Matei Bejenaru, Împreună/Together, 2007. Courtesy of the artist

New Media, New Europe

published in Eikon

Although “freshly” European, today’s Romanian artistic space is as heterogeneous as any. It neither has a matrix of shared practices nor a specific, singular identity. Any attempt at selection turns into a comparative exercise, reflective rather of differences than of a genus proximus; and the artists’ mobility beyond post-Communist exoticism confirms a sensitivity resistant to classifications.

Yet history and economy remain essential determinants: in the absence – due to Communist isolation and censorship – of a tradition of photography and video art, new media only became a meaningful notion from the 1990s onwards, when necessary equipment became accessible to artists sponsored by the Soros program. Recent production, for lack of a sustaining infrastructure, whether conceptual or financial, has been accidental and of little significance. The handful of artists whose works seek to test and push limits and who have built a distinct profile of their own constitute the exception: Mircea Cantor (b. 1977 at Oradea, based in Paris); Stefan Constantinescu (b. 1968 in Bucharest, based in Stockholm); Aurelia Mihai (b.1968, based in Hamburg); and Matei Bejenaru (b. 1968, based in Iasi, Romania).

Mircea Cantor explores the construction, circulation and deconstruction of meaning through image. Whether video, photography or installations, his works contain and reflect the uncertainty and ambiguous nature of history itself. Subjects – whether of political, social or emotional nature – are treated poetically and minimally, with no trace of didacticism and with no editing cuts or special effects. Exemplary of his style is Departure (16 mm film, 2’43”, 2005). The work is a subtle allegory of the tension that haunts our global world. A wolf and a deer silently negotiate their territories in the aseptic narrow space of an art gallery. Their movements are calm, and the camera’s close-up shots imponderably freeze action in a truce: adversity and latent violence are palpable yet repeatedly suspended as if stating the very impossibility of a solution.

Strongly steeped in autobiography, Stefan Constantinescu’s works analyze the ways in which individual experiences define collective identity and memory. The artist grew up during the most austere period of communism in Romania, in the 1980s. An ordinary day started with standing in line. People lined up for everything: bread rations, gas tanks, nettle shampoo. The day ended blandly, in front of the TV, watching endless applause for the Communist party and its leader. Constantinescu’s works speak about false ideologies, trauma, dislocation and survival. Archive of Pain (video, 45’, 2002) consists of a series of interviews with former political prisoners of the regime; The Baron (video, 45’, 2002) is the story of an illegal Romanian emigrant in Holland in the 1990s. The artist is, in a way, both in front and behind of the camera, at the same time producer of history and its very subject.

Aurelia Mihai relentlessly explores the nature and limits of video language, and the relation between image and its reception, between reality and artifice. One of her most complex productions is Valley of the Dreamers (37’, 2004), which sets off to inquire into the medium itself by taking as its basis the recovery of the movie sets of Cecil B. de Mille’s 1932 Ten Commandments from the California desert. The sets were a detailed reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian city, with its temples, divinities and funerary monuments. The film “scientifically” documents the process of excavating the sets, using the camera as a tool to unearth recent cultural archaeology and, at the same time, to manipulate the real and re-place history in different temporal strata.

Matei Bejenaru is an archivist of the present. The artist uses photography and video to question the presence of history and the power relations in post-Communist Romania, which has become an open market for the international capital in the last twenty years. The process is engendering multiple side effects: the coexistence of incompatible structures, migration, confusion. Bejenaru documents the impact of modernization on Romanian society, with an unsympathetic critique of the myth of the “great capital,” which he perceives as essentially elitist. The video work Impreuna/Together (7’30”, 2007) is a monochrome scanning of the Romanian community in London, a meditation on identity and difference in our global space; while the photography series Work, Memory, Motion (2008–) captures moments and mechanisms of day-to-day social and economic life in black-andwhite images of striking cinematic realism, subliminally related to residual Marxist thought.