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Enlargement broadens the horizons

Ritums Ivanovs, The Heat

The admission of ten new „old“ member states to the EU on May 1st this year has seen not only a growth in its population to 75 million, but also changes to Europe’s cultural identity. In the course of these events, the question that begs to be asked is: “Is there such a thing as a common identity?” The gallery circuit, which opened on September 3rd as part of the KULTURJAHR der ZEHN (cultural year of the ten new member states) is an attempt to tackle this question, even if, ultimately, it can offer no concrete answers. The event, under the subtitle of Erweiterung ist mehr bildende Kunst und Fotokunst, starts off the autumn art season of the cultural year. Next year there will be film, literature, dance and theatre.

The organisation of the gallery circuit, with the involvement of curators, galerists and ambassadors from the ten new member states has brought Europe’s network closer together and for this reason alone, despite numerous other exhibitions and events, the gallery circuit remains the core of the initiative. The composition of the panel for the opening discussion „The End of National Art?“ in the Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung (KAS) highlighted the cultural diversity, which was summed up nicely by German curator Anemone Vostell: The image of the gallery circuit is as diverse as the image of Europe. During a discussion that lasted about an hour, the head of the KAS cultural department Dr. Hans-Jörg Clement, the Berlin galerist Eva Poll, the curator Anemone Vostell, the Maltese artist Anton Grech, the Hungarian galerist János Szoboszlai and the Slovenian galerist Meta Gabrsek Prosenc examined the national characteristics of the art market and the effects of EU expansion on each country’s national art scene.

The discussion demonstrated just how greatly each country’s expectations and demands differ. Entry into the EU will not change much for the Slovenians, who, according to Prosenc, have had a contemporary art scene since the fifties. The small country of Malta, on the other hand, is in the process of establishing the national character of its contemporary art scene and former socialist countries like Hungary are still battling with infrastructure problems and the aftermath of system change. My generation has been waiting for this moment for 15 years. With this emotional statement, the owner of the acb gallery János Szobosszlai, despite his criticism of discriminative allocation policies for government aid and distortion of competition, summed up the essence of the discussion: we are happy to be a part of it.

Laurits, Down the Stream

After the discussion, visitors had the opportunity to get on a shuttle bus and go on a discovery tour of the ten Berlin galleries showing selected artists until the middle of October. During the visit, it became clear once again that diversity was at the heart of this initiative. Not only were the topics and the techniques very different, the materials also varied greatly, with everything from photography and painting to video installation.

The Latvian position was presented by Ritums Ivanovs’s paintings in the Galerie Eva Poll. His blurred depictions of mostly well-known faces from the worlds of pop and fashion, often painted in monochrome, come across as homages to the transfiguration and idealisation of Western culture. His paintings are often entirely in red and blue and play with perspective, colour and light. Ivanovs’ work is, in this way, a half-way position between impressionist painting and realist photography. The message that Slovakian Erik Binder, represented by Galerie & Projekte Mathias Kampl, wanted to get across in his installations, collages and comic strips, was, on the hand, less clear-cut. His interpretation of mass culture is an open mixture of morbid skulls of DJs and socio-critical comic strip collages. The word morbid could also be used to describe the work of Estonian artist Peeter Laurits and Ain Mäeots in the Giedre Bartelt Gallery. Their series of photographs, entitled Speiseplan ins Jenseits depicts grotesque, theatrical scenes, full of naked, bleeding people against the backdrop of the Estonian countryside. It is as though the apocalypse has arrived and the biblical references become clear through works that play with the topic of the Last Supper. The photographer Laurits and his director Mäeots show work which is both breath-takingly beautiful and spine-chillingly horrific. The series of three pictures Vendetta des Mohns (Vendetta of the Poppy Seed) depicts a murdered family, which, in spite of the horror, captivates the viewer with a feeling of calmness and harmony.

Laurits, Oicumenic Airlines

One thing is certain after visiting these exhibitions; nobody can claim that contemporary art in the new member states is inferior to that of their Western neighbours. But, to return to the initial question: what does all this mean for European identity? Do these works show us that the new EU states have simply copied the “Western style”? Or does art find similar modes of expression regardless of location or society? Neither the panel discussion nor the gallery circuit was able to give clear-cut answers to the question of the national characteristics of art and it is therefore up to each visitor to get their own picture of Eastern European art. As we all know, it’s good to broaden your horizons.

Text: Anja Zinke
Translation: Anja Zinke | Rebekah Smith
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