Visualizing the Nation: Post-Socialist ImagiNations. A conference on nationalism in Budapest

Last weekend in Budapest an exhibition closed that was very much appreciated by media and public alike. IMAGINED COMMUNITIES, PERSONAL IMAGINATIONS was the last show of the international „Private Nationalism Project“ and united contemporary artists who deal with the topic of nationalism. The right place for such an exhibition, one might say. And it spoke for the high quality of the project curated by Edit András from the Institute of Art History at the Research Centre for Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences that many people came to the not exactly centrally located but atmospherically most impressive exhibition venues: the Kiscelli Muzeum in Obuda and in the cabinet-like spaces of the Budapest Gallery in Lajos utca.

Edit András organised an international conference on the issue of nationalism accompanying the exhibition: Visualizing the Nation: Post-Socialist ImagiNations.
Twenty-one art historians, theoreticians, philosophers and sociologists gathered for one and a half days in Budapest’s ELTE University, to discuss different aspects of how nation is visualized especially in Eastern Europe. In his introduction, Franz Karl Prüller, chairman of the board of ERSTE Foundation, stressed how important it is to constantly check our relationship with what we call nation: through critical assessment, reflexivity and a certain amount of self-irony – quoting an essay of Edit András. “Fear, anger, frustration or denial are bad councils and no foundation on which to build self-confident nations and citizens who can come together freely to build Europe and our global future. The exhibition Imagined Communities and the conference Visualizing the Nation provide a unique opportunity to create consciousness and awareness about the consequences of inward and backward looking nationalism. The works of artists and thinkers are the best means with which we can get the strength to resist the temptation to give in to our need for security, stability or normality.”


The discussion started with a search for the ghosts of the past, which some countries actually believed to have expelled with the decline of the Soviet Union and socialism in Eastern Europe – or still want to cast out. In the section named POST-SOCIALIST NATIONALISM Almira Ousmanova (Vilnius/Lithuania), Yulia Khmelevskaya (Chelyabinsk/Russia) and Magdalena Moskalewicz (New York City/USA) presented different examples where these “Ghosts in the House” (Ousmanova) were still up to their mischief. Almira Ousmanova described the “exorcism” that in many places – she mentioned particularly Belarus and Lithuania – befalls the socialist modernism that for many no longer fits into the national canon of representation.

That nowadays this canon is often written from the bottom, Yulia Khmelevskaya clearly showed by examples of “public creativity” in the joint commemoration of war anniversaries or parades on national holidays. These forms of patriotism can be eaten (as martially decorated cake), carried on the body (as flip-flops or Swatch clock in Georgian national colors) or used as a soapbox tank carrying four year olds in army uniforms. She calls these forms of pop-cultural appropriation of national symbols “usable past”.

Tank for kidsMagdalena Moskalewicz was curator of the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and gave a detailed insight into the project shown there: “Haiti/Halka”. It questioned Poland’s national identity with a film that showed the performance of popular opera “Halka” in a village in Haiti, which is home to descendants of Polish soldiers who fought there mid-19th century in the revolutionary wars. The project initiated a discourse on colonialism in Poland, which has always considered itself as a victim of imperial and Soviet colonization. Poland had no colonies “but would have liked to have had some”. As of 1989, as in many other post-socialist countries, also in Poland fantasies of past glories arose.



From the village square in Kazale (Haiti) the next section brought the discussion back to the public spaces in Europe. NATIONALIZING PUBLIC SPACE pooled five exciting excursions. Bojana Peijć (Belgrade/Serbia) stated: “Monument Matters!” by analysing “national narcissism, memorial mania and feminist resistance”. Her examples of male heroes and female allegories of the nation showed that memory is definitely also a gender issue.

Of which dubious origins many monuments on our squares are, explained Jószef Mélyi in his lecture “The monument as a gift “. A lot of monuments are presents like – the most prominent example – the Statue of Liberty in New York. No insignificant problem raises the question: what to do with monuments which have been given from autocratic states to democratic states? They are usually diplomatic messages to their recipients or even the whole world such as the Genocide Memorials that Armenia is mounting around the world. In his study of this stony form of export of ideologies, Mélyi emphasized Post-Soviet countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan, which have rewarded the world with a flood of Haydar Aliev monuments.

