The “Dialectical Document” in Eastern European Art of the 1970s and 1980s

Sven Spieker
Jiří Kovanda; Iosif Király; Ioan Bunu; Ilya Kabakov; Tomislav Gotovac; KwieKulik; Ewa Partum; Boris Mikhailov; SubREAL; Collective Actions; Eastern Europe; document; self-documentation; self-archiving; performance.

In this paper I will focus on artists from Eastern Europe who widen the uses of documents, from a purely evidentiary function to a more performative one: from ‘saying’ to ‘doing’. In Eastern Europe, the contingency of these positions (performance/document) is perhaps even greater than in the West, not least because in the former East, for reasons to do with the absence of any non-private institutions charged with documenting contemporary art, unofficial artists were at the same time (their own) documentarians, embodying two positions in relation to their work at one and the same time: that of artist, and that of archivist. Of course, during the Cold War, an interest in (self-) documentation was not limited to Eastern Europe. And not all Eastern European unofficial artists were docu-philic in the same way. In fact, generalizing somewhat, we might say that their dealings with documents was akin to the Dadaists’ attitude: as for the latter, for Eastern European artists a document was both a token of an alien reality and the departure point for a new way of dealing with that reality.

The interest artists from the former ‘East’ took in documents was related to the specific circumstances of life for non-official artists behind the Iron Curtain. I am thinking in particular of the lack of exhibition opportunities and the absence of an institutional framework for making and showing art, in short: Eastern European artists’ general invisibility. However, this pragmatic motivation for the production of documents was not merely an extra-artistic, purely documentary activity; in fact, even though it was born from the circumstances, self-documentation was from the beginning an artistic project as well, and as such it constituted an atavistic resurfacing of the more didactic aspects of avant-garde art production in general: the will, at one and the same time, to make art and to instruct one’s public on how to understand that art. After all, the term ‘document’ derives from Latin ‘doceo’ = I teach. Documents, in other words, are never merely a container for the storage of an event; they always also reflect the designs and intentions of those who produce and use them, whether this happens for an actual audience or for a fictitious one.

Over the last decade, Eastern and Central European artists’ penchant for self-archivisation, but also for the documentation of the work of other artists in their circle – think of Vadim Zakharov’s archive of exhibitions of Moscow conceptual art – has aided art historians and curators who, confronted with the virtual non-existence of official documentation, have tried to rewrite the history of contemporary art in the region. As Zdenka Badovinac, one of the pioneers of these efforts, said in an ARTMargins interview in 2009:

Documenting the unofficial neo-avant-garde and its context, their archives performed some of the tasks otherwise carried out by official institutions. If we want to learn about the unofficial art we need those archives as crucial sources for research. For the artists-archivists the most important thing was to keep their own work and the work of their colleagues documented and to preserve the evidence of the specific conditions of art production. Then there are artists who today try to map their local histories because their own artistic practices make that necessary.1

Summing up Badovinac’s point, we might say that the production or collection of documents offered Eastern European artists a way of establishing control, of staking out a terrain, of making themselves more visible. Of course, there is always something partisan about the production of documents, a will to power, the power of interpretation. In some cases, this means opening up a work to new or different ways of seeing; in others, it can have a more limiting effect of controlling the possible range of interpretations.

Consider in this context the documents produced by Czech artist Jiří Kovanda during the 1970s on identically formatted (typed text+photograph) DIN A4 pages. It is clear that as documents, these pages function, on the one hand, as (constative) evidence that Kovanda’s ephemeral actions in Prague’s urban landscapes even took place. Given the fact that Kovanda, like most unofficial artists in the former Eastern Europe, was essentially invisible as an artist, his was an important undertaking: the records produced by Kovanda to document his actions – accosting passersby, or simply appearing in a largely apathetic, disinterested group of bystanders in the streets of Prague, do not simply make the invisible artist visible; rather they give visibility to his invisibility, and in this way they add a perspective to the way in which we view and understand the artist’s actions.

Jiří Kovanda, Contact, September 3, 1977, Prague, Spálená a Vodičkova ulice.

In some cases, the production of documents on the part of artists was a way of hedging against the documentary zeal of the State and its documenting organs. Take the case of Iosif Király, one of the members of the Romanian SubREAL artist group. Király began to meticulously document his correspondence with Japanese artist Shozo Shimamoto because he was afraid that the Securitate might be intercepting his letters. As Király writes:

During the 80’s I worked as an artist-archivist with my mail art collection (both the works I sent away to other artists and those that I received). Due to the fact that too often censorship stopped the messages … I was supposed to receive, I was always counting, stamping and keeping evidence of everything. Now I find interesting the folders (as objects. I still have some of them) where my whole mail-art activity is kept in kind of order.2

Iosif Király, Page from the artist’s mail art inventory (Shimamoto). Photo courtesy of the artist.

