Bittersweet ‘Ostalgia’: Communist Bloc-buster Exhibition Debuts at New Museum

“Nikolai Egorov’s Thread Spooler” (1994/2011) and “Igor Kachan’s Maraca” (1990/2011), from Vladimir Arkhipov’s Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts series.

A wall on the second floor of New York’s New Museum is currently filled with 35 photos of jerry-rigged objects that look to have been confiscated by the TSA or rescued from a thrift shop on Mars: a wafer of black rubber impaled by a fork, a tube of metal grating capped with a vaguely menacing wooden paddle, an empty Fanta can tethered to a hunk of foam-covered wood. Photographed with clinical precision against a pure white background, they are Vladimir Arkhipov‘s “Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts,” part of an ongoing series documenting the extreme DIY survival tools discovered by the artist throughout Russia. That fork/rubber combo? The ingenious bathtub plug of one Evgenii Vasiliev. The metal tube and Fanta can served as a rat trap and a maraca, respectively.

These fascinating traces of the communal apartment have come to the New Museum as part of “Ostalgia,” a survey exhibition devoted to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics that opened today. “We wanted to bring to New York art that New York does not usually see,” said Massimiliano Gioni, associate director and director of exhibitions of the museum, at yesterday’s press preview. The title of the show is derived from ostologie, a German term that emerged in the 1990s to describe a sense of longing and nostalgia for the era before the collapse of the Communist Bloc. Standing in the lobby of the museum, temporarily transformed into a replica of a Polish puppet theater by artist Paulina Olowska, Gioni likened the show to memory itself. “It’s personal, often unreliable, and incredibly personally charged,” he said. “We knew it would be impossible to make an objective show.”

Cue the laughter and forgetting, flashbacks and selective remembering. Visitors to “Ostalgia” will encounter a wall-mounted, colorblocked Fiat (reconfigured by artist Simon Starling with parts from Poland, where the car company relocated its manufacturing), a mesmerizing film by Tibor Hajas that evokes The Sartorialist in 1976 Budapest, a photo documenting a 1993 performance that saw Anatoly Osmolovsky cuddle up to a statue of poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Thomas Schutte‘s towering trio of “Capacity Men,” their comic-book villain heads emerging from steel skeletons sheathed in colorful blankets. Anatoly Brusilovsky‘s multilayered collages mix photographs of Stalin and Lenin with fragments of religious imagery, pin-up girls, and insects, while Sergey Zarva intercedes as art director of Ogonyok. On display here are works from the 2001 series in which he replaces cover photos of the popular Russian magazine with grotesque portraits.

Aneta Grzeszykowka reimagines her own history with a little help from Photoshop. The exhibition invites visitors to page through her photo album, from which she has digitally removed herself from each image. “The entire exhibition could be likened to Grzeszykowka’s photo album, in which we think everything is following a precise, clear narrative, only to find that at the very center of this story lies a chasm,” writes Gioni in an essay in the exhibition catalogue. “Like Grzeszykowka’s photo album, ‘Ostalgia’ is a mnemonic exercise, an attempt to preserve a world before it disappears, but also to reinvent it from scratch.” See the exhibition before it vanishes on September 26.