Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

A piece written in 2010 ….


The international art world ‘discovered’ Dan Perjovschi in 1999 when his drawings were displayed in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.[1] Under the title ‘rEST’, he covered the floor with cartoons and slogans in thick marker-pen reflecting on life in Eastern-Central Europe since the overthrow of communist rule 10 years earlier. Over time, his cartoons slowly disappeared under the traffic of visitors.

But just as Columbus could hardly discover a populated continent, the art world could not ‘discover’ this Romanian artist. In 1999 Dan Perjovschi had already been active for more than a decade in North America and throughout Europe. Moreover, the techniques of erasure and abjection that brought poignancy to his drawings in Venice were already key features of his practice. In ‘Anthroprogramming’ made in 1996 in New York, he had laid a loose grid on the walls of the Franklin Furnace artspace and then fill each box with a quick-fire portrait sketch. He then spent ten days systematically erasing the grid and its occupants. Perj 2In ‘Live! From the Ground’, a 1988 performance in Chisinau in Moldova, he crawled prostrate along the city’s main street. Addressing the cracked tarmac, he called out ‘Ground to centre! Come in! Come in! I can’t hear you’ like some kind of desperate army telegraph operator. Dan Perjovschi saw this action as a metaphor for life in the communist and post-communist years when Romanian society moved at a crawl ‘unable to tear ourselves off the ground’.[2] Witty and sometimes sardonic, the Venice drawings also owed much to his work as a cartoonist for 22, a fiercely independent political magazine published in Bucharest to which he had contributed since the early 1990s. Dan Perjovschi’s work in Venice drew praise for pointing to the disappearance of ‘the East’ in the face of ‘Western’ values and the rise of the market conditions: it also signalled the rise of a new phenomenon, that of the Eastern European artist, a new exotic species in the fauna of art.

In the years since, Dan Perjovschi has drawn commentaries on life in the era of globalisation directly on the walls of many galleries and museums around the world. His thick pen has marked the crisp white surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007) and the crystalline walls of the extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2009) designed by Daniel Libeskind. When invited to participate in biennales and other short-term art events, he often works in chalk on the exteriors of buildings or on the paving stones of the street. Increasingly Dan Perjovschi himself features as part of the visual spectacle, working while the public looks on. This is an aspect of his practice which causes Dan Perjovschi some disquiet: ‘We live in a cannibalistic period,’ he has said. ‘People simply want you’.[3] Never permanent additions to the collections of the institutions which commission him, his drawings are painted over a few weeks later or, when produced in an ephemeral medium like chalk, disappear naturally. TateAt Tate Liverpool in 2008-9 this pattern was reversed: Dan Perjovschi’s blackboard drawings were slowly overwritten over the course of two months by chalk cartoons and graffiti by the city’s school children. A frenzy of buzzing lines and words slowly swallowed his work. At the end, the only way to leave a mark on this billowing surface of chalk dust was to draw with a wet fingertip.

Despite the enthusiastic embrace of his work in the high temples of the art world, Dan Perjovschi continues to occupy the margins, sometimes literally. He draws in corridors, around the doorways on ceilings and on floors, sometimes making a feature of the edges of the space. Occupying the dizzying atrium space in the monumental lobby of MOMA in New York in 2007, Dan Perjovschi’s drawings were ‘interrupted’ by the floor and folded around the corners of the wall. Edges are not necessarily marginal spaces. In fact, they offer up ideal positions for critical perspectives.


late C13th copy of Aristotle’s Physics

Here, an analogy can be drawn from the past. In the Middle Ages, artists illuminating books would sometimes add mocking glosses and grotesque figures to the borders of the page. The anxieties which lurked in the dark spaces of the human imagination were given material form as dog-headed men, one-footed beasts and ape-angels. An illuminator might supplement his portraits of venerable saints and wise philosophers with depictions of profane acts and erotic fantasies. Off-centre and often humorous, these devices provided a kind of imaginative escape for the illuminator and the reader wearied by the orderly and uplifting content of the missal or book of hours. Some marginalia went further, seeming to offer critique of the text itself. The British Library, for instance, possesses a late thirteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Physics, a controversial text when it prepared for scholars in Europe’s universities (to the extent that it was ordered to be burned in Paris as a text which might encourage heresy[4]). On a page discussing the Heavens, a scholar in his study stares into the space above the block of text. His vision of the starry firmament is, however, obscured by a scabrous fool being transported in a wheelbarrow over bumpy ground. [no image but would like one] In his analysis of this marginal image, Michael Camille suggests that it is a satirical commentary on the consequences of acquiring too much knowledge.[5] Had the body buckled under the weight of all the lofty ideas contained on the very same page? Irreverent and witty, illuminated marginalia was inevitably dependent on the centre. The fact that these unruly images appeared on the same page as the sacred Word or brilliant philosophical treatises is what gave them such potency (and, as Camille suggests, perhaps, as a result, the centre was made all the more secure and stable by the presence of fantastic images on the edge[6]).

Perj 6What is the relation of Dan Perjovschi’s graphic marginalia to the institutions on which they are quite literally inscribed? In many of his cartoons and slogans, he reflects on the condition of the museum and gallery in the twentieth-first century, deprecating the commercialism and sponsorship of culture. Like many Eastern European intellectuals, Dan Perjovschi possesses a sharp sense of freedom and so ‘free’ – whether attached to humans or things – is a word which invariably raises suspicion.[7]  The excess and profligacy of the international biennale, a seemingly unending cycle of bonanzas, is ridiculed too (‘DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING THE VENICE BIENNALE WILL BE LOCATED TO STOCKHOLM’). Curators are identified as minor dictators, in one drawing framing the eyes of a faceless artist. Dan Perjovschi does not exempt himself from his critical pen: the figure of the ‘international artist’ who lives his or her life from a suitcase appears regularly in his cartoon cast. In one image that featured in his 2010 Royal Ontario Museum show, two figures, hands in pockets, exchange small talk. ‘WHAT YOU DID AFTER THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL?’ asks one. ‘BASEL ART FAIR’ replies the other. Positioned next to the text panel describing Dan Perjovschi’s art, this cartoon points to the art world’s keen embrace of the Eastern European artist (as well the commodification of politics in the form of artworks with expensive price tags[8]). In fact, the curatorial statement on the wall nearby begins by describing Dan Perjovschi as ‘One of Eastern Europe’s most sought-after artists.’

