Date: Thu, 1 May 1997 07:27:43 +0200
From: Marina Grzinic-Mauhler

The Retro-Avant Garde Movement In The Ex-Yugoslav Teritorry Or Mapping Post-Socialism

Marina Grzinic-Mauhler

One always searches for some symbolic point for which one can say that something ended and something else began, even though there are no beginnings and no endings. From a West European or an American point of view the changes that affected Eastern Europe were symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. From an ex-Yugoslav point of view, this point would be the 1980s when Tito died. Sol Yurick1 asked himself how we will denote this developing, but not yet complete, New World Order. He named it as post-industrialist, postmodern, post-nationalist, post-neocolonial, post-structural, porous- bordered, cannibalistic, post-materialist, hyper-polluted and so on ad infinitum.

I will call it post-socialist. To what other possible symbolic, social, artistic and political space can we refer anyway, if we want to talk about the processes in art and culture in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia and Central/Eastern Europe, than to the post-socialist one, to deconstruct the modern myth of a global world, a world without cultural, social or political specificity, without centers and peripheries? And what (de)coding strategy can be used for the topic of post-socialism other than the post-Marxist one that "mapping" post-socialism, referring to Fredric Jameson’s basic text about postmodernism "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism" published in 1984?

And how to understand post-socialism itself, which seems to be for most of the countries of the once Eastern (Central) European block the basic cultural, social and political condition? Post-socialism is developed in this paper as a generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable. I will try to detect the coordinates of this generative matrix in the territory once known as Yugoslavia through the projects of three artists/groups: Mladen Stilinovic, Kasimir Malevich (but rather than the "original" one, I will focus instead on the "Malevich" from Belgrade and Ljubljana, who showed his works in 1985 and 1986. Last but not least, I will focus on the work of the group IRWIN and especially on its NEUE SLOWENISCHE KUNST (NSK) Embassy projects.

I am proposing to re-read the term post-socialism in the specific territory of ex-Yugoslavia through different visual displays. Why? It is through modes of display that regimes of all sorts reveal the truths they mean to conceal. Each historic period, according to Wollen, has its own rhetorical mode of display, because each has different truths to conceal.2 The essence of the presentation of the triad composed of IRWIN, Kasimir Malevich from Belgrade (1986) and Mladen Stilinovic, is a journey from frontier to frontier, a journey which by the inexorable presence of artifacts materializes the dialectical, cultural, political and, above all, artistic environment that is coded as Eastern Europe, stigmatized as the Balkan, and traumatized as the former Yugoslavia.

In the 1990’s Peter Weibel launched a discursive matrix named RETRO-AVANT GARDE in one of the catalogues of the Steiresche Herbst exhibitions in Graz with which he coded the ex-Yugoslav territory from "outside" and subsumed the productions of Stilinovic, the 80s’ Malevich and IRWIN under a common signifier. This matrix was afterwards repeated by the triad itself in the exhibition entitled "Retro-avant garde", or better to say, if we are using one of the (post-socialist) versions of English language - "Retroavantgarda" - in Ljubljana in 1994. In 1994 I developed a dialectical interrelationship within which I designated their positions as those in a Hegelian triad: Mladen Stilinovic -as a thesis, Malevich from Belgrade and the projects of copying - as an antithesis, and IRWIN with the projects of NSK EMBASSIES (in the context of the NSK STATE IN TIME) as synthesis. All three artists/groups or art projects realized specific strategies of visual display techniques to portray socialist and post-socialist ideology.

