‘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.

Király’s Immoderate Fashion

Design as Critique, Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized

89_30X40cmIn 1986 Tamás Király arranged for his latest collection to be photographed on the steps of the Műcsarnok, the kunsthalle in Hősök Tere in central Budapest. A group of adults and children – barefooted, with stiff sculptural caps and belted robes – occupy the steps. The men are peacocks in bright silks; the woman, in black. The appearance of this extended family is so conspicuously alien, so strange, it is as if they belong to some kind of cult or perhaps have arrived in Budapest from another world.

Never produced, Király’s designs far exceeded what was required of fashion in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the time. Fashion performed the role of persuading citizens that they lived in a modern society; one orientated to meeting their consumer needs. In fact, the emancipatory project of ‘socialist dress’ based on principles of utility and egalitarianism had long been abandoned in recognition of the pragmatic task of managing desire. Upmarket Budapest boutiques (introduced after the economic reforms of 1968) as well as mass-market brands, and glossy fashion magazines presented a world of choice and moderate fashionability, albeit one which Hungarian factories usually failed to deliver.[1] In fact, the authorities entered into co-production arrangements with Western brands in the late 1970s – including Levi Strauss & Co. – to profit from the pent up demand for these ordinary luxuries.[2] Style, in János Kádár’s Hungary, was largely a matter of staving off the lingering sense amongst consumers of being démodé. If it had a social role, fashion was not to promote individualism but a common sense of the Hungarian People’s Republic as a permissive environment.

Király’s collections played no part in the project of managing consumption: usually one-offs, his designs formed part of ‘underground’ culture in Budapest in the early 1980s. It is telling that his first show in 1983 was called ‘Rejtett divat’ (Hidden Fashion), though there was little about his work which was introverted or secret. In fact, with close creative relationships with artist film-makers (including Gábor Bódy, János Xantus and Gábor Bachman) and new wave groups (A.E. Bizottság, URH, Kontroll Csoport and Sziámi), his designs lent themselves to spectacularisation. Fantastic ‘catwalk’ shows of Király’s garments were organized in Petőfi Csarnok, a popular concert venue in the Hungarian capital, that also featured live new wave acts and, sometimes, animals. Exercises in improvisation and punky iconoclasm, Király appears to have made little use of the techniques of the trade like pattern cutting. In ‘Baby’s Dreams’, his 1985 show, crowds of amateur models swarmed across the stage in garments that looked like they had been roughly pinned onto their bodies moments earlier.

The New Art Studio, a boutique established by Gizella Koppány in Budapest in 1980, was a vehicle for Király’s exuberant imagination. He introduced ‘moving displays’ into the store’s window in which living models presented the boutique’s garments. Designs – created with Koppány and Nóra Kováts – were often ‘hacks’ of existing clothes, some of which had been collected on trips to the countryside. _GEL3407Király and his young friends also organized informal ‘fashion promenades’ through the capital in 1981 in which they brought a kind of sartorial élan to colourless streets. Unannounced and exuberant, these walks were an example of what writer Dick Hebdige once called ‘hiding in the light’ – the blinding quality of subcultural style to be both arresting and incomprehensible, at least to those lacking the cipher to crack its codes.[3]

kiraly tamas 80s ruhak tranzit.huOver the course of the 1980s, Király’s designs began to take on more recognizable forms. Wearing his highly structured, monochrome dresses, models were given geometric silhouettes. One visitor to Budapest, a reporter from Stern magazine who went to Hungary in 1990, noted a strong resemblance to the puppet-humans of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Triadische Ballett’ (Triadic Ballet, 1922).[4] Making few claims on utility, these garments existed to be seen and, above all, to be photographed and filmed. Király’s contribution to Xantus’s otherwise conventional film profile of Hungarian Goth band Neurotic, ’Rocktérítő’ (1988), was to dress the clientele and staff of a basement bar – a glamorous vision of Hades. The stiff wings, exaggerated collars and long tube skirts worn by the women obliged them to walk with jerky steps and their arms projected forwards. It is as if the garments – glittering in the low light – have more life than the people wearing them.

