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Matej Kaminsky, National Passion , 2013. Courtesy of the artist
Post-Socialist ImagiNations. Imagined communities, personal imaginations in Central-Eastern Europe Private Nationalism Budapest

The Post-Cold War world loved to share the illusion that the system of nation-states is declining, and is not the major force anymore in the time of globalization. Reality, however, has taken a different turn. Since the end of WWII, the idea of the nation-state has never been so influential as it is today. The rise of neo-nationalism along with normative national cultures is a common phenomenon in Europe as a response to the consequences of global capitalism, such as outsourcing and local unemployment, as well as to economic downturn, and to dismantling of the welfare state and lately the vast mass migration.

The nature of the nationalism of post-Socialist countries, especially in Central-Eastern Europe, is different from those in the affluent countries in Western Europe. Due to the long period of Socialism, the issue of nationalism was swept under the carpet in the name of brotherly international alliance of the Soviet satellite countries. Many local traumas (imposed Socialist system, and local involvement, borders, ethnic minorities) were not talked through and were rendered into taboo issues, which came back with a vengeance. New states mushroomed on the very site of the collapsed Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early nineties. In addition, the countries that went through political turnovers and went through an identity-crisis as well were urged to radically (re)invent their identity and (re)write their history. In Central Europe nationalism is frequently officially heated from above, generating tension and feelings of insecurity among the nations in the Carpathian basin, whose independent nation-states were formed after the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the WWI. These same borders were confirmed after WWII. As a consequence of the prehistory and conditions after the political changes in 1989, nationalism in many countries is not a subculture anymore, but has reached the mainstream and has already invaded all segments of the daily existence. Weakness of civil organizations and lack of democratic institutions as well as authoritarian rhetoric with a long tradition also contribute to the profile of post-Socialist nationalisms. The fallacy that nationalism helps to fill the void left by large scale social changes and disruption [1] is more easily applied to the impaired variation of the capitalist system than to the successful ones [2]. However, it has also been clearly demonstrated in the new millennium that even the big and rich nations are not immune against nationalism if the cornerstone of their security and economic prosperity is at stake [3].

Nationalism is the project to make the political unit, the state congruent with the cultural unit, the nation [4]. The traditional approach, the macro-political (top-down) perspective focuses on nationalism as a political ideology. The more recent approach applies a micro-political (bottom-up) perspective 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. The official, state-nationalism, and everyday nationalism disseminated by the people, have the same unifying function: to “recast the mosaic of diverse peoples within the boundaries of the state into a uniform and unified national whole” [5]. The shifting focus of looking at nationalism resonates in the term of ‘private nationalism’ coined by the initiators of the Private Nationalism Project, an international collaborative project among eight institutions from six countries, an international team of art professionals, and several artists from Central-Eastern Europe and beyond [6]. The PNP/ Private Nationalism Project focuses on the interiorisation of national sentiments, into daily routine, its ‘privatization’, and it makes visible the complex process through which the elements of national identity permeate everyday life of people. As for personal national identity, people readily identify themselves with an anonymous national group and they envision connections through shared stories ‘that do not has to be historically true, but they need to psychologically real’ [7].

Although core works of all the exhibitions [8] came from the same pool of artists featuring artworks that were sensitive to the relevant issues in the participating countries, each host institution provided locally specific sub-topics or approaches to the “umbrella-concept” elaborated by the author of this paper. Different local settings, priorities and urgencies, as well as sub-regions, zones of local conflicts, political tensions and related minority questions were explored. The closing exhibition of the project, PNBudapest entitled Imagined communities, personal imaginations [9] within the umbrella-concept, takes Benedict Anderson’s influential notion of ‘imagined communities’ [10] as a starting point and puts emphasis on the imaginary aspect of the nation building process. 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 ‘they have strong attitudes and beliefs about their own people and about others who feel their attachment to their nation passionately…’ [11]. In Anderson’s tenets print-capitalism, literacy and the mass politics of the modern state have paved the way for this virtual and imaginary kinship that substituted 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. Myth of origin, historic memory reaching back to the ancient times, a linear, unified narration of the nation’s history are all the cohesive forces that make the idea of 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 [12]. The exhibition takes the opposite approach aiming to shed light on the network of invisible but strong ties and on the very content of the national imaginations in its visualization, based on the conviction that nationalism in any form has the most visual nature among the different political currents. It presents itself in a plethora of vivid images, symbols and myths. Contributing to these are dreams, fantasy and imagination, projected equally to the past and to the future. Quite surprisingly, however, despite the undeniably visual nature of this social phenomenon, just a few exhibitions have been dedicated to this issue [13]. Conferences or papers on nationalism, though abundant, hardly ever address the visual dimensions of their topic. The PNP project’s and this essay’s focus is on the often overlooked but fundamental course of visualization of the Nation [14].