If we can attribute to such creative bookkeeping a protective function – hedging for the possibility that the listed items could be intercepted and/or get lost – not all the ways in which artists documented their own work were designed to protect and preserve documents. There were, on the contrary, also docuphobic or even docuclastic tendencies, and these are perhaps not mentioned often enough. For instance, the Romanian artist Ioan Bunus burnt his entire archive as part of a performance before leaving Romania for West Germany in the early 1980s.

Members of the group MAMÜ burning part of the archive of Ioan Bunus (1982). Image courtesy of Károly Elekes / the group MAMŰ.

Or, to take the example of fictitious archives of documents, consider the case of Ilya Kabakov’s installations of garbage where any mnemonic function is neutralized or obstructed due to entropic overload.

In recent years there have been several exhibitions exploring the relationship between contemporary art and documents, mostly but not only in the West. I am thinking of shows such as documenta 11 (Kassel, 2003); “Cruel and Tender” (London and Cologne, 2003), and “The Need to Document” (Basel and Lüneburg, 2005). Summing up these exhibitions, we might say that they all converge to varying degrees on the idea of the document as something that is unswervingly at the service of truth, something that reveals and makes transparent or visible, a moment of clarification and enlightenment. By contrast, French scholar Sophie Berrebi, has developed a “dialectical” concept of the document that takes into account both its ability to act as evidence – a pointer to something outside of it – and, self-referentially, i.e., as a pointer to itself:

The document, like the image in general (as defined by Walter Benjamin) becomes dialectical. One of the central characteristics of the document is that it is always a thing in itself and, at the same time, always refers to something else […]. This dialectical mode of functioning means that when appropriated by artists the document becomes a work of art without actually abandoning its earlier status and identity.3

Dialectical documents in Berrebi’s understanding do not simply produce evidence that something exists or existed; they exceed this evidentiary task, taking on a life of their own, leaving the archive to which their status as evidence had confined them: they become events. As events, such documents de-sublimate their archiving function. In Eastern Europe, such a dialectical expansion – in Berrebis’ terminology – was nothing unusual: in the absence of any institutional outlets, collections of documents related to unofficial contemporary art were located mostly in the apartments of their proprietors, where willy-nilly they were permanently on (partial) display, adding an element of everyday-life-performativity to the documenting enterprise.

Take the case of Croatian filmmaker and performance artist Tomislav Gotovac who obsessively turned his Zagreb apartment into an overstuffed art installation. Darko Simićić reports that the artist started that transformation after 1987, when his mother died, and that he referred to his apartment-as-archive as his own Merzbau.4 Or, consider Warsaw-based artist duo KwieKulik’s Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation (Pracownia Działań, Dokumentacji, i Upowszechniania (PDDiU), consisting of a vast amount of material: photographs, slides, films and other footage, texts, and prints documenting contemporary Central European process and performance art, and which was located in the Kwieks’ apartment in the Praga district of the Polish capital.

Since in Eastern Europe the documentary impulse not only co-existed happily with the impulse to make art, both Gotovac and KwieKulik viewed the documents stored in their archives as document-events whose performative potential could be activated at any time, and indeed both presented or exhibited their dialectical document-events regularly. In the case of KwieKulik, this began in the 1970s with various trips within Poland and Western Europe. From 1984 onwards, Gotovac named his documentary/archival activities work Paranoia View Art and made several museum-style exhibitions under this title, using his collection of documents together with photo-documentation of his own works. The first such show, comprising 160 exhibits, was presented at the DDT Gallery in Zagreb. In interviews related to this project, Gotovac mentioned that his intention was to create a Museum of the People's Revolution of Tomislav Gotovac, a version of Museums of the Revolution that existed in numerous cities in Yugoslavia at the time.

Other examples of dialectical documents whose functioning as evidence was supplemented by a performative element are documents in motion. I am thinking especially, though not exclusively, of mail art, an activity that was particularly well suited for the peculiar situation of the unofficial artist in Eastern Europe, especially their condition of invisibility as artists. In a sense, every mail art object is a dialectical document, hovering between art and non-art, visibility and invisibility, evidence and fiction. Perhaps this is why there was so much mail art in the self-documenting collections of Eastern European artists, and why documents could become mail art objects in a flash. In a sense, even documents such as Kovanda’s DIN A 4 pages are mail art, if not in a literal sense: addressed to invisible addressees, Kovanda’s self-documenting pages communicate at a distance and for an audience-yet-to-come, and document fleeting actions whose ‘reality’ they have no real power of proving.

