IMAGINED COMMUNITIES, PERSONAL IMAGINATION
PRIVATE NATIONALISM BUDAPEST
CURATOR: Edit ANDRÁS
CO CURATORS: Zsóka LEPOSA, Mónika ZOMBORI
2015. október 28 – december 13.
The Post-Cold War world loved to indulge in the illusion that the system of nation states is declining and is no longer the major force in an era of globalization. Reality, however, has taken a different turn. Since the end of WWII, the idea of the nation state has never been as influential as it is today. Nationalism helps to fill the void left by large-scale social changes and disruption, making impaired variations of the capitalist system more susceptible to it than victorious ones. Nonetheless, it has also been clearly demonstrated in the new millennium that even large, rich states are not immune to nationalism if the cornerstone of their security and economic prosperity is at stake. The rise of nationalism along with normative cultures is a common phenomenon in Europe.
The traditional approach, the macro-political perspective, focuses on nationalism as a political ideology. The more recent approach applies a micro-political perspective, and is concerned with the active participation and engagement of ordinary people in the process of nation building, regarding them not just as passive consumers, but as active producers of national sentiments and belongings (Michael Billig, Tim Enderson).
The shifting focus of the study of nationalism resonates in the term “private nationalism”, coined by the initiators of the present project. The ill-fitting combination of words is intended to make a disturbing point; that nationalism is not something beyond private life, imposed on the citizenry by external forces, but very much exists and prospers at the micro level as well. As for national identity, people readily identify themselves with an anonymous national group, envisioning connections through shared stories that do not have to be historically true, but must have psychological substance. Ordinary people, who are otherwise good citizens, are eager to embrace the habits and rituals disseminated by national education, history writing, and the visual commonplaces of nationhood, creatively promoting new ways of worshipping their own “natural” community. Building blocks of nationalism are part of our everyday life, our daily existence, as well as part of our habits, customs and rituals.
Imagined communities, personal imaginations
The PNP/ Private Nationalism Project focuses on the incorporation of national sentiments into daily routine — its ‘privatization’ — and it makes visible the complex processes through which elements of national identity come to permeate everyday life. Under this umbrella concept, the PNBudapest takes Benedict Anderson’s influential notion of ‘imagined communities’ as a starting point. (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983; 2006) Nationalism and nationality for Anderson are cultural products of a limited and sovereign imagined political community, a kind of horizontal comradeship in which, despite the absence of face-to-face relations, individual members “have strong attitudes and beliefs about their own people and about others who feel their attachment to their nation passionately” (Searle-White, 2011, 3). According to Anderson, print-capitalism, literacy, and the mass politics of the modern state have paved the way for this virtual and imaginary kinship that came to serve as a substitute for other kind of communities based on shared religion, class solidarity, etc. Attributes, symbols and ceremonies cement the diverse members of a loose community into a homogeneous and unified entity. Myths of origin, historic memory reaching back to ancient times, and a linear, unified narrative of the nation’s history are all cohesive forces that make the idea of the nation so natural, enduring and taken for granted. For Anderson, the emphasis was on the new form of social consciousness, and on how nations were imagined, rather than what they imagined. The exhibition takes the opposite approach, aiming to shed light on the network of invisible but strong ties and the very content of national imagination in its visual forms. It aims to uncover the ways in which ordinary people participate in the national construct and collective imagination.
Nationalism in any form is considered to have more visual nature than other political currents, and it presents itself in a plethora of vivid images, symbols and myths, to which dreams, fantasy and imagination also contribute. Art and culture have always been part of the nation building process. However, they have also been able to interrupt the hypnotic effect of its operation, to expose the manipulation of the masses by subverting the imagined naturalness of national identity, and to uncover the process of naturalization. Furthermore, they are capable of offering alternative imaginations, and of revealing the arbitrary nature of dominance by a single set of imaginations. If the political elite try to impose or provoke national identity in a way that is not attuned to ordinary citizen’s beliefs and concerns or understanding of history, counter-imaginations tend to prosper. Socially committed, reflective artists are facing local nationalisms ‒ all of them their own ‒ on behalf of us.