Dan Perjovschi’s wall-drawings look unplanned, unfinished and even instinctive (and, as such, a suppression of all that he had learned at the conservative George Enescu University of Art in the 1980s). Occasionally, scratching out ‘errors’ in thick black marks, his lines are quick and bold. He writes in English in hasty capital letters, seemingly with little concern for penmanship. Figures, buildings and actions are reduced to a simple graphic lexicon of silhouettes and loose geometric shapes. National and political symbols are drafted in as graphic ready-mades. His wall drawings are not, however, always as spontaneous as they might seem. While some figures are conjured up on the spot, others are distilled from the sketchbook he always carries with him. Over the years Dan Perjovschi’s sketchbooks function as a kind of archive of ideas, always ready when needed. The same figures and motifs appear in his wall drawings, still resonant 10 years or more after their first appearance. They pass from one context to another. The phrase ‘I AM NOT EXOTIC I AM EXHAUSTED’ often resurfaces, most recently at his show at the Centre for Visual Introspection (CIV) in Bucharest in 2010. Each time it materialises on a wall, it gathers new poignancy.

When commissioned to draw in situ, Dan Perjovschi absorbs himself in the press. This is not just a matter of expediency. When he was commissioned by the Ludwig Museum in Köln in 2005 to fill the white cube of its DC-Room over several weeks, copies of Le Monde, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek were arranged on tables in the centre of the gallery. [image 8] In effect, viewers were invited to reflect on the relation between the detailed reports in print and his telegraphic images. (The exhibition extended beyond the walls of the Ludwig when, each week during the exhibition, die tageszeitung printed a visual digest by Dan Perjovschi on current events). 22One conclusion to be drawn from the comparison is that he is a brilliant visual and textual editor. In English, his word plays are often as sharp as any newspaper headline and his drawings deliver their message in a few telegraphic lines. These are skills honed over many years. When he joined the team of 22, the first independent weekly in Romania after the 1989 Revolution, he was involved in all aspects of the press from layout to proofreading. Established by a group of dissidents and intellectuals called the Group of Social Dialogue, 22 continues to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights in Romania. Loyal to the cause, Dan Perjovschi, wherever he is in the world, still sends cartoons to the weekly today.

Resolutely anti-communist, Dan Perjovschi has, by an accident of history, fulfilled a communist vision of the radical newspaper. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the young Bolshevik state encouraged the production of wall-newspapers or what in Russian are called stengazety.[9] Workers and school children were encouraged to paste up news, cartoons, to ‘publish’ documentary photographs and commentaries on the transformation of their world. Soviet citizens were, as the Communist Party loudly trumpeted, living through the greatest social transformation in the history of mankind. Their reports, sketches and cartoons were displayed on the streets, in factories and hospitals as well as in schools and apartment blocks in Soviet Russia.

The wall-newspaper was not just a medium for the transmission of ideas: it was, according to its champions, a mechanism for the transformation of consciousness. In recording and reporting their world, not least on the walls of the stengazeta, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of their own progressive influence in the world. In other words, they would become real revolutionaries. The efflorescence of proletarian creativity was an illusion: in fact, considerable effort went into providing ‘advice’ about how and what to write for the stengazeta, all material required permission of communist authorities. Although the wall-newspaper was exported to the newly-formed Eastern bloc in the late 1940s including to Romania, regulation and control eventually did for the format. The wall newspaper became a moribund relic of revolutionary socialism. By the 1960s, state printers in East Germany were turning out wall-newspaper ‘cut and paste’ kits. Printed reports, logos and stencils turned the act of authorship into one of assemblage (not unlike writing for the official communist press). The events of 1989 in Eastern Europe put an end to the wall newspaper: in the years since, Dan Perjovschi has restored this low-tech medium reviving its critical, comic and unruly energy. Preparing ‘The Room Drawing’ at Tate Modern in London in 2006, he took the views of museum staff, Tate members and representatives from Tate Modern’s Council. The drawings which filled the Members’ Room – a clubish space for fee-paying affiliates, open to the public for Dan Perjovschi’s exhibition – incorporated their comments and views of local and international events and ‘personal issues’.

Offering a distinctly critical perspective on the interests at work in the world without the heavy hand of propaganda, Dan Perjovschi’s work is often described as ironic. Irony is a form of dissimulation: an ironist says one thing but means another. Dan Perjovschi’s images are irreverent but they feign little. They show the world exactly as he sees it, albeit often in its most incongruous forms. When his drawings are absurd, it is because life is absurd. Looking at his wall drawings and slogans we see what we already know: communities living on fault-lines (East-West/Christian-Muslim) fail to understand each other; politicians are ruled by their egos and their libidos; and advertising makes us unhappy. In an age infected with the plague of irony (sometimes glossed as ‘postmodern irony’) Dan Perjovschi’s direct humour seems to point to an earlier, though no less sophisticated, way of viewing the world which exposes the vanity of people and the irrationality of systems which organise life. In this regard, he seems closer to existential skepticism than the postmodern taste for irony. ‘No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute’ wrote playwright Eugène Ionescu 50 years ago. ‘It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.’[10] These words might be used to caption Dan Perjovschi’s drawings today.

Refusing to be anyone’s representative, Dan Perjovschi has repeatedly expressed his dislike of the label ‘Romanian artist’ or even ‘Eastern European artist’, viewing both terms as limitations. To judge from the tremendous popularity of his work around the world, his art has a universal appeal which transcends such narrow categories. Nevertheless, Dan Perjovschi’s relations to Romania – past and present – are complex and ultimately productive. In 1993, he staged his commitment to the country by having a tattoo of the word Romania on his shoulder as a public performance at Zone 1, a festival in Timişoara. PerjAn ambiguous gesture, the tattoo implied both choice (this I chose to do) and compulsion (‘my’ national identity is marked on me). In 2003 he had this tattoo removed in three public sessions at ‘In the Gorges of the Balkans’ exhibition in Kassel, Germany, a gesture which marked a break with the nation. Kristine Stiles, in her landmark study of Dan Perjovschi and Lia Perjovschi’s art, identifies this action with a renewal of their vows of dissent. Thereafter, they became increasingly critical of the activities of the political and cultural elites in Romania.[11]

There is reason to be critical. Despite the violence that it unleashed, the 1989 Revolution channelled tremendous hopes for democracy, freedom of speech and the dignity that comes from an improved quality of life. Those who took power in 1990 – and their successors – have been keen to hold on to it, sometimes with little regard for the actual workings of democracy. The bodies responsible for ‘decommunisation’ – the process by which those who supported or benefited from the Ceauşescu regime are denied power or influence – have been neutralised. Capital is concentrated in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, many closely connected to political cartels. The courts and the media seem to serve the interests of the elite. Meanwhile, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with broken roads, schools and hospitals.[12] Dan Perjovschi has been highly critical of the political culture in Romania, refusing to be swept up in the populist nationalism which stirs the country periodically. His 2010 CIV exhibition in Bucharest offered brilliantly incisive commentaries on the failures of the Revolution. One figure carries a national flag which has had its central motif excised. In 1989, revolutionaries cut out the coat of arms which signalled the Romanian Socialist Republic, producing an icon of erasure. In Dan Perjovschi’s 2010 image, the flag-carrying figure has placed his own face in the hole or, perhaps, the hole has become his face, a device which points to the arrogance and petty nationalism of the politicians who have led Romania in the last two decades.


