October 9, 2015
“Mapping” Romanian contemporary art
This year, Romanian contemporary art received the validation it seems to have been awaiting for a long time. With three events that were orchestrated exclusively by commercial galleries on the Cluj-Timișoara-Bucharest axis, the end result – at least in the media – was the seal of approval “contemporary art certified in the west”. This is, of course, a good thing. There’s nothing better than the man upstairs allowing you to exist, especially after you struggled for so long. But why does this not make me happy, still? I will examine 2 of the 3 events that lead to the upgrade of Romanian contemporary art – Mapping Bucharest at the Vienna Biennial and Art Encounters in Timișoara and Arad – to justify my mistrust. Might I mention that the 3rd event, the Romanian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, was already the subject of another text from a few months back, full of sympathy and regret.
Mapping Bucharest is part of the first edition of the Vienna Biennial and it is also an unexpected gift from a corporation that has been selling gas in Romania more expensive than in Vienna – a gift not meant for Bucharest, as the title might suggest, but for the city of Cluj that “mapped” the capital with artists made at The Paintbrush Factory (Ciprian Mureșan, Mihuț Boșcu Kafchin, Mircea Cantor, Adrian Ghenie). This, on one hand. On the other hand, Vienna, this great dying imperial capital, is still passionately invested in activities that make it seem like it is still relevant as an arbiter of elegance (artistic and/or political), that, of course, of “mapping” the Eastern scene. On their last attempt, even with her involvement in the project, Marina Gržinić became aware of the situation and harshly criticized the so-called East-West opposition as in fact a very specific repetition of the East within the West and vice-versa:
“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. “
More precisely, when talking about exhibiting Romanian (Bucharest-based?) contemporary art in the last 100 years, it becomes clear that we are not dealing with a manifestation about Romanian art – just like the sinister TV show The Romanians are coming on Channel 4 is not about Romanians – it is, in fact, about Vienna’s position in the world and the fact that it wants to reconquer/maintain/sustain/repeat it in the East. To validate an entire scene, an entire century of contemporary art cannot be the prerogative of a small culture, but only that of a real, major culture, that is itself defined by this prerogative. We are talking about cultural colonization with the purpose of reviving the colonist both economically and symbolically – and this colonist requires an entire arsenal of mediating operations in order to receive the barbarian electroshock. The Vienna Biennial’s general theme was the design of a perfectly ergonomic future city suited for the (in)human and (il)legal creatures that are to populate the historical streets of the Empire – and Bucharest was being flattered, perhaps, as being a city of the future, probably the new Berlin or however it is marketed nowadays to cater to tourists that need to be talked into visiting/validating the city. Now that the Biennial is over, I can’t help but laugh at the total lack of reaction from back home – a first sign of optimism in this analysis. This is probably due to the more prosaic observation that for the local cultural operators the effect was almost nonexistent. The mapping was carried out with household names that are now familiar even to non-professionals (meaning more than 200 people). And even though, for the 10th time around, the artists and their galleries have consolidated their position, this does not mean that the average art show in Bucharest has a budget of more than 100 euros.
Still, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that the long term effect will not be seen. Closer to Vienna, at the periphery to the Empire, Timișoara immediately seized the opportunity and candidly embraced the Viennese model by proposing a huge manifestation that is unique to Romania, not only due to its impressive scale, but also due to the fact that, for the first time ever, a multimillionaire business man and proud collector chooses to build his social status not by acquiring spectacular real estate, but with local contemporary art. This western model had never been implemented in Romania before. We never had the necessary refinement in order to understand the market value of contemporary art. We finally figured out – with a little help from our Viennese brothers, whom I picture as deeply exasperated by our slow understanding – that Romanian contemporary art is a good investment, both financially and image-wise.
Art Encounters leads Timișoara straight to becoming the European Capital of Culture in 2021. As the vice-mayor of the city put it at the opening of the event, Timișoara will not forget about Arad “when it wins the title”, even though on paper the two cities are happily connected. But I guess Arad needs to wait for its own oligarch in order to win any prize. Timișoara, on the other hand, called out on what it perceived as the entirety of the contemporary art scene to be present at its grand début on the international art market. 80% of the participants still have their headquarters at The Paintbrush Factory, while the rest consists of various who’s who from Bucharest-Craiova-Timișoara (some names: Andreiana Mihail, Aiurart, Poterașu, Ivan, Nicodim, Zorzini, Suprainfinit, Eastwards Prospectus, Club Electroputere, Jecza – most of them with an individual exhibition and at least one represented artist as part of group exhibitions). The exhibition spaces are certified contemporary – ex-factories, barracks, synagogues, bizarre museums, malls, business centers and more unconventional spaces. The program features documentation projects of local radical art (the truly essential exhibition on the pedagogic practices of the Sigma group + the completely boring retrospective of the Zona festival) in order to make continuity obvious (Timișoara has always been an active center for contemporary art). An invitation is extended for an independent space with an extremely important activity for the Romanian scene – in this case, Salonul de Proiecte– and for a handful of artists who advocate immaterial work – in this case, The Melodramatic Bureau, Veda Popovici and Matei Bejenaru – that are given an opportunity they otherwise must forcibly take, in order to show the curators’ profound understanding of contemporary art. And yes, foreign curators are invited. And not just any curators, but ones of German origin. Who the hell are these curators, I asked myself, thinking I must have overlooked some important names. But it wasn’t my fault – the two have been handling commercial art since forever, so it’s no surprise that Timișoara looks like a commercial art fair (with nothing to sell, we are told, but let’s get real). These curators were chosen specifically because, when browsing artists’ portfolios, they can pick the most valuable one even with their eyes closed. And this is how Timișoara’s halls got filled with art displays, one more valuable than the other, lacking of humor or, I couldn’t help but notice, filled with recurrent jokes about The Endless Column. I don’t think there’s any point to explaining the event’s name (biennial titles have never been real), but I cannot help but point out two major lacks: the curatorial statement and the event catalog. These lacks are a corollary to the mapping that solely preoccupies the two curators, who admitted that they have no understanding of the space they were invited to work in. They simply applied an already established model in a given context. Here, they found what was left there for them to be found.
