Dan Perjovschi, Unframed, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art

Contemporary Art in Romania
interview for art:i:curate by Ashton Chandler
12 March 2014

Ashton Chandler (art:i:curate): To those unfamiliar with Romanian contemporary art scene, can you describe it in a few sentences?

Simona Nastac: Romanian history and culture are defined by alternating interruptions and paradoxes. As historian Lucian Boia stressed in his controversial book Why Is Romania Different?, certain developments have never been realized, and since they have been frequently disrupted, this lack of cohesion has become the pattern of progression that led society to a chronic difficulty in fixing its identity and envisioning a future for itself. The contemporary art scene follows the same pattern, producing its own versatile history against the rapidly changing local landscape: artists act as managers who set up institutions and networks, as archivists of their own and other artists’ projects, or as curators researching their context and establishing frameworks for diverse collective and personal narratives. More often than not they arrive at poetics via politics, putting their creativity at stake to generate new ways of representation and new modes of distributing the sensible. In so doing, they have shaped a resourceful scene that is inherently critical, engaged and suspicious of formulas and utopias, continuously re-inventing itself. To use Jean-Luc Nancy’s household terms, I would say it is an inoperative community defined by the political nature of its resistance against ingrained power.

AC: Which particular artists exemplify Romanian contemporary art? Can you tell us about their work and how they are perceived internationally?
SN: The list may be surprisingly long, but I will select a few names that are recognised internationally.

Lia and Dan Perjovschi‘s distinct and highly personal approaches to art are deeply rooted in what Boris Groys named ‘a life-in-the-project or a lifetime performance’. They began making art during the Communist era, and after 1989 have turned their art into a tool for recording history and for social critique. Dan creates ‘temporary drawings made with permanent markers’ that mix satire and comment on current political, social and cultural issues. Lia’s installations, combining images, texts and objects, map vital notions of our existence – time, place, geopolitics, resistance, authority and hierarchy – reflecting on the incoherent nature of history and on the tension between life and documentation. Last year, the artists became recipients of the ECF Princess Margriet Award for the active role that their art has played in Romanian culture since the late 1980s.

Mircea Cantor is well-known for his minimal, poetical and metaphysical works that attempt to reflect and examine the modern world and its human contradictions. His work has been compared to that of Duchamp in his use of the readymade to expose the polysemantic nature of everyday objects. At the same time, Cantor shows an acute socio-political insight, with video works like Deeparture, I Decided Not To Save the World or The Landscape is Changing expressing finely tuned responsiveness to the most violent realities in today’s changing world. The artist was awarded the prestigious Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2011.

Another key figure is Matei Bejenaru, who established the Periferic Biennial in Iasi in 1997. Drawing on his own experience of postcommunist transition, he examines how socio-political contexts inform everyday life and condition artistic practice. In 2007 he staged a public choreography of over 200 fellow nationals on the esplanade of Tate Modern, whilst his Travelling Guide for Romanians seeking to enter the UK illegally was presented at Level 2 Gallery. Songs for a Better Future, a modernist interpretation of proletarian choir music developed together with Will Dutta, premiered at the Drawing Room and Tate Modern in London in 2010 and last year Bejenaru became Kettle’s Yard Associate Artist with the project On Beauty: Building a Darkroom.

Historical events, post-communism, religion and art history are Ciprian Muresan’s means of questioning social mechanisms and the construction of individuality. Critical and iconoclastic, his video works, drawings and sculptures reflect a subterranean sense of disillusionment with Romanian society, its myths and archaic rituals, ironically balanced by the blind enthusiasm for imported forms without content. Monks is a video that caricatures copying Western art in schools, whilst Choose and Santa Claus speak about the clash between the old and the new and the confusion it creates at all levels of society. Muresan’s work has been widely exhibited at New York’s New Museum, Tate Modern and San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art amongst others.