Király’s conception of fashion far exceeded anything else created in Hungary at the time. He announced an expanded notion of style which owed more to the streets and clubs of London than perhaps anywhere else. In the aftermath of punk, ‘street style’ had been trumpeted in the UK as the triumph of youthful, uninhibited imagination over the stale elitism of the fashion houses. For cultural theorists searching for evidence of youthful opposition to commodity culture, the resourceful bricolage of punk and new wave style was even taken as heartening signs of resistance. Behind the bondage, workmen’s boots and reworking of early rock n’ roll style worn by the first punks, ‘lay hints of disorder, of breakdown and category confusion: a desire not only to erode racial and gender boundaries but also to confuse chronological sequence by mixing up details from different periods’, according to one writer at the time.[5] To do its job of unsettling conventions, style was deployed to queer the world. Sometimes this meant embracing non-heterosexual desire; more often, it meant a kind of inversion of the norms which ordered society.

Face 68Street style was elevated to style culture a few years after punk, first in Britain and soon elsewhere. This was a kind of reimagining of the idea of the avant-garde for the consumer age: the style cognoscenti were a vanguard, testing new looks and, ultimately, shaping the tastes of others. And style magazines (or ‘style bibles’ as some commentators liked to call titles like The Face and i-D in the UK, Tempo in Germany) set themselves the task of recording the rapid turns of fashion, naming and charting embryonic trends before, its seems, they had even had a chance to become a fully-fledged look.           Of course, there was a good deal of self-promotion in the valorization of style. This was hardly new either: the transmission of culture and commodities has long depended on taste-makers. What, perhaps, did mark out a difference was a ‘cool’ attitude which penetrated deeply into the the pages of the style press; into the new medium of the pop video; and in the theatrical catwalk shows of fashion designers like Jean Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood and, of course, Király, even when their designs teetered on absurdity. Irony allowed hyperbole, theatricality, politics, and history to be embraced without commitment: to wonder how seriously these images were to be taken was, of course, to risk being uncool. When the sober-minded monthly Marxism Today published a commentary on British style magazines in 1987, its writer was both disturbed and fascinated by the ways in which politics and history were flattened on their pages. Serious matters and trivial subjects were treated with equivalence: ‘In the fashion photographs and general deployment of “looks”,’ he wrote, ‘history exists as one large set of slides to be wittily back-projected behind the models. History as hair conditioner – it makes everything more manageable and free of knots. Coalminers, the 40s, bikers, Red Indians, Palestinian solders, and lately even the 70s have been plundered in search of new “angles”, new “looks”. Inevitably then, everything becomes plaything, meaning does not seem that meaningful anymore – the history of Cuba is really the history of salsa.’[6] In approaching history not as politics or even as effects, but as images to be appropriated, style culture was infected by a kind of ironic detachment (as well as the pleasure which could be generated by occasional shock and outrage). Irony – the capacity to say one thing but mean another – allowed budding entrepreneurs in the music and fashion industries in the West to imagine that their activities were somehow outside the commercial frameworks in which they operated.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the communist world provided the new stylists not with ideology but with images. Fashion and graphic designers occasionally looked to the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s to provide dynamic blueprints for their new designs. The art director of The Face magazine, Neville Brody, raided Alexander Rodchenko’s portfolio for his spreads; LPs by new wave and electronic groups were packaged in sleeves which looked like posters from the Russian Civil War; and designers dressed models in Red Army chic. What Agata Pyzik calls the ‘proto-Ostalgie’ of much new wave music in the West drew deeply from an imagined Eastern Europe, populated with revolutionaries and commissars, new men and new women.[7] Of course, immersed in these myths of the avant-garde, it was rarely the present-day Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellites which attracted the style-makers except, perversely, as a wasteland of style. (And an ironic commentary on The Face’s sovietophilia came in the form of a television advertisement made in 1986 for Levi’s in which a Soviet customs official confiscates a copy of the magazine from the suitcase of young man arriving in the USSR, overlooking the jeans hidden underneath). Király was almost unique among Eastern European fashion designers in the fact that his work enjoyed attention in the West before the Berlin Wall was pulled down, featuring on the pages of i-D in 1989 and presented alongside collections by Vivienne Westwood and Yoshiki Hishinuma at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in 1988.[8]

