Probably Moldova Does Exist

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from my trip to Moldova. I didn’t know much about contemporary art in Moldova, other than what I had read about in East Art Map and Body and the East.  Before my arrival I was able to get in touch with one artist, but many of the other people that I wanted to meet seemed to have moved abroad. I took the Center for Contemporary Art as my usual starting point, and got in touch with the Director, Lilia Dragneva, whom I knew also as an artist. The response I got from Lilia made me suddenly very excited to come to Chisinau.

K:SAK invites you in at Bănulescu-Bodoni 5

K:SAK invites you in at Bănulescu-Bodoni 5

Instead of simply inviting me to use the resources of K:SAK (the Center for Contemporary Art), she also mentioned a number of different opportunities for things that I could get involved in during my time in Moldova. There was a conference taking place on Marxism and contemporary art that she invited me to participate in, and also offered to arrange for me to give a talk at Teatru Spalatorie, a new artist-run theatre and contemporary art space in the city. Lilia’s enthusiasm for collaboration set the tone for my impending trip, and it turned out to be just as exciting as I anticipated.

Ghenadie and his Mamaliga Medal

Ghenadie and his Mamaliga Medal

I started my week with a few meetings with artists. I had lunch with Pavel Braila, who introduced me to Zeama – a chicken soup that is one of Moldova’s national dishes – and told me about a performance that he did where he served the soup to his viewers. I also met Ghenadie Popescu, who introduced me to Mamaliga (polenta, also a national dish), although the mamaliga he showed me was not fit for consumption! Instead, he uses mamaliga as a symbol of national identity and covers ordinary objects with it, or makes objects out of it. He even made a gigantic mamaliga that he pulled, on a cart, from Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, to Iasi, the capital of the region of Moldova in Romania. He uses his cart to bridge the gap between these two regions that are united by national cultural traditions, yet separated by a geo-political border.

I spent a lot of time at K:SAK, sifting through dusty file folders on artists and files on events hosted by the Center, which effectively contributed to the development of contemporary art in Moldova, which began, effectively, after 1991. Carbonart was an art camp that has been held regularly in summer since 1996, and provides opportunities for young artists to learn about and experiment with new techniques, for example, mixed media, installation and performance, which are not traditionally taught at the Art Academy. Pavel Braila told me about the significance of this camp in his development as an artist, and for many artists it was the first real contact with non-traditional genres. The title for this post is taken from one of his works, a poster he made in 2002, together with Manuel Raeder, showing a poster for Manifesta 4, which included a map that omitted Moldova from the geography. On top of the map, Braila posted a hand-written note: "Probably Moldova doesn't exist."

The conference that K:SAK hosted, “The paradigm of the marxist critique of modernism and the context of current approaches of contemporary art” offered another opportunity to learn not only about the development of contemporary art in Moldova, but also different topics related to art and culture in Hungary, Latvia, Russia and Romania, as well. Lilia Dragneva presented a talk on her work Kinovari (imitatzia), a fascinating project that she and Lucia Macari realized in 2000. Responding to the situation of contemporary art in Moldova, which began not spontaneously through the impetus of artists, but rather following the establishment of the Soros Center for Contemporary art in Chisinau (now K:SAK), these two  created a project wherein artists would self-consciously copy iconic works of art from the canon of art history. What I found particularly interesting about this project was that artist copied not only Western works of contemporary art, but also works by artists from Eastern Europe, such as Ilya Kabakov and Collective Actions (both from Russia). Thus struck me as poignant, indicating precisely the point of the project – while quite often the point of orientation for Eastern European artists has been toward the West, across the region, artists had nevertheless developed their own forms of contemporary art, so that by the year 2000 these works by Kabakov and Collective Actions, for example, were also considered iconic works of contemporary art. Moldova, however, was at that point still trying to catch up, and Lilia’s and Lucia’s project also had a didactic function: to provide artists the opportunity to work through the stage of copying and imitation, as is the traditional pattern for artists, and arrive eventually at their own solutions. As Lilia has written, the project was based on “a need to identify a place for contemporary art in order to enable its passage to a new stage of discovery” (East Art Map, 242).

Teatru Spalatorie

Teatru Spalatorie

That said, throughout the Soviet period contemporary art did develop in its own manner, however primarily through painting. A fascinating presentation by Dr. Ludmila Toma, an art critic and scholar at the Academy of Sciences in Moldova, led the audience through the development of painting in Moldova since the second World War. She did this not through a slide presentation, but by showing us books, many published – and financed – by her or her family, on individual artists, such as Valentina Rusu Ciobanu, Dimitrie Sevastionov, and Mihail Grecu. Nowadays, Grecu is one of Moldova’s most celebrated painters, but in the Soviet period, his experiments with different materials (for example, dripping glue on the canvas) and formalism made some of his work controversial. But as Dr. Toma told us, “life was more difficult for the critic than the artists during that time!” The scholar was actually dismissed from the Academy of Sciences for a text that she wrote about Grecu, and only able to return after 1990. I asked Dr. Toma if there was a book on contemporary Moldovan art or painting, so that others could have access to this information, which remains largely an oral history at this point, and she told me that she is currently working on it.

