On a cold winter’s day in downtown Chicago, a group of scholars gathered together to talk about performance art in Central and Eastern Europe. The discussion was part of a panel organized by Pavlína Morganová and Amy Bryzgel at the College Art Association’s 102nd annual conference in February 2014. An audience of about thirty people heard papers by Fabiola G. P. Bierhoff, a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin; Dr. Andrea Euringer-Bátorová, researcher at the Slovak Academy of Art and Design; Katalin Cseh, a doctoral candidate at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; and finally, independent scholar Nicoletta Rousseva. The timing of the panel coincided with the publication of special edition of Centropa: a Journal of Central European Art, Architecture and Related Arts (XIV/1, January 2014), focused on art in performance art in the region, which Amy and Pavlína co-edited. The aim of both the publication and the CAA panel was to introduce more nuanced discussions on performance art in the “East,” by providing focused studies of particular artists and moments in Eastern Europe.
The papers presented at CAA brought together some common themes related to performance art in the region. For example, in focusing on the “second sphere” of parallel culture during the communist period, Katalin Cseh’s paper on Hungarian artists, “Chained. Bodies and Monuments of Hierarchy in Hungarian Performance Art,” demonstrated the manner in which artists recognized the potential role they had to play in society, despite being, as she described it, “chained” by the other. Similarly, Nicoletta Rousseva’s paper, “A Stain on the Soul: Action and Ritual in Igor Grubić’s Black Peristyle,” discussed artists’ awareness of their “answerability,” in the Bakhtinian sense, in taking an active role in challenging first the bureaucratic government of the 1960s, and later the apathetic society of post-socialist Croatia, through two separate interventions in the square of Diocletian’s Palace in Split.
Perhaps one of the artists best known for his awareness of his role and responsibility to contemporary society was German artist Joseph Beuys. In her paper, “Appropriation in East German Performance Art - the Legacy of Joseph Beuys,” Fabiola Bierhoff demonstrated how, despite being largely closed off from developments in the West, artists in the German Democratic Republic found ways to gain access to Beuys’s work and appropriate it, infusing it their own new meaning. Bierhoff’s argument that these appropriations were not merely superficial copies was echoed in Andrea Euringer-Bátorová’s discussion of Slovak performance art, “Mapping the crossovers of tradition, neo-avant-garde and postmodern strategies in Slovak action art of 1960s and 1970s,” wherein she examined the ways in which works by Milan Adamčiak, Róbert Cyprich, Jozef Revallo, and Alex Mlynárčik carry on traditions of Baroque art, Slavic rituals and folkore, in addition to creating new and unique traditions of their own.
What all of these papers demonstrate is the unique position that artists in Central and Eastern Europe have found themselves in for the past fifty years. In the communist and socialist periods the government was the main adversary that artists used their unique voices – balanced precariously in the liminal position between artist and activist, citizen and dissident – to call attention to that which was dissatisfactory, and to potentially instigate change. Art was, for them, a so-called “temple of freedom.” In the years following 1989, however, new antagonists emerged, and artists once again discovered the potential for their voices to be agents of change. It should not be forgotten that performance art developed as a genre in the West amid the social movements and public protest of the 1960s. In many ways, artists in the East channeled this art form for similar purposes in different circumstances. These different stories heard at CAA, regarding the form and function of performance art in the four distinct countries in the socialist East, from different significant historical moments, contributes to a further understanding of the multi-faceted genre of performance art.