Király too seemed to have his own Soviet fantasies. Working with young architect Gábor Bachman on a short video entitled ‘Kelet-európai riadó’ (Eastern European Alarm), Király designed a dress which turned its wearer into a red star. In Bachman’s film, she marches up the steps of Műcsarnok, arm-in-arm with a commissar. Fashioned from shiny satin and clad in blood-red boots, she was like some kind of latter-day Octobriana. Her partner – a copy of Pravda in his hand – looked as if he had just stepped off the tribune after delivering a rousing speech. They embrace – she without much enthusiasm – under a long red banner announcing ‘Művészet és forradalom’ (Art and Revolution) and then argue over a bottle of vodka. At that time (November 1987), Műcsarnok was hosting an exhibition with the same title, ‘Art and Revolution’, recording Hungarian and Russian art from 1910-1932. Mounted on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution, the exhibition was probably the most extensive show of Eastern European avant-garde art held in the Bloc. And yet the response of the public was muted and the audiences small. Few seemed to have much enthusiasm for the Soviet avant-garde, except perhaps for Király and the underground culture to which he belonged. Bachman – with architect and samizdat publisher László Rajk – designed a number of conceptual schemes, interiors and film sets which imported El Lissitzky’s Red Wedge into contemporary Hungary;[9] György Soós promoted his industrial music group, Art Deco, with imagery from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 film ‘October’ and the visionary architectural schemes of Yakov Chernikhov.

Na-Ne posterLater, in 1990 Király was one of the founders of the short-lived NA-NE gallery in Budapest (with seven other artists and designers including Bachman, Rajk and Soós). Meaning ‘Oh No, This Cannot Be’, the interiors and many of the exhibits of the gallery experimented with the forms and artistic languages of constructivism, albeit in a critical, deconstructive manner. One suspects that these late expressions of Hungarian enthusiasm for the Soviet imagery owed less to a sense of living in the Eastern Bloc, than in their affinities to the new wave culture which had its origins in London, New York and Berlin. The NA-NE artists and designers to have developed a kind of ironic taste for their own estrangement and alterity, perhaps not unlike the way that the punks had turned anomie into an aesthetic in the UK and elsewhere. Art historian Éva Forgács describes the NA-NE aesthetic as ‘an iconic collection of formal elements which may have had a function of an original Constructivist work, but now all they reference is the falling apart and the historic failure of the one-time beauty and one-time idealism of Constructivism.’[10] In other words, the imagery of revolutionary socialism was queered in their art and design.

Few of Király’s garments from the 1980s survive today, except, of course, in the form of videos, film and photographs. This has much to do with the improvised nature of his designs, often created for one-off events. It is also an effect of their excessive qualities too. Király’s designs refuted moderation. Uncompromisingly excessive and unfunctional, they denied the possibility of any kind of productive return, even in the moderated form of mass fashion in Hungarian People’s Republic. The politics of his designs did not reside in the manipulation of signs and symbols. After all, style culture achieved its effects by hollowing out meaning. If any kind of political significance is to be attached to Király’s activities before 1989, it is to do with their immoderation. And as excess, the fate of his designs – to be destroyed – was certain, even at the time of their conception.

[1] Djurdja Bartlett, FashionEast. The Spectre that Haunted Socialism (Boston, MA: MIT Press) p. 239.

[2] Michael Dobbs, ‘Budapest’s Blue Jeans Revolution: Levi’s Sets Up Shop To Meet the Craze’ in The Washington Post (11 May 1978)

[3] Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light. On Images and Things (London: Comedia, 1988).

[4] Jan Kromschröder, ‘Folklor und strenge Linien: Die Kreationen des Tamás Király’ in Stern Magazin, 14 (29 March 1990) pp. 150-154.

[5] Dick Hebdige, Subculture. The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen and Co., 1979), p. 123.

[6] George Barber, ‘Nick Logan’ in Marxism Today (September 1988), p. 52.

[7] Agata Pyzik, Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in East and West Europe (Winchester: Zero, 2013) p. 113.

[8] CD. ‘Fashion Hungary’ in i-D, no. 71 (1989) p. 83.

[9] See Péter Esterházy, ‘Egy építészeti kérdéshez’ in Magyar Építőművészet, (February 1986) pp. 56-7.

