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High Flyers and Ghosts:
Artists from the former East Bloc are making careers in the West

Wawrzyniec Tokarski, Untitled, 1992
Deutsche Bank Collection

Russian artists are exhibiting their bleak visions of the future in German exhibition venues, young Polish painters have conquered the international art market with an opulence of handicraft. The East is booming - and the clichés of glamour and misery are evidently booming, too. Harald Fricke has visited artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection and has spoken to them about post-communism and their relationship to national identity.

In Germany, the list of exhibitions featuring young Russian artists is getting longer and longer. After the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle showed the new generation following the Moscow Conceptualists in May 2003, and Berlin's Martin Gropius Bau presented the mammoth exhibition Berlin - Moscow last fall, which offered a historical look back to the 1950s, over a dozen contemporary Russian artists can be seen this summer in the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in a show called Ha Kypopt! ("Off to the Holiday Camp!") In Berlin's Kunst-Werke, the current exhibition Privatizations attempts to demonstrate post-communism's effect on artistic positions throughout the entire former East Bloc. If the success at art fairs in New York, Berlin, and Basel is included in the picture, then we're looking at a true Eastern boom in art, fifteen years after the end of the Soviet regime.

Boris Mikhailov, In the Street, 2004, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

Yet the themes that particularly the Russian artists are addressing point to a bleak future. Terrorism seems to have permeated society everywhere, and actors are harassed to the extreme in videos by artists such as Svetlana Baskova, while Olga Chernychova sees everyday life in Moscow as being fraught with misery and homelessness. For the Russian philosopher Boris Groys, who teaches in Karlsruhe, these artistic positions reflect the dilemma following the fall of the USSR: in an era lacking in history, the individual finds himself in a crisis.

Fear and Contradiction

Robert Maciejuk, from the series "Fun", 2003
©Robert Maciejuk

At the same time, however, these visions of fear inspire contradiction. The more vehemently current problems are being lamented in Russian and particularly Moscow-based art, the more colorful and playful young Polish painting seems to become, apparently having deliberately chosen the opposite pole to the Russian efforts. While Oleg Kulik, for instance, mutates into a vicious dog in his performances, the Polish painter Robert Maciejuk selects cuddly cartoon bears as his alter ego. While the photo-montages of the Moscow-based artists' group AES herald Islam's triumph by inserting golden minarets into the New York City skyline, the model for Paulina Olovska's painting is the glamorous fashion of the "roaring twenties."

Indeed, very few historical parallels exist between the two countries. Poland has always sought out a cultural connection to the West. Polish musicians gave concerts in Paris; Polish intellectuals studied with Hegel in Jena. Even in the 1970s, there was a spirited exchange that allowed a painter like Tomasz Ciecierski, who was born in 1945 outside Warsaw, to travel to Rotterdam or to the Rhine valley. Following 1989, this openness helped a large number of young Polish artists find their way around the international art market. Miroslaw Balka, Leon Tarasewicz, and Katarzyna Kozyra quickly became known in New York, while Piotr Uklanski today travels back and forth relatively easily between France, the US, and Poland.

Experiment instead of Monument

Piotr Nathan, Die Reihenfolge kann beliebig sein..., 1992,
Deutsche Bank Collection, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004

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