“We knew it was Christmastime,” my friend Janka told me of her childhood in Czechoslovakia, “because there were oranges.”
Nearly two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, stories of the world “behind the Iron Curtain” continue to fascinate Americans. Set adrift in a time of economic uncertainty and global unrest, it is no surprise that we are captivated by a time when antagonisms were more straightforward and pleasures more simple: when even small triumphs—a basket of Christmas oranges—flickered with the blue heat of a Bunsen burner. As sated as we are on strip malls and Netflix streaming, Americans are desperate to understand what that glow feels like; to know the heat T.S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.”
“Ostalgia,” (a combination of “Ost,” meaning East, and “nostalgia”) currently on view at the New Museum in New York (through September 25th), seizes upon this attraction: promising a collection of art from the Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.
The vision you expect to see when entering the museum, and what is ultimately delivered, are very different. There is no propaganda here. No Soviet kitsch. No Lenin statues. No great leviathan pointing missiles in our direction. Instead, patrons are tossed into a maze of exhibition halls, stairways, and antechambers that proceed with little rhyme or reason: a small Peugeot hung from the wall, photographs of vacationers, video of two bored adolescents trying to take a military exercise seriously. It is easy to get lost, confused, or frustrated in this milieu. That is the point. Welcome to Ost. Please take a number.
More interesting than the art pieces included in “Ostalgia” are the museum visitors themselves. “It is the spectator,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “and not life, that art really mirrors.” On a Thursday night in early August, the museum was filled with hipsters in skinny jeans and graphic t-shirts examining captions through serious-looking glasses. Most of this crowd, including myself, was born when the Soviet Union was in decline. For us, perusing “Ostalgia” is like trying to figure out your parents by thumbing through the dusty stack of LPs in the attic. Neither yields many clues.
When I was 24 I spent a year teaching English in Slovakia. In spare moments, I would ask my colleagues at the university about life during the old system. They told me tales of communist sleep-away camp, censorship, and shortages. As remarkable as these stories were, I was always far more interested in hearing them than my colleagues were in sharing them.
Indeed, it could be argued that it is the United States, and not Eastern or Central Europe, that has a love affair with the past. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, just 20 percent of Russians wish for a return to the Soviet Union. Conversely, nary a FOX News debate goes by without a reverent reference to the Gipper. To be fair, Blue States have it just as bad. New York Magazine glorifies “The Analog Underground,” and trendsetters are known called “The New Antiquarians,” and Thomas Friedman pens books entitled That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.
Conversely, the people of Eastern and Central Europe are not desperate to relive the time Bruce Springsteen calls the “Glory Days.” Instead, they enjoy Antiques Roadshow and Katy Perry, burn through Hemingway and The Daily Show, and buy oranges at will; believing, perhaps naively, in an idea—Westopia—that can be just as unforgiving, and certainly as ugly, as the skeletons of their lost empire now appear.