[10] Éva Forgács, ‘Deconstructing Constructivism in Post-Communist Hungary’ in David Ayers et al, eds., Utopia: The Avant-Garde, Modernism and (Im)possible Life (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2015) pp. 320-321.

The Future is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Eastern Europe, Sexuality

This is a draft version of a text which will be published by Nottingham Contemporary in 2016.



Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

In spring 1970 a small audience gathered in a church in the Old Town in Zagreb to watch a performance by the poet, actor and artist, Katalin Ladik. Dressed in nothing but a loose fur, Ladik performed a piece which she called ‘Vabljene’ with a traditional Hungarian bagpipe, a small skin-covered drum and a traditional bow. No recording of this event exists, but in the same year she was invited into the television studios in Novi Sad, her home city, to perform for the cameras. Reciting her poems in her native Hungarian – a language which few outside the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region understood – she stretches and extends her voice in the footage, sweeping across what seems to be unnatural sonic spectrum from high-frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Interviewed by an Italian journalist, she said ’I do not do anything strange: peforming naked I expose the nakedness of my soul, and my inner reality … The public does not have to accept me for what I say but they must accept me for who I am, as I am, with my hips, with my breasts exposed. … I am naked and they too are stripped of their preconceptions. When we reach this understanding, this is the moment in which the audience and I achieve the necessary means to perform together the great ritual.’[1] She was, it seemed, engaged in the discovery of a sensual language – perhaps originating in prehistory – for new rituals which would escape the social conventions which managed desire, not least in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the 1960s.

Ladik was invited to perform in Zagreb by the organisers of GEFF 69, an experimental film festival which for this, its fourth meeting, took ‘Sexuality as the Way to a New Humanism’ (Seksualnost kao mogućnost za novi humanizam) as its theme. The slogan captured a new mood in the country, or at least a new boldness on the part of the Yugoslav counter-culture which had been stirred into life by student protests in 1968, the arrival of rock music and psychedelics, as well as a cocktail of esoteric philosophy and new left politics. For four days in April 1970 (a few months after the original planned date), films, performances and talks reflecting on various kinds of sexuality drew large audiences to Zagreb’s cinemas, theatres and even the old town church. One reporter wrote, ‘Sex – an evangelical word – was an overwhelming call for the audience to join a orgiastic visual adventure (without danger). Although the films only partially fulfilled expectations, the screenings and associated events took place in crowded halls.’[2] Screenings included Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’ (1965) – a overpainted diary-film which sought to capture what ‘one feels during lovemaking’ – and two homoerotic Warhol movies (‘Flesh’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboys’, both 1968).

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4', 1969

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4′, 1969

A prize-winning film in the festival competition, Mila Budisavljević’s ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4’ (Optional View of the World, 4’, 1969) presented a close-up view of a woman’s lips and tongue, seemingly pressing against the lens of the camera, making the smooth, seductive mouth which appeared in so much advertising and cinema seem fleshy and real.

Celebrating uninhibited sexuality and other pleasures, the organisers of GEFF 69 were at pains to stress high-minded aspirations, perhaps to head off accusations of exploitation: ‘The sexual plan is just as important as the social and political ones … GEFF sets out to explore what this kind of movie can be when it is an experiment outside the bourgeois frameworks of pornography and kitsch: … We want to know whether in this field it is possible to something more than merely reflect things (so often, it comes down to the picturing the sexual act), we are interested in whether the filmmaker can escape this passive position.’[3] In this way, sexual liberation – then being trumpeted with loud horns in the West – could be harnessed to have real effects in Yugoslavia. Revolution, so often presented in terms of deferral in Eastern Europe (the utopia over the horizon), was within grasp of the individual: all he or she had to do was to revolutionise his or her thought and lifestyle. After all, a new humanism – predicated on a conception of a community of creative , equal and self-managing individuals – had been promised by the regime but remained little more than an imprecise slogan. GEFF 69 promised to put flesh on Tito’s bones.