Art and culture ‒ which applies both to the official, as well as to the critical, subversive practice that is contemporary art ‒ has always been part of the nation building process, rendering the abstract concept of the nation palpable, tangible and accessible. They are not just about promoting national sentiments and belonging, but also able to interrupt the hypnotic effect of its operation and to expose the manipulation of the masses by subverting the imagined naturalness of national identity, and by uncovering 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 which is not attuned to ordinary citizens’ beliefs and concerns or understanding of history, then the counter-imaginations prosper. This may be the reason for the abundance of artworks focusing on the issue of nationalism and on “imagined communities” in Central-Eastern Europe.

The nation and nationalism is seen also as a ‘cultural construct of collective belonging realized and legitimized through institutional and discursive practices’ [15] . As nations narrate and legitimizes themselves through history [16], nationalism is always allied to its specific national reading and interpretation of history, interwoven from glorious events to be proud of and from painful humiliation of the community, with hereditary shame passed from one generation to another. 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 each other, many times with totally opposing stories. If nationalism is about 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, inherited or denied traumas that are capable for fusing diverse individuals into a cohesive national unity. Martin Piacek goes against the grain of official, triumphant narrative of history in his anti-monuments of the biggest embarrassments of Slovak history. He deconstructs the myth of idealized nation pointing to the flaws and fatal mistakes made in its course and thus interrogates the monolithic ethos of history writing. National tragedies can also play prominent role in the way that a nation sees itself through collective mourning for losses that their group endured. Tragic memory kept alive confers upon the status of victimhood that has benefits for the nation: the power of victimhood is gained from the moral authority claimed for the unjustly suffering of a group [17]. In Szabolcs KissPál’s docu-fiction, Amorous geography [18] the colonial imagination of the late 19th century is shifted and adapted to Transylvania, Hungary’s dreamland, a „lost paradise” detached from the country after the Trianon Peace Treaty in 1920. The subject is generally avoided by contemporary artists, as it has been appropriated and used by politics and by the extreme right wing. The revanchist Trianon-discourse provided, and still provides, a container for projecting interwars feelings and desires onto it, such as melancholy over the loss of the imagined grandeur; the pain of defeat and humiliation, as well as putting away the sense of any responsibility. Taking the fantasy of Transylvania as the nest of essential Hungarianness to the extreme in his video by showing a scene of Admiral Horthy examining the best available prototypes of the species to exhibit in the Zoo, KissPál breaks the illusion of the sacred bond between the caring “mother-state” and the helpless kinsfolk beyond the border of the shrunken motherland. Thus, he reveals the hidden colonial nature of the overheated affection that can be successfully mobilized in any time of crisis or conflict in order to distract attention away from real social problems. By way of a kind of psychoanalytic assessment of unconscious motivations and desires that underlie this love-affair, the artist reverses the narrative of the passive and suffering victims of an unjust peace treaty into the narrative of an active and aggressive colonial power unable to cope with its own historical accountability. The work calls for reflective reevaluation and renegotiation of this (chosen and dearly embraced) traumatic event. Los Encargados (2012) by Jorge Galindo and Santiago Sierra, combines elements of a counter-narrative, pointing to the statesmen who became criminals, and evokes the image of collective mourning via a funeral procession carrying huge upside down portraits of figures responsible for the local situation. The symbolic action deprives the leaders of their political power, and by representing them as decapitated heroes, their authority is also subverted.

National identity offers an elevated sensation of the shared past, history and future, offering a platform for personal (Alban Muja) and even bodily identification. In Jaroslav Varga’s video Fujara, a young man identifies himself with a national Slovak hero, Janosik and disseminates his story for tourists. Alban Muja take photo portraits of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo whose given name is identical with the name of a city in Albania. Dan Perjovsky had his country’s name, Romania, tattooed into his arm, while Piacek painted the non-Slovak percentage in his ethnicity with his own blood in a diagram that literally reveals his kinship to his nation. Identification with the nation could even lead to for sacrificing one’s own life, a path available only for male heroes, given that the nation-state is a masculine enterprise. In this construction women are rendered into secondary, symbolic or representative roles or they are the ones who can mourn for the losses.