But first let me explain what I exactly mean by Ideology. As, Slavoj Zizek pointed out, ideology has nothing to do with illusion or with a mistaken distorted representation. Ideology is not simply a false consciousness, an illusory representation of reality, the ideological is not a false consciousness of a social being, but is this being itself, insofar as it is supported by false consciousness. We are within ideological space in an inherently non-transparent way: the very logic of legitimizing the relation of domination must remain concealed if it is to be effective. An ideology is thus not necessarily false, since what really matters is not the asserted content as such but the way this content is related to the subjective position implied by its own process of enunciation.3 The outstanding mode of this lying in the guise of truth today is cynicism: which formula is not the classical Marxist "they do not know it, but they are doing it" but the "They know very well what they are doing, yet they are doing it".4

In the Introduction to Mapping Ideology, edited by Zizek, he not only tried to present, through his own texts and texts by other philosophers, the importance of the notion of ideology today, but he is proposes to read "the logico narrative reconstruction of the notion of ideology" as a Hegelian triad of Ideology In-itself, For-itself and In-and -For-itself.5

>From this moment on I will follow the proposed Hegelian’s Ideology triad by Zizek6 and juxtapose it with the previously presented, Retroavantgarde one. On one hand, I will present in a very condensed way the elements of the three proposed reversals of Ideology, which Zizek reflected grosso modo - he did not interpret them specifically as a capitalist or post-socialist. On the other hand, I will juxtapose each level of the triadic presentation of Ideology with one of the Retroavantgarde artists/groups who grounded the generally elaborated Ideology in the realm of post-socialism in the form of a specific critique.

1. "First we have ideology ‘in-itself’: the immanent notion of ideology as a doctrine, a composite of ideas, beliefs, concepts, and so on, destined to convince us of its ‘truth’, yet actually serving unavowed particular power interests". 7 Transposed in the ex-Yugoslav context of the 1980s, ideology ‘in-itself’ can be recognized in the ideas, beliefs and political slogans of the ideology of self-management - at that time, of a specific Yugoslav approach to socialism in the world. Let me just recall some of the politicalslogans which appeared as newspaper headlines at the time: order, work and responsibility; more work less talk etc.8

Mladen Stilinoviæ, who began his artistic career in the seventies with detailed linguistic research is the one from the Retroavantgarde triad who is assuming with his critique, with his specific reading of ideology the critical position of ideology in-itself. In his earliest work, Stilinovic explored the relationship of the visual sign and colloquial speech, decoding verbal and visual cliches, trying to detach language from everyday political ideas and imposed connotations.10 In 1977 the artist wrote the following text on pink silk in red:" An Attack On My Art Is An Attack on Socialism And Progress." As the artist claimed, "If language is the property of ideology, I too want to become the owner of such language, I want to think in it with its consequences."11 The greatest dangers for totalitarianism are people who take its ideology literally, and Stilinovic does this in an obsessive, fanatical way, finally displaying the status of an almost ethical position in his work. Stilinovic succeeded in subverting and twisting totalitarian ideology - merely by the literal repetition of it. This could also be said of the demeanor enacted by the group Laibach in the eighties.

Stilinovic’s work is a result of a meticulously elaborated (post)socialist conceptual strategy of poverty, kitsch and almost obsessive tautological radiography of socialist and post-socialist ideology. One of the last projects by Stilinovic, that he realized in 1994/95 consists in the tautological vivisection of the changed position of post-socialist art as it becomes a part of the capitalist market. This position is condensed in one of Stilinovic pieces written as statement in English:"An Artist Who Can Not Speak English Is No Artist." Avoiding the simple metaphors of demasking, of throwing away the veils that are supposed to hide raw reality, Stilinovic succeeded in developing a changed concept of the critique of socialist and post-socialist ideology.

