Preface

Map of the Internationality of Conceptual Art Through Exhibitions 1968–2017
Compiled by Eszter Szakács
The map outline is based on the Dymaxion map by Buckminster Fuller (1943).
Realized by Zbyněk Baladrán, Tereza Hejmová, Kristina Láníková, Marketa Adamcová, Eszter Szakács
Part of the exhibition Imagining Conceptual Art. László Beke’s 1971 Collection in an International Context, Display, Prague, 2017
Photo: Antonín Jirát

This thematic Mezosfera issue examines the shifting paradigms of regional art history writing, globally. Which Past the Present Stands On? studies how, for what reasons, and with what ramifications the histories of art are rewritten, again and again, along various concepts and from different perspectives (socialist, national, decolonial, global, gender, queer, etc.)? How is ideology able to shape the canon of art and art history writing; how do these diminish, live on; and how can they be bypassed?

Examining the changing paradigms and the rapidly shifting interpretations of history, ideology, politics, and art have been a primary concern for us; this was also one of the reasons we launched Mezosfera magazine in 2016.  As an editorial-curatorial endeavor, we set out to reflect on what it means to publish and write in English, in an international arena, from the changing and often debated geopolitical position of Eastern Europe, and within that, Hungary. Another line of inquiry that emerged in the last few years is to detach the interpretation of Eastern Europe from Western Europe, and instead to connect it to similar peripheral geopolitical regions. Which Past the Present Stands On? is this a synthesis of this two-fold attempt that could also be traced in the last four thematic Mezosfera issues.[1]

Within the Hungarian context, canon and paradigm shifts, often to their direct opposites, are an ever-occurring phenomena. Just in the last hundred years, Hungary—after two decades of a nationalist political system between the two world wars—became the political ally of with Nazi Germany; then Hungary became a Soviet satellite state between 1945 and 1989. Thus, after two decades of a rightist orientation, in Cold War-era Hungary a declared (proletarian) internationalism shaped the canon, with a softer socialist version of communist ideology—all to be dismantled after the regime change in 1989. In the “post-communist transition years,” and even more so in the last 10 years, under the current right-wing, nationalist administration, strong anti-communist sentiments drive politics. A succinct analysis of this process is an essay about the House of Terror, written by historian Zsolt K. Horváth and ethnographer Zsófia Frazon that was published in 2019 in the Mezosfera issue titled Past Contemporary[2]. This issue looked at the changing relation to the past  in cultural and anthropological museums and discussed contemporary initiatives in Argentina, the north of Ireland, Kenya, Cuba, and Portugal.

Among intellectuals there have been ways, however, to counter the political efforts to project the nation state back into the nationalist past. In the last three decades, the common historical space of postcommunism and the comparison of regional historical experiences came to the front at international meetings, exhibitions, and conferences in Hungary and in Eastern Europe. The cultural value of the regional idea emerged already around 1968, when international influences could not be halted so harshly anymore. Paradoxically, this was also the time, when the inclusion of folk art was defined as an important element of the Central European cultural region.[3] In the 1970s Hungary cultural products (artworks, music, literature) following the so called Bartók-model became part of the canon  —appropriated by state socialist cultural policies—which defined itself national, but at the same time part of East European modernism.[4] The Mezosfera issue Parallel Nonsychnronism—published in relation to an exhibition tranzit.hu conceived together with the Kiscell Museum–Municipal Gallery, Budapest—discussed how state socialist art and a claim for internationalism lived in parallel with each other in one historical period. In Hungary, in a short loosening period around 1968, a new generation of contemporary artists claimed to enter the international arena and regarded themselves as part of the international art discourse (see the artists of the so-called Iparterv-generation). At the same time another group of artists, emphasized to have a strong connection to the Surrealist tradition and belong to Central European art (Szürenon group). The issue also looked at how this phenomenon occurred in other parts of the Eastern Bloc in the Cold War, in the GDR, in Poland, or in Czechoslovakia.