The festival was organised as a critique of conservative attitudes, whether those held by society or by the authorities. Sexuality constituted a new front in which humanity could be liberated from various forms of repression, not least the ties of marriage, the laced-up conventions of dress and the fetishism of commodity culture. GEFF 69 juror, Dušan Makavejev, made this the subject of his remarkable film, ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’ (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). Ostensibly a documentary on the life and work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and in particular, his ‘discovery’ of ‘Cosmic Orgone Energy’, Makavejev’s often-funny movie is a meditation on sexuality and violence – the latter seeming to erupt when the former is repressed. A collage film, it offers a catalogue of scenes from the sexual revolution in the USA, as well as the story of allegorical love affair between Vladimir Ilich, a celebrity ice-dancer who represents the Soviet Union around the world, and Milena, a Yugoslav partisan and sexual revolutionary. Critical of socialism’s repression of sex as well capitalism’s commodification of it, Makavejev’s film achieved international notoriety and plaudits for the candid treatment of the subject, but it was not the only expression of what one champion of GEFF 69 called ‘our revolution’.

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’s ‘Plastični Isus’ (Plastic Jesus) (a graduation project made the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 1971) shared not only Makavejev’s collage technique but also his interest in sexual and political taboos.[4] And at the same time, the OHO collective of artists, poets and writers made sexuality one their principle themes of their activities in performance and proto-conceptual art before fully embracing the hippy fantasy of disappearing into nature when in 1971 they formed the Šempas Commune. In fact, the group’s retreat from modernity was prefigured in Naško Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ (White People) film made in 1969-70 with the full resources of the Neoplanta Film Studio in Novi Sad.[5] [3] With two distinct halves, the first part of the film shows a group of twelve men and women – OHO and their friends – playing various kind of sensual games in a white space. They eat and kiss, roll naked in what look like white feathers and reproduce the movements of the mice and sheep that share their closed space.

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1970

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1969-70

The men and women are sometimes undressed and the scenes occasionally turns orgiastic, though never sexually explicit. In the second half, the community moves into natural landscapes and the scale of their gestures expands: they leave trails of white powder on the coastline and fill the air with coloured smoke.[6] In 1970 writer Bora Ćosić identified in OHO’s works, the deployment of ‘sexuality as a transgressive, critical and subversive instrument of confrontation with the opportunism and hypocracies of the real-socialist society.’[7] Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.58.23Such confrontations were in fact rare: in 1970 OHO’s Andraž Šalamun, for instance, published a series of photographs of a couple in positions from the Kama sutra in Problemi which caused a ripple of protests from its readers.[8]

The programme of sexual liberation was not just a marginal interest of the counter-culture in Yugoslavia after 1968. The appearance of pornographic magazines on newsstands at the time was also explained in terms of Yugoslav exceptionalism, the claim that socialism was not organised according to either the Soviet model or by the dictates of capitalism in the SFRY.

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Interviewed in 1972, Ljubisa Kozomara, editor of Čik magazine – one of a new wave of pin-up mags which appeared at the end of the 1960s, said ‘Sex magazines are just another way in which Yugoslavia is socially and economically more free than other Communist countries’.[9] Yugoslavia’s embrace of ‘market socialism’ offered tangible incentives to publishers to find mass audiences. Čik, like other prominent titles Start and Adam i Eva, featured centrefolds alongside political and social reports, as well as interviews with public figures. These colourful magazines treated sexual pleasure with a degree of seriousness: the editor of Adam i Eva said ‘I believe I’m doing some very human work. We publish letters from homosexuals, who are still arrested and jailed in this country. We give advice to village girls too ashamed to take their problems to a doctor.’[10] Likewise, in its early years, Start featured informative articles on birth control and artificial insemination, as well as a running a full length illustrated feature on childbirth.[11] The paradoxes of a magazine which promised public enlightenment whilst trading a limiting vision of femininity (the pin-up) are clear: nevertheless, Kozomara and his colleagues were sincere in their belief that they were breaking repressive taboos.[12] Adapting the clichés of Titoism to its cause, Start editorialized: ‘The epoch of the rule of the youth is coming – sexual liberation cannot be separated from the other individual and social problems, but it can contribute to solving many of them.’[13]

Whilst such magazines thrived in the 1970s, official approaches to images of sexuality were inconsistent and often censorious. Adam i Eva’s editor was taken to court on the grounds of obscenity in 1971 but acquitted. Moreover, censorship was applied differently in different republics and shifts in power between conservative and liberal factions in power meant that was tolerated at one moment might become pro­hibited the next. Nevertheless, sexuality was invoked throughout the history of the SFRY as grounds for censorship.

