29 June 2020

Poetry and Performance. The Eastern European Perspective

Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen
Poetry and Performance. The Eastern European Perspective

In the second half of the twentieth century, poets and artists in Eastern Europe in particular took up the challenge of reflecting on and investigating the instrumentalization of language for communicative and political-ideological purposes. They did so by drawing attention to the made-ness of language, its materiality and mediality, and by creating performative situations for themselves and their audiences within which possibilities of verbal expression could be tested and acted out. Poetic performance makes the limits of language and speakability tangible.

In the socialist states of Eastern Europe, with all of their differences, poetry and performance are characterized by a double subculturality: on the one hand, they undermine the conventional perception of script and words as neutral means, which, on the other hand, was unacceptable against the cultural-political backdrop, forcing them into the unofficial or partially tolerated cultural scene.

The writing practice of samizdat as well as artists’ self-publishing and their relation to the devices of concrete and visual poetry have been treated and presented in previous projects. Until now, however, less consideration has been given to the circumstances of performance. In addition to typewritten literature, subcultural milieus attached particular importance to the oral recitation of poems, poetic installations in self-organized exhibitions, poetry actions and artistic interventions in public space. The interrelation between text and situation in poetic acts functioned as a trigger for actions, performances and happenings – a very specific and notably Eastern European characteristic of performance art.

The focus on artistic positions from Eastern Europe in our exhibition does not imply a territorialization of the topic, however. With the term ‘perspective’ we aim to change the viewpoint in order to open up new horizons of reflection on what we do and on what we are able to do with language in general. In Eastern Europe, we can observe a specific sensibility for the power and at the same time the fragility and vulnerability of language developing over many decades.

Honza Zamojski, “WORD WAR FREE 2.0”, 2018/2020, installation, courtesy of the artist and Leto Gallery, Warsaw. Photo by Małgorzata Kujda, © MWW, 2020

Poetry and performance have produced specific milieus within the diverse cultures of Eastern Europe. There were parallels developing between movements and approaches separated not only by the Iron Curtain from the developments in the West, but also, paradoxically, by barriers between those Eastern European cultures themselves. Nevertheless, what we can see as a characteristic feature here is a transgression of the conventions of national culture and the emergence of international networks. Our exhibition wants to contribute to the current rediscovery of these connections of which, until recently, there was very limited awareness.

One of our special concerns is the tension between singular artistic positions and the phenomenon of artistic collectives defined by the specificities of local milieus and subcultural communities. In this exhibition we want to recreate such milieus or to make them accessible by way of comparison, working with thematic groups focused on artistic practices. The presentation of the exhibition in a place of performative and poetic actions as renowned as Wrocław requires emphasizing the local background. The facade of Wrocław Contemporary Museum with Stanisław Dróżdż’s hourglass of words, meaningfully located in a post-German air shelter, is articulated even stronger in this context. The fragility of language meets the power of materiality of words, visible and always present.

The show is composed of various types of coexisting exhibits: text scores, interactive objects, sound and video recordings, films and installations of performance documentation. Together, they present authors from subcultures in socialist states along with contemporary positions that continue the legacy of combining poetry and performance, showing the efforts of poets and artists to break free from controlled language and normative communicative here and now. Poetry and Performance. The Eastern European Perspective thus confronts the current social challenges in the post-socialist countries through the prism of language and ideology and looks back at their points of departure.

Poetry and performance take on an exceptional topicality in periods of political crises, as these ephemeral and flexible art forms enable the reflection on relations and contexts that remain otherwise undiscussed.

Collective Actions Group, “Slogan”, 1977

Writing-Reading Performance

Performance places the poetic text in a situational context of production and reception. Beyond the printed word, typographic experiments evolve from a physical process of writing by hand and producing texts by typewriter, which themselves often gain the status of aesthetic objects. The presentation of poetry by way of poets’ readings implies a further shift from the reception of self-contained works to the perception of poetry in performance situations (Lev Rubinstein). Poets seek direct contact with their audience. In his performance for a video camera titled Conversation with a Lamp, Andrei Monastyrski, one of the founding members of the Collective Actions group, reflects on how the concept of performativity developed from poetry, retrospectively presenting Russian poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the situation of a reading performance. Another prominent approach by many artists and poets is the focus on freeing language from ideological usurpation. They tried to understand to which degree they themselves had unconsciously internalized ideology, for instance, as when Dmitri Prigov took on the character of a Soviet militia-man in his readings. It is precisely this gesture that Pussy Riot cited in their action The Policeman Enters the Game in the 53rd minute of the World Cup final match on 25 July2018, thus radicalizing the intertwinement of poetics and politics and intervening into media space.

