Formatting Exhibitions

Formatting Exhibitions

Tomáš Glanc
Eastern Europe; performance art; exhibiting performance.

The exhibition of a performance is, unlike the documentation or archiving of performance art, hardly ever an immanent part of artistic practice. It is instead a retrospective activity which represents, conserves, and canonises the works from a distance. The reason for this is that individual exhibits in a performance exhibition are not able to present the artwork itself but only its mediation, whether an audio-visual recording, photo documentation, a script or verbal account of the action, commentary, descriptions, its reception and resonance, and so on. The ephemeral and singular character of a performance, a character which frustrates and undermines the materiality and objecthood of an artefact, makes capturing it in the genre of an exhibition, where the performance is not taking place but is simply exhibited, a paradox. Nevertheless, shortly after the rise of performance art in the late 1950s, this new artistic practice began to be conserved in museums, e.g. in the exhibitions “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1970 or “Seven Exhibitions” at the Tate Gallery in 1972.

Due to political conditions up to the end of the 1980s, performance art from Eastern Europe was rarely included in exhibitions in Eastern or Western Europe or in the United States, although international links and networks existed from the beginning (at least in select cases). They were received primarily in book form (Klaus Groh: Current Art in Eastern Europe: Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, USSR, Hungary)1 and in art criticism in journals like FlashArt, Kunstforum, among others.

Over approximately the last three decades, those exhibitions which do present Eastern European performance art, focus not on the artworks and their creators. Rather, each exhibition gives an implicit or explicit, reflective or unreflective answer to the question of how a performance’s singular presence can and should be made accessible ‘after’ the performance – again, from a distance. There are also other questions in play: which aspects of the performance are emphasised – the political-subversive, the aesthetic, or other qualities? And how do we understand the various attributions – Eastern European, Eastern Central European, Central European, State Socialist, Post-Soviet – which classify, group, instrumentalise, or even stigmatise the works?

Several strategies are characteristic of the praxis of exhibition since the early 1990s. On the one hand, a comparative perspective as a cursory starting point has been developed, which unites artistic milieus on the basis of country, even though these milieus were often isolated from each other and only had individual social contact. In awareness of this, the curators Ryszard Stanisławski of the Sztuki Museum in Łódź and Christoph Brockhaus, director of the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, organised a massive exhibition in 1994 for the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn entitled “Europa, Europa”, encompassing over 700 works by approximately 200 artists – incorporating performance art into this newly-established pan-European canon.

However, ‘Eastern Europe’ is not just understood as a principle of identification; in exhibition praxis, it is subject to negotiation as a problematic term. We see this in the exhibition “Aspects/Positions: Fifty Years of Art from Central Europe, 1949–1999” at the Vienna Museum of Modern Art (mumok) in the Liechtenstein Palace and in the 20s House. In Vienna, in the discussion surrounding the cultural and geo-political question of how the continent could and should structure itself and understand its serious internal differences, the Hungarian curator Lóránd Hegyi postulated a common Central European cultural heritage – one belonging essentially to the countries of the former Habsburg monarchy.

But in the 1990s, new approaches started emerging, pushing the territorial question into the background in order to instead focus on genuine art historical questions. This was the case, for example, in the exhibition “Out of Actions: Between Performance and Object, 1949–1979”. Prepared over several years by Paul Schimmel, the chief curator of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), this exhibition traveled between 1998 and 1999 to Vienna, Barcelona, and Tokyo. The exhibition “Fluxus-East”, subtitled “Fluxus Networks in Central Eastern Europe”, focused on the significant Eastern European participation in the Fluxus movement and was presented between 2007 and 2010 in Berlin, Vilnius, Cracow, Budapest, Tallinn, Copenhagen, and Høvikodden near Oslo.

The central position given to the body in performance art was taken into account in several important retrospectives. In the exhibition “Body and the East: From the 1960s to the Present”, Eastern European performance was, for the first time, systematically analysed and questioned through the prism of the body. The initiative for this came from the Eastern European context itself: the exhibition, curated by Zdenka Badovinac and shown in the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana in 1998, determinedly and self-consciously narrates the history of body art from its own perspective, which is to say not as an importation of previously inaccessible material from the exotic periphery. The essays on works from fourteen countries, in the book of the same name, were also mostly composed by authors from the region (Joseph Backstein, Iara Boubnova, Jurij Krpan, Ileana Pintilie, Branka Stipančić, Igor Zabel).

