Reflections on Ostalgia

First let’s do away with the problem of the name: “Ostalgia” might mean a nostalgia for East German Communist times, but it is not the proven thrust of the fascinating and diverse melting pot of works housed in the 5 floors of the New Museum through September 25. The works are more ambivalent than that. Similarly, “ost” refers most directly to East Germany, but these works come from artists all over the former Eastern Bloc.

 Three Capacity Men, 2005, by Thomas Schutte with photographs from U-NI-TY, 1991-94 by Michael Schmidt’s 

If one ever thought if was possible to synthesize the works and experiences of artists from the 1940s to now from all of the countries into a coherent narrative without a didactism that overrules the complexity of the situation…well, clearly that is a tall order. Maybe it’s best to leave it as Massimiliano Gioni, curator at the New Museum, says here:

“I had no ambition to tell the truth about the Soviet Bloc. Memory is never reliable, but it’s all we’ve got and this exhibition is about remembering a time and place that is quickly going away.”

Like Younger than Jesus, another show of Gioni’s, the curation somehow sidesteps any guidance. However, in the sprawling, exhausting, bewildering expanse of works that make up Ostalgia, there is certainly a lot of worthwhile art to see.

No. 14 in the ‘Relationship’ series, 1989, Nicolay Bakharev
Bakharev has many photographs in the this show that, like this one, ignored the official ban on nudity.

No. 22 from ‘Ogonyok’ series, 2001 by Sergey Zarva
The artist paints the covers of a formerly popular Soviet magazine, although for him these are relics found in parent’s and friend’s houses as he was born later, transforming the covers into negative, demonic masks.

Julius Koller, U.F.O.-NAUT J.K. a (U.F.O.), 1987

Koller’s work is part of a series called UFO, standing for Universal-Cultural Futurological Operations, among other things, and dealing with a new approach to Anti-Happenings and the Anti-Images. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. (It baffles me; I just really like the plate.)

The hundreds of works are fascinating overall, both as artworks and in their strong relation to life in the former Eastern Bloc. Each of them and their creators have distinct stories worthy of being told. The best way to get a sense of the many threads is to start on the 5th floor, where a room-sized mural acts as a visual history charting communism’s rise and fall in the Eastern Bloc. Cotter of the New York Times was right to say that what could have been an amateurish survey turned into something more. I honestly can’t wait to go back and have a second chance to delve into these works. And that is the first time I’ve thought that this summer.

One thought on “Reflections on Ostalgia

  1. I really think Massi is doing some incredible work here in New York City. He’s a breath of fresh air to The New Museum. I loved his project on the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Massi’s an innovative thinker which spills over into his curated projects. So I’m not surprised that “Ostalgia” has a fascination with the ruins of history.

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