Thursday, 5 April 2018

Lecture given during the opening of Komplett Fast exhibition, artists SIGRID KRENNER and ERNST MIESGANG, 22nd of March 2018

Lecture given during the opening of Komplett Fast exhibition (23 March-14 April 2018) artists SIGRID KRENNER and ERNST MIESGAN
Many thanks to the curator Andrea Kopranovic and PERISCOPE art space who invited me to present reflections/notes/impressions on the exhibition.

You would wonder, I imagine, why I’m here, in this space, where the exhibited artworks speak for themselves and don’t need much introduction. I was invited for this presentation, in order to unpack and unpick these works to the best of my ability and according to what resonates with my own references, the kind of art I am looking at or the books I m reading. 


‘Art would like to realise, with human means, the speech of the non-human.’ This sentence was published posthumously in Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970), which is full of phrases beguiling as this, always perched just between insight and jargon, ready to veer into either direction at any one moment. How far can I allow myself to speculate when imagining the speech of the non-human? One direction is that the speech of the non-human stands for ways of communication, which are precise, effective, embedded within a system and more important totally alienating if you are not part of the same species. So this is art, a system with its own internal logic, which has the capacity to render impossible, or improbable, qualities; one being to include and exclude at the same time. I think making art is difficult, writing about it is also difficult but I guess that’s why we are all here tonight because we like difficult things and we like to put ourselves in vulnerable positions. The other quality I extract from Adorno’s short definition of art aside from this paradoxical relationship to self-referentially alludes to the visceral quality, which I’d like to explore by occasionally making reference to the abject. 

Ernst Miesgang’s sculptures are replicas of human or animals’ organs found inside ceramic based mass produced collectibles. The membrane covering the heart for example exposes areas full of anatomical components sprouting out. They are disturbing and yet amusing. While they may seem gory and ghastly at times, they are inscribed with scientific truth downplayed by its ludic and amusing appeal. They are precious and their rather small size instigate a feeling in the region of affection. This response is immediately supplanted by a sense of being in the presence of something abject, when confronted with the overflowing guts and internal organs as if you’d open a door which once opened cannot be closed anymore. I see what I am not supposed to see. Immaculately executed, as science would require and exhibited in this way, on white plinths they become curiosity provoking specimens – items befitting a museological space; members of a class of like objects. This chosen method of display only enhances Miesgang’s direct interest in scientific truth and his work undertaken within the last years, is in his own words, ‘a homage to science’, inscribed in the sculptures and collages displayed here. 

Exhibition view
These decorative objects entered the common imaginair somewhere after WWII which those of us brought up in Central Europe and Eastern and, especially if you happen to come from a working or lower middle class family, like I do, remember the exotic animals, the ballerina, the bride and the groom or the Chinese lady (we in Romania got this a lot… sometimes you go to someone’s house and they would have two identical Chinese ladies or more. They were so many of them when I was growing up that to my mind it was the Romanians who invented them). 

