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The Promises of the Past at Centre Pompidou

EXP-PROMESSESDUPASSEText: Joanna Bronowicka
Image: Goranka Matic

The exhibition Promises of the Past: A Discontinuous History of Art on Former Eastern Europe, on display at Centre Pompidou until July 19, 2010, appears to be born out of the curators’ fear that art created in last decades in former communist countries is bound to be misunderstood, unless they make serious effort to explain it. Do not forget your glasses - you will spend most of the time reading painfully academic descriptions that will obscure any emancipating effect that the artists intended. Forget about making your own aesthetic judgments - all acceptable interpretations have been carefully pre-packaged for you in the form of succinct subtitles, such as Fantasies of Totality, Feminine-Feminist or, my personal favorite, Micro-Political Gesture and the Critique of the Institution.

The zigzag design of the exhibition by a Polish artist Monika Sosnowska suggests not only the discontinuity of Eastern European history, but also the unstable relationship between the participating artists and the social-realism endorsed by the Communist governments. While contesting the modernist canons, these artists have never abandoned the underlying idea that art is a way of transforming society. Unfortunately, when art meets politics, aesthetic pleasure often yields to intellectual utility. Even when something strikes you as politically innocent, like in the case of Ion Grigorescu boxing his double, the description is there to remind you that it represents schizophrenia caused by communist dictatorship.

Whether it is the nostalgic photomontages by Miklós Erdély, the provocative collages by Ewa Partum, a realist photograph of a modernist building in ruins or a series of carefully damaged city panoramas - all these images intended to be subversive representations of the decaying Utopian ideals. In a similar vein, the video art presented at the exhibition is almost entirely limited to records of artistic happenings challenging the oppressive totalitarian ideology. The forms of contestation range from the subtle irony of Self-fashion show by Tibor Hajas, through the radical irrationality of a shamanic ritual in Kardynał by Pawel Althamer and finally, to the uneasy pathos of an imagined return of Jews to Poland by an Israeli artist Yael Bartana.

The curators' tried so hard to make sure we understand it exactly the way they do, but at the expense of the exhibition. If you leave the exhibition hungry for more explanation instead of simply bored - do not miss a lecture series by conceptual artists and their enthusiastic critics.

Les Promesses du passé
Until July 19, 2010
Centre Pompidou
Place Georges Pompidou
75004 Paris
Open 11am to 9pm, except for Tuesdays

Bonapart Paris apartments

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