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’ (Don’t believe in Monuments’, 1958) which depicts the attempts of a young woman to make love to a sculpture of a reclining male figure in a park was criticised and shelved for being too erotic.[14] Twenty years later, the editors of the youth magazine Polet (Enthusiasm) were taken to court for publishing a profile of the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper, Milan Sarović. The accompanying images recorded Sarović emerging naked from a pool. The case provoked outrage, not least among feminists who saw hypocrisy at work.[15]

Tellingly, it was often the admix of sexuality and politics which attracted the strongest responses from the authorities. ‘WR: The Mysteries of the Organism’ was shelved, after being screened in a film festival in Pula – thereby adding greatly to its status as ‘forbidden fruit’.[16] And when Katalin Ladik appeared nude on the pages of Start and other magazines as well as in her public performances, her membership of the League of Yugoslav Communists was withdrawn for violating the ‘moral image’ of organisation.[17] Ladik was by no means an underground figure: in fact, her high visibility owed much to the support of state-licensed institutions – theatres, student centres and publications.[18] Perhaps her principal misdemeanor was not to to have put sexuality at the centre of her creativity, but to have become a popular figure, thereby escaping the marginal zone of the neo-avant-garde.

When editors of pornographic magazines or the organisers of GEFF 69 made the case for liberal attitudes, they couched their arguments in terms which aligned with state ideology: if desire was liberated and a far wider spectrum of sexual experiences recognized as ‘natural’, the result would be greater happiness, a condition which was, after all, the professed ideal of Yugoslav socialism. But at the end of the 1970s, a number of developments set the grounds for a radical and sometimes controversial rejection of this ‘theraputic’ view of sexuality. The vibrant Punk and New Wave scene (which penetrated deeply into performance and video art) as well as the ideas of group of Neo-Lacanian philosophers including Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar were focused on far darker and sometimes morbid drives governing desire than the humanists of the 1970s. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.59.56These two worlds merged in three ‘punk’ issues of Problemi, an important intellectual forum in Slovenia since the 1960s and then under the editorship of Dolar. In its punk issues (1981-3), Problemi identified closely with its subject, adopting the cut and paste aesthetics of the fanzine, and reproducing the lyrics of many of the most openly critical bands including Pankrti (Bastards) as well as darkly distopian comic strips. [5] So dramatic was the change from a sober journal to fanzine, that perhaps Dolar and his colleagues were engaged a particular and early version of what Žižek famously characterised as ‘overidentification’ in his later discussions of Laibach/Neue Slovenische Kunst.[19]

The second issue drew an official response. When the anti-socialist lyrics of bands like Gnile Duše (Rotten Souls) and photographs depicting lesbian sex in the second Punk issue were censored, the editors decided to overprint blocks on the offending material. This gesture did little to assuage the authorities, and Dolar was accused of having allowed the publication of pornographic material, and fined.[20] Despite this penalty, the third Punk issue (1983) was no less provocative in its hyperactive treatment of sex and violence. Spreads included illustrated features on erotic asphyxiation (a translation of an article from the Italian magazine, Fridigaire); the sadomaschostic lyrics of tracks by Borghesia, an electronic music group (see below); and a set of photographs by Miki Stojković of a man and topless woman playing with a large five-pointed star, the primary symbol of Titoism, under the title ‘Revolution is a Whore’.