National history, national symbols
The nation and nationalism are cultural constructs of collective belonging, realized and legitimized through institutional and discursive practices. Nationalism as a political ideology makes the state (a political unit) and the nation (a cultural unit) congruent. All countries have their own recipe for national revival, and the outcomes also differ greatly. Nationalisms choose their components from their particular national repertoires and national imaginations, which have wide varieties in different countries, and even the constructed enemies, are specified differently in each culture. These narratives compete with one another, many times in completely opposite stories. If nationalism is about the mobilization of masses in order to unify a nation, then each national culture seeks out topics within its own available stocks; their own neuralgic points of history (Martin Piaček), inherited or denied traumas that are capable of fusing diverse individuals into a cohesive national unity. National tragedies often play a prominent role in the ways in which a nation sees itself through collective mourning of the losses that their group endured. Tragic memory, when kept alive, confers the status of victimhood that has benefits for the nation: the power of victimhood is gained from the moral authority claimed for a group’s unjust suffering (Szabolcs KissPál, Mária Chilf).
Nations narrate and legitimize themselves through history. Nationalism is always allied to its specific national reading and interpretation of history. It is interwoven out of glorious events to be proud of and the painful humiliation of the community, which brings hereditary shame passed from one generation to the next. National identity offers the elevated sensation of the shared past, history and future, offering a platform for personal (Jaroslav Varga, Alban Muja, József Szolnoki) and bodily identification (Dan Perjovschi, Martin Piaček, Ciprian Mureşan) that could even lead a member of the nation to sacrifice his own life. The latter is a path available only to male heroes (Little Warsaw), given that the nation state is a masculine enterprise. In this construction, women are given secondary, symbolic or representative roles, for instance as those who mourn the losses (Erika Baglyas).
National symbols such as flags, anthems, and statues are the cultural signs into which the purified and abstracted image of the nation is condensed. They are capable of generating a deep, sensual experience of national alliance and gut feelings of belonging. They serve the same integrative purpose as the orchestrated rituals and ceremonies which affirm national bonds. Sport, with its masculine connotation, is a powerful vehicle into which national passion and competition may often be channeled. The hidden traps and tricks are uncovered by artists, or are used as metaphors with which to expose the fallacy and delusions of the supposedly fair plays (Lőrinc Borsos). By questioning such national symbols or depriving them of their unambiguous meaning, artists undermine their sacred aura and shed light on their mechanisms (Erika Baglyas, Lajos Csontó, Tibor Horváth, Nemere Kerezsi, Martina Slováková). By disrupting taboos, these works often provoke harsh reactions.
In and out of the nation
In the world of nation states, the motherland/fatherland/homeland has a double meaning: a cultural, symbolic one, represented by national monuments and statues, and a physical one, signifying the territory that is owned, controlled and populated by the members of the nation. It is this latter, that is marked by borders, policed and (recently) secured by walls or fences. When it comes to the security and defense of the homeland, private lives are to be sacrificed in heroic battles fought for the nation (Little Warsaw). Although during Socialism the national border was regarded as a taboo issue, after the collapse of the Soviet satellite system it came back with a vengeance. In Central-Eastern Europe, due to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its historically mixed ethnic communities, the enemy is now easily found in the form of ethnic minorities (Mark Ther) or beyond the national borders, which were redrawn after WWI and confirmed after WWII. The obsession with territory and the desire for further expansion and greatness (Szabolcs KissPál, Gökcse Suvari, Société Réaliste), as well as the idea of borders itself are questioned, disrupted, and redrawn by artists refusing to take sides (Ilona Németh, Martin Piaček, Bálint Szombathy). We can catch a glimpse into the witch’s brew of the aggressive nation building process, based on the production of extreme agents through breeding and training (Daya Cahen).
