The New Museum’s Ostalgia show, through September 25, is a level-headed survey of artists whose work relates to the collapse of the communist bloc in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 20th century. It features only a few of the artists whose name became inextricably linked to Sots-Art, as coined by Komar & Melamid (noticeably absent from the show, as is conceptual dynamo Ilya Kabakov), including Eric Bulatov and Andrei Monastyrski, but also artists from Europe and beyond, dating from the 1960s to the present. Much of the art is thoughtful—less satirical in bent, and more about allowing the absurdity and poignance of daily life reveal itself through documentation. A nod to the curator, Massimiliano Gioni, for choosing the incisive title—a play on the German word “ostalgie,” evocative of both the east and nostalgia.
Some of the most striking pieces include Evgeny Antufiev’s sculptures of netherworld creatures, made of soft materials and bits of the artist’s or his mother’s hair or blood. They evoke some of the quiet darkness and quirky affability of Louise Bourgeois, and show how a poverty of materials can’t suppress a vivid imagination. Nikolay Bakharev took a series of black & white photos of families in the countryside—as near to a return to the happy wild as can be, with the exception of the funky bathing suits they wear without a trace of vanity. And Alexander Lobanov’s colorful drawings are reminiscent of obsessive high school doodlings, with a somewhat quaint focus on guns and military glory.
The time seems nigh for such an earnest reclamation of Socialist Realism, evident as well in the public’s embrace of the Shostakovich tractor ballet, The Bright Stream, in a new version by Alex Ratmansky, recently performed by ABT. The set was designed by Ilya Utkin, whose art and architecture shows richness, resourcefulness, and historical allusions without tipping into the ironic. The eastern bloc underwent seismic upheavals in the 20th century, including some pretty awful stuff. But with enough time and distance, even dark episodes can become the subject of nostalgia… And there’s a perfect word for that: Ostalgia.