Photos: Miki Stojković

Photos: Miki Stojković

Many of the authors of this material in Problemi were associated with FV 112/15, a theatre group established in 1980 by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegović. Abandoning the stage, FV 112/15 evolved rapidly into something like a multimedia platform for the production of alternative forms of culture, much in the DIY spirit of punk. It released records and audio cassettes through its music label; in 1982 it established a regular club night in Ljubljana, Disko FV, in 1982; it organised the Magnus, a festival of gay and lesbian films in 1984; and in 1982 four members (Dario Seraval, Aldo Ivančić, Korda and Alajbegović) formed a band, Borghesia, which achieved international success on the electronic music scene in the late 1980s. [7] According to Korda, VF 112/15 was not interested in shifting mainstream cultural practices and values: instead, the group staked out a zone where the conventions of Yugoslav life did not seem to apply, though happily drawing resources from state-funded institutions when needed (for, instance, borrowing the cameras owned by ŠKUC-Forum’s video section).[21]

One of the defining features of the videos made by FV members like Korda and close associates Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid was the way they fused sexual and political images, a caustic zone in Yugoslav culture. Babara Borčić notes that much of the material that the FV artists snatched for their video projects featured ‘recognisable political personalities, rituals and manifestations including Tito’s funeral, or popular Yugoslav music stars’ as well as ‘shots from pornographic movies recorded from private Italian television programmes’.[22] Whilst early video works like Korda’s ‘Obnova’ (Renewal, 1983), compiled from clips emphasizing the industrial rhythms of sex in pornography, and Alajbegović’s ‘Tereza’ (1983) which TV footage of socialist ceremonies is intercut with popular melodramas, could be filed under the voguish category of ‘appropriation art’, another way of understanding this material is to see it as a queering of Yugoslavia socialism. FV videos and performances sought to unsettle the normative effects of state media, sometimes by eroticizing its heroes and sacred symbols. Recalling her activities at the time (particularly the video works made with Šmid), Gržinić writes: ‘queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance. This queerness – and the word queer means literally “not right/not quite” – demands, of us and of the viewer, a rethinking of the conditions of life, work, and possibilities of resistance.’[23]

In 1984 Borghesia – a FV 112 /15 offshoot – created a multimedia performance with the provocative title Lustmörder (Love Murder) in the Student Centre in Zagreb which it described as ‘a metaphysical process of discovering which is hidden by repression.’[24] [8] Eschewing the conventions of the rock concert, short videos – FV 112/15 productions – looped on eight TV screens standing on the stage and tableaux were performed by members of the group. In one, two men – wearing S&M garb – performed a disturbing ritual in which the first smeared and stretched bloody liver on the chest of the other before cutting into it with a knife. Two women dressed in shining plastic also took to the stage with whips. All the while, electronic music added menace of the performance (as perhaps did the lyrics, ‘He prefers hard sex and authority / iron-handed / jackboot / blood on the altar’). Emphasising denaturalization and excess, little about ‘Lustmörder’ was designed to encourage emotional identification. All was staged, as the emphasis on-stage screens made clear. (Roleplaying is, after all, the ‘unnatural nature’ of S&M). In her review for Start, Drakulić Ilić equated equated the ‘sex, perversion, violence, militarism’ in the performance with fascism.[25] This indictment hardly troubled the FV artists and their associates. Writing in Problemi in 1983 Gržinič and Alajbegović had presented their interest in transgression as a mode of critique: ‘The power of Ljubljana’s subcultural production lies precisely in the fact that it is not “high” art but, by using the creative operations of mass culture … and introducing content that [usually] serves the ideological function of the mass media (sexual repression, social control and manipulation, the use of banned symbols …) so that they are meaningfully radicalized, the dark side of a set of norms can be exposed, like “grafitti of the walls of a prison”.’[26] In other words, what is judged obscene or unnatural is not only a political matter but those ideological judgments become visible when the lines which have been drawn – whether consistently or not – are transgressed.

A poster by Dušan Mandić – a member of NSK/Irwin and designer of the third punk issue of Problemi – appeared on the stage of the Lustmörder performance with the words ‘1968 is over. 1983 is over. The future is between your legs’ (‘1968 je prošla. 1983 je prošla. Budućnost je između vaših noga’). The poster made it clear that Borghesia and other members of Ljubljana’s subculture rejected the progressive and universalising rhetoric of sexual liberation which had been announced so boldly at the end of the 1960s. Sex in subcultural Ljubljana had to be freed not only from the petit-bourgeois morality of the League of Communists but also from the humanist libertarians. Of course, the FV 112/15 position was not without its own contradictions: the organization of gay / lesbian nights at Disko FV and homosexual film festivals has been interpreted as brave acts of public advocacy at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in parts of Yugoslavia and underground elsewhere; yet at the same time members of the group embraced queer alterity. And despite eschewing the common project of libertarian humanism, the FV 112/15 artists still approached sex and its repression as a social and political symptom. Writing about punk in Problemi 1981 Žižek had described it as a ‘symptom [that] reveals an intrusion of the suppressed “truth” of the most calm, most normal every life, of exactly that life that is shocked and annoyed by it. Symptom returns our suppressed truth in a perverted form …’.[27] After being promised as Yugoslavia’s remedy for more than a decade, sex in Ljubljana in 1984 was claimed as a sign of its defect


