Fotograf Magazine

Eastern block

/exhibition, 4 – 17 may 2006, gallery of vaclav spala, prague/


In the first half of May this year, the Spala Gallery in Prague saw the exhibition Eastern Block by the duo of artists Bara Mrazkova and Filip Lab. To quote the artists, their project “explores the specificities and differences of life in totalitarian and post-totalitarian societies.” It is divided into several chapters, representing five Eastern European countries of the artists’ choice, namely Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the former states of the German Democratic Republic and Yugoslavia, The section on the Czech Republic was presented by Velryba Gallery in 2004, as part of the pilot exhibition Americka noc (Day For Night). While at that time the theme was rendered at a more general level, the young artists presented testimony based on concrete historical sites and events, serving here as a platform for developing stories, documenting how deep and multiple are the scars with which the totalitarian past marks our present day world.

Fascinating in more than one way, this exhibition deals with things most of us still hold in vivid memory, but also of feelings that are difficult to describe. It tries to define the experience of the generation of the artists – people who are today in their thirties. The last generation that grew up under Communism and that can remember totalitarian society, but which has had the opportunity to live primarily in a democratic system.

Apart from this, it also tries to answer the seemingly simple question: is it in fact possible to evoke the scrutinized era? To bring it to life again? To allow it to fully address our senses once again? The answer offers itself. It is in fact the photographs presented here that enable us to evoke again all our innermost emotions, to relive them once more. But what lends us the assurance that we are not in fact witnessing today’s stories, only strangely warped, and squeezed into the aesthetic of a past era? For the exhibition seems to be driven by the relationship between memory and present reality. In my opinion, photography functions here not as mere tool of recording reality, but rather as a medium, telling its own peculiar story. And thus photography’s valued ability to document present reality gradually inflates in favor of an ability to represent the past.

It is impossible to draw an assessment of all the works on exhibit, so this review will therefore focus on single works representative of each cycle of themes. For the same reason I cannot judge in greater detail another part of the presentation accompanying the photographs, the video documentaries. In the form of talking head material, these videos feature testimonies of young people from each East European country. The artists ask here a number of questions – what do the respondees remember from the days of Communism, how did they perceive the era and events around them at the time, what does revolution mean in their lives, and from what angle do they look at past events now, how they perceive politics and the present.

Some might hold it against the artists that they fail to supply captions for each photograph. The required informative value, however, is spread over the whole cycle, and does not lie with the separate artifacts. Apart from this, each series of photographs is placed in context by a short accompanying article listing the concrete political and historical circumstances of the country in question – providing a fully adequate support of the viewer’s visual imagination. The exhibition also includes an original catalogue, which features all photographs on exhibit, as well as those of the pilot project Americka noc (Day For Night). The catalogue also features an introductory text on memory entitled Remembering the Present by the theoretician of the image Dr. Miroslav Petrieek. Author of the catalogue’s graphic design is Adele Svobodova, whose particular contribution is the use of the RePublic typeface, a font derived from the typeset used for the Rude Pray° newspaper, the official party organ of Communist Czechoslovakia.

/pl/ katowice

The first picture capturing a field or meadow with a strip of cones already poignantly recalls memories of the formerly bipolar character of Europe [and the world at large). It evokes an impression of futility, of an almost violent separation. The mist rising in the background appears as a hint of impending change. Perhaps a new day will rise, and with it, a fresh hope. Or perhaps day draws to an end and the approaching night would bring a much-desired repose, allowing for a moment of oblivion and rest.

Pieta – as the artists augur in the introductory text, this photograph is a response to a real historical event. On December, 16, 1981, the Polish Army together with special deployment units intervened against striking miners from the Wujek mine in Katowice, killing nine. The architecture of the visual field here works with minimum means [nine standing figures with their backs to the camera, intent on the structure of a mining tower over a chipped concrete wall], but in spite of this, the photograph is emotionally moving. Here perhaps more than in any of the works on exhibit, the viewer is given the opportunity to identify with the narrator and to understand the motives that lie behind the conscious effort to relive these tragic moments. These nine figures do not inspire us with a sense of resignation or reconciliation with the state of things. They are an embodiment of the struggle to change things, the enthusiasm as well as determination to risk even the loss of what is most valuable.