Société Réaliste CultureStates, 2008–2013, c-print, 120 × 200 cm
Comparisons and contrasts are at the core of nationalism. Differences in culture, language and history are integral to the existence of the nation. The ‘contrast effect’, which forms a part of this psycho-dynamic, tends to go hand in hand with the devaluation of the out-group. In turn, this devaluation fosters conflicts and provides a justification for violence and aggression (Tomasz Kulka). We are confronted with the tragic consequences of the competition for and enforcement of territorial claims that are inherent in latent or armed conflicts addressed in personal readings (Nikita Kadan, Mykola Ridnyi). Endless national aspirations crossing time and space are exposed in the form of diasporic (József Szolnoki) and long-distance transnationalism (Joanna Malinowska). Redistribution of national identity is based on perceptions of some as part of the body of the nation, while others are excluded. Psychology claims that we tend to believe positive things about our in-group and negative things about the out-group. Stereotypes are the result of categorization and out-group homogenization. Freud uses the phrase ‘narcissism of minor differences’ to describe the tendency to see ourselves as more distinct from other groups than we actually are. The nation state is a disempowering space for gender-based, sexual, and ethnic minorities. Decreasing social solidarity can be accompanied by difficulties and hardships or uncertainty about the future surrounding drastic social changes; scapegoating a minority or blaming a group for the problems is a frequent reaction.
With regard to particular local enemies in the region, the latent old clichés have once again been mobilized. Though the intensity of animosity and the identity of the targets differ from country to country, they tend to be the local minorities, such as gays, Jews, the Roma, or other ethnic minorities. The stereotypes held about members considered alien to the nation are challenged by the artworks (Sanja Ivekovic, Matej Kaminsky, Csaba Nemes, Omara, Karol Radziszewski). Although anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments are considered off-color in Western Europe for now, rising nationalism is triggered by immigrants with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Lately, this attitude is shared by post-socialist countries as well, especially by those located on migration routes. They even raise the bid in fervor. At a time of unprecedented mass migration, the nationless, stateless refugee or migrant is promoted to the role of the new enemy. At best, they are condemned to ‘temporary permanence’ (Adrian Paci) as a way of existence. At worst, their human dignity and even their lives are in danger.
CSÉFALVAY András Compsognation, Dinosaur’s view of the Nation State 2013, video, 11’23”
Reimagining the nation, alternative visions
‘Counter-narratives of the nation that continually evoke and erase its totalizing boundaries – both actual and conceptual ‒ disturb those ideological manoeuvres through which “imagined communities” are given essentialist identities’, argues Homi Bhabha (The Location of Culture. London, New York: Routledge, 1994, 149). In our case, artists have the symbolic power to subvert the concept of the nation, to turn it upside down in their utopias and personal imaginations (Gluklya), to reimagine the nation by providing models for a more open and inclusive understanding of bonding (Société Réaliste), looking at the nation state from the distant perspective of a dinosaur (András Cséfalvay), or redefining a social group (Omara). Artists show us a way out of the exclusive concept of nationhood. As active and critical citizens, artists are also involved in the contestation of the meanings of the ‘imagined communities’. Dystopic visions created by reductio ad absurdum are able to reveal the dirty, dark side of far-fetched national sentiments involving confabulations, lies, facades and juggling acts (Gábor Gerhes). The purified and idealized national self-image, based on ancient myths and folk culture, is interrogated by hybrid, psychedelic and hallucination-like counter-visions (László Nosek Nagyvári). Sanja Ivekovic provides hilarious scientific, theatrical and visual explanations in her triptych format video piece as to why an artist can’t represent the nation state. She states, among other arguments, that an artist can’t represent the nation state, ‘because the nation state is unrepresentable, inconsistent, has variable geometry and is unequal’; as for the artist’s position, she contends that ‘art is only an aspect of possible.’ However, it is this very position, on the margins of the dominant culture, that opens up critical avenues and creates a virtual space for the production of alternative visions and personal imaginations.
Institute of Art History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
C. T. JASPER & Joanna MALINOWSKA
Halka/Haiti 18°48′05′′N 72°23′01′′W, 2015, multichannel video, 82′
Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw