In 1957, Roland Barthes stated that in “Western” mythology the USSR would be a world halfway between the Earth and Mars to exemplify that the communist world was considered as foreign as another planet. Similar to Barthes’ literary method in his Mythologies book, curator, filmmaker and artist Xandra Popescu scripted three semi-fictional short stories to introduce major paradigms of her screening program O’ Mystical East and West: the economization of hope in The Pyramid of Hope, cultural industry’s post-communist identity machines in Latin Lovers in a Sea of Slavs and the neurotic recreation of long-established power structures in Nesting Balkanism or Nesting Occidentalism. Through these stories, Popescu reflects on the mutual projections between “Eastern” and “Western” Europe and their effect on societal habits, behaviours and ways of thinking after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In a time in which mythical narratives have become the legitimizing basis for contemporary politics, as art historian Susanne Leeb claims, it seems relevant to identify and understand the ideas that inform the phantom images and mythologies of the “East” and “West” circulating until the present day. This screening program, which provides a prologue to the future project D’EST: A Multi-Curatorial Online Platform for Video Art from the Former “East” and “West,” presents contemporary video artists invested in mimicking and isolating the contours and shapes of these persistent inventions with a special focus on everyday life, pop culture and gender roles before and after 1989/1991.
The Pyramid of Hope
In the early 90s, Ana tried to persuade Alexei to do like their neighbours had done and to join the MMM, a mutual aid scheme designed to help them through the transition to capitalism. MMM promised eight times the money invested in six months. Alexei didn’t want to hear about it. They are looking for fools, he said. So secretly Ana gathered her small savings and turned to her sister for more money. A local newspaper would publish the results every week. Soon after, the MMM turned out to be a Ponzi Scheme. When asked why he had not stepped in earlier, the finance minister said his inaction was a sign of the government’s commitment to the free market. Alexei’s exasperation was appeased only by his repeated reproaches: “I told you so.” Ana blamed him for not joining in with her earlier. The whole story confirmed Alexei’s belief that in life there are no opportunities, only traps.
Latin Lovers in a Sea of Slavs
“Love, intrigue, sublime costumes and a pretty little slave, full of feminine charms.” Broadcasted in 1992 on TVR, the Brazilian telenovela Izaura the Slave became a national phenomenon. Many others, mostly South American, Spanish-speaking programs, were to follow: Thalia, Marimar, Usurpadora, Wild Angel, Kassandra. The main protagonist was usually a young female character, and the twists and turns of the plot often involved secret pregnancies, revenge, blackmail and betrayal. An entire nation followed the action breathlessly. Given the similarity between Spanish and Romanian, many managed to learn Spanish in a period when Spain was the main destination for Romanian migrants. But the national obsession with telenovelas had an ideological subtext. In school we were taught that our country was “a Latin island in a sea of slavs.” This meant that we were more deserving of Europe then the rest of our neighbours. And even though most of the telenovelas were South American, at 5 o’clock the entire nation seemed to drift into a televised dream of Latin brotherhood. As their rating reached unprecedented peaks, telenovelas came to signify a working class passion. Despised by the young and progressive, the word telenovela was used to describe the irrational drive and ridiculous situations involving a certain female demographic. They represented the escapist fantasy of dissatisfied women of all ages.
Nesting Balkanism or Nesting Occidentalism
Searching for a village to represent the impoverished Kazakh home of his character, the filmmaker found a remote village north of Bucharest. Mr Ion, a respected shopkeeper, was happy to participate as an extra and co-opted his family. For their performance they got four dollars per day, double the fee suggested by the Romanian Film Office. But when the film turned out to be a blockbuster, Mr Ion started wondering whether he had made a good deal. Two lawyers arrived in the village and suggested he sue the filmmaker for tens of thousands of dollars. Mr Ion thought that with this money he could bring running water to the village and establish a manufacturing business that would secure jobs for all his neighbours. He convinced two other friends to become co-plaintiffs. Together they planned to fly to America to attend the Oscars and confront the filmmaker on the red carpet. The filmmaker, who was also sued by the Kazakh government on grounds of defamation, claimed the film was meant to ridicule American ignorance and not Eastern European backwardness. Mr Ion and his friends failed to obtain a US travel visa. The process stalled and the two lawyers stopped visiting the village or responding to their calls. Who are the exploiters? And who is the film poking fun at? Americans, Kazakhs or Romanians?