As kitsch, these are quintessential objects of ideology. Gustave Flaubert decided as much on Kitsch as the organising principle for his book Madam Bovary, for which the cultural ‘geist’ was captured exclusively through the fleeting trends and shallow affective character of the popular and sentimentalist art of his day. (It is worth mentioning that while the main character Emma Bovary was too modern for her time, she also read romantic literature in her youth.) The Chinese lady of my upbringing traverses Flaubert’s romantic novels and mannerist hand made statues of his 19th century, winding up as the epitome of 20th Century kitsch for which the ‘mechanical reproducible’ has culminated in a veritable abyss of kitsch production. The unassuming brevity of the term ‘post-fordist’ appears designed to allay the mental (and ethical) exhaustion of trying to conceive of the terrifying scale and force of production and its counterparts, in our historical moment. 
These Kitsch objects of my youth were the next best thing to an original, indicators of taste, and hence, of social status. This “disembowelment” performed on these objects by Miesgang, the sometimes halving of the object to creating a cross section, as if operating with a skapell on a dissecting table, satisfies a perverse curiosity; the desire to comprehend the hidden mechanics of a gadget, or perhaps the meaning of graphics in the financial times or how a whole infrastructure works. This desire mixed with anxiety seems in tune with the urgency demanded by our times, marked by, amongst other things, the very real possibility of extinction. Extinction of the species, the final countdown if it’s to follow the biologist Lynn Margulis’s speculation: ‘a species only progresses successfully according to evolutionary rules when it develops towards its own self-destruction.’
I’d like to entertain this idea of the abject a bit more and suggest that it is present in a smaller dosage in the works of the other artist of the exhibition, Sigrid Krenner. I am making reference to a video installation from 2010, titled Just for you. The work features a film of approx. 6min showing Sigrid eating a chocolate bar containing almonds, which she spits out and place in a bowl shown in a photograph, which completes the installation. One reading of it is that by separating the almonds from the chocolate bar, she is creating found objects – she is generating rejects. Instead of picking up abandoned, unloved objects she’s literally making them, except that she’s using her body fluids, namely saliva - which brushes in my mind against the abject. A bowl of almonds – an express invitation to dip in, to partake, a social custom, a micro-social space at a cocktail party - has reached the exhibition via someone else’s mouth. It is not a definite case of abject if we think of an inveterate music fan, religious fanaticism or relic worshiping, and so on; any such prosthetics related to ecstatic states, serendipity or spirituality add value to these objects. If we are programmed to find bodily fluids disgusting, it’s because Christianity and how the maternal body is viewed, has something to do with it, according to the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s thesis. Kristeva describes the abject as the place where ‘meaning collapses,’; ‘Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A somethin’ that I do not recognize as a thing.’(Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by Julia Kristeva)

Kristeva defines the abject in a non-definition, one that is there but she cannot display in words. Being a music fan is no lesser than a fervent God worshiper and a tissue impregnated with Madonna’s sweat (as in the pop start) can be as sought after as Jesus’ shroud or a lover’s bodily traces. Being a music fan was previously explored by Sigrid in This combination is not recommended (2017), realized in collaboration with artists Karina Kueffner and Julia Gutweniger. This work invites visitors to pick up onl y one copy from the two stalk of postcards representing the two Modern Taking German band members, Thomas Anders and Dieter Bohlen, signifier of a past its glorious moment mass cultural product.

The title of this exhibition was selected by Krenner and it follows from her practice of using phrases heard in the street from passers-by, which make an impression on her. One could call it the poetry of controlled randomness. From what I gather by using google translate and asking Sigrid for clarification since I don’t speak German, the title KOMPLETT FAST plays with the essential indeterminacy of words since it could also be FAST KOMPLETT. It sounds like a product of google translate, which can actually produce involuntary poetry. In his quest to find the sublime in the nonsense, the play writer Eugene Ionesco proposed translating texts literally just as google translate does now. The work Sigrid is presenting here borrows the title from a computer update A condition analysis is carried out (2017) and is formed of a replica of a found wood cabinet (perhaps suitable to display Sigrid’s reworked collectibles, just like I used to see in my childhood) into a non-functional, mysterious object complete with a multi-colorful wrapper found in the drawer. This cabinet, a rip off of late Modernist style is placed on a simple, red carpet, which in a surrealist twist covers the floor and the wall. A framed photograph of a peeled banana hangs unassumingly on the wall. The banana is a recurring artistic devise in her practice, an interest she has in bent, elongated objects turned motiff, which she previously explored in drawings and ceramic works. All three objects composing this work together with Miesgang’s sculptures, which previously inhabited someone’s living room before being discarded to the flee markets are 1:1 representations, which only add to the feeling of domesticity recreated in a theater setting like situation, where something is about to happen. Within this setting, the banana gives the impression of a crescent moon, evoking, in turn, perspective via this nighttime ‘horizon’. The wrapping paper becomes here a signifier of randomness and how contingency plays a fundamental role in meaning formation. for the current exhibition. 

