The Subversive Art of Quotation Marks (Fragments of the East European artist)

Posted on April 28, 2009 by David Albahari

The bread of exile is sour and sticky, but so it must be. The art of baking is only one of the skills that an exile learns when he crosses the real and imaginary frontiers between worlds. And since these worlds seem always apart, that process of learning never ends. In fact, an exile is a person with two faces, a divided human being who can no longer, with any certainty, say simple words like: home, dream, heart, country, language, pain. Similarly his bread becomes “bread,” no matter how hard he attempts to get the right measurements of the necessary ingredients. To become an exile means to enter the world of quotation marks, of an unreal, parallel existence where everything has only a plausible meaning, where nothing is ever real, nothing is ever what it really is.

Today, the words Eastern Europe (denoting a political, rather than a geographical entity) are also written in quotation marks – “Eastern Europe”. Or so history tells us. But history is faster than reality and, although there no longer is an “Eastern Europe”, the essence that created its spirit – and consequently its artists – stubbornly refuses to yield to the whims of quotation marks. Culture is more than history, as human spirit is more than history. It is quite easy to change borders, to build or destroy walls, which is more than enough for a new page in textbooks, but the human spirit, even a spirit that grew under a totalitarian regime, follows its own path, past the precise entries of pedantic chroniclers.

Stanislaw Baranczak, a Polish writer who has tasted the bread of exile, writes in his essay “The Confusion of Tongues” that words like emigration, exile, expatriation, all begin “with an ‘e–‘ or ‘ex–‘, these sad prefixes of exclusion.” But the excluding “e–“, he writes, “has its antonymous companion in ‘in–‘, as in inclusion or immigration. I suppose just anybody who has ever crossed the frontier between ‘e–” and ‘in–‘ has at least once experienced a profound semantic incongruity invading his existence. For the sake of brevity, let us call this sensation ‘the Babel syndrome’.”

The term “Babel syndrome” is not limited to writers, lost in the gap between two languages. It might be better to say that it appears every time an artist finds himself surrounded by a new culture. Every culture consists of a long line of road signs which, just like the ones used in real traffic, direct the flow of information and make possible unobstructed motion in the sphere of the spirit. An artist who grows and matures using one set of road signs becomes lost in another. Instead of following fixed routes, he begins to move in the opposite direction. Instead of being a part of the whole, he becomes a whole within himself.

Things can disappear and yet continue to exist. An amputated limb evokes old pain; a felled tree casts no shadow, but the rustling of its leaves can still be heard; the Berlin Wall has been knocked down, but there is still a barrier between East and West. For most Westerners, Eastern Europe (or “Eastern Europe”) is a mental empty space”, writes Dubravka Ugresic, herself an exile from Croatia. “It is still somewhere behind the iron curtain, behind the wall, even now when there is no curtain and no wall.”

It seems reckless to claim that there is genuine “freedom of expression”. Regardless of different political systems, “freedom” and “freedom of expression” should always be seen as a net of premeditated conventions. In fact, “expression” itself cannot be completely forbidden. The East European artist, for example, was free to “express himself”, but only as long as his artistic project fitted into the projection of the world determined by ideology and Party decrees. It explains why the East European artist had to become a master of disguise, turning his art into a game of cunning, of expressing itself using that which supposedly was not there. And it also explains why the East European artist, after his arrival in the realm of democracy, would first exclaim “I am free!” only to realize later that he could not give voice to his sense of freedom. Freedom there was an ordinary thing, and nobody seemed to care much about it. And even when he managed to find empty spaces without freedom, they were so small, so inadequate for his readiness to disappear completely, to drown himself in the absent and forbidden.

“Communism,” writes Adam Michnik, a former Polish dissident, in his essay “Grey is Beautiful,” “was a kind of freezer. The process of defrosting was slow: first we saw beautiful flowers, later – mud and disgusting dregs.” The peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall and the “Velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia were the flowers; almost everything else turned into repulsive mud: claustrophobia, nationalist movements, right-wing politics, war in Yugoslavia, conflicts in the Soviet Union… The list is not done, it grows longer every day. Today “Eastern Europe” is intoxicated by a “freedom” which its citizens, as Michnik points out, see wrongly as the only true manifestation of democracy. Democracy, however, is also a set of rules, laws and regulations, but East Europeans grew up hostile to any kind of prohibition. What they were deprived of, they claim, was precisely that “freedom”, and what they want to gain now is pure, unrestricted freedom, not realizing that it will lead them to “anarchy, chaos, and is ruled by the law of the mighty.”

It may sound paradoxical, but in a post-totalitarian society there are more reasons for an artist to become an exile. First of all, he does not occupy the central position any longer, where he was seen before as an honourable “enemy of state.” He is relegated to the margin or, at best, becomes one of many fighting for their rights. He has lost his role of a guiding ideal, whose every movement was revered by many terrified eyes. And having finally won his “freedom of expression”, he realizes that his artistic demands sound like childish whining in comparison to the more serious demands for social stability, protection of the environment, gender equality… And although there is no more political harassment, he must constantly defend his ethnic, moral and religious convictions.

How absurd. I set out to write about two East European visual artists, who now live in Canada, and yet I cannot disentangle myself from the web of politics, exile and war. As an artist who believes that the essence of art is hidden in the silence between two heartbeats, I myself am disappointed. But it seems that this is the only way, although not a direct route, to approach an understanding of Branko Djurasinovic’s obsession with “things that cause destruction in the world,” as well as of Taras Polataiko’s intentions in exhibiting his own blood or offering himself as the main meal. These are, in fact, answers to the world in which we originated, and which no longer exists. The East European artist must destroy himself in order to invent and create himself again.

The disappearance of Eastern Europe has also contributed to the disappearance of the romantic notion of the East European exiled artist. He is no longer a sufferer or the victim of his political system. Exile represents his choice to determine his own personal and artistic destiny. However, wherever he goes there is still something he can offer to his new culture – the skill he has mastered during his long survival in the culture of a totalitarian regime: a cunning ability to find alternative ways of presenting the true face of society and reality. To be alternative means to be subversive, and subversion is the essential aspect of artistic practice. The luggage that the East European artist lugs around the world is also packed with subversion. In that respect, he can be seen as someone dangerous, but art which is not dangerous quickly turns into a barren landscape or stagnant pool. The East European artist brings with himself the very thing that helped him to hold out for so long in his world before it turned into a realm of quotation marks. This is a simple moral, but as we all know too well, simple things are the most difficult to reach. In short, the East European artist still dares: he dares to dream, to change, to try, but most of all – although it may sound almost blasphemous in this world – he still dares to fail.