Christian Nae (Bucharest/Romania) researched what happened to the reception of Constantin Brancusi and his work in Romania in the last decades. First, he actually emigrated to Paris as marginalized exponent of a modernity misunderstood at home, was then engrossed as state artist, used to ennoble the art production of an entire nation to be eventually trivialized: There are today Brancusi baguettes, his main work “Endless Column” can be found on election posters as well as on decorative strips of prefabricated components to social housing.

Brancusi applicationNae’s compatriot Alina Şerban (Bucharest/Romania) followed the artist Nicu Ilfoveanu into small villages where he collected his motives for an open-end series of photographs. “Series. Multiples. Realisms” unites somehow parenthetic shots of statues, “reducing the scale, often captured in contre-jour, making them resemble the silhouettes of ordinary passers-by”. Şerban identifies Ilfoveaunu’s series as a sort of an “Atlas” in the tradition of Aby Warburg, capturing his vision of the nation. The difference to the album of a tourist on a sightseeing trip is – as often in contemporary art – the methodical approach.

Andrew Ryder’s (Budapest/Hungary) interesting contribution on the aestheticization of walls and fences as structures of national demarcation and exclusion has been discussed very controversial. From the Berlin Wall and Israel’s construction of the Wall in the West Bank to the new fences in a Europe overstrained by the emergence of a large number of refugees – barriers are not only built and attacked, they also have a form. Not all of the present colleagues wanted to answer his question whether there can exist – besides the political – also an aesthetic experience of these buildings. Ryder showed examples of walls being art (Ryder: a potentially perverse view but you can find arguments for it): Works by Richard Serra, Giuseppe Penone or Antoni Tapies among others. In the ensuing discussion wall paintings and graffiti on concrete borders, for example, have been seen as “false humanism” that would even provide arguments against the removal of unwanted barriers.


From the centre of the representative public spaces the view turned again outward to the edges. ON THE MARGINS OF THE NATION is the place of minorities and the deconstructions of nationalism. Anikó Imre (Los Angeles/USA) started with the supposed oxymoron of a queer nationalism. At the Eurovision Song Contest, a popular cultural phenomenon and national contest, often a code switch happens, she said. This is the result of her comparison of queer performers such as 2007 ESC winner Marija Šerifović with colleagues like Conchita Wurst (winner 2014), or Verka Serduchka (ESC 2007) but also Donatan & Cleo’s heteronormative sexualized performance of (Polish) Slavicness (ESC 2014). Imre said that neither queerness nor nationalism must be taken too serious in this context. The presentation was also a very enjoyable break of the scientific seriousness of the event itself.

„Testifying Symbols: The Practice Of An Anti-Semitic Image Cult“ was the topic of Zoltán Kékesi (Budapest/Hungary). He analysed the case of a memorial site established by radical right-wing groups in Hungary. The site commemorates the so-called Tiszaeszlár case (1882) – the first anti-Jewish trial in post-emancipation (Austria-)Hungary. Jews were accused of the murder of a non-Jewish girl. This case marked the beginning of modern Anti-Semitism in Hungary. After 1989, the site was reactivated by extreme right groups including the annual repetition of acts of remembrance.

Public commemoration in Olaszliszka_Jobbik 2013Public commemoration in Olaszliszka by Jobbik, 2013

Also Andrea Pócsik (Budapest/Hungary) investigated the context of the representations of crimes that were supposed to be committed by a minority group. In her example the visualizations are newsreels from 1908 and modern media broadcasts from 2006 and 2009. „The Case of the Dános Murder and Robbery with the Evidence Contained in the Reconstructed Newsreels“ sounds like a detective story. In fact it is part of a larger research project on Roma images, their origins and alterations in the history of the Hungarian cinema. Her conclusion: „Criminalized wandering and poverty depicted as the fault of the poor become the solid pillars of Gypsy images and help justify, maintain, and further the exclusion of the ethnic minority from the “nation”, as the post-socialist media rituals show.“

Tímea Junghaus (Budapest/Hungary) presented a research that was done as part of the ERSTE Foundation Fellowship for Social Research. She talked also about Roma and nationalism but from a completely different angle. Junghaus, Romaní herself, imagined a Roma diaspora that is a maternal state. First she offered many different historical readings and theories of the term Roma diaspora: an imagined community of a scattered population; a cultural space; a nation in its own with a „transnational nationalism“; a “diasporic transnationalism”. Her own model is a social form that refers to the Roma transnational community the social, political and cultural networks which are crossing the borders of nation states. As examples she showed artworks by the Roma women artists Delaine Le Bas, Omara, Lada Gaziova, and Tamara Moyzes.