Exhibition view

In 2016 Miesgang started the series of collages titled Critters. He explained to me his working method which implies dozens of litter newspapers with the same date, which he collects from European cities he finds himself in. Some images or shapes he finds attractive are ripped off by hand and then glued together to create these in between anatomical details and underwater formations created in the dark. Again, as in his sculptures, I’d like to suggest that we are presented with something we are not supposed to see but which is nevertheless part of our environment. The cardboards on which these collages are made force in their own history since they actually are the backsides of paintings or photographs he had found in the flee markets of Vienna, where he lives and works. Miegang’s collages can take different shapes but the one exhibited here stands out. It is a reminisce of a franc-masonic logo or some kind of esoteric sect. It is a signifier of the times are all experiencing at the moment, a depressing post 2008 era for Europe, where sadly we have been noticing an increased need to engage in essentialist and populist narratives. Because these cardboards are so precious they actually determine the working method to a certain extend since one cannot start all over again as you’d do with an easily replaceable canvas. Like in the sculptures, where there is no definite control over how the cracks will turn out, the cardboards with their stains and traces of time are incorporated in the process making and impact the final outcome allowing for the contingency to play a significant role.

Exhibition view
I will conclude with a few last ruminations on Sigrid and Ernst. Both artists operate with the element of contingency. Both artists recycle leftovers, which worked their way over time into obscurity, whose peak has passed and turned culturally obsolete. The title of the exhibition and of Sigrid’s works reveal the limits of language and they too function as found objects, still adrift, which as if almost by accident they have been illuminated as ‘work’. If artists’ intentions from the outset are different, where Ernst uses scientific truth while Sigrid favours the contingency, their interest in the mundane, in recycling found objects and perhaps exploring the theme of the abject create a productive tension. 


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Open Open Letter (published in April, 2015 on channel The Romanians Are Here!! An Emotional Response to the Media Portrait of Romania in the UK By Mihaela Varzari

published on:

Open Letter: The Romanians Are Here!! An Emotional Response to the Media Portrait of Romania in the UK

By Mihaela Varzari

Photo taken during the Anti-Racism demonstration, 21 March 2015, next to Nelson column in Trafalgar Square, London
I am not defined by nation, race, age, gender or sexuality. Better say I am defined by nation, race, age, gender or sexuality so much so that I have been trying to constantly challenge and address these founding categories. I am a woman, I was born in Romania and have been living in London for 14 years. By pure chance a few months ago I came across a documentary on Channel 4 NEWS on the subject of prostitution in Romania. I say by chance, as, since my ALBA TV broke down in 2002 and so decided never to pay for a TV license ever again or watch any TV in the UK. I understand that generally people pay for a TV license as an act of supporting independent media, which in return will provide apolitical, neutral programmes, as to say reflect a state of affairs as transparent is possible, at least this is the culture TV consumers would like to believe in. I did realize after two years of watching British television that my prediction was pure fantasy and moved on to reading articles from a variety of magazines, newspapers written in English, Romanian or Spanish. (It is worth mentioning here that TV license only covers the BBC TV stations). In order to keep myself informed I have also been watching a variety of alternative media sources like democracynow, youtube, and aljezeera. To get to the subject of this letter I must identity myself as a Romanian national, who has witnessed a lot of the media in its written form and radio on EU’s annexation of “former Soviet countries Bulgaria and Romania” during the last 5 years. For some unknown reason, the order has now changed and our ears have been accustomed to hearing Romania first and Bulgaria second. 
When we hear the former Soviet countries, it is a bit of a generalization, as in the case of Romania things are quite different. Romania was subordinated to URSS until ’68 when Nicolae Ceausescu refused access to Russian tanks on Romanian territory on their way to deal with the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Ceausescu then became a hero for the West, a president of a socialist state who said NO to Russia was no longer a dictator, as he is known now but a hero, who stood up against the Mighty Soviet Empire. Consequently he was invited by Nixon to the Whitehouse, an invitation that was reciprocated by the American president in ’69. At the same time in the UK, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were received with great honors by the Queen at the Buckingham Palace, who paraded paraded alongside them in the royal, golden carriage all around London. It did not matter that people were killed in Romania for wanting to write poetry. In fact, this excess of pomp and celebration which appeared to follow the Romanian presidential couple whenever they went, now seems positively hysterical and simply just symptomatic of the climate of fear and anxiety during the Cold War. So, Romania, one might say, wasn’t so Sovietic after all. But even with so much friendship from the West, after ‘68 Romania became an insular country, without points of entry or exit. The trade routes followed different axis than they do today, and our close affiliations back then with countries like Iran, Syria, China, North Korea, many African countries like Zimbabwe etc, plus other South American states were supported according to other ideological demarcations.

