Women of the "New Europe"

Women of the "New Europe"

Defining the places that are Eastern Europe together with Western Europe and determining where the boundary between them lies is extremely difficult. It all depends on whether we consider geographical, socio-economic or political factors in the analysis. However, after two decades of post-communist transition, “Eastern Europe” is disappearing as a category of analysis, becoming simply “New Europe”1, “part of Europe” or “semi-periphery” of global capitalism2. The very process of democratisation of the East was further burdened by the trauma of dealing with cultural differences. The East was more than a mere cultural Other. At the same time, it was seen as “not yet Western” expecting it to catch up with the West in the near future. It was expected to catch up with the modernist development that it had ‘missed out on’ because of communism – it was presented as an anti-modernist historical force or at least as a major obstacle to the ‘normal’ modernist development that had been so wonderfully successful in the West3.

In the course of the post-communist transformation, the issue of integration of the Eastern bloc countries is not without significance. Surprisingly, it did not shatter the nationalistic identity or the national symbols of the countries, but the regional sense of the former socialist bloc. Thus, the term “Eastern Europe” can also be understood as a pivotal space for transforming the meaning of European identity itself4.

Therefore, no one ever told me, “Darling, you are a child of Eastern Europe.” My parents did talk about the Soviet period but I saw this distant time somehow differently, as a stage set for stories of my parents’ childhood and youth that had seldom anything to do with the stories themselves. In this case, the children of the new East could be the first generation who are free from the legacy of the old East and can seamlessly transition to the globalised cultural space5.

People whose consciousness and vision of the world began to take shape after 1989 experience, in a way, the effect of postmemory – they remember the difficult 1990s, although not the events that preceded them. They recognise the artefacts of communism, but do not necessarily know their origins6. However, the experiences of previous generations are so strongly rooted in the collective memory that they somehow become their own. The concept of post-memory – proposed by Romanian researcher Marianne Hirsch7 – refers to the so-called inherited memory. It is, in a sense, a false memory, because it concerns events that took place in the past and were not directly experienced, although their effects are still present. Nevertheless, these events grow into the consciousness of subsequent generations with such force that they are perceived by their representatives as their own. In this context, the generation growing up after ’89 struggles with the echoes of those times – living in a world dominated by narratives referring to the time before their birth. This is apparent on many levels – through communist architecture or art, but also in the deeply ingrained social behaviours and prejudices passed on from one generation to the next. Thus, the revolution, i.e. the change of political system, has a significant impact on their temporal life, subconsciously shaping it.  

According to Boris Groys, the contemporary condition of Eastern Europe, after a period of separation and alternative social development, is seen as a process of gradual unification with the West. By the same token, Eastern European art can be treated as a source of information about the state of affairs of the societies from which it emerged8. When entering the discourse of contemporary feminist art by Eastern European immigrant women, it is essential to ask the question – who can write about such art? According to Groys, anyone who wants to write about Eastern European art should reflect on whether Eastern European art can be said to have a distinctive character, and if so, what constitutes its particularity? In what ways does contemporary Eastern European art differ from its Western counterpart9? As an émigré I often experience the cultural coupling present in my everyday life. The phenomenon of the permeation and deterritorialisation of cultures has been a significant factor influencing my observations and subsequent curatorial interests. My findings culminated in the exhibition Margin Of Counterfeit10, which took place at the RIB exhibition space in Rotterdam11. A group of invited artists focused on the phenomenon of counterfeiting in the visual and aural areas of the Polish community, where the line between original and copy remains unclear and blurred. Semi-legal artefacts caught my attention in the context of how the Polish community transforms its identity by forging the names of popular chain shops. Recognising the false identity of artefacts in Rotterdam became natural to me in the context of my background. However, this phenomenon is only noticeable to people who are connected to the Polish community and thus not necessarily obvious to other nationalities living in the neighbourhood. This form of falsification becomes unnoticeable to them, and the visual elements are ingrained with such force in the subconscious that they are perceived as a false familiarity.

Edward W. Said, in his essay “Reflections on Exile”, claims that most people are aware of only one culture and thus one environment. However, the “exile”12is aware of at least two, which indicates an awareness of several simultaneously coexisting realities13. Thus, emigration and the correlation it entails with a change of environment is undoubtedly a strong impulse that often has a significant impact on artistic creation. In order to reflect on and analyse this topic, I would like to give examples of two Polish artists who grew up and created after the systemic transformation – Anna Maria Łuczak and Marta Hryniuk – emigrants who thematise their art around the problem of migration.

Through her work as a translator for a local TV station, Łuczak had the opportunity to come into closer contact, almost correlation, with Polish emigrants living in the workers’ hotel Stella Maris in the Dutch town of Steenbergen. While cooperating in the production of a documentary entitled “Pools voor beginners”14 – to familiarise native Dutch people with the image of the seasonal economic migrant from Eastern Europe – she had the opportunity to use the material rejected by producers15, which became a component of her video work Trust Speakers16.

