Ghosts of the past: photo fair looks to ex-Soviet east

PARIS, Emma Charlton- A decrepit satellite dish points skyward from a deserted radio outpost that once broadcast from the West to the Communist bloc: ex-Soviet Europe is star guest at a top photography fair in Paris this week.
Intimate, burlesque or political: some 90 photographers from central Europe, many of them chronicling the rocky ride from communism to market economy, are on show at the Paris Photo staged near the Louvre from Thursday to Sunday.

"It was high time for us to give pride of place to this young scene," said curator Guillaume Piens, who invited eight up-and-coming galleries from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Among the artists present, Hungary's Gabriella Csoszo shot the abandoned premises, stopped clocks and dust-gathering library of a Radio Free Europe outpost in Portugal, one of a network of US-funded stations that broadcast into the eastern bloc before the fall of Communism.
"These are the ghosts of history," said Piens. "These desolate rooms. With the fall of communism this all became obsolete overnight."
Central Europe has a strong photographic tradition, and Hungary in particular was the birthplace of such giants as Robert Capa or Andre Kertesz.
One of a new generation of galleries to have emerged since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a Budapest artist collective-cum-cafe called Lumen was invited to showcase what it calls its "Garage Project".
Built in the 1960s for factory workers in the Soviet industrial city of Dunaujvaros on the Danube, the complex of 1,200 garages formed a parallel city which over the decades became a meeting place for local men.
Gergely Laszlo and Peter Rakosi started by snapping the garages as they found them -- converted to rock band dens or tidy workshops -- before renting boxes out to host artist installations, which they also photographed.
Under their spell, the garages become everything from marijuana farms to miniature grand-piano concert halls -- a powerful collision, Piens argued, of a one-size-fits-all Soviet mentality with modern-day creativity.
While there is no single central European style in photography, Piens sees common traits throughout the region today: "It's non-decorative, there's a kind of rigour, a formal inventiveness," Piens said.
"And it's all about history, a history whose ashes are still warm."
From Bratislava, 23-year-old Lucia Stranaiova chose her own grandparents as subjects for a poignant series of close-ups, their vulnerable-looking bodies protected only by a flimsy nightdress or striped boxer shorts.
"They spent their whole lives under the Communist era." she told AFP. "They worked so hard, they accepted and believed in the ideas -- and it shaped their psychology. I tried to picture what is left of their inner life."
Also delving into family history, Budapest-based Zsolt Fekete searched out 19th-century photographs of his region of origin in Transylvania, revisiting the sites -- now part of Romania -- and shooting them with modern technology.
Shown side by side, the images chronicle history's march: a Soviet-era coal house is knocked down after the regime falls, or an imposing Orthodox church springs up next to an ancient Catholic one.
The political and the personal also collide in the work of Krisztina Erdei, who pictured her six-month-old baby daughter in front of a rumbling tank during commemorations marking the Hungarian revolution of 1956 against Communist rule.
"I wanted to show what's it's like to be both a photographer and a mother," she told AFP.
Other shots offer a wry critique of the mass consumerism that has now spread to the ex-Soviet bloc, like one eery shot of her daughter sprawled among oversized crates of toys -- an image captured on "a normal day out at Ikea's".
And feminism meets politics in the work of fellow Hungarian Anna Fabricius, whose humorous tableaux show tough-looking women shielding their babies with the "weapons" of domesticity: hairdryer, knitting needles or wooden spoon.
"When you think of the transition of these societies, and look back to the Soviet-era image of the factory-worker woman," said Piens, "there is a subtle point about history being made here."

Saturday, November 20th 2010
Emma Charlton

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