Sunday, October 3, 2010

Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960: A review in absentia

If there is one piece of material that any self-respecting Art Library should own it is without a doubt Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960, a source book of the most important unofficial developments and counter-cultural models in Romanian society during the Cold War period of severe repression and the first years of transition immediately after it. The material suggests "Art" moves beyond the definitions of visual production, and includes exponents in diverse fields such as: literature, theater, dance & choreography, music, film, architecture and visual arts, in some cases from an interdisciplinary angle. Published by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art and Culture in 1997, the book covers the largely undocumented period between 1960 and 1996 in the country, and to my knowledge it is the only collective effort that pieces together the fragmented and conflicted history of the Romanian neo-avantgarde, some of whose representatives are currently internationally acclaimed artists, such as: Ana Lupas, Paul Neagu, Ion Grigorescu, Andrei Cadere, Teodor Graur, Lia & Dan Perjovschi and Geta Bratescu to name just a few.

One would think that a book of this magnitude would be widely printed around the world (especially since it's in both Romanian and English), but the reality is that in Europe you can only find a copy at the ICCA in Bucharest, the former Soros Center (open freely to the general public) and in the U.S. at the MOMA library (if you can afford the 12 $ ticket for students and 20 $ for the general public) or at the National Gallery of Art Library (finally, for free).

It seems fitting then that on the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a chance visit to the ICCA in Bucharest introduced me to a book about experiments in building socio-cultural-political alternatives in a time of great duress, and in the period immediately following the dictatorship. The beginning of the book places Romanian Experimental Arts in the larger Eastern European context and offers an overview of the developments in the country since the 1950's. The authors portray the difficult situations of the artists, who had to split their lives between official work for the Union of Fine Art and the Communist Party and their personal artistic interests. In Romania, artists lived within the fluctuations of repression, relaxing censorship and its consequent tightening during the70s and 80s. This was particularly the case starting with 1971, when Ceausescu's so-called 'ideological theses' were published. This situation reflected a real split in the artists' identity: the public or official style on the one hand and the personal, hidden style of their own work on the other.

Unlike other Soviet Bloc countries where artists collectives were active (such as NSK in Slovenia or Collective Actions in Russia), the book presents the insularity of Romanian artists and the scarcity of groups with a specific aesthetic; this was due to extreme surveillance – informers for the Secret Police numbered one out of six Romanians at the time. This engendered an analytic quality of Romanian art: the artists used their own situation as the subject of their work, creating actions in seemingly impossible circumstances and inserting them into everyday life. These specific types of tactics and strategies have yet to be fully understood contemporary art theory, and this book is the first example to offer original material in this respect.

The predicaments of Romanian artists are eloquently presented through the 1970s work of Paul Neagu, who placed several art objects in black boxes, thus making them inaccessible to the viewer. The boxes contained small objects of variable forms, which could only be touched, forcing the audience to create their own mental images of what was inside. Neagu’s work is an allegory of his milieu, expressing what could not be seen or talked about: art outside censorship; moreover, the black boxes suggested the condition of Romanian art in general, which was confined to back rooms, so as to remain unnoticed or secretly enacted in discrete actions merged into everyday life.

Another important contribution of “Experiment since 1960” is the documentation and analysis of video art and experimental film, a completely neglected chapter in Romanian contemporary art. In these chapters, the art historian Calin Dan argues that cultural experiments are intimately bound to technological ones, characterizing the experiments in new media as the aesthetics of poverty, which resulted from a dramatically oppressive reality. Dan goes on to suggest that experimental film and video art (which was basically recording actions and happenings) were the markers of underground culture, not only because they were non-conformist ways of expressions, but because they were the only documents of the underground milieu. A hallmark moment in this uncharted history is Ion Grigorescu’s “Dialogue with Ceausescu” (1978) in which the artist plays two opposing roles, one as himself and the other wearing a mask with the face of the dictator. The two men talk about the people’s welfare in the communist society orchestrated by Ceausescu. Grigorescu confronts the dictator with the declining material and social prosperity of the people. The film has no sound and the subtitles running over the picture are almost illegible, suggesting a line of self-reflection and questioning in complete contradiction with the political structure and socio-cultural restrictions of the 70s.

I hope my presentation of just a few chapters of “Experiment since 1960” stirs your appetite for more exploration. For any scholar seriously engaged in contemporary art practices and/or this geographic region, this book is paramount. But the value of “Experiment” or moreover the elision of its value due to its limited availability points to a larger problem.

In my earlier posts I mentioned the scarcity of documentation and archives on Romanian modern and contemporary art (and the same is true for most countries in the former Soviet Union). By returning to this urgency, I want to emphasize the correlation between erasing or neglecting cultural history and destabilizing a people's heritage and identity, a dangerous venture in the midst of the sweeping structural transformations in the past 20 years in the region. Of course, I consider identity as a fluctuating, continually constructed concept, but in the case of Romania, where history and culture have been erased and re-written successively in 20-year intervals, the volatility of legacy can be easily linked to real social conflict and violence (only last summer major cities in the country were the sites of dramatic strikes with human casualties as a response to major cutbacks in public wages). This may seem like an overstatement in the case of just one book about art, but what I want to emphasize is that it's not only a book that counts, but the eroding process of eliminating historically seminal books, models, archives, centers, educational alternatives from the socio-political landscape of Romania. The absence in Romanian historiography of sound cultural models incapacitates communities to seek sustainable positions of resistance that confront instead of seek to erase the status quo, and ultimately fall back to reinforce it.

Image credit: Artists featured in "Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960" (clockwise from left): Teodor Graur, Ship Recollection (1987), Marilena Preda Sanc, My Body in Space and Time, Time in Time and Memory of Everything (1983), Mihai Olos, Sketch for the "Universal City" (1967), Andrei Cadere, Action in the Bruxelles Fine Arts Museum (1976), Roxana Trestioreanu, Me Among Others (1993), Dan Perjovschi,Transfiles (1995), Marilena Preda Sanc, Bodyscope, Handscope, Mindscope(1993), Valeriu Miedin , Homage to Mengele (1994), Marian Zidaru, Bloody Christmas (1985)


  1. Buna Corina,

    De unde ai luat cartea? Doresc si eu sa cumpar una.


  2. Buna Simona,

    Cartea nu o am decat trasa la xerox. Din cate stiu eu nu se mai vinde. In schimb o gasesti in Buc la CIAC, in arhiva lor.