Creating a non-linear narrative, the artist interweaves camera close-ups of the workers’ faces with internet found footage, fragments of Kieslowski’s films and recordings of television commercials from the 1990s – a symbol of the time when the vision of the ‘West’ was something exciting for Łuczak. Using texts by Florian Znaniecki17 and referring to his research method, she analyses the coupling of emigration from almost a century ago with the contemporary reality of migrants18. The work is marked by well-known cultural references in the form of flashes of images of Dutch windmills, fields of tulips, or baroque still lifes iconic of the Netherlands of the Golden Age. Thus implying a fracture in meaning, where in the eyes of the immigrants the ‘imagined Holland’, known from clichés, was brutally juxtaposed with the reality surrounding them. Images of idyllic fields of tulips are contrasted with images of greenhouses and conveyor belts for sorting and cutting flowers. The protagonists discover that the life of emigrants is different from their pre-conceived visions. This reinforces the destruction of a stereotype deeply rooted in the collective culture, where the boundary between the real and the imaginary shifts.

The classical relation between the author and his subject is also deformed here. By using mental shortcuts and simplifications, Łuczak gives the whole work the form of random fragments stuck together – a kind of archival notes, subjective associations. Using them, he attempts to understand the mechanism of the accumulation of collective memory and to reflect on the status and significance of the archive and the transformations it undergoes.

Threads of the omnipresent deterritorialisation of cultures can also be found in Marta Hryniuk’s video De spiegel19. The Mirror Bar, located in Charlois, a working class neighbourhood in the south of Rotterdam, is a place of evening entertainment for the inhabitants of this multinational part of the city. The bar is run by Alicja Dulak, a Polish immigrant, who is both a barmaid and a bar “singer”, whose job is to entertain the bar’s guests. The surreal scenery of the place, where multiplied mirrors reflect various artefacts – brass bar stools, flashing game machines, flowers in clay pots, advertisements of Dutch beer – makes it difficult to determine the place and time in which the action takes place.

The barmaid’s performance includes Edyta Geppert’s song Nie żałuję [I’m Not Sorry] to the lyrics by Agnieszka Osiecka from 199220. Her voice dissonates with the multilingual sounds of conversation of those sitting at the bar. The singing seems very relaxed, yet without making much of an impression on the people in the establishment. They seem almost to ignore Alicja’s performance. The Polish language remains incomprehensible to them – it acts as a “sound veil” which introduces a layer of ambiguity. Hryniuk uses a recording of the performance, where the text of the piece operates on the plane of a linguistic artefact, thereby revealing the complexity of the ethnic, socio-geographical and cultural entanglements. Jakub Czyszczoń, in the text accompanying the Hryniuk’s exhibition points out: “We are not sure whether there is an understanding between them, an empathy-based co-experience, or merely being in the same place at the same time. We are also not sure whether the sung song resounds as a personal story or as a voice representing a collective subject”21.

Hryniuk considers her work in the context of ‘diasporic intimacy’. Citing the writings of Svetlana Boym The Future of Nostalgia22 the artist situates this state of closeness as not allowing for transparency and authenticity. Being constituted by eradication, it ultimately fails to achieve a state of belonging. It is a space narrated by secrets, shattered fragments, details and commemorative signs23. The artist encourages the viewer to look through the mirror image, where the multiplication of meanings encourages reflection and the diffusion of symbolic orders, the accumulation of personal, historical and intercultural meanings24.

The Poles living in the Netherlands are different, as are the Surinamese living in the Netherlands, the Turks, the Moroccans and the Dutch themselves. In the district where I live25 there are several Polish shops and new ones are opening all the time. I visit these places with some reserve. (…) You can often hear Polish in the street, I see a lot of mothers with children speaking Polish among themselves. The atmosphere is a bit like in a small Polish town26.

Anna Łuczak, who has lived in Rotterdam for years, inspired by the local expatriate ‘exoticism’ in 2018-2019, created a series of ironic videos in which she reviews Polish products bought in a local Polish shop. The multiplied emphasis on the Polishness of the product and thus its uniqueness gives the work an almost absurd dimension. 

I am fascinated by these shops because they are the most direct expression of national identity and attachment. I visit them with a strong sense of ambivalence. Importing Polish milk into a country that is a leader in dairy production is very absurd. However, the Polish community in the Netherlands finds it important to drink this specific Polish brand of milk27.

