eipcp Policies
12 2009

Analysis of the exhibition “Gender Check – Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe”

Museum of Modern Art, (MUMOK), Vienna, November 2009/February 2010

Marina Gržinić

Marina Gržinić


The interest to make the analysis of this exhibition is threefold. It allows, it is my point of departure, to talk about the New Europe, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Europe and the new relation in between capital and power. The show was curated by Bojana Pejić, art historian who for the last two decades or so lives in Berlin and was an important Belgrade figure back in the 1970s and 1980s when she was active in the Student Culture Center in Belgrade and worked with prominent figures of the neo-avantgarde art movements in Serbia associated with body art, alternative culture, feminism (as Dunja Blažević, Biljana Tomić, Marina Abramović, Ješa Denegri, etc.).

The exhibition in MUMOK was produced, that means initiated and, what is even more important, financially made possible by ERSTE Foundation. ERSTE Foundation is a foundation that manages, as it was exposed several times at the opening of the exhibition and as well at its post opening symposium, the ERSTE bank, and not vice versa, as we thought until then. This makes an important difference as until now the analysis of projects produced by ERSTE Foundation, and these are numerous (bearing the brand of ERSTE), were always defined at least by us theoreticians as “art and cultural interventions in the field of art and culture” made by the Vienna-based multinational bank corporation ERSTE to “save” its face for an invasive allocation of capital throughout Europe. This time we got the lesson that a number of groups of interest established the ERSTE Foundation that besides banking as well produces cultural politics. But contrary to being hilarious over the presented “change” of the bank position that was until now understood in an opposite way, the new situation just reconfirms what was recently stated by Santiago López Petit in his book Global Mobilization. Brief Treatise for Attacking Reality (La movilización global. Breve tratado para atacar la realidad)[1], namely that today global capitalism shows two major characteristics. One is that capitalism is not an irreversible process but, as stated by Petit, a reversible and conflictual event. Moreover, everything that is going on in the world today is brought back to one single event, and this is neither the crisis nor Obama, but what Petit calls the unrestrainment of capital. Neoliberal globalization, which is the synonym of the global era, is nothing more than the repetition of this event only, the unrestrainment of capital. The second is that, because the only limit of capital is capital itself, the unrestrainment of capital is not about something outside of it (as is said about the crisis, being something “abnormal,” and also something that will bring capitalism to its end); the unrestrainment of capital simply means something more than capital.

Petit links capital and power in the following ways: 1. Capital is more (than) capital 2. Capital that is more than capital is power. Such a relation presents a new situation between capital and power, which is named by Petit as co-propriety capital/power. Such co-propriety capital/power needs a medium in order to take place. We have three fundamental media today where capital and power own each other: innovation, public space, and war.

Co-propriety of capital/power means owning (does not matter if only temporary) as well as all possible other institutions from art, culture, health, education, and etc. MUMOK is part of this relation, giving “freely,” so to say, all proper capacities to the project in order to get money in return.

Before I proceed into the analysis, it is mandatory to explain my own, as Goldie Osuri argues,[2] double complicity in the project (as artist and panelist). I took part in the exhibition with videos that I made in collaboration with Aina Šmid (with whom I have been working together for the last 30 years as video and media artist) and as a theoretician (writing and lecturing on the topic of art, theory, politics), to talk at the Gender check post opening symposium at MUMOK. Following the opening of the exhibition a symposium “READING GENDER. Art, Power and Politics of Representation in Eastern Europe” was organized in MUMOK. Prominent names from West and East of Europe were invited to speak.

I can state that the analysis of past exhibition projects curated by Bojana Pejić clearly revealed that serious problems are to be expected. The most important reference for being preoccupied was Pejić ’s international co-curatorial project, she prepared on an analogous topic of Eastern Europe and arts, produced by a Western institution of contemporary art. The show was “After the Wall: Art and culture in post-Communist Europe,” (1999/2000), being held at the Moderna Museet /Museum of Modern art in Stockholm, Sweden, co-curated by Bojana Pejić and the British curator and art historian David Elliot (in collaboration with Iris Müller-Westermann, as project-leader); Elliot was the director of the Museum at the time of the show. The show was among the first from the series of shows on the topic of art, The Balkan and Eastern Europe that were organized in Germany, Austria, and etc., in the course of the new millennium.