Through the thematic issue Proposals for a Pan-Peripheral Network, we actively started to look for possible alliances outside our geopolitical region, as defined among the aims of the magazine. Political repression, economic scarcity and as a consequence, a marginal geopolitical position are similar historical experiences among very different cultural regions. This issue raised the question on the one hand, what happened to the historical relations between the Global South and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, we also sought out contemporary art initiatives that deal with issues of regionalism in a progressive, political way, such as Red Conceptualimos del Sur, Spark, or the Asia Art Archive. The following issue, Refractions of Socialist Solidarity, which was published in conjunction with the Budapest presentation of Naeem Mohaiemen’s film Two Meetings and a Funeral, the  examines how ideas of non-alignment translated to large-scale cultural initiatives as well as the historical-artistic relations between the Global South and Eastern Europe through the concept of socialist solidarity.

The current issue combines these aims, to study the phenomenon of art history’s shifting paradigm not just in time, but also in space, in conjunction with the different (geo)political notions of “regions” that are considered outside of the Western modernist canon: “Eastern Europe,” “Balkans,” “Middle East,” “Levant,” “Arab World,” “South Asia,” “South East Asia,” “Sub-Saharan Africa,” “East Africa,” “Latin America,” “Southern Cone,” etc.

The essay of the recently passed away Bucharest based art historian, Ada Hajdu goes back to the19th century Romania, marking the starting point of national canon building in Eastern Europe. Ada Hajdu in her research investigated how national style was constructed as part of a wider regional stylistic canon. In her posthumously published article in the issue,[5] “Constructing the Heritage: Patriotic Field Trips and National Style in Romanian Nineteenth-Century Architecture,” she describes how field trips of architects with patrimonial sentiments influenced the tradition of how architecture was described in Romania in the second half of the 1800s. She underlines how vernacular, local, rural architecture underwent historicization and became the starting point for the national style in architecture. She also emphasizes that the first chronicles on architecture came from late romantic travel literature, describing architectural ruins as part of nature,  and only later style and building techniques became part of an architectural outline.  At the same time, in church architecture across the Balkans, from Istanbul to Sofia, Byzantynian style became the norm. In Romania, the Episcopal Church of Curtea de Argeș, close to Târgu Mureș, rebuilt in the 1860s in historicizing Neoroman style became the standard, and during this time, it was more appreciated than original medieval buildings.

Looking at the geographical territory of Central and Eastern Europe––to mention only one of the various names of this region—Budapest-based internationally acknowledged art historian and critic Edit András for more than two decades now continuously discusses the place of local art histories in and in relation to Western canons,  in the field of contemporary art history and theory. [ She dedicated her essay, “The Obscure Object of Desire: Is there any place for Eastern Europe on the Map of World Art or Global Art (History)?” in the Mezosfera issue to the memory of Ada Hajdu and her commitment to regional art history writing. András in her essay repeatedly underpins the identity crisis of the Central and Eastern European region––and actually any region today—positioning itself between national, regional, and global art history writing. She defines the traps of global art in overlooking local specificities if they are not comprehensible for a Western understanding. In her critical work, the author claims an “inclusive canon” and points to the almost unchanged authoritarian attitudes of scholars and institutions in the traditional centers. The close reading of a scholarly article (Miriam Oesterreich and Kristian Handberg: “Alter-Canons and Alter-Gardes—Formations and Re-Formations of Art Historical Canons in Contemporary Exhibitions: the Case of Latin American and Eastern European Art,” published in 2018) shows that Western European/North American scholars tend to rely on publications in the “center” and easily disregard references of exhibitions and writings of their non-Western colleagues even if they are published in English. András delineates counter proposals such as “partisan canons” a term coined by Anna Brzyski or Piotr Piotrowski’s horizontal art history, a non hierarchical global approach, arguing for parallel developments in  the arts. Finally, she points to the dangers of the current nationalistic agenda in several former state socialist countries, such as as Hungary and Poland, where art and art history can and are be put in service of national cultural agendas.

Researcher and curator Vera Mey discusses regional art history writing in Southeast Asia. Underpinning how the relatively new concept of Southeast Asia (emerging in 1948) intertwined with local art historical writing, she highlights, among others, the work of visionary art historian T.K. Sabapathy who advocated for a regionalist, transnational, geographically fluid, and inclusive approach towards art in Southeast Asia. Mey likewise discusses the Bandung moment as an important political marker of the region, while also addressing its romanticized recycling by piercingly highlighting the absence of critical discussion of race within these. The author in her essay,  “Unified yet one? A Continued Plea for Regionalist Art History in Southeast Asia” puts forth a plea not only for a regionalist perspective but also for an approach that takes into account the questions of race, to further diversify the “unity in diversity.”