In contrast to the meta-linguistic practices of Moscow Conceptualism, Slovak conceptualist Ľubomír Ďurček deals systematically with the contextual meanings of a single word, such as the word truth. He uses the page format as a limited model space, a performance area in miniature. Monogramist T.D’s  works rather emphasize intimate processes of writing, whose manipulation of figurative language changes the word into a material image or spatial object. In his early work, starting with the first Hungarian happening The Lunch (in memoriam Batu Khan, 1966), Tamás Szentjóby styled himself a ‘poet at the typewriter.’

For the Polish neo-avant-garde artist Andrzej Partum, postcards with provocative slogans, which he sent worldwide, were a form of postal performance examining the meaning and weight of words.  Thus the addressee and his or her (often very creative) response played a key role in Partum’s postal actions. It was a part of the international Mail Art movement and crucial element of the Poetry Office founded by Partum in Warsaw in 1971. In the works of the artistic duo Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė (Young Girl Reading Group), collective reading from mobile displays creates a unique experience of community. Yet here reading the text is not simply transferred to the performative situation; thanks to the installation, its virtual dimension is exceeded in the form of material objects strongly engaging the senses.

Dorota Gawęda, Eglė Kulbokaitė (Young Girl Reading Group) “YGRG14X”, 2018

Audio Gestures

Auditory or phonic poetry can be understood as a further development of sound-poetry in that it not only involves the sound of language and the transgressive potential of the voice, but also clearly works with the technical possibilities of audio recording. One of the great technological breakthroughs of the 1960s was the personal tape recorder, which meant that sounds could not just be recorded, but edited, cut, modulated, or mixed. Ladislav Novák experimented with a tape recorder at home before he and other poets, such as Josef Hiršal or Bohumila Grögerová, negan collaboration with a radio studio in the north Bohemian town of Liberec in the late 1960s on a Semester of Experimental Creation, during which innovative audio compositions were aired over the course of many months.

In the 1980s, the activity of the Latvian artist collective NSRD (Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings), founded by Hardijs Lediņš and Juris Boiko, was characterised by the production of experimental music albums and the performance of interdisciplinary actions. In her sound compositions, Jelena Glazova, a younger artist from Riga, uses archival recordings of Latvian folk songs from 1927, preserved on wax cylinders, which she mixes with her own digitally processed voice recordings. For Polish artist Wojciech Bąkowski, the noise of tape and cheap music equipment from the 1980s are objects of nostalgia, which he willingly uses in both stage performances as well as installations.

Novák, Chopin, Heidsieck et al., Text-Sound Compositions, A Stockholm Festival Collection 1968–1970, CD Collection, Fylkingen Records, 2005, Pavel Novotný Collection, Liberec; Ladislav Novák, 7 tape cases with Novák’s handwriting, 1960s, Michal Resl Collection and Pavel Novotný Collection, Liberec. Photo by Małgorzata Kujda, © MWW, 2020

Interventions in Public Space

Spoken or written word in public space confronts poetry with politics and involves direct sharing of ideas within a community or interaction with accidental passers-by. In the 1970s, the exhibition actions of the Zagreb-based Group of Six Artists or the public interventions of the Bosch+Bosch group from Subotica practiced what one might call a poetry of immediate impact. Testing the limits of freedom, they used the street as an open interactive space to replace the page of a book or conventional exhibition space. The performances of Tomislav Gotovacs caused a sensation by their bringing of private things into public spaces. On streets and public squares, Gotovac presented his naked body and daily tasks like cutting his hair and shaving, watching television or cleaning.

The Polish artist Ewa Partum used letters made of white cardboard sold in shops to assemble slogans for the decoration of living and working spaces. She randomly scattered these letters in both urban and natural spaces, and in this way liberated them from their original meaning. She called this series of actions Active Poetry. During a street action after the defeated labour protests of 1976, the group Akademia Ruchu presented the assembled crowd with lines of poetry written on banners. The Orange Alternative, on the other hand, played with the political setting by changing one singular letter in a slogan to mock the prohibition of anti-regime banners. Contemporary artist Liliana Piskorska also creates performative acts reclaiming public space. In this case, however, she deals not with the political regime, but with sexism in language, which also mounts considerable resistance. By changing male to female endings in wall graffiti, she draws attention to the need for gender-specific adaptation of Polish flexion.