Mona and Florin Vatamanu are seen as some of the most compelling interpreters of the post-communist condition, with a broad practice including film, photography, painting, performance and site-specific projects. Their works bring history into the present tense through performative re-enactment and symbolic repossession, as in Das Kapital, Vacaresti, and Dust, or reference architecture as a repository of both personal and collective memory as in Persepolis, The Trial, The Palace and Rosa Luxemburg Square. Vatamanu and Tudor have exhibited at ICA London, Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin, Kadist Art Foundation Paris, BAK Utrecht and Stroom Den Haag, The Hague among others.

Pavel Braila received international acclaim with his film Shoes for Europe, presented at documenta 11. The film shows in real-time the painstaking process of changing the Russian wheel gauges still used on Moldovan trains at the border with Romania. Another infamous work is the large-scale installation Barons’ Hill that documents the homes of the leaders of the Roma in the city of Soroca, elaborate architectural fantasies that are widely present in Romania as well. The artist was born in Chisinau, Moldova, where he still resides, a small country located between Romania and Ukraine, which was part of Greater Romania during the interwar period. Last year he was awarded the Celeste Prize for video in Rome.

Of course, this is a subjective and brief selection, but there are many other influential artists who are shaping the scene, such as Adrian Ghenie, Victor Man, Serban Savu and Marius Bercea from the so-called ‘Cluj school of painting’, Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, The Bureau of Melodramatic Research, Apparatus 22, Daniel Knorr, Stefan Constantinescu, Dan Acostioaei, Irina Botea, Vlad Nanca, Mircea Nicolae, Manuel Pelmus and Alexandra Pirici, etc.

AC: Can you explain the dynamic of the UAP (Artists’ Union), the public institutions, and private initiatives which structure art in Romania today?

SN: Founded in 1950, UAP has branches and owns galleries throughout Romania. It is still a powerful professional body, but it needs fresh approaches and leaders in order to play the sophisticated game of contemporary art. Private initiatives are far better equipped to create critical discourse and portfolios of artists that can thrive in the current financial context. The Paintbrush Factory in Cluj, tranzit.ro in Bucharest, Iasi, Cluj and Sibiu, Club Electroputere in Craiova and Bucharest and Pavilion Unicredit are the most active, to name just a few. However, the state support for their programmes is minimal or non-existent and they may disappear anytime, as other key players did, such as Galeria Noua and The Centre for Visual Introspection in Bucharest. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest does not have enough funding either and it is quite a miracle that contemporary art is still being created when there is very little public or private money invested in research, production, and acquisitions. These institutions map quite a generous and vibrant territory, but they do not seem to have sufficient capacity to generate new ones.

AC: You previously curated a show called ‘Romanian Pavilion’ at the HotShoe that provided insight into the changes that occurred in Romania under communist president Nicolae Ceausescu. Can you explain that exhibition more in depth and tell us how you would curate an exhibition based on Romania’s current political status?

SN: The exhibition brought together five video artists interested in Ceausescu’s failed utopian social experiments and subsequent dehumanizing conditions, with an emphasis on built environment and private life. Modernist social housing was applied widely in Eastern Europe in the 1960s, with the totalitarian regimes building new cities for the ‘new man’ and (dis)placing people in flats that resembled prison blocks. The profoundly alienating consequences of this tabula rasa of the past have become evident after the 1990s, alongside the emergence of capitalism. The exhibition examined how video art reflects and manipulates private and collective recollection of these radical changes, offering at the same time an insight into how this reality portrayed facets of the medium. The exhibition was accompanied by a publication featuring interviews with the five exhibiting artists Dan Acostioaei, Sebastian Moldovan, Joanne Richardson, Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor. As for a new project based on Romania’s current political status, I think that a revolutionary performance would be the most fitting approach.

AC: Can you describe the market for Romanian contemporary art right now? How does the Romanian contemporary art scene continue to evolve politically and culturally?

SN: Romanian art is doing fairly well on the international market and poorly at home. A just balance between the two would be ideal.