In the early 21st century, interest again increased in the specific socially explosive art historical elements connected to performance. In 2008/2009, for example, the exhibition “re.act.feminism: performance art of the 1960s & 70s”, curated by Bettina Knaup and Beatrice E. Stammer, operated on the thesis that the performance art developed in the 1960s and 1970s was essentially shaped by women artists. At the Berlin Academy of Arts, accordingly, they presented “pioneering performances by over twenty women artists who found their way to clear artistic positions in the social upheavals of these years in western art centers as well as in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.”2 One year later, in 2009/2010, the exhibition “Gender Check” at mumok, curated by Bojana Pejić, presented an overview of art from Eastern Europe since the 1960s which “engages with the subject of gender roles.”3 Gender is also an important focus in the 2018 exhibition “Left Performance Histories” at the New Society for Visual Arts in Berlin. The curation team, consisting of Judit Bodor, Adam Czirak, Astrid Hackel, Beáta Hock, Andrej Mirčev and Angelika Richter, focuses not only on subjects like fashion and clothing, but also on “performance art as a site of pleasure where common self-representations and social norms of sexual identity, sexuality, and beauty are circumvented.”4

However, in the Eastern European context especially, language in particular, alongside the body, is a valuable focus. This is asserted by the exhibition series “Poetry & Performance”, which identifies engagement with experimental poetry as one of the central approaches of performance art in Eastern Europe. The exhibition emerged from the research project “Performance Art in Eastern Europe (1950–1990): History and Theory” at the University of Zurich. The exhibition is curated by Sabine Hänsgen and me in collaboration with numerous experts from Eastern European countries and was presented between 2017 and 2019 in various editions.

A decidedly political and historical interest in turn guides those exhibitions which, on the one hand, systematically engage with European art history in general after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, on the other hand, closely examine and historically contextualise the post-Soviet era. An example of this is the 1999 exhibition “After the Wall – Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe” in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This kind of questioning of the immediate present can also assume the form of a study which investigates the roots of performance art in the avant-garde and pursues certain continuities lasting beyond the dissolution of state socialist cultural politics. The 2014 exhibition “Performance Art in Russia” at the Moscow Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by a team centered around Sasha Obukhova, was conceived of in this way: limited to a ‘national culture’ and chronologically including individual exhibits from prior history to the present (1910–2010). Another example of an exhibition focused on the country-specific presentation of performance art before perestroika was shown in Latvia with the title “And Others. Movements, Explorations, and Artists in Latvia 1960–1984”, organized by Vilnis Vējš, Ieva Astahovska, Līga Lindenbauma, Irēna Bužinska and Māra Traumane.

Without a doubt, research of performance art gains in significance with country- and place-specific points of view. This is shown above all by the important processes of canonisation in the form of retrospectives and monographic exhibitions, publications, etc. of pioneering Eastern European performance artists like Tomislav Gotovac, Milan Knížák, Jiří Kovanda, Katalin Ladik, and Ewa Partum, whose work finally receives the analysis it deserves and enters art history. Just as relevant are the art historical, social, or political inquiries which examine, for example, body art and gender or the relationship between performance and object. Both of these exhibition strategies – artist-, group-, and milieu-oriented on the one hand and comparative and transnational on the other – seize upon the inexhaustible (imaginary) archive of Eastern European performance art and in an interpretive challenge, to a large extent making it visible.

Translated from German by Brian Alkire

Tomáš Glanc
University of Zurich


1 Klaus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa – ČSSR, Jugoslawien, Polen, Rumänien, UdSSR, Ungarn, Köln (DuMont Schauberg 1972).

2 [5.06.2020].

3 [5.06.2020].

4 Andrej Mirčev, Judit Bodor, Adam Czirak, Astrid Hackel, Beàta Hock, Angelika Richter (eds.) Left Performance Histories: Recollecting Artistic Practices in Eastern Europe (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst, 2018), exhibition catalogue, p. 13.


Tomáš Glanc is Full Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of Zurich. Topics of research are scholarship and culture of Russian, Czech and Slavic modernism; slavic ideology; contemporary Russian art and literature; performance in Eastern Europe, and samizdat and the unofficial culture. Autoren im Ausnahmezustand. Die tschechische und russische Parallelkultur (Berlin: LIT Verlag 2017), Pavel Pepperstein: Memory is Over (PLATO – Platform [for the contemporary art], Ostrava 2016).

Suggested Citation

Glanc, Tomáš. 2020. “Formatting Exhibitions.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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