Meet the Artists Reshaping Eastern Europe’s Avant-garde Art Scene

As we approach the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next year, D/railed takes a closer look at a selection of artists hailing from former socialist countries who are helping to redefine the contemporary art scene in their respective regions. In eastern Europe, the series of seismic changes that took place beginning in the 1990s opened up the region to different influences, but most significantly artists from the region began to use their own voice to tell their own stories. Today, a new generation of differently minded artists are bubbling up, artists who are channeling a certain free-spiritedness and a no-fucks-given attitude, coupled with a sensitivity and consciousness to their own surroundings, pushing the boundaries of international contemporary art in the process. Below, we present a blend of both emerging and more established names, highlighting the inter-generational nature of artists and critical themes within eastern Europe’s avant-garde art scene today. Enjoy!

Alexandra Pirici

Likely no stranger to those following international contemporary art, Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici has been on fire as of late. In 2017, her project at Skulptur Projekte Münster, “Leaking Territories,” won her critical acclaim, which saw performers installed in a room in the Münster City Hall, where a series of Peace Treaties known as the Treaty of Westphalia were signed in 1648, reciting numerous events and social situations over the course of history. Also in 2017, her project at the Berlin nonprofit art space n.b.k., entitled “Aggregate,” saw her compile over 82 performers in a large swarm that lasted for four hours every day. In 2018, Pirici’s newest project at New Museum in New York City entitled “Co-Natural” just closed, which took the form of an ongoing action combining live bodies with a holographic performer.

Instagram: @alexandrapirici 

Alexandra Pirici, Co-natural,” 2018. Exhibition view New Museum, New York. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Anna Ehrenstein

2017 was a busy year for Anna, in addition to putting out a new book called Tales of Lipstick and Virtue (2017), the young lens-based artist was also the finalist of the In Conflict Award (2017) for her work “Piece of Cake,” which depicts a cake adorned in the famous Burberry textile set on a gold platter surrounded by pink drapery. The work perfectly symbolizes her interest in examining dichotomies between pseudo-luxury and luxury, bootlegs and originals, brands and fakes, objects that contain complex layers of symbolism alluding to hierarchies of power and gender, and cultural clashes between the East and West.

Instagram: @annaehrenstein

Anna Ehrenstein, Piece of Cake, 2017

Artur Żmijewski

No stranger to the world of radical avant-garde visual art, Żmijewski’s work references challenging themes like displacement and the heritage of social and political traumas. As one of the stand-out and most controversial artists at last year’s documenta 14, one of  Żmijewski’s works in the exhibition took the form of a silent video called “Glimpse” (2017), which chronicled the misery of life in one of Europe’s most desolate refugee camps, now demolished, in Calais, France, also known as the “jungle.” Though highly and often criticized, Żmijewski’s work demonstrates a distinctive and anti-institutional style that flies in the face of social norms and standards. 

Artur Żmijewski, still from “Glimpse” (2017)

Ghenadie Popescu

Ghenadie Popescu is a self-taught artist despite having followed courses at the Academy of Music, Theatre and Fine Arts in Chişinău, where he was never officially admitted and thus never received an official diploma. Based in Moldova, Popescu rose to prominence in 2006 for a durational performance in which he walked from Chişinău, the Moldovan capital, to Iași, Romania. In 2017, he initiated another project that gathered the stories of people who suffered under the Stalinist regime during Soviet times, many of whom were deported, documentation of the project can be accessed online. His work often requires intense physical endurance, blended into situations that are politically charged and socially relevant. 

“Navigable Bîc” by Ghenadie Popescu

Kirill Tulin

Kirill Tulin is another self-taught artist who lives in Tallinn, Estonia, whose work also posits itself as vociferous criticism of institutions all over the former Eastern Bloc. His characteristically anti-institutional attitude borrows from subjects like pedagogy, collective work, and re-claiming the relics of relational art away from the art market. In 2017, he initiated a situation at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM) entitled “Help for the stoker of the central heating boiler.” The action consisted of Tulin physically constructing an autonomous heating system for the museum, taking up the job of a stoker (note: he’s also self-trained in engineering and mathematics). In doing so, Tulin invited helpers to heat up the space together with wood and words, following the classic stoker’s shift system of 24-hour work-days with 3-day breaks in-between. Reflecting on the physical, historic and political elements of labor broadly speaking, Tulin’s work shakes up the very definition of art making, leading the way in new forms of institutional critique today.

