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The specter of communism currently haunts the New Museum in its summer “bloc-buster” exhibition Ostalgia. It’s an ambitious project that consumes most of the galleries with a swirling conglomeration of disparate mediums, artists, scales and concepts that reflect the miasmic atmosphere of post-Soviet territories. With its title adapted from the (East) German neologism ostalgie meant to express the longing for a time before the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s hard to see whether the exhibition is drawing upon legitimately fond memories of the socialist experiment, or a Soviet-style Stockholm Syndrome.
Specters, those incorporeal manifestations of the past that haunt us, run through the exhibition both figuratively and literally. The examples of video art peppered throughout the space, from Sanja Iveković to Tacita Dean, express how these ghosts inhabit our past and present. Many have low production values in which the images are misaligned, creating ghastly auras around the subjects. This attribute of the artworks echoes what scholar Jeffrey Sconce refers to as “television ghosts,” apparitions of subjects that mimic their every move.
Vladimir Arkhipov’s clinical photographs of cultural artifacts, shot with the same panache as objects in an evidence locker, look like corpses drained of life, their meaning lost when Lenin’s ideals collapsed. Sergey Zarva’s portraits painted in a hybrid style of Soviet Realism and German Expressionism, from his 2010 Ogonyok series, ooze the dialectical forces of East and West in aberrant personal portrayals. Thomas Schütte’s “Three Capacity Men” (2005), an ominous, domineering triumvirate of grotesque sculptures looms heavily in a nearly empty gallery. It appears ghosts do not fade, but grow more powerful over time.
The most contemplative work, and curator Massimiliano Gioni’s catalyst for the show, is Phil Collins’s documentary Marxism Today (Prologue) (2010). Profiling the group that was arguably most affected by the democratization of the USSR, it’s composed of a series of interviews with former professors of Marxist Theory and their life after the dissolution of the Union. It’s a sharp, emotional look at the aftermath of the complete restructuring of a society, and how patrons of the old guard are supposed to function moving forward. One levelheaded woman acclimated well, merely understanding that now she was supposed to accrue capital, whilst another lost all meaning in her life.
The exact tone of the show, however, is pretty indecipherable; some artists document the abject conditions workers faced under Soviet rule, while others express kinship to the Marxist motherland. Some pieces just leave you scratching your head, like David Ter-Oganyan’s 2011 series of quasi-witty sculptures This Is Not a Bomb. They’re clusters of olive oil cans, Coca-Cola bottles and other consumer commodity fetishes duct taped together and strung with wires that litter the corners, stairways and elevators of the museum. Is capitalism a deadly threat, an innocuous red herring, or a joke? The same could be said for the entire exhibition, though it’s clearly not attempting to be didactic in execution, merely surveying its time.
Twenty years after the demolition of the Berlin Wall with the Western economy in dire straits, the very notion of our own perestroika presents itself as a valid option. Ostalgia serves not only as an archive of the oeuvre of repressed artists from a specific geopolitical time, but as a reopening of a dialogue about restructuring our own society. Of course, with the narrative partially constructed by a billionaire gas oligarch, it may be too soon to think our own imperialistic ghosts have stopped haunting us.
Ostalgia is on view at the New Museum until September 25.