In light of the upcoming installation of Elana Katz, UNNAMED; Turn to Recent History in Contemporary Art

In light of the upcoming installation of Elana Katz, UNNAMED; Turn to Recent History in Contemporary Art

by  Izabela Kowalczyk

Some artists from Central Europe have shown a keen interest in issues related to recent history, especially the Second World War era, Nazi crimes, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

However the reasons for such turn to history are different in each geographical context. In Central Europe they seem to be a response to earlier mechanisms of oblivion. Art is responding to the fascination with collective memory that has been in evidence across Europe (as elsewhere in the world) for over two decades, and which is linked to the interest in national, regional and community memory. This has been accompanied by the revival of conflicts of memory that had appeared extinct.

The turn to history seems to be a consequence of broader cultural change in Europe. Central Europe was transformed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the shift of communist countries to capitalism in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, which resulted in the subsequent process of European Union integration. Post-communist countries from the region (such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) joined the Union in 2004. This fact had a significant impact on culture, chiefly because of the inflow of EU funds for integrative cultural projects. Many projects seek the possibility of cross border integration precisely through art, building on that which brings people closer and connects common places and their memory. Europe’s new shape raised questions about European identity and common history. The questions of “who are we now?” and “what are our affiliations” will likely accompany us for some time yet as we remain torn between our European, national, local and individual identities. Moreover, the definition of those identities is determined ideologically, which increases the need to reflect on self-identification issues. Some political disputes in particular countries are being led over history-related issues such as historical policy, the appropriation or distortion of recent history and its ideological exploitation. Moreover, the opening of borders and the change of tradition have also triggered right-wing sentiments. Xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Roma and homophobic attitudes are on the rise in almost all countries in Central Europe. The problem of “returning ghosts of the past” and the questions of whether history can repeat and if fascism remains a valid threat arise.

Art, like history, constructs images of the past, at once subjecting them to critical reflection. Contemporary artists, in questioning official historical narratives and popular representations of the past, and drawing attention to oversights in collective memory, point up critical work that is to be done on historical issues. In this way they are contributing to what Paul Ricoeur called the work of rememoration, or recollection (remémoration) [Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, 2004]. Critical art that refers to the past brings to light and exposes conflicts of memory by confronting various points of view with each other and drawing attention to difficult or obscure matters. This type of art seeks out that which has been denied, drowned out or forgotten, and can thus play a decisive role in changing the shape of collective memory.

Art that references representation of the past is part of historical culture, but at the same time consciously analyses and comments on that culture, is critical of it, and strikes out above all against official history. In doing so it joins the debate on ways of remembering that which has been forgotten. Ricoeur showed that forgetting is connected with manipulation of memory, and that the chief danger lies in manipulation by means of authorisation, celebration and commemoration of an official history. Art has joined the disputes over memory by trying to commemorate things that do not fit with the homogeneous model of identity. Indeed, it may be said to be diffusing this identity in something in the nature of heterology – tracking the “traces of the other”. The “other” should be a point of reference, one to whom we give a voice, or to whom we restore justice by remembering. Ricoeur writes that our duty of remembrance is linked to a debt to the past. Paying this debt also involves examining and identifying our legacy, even those parts of it that may be inconvenient to or indicting of us. Our debt account should encompass above all victims: “among those others to whom we are indebted, the moral priority belongs to the victims” [Ricoeur: 89]. This is not about either exploiting the idea of justice, or a “fury of commemoration”, but about critical work on our own past and memory, which is work that may enable us to find our own place in history.

In this context, art is an important voice in the debate on recent history. Art views our reality and history from utterly different perspectives, proposes ways of working through trauma, and even rubbing salt in wounds, and thus – can be a form of therapy. A view of history different from that which dominates political discourse can open viewers to consensus, empathy, co-suffering and critical thinking.

A fragment of book ‚Interpretations of Recent History in Polish Critical Art‘, 2010

Prof. Izabela Kowalczyk (Ph.D.) – an art and cultural historian, art critique and curator, a professor at The School of Humanities and Journalism in Poznan, Poland.

Her publication include among others books: Ciało i władza. Polska sztuka krytyczna lat 90. (Body and Power in Polish Critical Art in 90.), 2002, Niebezpieczne związki sztuki z ciałem (Dangerous Liaisons of Art and Body), 2002, Matki-Polki, Chłopcy i Cyborgi. Sztuka i feminizm w Polsce (Polish-Mothers, Boys and Cyborgs. Art and Feminism in Poland), 2010, Podróż do przeszłości. Interpretacje najnowszej historii w polskiej sztuce krytycznej (Travel to the Past. Interpretations of Recent History in Polish Critical Art), 2010; and articles like: Critical Art. Selected Issues, in Contemporary Art, in: New Phenomena in Polish Art After 2000, 2007, Struggle for Freedom. Art for Tolerance in Poland, in: “Art History & Criticism” 3/2007, The Ambivalent Beauty, in: Gender Check. Femininity and masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, 2009, Visualising the Mythical Polish Mother, in: Gender Check. A Reader. Art. and Theory In Eastern Europe Feminist Exhibitions in Poland, 2010, Non-absent Past: Swimming Pool by Rafal Jakubowicz, in: Memory of Shoah. Cultural Representations and Commemorative Practises: From identity to the Transformation of Visual Order, in: Working with Feminism. Curating and Exhibitions in Eastern Europe, 2012

*Videostill from UNNAMED, Elana Katz, 2013