National symbols, such as flags, anthems, and statues are the cultural signs into which the purified and abstracted image of the nations is condensed. They are capable of generating deep, sensual experience of national alliances and gut feelings of belonging. They serve the same integrative purpose as the orchestrated rituals and ceremonies which affirm national bonds. By questioning such national symbols or depriving them of their unambiguous meaning, artists undermine their sacred aura and shed light on their operation. By disrupting taboos artworks often generate harsh reactions, as it happened with Dalibor Baca’s work exhibited in Kosice exhibition [19]. Baca covered the floor with the ex-Czechoslovak flag, which actually is today’s Czech flag, despite the agreement between the successor states of the former country of not using the old flag as their own. His aim was to raise consciousness about emptied out and still operating symbols. He also made the visitor make his/her choice: to step onto to the invalidated flag or not to step on a valid one. The curators and institution was accused of humiliating the Czech flag, stirring a huge scandal resulting in the deprivation of the project of any state financial support.

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 one that is marked by borders, policed and (recently) secured by walls or fences. When it comes to the security and defense of homeland private lives are to be sacrificed in heroic battles fought for the nation’s The installation The Battle of Inner Truth by a Hungarian artist duo (Bálint Havas and András Gálik), named Little Warsaw, examining how this symbiosis of nationhood and manhood has been manifested in visual and cultural representation through the construction of the image of a glorified, virulent male warrior and heroic male struggle as opposed to the passive and weak, or its idealized and static counterpart, symbolizing the feminized nation to be defended. The artists transform the floor into a plotting board on which 73 statuettes and figurines borrowed from Hungarian public art collections serve as regiments in an imagined battlefield made in the 20th century but relying on19th century visual clichés of public monuments, which represent military acts, patterns of aggression, heroism and are strongly connected to nation building and later to the construction of Socialist identity. The installation demonstrates the interplay between masculine culture and nationalist ideology as they designate gendered places for men and women in national politics. The various artistic strategies ‒ such as artistic research, re-enactment and popular history ‒ applied to the very idea of setting up a game and the rearrangement of the figurines, in difference to the national and (art) historical canon, actually subvert the authority of post-Socialist nationalism.

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 historically mixed ethnic communities, the enemy is easily be found within ethnic minorities or rather beyond the national borders, newly drawn after WWI and confirmed after WWII. The obsession with the territory and the desire for endless expansion and greatness is demonstrated in Society Realiste’s map of Culture States.

Redistribution of national identity is based on regarding some to be part of the body of the nation, while excluding others. 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 [20]. Freud uses the phrase ‘narcissism of minor differences’ [21] for the phenomenon that makes us to believe that we are more different from members of other groups than we actually are. Nation state is a disempowering space for gender, sexual and ethnic minorities. Decreasing social solidarity comes with difficulties and hardship 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 among countries, 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 video National Passion by Matej Kaminsky. It is highly disturbing, because it represents all the stereotypes connected to homosexuals, such as lack of control over passion, lust, and sexual excess. “Exhaustion, fatigue meant nervousness, so outsiders and insane pictured in constant motion” [22], leading to moral and physical disorder ̶ writes Mosse in his brilliant book. All these notions are mobilized in the video, which has subversive relation to monuments and nationalism, as the supposed sacredness and distance is eliminated.

Although anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments are off-color in Western Europe for now, their rising nationalism is triggered by immigrants with different cultures and religion, an attitude lately shared by the post-Socialist countries as well, especially by those located on the land route of migration. They even raise the bid in fervor. In the time of vast mass mass-migration the nationless, stateless refugee, the migrant is promoted to the role of the new, number one enemy, who at best is condemned to ‘temporary permanence’ (Adrian Paci) as a way of existence; at worst his/her human pride and even survival is at stake.

‘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’ [23] argues Homi Bhabha. In our field there are artists who have the symbolic power to reimagine the nation by showing way out of the exclusive concept of nationhood providing models for a more open and inclusive understanding of bonding. Omara (Mara Oláh), a Hungarian painter, redefines her social group, Romani people, by distributing them power in establishing their own state, their own institutions and also by questioning their exclusion from the construction of the nation. Artists as active and critical citizens are also involved in the contestation of the meanings of the ‘imagined communities’ and provide new narratives destabilizing the dominant one. Dystopic visions created by reductio ad absurdum are able to reveal the dirty, dark side of the far-fetched national sentiments involving confabulations, lies, facades and juggling acts as by Gábor Gerhes’s Neue Ordnung, a fictive secret organization. The purified and idealized national self-image based on ancient myths and folk culture is interrogated by hybrid, psychedelic and hallucinogen László Nosek Nagyvári’s counter-visions accordingly to that ‘the oppressed hallucinate – and that practice has no borders’ [24] Sanja Ivekovic provides hilarious scientific, theatrical and visual explanations form a feminist point of view in her triptych format video piece 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 declares ‘because art is only one of the possible aspects’. But, one can add, this single aspect creates virtual, imaginative space for producing alternative visions, personal imaginations and also provides critical avenues on the margins of the dominating culture that is aggressively claims for normalcy, authority and totality.