2. What follows is the step from ideology in-itself to ideology for-itself, to ideology in its otherness-externalization. For Zizek this step is articulated in the process of producing ideology by the Althusserian notion of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). This passage designates the material existence of ideology in ideological practices, rituals and institutions.12 In the field of post-socialism this "passage" is both marked and constantly produced by the "resurrection of Malevich" in the 1980s in Yugoslavia. His resurrection was announced with the following sentence: "Why? Why now (again), after so many years?" wondered Kasimir Malevich in his letter (with a postscript note: Belgrade, Yugoslavia) published in Art in America, September 1986. The project of the Belgrade Malevich, exhibited in Belgrade, Ljubljana (in 1985 and 1986) and in a fragmented version again in Ljubljana in 1994, consisted of the reconstruction of Malevich’s original Last Futurist Exhibition 0.10 held in St. Petersburg from 17 December 1915 to 19 January 1916. This curious artistic exploit also included a series of new Neo-Suprematist paintings, translating Suprematist elements into the technique of petit-point or combining them with classical reliefs and sculptures.

We cannot interpret these projects by simply stating that they play around with the original and its ‘criminal’ negation, the copy. For the simple reason that an art market does not yet exist in the East and that in the 1980s there was not sign of it. Producing copies in the 1980s in (Western) art was deeply connected to the market and the context of postmodernism. Artists Mike Bidlo, S. Levine or Cindy Sherman put a clear signature on the recycled, redone, remade, copied works, to be easily identified and incorporated in both History and market. In the projects of copying from the 1980s in ex-Yugoslavia the real artist’s signature is missing, and even some "historical" facts are distorted (dates, places), or better to say the sanctity of the History of Art as such. While it may seem that the question of ideological consequences is secondary in the context of a capitalist art-market, the opposite applies to the ex-socialist societies, where until now, there was no "art market". Producing copies and reconstructing projects from the avant-garde art period in (post)socialism had a direct effect against Art perceived in an external material way as an Institution and against History, which was (is still?)completely totalized in (post)socialism.

Th projects of copying in ex-Yugoslavia suggest also the formation of a different social and cultural milieu and of a possible new organization of time that has to be yet developed. In some of my previous texts I referred to the copies in these projects as replicants and I drew parallels between the copies and Baudrillard’s machinery of seriality that in postmodernism produced the operational double, which is the simulacrum.13 In such cases, the meaning-producing machine is in opposition to the history/ story about rational scientific progress in art linked to a progressive politics produced by a rather a-modern gaze (I reffer here to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway) which abides by the absence of beginning, the enlightenment and finality.

3. The next step, in our reconceptualization of art and culture in post-socialism with ideology, is when the ideological externalization is ‘reflected into self’: ideology In-and-For itself. What takes place in this third step of the conceptualization of ideology is the disintegration, self-limitation and self dispersal of the notion of ideology. It seems that the system for the most part bypasses ideology in its reproduction and relies on economical coercion, legal and state regulations. Here however, as Zizek warns us, things become blurred again, since the moments we take a closer look at these allegedly extra ideological mechanisms that regulate social reproduction we find ourselves in ideology. All of a sudden we become aware of a for-itself of ideology at work in the very in-itself of extra-ideological actuality 14; this is the form of consciousness that fits post-socialism in the nineties as well as late-capitalist post-ideological societies. In the NSK Embassy projects IRWIN presented these assumptions in almost a concentrated form. What is developed here is not ideology in its material existence (the institutions, rituals and practices that give body to it), nor an obsession with the Institution of Art, but the "elusive network of implicit, quasi -spontaneous presuppositions and attitudes that form an irreducible moment of the reproduction of the so called non-ideological elements."15

One of the most attention-grabbing projects of the NSK movement in the 1990s is the NSK - State in Time project, principally carried out by the group IRWIN. It was within this paradigm that the NSK Embassies and Consulates were realized. NSK Embassies were realized in Moscow in 1992, in Gent (Belgium) in 1993, and at the Berlin Volksbühne in 1993; NSK consulates were opened in Florence, Italy in 1993, at the Hotel Ambasciatori, and in Umag (Croatia) in 1994, in the kitchen of the private apartment belonging to the gallery-owner Marino Cettina. The NSK EMBASSY and NSK CONSULATE projects can be read as specific social installations which symbolically and artistically simulate the transfer of the phenomenon of NSK into another cultural, social and political context.