Having lived in the UK has impacted on how I view my nationality. I started off by believing that nationality is irrelevant, that identifying too much with it would create absurd ideas of belonging, of fixing one’s identity and therefore limiting it. I also thought that in more general terms I was a European before I came to the UK but soon I realized that everyone saw me as an East European, someone completely alien to their values. I wanted to be from everywhre and nowhere at the same time. I did not need roots and being a foreigner seemed to have suited me just fine. It allowed me to be in two places at the same time. It was beneficial for my sense of mental freedom, which became more and more elastic. In the recent years since the attack of media on Romanians and Bulgarians, my acquired sense of mental freedom has started, to a certain degree, to crumble down. I have also started to work as an interpreter for legal courts across the U.K. and have been meeting sans papiers Romanians who work in London for £30 a day. Their humiliation has now became my humiliation. The opposite effect of everything I have believed in, started to take shape and now I was identifying myself more and more with being a Romanian emigrant. The fierce nationalism running across Eastern Europe at the moment, I believe, is only one step further from my own type of identification. When between a rock and a hard place, people need some fixed points of reference to regain strength. Nationalism can be found even in the UK, a country recognized for its political apathy among its citizens, not that being political equals nationalism. I know, it is improper to say British citizens since the Brits are Her Majesty subjects. Nevertheless, according to my own experience, nationalistic display of feelings emerges in the UK every time a foreigner attempts at criticizing its values and morals. English are quite happy to bitch with you about any other nation in the world until your criticism is directed towards them. This in my experience is not allowed and if there is anyone to have strong critical points about their own culture only the English can do it. How many times have I heard: “You don’t like it here? Then, why don’t you go back?” The complex of superiority is embedded within this country’s psyche and this is just one way to manifest itself.

Ever since early 2000's an array of documentaries made by British TV national companies covered the, at the time, unknown fear of the Romanians. There were documentaries presenting ‘aurolaci’ in English glue sniffers, homeless adolescents who run away from orphanages. They were only preceded in the 90’s by horrific imagines from inside Romanian orphanages and I guess these poor children were the first to feature out of the darkness of Romania. It seems to me that these tragic examples gave license to so many British journalists to focus with increasing assiduity on this country. Slowly, slowly the nature of the series of documentaries slightly varied and in 2009 BBC commissioned the Romanian contemporary artist Stefan Constantinescu, who has been living in Sweden since 1989, to shoot a documentary. It is still available on youtube and is titled, My Beautiful Dacia. It is in my opinion a successful attempt at portraying Romania’s transition from Communism to Capitalism, a transition sealed by the EU integration. Out of the abundance of documentaries about Romania released by British TV it is the only one which granted the subject in question its due complexity?

A few months ago, on the 27th of October, Channel 4NEWS presented another documentary on Romania, titled Iasi the Sex Capital of Romania. The reporter Paraic O’Brien flew to Iasi to demonstrate his thesis, namely that Iasi, this large, university city from Northern Romania is the country’s sex capital. He proceeded by filming the moment the plane landed and surprise, surprise, right at the airport’s carpark he witnessed young males tuning their cars and taking pictures of half naked girls. “Jackpot!”, Paraic must have thought to himself on seeing this and couldn’t believe his luck. “I see prostitutes and I haven’t even got to the city yet.” Other images from the city shown girls walking in the street, perhaps rushing home from university or high school, girls dancing in a night club or some real prostitutes shouting by the railway station, where prostitution has existed since the 90’s. The suggestion made by our reporter possessed by such investigative journalistic talents is that girls walking the streets of Iasi, at night equal prostitution. The documentary features conversations with local pimps who go about bragging about the number of girls working for them in Europe, including UK. Coincidence has it that the nature of my job puts me in contact with many legal cases on Romanians and if there is someone who has insight but unconfirmed knowledge, then that person is myself or my colleague interpreters. I can actually remember all six Romanian prostitutes I interpreted for in courts during my four year career. Again the coincidence has it that I grew up in Iasi and I know the city very well. First of all, no one can tune their cars in airport’s parking place, as it is secured and secondly is always full with taxis and cars because the airport tends to be quite busy. It seems to me a totally improbable version of events, to the point of believing that the Mr O’Brien, the maker of this documentary orchestrated the tuning of at the cars scene in order to support his flimsy, unsustainable, difficult to prove thesis. Did he take his info from a “source”, as investigative journalists do and then he tried to prove it by making things up? This is my supposition. He made it up as he went along, as barristers put it to the witnesses in court. On Tuesday, the 26th of February, Channel 4 presented the last of two episode documentary The Romanians Are Coming, which depicts the not so fulfilled, or prosperous, or even decent lives of working class Romanian immigrants. Time and again we see Borat-like images of the families back in Romania paired with their sad, sad lives in the UK. The question raised here mainly addresses why Romania does not provide decent work opportunities so people won’t need to humiliate themselves abroad.