Art Space Alina Romania, 2011

Despite his strong criticisms of Romania today, Dan Perjovschi continues to make his home in Bucharest (and, as such, is unlike ten per cent of the adult labour force who have left the country to work abroad[13]). The country remains a productive place for his art and for reflecting on the processes of globalisation underway in Europe. When, in 1989, communism collapsed, bankrupt and exhausted, many in the West predicted a future for the countries of Eastern Europe in terms determined by neo-liberal capitalism. This was the ‘natural’ and incontestable face of the modern society. What Dan Perjovschi’s art exposes is the hubris and injustice in the ‘New Global Order’. One cannot help but think that his perspectives on the political, social and economic interests shaping the world are more sharply focused because of his Romanian vantage point. This view is all the more powerful because it is taken from the margins.














[1] This was a joint show with subREAL, a group formed by artists Cãlin Dan and Josif Király in 1990.

[2] Dan Perjovschi cited by Kristine Stiles, States of Mind. Dan and Lia Perjovschi (Durham, NC., 2007), 73.

[3] Dan Perjovschi, interviewed Ileana Pintilie (December 2006) www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/154-drawing-for-freedom-an-interview-with-dan-perjovschi – accessed July 2010.

[4] Haig A. Bosmajian, Burning books (Jefferson, NC, 2006), 49.

[5] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1998), 22-23.

[6] Camille, Image on the Edge, 26.

[7] See Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2010), particularly chapter five.

[8] Of course there is nothing new in this. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Boston, MA, 2008).

[9] Catriona Kelly, ‘”A Laboratory for the Manufacture of Proletarian Writers”: The Stengazeta (Wall Newspaper), Kul’turnost’ and the Language of Politics in the Early Soviet Period’ in Europe-Asia Studies (June 2002), 573-602.

[10] Eugène Ionescu (writing in The Observer, 29 June 1958) cited in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth, 1968), 126.

[11] Stiles, States of Mind, 79

[12] See Tom Gallagher, Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (London, 2005).

[13] See Tom Gallagher, ‘Romania and Europe: An Entrapped Decade’ (March 2010) – www.opendemocracy.net/tom-gallagher/romania-and-europe-entrapped-decade – accessed July 2010.


Études with a camera – Dóra Maurer’s films and photoworks

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized


What can one do with a cobblestone?


What Can One Do With a Cobble-Stone? 1971

This was a question asked and answered by Dóra Maurer in 1971. It is the title of a series of photographs in which she documented a cobblestone being obliged to participate in various activities. After tethering it with string for one photo, in another she pulls it along a run of marshy ground like a reluctant animal. Later in the sequence, Maurer washes and caresses the stone cube like a child. Then, after wrapping it in a sheet of paper, she sets fire to the package; the cube survives its ordeal. She then casts it into the air, as if attempting to rid herself of an encumbrance. Organized in a grid of 15 photographic prints, both the first and last images suggest different discoveries of the same cobblestone. It is an object that seems, at least in this arrangement, to keep reappearing like the proverbial bad penny.

Maurer was not the only Hungarian artist thinking with cobblestones that year. Film-maker Gyula Gazdag had just completed his movie, Sípoló macskakő (The Whistling Cobblestone), the story of a group of Hungarian teenagers at a KISZ (Young Communist League) work camp on a collective farm. Their listless summer is interrupted by a visitor from Paris who has a toy cobblestone dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Citroën, a ‘souvenir’ of the events of May 1968 in the French capital. The visitor encourages the students to follow the lead of the Les Enragés in France, to little effect. The taboo subject of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when cobblestones had been loosened to impede the progress of Soviet tanks – haunts their conversation. As one student notes, the cobbles in Budapest are now covered in Tarmac

In March 1972, inspired by Gazdag’s film and in support of demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (and the War of Independence in 1848), Hungarian critic and curator László Beke called for artists to make works featuring cobblestones (and, tellingly, gravestones[1]). In fact, this idea already had its proponents: Gyula Pauer made replicas of cobblestones incapable of bearing the weight of traffic (1971–72), and Gyula Gulyás fashioned a portable paving block with handles bearing the words ‘Made in Hungary’ (1972). Unlike, perhaps, the works of some of her colleagues, Maurer’s ‘What can one do with a cobblestone?’ expresses a cautionary view of revolutionary politics and of political art. This is not surprising. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, art in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the end of the 1940s had been turned into a tense zone of censorship and propaganda. Even the liberalization of Hungarian culture in the late 1960s was accompanied by prohibition, with officials identifying three types of art: that which could be supported and so can be called official; that which might be ‘tolerated’ (a category which included expressive forms of Modernism); and that which remained prohibited. Maurer was a central figure in a close and resolutely independent community of artists, musicians and poets that strove to create its own culture outside of this grading system. They organised their own exhibition spaces in apartments and, famously, a disused chapel in the resort town of Balatonboglár, over 80 miles from the capital;[2] they commissioned each other to make work with common themes; and they issued samizdat (self-published) journals. Usually described as ‘conceptual artists’ (or, sometimes, ‘concept artists’), this loose community is estimated to have created more than 50 such collective ‘actions’ in the first half of the 1970s.[3]

Writing in 1972, Béla Hap described the attitude of ‘unofficial’ artists to power in Hungary:

It is an artistic ‘movement’ that neither supports not attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real organized movement is another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid or order at all, but the appearance of such subjects is the private business of the artist.[4]

Demonstrating his point, Hap’s words appeared in Szétfolyóirat (Writing that Flows Apart), a short-run samizdat edited by Maurer in February 1973. Featuring experimental art and poetry, art criticism and philosophy, Szétfolyóirat was as much a concept as a magazine. Five copies were made of each issue (each edited by a different person) and then passed on to a trusted recipient who would add in at least 15 more pages and then send the augmented publication on to five new recipients. Szétfolyóirat not only put uncensored ideas in circulation, it knitted together a community of readers and writers.