In October 2016, O’ Mystical East and West provides a prologue to the online research project D’EST: A Multi-Curatorial Online Platform for Video Art from the Former “East” and “West,” initiated by Ulrike Gerhardt and produced by Xandra Popescu on behalf of Atelier 35, Romania. Beginning in 2017, a curated online platform that reflects the post-socialist transformation from the perspective of the former “East” and “West” will be developed. Following the model of contemporary online video databanks, D’EST Prologue is the first step in establishing an online platform in which European curators and cultural producers introduce contemporary video art that thematizes the period of transformation in the 1990s. It will be available as a research tool and informational resource for art lovers, institutional and independent cultural producers, historians, journalists, and critics. A particular focus lies on the mapping of female and collective positions, as well as on additional screening events with guest lecturers in Europe and beyond.
The question of what the transformation means for the adult generation remains unanswered to this day — particularly for artists from the “East” and “West” who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. D’EST (Eng.: From the East) borrows its title from a work made in 1993 by filmmaker Chantal Ackerman. The film is considered a sensitive, filmic travelogue of the transformation, in which the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors captures emblematic images from Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the former GDR, and Belgium shortly after the end of the Cold War. Curated by Xandra Popescu (Berlin/Bucharest), the first section O’ Mystical East and West will present contemporary works of video art that critically interrogate mythical and phantasmatic images of the “imaginary West” and “East” with a particular focus directed towards gender codes, clichés, and geopolitical stereotypes.
In her book Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (2014), Polish author Agata Pyzik evokes the bad romance between the “East” and “West” of Europe. And like in any good bad romance there is a great deal of mutual projection where the “West” creates a mystical and phantasmatic, almost oriental idea of the “East,” while the “East” still fabricates an “imaginary West” full of elegance and abundance. After the Fall of the Wall, there was a period of intense flirtation, where the countries of the former Communist Bloc were looking to find their lost place in Europe, and the “West” was seeking new prospects for expansion. The intelligentsia of the “East” veered to the right in an eagerness to legitimize the values of neo-liberalism, while the intelligentsia of the “West” fetishized this new-found land looking for the relics of authentic, albeit failed, communism. O’ Mystical East and West analyzes this complicated but ongoing romance through a selection of videos created by female authors raised in the 1980s and 1990s. The Bureau of Melodramatic Research and Ivana Mladenović employ strategies of amplification and masquerade and activate the topos of the (melo-)dramatic for their feminist and gendercritical practice. Thereby they challenge the process of exotization of “Eastern Europe” before and after the transformation and emphasize the relation between turbo-capitalism and “Eastern European” pop culture. Ioana Cojocariu, Larisa Crunțeanu, Gery Georgieva, Goshka Macuga, Anca Munteanu Rimnic as well as Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová bring the fabricated image of the “Eastern European woman” into question and reflect how it has changed since the end of the Cold War, when it moved away from the communist ideal of the emancipated worker. The works of Barbora Kleinhamplová and Sasha Litvintseva explore identitarian pitfalls and the dynamics between prejudices and consumerist desires, frauds and ethics. Finally, Alexandra Croitoru as well as Irina Botea Bucan and Nicu Ilfoveanu shine a light on the grand narrative of Romanian art history and its entanglement with nationalist discourse. Going beyond clichés and stereotypes, Popescu will introduce video works that critically address naturalized myths and legends and their propagandistic content.
Artists: Irina Botea Bucan and Nicu Ilfoveanu, Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, Ioana Cojocariu, Alexandra Croitoru, Larisa Crunțeanu, Gery Georgieva, Barbora Kleinhamplová, Sasha Litvintseva, Goshka Macuga, Ivana Mladenović, Anca Munteanu Rimnic, The Bureau of Melodramatic Research
Date: October 13 and 14, 6pm
Location: Martin Gropius Bau, Cinema Hall
D’EST Prologue: O’ Mystical East and West is supported by the Centenart Program of the Romanian Cultural Institute and the National Cultural Fund Administration in Romania. The project is hosted by District Berlin.