- Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 by Amy Bryzgel
Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 is part of Manchester University Press's Rethinking Art's Histories series, dedicated to the history and development of performance art in the former communist countries of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe since the 1960s. It focuses on the relationship between censorship and political regimes and the influence of Western artists, despite the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Two hundred and fifty artists from twenty-one countries are covered in this essential study, artists who the author argues "are irrevocably part of the history of the performance, action and body art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries." The book is organized into five [End Page 139] chapters including sources and origins, the body, gender, politics and identity, and institutional critique. Overall, they provide viewpoints on the different manners in which performance art developed in the East, varying from region to region and from country to country, reflecting local histories, traditions, influences, and censorship of the local socialist regime.
Among the artists surveyed in the book are Zero Group from Macedonia in Yugoslavia; the Poetic (later Polemic) Circle and Cuchovden Group (meaning "tomorrow never comes") from Bulgaria; Ion Grigorescu, Geta Br tescu, and Lia and Dan Perjovschi of Romania; and the TOTART Group from the Soviet Union. Each of these artists imagined live actions that escaped interpretation, working around concepts like "empty actions," such as journeys to the countryside followed by discussions about the present, or "voluntary work parties" including painting fences, benches, and garbage bins a flashy gold color.
As the author contends, many of these performance art pieces had a political subtext, while at other times they could be interpreted as acts of resistance. However, even when there was no political meaning that could be attached to these unusual artistic acts, the presence of danger was still there through exploding the routines of everyday life under communism. In making people think about their human condition and about their bodies, their impact on the world, changing perspectives, and their awakening consciousness were all perceived as potentially dangerous acts, with the communist regimes paying special attention to those performing them. At times, the volume also focuses on art processes that in many cases had nothing to do with protesting the political regime, instead dealing with aesthetic research and the need to find new ways of reflecting on the human condition. Bryzgel states, "In fact, more often than not, performance offered artists in Central and Eastern Europe an arena of freedom in which to experiment, rather than comprising a vehicle of dissident political activity."
One aspect of Eastern European performance made clear in this comprehensive study is the fact that performance art developed since 1960 "in parallel and in dialogue with practices in Western Europe and North America," despite the fact that these countries were isolated from the rest of the continent and from North America. Very few sources of information were accessible to the artists at the time and it was extremely difficult for them to travel abroad. Nevertheless, each and every such rare visit was a life-changing event. This was the case with Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose work in theatre was infused with performance art and happenings practices, especially after his visit to the U.S. While there in 1965, Kantor met Allan Kaprow, whose publication Assemblage, Environments and Happenings became, in the 1970s, one of the major resources for information on Western performance art in other parts of the world. [End Page 140]
Only in recent years, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, did more and more information about artists working behind the Iron Curtain permeate the artistic as well as academic worlds, despite their presence in galleries all over the world. This new book follows closely on the steps of Bryzgel's previous Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1980, published in 2013. With this recent study, she introduces much-needed perspectives from artists who were challenged by socioeconomic...