In our case, Gržinić/Šmid, After the Wall turned out to be a disaster as we were invited to take part in it but had no place secured by the curator(s) to show our work, and even more, what has become a symptom that repeats itself brutally whenever Pejić is involved as curator, as it was the case with Gender check, a catalogue/reader has been published with a ferocious policy imposed by the curator(s) in terms of selection who will (re-)publish a text. In general, it is possible to be stated that one of the most obvious way of working by Bojana Pejić that is repeated throughout her different engagements in curatorial projects over the last decade is a brutal evacuation and filtering of positions from the former ex-Yugoslav space. In the case of Gender check it was again a lost opportunity to publish seminal works in the published catalogue of the show that omits seminal texts by seminal writers from ex-Yugoslavia such as Žarana Papić, Biljana Kašić, Nataša Govedić, Ana Vujanović, Zoe Gudović, etc., not to mention all those from the old and new generations of feminists and queer from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and etc.

Therefore learning from After the Wall exhibition, we (Gržinić/Šmid) first decided not to take part in the exhibition Gender check but were really pressured by Pejić herself and others to take part in it. The decision was taken finally to take part when the possibility to talk at the panel was put forward. As I was working for my own sake on the analysis of the exhibition Gender check, reflecting on the show from the title on, the chance to have a possibility to intervene in public (to talk at the panel) was something that was not possible to reject. Specifically: feminism is politics that can be exercised today first and foremost as a political queer position in a public space.

So what was said there (at the panel) in nuce is presented here as the core of two theses with which I put forward the analysis of the show that fits perfectly in the change situation of global capitalism and the disappearance of the Berlin Wall and East and West Europe.

FIRST: The invitation for the exhibition did not mention one single name of the included artists. Something that is not possible to be a case when it is Western artists taking part in the show. One of the reasons was that more than 200 artists were invited. As the producer of the show is ERSTE Foundation it is not possible to think that an extra sheet of paper for the invitation could not be provided with the names! Money was never a question in this show, only when it was about artists to be paid as taking part in the show and obviously when it was necessary to publish the names of the artists on the invitation card. The artists in the show were not paid, we the panelists, were. But what was even more disturbing was the fact that the press material listed a selection of names, in the way, as noted by Austrian artist Ralo Mayer, artists make their CV’s saying “solo shows, selection.” Therefore, for ERSTE, MUMOK and the curator, the selected artists’ names from the former Eastern European space were (are to be in the future) taken/included/excluded as depending of the contexts for which the different institutions need their CV’s.

What is described here is not a joke, unfortunately, but can be theoretically envisioned in the following way. One of the most challenging presentation at the symposium part of the exhibition Gender check was by Vjollca Krasniqi ( theoretician from Prishtina, Kosovo). Krasniqi in her talk with the title “Returning the Gaze: Gender and Power in Kosovo ” presented a reading of the neocolonial capture of Kosovo by the European Union. Her analysis showed that the processes of discrimination, racialization and etc. that are presently implemented by the EU in/on Kosovo are all because of “emancipation.” Krasniqi argued that discrimination imposed on Kosovo by the EU is seen as necessary by the EU in order for Kosovars, as analysed by Krasniqi, to become “mature political subjects” ready for being integrated in the future in the EU. She presented clearly that becoming mature for the EU is possible only through changing Kosovo into a neoliberal capitalist protectorate. Similarly, I can state that the only few selected mentioned names of Eastern European artists taking part in the exhibition Gender check were done on the presupposition that they were enough mature (“mature EU artists”) to be listed as part of different CV’s of different institutions (Erste, MUMOK, the curator), depending on different  purposes of these CV’s. Therefore we could see our names depending on the fact whether we were enough gender (?), politically(?) and historically (?) mature subjects (ops!) artists for them.

More poignantly, I can state that the exhibition Gender check, referring to Arjun Appadurai,[3] (quoted in Goldie Osuri), presents a juncture of a certain epistemology of constructing a certain space of visibility for the unnamed lets say 180 artists (20 was named depending of the context) in the show (let be at least for a moment sympathetic to the show) with a colonial govermentality at its purest (if we think about how the exhibition is constructed). Appadurai talks already in 1993 of a specific way of constituting the colony with what he names enumerative community. What I want to say? As it was repeated over and over from the opening speeches on, Gender check is not about East and West of Europe (and therefore the word in the title of the exhibition is a mistake) but is about an exhibition project that pushes forward a colonial logic of producing an enumerative community (200 and more artists that present 400 and more works, while the curator argued it could be even more, but MUMOK is too small!) that takes statistics as its politics of representation. In this show some bodies, and let be precise nameless bodies (the invitation that was sent to “everybody,” so to say, did not list one single artist’s name, beside the author of the invitation cover picture) are taken to stand for other bodies because of the enumerative principle of metonymy. By the way, metaphor and metonymy were used as the logic to produce meaning through the show, bypassing the social and political.[4] Just to make a clear comment, the leaflet for the invitation to the symposium that was constituted by positions coming from the East and the West was with names; they were listed fully and accurately. It would not be possible to invite speakers from Austria or (former) West Europe and not have them listed! The enumerative logic implemented in the construction of the show is as well coming near to a logic of constituting protectorates and zones of control. It is a process that I will term, in regard to Suvendrini Perera[5] as a form of neoliberal govermentality that can be named as genderization. This technical and political term resembling at once precarization and proletarization presents not a simple “gendering” process (as becoming) but a brutal colonial logic of forced subjugation of whole territories and art and social practices to a gender administrative logic of counting nameless bodies in order to be governed in the future properly.