So far, three ads have been made in the series – for the Polish milk Łaciate28, Polish flour Luksusowej29 and Polish mineral water Muszynianka30. The artist ironically emphasises the uniqueness of Polish products, which in the eyes of the Polish community are irreplaceable Dutch equivalents. Łuczak used the style of low-quality reviews recorded on platforms such as YouTube or Instagram TV. Through a short review, captured “handheld” with a smartphone, she allows the viewer to get acquainted with a product presenting unique Polish properties, which she obviously bought in a Polish shop. She specifies to the viewer the exact location of the place of purchase, so that he/she can go there in case he/she wants to buy this precious commodity. In a humorous way she juxtaposes her opinion of the product with interludes in which the unique Polish item has a chance to speak and in a fantastic way appeals to the viewer by telling its story.  

These considerations are only an attempt at a dialogue, or rather provocative prostheses of an aesthetic experience, which brings us closer to understanding the phenomenon of contemporary art on the level of constituting the processes of cultural convergence. However, they open new perspectives concerning both interpretation and deeper understanding of the historical-migration context of the work of Polish young female artists, the “New Europe” already mentioned earlier.

Magdalena Adameczek –  born 1993 – is a polish curator and researcher currently based in Rotterdam, NL. Co-editor in the online journal for contemporary art guestrooms.xyz. Graduated in art history at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań and Curatorial and Art Theory Studies at the University of the Arts in Poznań. She has been the curator-in-residence at Sandra Gallery; collaborated on Sharon Lockhart’s presentation around the Polish Pavilion at the 57th Venice Art Biennale and assisted in the realization of other projects in U-jazdowski CCA and POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews Warsaw. Collaborated with CINNNAMON gallery and RIB exhibition space in Rotterdam. Obtained a scholarship in Stacion – Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina, Kosovo.
1Holmes B., Invisible States. Europe in the Age of Capital Failure, [in:] Simon Sheikh (ed.), 'Capital (It Fails Us Now)', b_books/NIFCA, 2006

Brian Holmes has recently deconstructed the duality of Donald Rumsfeld's distinction between 'old' and 'new' Europe. 
2Ţichindeleanu O., Decolonizing Eastern Europe: Beyond Internal Critique, [in:] “Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology”, ed. Janevski A., Marcoci R., Nouril K., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p.195.
3Buden B., After the Fall: Democracy and Its Discontents: Introduction, [in:] “Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology”, ed. Janevski A., Marcoci R., Nouril K., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p.178.
4Ţichindeleanu O., Decolonizing Eastern Europe: Beyond Internal Critique, [in:] “Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology”, ed. Janevski A., Marcoci R., Nouril K., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p.195.
5Preiman S., Let’s Get Acquainted – Children of the New East, [in:] “Children of the New East”, ed. Martinez F., Preiman S., Vainre M., Tallinn Art Hall, Tallinn, 2017, p. 2.
7Hirsch M., The Generation of Postmemory, Columbia University Press, 2012
8Groys B., Back from the Future, [in:] “Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology”, ed. Janevski A., Marcoci R., Nouril K., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2008, p. 200.
9Ibid. p.199.
10See: http://magdalenaadameczek.com/2019/10/11/2-margin-of-counterfeit/
11See: https://www.ribrib.nl
12He used the term 'exiles' not only to refer to refugees but also in the context of migrants living outside their countries of birth.
13Moskalewicz M., The Travellers: Voyage and Migration in New Art from Central and Eastern Europe, Kumu Art Museum, Tallinn, 2018, p. 5.
14PL: "Polishness for beginners"
15Łuczak A. M., Trust Speakers, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2015, p. 2. 
16Łuczak A. M., Trust Speakers..., 2015, video, see: https://vimeo.com/499395343
17After: Łuczak A. M., Trust Speakers..., Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2015, p. 16.

Florian Znaniecki was one of the first sociologists to apply the biographical method using oral histories, diaries, letters and personal documents for scientific purposes.  He co-authored the publication Polish Peasants in Europe and America, which is an analysis of rural Polish emigrants in America from the first half of the 20th century; published in English in the 1920s and in Polish in 1976.
19Marta Hryniuk, de Spiegel, 2018, video, see: https://vimeo.com/371329186
20Marta Hryniuk, Café de Spiegel. Writing in Loops, Rotterdam, 2018, p.9.
21Czyszczoń J., de Spiegel (Lustro), text accompanying the exhibition “Marta Hryniuk / Maciej Nowacki de Spiegel", Galeria SKALA, Poznań.
22Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, New York, Basic Books, 2001
23Marta Hryniuk, Café de Spiegel. Writing in Loops, Rotterdam, 2018, p.10.
24Ibid. p.10-11.
25Rotterdam – Charlois.
26Anna Maria Łuczak in conversation with Romuald Demidenko, catalogue of the exhibition Trust Speakers, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, 2015, p. 14.  
27See: http://annaluczak.com/project/mleko-milk/
28Łuczak A. M., milk/mleko, 2018, wideo, see: https://vimeo.com/318724943

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