[1] Katalin Ladik interviewed by Aldo Bressan, ‘La poetessa che recita nuda sulla scena’, in L’Europeo (3 December 1970) 36–41 reproduced in Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 90.

[2] Ivo Lukas, ‘Intimna Nega’ in Sineast, 11 (1970) 41

[3] Mihovil Pansini cited in Lukas, Sineast, 40.

[4] See Sezgin Boynik, ‘Contributions to a Better Apprehension and Appreciation of Plastic Jesus’ in Život Umjetnosti, no. 83 (2008) 80-91.

[5] See Ksenya Gurshtein, ‘When Film and Author Made Love: Reconsidering OHO’s Film Legacy,’ in Kino!, no. 11–12 (2010) 128–54.

[6] On OHO’s engagement with land art see Maya Fowkes, The Green Bloc. Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014) 65-110.

[7] Ćosić cited in Miško Šuvaković, The Clandestine History of the OHO Group (Ljubljana: Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., 2010) 9.

[8] Ibid, 104.

[9] Kozomara cited by David Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’ in The Montreal Gazette (26 July 1972) 17.

[10] Cited in Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’, 17.

[11] Biljana Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls: Nudity, Pornography and Quality Press in Socialism’ in Medij. Istraž, v. 16, no. 1 (2010) 59.

[12] It is noteworthy that Kozomara had been the scriptwriter for one of the major films of the Black Wave, Živojin Pavlović’s ‘Kad budem mrtav i beo’ (When I am Dead and Pale’, 1967), in which a number of women characters enter willingly into casual sexual relations with the central male character. See Branislav Dmitrijević, ‘Suffragettes, Easy lays and Women Faking Pregnancy’ Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 2009) 46-52.

[13] Start editorial (1975) cited by Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls’, 64.

[14] Daniel Gerould, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 60.

[15] Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Muški su nešto drugo in Polet (2 April 1980) 13. This essay is also reproduced in her anthology Smrtni grijesi feminizma. Ogledi o mudologiji (Zagreb: Znanje 1984)

[16] Ibid, 142.

[17] Cited by Miško Šuvaković in Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 85.

[18] In fact, many of the works discussed in this essay were funded indirectly by the state, often through organisations like Neoplanta Film in Novi Sad (the producer of Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ and Makavejev’s ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’). See Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen, eds., Surfing the Black. Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Amsterdam: Jan Van Eyck Academy, 2012) 63-8.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascists?’ in Inke Arns, ed., Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 1993) 49-50.

[20] Dolar interviewed in Jones Irwin and Helena Motoh, Zizek and his Contemporaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 93-112.

[21] Neven Korda, ‘FV and the “Third Scene” 1980 – 1990’ in Liljana Stepančič and Breda Škrjanec, eds. FV Alternativa osemdestih (Ljubljana: Mednarodni grafični likovni center, 2008) 312.

[22] Barbara Borčić, ‘Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism’ in Dubravka Djurić, ed., Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (Boston: MIT press, 2003) 514

[23] Marina Gržinić, ‘The Video, Film, and Interactive Multimedia Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, 1982–2008‘ in Marina Gržinić, Tanja Velagić, eds., The Video Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, trans. Rawley Grau (Vienna: Erhard Löcker GesmbH, 2008) 48

[24] Cited by Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Fašizam na alternativnoj sceni’ in Start (28 July 1984).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marina Grzinič and Zemira Alajbegović, ‘Ljubjlanska subkulturna scena’ in Problemi (October-November 1983) 26.


[27] Žižek (1981) cited in Irvin and Motoh, Žižek and His Contemporaries, 114.