I fell in love with the work of Ghenadie Popescu before I even met the artist, and before I knew much about his work. In a meeting with Dan Perjovschi in Bucharest, he mentioned Ghenadie’s work, and recommended that I meet him when I was in Chisinau the following week. He told me about one performance, MM, that the artist did involving him wearing a suit made of plastic plaid market bags – a readily identifiable symbol associated with poor countries – in which he walked from Chisinau, across Moldova, and into Iași, in neighboring Romania. Just hearing about it, I knew that this was an artist I would be interested in. But that was only part of the story. I later learned that in addition to wearing a costume that marked him with his Eastern European identity, he was also towing, by hand, an emblem of his Moldovan identity – in the form of a giant Mămăligă. Mămăligă can be understood to the outsider as polenta, a traditional dish served in the region – not only in Moldova, but also in region of Moldavia, in Romania. The artist carried the Mămăligă from one capital to another, bridging two areas that are connected by cultural identity, but divided by a national border.
When I visited Ghenadie in his studio I was immediately struck by the objects adorning the room – most of which were covered with Mămăligă – a radiator, a microphone, and a yoke. The yoke was a modernized one, however, with two computer keyboards just under where the cow’s head would go – the idea being that it is people, in modern society, who are burdened by their own devices. Unlike modern life, the artist tells me, Mămăligă is slow, takes a long time to cook; it is traditional and wholesome, connecting families in the kitchen and at the dinner table, instead of separating them, as electronic devices now do.
The artist’s focus is national cultural identity as well as political identity, as he has a number of performances that refer specifically to the breakaway state of Transnistria, in the Eastern part of Moldova that borders Ukraine. In a series of performances entitled Mia, or Mine (in Romanian), the artist traversed the land of this part of country. In Mia I (2009), he walked from north to south in Moldova, and then to the East, to the Transnistrian border; in 2010, in Mia II, he walked along the southern border of Moldova with Ukraine, toward Transnistria, and in 2011, in Mia III, he walked from the northern edge of Transnistria to the southern point of the region. Throughout all of these walks, he pushed a yellow wheelbarrow filled with red and blue market bags – symbolic of the Moldovan tricolor. He said that he wanted to see if people recognized the flag, but only one person he encountered noticed the significance of the colors. Throughout all of the journeys – including the one with Mămăligă, to Iasi, the artist spoke with the people he encountered along the way. It is important to note that most of these walks took place in the countryside, and most of the people he met were villagers or farmers, not the art-going public that would react to his action as a performance. Most of the people he met were curious, a few were aggressive, but most were intrigued by his giant Mămăligă or his colorful wheelbarrow, and some accompanied him for part of the journey or offered him food. There was no specific aim or intended outcome to the walks, but the contact with the general public seems to be the most important element.
A wheelbarrow figured into an action that the artist created in Hungary. He asked various people to participate until he found one that was willing – a homeless man whom he paid 1,000 Forints (around $5) so that the artist could push him around in a wheelbarrow inside a brand new shopping mall. The man carried a sign that said “I am happy,” and the aim of the action was to show this man the “beautiful life” inside the shopping center. Although he had authorization to do this, and had no intention of making fun of the man in the wheelbarrow, the customers of the mall who saw the performance took offense, and asked for him to leave. The artist maintains that the piece was about capitalism, and the powerlessness of individuals in the face of these huge industries. Nevertheless, he considers the action successful because it invoked a reaction, even if it was a negative one.
Ghenadie’s first performance in a shopping center took place a few years earlier, in 2006, in Chisinau’s Central Market. It was here that he appeared in his “bag” suit, wandering around the market, looking at different items – including the very bags that his suit was made of, which were for sale there. He says that the suit signifies the “time of transition” to capitalism, which has lasted too long. These bags started appearing in the country in the 1990s; prior to that, throughout the Eastern Bloc, shopping bags of any kind, even the plastic ones that are now customary in the grocery store, were nearly impossible to come by. The new market economy brought with it new products, many of which were cheap and flimsy, including these bags. But the bags were often all that people could afford, and often ended up being used as luggage when traveling abroad. [I myself admit to having used them when living in Poland; despite being quite cheap, they are actually rather durable – it is usually just the zipper that is cheaply made and susceptible to breaking.]
In a performance entitled 4 + 2, Next in 2012, the artist tackles the issue of Transnistria head on. Donning his traditional market bag suit and hat, he sits on a chair in the center of the room. Another person approaches him and removes him from the chair, and proceeds to saw the chair apart, one leg at a time. After he saws off the first leg, the artist is able to return to the chair and remain seated by using his leg as a leg of the chair. After two legs are removed, he uses both of his legs to keep it up. After the third leg is removed, he uses his hand, together with his legs, to keep the chair functioning. Finally, the last leg is removed. Initially puzzled at what to do, his companion takes his jacket and hat, and Ghenadie proceeds to do a backbend, placing the chair seat on his stomach, so that the companion can sit on the chair. The image of a man seated in the chair is preserved, with Ghenadie wearing the pants and the other person atop him, the jacket and hat. The title of the piece is taken from the talks that took place regarding Transnistria, which had just resumed in 2011: 5 + 2, a reference to those involved in the negotiations – Transnistria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia and OSCE, with the US and EU as the +2 external observers. In Ghenadie’s piece, the reference is to the 4 legs and 2 people that are required to prop up a single chair. In the end, just as with the talks, despite the involvement of numerous participants, the resolution is far from simple, and results in one side crushing the other.
Despite the serious tone of this piece, Ghenadie’s oeuvre is overall quite humorous and playful. His studio is filled with objects that would delight both the art historian and the child – masks that are caricatures of Marx and Engels, a slingshot made from Mămăligă, an abacus of the same material, a turtle and tanks made of Mămăligă, and a hand-carved, life-sized wooden bicycle – “old school.” The artist’s work is simple without being simplistic, which makes it appeal to viewers of all ages and sensibilities. One does not necessarily need to read too far into the political overtones or criticisms of neo-liberal capitalism to get aesthetic and intellectual pleasure from his work, but doing so reveals additional layers to his already compelling work.