Collecting Outside the Belly of the Beast

Ovidiu Țichindeleanu

1. “Unload! Archive! Show!” - I wonder what happened when Beuys’s Polentransport reached the Museum of Art (Sztuki) in Łódź in 1981. What did the receipt of the 1000+ works of art say? How were they put down, registered and stored? How soon and in what form did they make the passage from archive to exhibit?

Beuys’s gesture, inspired by Eugen Loebl, the former high-ranked Czechoslovak official who was part of the purge trials of 1952 and defected to the West after the Soviet invasion of 1968, aimed to foster nothing less than a “revolution of concepts”. Beuys’s act was a peak of conceptualism, whereby the totality of the work of the artist becomes, potentially, a vehicle of social change. And it described quite a loaded arc, from the dark and self-reflective “empty insulated place” of the Rubberized Box of 1957, made of wood, asphalt and rubber. Yet the generous gesture of the Polentransport seemed to enter immediately upon receipt into a relationship with a particular frame of representation echoing back Western art history. So when Judit Angel, Vlad Morariu and Raluca Voinea launched the first installment of the Collection Collective in October 2017 in Bratislava[1] - where Loebl had been named director of the State Bank in 1963 after his rehabilitation - it seemed an oddly affirmative refusal of entering the echo chamber, in order to re-open instead questions about the conceptual as well as material autonomy, the accumulation of collective subjectivity, and a necessary change of orientation of the cultural workers of the world in our times.

For its part, Beuys’s “totality” was itself touched by finitude and by the framing logic of art practices and movements in the capitalist world. After he was fired from the art academy, Beuys created with great hopes the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research in 1974, but by the beginning of the 1980s the winds of counterculture were visibly waning. The Polentransport was a collection of his works, the works of an artist with “international reputation”, rising over a body of Western works that claimed from the late 1950s the field of the so-called “contemporary”[2] – the peak-time of “universal history”. The transport was also addressed to a Museum of Art which had been created in 1930 from a private collection of Western and Polish avant-garde works; thus Beuys himself was updating the historical avant-garde with the contemporary, as it were.

If we were to believe in Hegelian logic rather than the folds of history, whatever followed in the light of Beuys’s general orientation could either be a related or somewhat higher form of conceptualism or else a descent into some form of rude decadence. And indeed, Peter Osborne has called in 2018 postconceptuality “the culturally symptomatic condition of contemporary art”[3]. At the opposite end, one could argue that anti-intellectualism reached indeed new heights in the North-American, English and French culture industries of the past three decades. Yet in the former socialist bloc, the history of modern and contemporary art, when seen from the perspective and with the experience of the regional cultural and social history, has kept on developing or at least indicating the emergence of divergent ways, claiming other paths of history.

Beuys himself was also reacting to historical perceptions and feelings transmitted by his friends from the other side – the socialist world – who were experiencing a different temporality and were invoking an other play of light and shadow, as the Solidarity movement was picking up. Beuys - and Loebl’s - appeal for a “new social movement” which was to foster a “new society of real socialism” based on “alternative economic and cultural enterprises“ was voiced at the dawn of the great socialist recession of the 1980s, which was a drastic come-down after the enthusiasms and achievements of the 1960s-the first half of the 1970s. And that feeling was only enforced by the plunge into the abyss from the 1990s-2000s. The precarious institutional situation of contemporary art in the post-socialist transition and the new relations to the West were well reflected by Ivan Moudov’s work Fragments box, 2002-2007[4], the personal museum made by the Bulgarian artist in a small suitcase filled with stolen fragments of works allegedly taken from contemporary art galleries and museums. And in 2016, Beuys’s call was directly answered from Łódź: Justyna Los and Mikołaj Sobczak made an archive of their own work and also packed themselves into a wooden chest, to be then sent to the Kunstpalast Museum of Düsseldorf[5]. Acting in the context of the most recent German debates over the “problem” of migration, the artists forced also a valorisation of their own work-and-being by way of a return gift. The Collection Collective seems to address similar concerns, but on an affirmative ground, that doesn’t even need the works of art to be transported somewhere, to be deposited. I would argue that the Collection Collective is part of the tendency of re-valorisation at the end of the post-socialist transition.  

2. From my standpoint, I see the emergence of the Collection Collective as an open-ended event, yet one that is anchored in real social necessities and works very well within an immanent itinerary of post-socialist critical or socially-engaged art. It actually allows one to widen the picture and include processes before 1989, looking thus at the transition from the situation of the arts under real-existing socialism, to its situation at the current ends of the post-socialist transition.

Namely, one has to recall the fact that the cultural sector in general, as well as the art sector in particular, were an integral part of the systems of production and valorisation of the centralized state. Beyond the ideological censorship and scarcity of information, beyond the pressure to align ideologically the produced public culture to the official political culture, the cultural workers and the arts were structurally linked to the industry and the economical and productive sector, and this connection created a distinct type of effects. The economical logic behind this link was that within the totalizing spectrum of the centrally-planned economy, the cultural sector was to gain value at a relatively equal pace with the inevitably pricier industrial sector.