‘Hungarian_ issue of SchmuckWhile Maurer has been resolutely independent in her career as an artist, she has often worked closely with others, most regularly her husband, Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the political repression that followed the Uprising. The couple met in Vienna in 1967 when Maurer was in the city on a Rockefeller Scholarship. Their marriage brought dual nationality, which meant that she could travel between Austria and Hungary with relative ease, becoming a key means of contact between unofficial artists in Hungary and their international counterparts. Maurer has also enjoyed productive exchanges with figures active in other areas of the arts. She has curated many exhibitions and edited anthologies including a ‘Hungarian’ issue of Schmuck magazine (in collaboration with Beke), which was published in Britain in 1972. With Miklós Erdély and György Galántai, Maurer developed a series of experimental workshops at the Ganz-MÁVAG Cultural Centre in the mid 1970s that were later known as ‘Kreativitási gyakorlatok’ (Creativity Exercises). Rejecting conventional art training and encouraging collective activities, participants were given playful group exercises, sometimes using video cameras – a rare resource in Hungary at the time.

‘The Form-language of film art’


Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.4, 1972

With its grid structure, What can one do with a cobblestone? expresses Maurer’s interest in motion and change. The vigorous and full-body actions documented by this work were, however, soon replaced by a focus on small human gestures. Her ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series of 1972, for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on interactions between a hand and a stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images – in this case, just three – to be placed in many different permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, some of these image combinations – when read left to right – seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or even diagrams, these works have the aura of a scholarly semiotic investigation into the logical relations of words.

Maurer was by no means alone in her interest in the operations of language. Conceptual art had kindled in others an enthusiasm for logic and linguistics, as well as systems and experiments. In 1973, the young film-maker Gábor Bódy established an experimental film-making programme at the state-run Balázs Béla Studió (BBS), which commissioned artists and composers to explore ‘film language’. The intention was for the techniques and tools of film-making to be put under scrutiny by creative artists using the resources and professional expertise of a well-equipped film studio. Later known as K/3, the programme provided remarkably unfettered opportunities for experimentation, even if its output was rarely screened. ‘K/3 was established,’ according to Miklós Peternák, ‘with the ambition of becoming a Bauhaus-like centre for research in the audiovisual area’.[5] In fact, Bódy imagined László Moholy-Nagy, the Modernist artist, film-maker and Bauhaus teacher, as an ally from the past (Bódy once planned to make a film in which Moholy-Nagy would appear on screen).[6] One of the greatest theorists of the modern image, Moholy-Nagy was only – and somewhat belatedly – being rediscovered in the People’s Republic after the prohibitions on Modernism had been relaxed.


Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973)

Maurer’s three-part film Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973) was a product of the experimental programme at BSS. The ostensible subjects of her film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (like the elemental volumes that were the trademark of so many Bauhaus artworks and designs). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. Maurer systematically explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp creating different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstr

Reversable 3

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.2, 1972

ate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments into the nature of perception, this film is accompanied by another that shows how Maurer and the cameraman, János Gulyás, achieved a range of subtly different perceptual effects.

Ostensibly Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s seem systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words, and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images or the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems. The second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series (1972), for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field, in three different phases of the act of sitting. Like other works in this series, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until a ‘rogue’ image appears in the last frame: a photograph of a chair. Once the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations – this is not just a chair but an empty chair. There is also something of this ineffable quality in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3 (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of tidy squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count the infinite. Later – in 1976 – Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper that was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her body against this new proportional system – an improvised version of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The video documenting this action – entitled Proportions – records both a bodily ideal and the ‘failure’ of a system.


Film music

While most of Maurer’s works can be – and often are – described as experiments, it is not always evident what is being tested or measured. In some, such as Relative Swingings, one can trace the outline of ‘the scientific method’: an experiment is set up in controlled conditions to test a hypothesis; the results of that test are recorded, ideally by an objective instrument, and then repeated as a ‘proof’. But increasingly over the course of the 1970s, Maurer’s films and photographs seem to be less documents of her activities than experiments on the viewer. Perception itself is being tested. Here one might sense a connection with the utopian Scientism that underpins Moholy-Nagy’s monumental and posthumously published book, Vision in Motion (1947). In this study, the former Bauhausler set a new agenda for progressive art that emphasises the body as much as the machine: ‘It is the artist’s duty today to penetrate yet-unseen ranges of the biological functions, to search the new dimensions of industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.’[7] But rather than extend human potential, Maurer’s experiments seem to draw attention to the limits of human perception.

This focus on perception owes a good deal to her training and practice as a printmaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also has much to do with Maurer’s interest in ‘displacements’, a term which she adopted as the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975. Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement even in static, flat works. Many of these investigations into displacement take the form of abstract paintings. Maurer’s ‘5-from-4’ works, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles, as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are ‘displaced’ onto the next relief in these works. Maurer points to the uncertainty that these combinations produce, writing ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8]

Kalah182This idea of presenting the viewer with irreconcilable perceptual effects perhaps reached its apogee in Kalah, a 1980 experimental film made in creative partnership with Zoltán Jeney, one of the founders, tens years earlier, of Budapest’s celebrated Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio). The structure of both sound and images in Kalah was provided by the traditional Arabic game of the same name that is played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the film and Jeney’s music, itself ‘composed’ from existing recordings on magnetic tape. The same aleatory system, derived from the way numbered stones are used in the source game, governed both sound and image. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made simply to be seen but to be experienced: Maurer and Jeney imagined viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

The fact that Maurer calls some of her photo works ‘études’ and has read Anton Webern’s writings on serial music is significant. Meaning ‘study’, but usually describing a composition that is used by musicians to practice technique, an étude conventionally features a set of variations on a theme. Embraced by the 20th-century avant-garde, the form was extended to include experimental compositions that explored the structures and formal qualities of music itself. Famously, in his Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies, 1949–50), Olivier Messiaen allocated numerical values to pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre. Maurer’s analogy becomes all the more vivid when one imagines a relationship with the work of American composer Steve Reich (a visitor to Budapest in 1977, where he performed and gave a lecture, and again in 1985 where he supervised recordings of his compositions by the Hungarian new-music ensemble 180-as Csoport (Group 180)). Reich’s minimalist compositions often involve subtle phasing of rhythms and musical phrases. In his works for ensembles of two, four, six or even 18 musicians, one player will follow another, playing the same material perhaps a quaver later each time, or slowly speeding up while the other remains at the same tempo. ‘Displaced’ in this way, simple musical elements – such as the single chord of Four Organs (1970) or the rhythmic pattern of Drumming (1971) – come to produce a huge diversity of unexpected rhythmic and harmonic possibilities; moreover, they generally follow a kind of cyclical structure as the musicians wheel through the phases. As in Maurer’s ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ photo series, repetition in Reich’s compositions is often combined with other expressions of restraint. Pieces like Six Pianos, as the title makes clear, achieve their mesmeric effects using the musical colour of a single instrument, albeit in phased layers. Tuning into the ever-shifting patterns, the listener becomes aware of the subtlest modulations of rhythm and harmony.