That these types of fictional or highly exaggerated and stereotypical so called pieces of investigative journalism still on major network is alarming. To what kind of ideology are they subservient to? What kind of political agenda do they actually serve? This type of approach can only reinforce a traditional, patriarchic, therefore expired outlook on the new-comers within EU. They are allowed to be part of the Big Europe as second class citizens and are ready to embrace everything what real progressive Left parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain view as obsolete in the West: multinationals, massive and brutal privatization, stock exchange system, lobbying for political parties, IMF etc. Romania has been experiencing a forever transition period ever since communism fell. This transition could be rapidly translated as this: there were some bad guys who called themselves communists even if they didn’t understand Marx, who got killed by the new guys, who called themselves social-democrats but who in reality were wild, Turbo capitalists, identifiable by the local motto “ I am rich, never pay tax, I have friends in high up places.” Now we have some new types of dictums coming from IMF, EU legislation and some Anglo-American lessons in lobbying, market research, more populist speeches and media manipulation through a constant assault on the its audience with political scandals to the point of creating numbness. EU integration was not negotiated in the case of Romania and all the laws and impositions were eagerly accepted. Romania became a virgin market for the West in terms of banking and pharmaceutical co, which exist in abundance in all cities across Romania, alongside numerous shopping malls, where no one seems to shop since Romania is still not a consumerist society and ordinary people cannot afford shopping therapy. This is a kind of summary of the recent Romanian history, marked by economical colonialisation through EU legislation. This is the place where the cheap workers who get jobs as cleaners, fruit pickers and laborers come from. The eastern part of Europe is still trying or they do not try enough – under the burden of the ‘unconditional love’ provided by its Western counterpart – to negotiate a position of equality within the European borders. As a result, European integration is not based on collaborative, exchange of values and interface based on dialogue but in fact is quite the opposite where a master-servant relationship is being reiterated. The integration is partly paid back on behalf of the new members by being used as cheap labor or in other words by commodification of human labor. What I have been experiencing through living here is that the issue of migration, which has been flagged up by UKip in the recent years and then taken on board by the Conservatives, masks or better say mystifies a more burning issue, that of debilitating poverty, created across Europe, where everything is connected. Who takes responsibility for such increasing disparity between the rich and the poor? The answer is; not the impotent European governments, whose sole purpose seems to be managerial and subservient to multinational corporations focused on private economical gains. The shared humiliation I have been experiencing since the attack of media on Romanians has started to shift from the emphasis on the national to the economical and I notice how the increasing poverty in the UK is being given a bad name by the current Tory “ridden” government. It seems that Romanian as well as the English poor have a lot in common: being made fun of by the media and hugely underpaid by the economical system.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Open letter addressed to Calin Dan, director of MNAC, Bucharest, October 2017, published on FB