Artist and activist Veda Popovici (Bucharest/Romania) and writer and political scientist Ovidiu Pop (Vienna/Austria) found on the Internet letters of Romanian labor migrants which they sent from Western European countries and analysed them. Their topic was the asymmetric distribution of rights among the various migrant professional groups in Europe. They found a tension created between the desire to belong to (Western) Europe and the trauma of feeling different (?) from this Europe. Popovici and Pop saw the rejection of refugees by the majority of all Eastern European populations as a consequence of their own treatment as migrants in Western Europe „reproducing and redirecting the symbolic violence they themselves have experienced“. Their conclusions have not been shared by everybody in the audience who especially opposed to labelling all migrants as victims.


The conference ended with a chapter that considered visual expressions that charged the notion of nation with history: HISTORICIZING THE NATION. Sezgin Boynik’s (Helsinki/Finland) paper on „Nationalism Without Limits: When Art Mistakes Nation For Culture“ was based on his recent publication „Contemporary Art and Nationalism – Critical Reader“ (2007, coedited with Minna L. Henriksson). He demonstrated the complexity of the nationalism of contemporary art illustrated by works of artists from Kosovo and Croatia. Interesting were also his observations on the similarity of the restoration of nationalism to the restoration of cultural policy during the process of transition to post-socialism.

Izabela Kowalczyk (Poznań/Poland) was „Tracing Polish Anti-Semitism With Contemporary Art“. She gave an interesting insight of how Polish artists such as Kamil Kuskowski or Rafał Jakubowicz reveal visual traces of anti-Semitism. Karolina Freino, Wojciech Wilczyk, and Joanna Rajkowska display mechanisms of oblivion, especially in reference to the public space. Adam Adach and Tomasz Kozak show connections between nationalist and Anti-Semitism imaginaries and Zofia Lipecka that the Polish history is still an unhealed wound. „Art has joined the disputes over memory by trying to commemorate things that do not fit with the homogeneous model of identity.“

The pro-Putin Russian motorcycle club “The Night Wolves” captured international media attention in April 2015 by broadcasting its provocative plan to travel to Berlin to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory over Nazi forces in World War II. Colleen McQuillen (Chicago/USA) analysed the highly stylized personal image that the club’s photogenic leader Aleksandr Zaldostanov, “Leader Of The Bikers Of All Rus’”, had cultivated, and traced its sources in Russian and Soviet visual culture. Zaldostanov’s style combines artistic representations of mythical Russian knights, the bogatyrs, and the military victor Aleksandr Nevsky. „Zaldostanov’s exaggerated image of rugged Russian manliness reads almost as a parody of nationalist iconography. What prevents him from being a parody of historical imagery is his integration of Western punk and biker aesthetics.“ In her final slides, Conchita Wurst has her second appearance at the conference: off course, the Internet stores caricatures that muck his masculinity, heterosexuality, and Russianness.

The three Bogatyr
Viktor Vasnetsov. Bogatyrs, 1898, Oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery

In March 2014, Slovak Artist Dalibor Bača placed a Czechoslovak flag on the floor behind the entrance of the Kunsthalle in Košice, thus making his contribution to the show Private Nationalism. This made a scandal in both Czech and Slovak media, in the political sphere and – after causing consequences of indirect censorship – in the art world. Fedor Blaščák described the escalation of the conflict and analysed the flag in question as an artwork, a readymade object representing the state symbol of different former states of Czechoslovakia, now being the state symbol of the Czech Republic. And he demonstrated how the current Czech flag transformed from a state symbol into a national Symbol.

Dalibor Bača_CZ_SK_HU_D_PL Dalibor Bača, CZ_SK_HU_D_PL, 2014, Private Nationalism, Košice

To conclude a very intense conference, Marina Gržinić (Ljubljana/Slovenia, Vienna/Austria) & Jasmina Založnik (Aberdeen/UK) followed the creation of nation states after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. They were namely interested on NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst or New Slovenian Art), and their activities in the 1990s. The NSK State in Time questions the nation-state of Slovenia in connection with the dissolution of the former territory of Eastern Europe. Their conclusion refers to marginalised citizens in Slovenia and other countries “whose discriminations are essential for the nation states that rose after the fall of the Berlin wall in the space of the former Eastern Europe”.

Maribel Königer, ERSTE Foundation

ERSTE Foundation supported and co-organised the conference on Visualizing the Nation: Post-Socialist ImagiNations.