No 2 (82) 2010
April - June

Limits of Sex

How has the image of a woman and a man been changing in the Eastern European art; the way of presenting a body, as well as the perception of sex roles? – an innovative exhibition showed at the Zachęta Gallery is an attempt to answer these questions.

Agnieszka Maria Wasieczko

B. in 1974. Art. historian, critic. She publishes texts on contemporary art.

Agnieszka Maria Wasieczko

ONE CANNOT OVERESTIMATE THE MEANING OF THIS DASHING, GRAND SCALE EXPOSITION, subtitled  Femininity and Masculinity in Eastern European Art, organized on the initiative of the ERSTE Foundation. Dr Bojana Pejlić, the exhibition curator, in cooperation with an international research team, have collected unique material, pertaining for the first time ever, to identity aspects of the former Eastern block artists. The exhibition has offered all media genres by nearly 200 he and she artists representing 24 countries. All of them sharing a traumatic experience of communism and then, system transformations after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The works filled in all the exhibiting space of the Zachęta Gallery which has been divided into 15 topical chapters, closed in three large sections. This has revealed a multi motive - largely not known before - picture of half a century of the Eastern European art.

The postwar, social realism art, opening the first part of the exhibition, The Socialist Icons Sphere, has been dominated by images of "heroes and heroines" of labor, who were building - "shoulder to shoulder" - a new communist state without sex differences. Women took over jobs so far reserved for men only; as depicted by Michails Kornetskis from Latvia (Come on, Girls, 1959), and such Polish artists as Wojciech Fangor (Characters, 1950) and Aleksander Kobzdej (Give me a Brick and Brick Layers; both from 1950).  The utopian vision, outlined by the then regime leaders turned out deceptive, since "female" issues had not been solved in spite of an ostensible women liberation. Official social realism art allowed only heterosexual family, while artists contrasted it with homey, private sphere. After communism fall in 1989, they revised history. One should mention here works by the artists from former Yugoslavia, for example Sanja Iveković, a Croatian, whose photographic series, Gen XX (1979- 2001) deals with guerrillas and antifascist women activists. The latter, worshiped under communism, totally sank into oblivion after 1989.

Personal Space Negotiations, a second part of the exhibition, going back to the 70's and 80's, has concentrated on artists' privacy, the only available area of their freedom. They have focused on a female nude, seen from a new perspective. The passive femininity cliché has been undermined, as in the Art Must Be Beautiful, an Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975 video by Marina Abramović. Female artists have appropriated a self-portrait, while offering an honest, non heroic image of motherhood (Izabela Gustowska, The Victim I, an object from the Relative Features of Resemblance series, 1989-90). Further, stereotype male models have been questioned.

System transformations - presented as the third section of the exhibition - brought about mass unemployment and pauperization of a considerable part of the society, in particular women. This has been the time when "critical art" started. Artists have deconstructed not only the rebirth of nationalistic and new conservative ideologies but also new capitalist social order. The revived patriarchy reduced a female role to a mother, and her reproductive functions, closing her at home. Thus, the private sphere gained a political meaning. (Elżbieta Jabłońska, Super Mother, 2002; Ałła Georgiewa, Alla's Secret, 2000). After 1989, the female subjectivity was revised, since more and more frequently it appeared to be a show and a masquerade. Finally, the artists - whose works have been presented in this section - offered a critical look at prostitution, female trafficking and pornography (Imre Gabor, She Has Been My Wife Since 1992 (To Love, To Fuck, To Die), 2002, and Eva Filova, Without a Difference, 2001.

All works from Eastern Europe - seen at the Zachęta by viewers of different than Western European experience - have gained a new context. Thus, the question - whether Eastern European art can be viewed in terms of Western European art, or is it yet another form of colonization - will long remain unanswered.

"Sex? I Am Checking! Femininity and Masculinity in Eastern European Art", the Zachęta National Art Gallery, Warsaw, March - June 2010.