Romania: In the Land of Tristan Tsara

Dada is present in Romania...

Dada is present in Romania...

It would almost be a cliché to say that I was excited about coming to Romania, because I feel like I always say that I am excited to come to each country I visit, for one reason or another. So the reason for the excitement this time was not so much the “Dada connection” of Romania, given that the infamous leader Tristan Tsara emigrated from Romania to Paris in 1919, but more so the very exciting tradition of performative activity in Romania in the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, following Dan Perjovschi on Facebook, I am treated to a daily dose of social and political commentary in the form of a witty and succinct drawing, which the artist regularly posts on social media. As I also know, from following Dan, the artist, who is currently based in Sibiu, has been in Romania rarely lately. Seeing posts of his from Germany, Greece, and other places, I wondered if we would be able to meet when I was in Bucharest. “You are lucky,” he replied to my email – by chance, his time in Bucharest coincided with mine! Lucky, indeed.

So, there were a lot of reasons to be excited about Bucharest. In the course of preparing for the trip, I came across an article online by Corina Apostol. At the end of the article, it listed her as a Dodge Fellow and PhD candidate at Rutgers University – my alma mater! Because I left New Jersey and graduated some time ago, I don’t really know many of the people who came through the program after me. This chance discovery (maybe there is a Dada presence in Romania!) gave me one more reason to look forward to coming to Bucharest.

A further chance encounter presided over my first day in Bucharest. Irina Cios, Director of the International Center for Contemporary Art in Bucharest, happened to be leaving the following day, so I was able to visit the Centre and talk to her about my work. From there I went to my “lucky” meeting with Dan, and ended the day meeting with the Bureau of Melodramatic Research.

The scene in Bucharest nowadays reminds me somewhat of that which I wrote about in Slovenia – there are a lot of artists working in collectives, as groups, and using an umbrella name which creates anonymity of the individual artist (Bureau of Melodramatic Research, Presidential Candidate, Postspectacle, etc.). The Bureau of Melodramatic Research is a project by two artists that I found really interesting, because the whole project started a workaround to a very specific problem they faced in their artistic environment. The two artists had wanted to do research on film noir in Romania from the 1930s and 1940s, but couldn’t gain access to the archive, not only because it was in such a state of disarray, but also because the archive charged a fee for viewing each film! Being art students, the cost was prohibitive, so they decided to create their own, alternative history. As they told me, since they couldn’t look at the history, they had to invent it. I think their project really represents an innovative spirit, a way of finding a solution by creating with the materials at hand, rather than lamenting their absence.

While I had already been in touch with several artists from the 1970s and 1980s, Corina generously provided me with contacts of the newer artists on the scene, and throughout the week I slowly came to grips with what was meant by Post-Spectacle, Presidential Candidate, Romanian Dance History, Paradis Garaj, etc. (more on these in individual posts), and how they overlapped, as many of the artists participate in more than one of these projects. I found it really difficult to comprehend the situation as an outsider, but once I started meeting with the artists and discussing the various aspects of the projects, it all started to make sense.

During my time in Bucharest I also had the chance to meet with Geta Bratescu, an artist who, despite being in her 80s, still works for six hours a day. I was impressed by her youthful spirit, which can be seen in the artwork she is producing today, which is very bright, cheerful and colorful. It was particularly interesting to spend time with artists from such different generations – from those who remember the second World War and the communist period, to those who barely remember the revolution in 1989. This creates an interesting generational divide, and a lot of the younger artists told me that they started to work in performance without being fully aware of traditions started by the likes of Bratescu, (Ion) Girgorescu, etc. In fact, many first learned of performance art in the West through the Internet. This situation is not unlike those that I encountered in other places in Eastern Europe, and reflects where performance and contemporary art practices exist on an institutional level. Even to this day, performance art is rarely taught in institutions and academies across Eastern Europe.

I managed to snap a picture of MNAC, despite my trepidations...

I managed to snap a picture of MNAC, despite my trepidations...

I spent the better part of my week in Bucharest walking the vast expanses of this massive city, as often I had meetings on opposite ends of it, and no real knowledge of the bus or metro system. In between my meetings, I managed to visit the new National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), which is part of the Palace of the Parliament, Ceausecu’s massive building project with a history of its own. Following a massive earthquake that destroyed a number of pre-war buildings in Bucharest in 1977, Ceausecu decided to rebuild the center of the city in a grant, Hausmannian manner, with a large, grand boulevard that led to the central administrative building of Romania, which he dubbed the “Palace of the People” as it was built for the people, by the people. In point of fact, several historic neighborhoods were razed in the building process, and 40% of Romania’s GDP per year went to its construction in the 1980s. So it is perhaps not the most likely spot for a contemporary art museum, especially considering the status of contemporary artists in the People’s Republic of Romania, when this was being built. The establishment of the museum was in fact controversial, with many in the arts opposing it. Nevertheless, it remains one of the few places for the exhibition of contemporary art in Bucharest. Considering the fact that it is open, functioning, and exhibiting contemporary art, this is indeed a positive factor, as readers will know from my other posts about the dire situation of contemporary art museums across the former Yugoslavia, for example.