Dear Calin Dan,

My name is Mihaela Varzari one of the 4 international curators and researchers in residence selected as a result of the open call launched in 2016 by MNAC (National Museum for Contemporary Art), Bucharest, Romania under your directorship. I was looking forward to carrying out my project in Bucharest when 2 weeks prior to the starting date I was informed (in a 2 line email) that my residency was cancelled because of the budget. My many attempts to discuss alternatives with you didn’t get anywhere as you never endeavored to respond to any of my emails, letters or phone calls. I even met you face to face, by sheer coincidence, at an art opening, but you told me you were too busy to discuss my situation. Only once someone from MNAC called to let me know that it was not a cancellation but a rescheduling. Nothing was followed up, despite a number of emails I sent in the hope of getting the ball rolling. I can’t help but think now that the promise of re-scheduling my residency was a tactical way of evading the problem altogether in the hope that I would eventually lose interest in pursuing this opportunity. My reaction to this cancellation and the treatment on behalf of yourself and your staff was one of immediate shock and disbelieve. A publicly funded institution decides on a whim to discriminate against 1 of 4 residents (the other 3 residents carried out their respective projects) without feeling it at all necessary to offer more than a 2 line explanation and what transpired to be a false promise. In preparation for my time in Bucharest I had organized to sublet my room. As a result of the cancellation I had nowhere to live for a month and was forced to stay at friends and pay for a room with airbnb. The initial explanation was in relation to the budget but recently I just noticed that a new open call was launched my MNAC which indicates the opposite.

For any art practitioners who have encountered similar things or understand the ethical dimension a national museum is bound by:
- What avenues are there at my disposal for interrogating such unprofessional attitudes verging on abuse of power? 
- Does MNAC have any responsibility to explain itself, especially since it’s a public institution when asked to?
- What kind of legal format does such a relationship between an invited resident and such institution can take?
- What about the social contract or just basic human decency?

P.S. If any of you are lawyers, please offer me some advise. Please feel free to share on FB, it would be great if this letter actually reaches them.



MNAC's response (copy paste from MNAC's FB page, under REVIEWS):

Mihaela Varzari, the National Museum of Contemporary Art is consternated with the public stance you are undertaking regarding this issue, which only partially reflects the situation. As with all our residents, we were keen to have you as part of our team in 2017.
Our team - the Director of Development, the Residency Program Coordinator, the Residency Program Caretaker and the Management Assistants had numerous conversations with you in order to make your residency happen. Despite extended negotiations, we could not reach a consensus on practical matters regarding housing, transport and the residency period - all necessary conditions required to draw a contract. During this laborious and unfruitful process, unexpected budgetary constraints forced the Museum to reduce the scale of the residency project. Since such issues were not raised by the other three residents, their contracts were signed in due time so that their projects could be carried out accordingly.
In conclusion, having failed to reach a consensus over a long period of time, the museum was forced to suspend your residency, in the context of unexpected cuts in our operational budgets. This was not an issue of discrimination, but the sole consequence of an agreement not being met at the administrative, legal and financial levels.
Additionally, it is common knowledge that in Romania there are no multi-annual budgets, which means that state institutions cannot finance projects from a year to another. Thus, the 2018 residency project call relies on an estimated budget for the following year.



My response, published on FB

For future MNAC open call 2017 applicants:

this is a false and exaggerated version of events and it shows the unnamed author’s lack of assuming any responsibility or engaging with reality. Please do your fact checking first and stop this charade right here and now. I have emails to prove the opposite. You are masking your patronizing attitude by trying to place the blame on me.

1. MNAC curtailed my residency from 6 to 4 months because of weather conditions. No other explanation was offered. Did the same happen to other residents? My emails with the staff member show that we were in agreement on the residency period (1 of May – 30 of Sep, four months in Bucharest, one in London).

2. I was in touch with the same staff member about the accommodation conditions etc and we were looking for such options in Bucharest. No one at any point told me anything about the negotiations going sour. There were not extended and at no point I was under the impression I was doing anything wrong, as you suggest. Such email exchanges were not laborious or fruitless but the type of conversation which is practical and absolutely mundane. 

3. Transport? Perhaps you mean the flight ticket? My conversations with the staff member reached the point where I gave my details for the flight ticket to be bought and then nothing happened.

