I began my week in Bucharest by meeting with Dan Perjovschi, in the courtyard of the offices of Revista 22, a political and cultural weekly magazine that the artist has worked with since its inception in 1990. I knew I was incredibly lucky to have this meeting, because Dan is usually based in Sibiu, and travels quite a lot. Nowadays, the artist is mainly known for his drawings, with which he covers walls, spaces, rooms, environments. His drawings are usually witty, incisive comments on political, cultural and social situations, and are performative in and of themselves. But Dan has also created a number of compelling performances, and that is mainly what I sat down to talk to him about on that sunny spring afternoon.
We spoke a lot about the context of working as an artist in Romania in the 1980s. The situation he described was complex – on the one hand, there was not a lot of information. Those from the West may think of Romania when they hear the name Tristan Tsara, but Tsara’s association with the international trend of Dada wasn’t that well known in Romania during the communist times. Whenever I asked Dan about different artists or associations, sometimes he would say that (at the time) he had heard of them vaguely, and other times he said that he knew but the connection (with performance, for example) “didn’t click”; still other times he said that they simply didn’t know. The upshot is that the artist described a situation to me where, at least in the 1980s – when he was coming of age as an artist – he was working mainly on instinct: doing things first, and then analyzing them later.
More than anything, Dan said that he was “trying to liberate a space for himself” in an otherwise conformist environment. It was for this reason that one of his very first performances took place out in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, since “there was no censorship there.” In 1988, in Oradea, he carried out his first performance entitled, The Tree, wherein he wrapped a tree in paper, then climbed into a hollow in the trunk only to emerge from it in a symbolic rebirth. Dan is quick to remind me that they didn’t use the term “performance” at the time, but rather “action.” The piece was witnessed by only one other person, the photographer, and this was crucial – when I asked why he had photographed it, he said that it was to have a “witness” to the event, which otherwise couldn’t be seen by a large audience or public.
Oradea was a significant city for the development of experimental art in the communist period. Dan was sent there after he completed art school, as was typical of graduates at the time, who could be sent virtually anywhere in the country for work. He ended up there with a number of young artists in the 1980s, all of whom were members of “Studio 35,” an alternative to the Artist’s Union, which was full at the time. Instead of accepting young artists as full members of the Union, they were placed in Studio 35, which they could remain in until they were 35, at which time they could apply to be full members of the Artist’s Union. The artists associated with Studio 35 were very active in Oradea, and Dan told me that they managed to create so much experimental work because they in effect “tricked the censors by being so active,” as they got tired of going to all of their exhibitions every time.
During the same year that he did The Tree, he also created an installation in the flat that he shared with his wife, Lia, as a present for her, entitled Red Apples. He covered the entirety of the living room with white paper, which he said had been difficult to come by, and drew all over the paper – effectively, all over the room – and wrote texts about their lives. Ileana Pintilie has described this as an installation that “became an action,” because the couple proceeded to live in the wrapped environment for two weeks. According to Dan, only a few “vintage photographs” remain as evidence of the work.
Perhaps one of Dan’s best-known performances took place in 1993, at the 1st Zone Festival of performance art in Timisoara. In the performance Romania, the artist had the name of his nation of origin tattooed on his arm, literally branding himself with his national identity. Ten years later, he had the tattoo removed in a performance entitled Removing Romania. But the ink, Dan told me, can never be truly removed. By treating it with lasers the ink is simply redistributed through his arm. The symbolism is not lost on the artist. Although he declared himself “healed” of Romania, he can never escape his origins.
One of the artist’s more poignant pieces was a directed performance carried out in memory of the miner-led incursions, or Mineriade, which took place throughout 1990, when the government brought in thousands of miners from outside of Bucharest to break up the protests that were taking place in University Square. Many were killed or injured in the clashes. As part of the Public Art Bucharest project in 2007, the artist created History / Hysteria 2, wherein one person, representing a miner, and one person, representing a student, stood face to face in the same place where the Mineriade had taken place.
The piece highlights two important elements of Dan’s work: the body, and the discursive. The artist told me about the significance of “the body” in post-communist Romania, and its relevance for performance art. Firstly, in the 1990s, with a deficit of materials, the body was cheap and readily accessible material. But more importantly, the body was “radical.” People had died in the streets – including in the Mineriade – and the artist has never forgotten this. Not only did average citizen perish, but artists were on the front lines, as well. Performance, he said, was “liberating.” It was a way of “getting directly to the audience.” And contact with the audience, for this artist, often has the aim of education. In addition to his visual artwork, the artist has given numerous lectures and talks, and not just about his work. Together with his wife, fellow artist Lia Perjovschi, who has amassed her own Contemporary Art Archive (1997) (later expanded to the Center for Art Analysis in 2001), the two opened their studio in Bucharest to the public as early as 1996, with the purpose of sharing materials and providing informal art and art historical education. A number of younger generation artists I spoke to had attended these lectures and/or visited the studio, and commented that the information gleaned from the Perjovschis had been instrumental in their artistic development, since it was otherwise unavailable anywhere else in Romania at the time – and even, most likely, to this day.
Dan uses the performative element of his work, including his drawings and social engagements, to connect more directly with his audience and viewers. Kristine Stiles has consequently described the Perjovschis’ practice (I will address Lia’s work in a separate entry) as a “time-based, socially engaged model of art that supports public education, the production of knowledge, and cultural renewal” (States of Mind, 2007), a statement which thoroughly describes the complex nature of their diverse and rich oeuvre.