The group IRWIN established the NSK Embassy in Moscow in a private apartment (address: Lenin Prospect 12, apt. 24) in May and June 1992. The facade of the residential dwelling was embellished with the artistically articulated insignia of a state embassy. The project took place within the context of the internationalization of one of the great East European phenomena, entitled Apt-Art (Apartment - Art), a phenomenon of artistic creation and exhibition in private apartments within the Moscow art underground. It enabled artists and avant-garde art to survive before the period of Perestroika and Glasnost in the Soviet Union. The "Apt-Art" project, begun in the 1980s, represents an attempt to search for political and personal/artistic paths that run parallel to the official institutions and are physically connected with them, but politically and culturally far apart.

The NSK-EMBASSY MOSCOW project did not attempt to achieve equilibrium in the opposition between the totalitarian ideology and the "non-ideological" private, untainted sphere (although it is true that it holds onto something of a totalitarian type of claustrophobia), but rather tried to actualize, and I am referring here to Zizek, both spheres as "two sides of the same coin that are both going to disappear with post-socialist democracy." The Moscow Apt-Art emphasized the status of private space and changed it into a center of communication through the self organization of the most excluded. In his recent book Spectres de Marx16 Derrida put into play the term "spectre" to indicate the elusive pseudo-materiality that subverts the classic ontological oppositions of reality and illusion. Zizek is arguing that perhaps it is here that we should look for the last resort of ideology, for the formal matrix, onto which are grafted various ideological formations. "Spectre" should not be confused with symbolic fiction; reality is never directly itself, it presents itself only via its incomplete-failed symbolization, and spectral apparitions emerge in this very gap that forever separates reality from the real, on account of which reality has the character of a symbolic fiction: the spectre gives body to that which escapes (the symbolically structured reality)".17 To derive a conclusion, trying to emphasize the synthetic dialectical moment developed in the NSK state-in-time, in the embassies in private apartments, in the IRWIN consulates in a hotel room and in a kitchen, we are compelled to ask ourselves how we can label this spiritual element of corporeality (NSK state in time) and this corporeal element of spirituality (embassies in concrete private spaces)? SPECTRES. Let me just state the following: the NSK state-in-time is the spectre of the state, NSK Embassies are spectres of Embassies.

1 Sol Yurick, "The emerging Metastate versus the politics of ethno-nationalist identity", in: The Decolonization of Imagination, Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh eds., London and New Jersey, Zed Books, 1995.
2 Peter Wollen, "Introduction", in: Visual Display, Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, eds., Dia 10, Seattle, Bay Press, 1995, pp. 9- 10.
3 Cf. Slavoj Zizek, "Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology", in: Mapping Ideology, S. Zizek, ed., Verso, London and New York, 1994, p.8.
4 Zizek, op.cit., p. 8.
5 Zizek, op. cit. p.10.
6 Cf. Zizek, op. cit. pp., 10-15.
7 Cf. Slavoj Zizek, op. cit., p. 10.
8 For an accurate analysis of today processes, slogans, etc., i.e., of the ideology in-itself in Croatian post-socialist reality see Feral Tribune, independent newspaper that is published weekly in Split.
9 Mladen Stilinovic is one of the major artistic figure of contemporary Croatian art.
10 Cf. Branka Stipancic, Words And Images, in: Words and Images, B. Stipancic, ed., SCCA, Zagreb, 1995, p. 31.
11 Cf. Stipancic, op. cit., p. 31.
12 Zizek, op. cit., p.12
13 Marina Grzinic, "The Harbingers of Apocalypse", in: Slovenian Athens, Marina Grzinic, ed., catalogue, Ljubljana, Modern gallery 1991.
14 Cf. Zizek, op. cit., p.14.
15 Cf. Zizek, op. cit., p. 15.
16 Cf. Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Galileé, Paris 1993.
17 Cf. Zizek, op. cit., pp. 26-28.