While the discourse and study of conceptual art in the West is supposedly well-formed, artists in Eastern Europe have worked with a similar formal vocabulary for decades. Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, where I am director, was the first institution in Europe to start systematically collecting works by mostly Eastern European neo-avant-garde artists since the 1990s. Since then, the collection Arteast 2000+ has steadily grown, and yet for many highly complex reasons the history of conceptual art in the West has been systematized, while we are almost without a history in the East.
In 2007 I began work on a project on Eastern European conceptualism to attempt to understand this problem. It began with a conference involving Eda Čufer, Cristina Freire, Boris Groys, Charles Harrison, Vít Havránek, Piotr Piotrowski, and Branka Stipančić, where we aimed to define what the term conceptual art actually means in our part of the world by analyzing the sociopolitical context that has informed it, but also by comparing the situation to that of similar experiences shared with Russian and Latin American conceptual art. This required that we first attempt to situate the term “conceptual art” in the most fundamental sense—in terms of how it was defined in Western theory and how was it defined in other places. One of the fundamental differences between the West and the East during the Cold War was the difference between individualism and collectivism. How crucial are these differences in interpreting and perceiving conceptual art in the East, the West, in Poland and Central Europe, in Latin America, but also in the wider framework of the global situation. The 1960s and 1970s marked the crucial starting point for conceptual art, but there is also the question of how it changed in later periods.
These were the questions with which we began the first part of the conversation in Ljubljana, published here in this issue of e-flux journal, with the next parts following in later issues. The ultimate aim of the conference was to arrive at a methodology for understanding Eastern European conceptual art, either by developing a discursive system or by articulating a methodology for working around the need to. It is a crucial question, closely tied to the very beginning of conceptual art, of how to negotiate different identities without resorting to the notion of universalism.
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