1989: Avant-Garde Memories

Through artwork of the oppressed, a visitation from the past

On The Town | Daniel Gloeckler | December 2009 / January 2010

I was suprised at how suddenly the fog formed around MuseumsQuartier as I continued to Halle 1 of the Kunsthalle Wien. Even though it was a damp and chilly afternoon, my coat was far too warm for the weather. I walked more brisky, eager to take off my thick coat deep within Halle 1 in the MQ courtyards.

In commemoration of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the exhibition "1989: End of History or Beginning of the Future?" portrays the social, political and economic turmoil experienced under Communism during the 1980s. The ongoing Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the Western capitalist world added a further dimension to the works.

The venue reflected the depressing conditions of Communism, the cold grey concrete walls of the Kunsthalle creating a gloomy and dim atmosphere. The works were spread out across the colossal walls, illuminated with dim lights, adding to the dark depressing façade of the interior.

Strolling through the gallery, one in particular that caught my eye titled Soft City by a Norwegian artist, Hariton Pushwagner. He has been designing comic strips since 1969, which explains why his work is so detailed and the images numerously repeated. Eventually, he had it made into a colored film version. It was a psychedelic, emotionless, robotic view of communism and a metaphoric evaluation of what life was like in East Berlin, a representation of Orwell’s 1984.

Many strips in the comic were of a large group of people who all looked like cookie cut-outs, the exact same person doing some mindless motions all at the exact same time throughout their workday. This element undoubtedly represents that sense of the totalitarian unison the Soviets tried to achieve.

Individuality only emerged at beginning and end of the strip where a personal event of one of the generic looking men was depicted. He was at home with his wife and child, saying good-bye in one image and returning home and greeting them in the other. Here they are isolated from the outside world, without conforming to societal rules and regulations.

In line with this theme are two large images of Chinese photographer Song Dong. The first depicts him laying on his stomach on Tiananmen Square. The other photo was him in the same position, but on the frozen surface of the Houhai Lake in the center of Beijing. Dong was breathing into the ground in both pictures for 40 minutes in an attempt to demonstrate against socialism. However, in the square, the spot he was breathing on became a thin layer of ice; while on the lake, the student’s breath made no changes in the surface.

This contrast between the two surfaces illustrates a connection between humans and their environment. Once this interdependence reaches a certain point – as in the case of the 1989 revolutions – new things can spawn.

The ice formed on Tiananmen Square symbolized how new things were able to establish as a result of the protests. However, the case of Houhai Lake symbolized that every day repeats itself without a change to existence. Song Dong’s symbolism meant that without demonstrations like the student protest in Tiananmen Square, the situation in China would never change. A very subtle message, but also revealing.

Art enthusiast or not, the main attraction of the 1989 exhibition catches everyone’s attention: The Russian pair Ilya & Emilia Kabakov’s installation The Big Archive (1993). Spread out across a 160 square meter room, a path through the exhibition was marked with school tables. Posters surrounded them with rules and questions, relating to personal matters in Russian along with a brief translation. Everyday Soviet school life winds its way through the labyrinth of rules and regulations set up by the socialist state. The Big Archive is a maze of bureaucracy, with a range of questions from what foods and how much people eat in a family, to how many family members live abroad – along with their names and locations.

This exhibition leaves one shocked and yet intrigued by how horrifically involved the Soviet regime was in the daily lives of its citizens. Even though the exhibition was filled with mockingly funny references to communism, this portion taught viewers about how seriously the regime dealt with the most personal aspects of human life.

The rest of the exhibition consisted of other paintings poking fun at socialism, showing its losses, mostly in China, or reminiscing about life in East Berlin in the 1980s, through pictures and televisions, displaying daily life at that time.

I couldn’t say I was completely satisfied, perhaps only because I was hoping for something different. However, for anyone with a sweet tooth for history and even more for the arts, "1989. End of History or Beginning of the Future?" must be recommended straight away. The exhibition runs only until Feb. 7 – if you miss it this time, you may have to wait another decade before the memories of the DDR will be brought back from the grave on the 30th anniversary wall’s fall, that which literally and symbolically joined socialist and capitalist Europe.


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