Biedarieva on Szczerski, 'Transformation: Art in East-Central Europe after 1989'

Andrzej Szczerski
Svitlana Biedarieva

Andrzej Szczerski. Transformation: Art in East-Central Europe after 1989. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2019. 257 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-83-233-4543-5

Reviewed by Svitlana Biedarieva (Courtauld Institute of Art) Published on H-SHERA (February, 2021) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (University of Calgary)

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This well-informed book by Andrzej Szczerski focuses on artists’ responses to changes in former Eastern Bloc countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. The author addresses how this transformation was expressed in art and what the artists’ roles were in shaping the new social reality and agonist democracy. The book focuses on east-central European culture after the events that marked the beginning of the new post-socialist era: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “Autumn of Nations,” and the consequent dissolution of the Soviet Union.

As new artistic idioms emerged after 1989, interpretations of historical legacies and current turbulences in art received new life. Szczerski opens his book with a discussion of whether the year 1989, as a watershed that forever changed Europe, provoked a break in artistic production in the countries of post-socialist eastern Europe or whether it was merely a change in the plurality of artistic expressions. He traces this discussion through numerous examples of art practices ranging from the Balkans to the Soviet East. The book is divided into eight chapters that together provide an extensive overview of artistic processes that exploded in the then Soviet republics and the countries of the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

The book applies “horizontal art history,” a notion developed by art historian Piotr Piotrowski (Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe [2012]) as a nonlinear, diffuse, and polyphonic model, to the context of local histories of eastern European post-socialist art. This view is opposed to hierarchical, “vertical,” art history, which focuses on centers and peripheries of art production. The author analyzes the new cultural developments in east-central Europe and the appearance of new art institutions through the lens of the “political turn” in contemporary art. He discusses the “apoliticism” of art in the Eastern Bloc, which, according to him, was contained in a “velvet prison” of cooperation between a censor and an artist. The book addresses Francis Fukuyama’s famous article “The End of History?” and proposes that no such finale occurred in the history of contemporary art in east-central Europe; instead, the emergence of new, democratized art became possible.[1]

Szczerski discusses socialist and post-socialist public practices using the notion of “participatory art” as analyzed by art historian Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (2012). Bishop sees participatory art as a powerful emancipatory tool that involves audiences in political reflection on art production. Szczerski proposes that even though some pre-1989 art and political events had some participatory characteristics, such as the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland in 1979, the true appearance of participatory practices was linked to the post-1989 pluralism in art. In my opinion, this position can be contrasted with the work of some researchers who claimed that socialism was a profoundly participatory culture. Performance researcher Branislav Jakovljević, for example, has proposed that the communist mass spectacle was part of the “ruling by presence” concept rooted in the possibility of participation.[2]

Relying predominantly on Polish historical studies, the author proposes examples of “applied history” and “affirmative history.” “Applied history,” a term coined by historian Robert Traba, links factual knowledge of the past with the public realm and local cultural landscape, including evidence of trauma.[3] Szczerski, following historian Ewa Domańska, proposes the approach of the so-called affirmative history, which, instead of focusing on victimhood, offers a forward-looking perspective of how the knowledge of history helps expand future social horizons.[4] In his discussion of the work Communism Never Happened (2006) by the Romanian artist Cirpian Mureşan, the author writes about ars memorativa and ars oblivionis as two perspectives that constitute and challenge cultural memory through the strategies of forgetting and distorting history. Through several examples, he contrasts the concepts of “storage memory” and “functional memory” and expresses an explicit interest in the role of mythology in post-socialist Europe. Interestingly, Szczerski rarely employs the notion of an “archive,” preferring to refer to a more non-objective definition of cultural memory. An archive as historical agency is of major importance for research on political art practices because it helps to establish a continuous critical dialogue between an artwork and its historical and political context.[5]

Further, the book proposes that post-1989 art production was, by and large, conditioned by the use of grotesque interpretations of the political and social reality. Szczerski traces the relationship between expressionist and surrealist traditions of central and eastern Europe and the postmodern irony that permeated works by the artists in question. Deconstruction of the socialist narrative provoked the carnivalization of art in the years following 1989, which was expressed in extensive development of performance art. 

Along with the questions of history, the book pays attention to the local context and the territorial importance in developments of national identity and the role of artists in the reflection of democratization processes. Szczerski proposes that “national cultures provide the grounds for stability and subjectivity in the contemporary globalized world” (p. 173). He also critiques the newly emerged national cultures (as in the work Compsognation [2013] by Hungarian artist András Cséfalvay). Other examples briefly address artistic reflections on the unity and difference in Europe. This includes the focus on different definitions of European identity, boundaries, and the metapolitical symbolism in the works of east-central European artists. The main question remains, however: what are the fundaments and criteria one can use to compare the varied contexts, from the reflection upon the “ghost cities” built to host the 1988 Armenian earthquake victims (Vahram Agasyan, Ghost City [2005-7]) to the revival of Soviet communal living in Warsaw (Maciej Kurak, Puszczyka 20b [2007])? 

