Private nationalism

Nationalism Beyond the Parades

A traveling exhibition explores the personal dimension of a phenomenon usually associated with the public square.

By Peter Rutland, Transitions Online, 4 August 2014

Nationalism is back in the news, from Crimea to Scotland. Judging by an unusual and important exhibition that is travelling around Central Europe, artists might have more insights into the dynamics of nationalist belonging than politicians and journalists.

Some artists are engaged in the production of works that bolster national identity – the most striking recent example being Danny Boyle’s orchestration of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics. But most contemporary artists, to the extent that they address nationalism at all, tend to subject it to ridicule and contempt.

The Battle of Inner Truth presents miniaturized versions of statues to be found in Hungarian museums. Photo by the Galerie fuer Zeitgenoessische Kunst in Leipzig.

A new exhibition, “Private Nationalism,” takes a different approach. Rather than celebrating or denigrating nationalism, the curators invited artists from the region to reflect on how nationalism manifests itself in the fabric of personal everyday life. The exhibits cover the gamut of nationalist expression: anthems, names, monuments, parades, etc. The tone is ironic and sardonic, while still recognizing the emotional force of nationalist appeals.

The exhibition began earlier this year in Prague and Kosice, Slovakia, before moving to Pecs, Hungary, where it ended 15 June. The centerpiece in Pecs was Battle of Inner Truth by the Little Warsaw artist group (Balint Havas and Andras Galik): a floor display of several dozen miniature statuettes and figurines of monuments from across Hungary, ranging from socialist workers to medieval knights. It is disconcerting to see monuments in shrunken form, and set alongside one another – since usually they are seen in splendid isolation.

Continuing the monumental theme, Martin Piacek presented a dozen models for works commemorating The Biggest Embarrassments of Slovak History, ranging from the car bomb that killed a police whistleblower in 1996 to Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes signing the decrees expelling the Sudeten Germans in 1945. As an exercise in national humility, each country’s history museum should have such an exhibit.

Kristina Norman’s video Monolith is a gripping account of the debate over the Soviet war memorial in central Tallinn, eventually removed in 2007 at the insistence of Estonian nationalists. She uses Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey as a humorous framing device, with the bronze soldier zooming in from outer space. The film shows the powerful feelings displayed by the two sides: for local Russians Alyosha was a reminder of the victory over fascism, while Estonian nationalists saw it as symbol of occupation. Norman reminds us that a monument can have multiple meanings and that nationalism unleashes turbulent emotions, hard to reconcile between opposing sides.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from monumental art, Alban Muja’s striking My Name, Their City consists of photos of young Kosovans holding pictures of the cities after which they were named. It was apparently not uncommon in Kosovo in the 1970s and 1980s for parents to name their children after cities in the Albanian motherland from which they were separated. (There are also a dozen Kosovan boys with the first name “Tonybler,” in recognition of the British Prime Minister’s role in their liberation.)

Other videos on display include a piece by Dan Perjovschi, showing the artist having the word “ROMANIA” tattooed on his arm, and then removing it 10 years later; and a witty film from Andras Csefalvay (Slovakia), in which a digitized talking dinosaur strolls through Budapest explaining the Darwinian perspective on nationalism.

The World Cup, of course, reminds us that soccer and nationalism are intimately connected. Janos Borsos and Lilla Lorinc use soccer as a metaphor for civil war. A video shows the two artists wearing an identical mask (a composite of their two faces) and facing off in a soccer game. In front of the video, several wooden carvings of a soccer pitch show various distortions to the “level playing field” – a mountainous terrain, a chasm between the two halves, and a pitch where one side’s half was bigger than the other. In a simple but direct way it reminds the viewer that civil wars are about two sides claiming the same identity – and that despite that symmetry, the actual strengths of the two sides are invariably lopsided. The work adds a new dimension to understanding recent developments in eastern Ukraine.

Most of the works avoid politics per se. One exception is the piece by Szabolcs Kisspal in which he posts the replies he received from Hungarian radio stations when he asked them to play the Jewish anthem Hatikvah on 20 April 2014 – the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen. He proposed using the recording of the camp inmates singing that was made by a BBC correspondent at the time. Only one of the stations complied, the others gave various spurious grounds for declining, such as the “poor quality” of the recording.

There was some controversy around the exhibition in Kosice because Slovak artist Dalibor Baca placed a flag of the former Czechoslovakia (and current Czech Republic) on the floor, for people to walk on. In the “velvet divorce” back in 1992 the Czechs had promised the Slovaks they would not use the old flag for their new republic but did so anyway.

From Pecs the show has moved on to Dresden (18 July to 1 September), and then it heads to Krakow, Berlin, and Debrecen, Hungary. The core consists of eight institutions from six countries, drawing upon 60 artists from 17 nations. Most of the pieces in Pecs were by Slovak and Hungarian artists: project leader Rita Vargas said it was difficult to recruit Czech and Polish artists, with the Czechs arguing the topic was passé. The Pecs exhibition also included pieces on the divided communities in Cyprus and Israel – a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Pecs, the “Gateway to the Balkans,” was under Ottoman rule from 1543 to 1686.

Hungary is a logical place to ponder the resurgence of nationalism. Since 2010 the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been centralizing power in a manner that has alarmed Hungary’s European Union partners. Orban has also embarked on an energetic campaign of nationalist rebranding: renaming streets, re-installing old monuments from the Hapsburg Empire, and introducing new school textbooks that celebrate the writers and achievements of interwar Hungary.

A new monument is being erected on Freedom Square in downtown Budapest to mark the occupation of Hungary by German forces in March 1944. The site is often ringed by protesters, who complain that the structure is intended to erase memories of the complicity of the Hungarian regime in the Nazi war effort up until 1944.

As Edit Andras explains in a catalog essay, nationalism is usually seen as a quintessentially public, collective act. Scholars have been slow to explore how it is reflected in private life, the pioneering work being Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism (1995). Alongside the familiar high politics of nationalist symbolism, the exhibits in “Private Nationalism” remind us that nationalism is a part of the daily life of ordinary people and a component of the complex and shifting character of individual identity in today’s mobile, transnational world.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University and editor in chief of Nationalities Papers.


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