SECOND: It was repeated over and over that the exhibition is not about East and West of Europe as that they are not existent any more. Though it must be clear that it is a paradoxical statement by the curator and those who gave the money and as well many speakers in the panel, as the title of the show is Gender CheckFemininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe. But still, what is the logic that organizes such statement and also what means to declare that the borders are gone?

I propose here a thesis that today the so-called misbalance between East and West of Europe is not any more a question of opposition as it was in the past but East of Europe and West of Europe are today in a relation of repetition. The same repetition I put forward when talking about global capitalism that is, according to Petit, nothing more than the repetition of one and only event, and this is the unrestrainment of capital. However, this repetition is not going on as a process of mirroring, but presents a repetition of one part within the other. Today there is a lot of talk going on between the so called nationalistic Eastern Europe and the neoliberal Western Europe. But we witness a repetition of the neoliberal capitalist West (with all the prerogatives of consumerism and humanism) amidst the nationalistic East without the West consumerism/capitalist expropriation being really jeopardized. Or another excellent case of such a repetition is the project Former West started in The Netherlands as International Research, Publishing and Exhibition Project 2009–2012, curated by Charles Esche, Maria Hlavajova and Kathrin Rhombergn (http://www.formerwest.org), that is not at all a joke although it could be seen as such, but is a perfect logic of repetition as the key logic of global capitalism today.

Based on Ugo Vlaisavljević’s text with the title “From Berlin to Sarajevo,”[6] I can state that the proclamation of the fall of the Berlin Wall, therefore of the border of division in between East and West that is gone (what is true), and can be so cheerfully celebrated, has to do with the wrong (old) conceptualization of the border itself.

Maybe it is necessary to rethink the concept of the border anew and see what the present celebration means? Ugo Vlaisaljević refers to Étienne Balibar in order to point the finger to a process in Europe that states that the way of how we perceive borders changes and with this change we can conceptualize as well Europe differently. Vlaisavljević states that the best way to understand the position within the EU is actually to look towards the borders that are established by the EU with those states that are not (yet?) reintegrated in the EU. Balibar already in the 1990s (as redeveloped in Vlaisavljević) in his major works about Europe identifies a process that at once notes a fragmentation of borders resulting in their multiplication on one side and on the other in the disappearance of certain borders. In 1997, Balibar writes the following, my translation: “The borders are shivering, but this does not mean that they are disappearing. On the contrary they are multiplied and diminished in their localization, in their function, stretching or doubled, becoming zones, regions, border territories in which we dwell and live. Precisely the relation in between ‘borders’ and ‘territories’ is reversed. That means that they started to be the object of requirements and contestation, insisting on their fortification and especially on their security measures.”[7]

What is at stake in this process is what Balibar terms as the transformation of the border into zone. The consequences are more than just a monopoly play; this means that with this act of constituting zones or territories instead of fixed borders the question of borders disappears in order that the physiognomy of borders changes radically. We do not talk about East and West of Europe any more but about the transformation of a whole territory into a zone that functions in such a way as a (new) border. The West Balkan is such a border zone.

If we take this point that was almost prematurely developed in the 1990s while today it is coming to its full power, then it is, in relation to the exhibition Gender check, not only insulting to talk about Eastern and Western Europe, especially about former Eastern Europe as we have its distorted image anyway today in the format of its repetition as the Former West, but it is necessary to imply that Gender check presents a process of genderization as a zoning. It constitutes Former Eastern Europe as a border zone, transforming it in a polygon for testing the level of genderization of the whole territory. Especially we can state this as we know that gender got its perverse condition of reality through its neoliberal managerial appropriation in the way of gender mainstreaming in the West. Therefore the anniversary is commemorating a  wall that is from paper as other walls made of still and concrete are built not at the border but inside the very territory.