Documentation of the performance, CATCH THE ARTIST (4th floor, all floors): 23 nov 2017
Artists: Gabriela Mateescu, Virginia Lupu and Valentina Iancu
Courtesy of MNAC (National Museum of Contemporary Art) facebook page, Bucharest, Romania
Performers (foto): curator Valentina Iancu & artist Gabriela Mateescu
Disclaimer: Iancu wears an armband with the words ‘Mihaela Varzari etc’ sewed with lilac thread on white cloth in solidarity with Varzari’s public open letter addressed to Călin Dan (director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest, Romania). Etc stands for the multiple cases of abuse of power and autocratic behavior of the director demonstrated in his relationship to ex-employees or collaborators of the museum.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Solo expo review, artist Liliana Basarab, Borderline Space, Iasi (17 June - 29 July, 2016) curated by Cătălin Gheorghe

Solo exhibition: artist Liliana Basarab
Borderline Space, Iași (17 June - 29 July, 2016)
Curator: Cătălin Gheorghe; performers: Petronela Grigorescu and Bogdan Pălie; project designer: Costel Chirilă

Text by Mihaela Varzari
Published with Revista ARTA, issue 30/8, print version, 2018

This three fold project of the visual artist Liliana Basarab (b. 1979) traverses into the area of installation bordering self-curated art works. The video, featuring two performers sitting round a table, is the documentation of the performance during the opening. When browsing on-line data available on a computer in a corner, it becomes apparent that the script is based on short and concise excerpts from international artists, activists and politicians’ public discourses, forming a live archive organized by key words in both English and Romanian. This constitutes the research part of the project, which is still gathering information even now, one year after its initiation, a reflection on how meaning is formed in our live-streaming era (accessible on

(The Grasshopper and the Ant) 2016, ceramic sculpture. Courtesy the artist
Basarab’s work doesn’t suffer from the incomprehensible or the irrational attributed to the classical Western artist responsible for the maintenance of such myths as the autonomy of art. Following from her interest in working with the medium of ceramic based sculpture, two representations of the grasshopper and the ant, plus a dialogue bubbles are mounted on a wall. Aesop’s famous characters appear here half human, half animal following from children’s books and animation. This ludic quality runs through her previous work, also prompted by her constant engagement with children through workshops, which sometimes become art projects in themselves, like in Imagine Beauty! Postcard project, (2003-2004)[1].  For this  project, Basarab worked with a group of 8 to 12 years old girls from a schools in Tătărași district in Iași and was hosted by the local Post Office.

The paradox proposed by the title together with the subtitle, TALENT IS NOT DEMOCRATIC, ART IS NOT A LUXURY (The Grasshopper and the Ant) is prepared to give a lot away and it could be rewritten as a dialogue between two interlocutors: the first is a conservative and essentialist European high culture nostalgic while the second follows the path laid out by Joseph Beuys interested in the social function of art. Who is the lazy, irresponsible hedonist and who is the goody-goody, hard working ant? No answer would be satisfying enough but I sympathize with the grasshopper not because he doesn’t receive any help from the ant but because I see him having to perform the role of the rebel, he who just plays his guitar in the summer and starves in the winter to the point of self-destruction. When did we become subject to the injunction to rebel? 

(The Grasshopper and the Ant) 2016
Exhibition view features performers Petronela Grigorescu and Bogdan Pălie. 

Courtesy the artist
Revisiting classical themes of Western art like beauty or truth has been taken up by Basarab in the past. I distinctively remember seeing the documentation of her performance titled, Truth/s (Adevăr/Adevăruri) (2004–2005)[2] where an artist friend is asked to perform truth in a 15 min video. Graduated in 2002 from the media specific training, at G. Enescu Arts University where such categories like truth and beauty were still believed to be solid, universal pillars, Basarab revisited them when she started developing her own career. The morale of the fable is rescued is seems from a political populist discourse of simple black and white choices and subdued to art’s vocabulary. Basarab’s work is grounded on the current reality and the fragments composing the script make reference to the relevance of art and its incestuous relationship to the market questioning the presumptuous autonomy of art. This is also reflected in the presentation of this project, where the documentation is incorporated into the art project itself. 

[1] This project took place in other places like Chisinau, Helsinki, Amsterdam amounting to a total on 500 post cards and it involved adults as well.
[2] Evening of performances curated by Alex Moldovan, hosted by ICR London, 2007.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Exhibition review: Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern (6 Jul – 30 Oct 2016), curated by Tanja Narson

Text by Mihaela Varzari
Published with Revista ARTA,  print version, issue 26-26, 2017

The retrospective exhibition Mountains, skulls and flowers at Tate Modern puts into perspective the work and life of Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Known as a pioneer of American early modernism, she was also the only female artist close to avant-garde circles in New York exhibiting during the 1910’s at 291 Gallery run by the renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz, her future husband. She was quick to reject her training in academic styles derived from European models, developing instead a body of work marked by internal necessities and personal sensations, which became central to inventing her own idiosyncratic language.

