Beginning the Future

1989: Capturing the emotions of a crumbling world order through mixed media at a recent exhibtion at Kunsthalle Wien

Perestroika, a work by Erik Bulatov from 1989, a contribution to the 1989 exhibit in the Kunsthalle by Galerie Alex Lachmann of Köln | Photo: VBK, Wien, 2009

“1989? Go upstairs.” The staircase itself is old; the yellowish stone steps are uneven, and it feels like I’m entering a CPSU committee building from Brezhnev’s time. The resonance of a hammer hitting a stone mixes with the voices of a crowd. The sound is somewhat familiar and I quicken my pace.

Between the staircases, a huge flat screen is hung on the wall. It plays a grainy film, slightly overexposed and it belongs to the style of the venerated ‘80s socialist documentaries. On the screen, people are passing through what seems to be a wall; some smile, some seem like numb objects, some look frightened. The split screen separates right and left, on one side is a close-up of a man’s hands grasping a hammer. His long, pale fingers are bleeding, as his hands are not used to such hard work, but they just go on destroying the Berlin Wall.

The crowd ambles through as I stay, watching the five-minute video by Marcel Odenbach – studying faces and expressions, trying to understand how it felt to be standing physically before the crumbling of a world order, before the transformation of a country.  This is how the exhibition 1989: End of History or Beginning of the Future at Vienna’s Kunsthalle began.

Twenty years after the Iron Curtain was raised and the Cold War was ended, Kunsthalle gathered the works of venerated artists from Europe and the former Soviet Union that represent the Zeitgeist, the annus mirabilis. Indeed, as Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said at the opening exhibition, “a new future began” after 1989. The exhibition captures the world standing on the edge of this new future, without knowing what was to come. As I go through the halls full of Eastern bloc paintings, photographs, installations and art videos, I constantly compare what I see before me with what the world is now. More than a glimpse into the future, 1989 possesses a valuable retrospective quality, one that puts our current worldview into context.

Even the sound is different here – documentaries, confessions of dissidents, artists’ explanations, TV news of the age – all of them united by one excited, fast-talking syncopated voice in a Slavic language that pierces my ears. I have not heard that voice in decades and I realize that I still miss it… this is exactly how Moscow sounded during that fateful time.

Almost each hall of the exhibition presents at least one art video. Artists from Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Lithuania present a wide range of video records. In one room, a family of six spanning three generations watches Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR by Jonas Mekas. The half-Russian, half-Lithuanian family starts to argue about the politics of the past while watching the news of their day. “No, Gorbachev was the only option, there was no alternative,” exclaims a young man. It’s the same in my family, we are not able to calmly discuss the years of Perestroika either.

Another room is completely dark. 24 monitors stand in rows, each showing the different streets of Moscow. People are waiting in a giant queue on  a cold winter evening at the bus stop. Close-ups portray poorly dressed Soviet citizens trying hard to appear dignified and self-sufficient. No one smiles in the camera, no one turns away, and somehow they all have the same indifferent stare. This documentary, called From the East: Bordering on Fiction was shot by Chantal Akerman in 1993.

There are no explanations, no voices behind the camera: just life as it was.

The Big Archive installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Russian artists that moved to New York in 1987, is a true monument to the Soviet bureaucracy. A labyrinth made up of empty chairs and tables contains handwritten Russian notes explaining how to fill out official applications that are hanging on the walls.

If the Communist party believed in paradise, The Big Archive would be its perfect illustration. “Comrades’ housewives, submit your personal data before February 12th annually” says one absurd note. It’s actually not so absurd when I think further – the militia would put you in jail for sponging, so those housewives needed to prove their status.

“Citizens who lost their parents during the war should fill in Article 16 stating the address of their parents’ residence before the war.” The atmosphere is so exact, it’s obvious which war is meant…it is what Soviet children were taught to call “The Great Patriotic War,” while the rest of the world called it World War II. Absurdity vanishes and the reality of Soviet life comes through. Ilya Kabakov defines his installations as “a cube of Soviet air.”

It feels so real, it even smells like the Soviet passport office – a mixture of dust, cheap cigarettes and mold. Close to panic and on the verge of tears, I look for an exit from this labyrinth, finding it only after my third attempt.

Sots-art paintings are also there, presenting the movement of the Soviet stagnation times. Sots-art emerged in the 70s as an alternative underground art movement, combining pop-art and socialist realism.

Surreal pictures by Komar & Melamid (Russian inventors of the term), Between War and Peace, present a famous Yalta conference picture of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in the foreground, with Christ in the background spreading his hands above the heads of the three influential politicians of the 20th century.  A close look reveals metal busts of George Washington and Vladimir Lenin. The longer I look the more irony I find in what, at first glance, seems to be a classical art painting.

Details of the past, all the small things that depict the very feeling of the life 20 years ago are the most precious aspects of the exhibition 1989: End of History or Beginning of the Future. No hint is given as to who won the Cold War and there are no clues to when the (presently united) Europe will unite.

The exhibition is not a moral lesson regarding the consequences of this historical paradigm shift; it is simply a glance into those 20 years: a chance to step back, remember our wishes and reflect on what we were given.

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