The musical qualities of Maurer’s art are more than mere analogies. Affinities between the worlds of experimental music and conceptual art were stronger in the 1970s than perhaps at any other time, as Maurer’s creative partnership with Jeney in making Kalah testifies. Perhaps the work that in its attention to displacement comes closes to Reich’s employment of the phase is Maurer’s Triolák – 18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (Triolák – 18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer), a BBS film made in and around Maurer’s studio in 1980–81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto), which adds to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the film camera starts relatively gently and the displacement of the image is minor. Thereafter, the sweep of the pan extends and the camera moves faster. Some of the variations combine elements that feature different viewpoints – looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles – and fails – to reconcile the three moving images. Each camera pan is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling as if produced by the movement of the camera (or as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. Maurer’s work is a remarkable experiment into audio and visual perception.

As Reich’s music makes clear, striking differences can be created from subtle shifts within a framework of repetition. What is required is remarkable focus on the part of those playing the music. In both her resolute individualism and her close and productive relationships with other artists, as well as in the remarkable consistency of her ideas and interests over a wide range of media, the same can be said of Dóra Maurer. Above all, displacement – the concept which she developed more than forty years ago – remains fixed at the centre of her practice as an artist.



[1] See Dékei Kriszta, ‘A szabadság szele’ in Beszélő (October 2008) – available online at http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-szabadsag-szele

[2] See Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, eds., Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Budapest, 2003)

[3] See Miklós Peternák, Concept.hu. The Influence of Conceptual Art in Hungary (Paks, 2014)

[4] Béla Hap, ‘Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány’, Szétfolyóirat (February 1973) – available online at http://www.artpool.hu/Aczelkor/Hap.html

[5] Miklós Peternák, ‘A Short History of the Avant-Garde in Hungarian Cinema’ in Undercurrent 18, (Autumn, 1989), p.34

[6] Miklós Peternák,’Gábor Bódy. Film and Theory’ in Bódy Gábor, 1946–1985: életműbemutató, exhibition catalogue (Budapest, 1987), p.25

[7] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1947), p.12

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970–1993 (Budapest, 1994), p.116

‘Consumer Art’ and Other Commodity Aesthetics in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized


This essay was written for a book which was published by Centrum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Warsaw in January 2017.


lokal_30_natalia_ll_consumer_artIn 2015 works from Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-5) series featured in Tate Modern’s exhibition, The World Goes Pop. Here, Natalia LL’s reflections on desire and satisfaction were placed in in the company of Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’, as well as works by Yugoslav artists (Boris Bućan’s 1972 ‘Art’ canvases of corporate logos and Dušan Otaševič’s 1967 portrait of ‘Lenin, Towards Communism on the Leninist Path’).[1] Putting attention on Pop in Eastern Europe under communist rule, as well as Latin America and East Asia, the curator of the show, Jessica Morgan, set out not only to extend the phenomenon beyond its conventional geography, but also to find new critical perspectives on Americanisation, consumerism, and the mass media image. In an essay introducing the exhibition, she writes

Countering the mainstream impression that pop art operated as a simple adaptation of the techniques and images of consumer culture, global pop mined the media as a critical, material source for artists exploring the effects of everyday culture. Pop – and this of course can also be said of the more ambivalent work of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol too – was rarely just an affirmative aestheticisation of commodity culture or consumer behavior but employed the language of advertisements and marketing, the language of the magical commercial environment as identified by McLuhan, to turn establish communication strategies into political opposition, satiric critique, subversive appropriation, and utopic explorations of collective and individual identity.[2]

The World Goes Pop was an attempt to revise what might be called the master-narrative of pop art which has placed a narrow emphasis on the Anglo-American experience (despite the merits of exhibitions ‘Les Années Pop 1956–68′, organized by Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2001). In fact for some art historians the identification of works of art from Eastern Europe as ‘Pop’ is been a category error or, at best, evidence of ‘second rate’ art.[3] Piotr Piotrowski, in one of the more sophisticated discussions of the question, points to the problem of embracing popular culture when it was in such short supply in Eastern Europe and when artists had accepted a mission of sustaining high cultural values: ‘They felt that they had a mission to defend art, not to discredit it, since they knew that the latter was a goal of the power, the regime originating with the Soviets’.[4] In other words, how could Eastern Bloc societies produce the strangely paradoxical compound, authentic pop art?

Putting aside the problem of authenticity of an aesthetic which enjoyed the ironies of ‘elevating’ the imagery of popular culture for a moment, this question is somewhat undermined by the simple material fact of various forms of pop art practices in Eastern Europe. A number of young artists went through a pop phase at the end of the 1960s. Hungarian painter László Lakner, for instance, who has admitted a debt to Rauschenberg, started doubling and fragmenting his careful renderings of documentary photographs and masterpieces of art history. Instead of using the mechanical process of screen printing, Lakner painted these photographic details by hand. Later, in the 1970s, he was to extend his interest in documents in conceptual and photorealist works. In former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Gotovac – later well known as a performance artist and filmmaker – made numerous collage works throughout the 1960s using advertisements, packaging and pages from magazines from the West and, as Yugoslavia underwent its own consumer revolution, from local sources too. Leonhard Lapin, the central figure in nonconformist art in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the founders of a short-lived pop alliance called ‘Soup 69’ (a reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[5] For these and other artists, pop was often a brief experiment in careers that were later made in performance, conceptual art, experimental film or other artistic practices that established deeper footings in the artistic cultures of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Pop provided an introduction to the practice of appropriation, a rebuttal of the shibboleths of modernist art: self-expression, originality and individuality. This was what made this embryonic and fleeting engagement with pop at the end of the 1960s an important watershed: the revival of modern art, and of abstract painting in particular, after the death of Stalin and the so called ‘Thaw’ of the mid-1950s had been strongly motivated by humanist principles, not least intellectual and artistic freedom.[6] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ films and photoworks made between 1972 and 1975 can, I think, be viewed in similar terms. Models, sometimes topless, lick, play and, eventually eat different food stuffs. Bananas, bread sticks and sausages are treated like phalluses; whilst jelly and cream perhaps suggest body fluids. Sexualising food and emphasising orality, they offer a provocative commentary about the elision of desire and need. This was, of course, a theme explored by many pop artists in the West. In 1962 article in which British artist Richard Hamilton, for instance, reflected on the sources ‘$he’, his 1957 study of a woman and a refrigerator employing images and techniques of American advertising:

The worst thing that can happen to a girl, according to the ads is that she should fail to be exquisitely at ease in her appliance setting – the setting that now does much to establish our attitude to a woman in the way that her clothes used to. Sex is everywhere, symbolised in the glamour of mass-produced luxury – the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal.[7]

Like much pop, Hamilton’s work eschews sharp judgment of mass media images, and is better understood as a kind of primer into their techniques and sensibilities. In a similar fashion, might Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-4) series be understood as a kind of dispassionate deconstruction of the relations between commodities, sex and women’s bodies formed in advertising of the period? Viewed in this way, might they be a visual expression of arguments about the alienating effects of ‘the female fetish’ found in the writings of prominent feminist Germaine Greer at the same time? In 1970 she wrote:

The gynolatry of our civilisation is written large on its face, upon hoardings, cinema screens, televisions, newspapers, magazines, tins, packets, cartons, bottles, all consecrated to the ruling deity, the female fetish. Her dominion must not be thought to entail the rule of women, for she is not a woman but a doll: weeping, pouting or smiling, running or reclining, she is a doll.[8]

Such contemporary precedents and parallels notwithstanding, I should acknowledge East/West differences too. No ringing libertarian feminist voices could be heard in Poland in the early 1970s.[9] (And in fact, as Agata Jakubowska has shown, the ‘Consumer Art’ series was first discovered by Western women art critics’[10]). Natalia LL’s works also seem to have different emphases than the better known works of Anglo American pop like Hamilton’s ‘$he’. Their wetness, for instance, is unsettling: it is a kind of excess which most pop works shy away from, preferring the cooler, dryer aesthetic of packaging, of logos, and of branding. Sex was as carefully managed in pop as it was in mass advertising, usually appearing as a set of controlled codes or gestures: here, in Natalia LL’s works, the act of consuming is carnal and fleshy, perhaps overly so. Equally, in those occasional moments when Natalia LL’s model’s eye catches the camera or when she laughs, perhaps a little self-consciously, the deadpan aesthetic of pop disappears and the gap between simulated and real pleasure opens up.

So what is to be made of the problem of the pop image in societies which were, reportedly, marked by their failure to produce consumer bounty? After all, pop art itself is a form of commodity aesthetics. Writing of the work of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: pop art was the end of the avant-garde myth of subversion and the ‘total integration’ of art into consumerism, writing: ‘If the consumer society is trapped in its own mythology, if it has no critical perspective on itself, and if that is precisely its definition, there can be no contemporary art which is not, in its very existence and practice, compromised by and complicit with that opaquely self-evident state of affairs’.[11] Frederic Jameson said something similar a few years later when he wrote ‘Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.’[12]

Adapting Jameson’s point but accepting the logic of his critique, his question can be extended to ask what did it mean to ‘explicitly foreground … commodity fetishism’ in Eastern European societies which had announced the eradication of this particular instrument of alienation as one of their goals? After all, the Kremlin built its declaration to ‘beat and overtake the West’ on the rational management of supply and demand, not the irrational manipulation of consumers. Admittedly, this was a stop-start-stop world; promises were made and occasional boosts in production achieved; crisis would then follow. Nevertheless, the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of ‘socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia;[13] a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely in the realm of images rather than things. But perhaps this distinction does not matter much. What defines a modern consumer society is not access to consumer goods but knowledge of them. In this regard, the role of advertisements, magazines and other forms of publicity is key. They – alongside branding and design – form a particular order of ‘commodity aesthetics’ or what, in German, Wolfgang Haug called ‘Warenästhetik’. In order to understand advertising and its effects, Haug argued in his 1971 book, Kritik der Warenästhetik, it is necessary to consider how it intersects directly with the realm of human needs and the domain of sensuality: ‘The transformation of the world of useful objects into commodities triggers instinctual responses, and the functional means by which not only the world of sensual objects but also human sensuality itself is remoulded again and again.’ This is its own form of manipulation, ‘whoever controls the product’s appearance can control the fascinated public by appealing to them sensually.’[14]

ReklamaIn the 1960s and 1970s the citizens of the people’s republics might have been unable to consume many branded consumer good, or everyday luxuries like cars, washing machines and fashionable clothes but they were aware of the aesthetic codes which accompanied modern consumerism. ‘Socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia was a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely, in the realm of images rather than things (or, in Marxist terms, as exchange values rather than as use values). Post-stalinist states, for instance, created agencies and professional guides for the production of ‘socialist advertising’ which would manage popular expectations or, in Haug’s terms, desires. The first International Conference of Advertising Workers (Mezinárodní konference reklamních pracovníků), held in the International Hotel in Prague in December 1957, laid down three cornerstones of socialist advertising:

Ideovost (political enlightenment)is theeducationalroleof advertising.Enlightenedtradepoints outusefulfeatures and benefitsof the goods for sale and, in this way, expressesthe socialist state’s care forworkersand consumers.

Pravdivost (truthfulness) of advertising lies in the fact that all information about quality and character, as well as uses can be demonstrated.

Konkrétnost (concreteness) of business advertising means speaking to consumers in clear and persuasive language. In this context, formalism in artistic expression as well as slogans, which undermines the clarity and understandability of advertising is not acceptable.[15]

The point was socialist advertising should be different. It should resist the fetishistic hold that advertising in the West has on its viewers. Rational and honest advertising would overcome the hollow illusions of the commodity by educating consumers about the correct attitude towards things.[16] In the event, very little print, television and cinema advertising produced in the people’s republics can be explained in such ideological terms. Whilst print advertising and product packaging often lacked the sophistication of their western counterparts, they sought the same kind of effects.

Moreover, one of the defining features of the post-Stalin years, was the steady creep of commercial imagery into the ‘ikonosfer’, much of it from the West. Polish and Hungarian film distributors made arrangements to screen many of the most popular products of the American and Western European film industries in their cinemas.[17] Popular magazines increasingly featured advertising and fashion spreads. In the case of one of the most vivacious publications of the 1960s in Poland, Ty i Ja LR this was created by the title’s own designers but adapted from French sources. Eastern European states also provided shop windows for Western consumer goods in the form of so called ‘hard-currency shops’ like the Tuzex chain in Czechoslovakia and Pewex in Poland. Western consumer goods were put on sale for Western currency in an effort to extract Western currency from its possessors, whether citizens or foreigners. These shops were often criticized for their obvious ideological contradictions: With writer in Nove Slovo announced ‘Tuzex fosters petit-bourgeois fetishism and worship of goods of Western provenance’ whilst another in Tribuna asked ‘Is not Tuzex a way to confuse people, to convince them that “West is Best”?’[18]

What the Tribuna writer alluded to was a particular form of fetishisation which occurs in Eastern Europe. According to Marx, the worth of commodities is determined by the social relations of their production. But the existence of the exchange system in capitalism makes the production process remote and misperceived, and, as such, it ‘masks’ the commodity’s true worth. This masking was reinforced by the conditions of the Cold War. Far from destroying the phantasmagorical form of the commodity, one could say that the division of East and West actually amplified it. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs, and LP records – acquired special significance in the East, precisely because of their provenance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry heightened significance in the East, and not only because of their rarity: the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilization.