[1Joshua Searle-White, The Psychology of Nationalism. New York: Palgrave, 2011, 100.

[2The theoretical distinction between good ‘civic nationalism’ and barbaric ‘ethnic nationalism’, falling back to premature time that unnoticeable redrew the Cold War division practically along the same division lines is not appropriate anymore. As for Europe, theorists were ready to apply the bad version to New Europe (the eastern part of Europe), suffering from ‘ontological insecurity’ (Andre Gingrich & Marcus Banks (eds.), Case Studies from Western Europe in Neo-Nationalism in Europe & beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology. New York, Oxford: Berghan Books, 2005, 69‒196.) and as such, serving as a hotbed for obsolete ideologies. ‘Hot’ and dangerous nationalism was routinely connected to the margins, or peripheries.

[3Andre Gingrich & Marcus Banks (eds.), Case Studies from Western Europe in Neo-Nationalism in Europe & beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology. New York, Oxford: Berghan Books, 2005, 69‒196.

[4Jon E. Fox & Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Everyday nationhood, Ethnicities, 8, 4 (2008).

[5Billig elaborated on the nationalism of established nations and democracies, for which he coined a new term: ‘banal nationalism’, argues for the existence of invisible, ‘unflagged’ and dormant type of nationalism, ready to be mobilized if in need. He reveals the tricky nature of nationalism, which naturalizes itself so effectively that we do not even recognize it as a construction. (Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE publications, 1995) Edensor puts an emphasis on popular culture, and on the mundane, everyday practices and secular rituals that has been part of the process of re-shaping and reaffirming national identity. He also sheds light on the barely conscious set of assumptions and activities of the ordinary people. He warns us that the mechanism is not to be restricted to the macro level, and to high culture, as everyday popular culture is much more effective in propagating national sentiments. (Tim Edensor, National Identity, Popular Cultur and Everyday life. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2002) However, they both fail to provide any examples from the region of Eastern and Central Europe.

[7Searle-White, 2011, 52.

[8Divus Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic, Curators: Lenka Klodova, Ivan Mecl; Kunsthalle, Kosice, Slovakia, Curators: Ilona Németh, József R. Juhász, Michal Stofa; M 21 Gallery, Zsolnay Cultural Quarter, Pécs, Hungary, Curators: Rita Varga, Márton Pacsika; Ostrale’14, Dresden, Germany, Curators: Nadine Bors, Andrea Hilger; Kalasnikow, Bunkier Sztuki, Krakkow, Poland, Curators: Anna Lebensztejn, Lidia Krawczyk.

[9Budapest History Museum, Kiscelli Museum, Municipal Gallery and Budapest Gallery, Budapest, Hungary, Curator: Edit András, assistant curators: Zsóka Leposa and Mónika Zombori; Oct. 27th – Dec.13th 2015.

[10Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. 1983; 2006.

[11Searle-White, 2011, 3.

[12Jonathan Culler and Pheng Cheah (eds.), Grounds of Comparisons: Around the Work of Benedict Anderson, New York and London: Routledge, 2003, 5.

[13Let’s Talk about Nationalism: Between Ideology and Identity. KUMU Art Museum, Tallinn, 2010; WHW, How Much Fascism? Berger Kunsthall, Norway, 2011; New National Art. National Realism in XXI Century Poland Art. Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2012.

[14Visualizing the Nation. Post-Socialist ImagiNations. International conference, Budapest, November 27‒28. Keynote speakers are: Ekaterina Degot, Bojana Pejić, Sezgin Boynik and Jasbir K. Puar. The four sections of the conference address the issues: I. Post-socialist nationalisms II. Invading the public space in the name of the nation III. Re-nationalized cultural institutions and cultural canons IV. Exclusive versus inclusive visions of the nation.

[15Jon E. Fox, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Everyday nationhood, Ethnicities 8, 4 (2008).

[16Searle-White, 2011, 91.

[17Searle-White, 2011, 92.

[18Zoo-topia. Ed. By Eszter Steierhoffer, London, 2012.

[19March 27—April 30, 2014, Kunsthalle, Košice, Slovakia.

[20Searle-White, 2011.

[21Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961, 114.

[22George L. Mosse, Nationalism & Sexuality: Respectibility & Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe. New York: Howard Fertig, 1985, 135.

[23Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture. London, New York: Routledge, 1994, 149.

[24Laura Elisa Pérez, El desoroden, Nationalism, and Chicano/a Aesthetics, In Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, Minoo Moallem (eds.), Between Woman and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999, 39.


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