One is struck also by the series from the yard of a stonemason’s workshop. This is perhaps due to the imaginary dialogue between the human actors and statues, oscillating between the mundane and the divine, the sensual and the transcendental. The boundaries of quotidian existence are deliberately obliterated to accommodate something timeless and uneasy to grasp. It is here that I believe we may find a certain affinity with the central concept of the presentation, for this effort at evoking absence mentioned above is the leitmotif of the exhibition as a whole. An astute viewer will not fail to note in this cycle the presence of an ordinary audio casette. It does not feature here as an attribute of the 1980s, as it might appear at first glance, but again it forms a conscious link to other images, other events, thus becoming the link between seemingly unrelated, incongruous images. For it was this very medium that the separate Polish strike centers used for communication at a time when all other communication channels were directly monitored by the ruling regime.

There are, however, a number of such connections. To name just one, we could cite two photographs which at first glance have nothing in common. These are the photograph presenting the portrait of the late Pope John Paul II on a lit billboard, and the image capturing an almost empty street save for two tiny cars, the notorious Polish Fiats, or “Maluchs”. Perhaps it is not too daring to infer that these seemingly incongruous facts, i.e., the greatest figure in recent Polish history, and the small, almost comical car, can be rightly regarded as icons of the Polish totalitarian period. They have both become symbols to us, representing this country to the outside world.

Many of the images carry a stamp of the mysterious. This is most palpable in photographs where the figures become both the observers and the observed. Similar as in the paintings of Old Masters, here too 

we find figures whose gaze is fixed at the viewer, drawing them inside the image and causing them to become to some degree direct participants in the story. At other times, the protagonists of the stories presented communicate between themselves in this way. In an ordinary, everyday setting we would probably pay little attention to such activities. But in photographs, this kind of frozen moment becomes rather poignant. One involuntarily thinks of Orwell’s idea of the monitoring of each and every individual. Today, in the avalanche of all kinds of reality, this is perhaps nothing out of the ordinary, but back in those days such spying and snooping brought tragic consequences for many people.

The common denominator of many other photographs in this section is spirituality, religiosity, and the ardent Polish fascination with Christian faith. This also speaks eloquently of the mentality of our neighbors to the north.

/cs/ bratislava

What is immediately striking in these images is the bleakness of the desolate anonymous concrete housing projects. This colorless architecture was one of the icons of the direction pursued by the socialist economic system. In fact, we can hardly tell from the photos themselves whether they were taken now or in the 1980s. Almost nothing has changed, at least at first glance. We may take as some kind of lead the presence of graffiti, which in Eastern Europe is a more contemporary phenomenon. The concrete blocks of the project are almost claustrophobic. Their murky light evokes melancholy thoughts, conveying the overall mood of gloom. There also occurs the motif of candlelight. The Slovak opposition, in large part made up of Catholics, used to hold so-called “candlelight marches” to express silent, non­violent protest against the ruling regime.

/h/ lake balaton

Here the artists deliberately limited their investigation of the traces of the past to the Lake Balaton area. For who of the referenced audience would be a stranger to this much-favored destination? – a visit there became something wholly unique for all – both children and parents. Denim trousers and jackets, t-shirts of all colors and shapes (with indispensable English logos], greasy cheese langoshes… in fact the opportunity of free enterprise, even if on a small scale… all this was for a Czechoslovak citizen as close as you got to a symbol of luxury. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Hungary at the time was seen as the prototype of Western-style economics as well as culture, particularly by those who did not have the slightest chance to travel to the actual West.