Liliana Piskorska, “Linguistic and Gender Asymmetry”, 2017

In contemporary Russia, Pavel Arsenev and Roman Osminkin of the Laboratory of Poetic Actionism from St. Petersburg, or Kirill Medvedev, a Moscow-based poet, activist, and frontman of the politically engaged rock band Arkady Kots, experiment, increasingly via social media, with methods and devices aimed at breaking out of the safe space of art to intervene directly in society. Damir Avdić, a Bosnian musician, writer, and critic of post-Yugoslav social reality, works in a similar fashion. 

Cinematographic Poetry

In the subcultural milieus of Eastern Europe, poetry constantly steps into an intermedial relation with the moving image. In the films by Naško Križnar and Nuša & Srečo Dragan from the OHO group from the 1960s, the poetic exploration of the materiality of language is combined with visual cinematographic experiments. Constellations of letters, sentences, quotes, objects, and bodies evolve into cinematographic situations. Similarly, Romuald Kutera, an artist belonging to the Wrocław milieu centred in the 1970s around the Recent Art Gallery, experimented with moving images. In his work Here (1975), the word, film and gesture are tightly connected. Young Polish artist Agnieszka Polska in her computer-generated animations goes even further in her experiments. She discusses the limitations of understanding reality caused by language.

Poetry also plays a central role in the self-understanding of 1980s subculture in the GDR, and here too there is a new connection between poetry and film. It was not possible to simply document poetry readings with basic Super 8 camera equipment. Lip-synched audio recordings were not yet an option. Necessity was the mother of invention for many poets and filmmakers who found original solutions to this problem, working with voice-over texts, repetitive recitations or word-letter stop-motion sequences. In the 2000s, the artist and poet Yuri Leiderman and the film director Andrey Silvestrov developed a specific form of cinematographic geopoetics, playing with literary stereotypes against the backdrop of various cultural landscapes worldwide.

From the left: Nuša & Srečo Dragan (OHO Group), “Vietnam”, 1969, video, b/w, sound, digital copy, 48”, Marinko Sudac Collection, Zagreb; Agnieszka Polska, “Watery Rhymes”, 2014, HD video, 4’05”, courtesy of ŻAK | BRANICKA Gallery, Berlin; Yuri Leiderman, Andrey Silvestrov, “Birmingham Ornament”, 2011, video, digital copy, fragments, 4’09”, courtesy of Yuri Leiderman, Andrey Silvestrov, Cine Fantom. Photo by Małgorzata Kujda, © MWW, 2020

Body Poetry

This section focuses on the body as a physical site for speech acts. On the one hand, embodiment returns language to its material origins. The necessity of mediating such corporeal acts in the process of documentation also tends to introduce a distance between action and perception in photo and video performances. By its focus on how speech acts are embodied, this group of works touches on the core issues of radical narcissism, body-rhetorics, identity politics, gender and gaze. In the trangression of the disciplinary norms that coerce and control the body, in the 1970s the private becomes public. The repetitive formula Was ist Kunst? in the video performance by Raša Todosijević opens up a complex set of questions related to art as an institution. The automatism of a despotic phonocentric machine serves as a general metaphor for the connection of totalitarian discourse with the institution of art.  Jiří Valoch explores the intimacy of the body with a specific focus on image-text and image-sound relations. In a performance for the photo camera, he articulates a word, which the viewers can only read from his lips. Contemporary artist Paulina Ołowska based her series of photographs Alphabet on a similar idea – she bends her body in the shape of letters of the alphabet. Dressed in a characteristic red-blue outfit, she refers to fashion photography, but above all to the power exerted by language in shaping the human world. Bálint Szombathy also explores the image-text relations, but his works are more embedded in the tactile terrain of bodily experiences, as he confronts the bureaucratic operation of stamping with the fragility of the human skin. In the performance Arrhythmia Barbara Kozłowska used the phrasing and ordering value of language, both as spoken and written words. The names of the body parts read by her assistant from the atlas of anatomy were then marked by her and written on a canvas, and the model was the artist’s body. In the performance Shaman Poem by Katalin Ladik, the lines between poetic performance, music and body art are blurred. Ladik’s poetry develops into a pure form of sound poetry, including elements of archaic ritual, shamanistic mythology and an affinity with folkloric and new music with the use of both traditional and newly-made instruments like drums and bagpipes. In the case of ‘autoperforation’ artists in the East German underground scene, the body became a site of actions which unsettled through moments of self-injury. In the collaborations of Via Lewandowsky and Durs Grünbein, this bodily aesthetic enters into tension with the structuralising potential of the poem-text. In 1984, at the initiative of Gabriele Stötzer, Exterra XX emerged in Erfurt, one of the few groups of working female artists in East Germany. This collective action created a space of performative experience between literature, film, and fashion show.

