20 years after the Berlin wall, The New Museum exhibited more than 50 artists from both the East and West last October 2011. The art was a profound commentary on Communist society. Here’s the interview I conducted with the shows curator for The Standard Culture site.

Interview originally published Oct 6, 2011 for the Standard Culture


Just recently, we visited The New Museum to see the exhibition Ostalgia on its closing weekend on October 3rd. We fell in love with the exhibition that brought together the work of more than fifty artists from twenty countries across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s a most impressive collection to behold.

Some of the works —- both from the East and West -— describe the collapse of the Communist system and offer a series of personal reportages on aspects of life under Communism and in the new post-Soviet countries. This exhibition takes its title from the German word “ostalgie”, a term that emerged in the 1990s to describe a sense of longing and nostalgia for the era before the collapse of the Communist Bloc.

We were fortunate enough to speak to the shows curator, Massimiliano Gioni, to discuss this exhibiton about myths and their demise.

Jauretsi: Tell me a little about yourself and your history.

Massimiliano Gioni: I joined the museum in 2006 and before that I was working mostly between New York and Europe. In New York I was doing more independent projects, one of them was called the Wrong Gallery in Chelsea, a project I ran with my friend. At the same time in Europe, I was curating many biannuals like Manifest in 2004 or the Berlin Bernalli in 2006. I was also running a foundation that I still run in Milan called Tussardi, which is a fashion brand. We do a sort of nomadic museum in the city of Milan and we invite artists to create site specific works for each venue.

We realize Ostalgia is a diverse body of work… almost fragments from different voices. If you had to pin down an overlying arch, or common thread through all of them, what would you say it is?

The exhibition is a look at art made in and about the former Soviet block. The idea was to create a sort of temporary museum about a state of mind and state of being, that is life under Soviet idealogy. I believe it is something that is fading away a little too quickly due to the enthusiasm of the wall falling. Basically everybody rushed to become something else and someone else, so I felt that a lot was sort of being forgotten and hidden under the carpet of memory. So I wanted to tell not a systematic history but a series of individual stories of that part of the world and of that moment in time. It was very important that the show itself wouldn’t feel like an official history, but its more of an archive of individual stories. It is the way in which individuals and very specific artists dealt and found themselves to deal with life under the Soviet system.

So the show is focused more on personal memories vs history?

Chronologically it goes from the 60’s until today, but it shifts back and forth between different moments in time. What I wanted was the show to reflect memory itself. And like memory, it is probably partial, and probably not completely reliable… emotionaly charged too, but it’s the only thing we have to rely on. And its also the first time in the United States that a sort of large exhibition of this scale about that part of the world and that moment in time.

The concept of nostalgia seems to resonate when viewing this collection. At the same time, Communist society of that era was repressive in so many ways. How does this show transcend the simplistic mentality of “Communism is bad and thank God we are all capitalists”

So one aspect was to show that things were more complicated but it’s certainly not a nostalgic return to that state of affairs because of course it was also complicated. It was an incredibly repressive regime in some cases, on the other hand, it is the reason nostalgia in the show represents more a nostalgia for the time in which the artist became more powerful in their position by being pushed outside of the official system. He/she became more central paradoxically by being set aside. The ethical role that the artist performed was much more important because it was a matter about life and death and a matter or transforming reality.

How do you feel an artist’s creativity is affected within a more authoritative state?

Well, it’s one of the premises of the show. The show doesn’t try to say that repressive governments are good for creativity because I would be arrested… I would even arrest myself. Within a repressive government, when artists find a space for themselves – no matter how small the space– they conquer a sort of ethical positon that is more crucial. Maybe it’s crucial just for a small community. That was another important theme throughout the show, many of the works you see were realized in apartments that doubled as galleries. They also doubled as salons. You have to imagine that a lot of this work was shared with 10 or 15 people. Then there is another sort of problemic objective in America, which is we always think that success equals audience equals blockbuster. I think that it’s valuble to look at a moment in time in which a small community of believers is both the producer and the public of this kind of art… yet within their complete isolation and their small scale, it can affect change on a cultural and collective level.

The collection is such a humble inspiration to struggling artists given the fact all this was created with barely any resources under the Soviet system.

I also wanted to bring in a lot of new info or info that was still unknown in America, particularly to look at the role of artists in places where the market doesn’t exist, there is sort of a gentle side to the show which is to remind ourselves that artists should not just be appreciated just for the money [from their work], and that art can be done with almost nothing. It’s a show that is full of very simple gestures but incredibly powerful gestures particularly for younger artists in America in the middle of this recession. I wanted artists to look at work that was done with very limited production values and resources. [The work is] incredibly resonant and shows us that artists can and must have a bigger role in our lives than providing goods that are sold at auction.

If you missed the exhibition, read more about Ostalgia at NewMuseum.org. The museum’s bookstore also contains the catalogue book of all these works which was curated for one-time-only exhibit at The New Museum. It’s a powerful piece of history worth owning.

Photos by Chris Mosier