This Mezosfera is the first one to include artist contributions. Artist and filmmaker Shuruq Harb’s short fiction stages Montasir’s, a farmer turned taxi driver’s story in the occupied reality of the Jordan Valley. Through Montasir’s finding a mysterious object, and with rumors about the mineral relic, the so-called Special Jericho Salt in mock excavated in neighbor Khaled’s garden, the tropes of discovery and preservation travels through the fiction—while Harb poses the burning questions of who owns the past and what can be lost in the act of preservation.

The essay “First as Yugoslav Revolution, then as Post-Yugoslav Art: History and A(na)estheticization around 1968 and Now” by Ivana Bago, Zagreb-based art historian and curator, analyzes how the political project of Yugoslavia shaped the cultural life of a multicultural region. The history of this South East European country was reborn as a third way socialist project after World War II, alive during the time of the Cold War, defining itself outside the US-Soviet power dichotomy, and was ended by the heavy Balkan Wars in the early 1990s, leaving in its place a region with smaller, old-new nation states. This regional political concept was attempting to go beyond the nation state, but soon faced inner and outer conflicts. Bago’s piece centers around the notion “Post-Yugoslav,” the birth of which she traces back already to the student revolts in 1968, when the system started to crack. Her essay also tackles the current renaissance of the idealized political values of Yugoslav politics and art in the last 10-15 years, foremost in the sphere of art, desperately looking for values against the neoliberal order. Through the analysis of contemporary literature history and art projects of the time, the author shows how this crisis made itself visible in art and literature, how the revolution transformed into art, and how “reserve generations” deal with these problems.

New Delhi-based writer Mayookh Barua examines the past and present of queer art India through the paintingis of the today well-renown artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003). Bara focuses on three major works––his “coming out paintings”—while also looking at the global and the local reception of Khakhar. Khakhar engaged in painting with queerness in the 1980s, at a time when being gay was illegal in India. Barua, from a new generational perspective, considers Khakhar’s legacy, the space he opened up in India for queer artist of today.

The Mezosfera issue also probes if regionalism and accentuating local specificities bears relevance in current times, and if it is possible to counter—not in mission statements but in practice—exoticizing-othering perspectives when discussing “regions” of the world. Without professing to propose a “new” art history writing, the issue endeavors to look at the various paradigms of regional art history writing, the altering notions of what is considered to be “art” or “region,” from a historical perspective, to see also what still bears relevance (if any) from past practices, and what speculations can be surmised on these bases.


[1] #4 Proposals for a Panperipheral Network http://mezosfera.org/category/4-proposition-for-a-pan-peripheral-network/; #5 Refractions of Socialist Solidarity http://mezosfera.org/category/5-refractions-of-socialist-solidarity/; ˛#6 Parallel Nonsychronism http://mezosfera.org/category/6-parallel-nonsynchronism-issue/; #7 Past Contemporary http://mezosfera.org/category/7-past-contemporary/;

[2]  http://mezosfera.org/the-offended-hungary-the-house-of-terror-as-a-demonstration-of-objects-memorial-and-political-rite-2002/

[3] For this, see Katalin Sinkós’s essay on the formation of the discipline art history in Hungary, from the end of the 19th century. Katalin Sinkó: A művészettörténet nemzeti látószöge. Kánonok és kánontörések. [A National Perspective of Art History: on Canons and Breaches in Canon] in Nemzet és művészet. Kép és Önkép [Art and Nation: Image and Self-Image], eds. Erzsébet Király, Enikő Róka, Nóra Veszprémi (Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), 2010.), 29-83.

[4] Ibid. 34. Sinkó is quoting László Beke’s published conference paper. László Beke: A “nemzeti fogalma”  az újabb képzőművészetekben in A Nemzeti tudományok historikuma 2008 131-138.

[5] We would like to thank Anca Oroveanu and Edit András for making it possible to publish Ada Hajdu’s essay.

[6] Recently she was an advisor to the seminar series Periodization in the History of Art and its Conundrums. How to tackle them in East-Central Europe at the New Europe College- Institute for Advanced Study in Bucharest between 2018-20, OTHER BOOKS, PUBLICATIONS


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