Let me give another example of artist-collected documents turning into mail art: from the 1970s Ioan Bunus, whom I mentioned already. started keeping an archive-diary where in the words of art historian Madalina Brasoveanu he

used to keep a diary/archive that documented his daily existence [and] personal experiences; such a diary gathered, [in] the form of a calendar, little proofs of everyday events, such as train, bus or tram tickets, wine bottles’ labels, leaves or flowers from a walk in the park, pieces cut from women’s underwear, etc. The collection held objects and/or photos as well.5

In the early 1980s, Bunus began to use fragments of his archive for the creation of mail art objects that he would send “into the (mail art) network.” Of course, once they had been mailed out into the world, Bunus’ once-evidentiary documents with their close attachment to his daily life took on a life all of their own.

Where Bunus turned documents into (mail) art, Polish conceptual artist Ewa Partum went the opposite way with her Poems by Ewa (1970), scattering single alphabet letters into the sea, an underpass, or the urban environment. Partum’s letters have no evidentiary function beyond acting as testimony to their own passage. A related attitude to the document can be observed in the work of the Moscow Collective Actions Group where a document produced as part of an action was not under any obligation to show or certify that action. Take the action entitled Comedy (1977), involving a group of participants on the edge of a field. Two figures moving across the field in the distance and in view of a group of onlookers; finally, there is another figure whose relationship to the other distant figures cannot be reliably established and whose disappearance marks the end of the action. The documentary photographs accompanying the action reflect the viewers’ changing perception of the field, including its eventual emptiness. Collective Actions’ key theorist, Andrei Monastyrski, writes of these images:

Thus, the photograph of the empty field, taken out of the series of empty photographs which narrate the events on the open field of October 2, 1977, ceases to be documentary. Instead it becomes a higher symbol of the “‘nonfortuitous’ emptiness … The demonstrational essence of the event, the empty action, is depicted through the absence of an image. In my opinion this ‘nondepiction’ works independently and positively …6

The documentary photograph is here no longer hinged to a positive referent to whose existence it testifies. Instead the absence of a certified referent becomes an index of the presence of an absence, as emptiness loses its randomness and is filled with expectation.

In Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov’s work, too, the documentation of absence and its dialectical relationship with presence is an important concern. In his book of photographs Unfinished Dissertation (1985; 1999), Mikhailov offers perhaps the most succinct illustration of the dialectical document by juxtaposing, on every page, two images: one in which an object is present, and another in which it is absent. Taken together, the dialectical image, in Mikhailov’s case as much as in the case of Collective Actions, models the presence of an absence, or what Monastyrski would call “non-fortuitous”, productive, positive, or “filled” absence, as if we can think documentary evidence only by also thinking its absence.

Based on the material presented above, the following (interrelated) uses may be distinguished for the dialectical document: (1) A document is a record of an event; (2) A document may be an event; (3) When a document is an event, its ability to document is no longer contained; (4) As an event, the document-as-event exceeds what it contains; (5) The document-as-event may become subject to documentation. It is with stage (4) – the document-as-event becoming itself subject to documentation, that the circle between documentation and art production closes.

Sven Spieker
University of California, Santa Barbara


1 Zdenka Badovinac (2009) Interviewed by Sven Spieker and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez for ARTMargins. Available at: [25.01.2020].

2 Iosif Király, e-mail message to the author, 16.10.2016.

3 Sophie Berrebi, “Documentary and the Dialectical Document in Contemporary Art,” in: Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier (eds.), Right about Now. Art & Theory since the 1990s (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2007), p. 27.

4 Darko Simićić, e-mail message to the author, 20.4.2017.

5 Madalina Brasoveanu, e-mail message to the author, 30.7. 2019. I thank her for this reference to Bunus.

6 Andrei Monastyrski, “Seven Photographs,” in: Laura Hoptmann (ed.), Primary Documents. A Sourcebook of Primary Documents on Eastern and Central European Art from the Second Half of the Twentieth Century (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), p. 177.


Sven Spieker teaches in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of California. Specialises in modern and contemporary art and culture, with an emphasis on Russia and Eastern Europe. Founding editor of ARTMargins Print and ARTMargins Online. Destruction. Documents of Contemporary Art (ed., Cambridge: MIT Press/Whitechapel, 2017), The Big Archive. Art from Bureaucracy (Cambridge/Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).

Suggested Citation

Spieker, Sven. 2020. “The “Dialectical Document” in Eastern European Art of the 1970s and 1980s.” 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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