RewistaThis is explored in ‘Personal Search’ (1972), a Polish movie directed by Witold Leszczyński i Andrzej Kostenko telling the story of the arrival of a group of travellers – a mother and son accompanied by a cousin bearing a strong resemblance to Brigitte Bardot – at a customs office on a border post between Poland and, strangely, Switzerland.[19] Driving a FIAT sports car, these travellers have come from the West accompanied by a cornucopia of consumer goods – luxury foods, chic clothes and glittering trinkets. To cross the border into a world where such minor luxuries are in short supply, they have to strip these things of their exchange values: in other words, they have to turn commodities into personal possessions. So they divest the products of their glossy packaging and scuff them to give them a patina of use before packing them into their car. The opening titles roll over a bonfire of discarded consumer packaging.

But their labours are insufficient: the customs officer and his young colleague suspect the returnees of smuggling. The film then turns into a psychological drama; a tense battle between officialdom and the prosperous travellers fought with flirtation, hollow flattery, veiled threats and bribes. In an inflationary cycle which starts with a plastic cigarette lighter and culminates in the sexual ‘gift’ of her niece to the younger guard, the woman seeks to avoid the scandal that would follow from the ‘Personal Search’. This cycle is only brought to an end by the arrival of her high-ranking husband in his official car. From then, the film moves towards its dramatic climax.

The film’s most striking cinematic innovation takes the form of television advertisements which intrude unexpectedly into the narrative. When the young customs official opens the boot of the car, the screen fills with a French advertisement for ‘invisible’ ‘huit’ brassiere filmed on a Mediterranean beach. The footage is apparently an answer to his question ‘What is this?’, asked when he fingers the packages of underwear which fill her suitcase. [film shots]Later, a bottle of Cointreau, the French aperitif shared by the customs officials and their unwilling guests, becomes the magic elixir at the heart of a 30-second commercial from French television filmed in the style of a James Bond movie. In this way, the tense chess match between the officials and the tourists is broken – momentarily – by the clichéd suspense provided by this mini-espionage drama. These are hardly conventional uses of montage, particularly in the context of socialist Poland. In his classic conceptualization, Eisenstein in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s had argued that montage was ‘dialectical’, capable of marking the clash between the forces of progress and reaction shaping the world. Leszczyński and Kostenko’s movie has far closer kinship with Godard’s ‘collage’ films.

The French ads are not the film’s only lessons in consumer aesthetics. The cinematography reproduces many of the clichés of advertising too. Early on in ‘Personal Search’, a long tracking shot follows the young woman through the countryside at dawn to bathe au naturelle. At the end this ‘Eve’ catches the glance of the camera/viewer in the mirror. In another shot, the juice of a freshly-peeled orange is dripped on to her lips whilst she sleeps. Conflating sexual and consumer desire, both scenes could have been taken from a primer on advertising written by Madison Avenue psychoanalyst in the 1960s. But, of course, they were not. These scenes were filmed in a country – the People’s Republic of Poland – which had declared its commitment to the liberation of its citizens from alienation. The seductive but hollow French advertisements and the vigilant operations of a customs post guarding the entrance to the socialist world should, according to the official creed of Marxist-Leninism, maintain the sharp differences between West and East. But Poland was undergoing its own consumer revolution. A new leadership which took power in 1970 had promised a ‘double Poland’ (druga Polska): double the productivity, double the consumer goods, and, eventually, double the debt to the West. The film ends by passing sharp judgment on the regime – the material luxuries which the elite had appropriated, as well as the strange phenomenon of ‘socialist consumption.’

The label ‘Second Poland’ pointed – inadvertently – to the phantasmagoric aspect of a ‘new’ Poland made in the image of Western modernity. In its pursuit of growth, the People’s Republic was to become a double, a simulacrum of countries the West. ‘Personal Search’ – made at the time when Gierek was formulating his ambitious vision for Poland – seems to anticipate this emerging programme of simulation. In a moment of filmic tension, the car which has delivered the trio to Poland attracts the attention of the eagle-eyed customs officer. It is a new, ‘bahama’ yellow FIAT ‘mille cinquecento’ (And the camera, like his eye, lingers over the car’s glittering marques). It seems that the trio are attempting to import a new foreign car, an illegal act. The nature of this offence is, however, rendered ambiguous by the official love affair with FIAT conducted the communist authorities in Eastern Europe. In 1965 the Polish government – like the Kremlin one-year earlier – had signed the first of a series of deals with the Italian car manufacturer to make copies of its products under license in Warsaw. Gierek accelerated the policy by establishing new factories in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała to manufacture FIAT’s cars in large numbers. Owning a FIAT was not only a legitimate ideal in the Second Poland: it was a ‘socialist achievement’.

The key thing is that critique here is not a celebration of consumerism (critique à rebours). In fact, Konstenko and Leszczyński’s film sustains a long-standing distrust of the fetishistic hold of things on their users. This was a Marxist conception which I think alludes to the anti-communist and anti-capitalist reflexes of many intellectuals in the East. Never explicit in its political address, ‘Personal Search’ offers an ambivalent approach to commodity aesthetics which mirrored the ambivalence of the Polish authorities. As I’ve already hinted, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ works cannot be explained as an orthodox critique of the alienating effects of commodity aesthetics, nor do they seem to point to prohibition or asceticism. In their attention to pleasure and, in particular, to unrestrained orality, they eschew moral frameworks for consumption.

