The definitive guide to radical art, music and literature from Eastern Europe
In the Eastern Bloc, electronic music was not for parties. Alongside space exploration, it was a way of foreseeing the future in the set of the people's existing dystopia. Showcasing the greatest experiments in art and music of Eastern Europe from the late 50s to early 80s, the latest exhibition at Calvert 22 Gallery in London, "Sounding the Body Electric", brings together surrealist Polish films to the park of broken totalitarian dreams. Check out our A-Z guide to the outrageously inspiring Eastern Bloc culture with the highlights from the exhibition:
Abramovic (long before wearing Givenchy) grew up and developed her artistic voice in Belgrade, Serbia. Her early shocking performances, such as lying in the middle of a burning five point communist star, were influenced by the culture of sacrificing for the higher goal that has widely exploited the Soviet ideology.
The Berlin Wall
The most concrete symbol of the Cold War devided Berlin in two from 1961 to 1989.
Red carnations were a common decoration for Soviet demonstrations and parades. The Soviet rock legend Victor Tsoy later rethought the outdated symbol by wearing red carnations over his black denim jacket.
Czech artist Milan Knizak started scratching, breaking, burning and painting vinyl records in 1963. By playing the damaged records (which often destroyed the record player) he created new aggressive, nerve-wracking and fun music.
Experimental Studio of Polish Radio
The studio in Warsaw in 1960s was one of the most technically advanced in the world. Composers were worked with skilled engineers performing the forgotten miracle of editing the magnetic tape.
An international community of artists and composers, Fluxus appeared in 1960s in New York and was influenced by superstar experimental composer John Cage. The self-appointed leader of the group George Macuinas was Lithuanian, and Fluxus was always looking East for inspiration. Yoko Ono used to be a member.
Czech artist Milan Grygar explored links between image, sound and space. In his series of acoustic drawings he used unusual tools like combs, springs and wind-up toys simultaneously, recording the sound of the process.
The House (Dom)
A short (and mental) Polish film by Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk that features obscure surrealist imagery – like a living wig – and music composed by Włodzimierz Kotonski by looping and manipulating vocals and sounds on magnetic tape.
A Croatian feminist artist famously juxtaposed names of tortured partisan heroines against fashion imagery and imitated masturbation on a balcony while Tito’s cortege was passing by.
Just Transistor Radios
This work by Szabolcs Esztenyi and Krzysztof Wodiczko is a composition for eight performers with transistor radios simultaneously tuning, adjusting volume and shaking their instruments. They should also to wear earplugs as a sign of protest against the state control of radio waves.
Komar and Melamid
A Russian artist duo erasing borders of the state of music. Denied the possibility to travel to New York in 1976, they composed a piece of music with a score derived from the Soviet internal passport which was performed simultaneously in 14 countries.
Polish science fiction writer, author of Solaris (made into a cult feature film by Andrei Tarkovsky), a story of the encounter with a planet covered with a plasmic ocean that turns out to be a massive living consciousness.
Music Within and Outside
A performance by the Russian neo-avant-garde Collective Actions which involved going outside, making music and playing pre-recorded sounds of different environments, like the sounds of passing trams.
Neue Slowenische Kunst is a Slovenian art collective and a “conceptual nation”. The artists operate a virtual country mimicking the visual language and symbolism of nation states, echoing the times of dictatorship. They also issue their own passports.
Olympics of 1980
The most vivid and sad memory of the Summer Olympics in Moscow is the gigantic inflatable Olympic bear floating into the sky at the closing ceremony.
The Prometheus Institute was established in the Kazan Aviation Institute in 1962 to design instruments which might serve the Soviet space program. In effect, the group of scientists produced stunning art pieces including Crystal, a glass octahedron changing brightness and colour in response to the volume and timbre of the music.
Small radio amplifiers were wired in the walls of all Soviet homes tuned to preset stations to hear the voice of the state.
“Sounding the body electric“
The quote comes from the description of Psalmus, an electronic music work by Krzystof Penderecki The composer worked with the basic elements of speech, vowels and consonants and “sounding the body electric”.
Not many people know that the inventor of the famous contactless instrument Leon Theremin was Russian. Later in life he was forced to work for the government and invented a bug to eavesdrop on the American embassy in Moscow.
Opened in 1939 for the “All-Union Agricultural Exhibition”, the VDNKh exhibtion centre in Moscow was a showcase for the great achievements of the USSR. This vast park of broken totalitarian dreams is still open today, and contains more than 400 buildings and Soviet statues.
Westbam’s nostalgic track “You need the drugs” released last year reminds that the enclave West Berlin used to be a getaway for David Bowie and many other artists intrigued among other things by the Eastern world next door.
An audiovisual performance and an adventure for the audience took place in 1966. The visitors had to enter the darkened room full of metal objects from the scrapyard and were invited to participate in actual making music.
In his postmodernist prose poem "Moscow-Petushki", Yerofeyev takes the reader on a train journey outside of Moscow with lots of alcohol. This Russian odyssey of 1970 reflects bitterness and despair of the Soviet Stagnation period.
A short film by Eugeniusz Rybczyński with a soundtrack by Experimental Studio of Posh Radio. Bright purple, orange and blue soup plays an important role in the acid-coloured love story.
Exhibition “Sounding The Body Electric: Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe 1957–1984” runs from 26 June to 25 August 2013 at Calvert 22 Gallery.