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In contemporary American society, it is easy to take our right to self-expression for granted. We express ourselves so often it can feel like a chore or a second job. Because of this, we can easily forget that there are places where the expression of dissenting opinions is not just a matter of social unrest or distrust, but a potentially illegal act.
The Medea Insurrection: Radical Women Artists Behind The Iron Curtain at the Wende Museum gathers a diverse group of women artists whose artwork pushed past the governmentally-approved themes of their time. The exhibition includes artists from the former people’s republics of Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic. The tie that binds the artwork together is the illicitness of the content, which defied boundaries of acceptable artistic themes of the era: e.g., nationalism, the prioritizing of the group over the individual, or the depiction of laborers as happy and empowered, regardless of whether or not that was reality.
Many of these women used photography and textiles in their work, a move that could have been strategic, as these mediums were not officially recognized by the Soviet Union as forms of art and therefore were not subject to its strict regulations. In Identity Shirts 1-7 (1970–’80) Romanian artist Ana Lupas framed seven worker’s shirts inside out, hanging them side by side in a neat line. While the shirts are uniform and identical in form and color, the presentation pulls out the unique details of each one, marked as they are with a particular worker’s stains of sweat, ink, and blood. These idiosyncrasies pull away from a communist ethos, instead reinforcing that while workers (or any collective group of people) may operate in unity they steadfastly remain unique individuals, each beset with their own distinct personality traits, habits, and experiences.
Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer, one of the more well-known artists in the exhibition, likewise utilized repetition and textiles in her work. In the first image of her film Timing (1973/1980), she holds up a white rectangular cloth containing visible creases, subsequently folding and unfolding the fabric while her own body remains barely visible in the background. In this gesture, she, like Lupas, explores the effects of the passage of time and the impossibility of exact repetition (or, put in more political terms, total conformity). Notably, Maurer claimed her work was not political. The Soviet Union’s official policy towards artwork was that if it did not contribute to the realization of the Communist Party’s goals, it was not artwork. This snaps Maurer’s statement into view as one of inherent political dissension, however indirect.
In a more overtly critical work, painter Doris Ziegler’s “Rosa Luxemburg” Work Team, Portrait Eva (1975) turns the depiction of the worker, a strong motif of socialist painting, on its head to reveal the truth of working conditions for female laborers. Though women were given full political equality in the Soviet Union’s constitution, the lived reality for most women was more dire. Many worked two full-time jobs—in a profession assigned to them by the government—while doing most, if not all, of the housework and child-rearing. In the latter sense, the women who lived behind the Iron Curtain have much in common with American women today. While contemporary women may get to choose their vocation, the financial realities of life in the capitalism-fueled economy of the U.S. practically demands a two-income household, especially to rear children, and domestic chores still often fall to the female or “feminine” partner at home.
In keeping with their practice of selecting contemporary artists whose work relate to the themes of their historical exhibitions, the Wende Museum invited three artists currently working in Los Angeles to exhibit alongside the more historic works in the show. One of these artists, Sichong Xie, is uniquely touched by the consequences of censorship—her grandfather was punished for an illustration of donkeys he drew that was interpreted as mocking the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution. Following in her grandfather’s footsteps and the lineage of artistic resistance, Xie photographs herself in a male communist uniform adorned with a fake Louis Vuitton print. In this gesture, Xie complicates the binary between male and female, while elucidating how capitalism, much like communism, can work to erase our humanity by convincing us to use brands to express our identity, all the while giving us the illusion of freedom and choice.
The Medea Insurrection commemorates women artists who were brave enough to make art (a great privilege!) that went against the propaganda of their place and time. They thought radically but operated strategically, a tactic that allowed them to survive. In this way, they mirror the exhibition’s titular character Medea, the controversial and complicated female figure who used intelligence and ruthlessness (traits thought to be unbecoming to a woman in Greek society) to realize her goals. Like Medea, like many contemporary women, each artist chose to disregard the societal limitations placed on their gender in order to achieve greatness. Across the exhibition at the Wende, these artists search for meaning and express dissent unapologetically in politically uncertain times, an important message to carry with us, especially today.
Jennifer Remenchik is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 19.