It was 1983, and East German artist Gabriele Stötzer was being watched. She had already spent a year in prison, and the Stasi, the East German secret police, shuttered her underground gallery. But this new level of being watched played out in her photo series in which she documented a person who went by the name "Winfried" and posed for her in women's clothes, sometimes shyly, but other times provocatively. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she discovered that he, "Winfried," was a Stasi informant.
"He knew that she was close to musicians and punks, and he approached her," said Walker curator Pavel Pyś. When she found out he was an agent, it raised the question: "Who is looking at whom? Is Gabriele Stötzer looking at him or is he actually observing her? It's totally wild that a spy would commit to this extent."
Stötzer's photographs are among about 250 works in the massive exhibition "Multiple Realities: Experimental Art in the Eastern Bloc, 1960s-1980s" at the Walker Art Center. Organized by Pyś, the show casts the spotlight on how artists have navigated, at times seriously, at other times playfully, during this notoriously restrictive period.
"I think that when you say 'Central Eastern Europe during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain,' images that come to mind might be of coldness, concrete, inability, isolation, a kind of drab image of homogeneity," said Pyś. "And this exhibition really does not tell that story. It tells the story of a great diversity of experimentation, of adventurousness, a spirit of trying to extend the possibilities of art."
Enter the bloc
Artworks in this ambitious exhibition, which Pyś worked on for five years, come from the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and are organized into four thematic sections: public vs. private, identity, community and the future.
In Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu's project "Electoral Meeting," 1975 (printed 2023), he used a hidden camera to photograph an electoral meeting in Bucharest on March 6, 1975, organized by the Communist Party. At the meeting, people were expected to support Nicolae Ceaușescu's regime; the Securitate secret police swarmed the scene, creating a sense of political theater.
In Croatian artist Sanja Iveković's photo series "Trokut (Triangle)," 1979, she documents herself sitting on the balcony, reading a book, smoking, pretending to masturbate, and even wearing a T-shirt in English — all subversive actions or attire — as party leader Josip Broz Tito, former president of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, passes on the street below.
Other works more directly reference the ways the Stasi surveilled people. Czech artist Jan Ságl's series of photos, "House Search," is a documentation of the home he shared with Zorka Ságolová, after they learned they were already being watched. The photos were a way to track any movements from the Stasi.
"If you had a cup of coffee in the morning and went to work, and came back home and noticed that that cup was in a different place, you would be suspicious that your home was being searched," Pyś explained.
In the second section, focused on identity, artwork that could be considered "feminist" is shown, but many women artists at this time, and in this region, resisted the term because it was associated with Second Wave Feminism. Artists in the Eastern Bloc were fighting a different fight.
On the other hand, Polish artist Ewa Partum's piece "Change. My Problem Is a Problem of a Woman," 1978, in which she physically ages half her face in a photo — and received ridiculously misogynistic criticism from a male critic for it — could have been made today.
The third and fourth sections of the show push back the most against stereotypes of the Eastern Bloc, exploring communal experiences — like living on a hippie commune, or pingpong as social practice art — and an entire gallery devoted to emerging technologies.
For a Western viewer who is seeing this for the first time, everything may feel new. For people who are familiar with topics of art in Central Eastern Europe, this show could feel refreshing.
"To me it is really nice to see that [the show] is coming to an environment where people are not familiar with the context," said Livia Paldi, curator at BHM Kiscelli Museum-Municipal Gallery in Budapest, Hungary. "It's very atmospheric, and it brings you in in a very subtle way — there is this radical intimacy, which I felt was very inviting."
Pyś, who originally framed the project in terms of abstraction, realized that he was most interested in the roles that politics and power played. From there, he narrowed it down to the region.
"I was thinking about the roles politics and power play in the show," he said. "But not in the way you might expect."
'Multiple Realities: Experimental Art in the Eastern Bloc, 1960s-1980s'
When: Ends March 10.
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.