Therefore when it was rhetorically asked in one of the panel at the symposium, part of the exhibition Gender Check, “Can Gender Speak East?,” those who will respond affirmatively are those who do not understand the changes that affected former Eastern Europe, or Europe as such. As the shifting of the border into zone implies that the border is not a line, not even a wall (and therefore the fall of the Berlin Wall can be cherished so enthusiastically), but the border presents today a whole zone, gender is such a zone! Therefore when the exhibition Gender CheckFemininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe commemorates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is not about East and West, but it is about the transformation of the whole territory of former Eastern Europe into a polygon for checking gender. This is why the other panel at the same symposium organized by the western participants used the title “Fuck your Gender” as for the radicalized queer position gender mainstreaming means the complicity of gender that was a political category with neoliberal global capitalism. The former Eastern Europe is still to be emancipated through the implementation of gender, checking means precisely that capitalist govermentality is to manage the whole space through a gender border-zone. In her text “Where is the Feminist Critical Subject?” Biljana Kašić[8] states that in order to formulate this new situation from her own context that is “political, transitional, post-Yugoslav, ‘European-promising,’ gender mainstreaming, vulgar capitalist-oriented,” it is necessary to emphasize “three ordering systems that are at play today in feminism and Europe: gender mainstreaming, capital order and the market-consumer dictate, including control over representation.” I presented them already, showing that the exhibition Gender check tries to blur them, making all of them not possible to be identified. However, my point is that gender check is gender mainstreaming, that capital order is the shift from borders to zones as well as the co-propriety of capital and power (Erste/MUMOK/the institution of the curator), and that the control over representation is done through an enumerative logic as a new juncture in-between neoliberal capitalist epistemology and neoliberal capitalist governmentality. 

Therefore, precisely through this process of reversal of borders into territories or zones, we can claim that the borders are disappearing for the need of imperialism of circulation, allowing us to cheerfully greet the fall of the Berlin Wall, as this wall is a paper wall, transformed into a zone that will be repeated as border elsewhere. Balibar stated that the Berlin Wall is gone, while instead we got a bureaucratic process of visa acquiring, and the border police is not any more at the border but in the very heart of the city that is not yet part of the EU, where in fortified offices, as reported by Vlaisavljević, policemen instead of once embassy and consular bureaucrats keep the wall standing firmly. Today the former Western European states’ embassies personnel, as noted by Vlaisavljević, are more and more professional bureaucratic police. Vlaisavljević also stated that the integration into EU starts before the future EU member state is integrated. In short, as lucidly pointed out by Vlaisavljević, Europe does not need the Berlin Wall as it established invisible internal judicial, police, managerial borders that function as outside walls.

Yes, as it is said in the 2009 slogan of the unified Germany: “Come, come to the country without borders,” but only as long as you are not in one of the many detention prisons or camps in Germany or Former West Europe or waiting somewhere in the line to get the visa or the asylum paper.


[1] Santiago López Petit, La movilización global. Breve tratado para atacar la realidad

[Global Mobilization. Brief Treatise for Attacking Reality], published in Spanish by Editorial Traficantes de Sueños, Barcelona in June 2009.

[2] Cf. Goldie Osuri, “Identity and Complicity in Necropolitical Engagements: The Case of Iraq,” Reartikulacija, no. 8., forthcoming, December 2009.

[3] Cf. Arjun Appadurai, “Number in the Colonial Imagination,” in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, eds. C. A. Breckenridge and P. V. D. Veer, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, pp. 314–339.

[4] Cf. Ibid.

[5] Cf. Suvendrini Perera, “Race, Terror, Sydney, December 2005.” borderlands ejournal 5, no. 1. 2006. Quoted in Goldie Osuri.

[6] Ugo Vlaisavljević, “From Berlin to Sarajevo,” Zarez, , year XI, number 267, Zagreb, 15.10.2009, pp. 23–25.

[7] Cf. E. Balibar, La crainte des masses: politique et philosophie avant et après Marx, Collection La Philosophie en effet, Galilée, Paris, 1997, pp. 386–387.

[8] Cf. Biljana Kašić, “Where is the Feminist Critical Subject?,” in NEW FEMINISM: Worlds of Feminism, Queer and Networking Conditions, Eds. Marina Gržinić, Rosa Reitsamer, Löcker Verlag, Vienna, 2008, p. 457.