Exhibition view. On the right: Jiří Valoch, “Self Signature”, 1971, photography, Kolekcja Marinko Sudaca, Zagrzeb; Jiří Valoch, “Ultimi Poemi d’Amore”, 1970, photography, Marinko Sudac Collection, Zagreb; Paulina Ołowska, Alphabet, 2005, coloured postcards and b/w cards with poems, courtesy of Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; in the background: works of Katalin Ladik and Barbara Kozłowska. Photo by Małgorzata Kujda © MWW, 2020

Language Games

Since the emergence of language-based art practices in the 1960s, poetry has been taken literally as a potential field for the examination of language as such. Poetry opens up a horizon for analyzing how words act in various contexts and various media. Language is often understood not only as a means of communication and its materiality, but also as a relational and dynamic field. Mladen Stilinović’s statements often imitate the form of slogans used in politics and marketing. His chief interest is in language not as a linguistic object, but as a dynamic field for confronting ideologies. In his work, phrases taken from everyday speech are inscribed into a complex matrix of social relations. Vlado Martek’s pre-poetry goes back to synergy of elementary practices and concrete materials used for writing conventional poetry by means of tautology. Honza Zamojski is an artist who creates his unique world, where pencil sketches, visual poetry and the essence of an artist’s book intertwine with sculptural objects and installations, adding up to build inseparable combinations. In this way, Zamojski explores the relationship between the world closed inside the book and the architectural space of the exhibition. He builds visual and poetic narratives without avoiding absurdity, self-irony and humour; however, he is sometimes deadly serious and disturbing.


ArtistAcademy of Movement, Nikita Alekseev, Gábor Altorjay, Pavel Arsenev, Damir Avdić, Wojciech Bąkowski, Bosch+Bosch (Attila Csernik, Slavko Matković, László Szalma), Ľubomír Ďurček, Exterra XX, Else Gabriel, Dorota Gawęda / Eglė Kulbokaitė (Young Girl Reading Group), Rimma Gerlovina, Jelena Glazova, Tomislav Gotovac, Collective Actions group, OHO Group (Nuša & Srečo Dragan, Naško Križnar), Group of Six Artists, Bohumila Grögerová / Josef Hiršal, Durs Grünbein, Gino Hahnemann, Tibor Hajas, Jörg Herold, Vladimir Kopicl, Jiří Kolář, Dávid Koronczi, Barbara Kozłowska, Romuald Kutera, Katalin Ladik, Yuri Leiderman / Andrey Silvestrov, Via Lewandowsky, Vlado Martek, Kirill Medvedev, Jan Měřička, Andrei Monastyrski, Ladislav Novák, Pavel Novotný, NSRD (Hardijs Lediņš, Juris Boiko, Imants Žodžiks), Paulina Ołowska, Roman Osminkin, Andrzej Partum, Ewa Partum, Liliana Piskorska, Agnieszka Polska, Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, Bogdanka Poznanović, Dmitri Prigov, Pussy Riot, Lev Rubinstein, Gerhard Rühm, Mladen Stilinović, Gabriele Stötzer, Tamás Szentjóby, Bálint Szombathy, Slobodan Tišma, Raša Todosijević, Dezider Tóth (Monogramista T.D), Jaromír Typlt, Jiří Valoch, Honza Zamojski
ExhibitionPoetry and Performance. The Eastern European Perspective
Place / venueMuzeum Współczesne Wrocław (Wrocław Contemporary Museum)
Dates27 March – 13 July 2020
Curated byTomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Agata Ciastoń

See also