Teodor Graur was an active part of the action art scene in Romania during the late 1980s and the time of transformation, in the early 1990s, and most of his performative work reflects that time period. Nowadays, he has turned to the art object, telling me that the artifact is more authentically Romanian than action or performance. For him, there is a connection between the contemporary objects he makes and the historic folklore and icons of popular culture in Romanian culture. That said, action art played a significant role historically, as it provided artists with a vehicle to experiment that left little trace of their experimental activity.
One of the artist’s first actions was witnessed by only one other person, who helped Teodor to enact it, and the object created in the course of the action was subsequently destroyed as part of that action. Bridge (1986) was created for the “Art of Today” exhibition that took place in Budapest that year, however relations between the two nations were strained at the time. On the roof of a building, the artist laid out two pieces of paper in the shape of a cross, with the words “Experimental Art” on one arm and “Budapest 1986” on the other. It was photographed, then taken to the countryside, laid out again, and burned. Only the photographs of the action remained, and were exhibited in Budapest as evidence of the action. The work makes clear that there can be no bridge between the two countries, nor between East and West, as at that time, art of this nature had to be restricted to private settings and covert actions.
The artist emphasized the disconnect between East and West in a later performance, which took place at the Zone Festival in Timisoara in 1993. Using a short-wave radio, Teodor attempted to make contact with the West, which had supposedly just opened up to countries such as Romania. Speaking in English, the artist asks if anyone can hear him, but there is no response.
The tension between East and West was played out quite vividly in a car race orchestrated by the artist, together with the Euroartisti Group, at the AnnArt Festival in St. George, Romania, in 1994. In the action, a Volkswagen Polo races with a Romanian Dacia. Eventually, the cars come into contact with each other head on, and proceed to duel. In the end, the German driver is declared the winner – the German car is better and more powerful – and he is even awarded the “prize” of a young Romanian girl who was a passenger in the Dacia.
Another theme that the artist explored through several of his actions and performances is that of sport, exercise, and communism’s “new man,” a bi-product of the focus on the worker, and the development of the individual through sport, exercise and physical prowess. In Sports Center (1987), which was performed for a photographic camera and preserved in photographs, the artist practiced weight-lifting with some barbells, and on the walls surrounding him there were pictures of workers going into the factories. A patriotic song played in the background, announcing that the children of Romania “are the future!” The artist eventually replaced the barbells with a television, broadcasting the national channel. This first instantiation of the piece was meant to be part of an exhibition showcasing new Romanian art, but was not approved by the state culture department and thus closed a short time after opening. However, the topic proved still salient and resonant years later, and was featured in exhibitions in 1997 and 1998.
While in the 1990s there were a range of exhibitions and performance art festivals in which one could participate, in the 1980s there were fewer options, and artists wishing to create actions or experimental art had to do so under the radar. Teodor participated in several events that were known for affording possibilities for avant-garde art. One was the house party, when friends and colleagues would organize a party that would otherwise be unsuspicious to the neighbors, and within that context create installations and performances. The artist participated in the second House pARTy in 1988, at Decebal Scriba’s house, with a piece that was similarly athletic-themed to Sports Centre. In the performance, the artist, who appears bareback, brings a tree trunk into the house. In the second part of the performance he brings it back outside and proceeds to chop the wood. Another venue where experimental activity flourished were the summer festivals that would take place in villages such as St. Anne or St. George, in the middle of the countryside, far from Bucharest and its associated surveillance. These events were considered to be holidays or vacations, campfire events that posed no harm. The outdoor festive atmosphere was conducive to performance and action art, and the secret service wasn’t around to control what was going on.
Teodor’s work is a poignant sign of the times – the late 1980s and its experimental yet still covert atmosphere for experimental art, and the early 1990s, a time of transition, with Romania, and its artists, trying to establish their place in the world, and on the art scene, balancing the line between East and West.