On Wednesday 9 April 2014, in Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch, Agata Pyzik launched her new book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, published by Zero Books earlier this year.
Established in 2009, Calvert 22 Gallery is the UK’s only not-for-profit institution dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. It presents a dynamic programme of exhibitions, talks and cross-disciplinary events with both emergent and established artists. Pyzik collaborates with the gallery contributing to Calvert Journal, online magazine calling itself “a guide to creative Russia”, where she writes on Eastern European (mainly Polish and Russian) art and cinema.
The focus of Poor But Sexy… is art and pop culture in Eastern Europe during and after the Cold War, encompassing cinema, popular music, fashion and design, as well as conceptual/critical and performance art. The author asks why work produced behind the Iron Curtain is often dismissed, rather than celebrated for its richness and originality, and seen as derivative, trying merely to imitate Western trends and standards. To counter such beliefs, she paints an impressive panorama of what was going on in ex-Bloc’s cultural and art spaces.
On the night, Pyzik was joined by professor David Crowley, Head of Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art. Introducing herself in front of a sizeable audience, Agata explained how her creative process was influenced by the attitudes among young people in the UK she witnessed after moving to London in 2010 and how different they were from those among her friends in Poland. We also learnt that the title of her book was borrowed from Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin who in 2004 tried to market his city using precisely this slogan.
Agata shared that with her book she hoped to contribute to the impending debate on the 25 years that have passed since socialism symbolically ‘ended’ in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989. She noted how destroying of the totalitarian monolith did not produce a new coherent ‘post-communist identity’. She expressed concern about both Western pundits interested rather in the abstract idea of ‘communism’ (and not its concrete embodiments in the ex-Bloc’s countries) and about people in Poland rejecting the country’s communist past wholesale, seemingly enamoured with shiny new market economy that landed on their shores.
Pyzik herself sees many socialist arrangements, like free education and “decent infrastructure”, as viable and attractive alternatives to Western modernity shaped by capitalism: the position she had to defend before Crowley who wondered whether it wasn’t a nostalgic apology for the past regime.
From Poor But Sexy:
“Interestingly, whenever the topic of nostalgia after the aesthetic of Soviet times comes up, commentators and theorists rush immediately to assure us it has nothing to do with the politics…We’ll never get an honest reassessment of the past if we keep denying that this nostalgia at play is also political.”
The evening was illustrated with an engaging slideshow of prime examples of socialist posters and socialist realism design. The copies of Polish ‘aspirational’ magazine Ty i Ja were passed around for us to admire. We enjoyed some YouTube clips too, with my personal favourite being Izabela Trojanowska’s (of whom Pyzik writes: “In Poland, David Bowie was a woman”) ‘Pieśń o cegle’, for its sexy (not sure how poor) male brick bearers:
Members of the audience could express their opinions and ask Agata questions in a Q&A that followed. The meeting ended on an interesting note as we considered the role of artists in centrally planned economies, where the need for art ideally was to be seen as natural and to be fulfilled by the state. Could such an approach give artists freedom from the imperatives of sales-driven contemporary art market in the West?
From Poor But Sexy:
“People’s Poland, as is not mentioned enough today, provided a stable cultural system within its planned economy, of Domy Kultury (local culture institutions, helping to find talent), phonography, festivals, creating a circuit in which musical culture could flourish.”
Words: Ania Ostrowska
Agata Pyzik is a journalist and art critic. She publishes texts on culture, art and politics in various books and magazines in UK and Poland, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, Calvert Journal, New Humanist, The Wire & Frieze and Lampa, Polityka, Dwutygodnik, Notes na 6 Tygodni and culture.pl in Poland. She is the author of Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West for the British publisher Zero Books (2014). She maintains a blog called Nuits Sans Nuit. She lives in London.
Ania Ostrowska moved to London from Poland in 2005. Enabled by her country joining the EU, she got an MA in gender studies from SOAS, University of London. She lives in the London borough of Hackney and divides her time between working part-time at the Wellcome Library and being film editor for the biggest UK feminist blog The F-Word