It was exciting to meet Ion Grigorescu – a man I knew so well from photographs and film stills, mainly from the 1970s. To say that his work was radical is an understatement. I think part of the appeal of his work is the fact that it was created in Ceausescu’s Romania. If his work had been public or more visible, it most likely would not have been tolerated, but because the actions that he did were restricted to his studio or the countryside, usually with the camera for an audience, with a small inner circle to share the artwork, they remain as a testament to that particular time in Romanian history.
The reason that I knew Grigorescu from his images, is because he, his face and his body are the subject of so many of them. For example: Body (1974), an action where the artist photographed his naked body, in the mirror, in a variety of poses; Chairs (1977), an action consisting of six photographs of his body in relation to chairs; Boxing (1977), a filmed action in which he shadow boxed with himself (an effect created by superimposing two images); or one of his more radical works, Delivery (1977), a series of 14 photographs that show the (male) artist in the pose and action of giving birth, with baked goods used as substitutes for female body parts. What these pieces show, aside from the body, is an artist confined to his studio because of the nature of his work, yet using this situation to his advantage to thoroughly and completely explore space and the body within it.
The artist told me that one of his overarching concerns is reality. The camera – for both still and moving images – appealed to him because of the fact that it registered or captured reality. It was clear-cut and direct. He wasn’t interested in symbols, only reality, because in politics, he said “the lie was the rule.” Although we know his performances and actions only through the camera, this does not diminish their status as actions. Even the way that he presented his films attempted to provide the rawness that one gets in a live performance – because his preference was for unedited film, with minimal authorial post-editing interference.
Despite the experimental nature of his work, his work with the body has its roots in art historical tradition. As he told me, “I used the body in the same manner as a model – to have a model.” But what becomes clear from looking at the photographs of his actions and his films, is that in addition to the body, he was also interested in space. He told me that for two decades he occupied himself with thinking about the “reasons for the room…everything has a reason – a window, door, lamp, ceiling.” In exploring the body with his camera lens, he was also exploring that body, as an object, as it is positioned in space. While most often this was the confined space of the studio or apartment, which was the result of socio-political circumstances, we can also see this in the work that he did in the countryside. For example, the film Man, Center of the Universe (1978), where we see the artist sprawled on the ground, a Vitruvian man encircled by the globe of the earth, rather than an artificial, geometric circle.
There was also an interesting political element to some of Grigorescu’s work, for example his 1978 film Dialogue with Ceausescu, in which the artist engaged in conversation with the country’s leader (who is played by Grigorescu, wearing a mask), a situation that was completely unimaginable at that time. Just as he navigated the challenges of the socialist space in communist Romania, by retreating to private, interior spaces to create actions and films, he also found a way to realize dialogue by creating a fake scenario in which one could challenge the leader in a free and open democracy. The artist described his work as a game, a kind of “ping-pong with censorship.” In the end, it is clear that it is the artist who won.