Perhaps the most visible side of this link came in the form of commissioned visual works, mediated in the case of Romania by the centralized Romanian Artists Union (UAP), for the inauguration of basically each official building, factory, school, cămin cultural, bridge, bus station etc. Membership in the UAP was bringing by itself social benefits as well as status. In 1972, UAP’s Combinatul Fondului Plastic was opened, the biggest industrial producer of art supplies. And upon a closer look, the UAP underwent an immanent transformation, from the almost complete ideological regimentation in the 1950s, to a relative autonomy in the late 1960s-1970s – even as it was caught in internal hierarchies and struggles for power[6]. These processes took place in a context in which the visual arts were arguably towards the bottom of the internal hierarchy of the cultural sector, where literature reigned supreme. Deeply aware of the challenges and potentials opened by this newly-gained relative autonomy, art critic Ion Pascadi addressed in 1978 directly the issue of the “social status acquired by a work of art”, seeing in this and the associated phenomena nothing less than the possibility of another direction of valorisation within the “construction of socialism”. Thus, he argued that the works of art are disseminating specific modes of knowledge, and moreover, that they carry value and intuitions of valorisation, of mutations and becomings relevant to the entire social-cultural environment[7]. Situating his reflections in an epistemic field where the economical and political are intertwined with the ethical and aesthetical, Pascadi pleaded for the necessity of paying attention to the “fundamental aesthetical virtues of industry, social life, social relations and social ceremonies” in order to respond to the dynamic reality of social changes.

After 1989, the structural link was destroyed. As private property became the new foundation of all things, thanks to the law of property retrocession UAP lost its headquarters as well as retreat houses for artists; Combinatul Fondului Plastic was bankrupted; and the collection of works of arts of UAP, created in great part by works given by artists in exchange for nonreturnable “loans”, vanished into thin air in the 1990s. In the context of the neoliberal dilapidation of the wealth of the socialist state, which was seen by capitalists in the 1990s and 2000s as a suddenly-available vein to be exploited, the cultural sector was decoupled from the production economy. In this situation, the East European artists lost to a significant extent their “place” and were forced to overwork in a “double shift” throughout the 1990s-2000s, taking care both of the content and the reproduction of the content. One sees throughout the region artists who are invested simultaneously in efforts to create not only their “works of art”, but to produce the conditions of existence of their work, both at immaterial and material levels, ideological and institutional. As Raluca Voinea put it in one case, Claudiu Cobilanschi naturally answered to the challenge of exhibiting in the “gallery” of the journal “from the position of the self-organized artist, for whom his works represent at the same time their own (and his own) framing”[8].

The post-socialist situation of cultural workers has been characterized by the loss of the structural link between the cultural sector and the rest of the productive economy. People worked within this void, resisting against the overall devaluation by developing autonomies. Even in the field of literature, one had to work in what Ovid Pop has called with precision, comparing it to the socialist past, the “undetermined place of the writer in society”[9].

And yet, with time, in a cultural field increasingly dominated by void-making and obedient commodification and/or occidentalisation, even institutions such as the local museums of “modern art” have slowly - very slowly - started to redevelop relationships to contemporary art, especially by responding with their still-existent collections to the Western interest in East-European conceptualists from the 1960s-70s. And, what is more interesting, I would argue subjectively that currently there is a generation of artists and cultural workers who are currently making the crossing, in very different manners, from forms of critical commentary to forms of constructivism, boldly committing to epistemic wagers in an open epistemic field, yet one built on criticality and resistance. The question of a positive valorisation structurally linked to social change has return to the fold. One could only hope that The Collection Collective is the incipient sign of other “contemporaries”, of the resurgence of social histories reclaiming institutions and economies.



[1] Initially participating artists were: Vlad Basalici, Tania Bruguera, Fokus Grupa, Jana Kapelová, Dan Mihaltianu, Anetta Mona Chişa & Lucia Tkáčová, Ilona Németh, Lia Perjovschi, Martin Piaček, Martha Rosler, Martina Růžičková & Max Lysáček, Péter Szabó.

[2] Rolando Vàzquez, “From Globalizing Towards Decolonizing: Art History and the Politics of Time”, Kunstlicht. Journal for Visual Art, Visual Culture, and Architecture, no.1, 2018.

[3] Peter Osborne, The Postconceptual Condition, London, Verso, 2018.

[4] See

[5] Agnieszka Sural, “An Ode to Joseph Beuys on an International Car Journey”, december 9, 2016.

[6] See the archive “The Romanian Artists Union  – entries for a case study”, IDEA arts + society, #48, 2015.

[7] Ion Pascadi, Arta de la A la Z, 1978, 44.

[8] Claudiu Cobilanschi, Monument Tropes, IDEA arts + society, #49, 2016.

[9] Ovid Pop, Domeniul celor vii, Iaşi,, 2018, 63ff.