Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Between narrative and (in)action: Bucharest Biennale 4 /Part 1



Have you heard of Bucharest Biennale? If you've looked around your prestigious art publications this summer, you might have read about it in Frieze or the Economist, Artforum or even Vogue Italy. From May 21st to July 25th the Biennale, now at it's fourth edition, boasts to be "the most important contemporary art event in Romania" and "the meeting point of the art community in Central and Eastern Europe." The Biennale was organized by the contemporary art and culture center Pavilion Unicredit, located in Bucharest in Victory Square, right across from the Romanian government. The center is funded by the bank Unicredit Group, which also provided the organizers space for exhibitions and offices starting with February 2009 - in a former wing of the bank.

I came to know the Bucharest Biennale in 2006 (then at its second installment), taking part at a parallel event, "The Brunch," at CAA(Center for Art Analysis), moderated by Lia and Dan Perjovschi. There I met one of the biennale's co-directors, Razvan Ion, who remained memorable in my recollection of the discussion when he cried that living and working in Romania makes him want to smash his head against the wall everyday. I enjoyed his buoyant spirit then, and when I decided to spend time in the capital this winter I approached him and the team of Pavilion for a collaboration. Among other responsibilities, I was assigned to translate and edit artist texts for the fourth edition of the Biennale, act as a liaison between the curator, Felix Vogel and the artists, and handle publicity and marketing for the event. But as the months progressed, I felt disappointed that what started out as a collaboration on equal terms turned into an errand running operation, where my criticism of the Pavilion team's practices were discouraged and ignored. I decided I wanted more out of the position than being someone's secretary and stopped working at Pavilion right before the Biennale was supposed to be installed. My contribution to the texts for the Biennale catalogue and PR work were erased from the Pavilion website and never acknowledged in the final printed matter. So I figured "the only independent art center in Romania" , as Razvan Ion quickly points out to visitors, got more out of me than the other way round, and quitting was the right decision.

So I am putting all my cards on the table, because I don't want to give the impression of innocence. Despite my disappointment with the team of Pavilion, I am convinced that I could not have been given a better insight into the dynamics of the art scene in Bucharest as it relates to local and international actors.

Innocence is claimed by curator Felix Vogel as his unique strength in being the youngest (born in 1988) curator of a biennale ever. In an interview with H-Art Magazine (Belgium) Vogel boasts his lack of experience and legacy set this event apart from the more famous European biennales which, lets face it circulate a shortlist of curators, artists and themes. But I think more relevant than having a fresh outlook is having a clear strategy to explore, present and communicate to the public in Romania what the Biennale is trying to get across. I am more interested in how Vogel's fresh perspective gets translated into the specific socio-political context in Bucharest and the country in which he was invited to work. To this point, one of my biggest concerns was the presentation of the Biennale exclusively in English. It is almost bewildering to claim that one is putting on the "most important contemporary art event" in Romania, and then to address only English speakers. And even admitting that the majority of intellectuals in this country have a good command of English, it is still challenging for a non-native to make sense of the more complex concepts espoused in the catalogue, wall texts, and in the art works themselves.
So when I read in the final report put together by Pavilion that about 58.000 people attended the Biennale, I couldn't help but wonder -who exactly were these visitors? How much impact did this event have on the culture that it is supposed to make a difference in? Why is the team of Pavilion putting together a Biennale anyway? And for whom? The foreign press and a handful of critics interested in this region?

The theme chosen for the Biennale was Handlung, a German term which translates into both Action and Narrative. Around thirty seven artists (mostly from Europe and the US) were supposed to show their works (twenty of which were commissioned especially for this event) in the six locations (art centers, museums, universities) in Bucharest. By choosing to display works of art in traditional venues (such as the Center for Visual Introspection) as well as official state institutions (such as the Institute for Political Research), the organizers sought to use the exhibition to influence the local cultural and political climate. The dialectic between narrative and agency effectively connected the works in the exhibits, exploring as the title suggested, the power of contemporary art to instill political awareness and even more to spark some sort of collective action(s). The exhibits showed mostly film, photography and video works dealing with storytelling, truth-telling and documentary. But what truths did the Biennale reveal officially and unwillingly?

Even before the Biennale opened to the public on May 21st, the organizers were faced with a crisis. US artist Kaucyila Brooke's work Tit for Twat (1992) was pulled off from the show. The whole affair started when the Geology Museum staff realized that the Tit for Twat contained female nudity and informed the Biennale organizers that they could not accomodate the three-part photomontage, perceived as pornography, in the promised space. In fact Tit for Twat is a tongue and cheek retelling of the creation myth, the story of Madam and Eve, addressing lesbian and interracial sexuality. My first reaction to this conflict was, why didn't the Geology Museum know beforehand what works would be placed on its premises? How could the dialogue between the Pavilion side and theirs go so terribly wrong? The Biennale team's reaction was to simply condemn the museum's director Marcel Maruntiu's decision as Stalinist era censorship. But really I cannot give them credit for acting in the spirit of justice and fairness, when they could just have easily put Brooke's posters in a more permissive space (like their own premises), or if space didn't allow simply exchange the photomontage containing nudity with another new media work in which everybody kept their clothes on. Sure, one can say every space in the Biennale had its own internal logic, but what is more important in this case : allowing Brooke's work to be shown in Bucharest or sticking to the original layout of the exhibit? How can the organizers call the Biennale a "resounding success" when their judgment failed both the artist and the public? For an event that is explicitly themed around the power of art to spark civic consciousness, it is disappointing to see how precisely the political is the first to go out the window. I would even venture to ask, why the other artists involved in the show did not show solidarity with Kaucyila Brooke and at least formally protested her work's unjust exclusion? Statements of support for the artist's right to free speech were issued in the US mostly, but none came from the individuals that participated in or organized the Biennale itself. The show must go on, and indeed the Biennale seemed to put on a show for the sake of keeping it going.

But the unplanned conflicts and , in my opinion, most important conversations about the role of artists, their work, the cultural managers and the public continued to follow the development of the Bucharest Biennale. At an artists panel held in the Intercontinental (a four start hotel, one of the most luxurious venues in Bucharest) a strong contention developed between the organizers and the artists, over the politics of paying for the artists production budgets as well as their daily expenses while in Romania.

I will stop here for now because I think the question of the artist as a worker with rights and responsibilities merits an entry of its own. These conflicts and criticism of the Biennale process in Bucharest represent an exciting, albeit challenging avenue which could be productively exploited by its organizers, instead of swept under the rug. It is here I believe that the possibilities for action really lay. Being a contributor and observer of the process at the same time, I appreciated the vivid clashes between the participants, making the works of art that much more relevant.



Image credit: Kaucyila Brooke, Tit for Twat :Can We Talk? (2002)

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