My experience in visiting the museum was about as surreal as one could expect. Knowing the political and historical significance and situation surrounding the building, I arrived at the museum feeling rather tense, as if Ceausescu’s own surveillance was somehow monitoring my every move. To describe the building doesn’t do it justice; you have to walk around it to comprehend its vast expanse. It takes about an hour to walk around the entire building, and a half an hour to get to the entrance of MNAC if you approach from the center of the city. Even though I had looked at the map, I wasn’t exactly clear as to which of the gated entrances I should use to enter the compound. Since it still functions as a government building, there aren’t giant, blaring signs advertising the museum until you get to the entrance. So I had to ask one of the guards: “Muzeul?”… “Next entrance,” he replied gruffly. I was worried about annoying these armed guards who were there to protect government officials, not offer tourists directions. When I entered the museum I was beckoned to security. Not uncommon practice in a museum (f.e., the Louvre), but considering the building I was in, this only added to that heightened awareness of potential danger. I had wanted to snap a picture of the façade of the museum, but two guys (guards?) were standing outside, and I was afraid of violating some rule about photographing a government building. Needless to say, this is not really the state of mind you want to be in when you are entering an art museum…but maybe this was just me.

After security, a very kind attendant helped me purchase my ticket through the very modern ticket machine. I went in and was treated to a very nice exhibition of works by Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, installed on two floors. But what next? I saw a sign saying that there was a bookshop on the fourth floor, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use the elevator. There was no map of the museum, no signs leading you to the next room, and I was really afraid of crossing some invisible line that would send the armed guards of the palace after me! I decided to risk it, and took the elevator up to the subsequent floors, and thankfully no one stopped me, since it is in fact allowed – if not encouraged – to visit the other floors of the museum!

My visit to the National Museum of Art of Romania was much more relaxed. I was curious to see how the history of Romanian art was laid out, and whether any of the official painting from the communist period was exhibited. It was not, which I found an interesting curatorial choice. Judging from the display, one would think that landscape and flower painting prevailed in the 1960s-1980s, but that was really not the case.

I was also able to visit Tranzit, an NGO Supported by the ERSTE Foundation, dedicated to the promotion and examination of contemporary art, with spaces in the Czech Republic, Hungary, among others. Theirs is a relatively new space, not far from MNAC and the Contemporary Art Center in a very nice residential neighbourhood. I also stopped by the Ivan Gallery, a private gallery owned and run by Marian Ivan. The gallery is in Ivan’s home, also in a nice residential area, and I was told that he started the gallery simply because he had always wanted to have one. It is great little space, and has offered some interesting shows, for example this past winter he exhibited Paul Neagu’s Going Tornado, a performance that the artist did a number of times, one of which was in Aberdeen on Grampian TV (now STV) in 1974!

30 means 40 in Romanian

30 means 40 in Romanian

By the end of my time in Bucharest I thought I had figured my way around the city. On my last day, I went to meet Teodor Graur, whose studio was on the same street as my hotel, about a 20-minute walk away. Arriving at the number he gave me – 30 – I found a very battered and uninviting door, but the sign above, saying that these were artist studios, reassured me. I entered the building, and proceeded to look for his studio. I found a precarious spiral staircase, which was mostly unlit, and climbed to the top, only to find the door at the top locked. I came back down and found a sculptor, told him who I was looking for, and asked where his studio was. He had no idea who I was talking about. I tried to explain what Graur did, but he still didn’t know. Finally, I asked “this is 30 Carol I Boulevard?” to which he responded, “no, it is ‘ex-30,’ now 40.” Apparently, no one had bothered to change the sign above the door! This Dada encounter only delayed me by a few minutes, and was just one more of those funny stories to tell about my performative adventures in the East.

After a very busy week in the nation’s capital, I took a brief detour to Timisoara, to meet with Ileana Pintilie, the art historian who was instrumental in documenting, analyzing and also promoting performance art in Romania. Her book Actionism in Romanian Art during the Communist Period remains the main source on the topic, and the Zone Festival that she organized in the early 1990s offered one of the first platforms for performance artists to present their work and develop as contemporary artists in the early post-communist period. In addition to meeting with Ileana, I was able to visit the Art Gallery in Timisoara, and see her installation of work by the Sigma Group, active in the 1970s in Timisoara in performance and installation. It was nice to see contemporary art practices represented here, if not in the National Gallery in Bucharest.

Lovely Timisoara

Lovely Timisoara

I really wish that I could have spent more time in Bucharest. As it was, my schedule was packed and running from meeting to meeting left little time for reflection in between. Nevertheless, all of the artists I met left such a positive impression, and it is nice to know that the tradition of performance art is still going strong in Romania.

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.