But it wouldn’t be fair to keep going like this without mentioning the fact that each and every participant – the owners of the commercial galleries – I spoke to, said they were happy with the event and its purpose, which they perceived very clearly as helping their activities. The art shows exhibited the best objects in each gallery’s repertoire, objects that have been passed around for 10-15 years within the art world’s inner circle, and produced by artists who have also been passed around in the same circle, from artists associated with the Cluj School, to eternally contemporary art figures (Bernea, Flondor, Brătescu, Grigorescu, Perjovschi), and names like Ioana Nemeș, Mircea Nicolae, Ștefan Sava, Vlad Nancă, Alexandru Niculescu, etc. The artists I interviewed were less enthusiastic, since they clearly understood the way this event instrumentalizes the lack of local financing opportunities – in other words, what to do, not make art on capitalist money, an issue which is ancient history for others, but has just become a thing on the local scene.
Herein lies the key. The Vienna Biennial, Art Encounters and even Romania’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale set the tone for an ensemble of practices that will make up the entity of Romanian contemporary art. The thing is that art is not an entity, but an activity – the activity of creating contexts. And these 3 manifestations took it upon themselves to create the context of Romanian contemporary art, to select it, to define it, to assimilate it, to make it understandable as in marketable, within select local, regional or international capitalist groups. There’s no wonder we’ve been craving Western validation and that the general feeling is “euphoria”, as was stated during the official press conference; out of all typical Romanian gestures, the ones associated with a minor culture’s inferiority complex are the most easily distinguishable from an aesthetic perspective and are, to me, the most frustrating. These nationalist outbursts are the result of a subordinate type of mentality and one should understand that discussion can only take place if we see ourselves as the others’ equals; I think that this thirst for validation is a classic trap that we should have anticipated. Anyone in the position of begging is looked upon in a condescending manner, and when the beggar is given what he wanted, this only happens under the giver’s conditions, the giver being someone who was placed on a pedestal by the beggar. I don’t think we really needed this validation from the western world – if we would have had more faith in ourselves and kept on doing what we thought to be right, this validation would have happened on our own terms. Then – only then – we would have created our own context.
By participating in these 3 events, a handful of Romanian actors have created an entity and annihilated a context; they levelled the playing field with a series of activities and have temporarily revoked others’ right to create contexts; in short, they cleaned up, took what was good and build a fence around it, a fence that should be tested for its strength. In this safe space that is now determined by the codes of the international market, Romanian contemporary art has become contemporary art, period – it no longer has that exotic element we’ve been so worried about, but it also lost its particular voice, no matter how eccentric or clumsy it may have seemed. To sum it up, within this typical gigantic event, individual works have been subordinated to a simple but clear reading, thus forming a majority. I think that few of the artists that were part of Art Encounters really wanted this (although I’m not sure I can say the same about their gallerists). However, there was just one project, which was not initially intended for the event, which managed to propose a playful, inventive and sort of risky stance. I’m talking about the Kinema Ikon exhibition at Atrium Mall as a reaction to the public questionnaire done in front of the Arad Museum of Art, where people were asked “Do you know where the museum of art is?”, and weren’t able to give any clear answers. During my 30 minutes visit, I witnessed tens of people who were out shopping, going in and wondering through the screens and objects that managed, using very different tones, to displace the coordinates of a typical Sunday mall experience.
What is the conclusion of an event that managed to bring together loads of commercial art, clever documentary exhibitions, sophisticated performances and risky installations? Personally, I was left with a feeling of anguish that we are heading straight for the aporia of art in the western world, but still hopeful about Bucharest not being close enough to the border of any empire. The capital still is a context to be made, whereas Timișoara suddenly made it very very difficult for groups like Harta, that don’t want to be part of the system (this may sound trivial, but it finally makes sense on the Romanian art scene) and will struggle to remain legitimate. This kind of struggle was not an issue in Romania until now – sure, we would kill each other for AFCN funding or for work spaces, but there was no big entity that could be considered “the system” (no, not even the Artists’ Union or any art school). But the art market has this power. How will we fight it? That is the question.
Mapping Bucharest. Art, Memory and Revolution is an event that took place during the first edition of the Vienna Bienniale, and was at MAK Vienna between 11 June – 4 October 2015.
Art Encounters is at Timișoara and Arad between 3-31 October 2015.