Help for the stoker of the central heating boiler, Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM), graphic design Valentin Vare (1961), Kirill Tulin

 Krzysztof “Leon” Dziemaszkiewicz

A dancer, choreographer, performer, and maker and destroyer of fashion, “Leon” as he is simply known has been an integral force in the performance art scene in Europe for over three decades. Based in Berlin but hailing from Sopot, Poland, Leon’s work can be classified as a form of radical eroticism, what Judith Butler might call “gender trouble,” prompting many viewers who have had the privilege of encountering his work to question: “what does it mean to be a radical body today?” Leon is a constant fixture in some of Berlin’s most interesting and expressive scenes, including the Liber Null parties where he often performs. Leon is currently the subject of a Polish-French documentary by Marek Nurzynski called “Intensity of Performance Art,” set to appear later this year.

Instagram: @leondziemaszkiewicz

“Werter” – Krzysztof Dziemaszkiewicz

Larisa Crunţeanu

Larisa Crunțeanu is an interdisciplinary artist working between research and speculation hailing from Bucharest, Romania, presently based in Warsaw. In 2017, she presented “Librarian for The Library by Galerie International,” at the Blask Brzask Festival in Łodz; while also presiding over an exhibition in Berlin at RKI Gallery called “Seeds (That Other Women Planted Inside My Head),” which took the form an artistic / curatorial project that reflected on the history and artworks she has created over the years with fellow collaborators and artists Xandra Popescu, Alina Popa, Sonja Hornung and Karolina Bielawska. Her work often borrows from subjects around representation and the body, challenging entrenched stereotypes of feminity and its representation in the media. 

Sonja Hornung and Larisa Crunţeanu – DIGICULT interview, video still

METASITU

Founded in 2014 by Liva Dudareva and Eduardo Cassina, METASITU was born with the goal of establishing emancipatory narratives around the way we inhabit space, targeting wider audiences than traditional architectural/urbanism circles. METASITU’s work is centered on different formats of knowledge exchange, developing what they call “tools” for understanding the urban condition today, pointing towards a queerer tomorrow. Their recent project, “TESTING THE FUTURE,” consists of an urban tarot deck the artists developed as a tool for the DeGrowth Institute workshops that will take place this summer, examining the situation concerning shrinking cities around Eastern Ukraine.

 Instagram: @creaturbia | @eduardocassina

TESTING THE FUTURE, METASITU, 2018

SHTAB

Founded in 2012, SHTAB (an acronym for School for the Creative Actualisation of the Future), describe themselves as a “Central Asian artistic research initiative, whose participants view art as an instrument of social critique, a territory of solidarity and a practice of radical imagination.” SHTAB (under artistic directors Georgy Mamedov and Oksana Shatalov) are a group of queer communists hailing from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, who are helping to merge art and politics through public projects, performances, YouTube videos, manifestos, workshops and temporary exhibitions. The group is helping to bring progressive openness to queer culture in Kyrgyzstan, countering the mechanisms of prejudice, oppression and exclusion faced by queer communities in most, if not all, post-Soviet bloc countries.

SHTAB, Queer Communists Unite

Vova Vorotniov

In 2017, Vova carried coal dug up in his hometown Chervonograd to a local museum in Lysychansk, traveling some 1,000 km by foot over the course of five weeks. The action was documented on Vova’s social media. According to Oleksyi Radynski, a critic and curator based in Ukraine, the project “was […] an exercise in experimental ethnography” and a “commentary on Ukrainian internal colonialism and the East/West divide.” The work was one of the most compelling projects I came across all year, a work that speaks both to endurance and the potential of radical performance art to highlight issues in post-Soviet countries.

Instagram: @za_s_xid

By: Dorian Batycka 

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