During my time in Moldova, I was lucky not only to visit Teatru Spalatorie, but was also able to see a performance there and give a talk myself. Teatru Spalatorie, which translates as “Laundry Theater” (and its logo has the look of a brand of laundry detergent), is an artist-run space, one of the few spaces for alternative theater, performance art and other contemporary art events. The performance I saw was entitled “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” by Dumitru Stegarescu, a young theatre student. During this 20-minute performance, Dumitru appeared on stage before a pile of cement bricks. After donning a hard hat, he proceeded to arrange the bricks, leaving the audience in suspense as to what, exactly, he was building. In the end, he had constructed a giant man. Then he took off his workers’ clothes and started to tell us his story. It was a story that is quite common in Moldova, that of an absent father, working in Moscow in construction, coming home periodically to bring back his earnings to support his family and for a brief visit. At the end of the performance, Dumitru asked an audience member to take a picture of him with his “dad,” whom he had just built with the cement bricks. It was an interesting opportunity to see contemporary artwork being produced now in Moldova, and also the fact that, like much of the work I had seen, it continues to relate to, and shed light on, local national and cultural issues.

My talk was interesting for me (I can’t speak for the audience!), because it was the first time that I had ever given a talk with simultaneous interpretation. In many ways it felt like a performance, because I found myself thinking more about the interpreter sitting next to me and how and when she would translate my words. It was a very strange experience, and I had to force myself to make my statements very brief (not my greatest strength!), which in fact I found to be a quite useful exercise. It was also very interesting to be on stage and responding to a person next to me who wasn’t speaking English. Although I could pick out words here and there, I was mainly responding instinctively to gestures and sentiments, knowing when to stop, start and what was going on. I was able to continue this exercise and performance the next day, when I went to speak to Lilia’s class at the College of Plastic Arts about performance art. I was really excited to be able to talk to these high school students about performance art, a subject that is rarely taught in schools in the East or the West. I told them about the pre-history of performance art, for example Dada and Futurism, and then introduced John Cage and Alan Kaprow. I even reprised Cage’s 4’33” for them (although mine was more like 1 minute), and asked them what they heard. I told them that all of those noises – birds, laughter, breathing, the hum of the projector, etc. were sounds that Cage would have considered music, and part of the piece. During the break, a student came up to me and played me something that she had recorded on her phone – it was the sound of water dripping. She said that after hearing my talk, she thought to play it for me, because she had also thought those sounds were like music, which is why she recorded them. Perhaps in another few years, we will be hearing some interesting compositions from this budding young artist.

Max Kuzmenko, Accidental Aesthetics Monument

Max Kuzmenko, Accidental Aesthetics Monument

I spent so much time at K:SAK during my trip to Moldova that I eventually started to feel like I was a part of that place. It was only during the last few days that I was even able to talk to Lilia about her work, which involved not only the Kinovari project, but also some interesting experiments with the visualization of sound, a piece that was included in Body and the East, and other works, such as Invasion, which combined her background in fashion with the exploration of contemporary issues through mixed media. Throughout the conference, Max Kuzmenko, who also works at K:SAK and is an artist himself, functioned as our paparazzi, snapping photos of all of the participants at the conference as they gave their talks. It was only on my very last day in Moldova that I was able to sit down with Max and hear about his artwork. He told me about a project he did that was actually an intervention into the public space of the city of Chisinau. Noticing the tendency of the city to cut down the branches of trees (either to promote growth or because they are dying), he drew a parallel between these bare trees and an actual sculpture or monument, and decided to draw attention to them by placing signs or placards in front of them. Official signs such as these really exist in Chisinau, and I happened to see one on my way to K:SAK the morning that I spoke with Max about the project. The signs usually identify specific types of trees or specifically old ones. Max’s signs, however, identified these semi-cut trees as “Monuments for Accidental Aesthetics,” and he placed three of them around the city. One of them happened to be in front of a tree in front of Bier Platz, the restaurant where the farewell dinner for the conference was held.

From my first moment in Chisinau till my last, it was great to see that interesting contemporary art is happening in Moldova, and it is all around! Probably - no, definitely, Moldova does exist!

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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.