Even the individual images exude a kind of relief, repose, and relaxation. The barrier is open, please come in. And all those little hotels? They look as though they have not changed at all. This is precisely the way almost all of us remember them.

/ddr/* berlin

The collection presented in this part of the exhibition is probably among the best things the artists have to say. A particularly poignant theme emerges from the pictures of the remains of the ill-famed Berlin Wall, and the bridge across the Havel River, the Glienicker Bracke, which connected West Berlin with Potstdam, and which owing to its strategic location was known as the “Bridge of Unity” (Brucke der Einheit]. The former state border was located right in the middle of this very bridge, and it was therefore often used as a spot for the exchange of captured spies. The cynicism of its nickname is particularly evident if we realize that this border, erected practically overnight, cost the lives of many citizens of the former German Democratic Republic, who died en route towards a long-desired freedom. Together with the Berlin Wall, the bridge became the most tangible symbol of the bi-polarity of the Cold War era. For these structures divided not just a city, but also an entire nation.

Looking at these images, many of us will surely recall a multitude of historical photographs dating to the period of erecting this “Wall of Shame”, when women from the divided city would wave their scarves above their heads when passing along the wall, in order to let friends and family on the other side know in this way, as no other was available, that they still thought of them, that they had not forgotten.

A certain light touch in this series, which is not lacking in humor, is provided by a story that takes place on the above-mentioned bridge. The plot is simple: two youngish men inconspicuously swap a rolled-up newspaper. The level of meaning is far more loaded, though. The reference to the site’s recent history is immediately recognizable, there are, however, a plethora of other mental variations. Among these are the use of obvious and almost cliched props that we associate with figures such as undercover agents, but also the place these figures occupy in the overall concept of these images. Is it merely an accident that in the very first of these one of the protagonists is standing before the stone balustrade of the bridge, and the other on the opposite side of it? Can we read this as the first act of a story in which the two participants still have nothing in common, each standing on the opposite side of a barricade, on the other opposite side of a political and ideological spectrum, on a different stage in the cabaret of history?

And again the Pieta. Similar to the Pieta of Katowice, here too the artists respond to a concrete historical event. In this case, it is the establishment of an internment camp for Soviet political prisoners on the premises of the former Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald. In the 1950s more then seven thousand people perished here, their remains deposited in mass graves. These are now marked in the forest only by narrow stainless steel cylinders the height of a human figure. Not only the architectural design of the memorial, but the photographs of this place too are both serene and compelling. All those fresh sufferings we may but suspect capture that hard to define but all the more present fact that “the powerful never learn from mistakes.”

/yu/ goli otok

Between the Croatian islands of Krk and Rab, much sought after by tourists, is a smaller island by the name of Goli Otok – the Bare Island. It owes its name possibly to its minimal vegetation, or perhaps to the fact that in the 1920s it became a favorite resort of adherents of nudism. Whatever the case, it was here that Marshal Tito built one of the harshest camps for political prisoners anywhere in Europe, to incarcerate his Stalinist political opponents. Today the island is deserted, save for sporadic groups of sensation-hungry tourists who ramble through the ruins of the prison camp. Photographs of this locality are therefore not exactly happy seaside holiday snaps. The desolation of the place – vast expanses devoid of any vegetation, piles of the corroded frames of prison bunks and other signs of decay – is further accentuated by the dull garrison-like uniformity of the architecture. The Bare Island thus becomes a symbol of the isolated “city – prison”, which due to human malice and despotism can be erected anywhere in the world.

In his introductory word, Miroslav Pet•eek speaks of “remembering the present.” The photographer, that is, an individual endowed with personal memory, is able to see traces of the past in the present tense. The effect of these photographs by Bare Mrazkova and Filip Lab is very much the same. Their aim, however, is not the imaginary ideal of “making the past present”, but the rebuilding from memory and fragments of what once surrounded not only the artists themselves and the protagonists of their stories, but in fact all those generations who cannot and must not erase this historical memory from their minds.

Ilja Kocian