný

Valentinas Kilmašauskas
11/05/2018

Valentinas Klimašauskas, a Program Director at Kim? Contemporary Art Centre in conversation with Czech curator Michal Novotný regarding “The Orient” group exhibition currently on view at two different locations in Riga and featuring 45 artists from Poland, Estonia, Germany, Montenegro, Latvia, Czech Republic, Romania, Russia and Croatia.


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

Let’s start with the obvious - the title. You state that the title “Orient” is “obviously problematic”. Would you elaborate on that?

It’s a joke actually. And fooling people is always problematic, and even more so in state institutions. Someone may also oppose the idea that Eastern Europe was ever colonised by the “West”, only culturally, which, I think definitely makes a difference. Orient is a reference towards Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, in the sense that Eastern Europe as much as the Orient never really existed, but was, or is, more a series of projections. However, it also has to do with a lack of information, certain ignorance, not only of people, but also western media, schools and other institutions. But we must not forget the projection is double sided, we have also had our West, our “occident”, that was very different from what we imagined, or what the exotic image was, which was given to us via the cultural dominance that still persists. The title should also be a certain hyperbolic warning, that we do not enter a kind of “oriental despotism”. Because this disenchantment, that it is not, how we expected, often leads to some sort of resentment, this thin line, when the inferiority complex turns to complete arrogance and aggression. That pretty much helps all those populist instant solutions sellers.


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

I wanted to ask you about your mention that “projection is always double sided” in the artistic context of this exhibition. Art history is quite often written from the perspectives of so called art centres, not the so called peripheries. But also peripheries quite often want to catch up with centres or to refer to them which is also problematic on many different levels. Did this factor somehow influence your choice of participating artists? Do you want to reveal this double mirror projection?

Maybe in the internet era it becomes even more obvious, that centre-periphery dichotomy, or rather the civilised-non-civilised, as it is nicely depicted in the book you gave me - “Inventing Eastern Europe” from Larry Wolff, isn’t only a question of “manners” but mainly of money. Democracy itself cannot function under a certain monthly income. For me this is no more a question of access, but of infrastructure. We have zombie painters in Czech Republic, they saw it online, but are they really zombie painters, if they don’t sell a piece? The myth of modern and contemporary art is the one of autonomy. Free spirit cashed out only consequently. My conception is much more materialistic. Context matters in what we see as good or bad art. And you can buy this context, walls, people, information channels. Ironically enough so many of those, who left for “civilization”, find themselves in much lower living standards, struggling with three jobs but still infinitely grateful to be in New York or London, for the culture. I am very happy to see for once a list of names with all these weird letter accents. But it’s not about nationality, I mix old and young artists, trend surfing with forgotten ones. Equally important is that there are artists who left the region as soon as they could, and others who for different reasons came to live here. It’s not to break the “centre’s” walls, but the idea of something inherently good or bad.


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

You also mention that “The exhibition Orient is a meditation on the Eastern European identity. As the unifying aspect of this unclear region, it considers the failure of its own identity.” Above you mention that the capital or absence of it, to be more exact, is one of the factors that creates the dichotomy of the centre and periphery. What are the other factors that constitute that identity?

Language. Literally, as we all speak languages that nobody else does, so even together we need to use English. I will never speak and write the English I would like. That's maybe why I always use so many quotations, I need to look for someone else to say, what I want to say. But also metaphorically, the language of visual art. When you have foreign curators coming, you often see that they repeatedly choose the same people, who speak the language they understand. I do the same. Maybe with some mistakes or misunderstandings, a bit like the local avantgarde styles, those versions of cubist Parisian cafés you have in the Latvian National Museum and that we have in Prague as well. And finally, these local modernities are more interesting in the perversions and bastardisations than the classics, or at least just as interesting. I included artists in the show who never really lived in the region, don't even speak the language, but who provide the right passport, or at least place of birth. It is a valid criterion. Generally accepted, and I want to be inclusive. But I am also interested in how to make the ones, that don't speak the international language, understandable. How can you make them look "chic". 


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

The exhibition has six chapters – what paradigms or filters do you use to create them? In what way do they structure the exhibition?

They are interiors, or environments. Making the artworks as props on a stage is a comment on this proclaimed autonomy of (western) arts. Contemporary art has a whole ideology of truth related to the neutrality of presentation, independence of artist persona, freedom of his expression, clear division between commercial and non-commercial etc. I don't believe in any of those. It is much better to be using theatricality as something openly false. Better to over manipulate the artworks than pretend you are not doing so. I also really think we perceive the reality as we never did before, via something that is probably close to film "genres", but this could also allow us to overcome stereotypes, because genre allows us to be both serious and ironical. And that is something very Eastern European. Last, they constitute some sort of chronology, maybe a chronology of liberation failures, the 80s on the history of feeling that freedom had finally arrived. 


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

To finish the talk I’d like to go back to the starting point - again about the so called former Eastern Europe. There is a certain problem with shaping a vision for the future in the region although this is not different from other global trends. And even worse, it’s not a secret that most governments and societies, having a long tradition of migration, are strongly against immigration now, they openly express nationalistic views or tend to shift constitutions to antidemocratic directions, like in today’s Poland or Hungary, for example. Is there some relation to this topic in “The Orient”?

The antidemocratic directions you mentioned, are depicted here as a relapse of the suppressed inferiority complex, but also the hardcore material conditions long ignored. The differences between wages and retirements in western and eastern Europe are striking, while living costs become closer. I often felt very affronted about the fact that people read me through my nationality and territoriality, this baroque church-like frame of a hammer and a sickle, beer and snow around my face, but at the same time such naturally applied frameworks were so far from the material reality that I actually lived in. On the other hand, I myself also understood, how my behaviour and reactions, are very much shaped by growing and belonging to this mutilated nation, that didn't manage to heal its wounds, only covered them with these new western clothes. Therefore, there is also a lot of work, we need to do, on our, sometimes very self-centred, narrow perspective. And it is mainly how to use this specific, trauma related sensitivity for a positive outcome. I hope it's there in the show. 


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks


Orient. Installation view. Photo: Ansis Starks

“Orient” is on show at Tallinas street 6 and Kim?, Sporta street 2 k-1 till May 20 

kim.lv