Ostalgia emerged as a concept in the 1990s in East Germany, in which the styles and practices of the Soviet period were revived, blending kitsch and the unattractive features of what seemed in retrospect a simple way of life compared to the choices and challenges of capitalism. Ostalgia, the exhibition, combines elements of the Soviet period with multi-media of the past 20 years, "mixing private confessions and collective traumas," the curators write, with "a psychological landscape in which individuals and entire societies negotiate new relationships to history, geography and ideology." Ostalgia "does not make a case for a unified history of art in the former Eastern bloc: instead it illuminates similar atmospheres and sensibilities across nations, and points to dramatic differences for 'Ostalgia' is more about a state of mind than a specific place in time."
The art of the Soviet era operated, essentially, on two levels: The surface was "Socialist Realism," statuary and glorified imagery that in hindsight is almost comically grandiose yet to today's generation is a reminder of the façade the empire presented to the world in its heyday. Below that surface was the artistry of dissent, literature, sculptures, paintings, and lithographs that captures the genuine attitudes of the time. What "Ostalgia" does is lend value to nostalgia for the authorized work while also recognizing the samizdat that gave artists and writers a sense of integrity. In its way, therefore, the exhibition is a hodgepodge of messages: the Soviet surface combined with underground artistry and the output of today's post-imperial age.
What is most striking about "Ostalgia" is that the former Soviet bloc no longer has a unifying theme -- as it did in its superpower epoch. The craftsmanship of today ranges from gifted to crude, from grotesque to subtle. But the net effect, successful on the whole, is to separate the work of the Western region -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- from the Central Asia and Caucasus cultures. What is displayed is the shattered empire rather than the elements that made it seem to adhere. In his introduction to the catalog, Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of the New Museum, writes:
This exhibition is an album of memory, an archive or atlas, a cartography of a territory with geographical and histories boundaries that tend to blur and fade as we go back in time or venture into the future. The temporal epicenter of the exhibition is 1991, the year that marked the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact... It is disjointed and fragmented, since fragments are all that is left of one of its main protagonists: the overarching ideology of Soviet Socialism.
What is missing from the display is the collective irony of the underground work. There is an earnestness to the art that makes it seem less inventive or engaging than it should be. But the concept of Ostalgia nonetheless fascinates -- that it is possible to characterize the retrospective art of the Soviet empire in a single term is an important contribution to modern history. The U.S.S.R. is long gone. The Russia of today is crude and crass; its former satellites have their own cultures. Ostalgia is a worthy heir -- and there aren't many -- of the Soviet era, providing a basis for artistry that seemed immutable in its time but turned out not to be.