The author reflects on the polyphony of local “horizontal” contexts in a thematic comparison. One of the main focuses of the book is architecture, as living space, a habitat, a deprivation of freedom and barriers, and, finally, an environment where subversive and alternative ideas can develop. Architecture, by default, is one of the most durable legacies of any historical period. It is a long-term reminder of the style, preferences, and tastes of a particular regime or society. For the author, socialist architecture, the anonymizing housing blocs that can be equally found in Prague, Warsaw, and Kyiv, is a permanent flashback to the limitations brought about by socialism. Szczerski frequently refers to the projects that work with this tangible legacy.

With a more detailed focus on Polish artists, which produces a certain imbalance in the analysis, the author contextualizes the creative processes of memory, amnesia, and overcoming of trauma in the post-socialist condition. Moreover, he challenges the idea of forgetting as a third option that is neither remembrance nor oblivion. It is the mythologization of the past and the creation of alternative history that substitutes the lived experience. Architecture is a particular legacy that prevents amnesia but can be inhabited with an alternative past.

This inhabitable mythology employed by Szczerski intersects with various contemporary research perspectives: from Jane Rendell’s architectural “space between” (Art and Architecture: A Place Between [2006]) to Svetlana Boym’s “in-betweenness” (Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea [2018]) or Edward Soja’s “thirdspace” (Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places [1996]). This desire of avoiding oblivion, as well as challenging memory, is particularly strong in the text. That is why the author pays so much attention to practices that aim at creating an alternative narrative. The extensive number of works that address the socialist past through the balance between remembering and forgetting prove that the ghost of communism in east-central Europe has already become part of a museum exposition. The historicization of art, when an artist turns to the work with the historical trauma that is common for the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, is an essential link between otherwise localized practices. The idea of alternative histories presents one of the most interesting perspectives on post-socialist culture as a necessity to rewrite traumatic history and to create an alternative world where ideological confrontations turn to harmony and the emptiness of socialist realty turns into plentitude. The examples used by the author bridge fantasy and reality, from the creation of fictitious biographies to artistic falsifications of historic events. 

Szczerski proposes three conclusions for his detailed study. First, he argues that the art that exists “on the margins” plays the key role in transcending national borders and geopolitical hierarchies of center and periphery. He refers to the critical regionalism developed by Kenneth Frampton to describe cultural models that are tied to a particular place. This connection to place reveals the reason for Szczerski’s deep interest in the architectural and spatial legacies of socialism as characteristic for the locus of his analysis. Second, he highlights the increasing role of participatory and activist art practices. And finally, he emphasizes the “civilizational unity” of eastern and western Europe.

The book could have benefited from a larger focus on artists from the post-Soviet Southeast, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It would also be interesting to trace the differences between the processes of the post-communist dissolution in former Soviet countries and the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. While the book pays much attention to the latter, the examples of the former in many cases stay out of scope, with relatively few works from Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

One of the important questions that this responds to is why contemporary art in east-central Europe is so widely seen through the lens of its political statements rooted in the past. It thus encourages further questions. Is there contemporary art in the region that is forward-looking rather than constantly reinterpreting what has happened? If so, is there sufficient space for nonpolitical art, given that the plurality and polyphony highlighted by the author are characteristic of post-1989 art? Also, beyond the common past, what is the general pattern that forms the possibility of comparison between art practices in east-central and southeastern Europe?

The book is highly recommended for those interested in the emergence of political contemporary art in post-socialist spaces and its development as an answer to democratization. This is a great source for selected information on art that transcends post-Cold-War divisions. One of the main strengths of this book lies in recollection and thorough analysis of the works spanning three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain.


[1]. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3-18.

[2]. Branislav Jakovljević, “Handworks: Yugoslav Gestural Culture and Performance Art,” in 1968/1989: Political Upheaval and Artistic Change, ed. Claire Bishop and Marta Dziewańska (Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 38.

[3]. Robert Traba, “Historia stosowana jako subdyscyplina akademicka: Konteksty i propozycje,” in Historia – dziś: Teoretyczne problemy wiedzy o przeszłości, ed. Ewa Domańska, Rafał Stobiecki, and Tomasz Wiślicz (Kraków: Universitas, 2014), 143-64.

[4]. Ewa Domańska, “Miejsce Franka Ankresmita w narratywistycznej filozofii historii,” in Frank Ankersmit, Narracja, reprezentacja, doświadczenie, ed. Ewa Domańska (Kraków: Universitas, 2004), 5-27.

[5]. See Charles Merewether, ed., The Archive (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); and Paul Clarke, Simon Jones, Nick Kaye, and Johanna Linsley, eds., Artists in the Archive: Creative and Curatorial Engagements with Documents of Art and Performance (London: Routledge, 2018).

Citation: Svitlana Biedarieva. Review of Szczerski, Andrzej, Transformation: Art in East-Central Europe after 1989. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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