Chytilová_s ‘Daisies_A similar claim could be made for Věra Chytilová’s ‘Daisies’ (1967). In this extraordinary movie made in Czechoslovakia, two young women, sharing the same name and seemingly the same persona, embark on a spree of gluttony in Prague, funded by the gullible old men who expect (but never receive) sexual favours in return. In fact, the two women only seem interested in food, though not necessarily in eating. Although the film does not have a clear narrative structure, it reaches a crescendo in an excessive and spectacular destruction of a banquet. [film shots] The two woman dance on a table laid with luxurious food and alcohol, destroying everything under their stiletto heels. In between these bouts of excess, the young women sunbathe on the banks of the Vltava and play bored games in the bedroom. Like ‘Personal Search’, some of Chytilová’s techniques seem to be directly drawn from Godard: sound and images are often discontinuous; still images are cut into the action, sometimes appearing so briefly that they barely register; and scenes are are shot with coloured filters. Chytilová’s embrace of collage is important too. The eschewal of narrative was also a rejection of the tendentiousness which Soviet culture after Stalin seemed to treat as the sine qua non of progress. The idea that all actions should point to a radiant future made narrative clarity a requirement of all Soviet films at least until the 1970s. Of course Czech new wave cinema had already shaken off its Soviet shackles in the 1960s. But her use of collage also eschews the Bildungsroman narrative structures of films made by contemporaries like Jiři Menzel (‘Closely Watched Trains, 1965 for instance). The idea that an individual should confront the absurdity of the world or shape his or her own fate – motivating ideas after Stalinism – shaped many of the most celebrated the New Wave movies and documentaries made in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

Chytilová’s duo are anti-heroines. The director does everything to inhibit our identification with them – yet they remain fascinating. Choreographed by the soundtrack, their actions are exaggerated, comic even. A reviewer writing in Film Quarterly in 1968, observed: ‘It seems that the greedy little creatures are specimens of the capitalistic (or, for that matter, socialist) drive for acquisition, the rage for appropriation; the connoting factor that they are “schnorrers” or “spongers” brings in the idea of social or economic parasitism.’[20] Might these two girls in their fashionable dresses, and with their voracious and insatiable appetites, their amorality, their selfishness, their gluttony, be Chytilová’s way of passing judgment on the consumer spectacle? After all, in one scene they run out of food and eat advertisements on the pages of German and French magazines. This might have been reason to interpret Daisies as a critique of the West. However, Czech commentators understood the film in local terms. One deputy in the National Assembly, for instance, protested the waste of food during the film’s production ‘at a time when our farmers with great difficulties are trying to overcome the problems of our agricultural production.’[21] But the Czech viewer would be justified in asking just whose meal was being destroyed here? In fact, one reading is that the girls reveal and destroy the privileges which the gerontocratic elite had reserved for itself. ‘Daisies’ is about pleasure. And the question of where pleasure was located was important in Eastern Europe in under communist rule: was pleasure something given or something taken?

Neither ‘Daisies’ nor Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ series express the cool ambivalence and ambiguity which characterised so much pop in the West in the 1960s – a ‘disinterested engagement’ with consumerism and mass media images. In fact, they raised the rare prospect of a kind of feminist politics of female pleasure in the people’s republics. Perhaps the deployment of food in both works is important here: in spoiling and toying with it, these young women announce their disinterest in questions of need – a central plank of Marxist ideology.[22] In the case of Chytilová’s heroines, the focus of their desires is on luxury, whether in the form of banquets or Western European advertising. In so doing, they make an excess of what was already excessive. Perhaps more radically, Natalia LL’s models engage with ordinary foodstuffs, depriving them of their use values. Bananas may have been rare in the PRL (as numerous interpreters of the Consumer Art series have been keen to remind their readers[23]), but the other foods – sausages, paluszki (bread sticks) and jelly – were not.


Germaine Greer

Selected for their shape and texture, they are conscripted to speak about pleasure not sustenance. In focusing on desire, albeit in different ways, Chytilová and Natalia LL’s films were remarkably aligned, albeit unconsciously, with the writings of Germaine Greer in London: ‘Ultimately the greatest service a woman can do to her community is to be happy;’ she wrote, ‘the degree of revolt and irresponsibility which she must manifest to acquire happiness is the only sure indication of the way things must change if there is to be any point in continuing to be a woman at all.’[24]



[1] In the same year, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ was also shown in ‘International Pop’, an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Centre (11 April-29 August 2015) and in Ludwig Goes Pop’ at Mumok, Vienna 12 February – 13 September 2015 – note from editor.

[2] Jessica Morgan, ‘Political Pop: An Introduction’ in The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 17

[3] ‘By definition, Pop could blossom only in highly industrialised societies, and therefore there has been no direct pendant to this movement in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or the communist China’. Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing Story (London, 2000) 141.

[4] Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Why were there no great Pop Art curatorial projects in Eastern Europe in the 1960s’, a lecture prepared for publication on http://balticworlds.com/ – a scholarly journal from the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) Södertörn University, Stockholm (19 November 2015) – accessed 09 April 2016.

[5] See Sirji Helme, Popkunst Forever. Eesti popkunst 1960. ja 1970. aastate vahetusel, Tallinn 2010.

[6] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2011, pp.61–105.

[7] Richard Hamilton, ‘An exposition of She’, in Architectural Design, XXXII, No. 10 (1962) p. 485.

[8] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 60

[9] On this, see various essays in Bojana Pejić (ed.) Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna, 2009),

[10] Agata Jakubowska, ‘The Attractive Banality of Natalia LL’s “Consumer Art” (1972–1975)’ Nordlit, nr. 21 (2007) p. 243.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society. trans Chris Turner (London, 1998) p. 116

[12] Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

[13] See ‪David Crowley, Susan E. Reid, eds., ‘Introduction’ to ‪Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Evanston, Il., 2010) pp 3-53; Patrick Hyder Patterson, Bought and Sold. Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia (Cornell University Press, 2012); Paulina Bren and Mary Neuberger, Communism Unwrapped. Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford, 2012).

[14] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Minneapolis, 1986) 17.

[15] The proceedings of the conference were published in Reklama (1958) cited by Daniela Nebeská, Hospodářské Reformy N. S. Chruščova thesis submitted to Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze (2012), pp. 71-2.

[16] Marx’s writing on the fetishistic relations characteristic of commodities under capitalism were invoked by Hungarian critics of ‘Goulash Socialism’. See G. Gömöri, ‘Consumerism in Hungary’, Problems in Communism, vol. 12, no. 1 (1963), p. 64.

[17] See Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film (London, 2003) 28.

[18] Both authors writing in 1974 and cited in J. L. Kerr ‘Hard-currency shops in Eastern Europe’ (27 October 1977), RAD Background Report/211 commissioned by Radio Free Europe Research

[19] This discussion is derived from my introductory essay in the booklet published to accompany the DVD release of Andrzej Leszczyński and Witold Kostenko’s film by Piktogram/Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej in an anthology entitled Satisfaction. Sztuka konsumpcyjna w socjalistycznej Polsce lat 70, Warsaw in 2009.

[20] Claire Clouzot, ‘Daisies by Vera Chytilova’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1968), p. 36.

[21] Josef Škvorecký, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema (Toronto, 1971) 110.

[22] An observation kindly made to me by Agata Jakubowska.

[23] Not least Jessica Morgan in her introduction to The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 25.

[24] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 282.