The single flower paintings she made from 1920s until the 1950s, monochrome and coloured which became synonymous with her name, maximize the soft contours and intricacies of cala lilies and oriental poppies, rescuing them from their “destiny” of pure decorations or nature morte. The generalized interpretation is that her flowers open up like a vulva, therefore her femalehood is at stake, caused O’Keeffe much anguish and disregarded such analysis as purely ideological. So vehement was her reaction against Freudian interpretations, that in the hope of distancing herself from such readings she incorporated realism within her semi-abstraction style. Nevertheless, her legacy is strongly associated with feminist American art, and not only, adding a major, much needed brick to the history of women’s contributions to visual culture. But since no work of art is reducible to a single “true’ meaning, or can be ahistorical, the sensual nature of her work could be associated with her early interest in synaestesia, the theory predicated on the influence of a sense over another sense. Her early abstractions like Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow (1923) are predicated on her desire to paint music. Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was perhaps the first to have used the same discovery for visualizing music in his series of paintings, titled Compositions (1913).

Black, Blue and Yellow (1923), © George O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

O’Keeffe is primarily a landscape painter and the locations she found herself in hugely influenced the subject matter. From the exhibition leaflet, we find out that while in New York and living on the 30th floor, she turned her attention to skyscrapers and fully embraced the city with its dynamic energy and high hopes for the future. While still maintaining a realistic style, the skyscrapers in her representations are somehow scaled down, their majesty is absent and they don’t intimidate anymore. In 1929 she left New York because of the crash in order to take up residency in the rural area of New Mexico, where she would return for long stays until eventually taking up permanent residence.

The exhibition follows a museum type of curating, specific not only to Tate, when mounting on solo retrospective, which contextualises her time spent away from the city, through rich biographical material as in photographs, letters and memorabilia. It was there, in the dry desert where she started first collecting and then painting animal skulls and bones against the backdrop of pastel coloured landscapes, at a time when writers and painters were searching for a specifically American iconography. The last rooms at Tate are dedicated to showing archive material like studio photographs and drawings, and also her increasing interest in depicting both pre-colonial gods, like Kachica (1934). Whether maximizing flowers or scaling down skyscrapers, what becomes apparent is we how O’Keeffe’s framing devises are always in flux, allowing her work to register immediate and highly visceral responses to the diverse environments she inhabited.


Expoziția retrospectivă Munți, cranii și flori găzduită de Tate Modern, pune în perspectivă creația artistică și viața Georgiei O’Keeffe (1887 - 1986). Canonizată deja pionieră a Modernismului Timpuriu american, a fost și singura femeie membră a avant-garde-ei din New York, ce expunea în anii 1910 la galleria 291, sub tutela renumitul fotograf, Alfred Stieglitz, viitorul ei soț. A respins educatia academicistă primită, bazată pe emulația stilurilor europene, și în schimb a insistat pe o creație marcată de necesități interioare și senzații personale, devenite esențiale dezvoltării limbajului ei idiosincratic.

Reprezentările calelor sau macilor orientali, monochrome sau în culori, executate între 1920 și 1950, devenite sinonime cu numele ei, augumentează contururile delicate și complexe, salvîndu-le astfel de la ‘destinul’ lor de decorațiuni sau nature morte. Florile lui O’Keeffe ei se deschid precum o vulvă, este interpretarea cea mai răspîndită, și care aduce în prim plan feminitatea ca și construcție socială. O’Keeffe a avut însă o reacție adversă și pe parcursul carierei a încercat să se distanțeze de analize asemanatoare, considerate pur ideologice. Atît de vehementă a fost reacția ei împotriva interpretarilor Freud-iene, încît a incorporat realismul în experimentele ei cu stilul abstract. Cu toate astea, moștenirea ei este puternic asociată cu arta feministă americană dar nu numai, adăugînd astfel înca o cărămidă mult așteptată la clădirea istoriei culturii vizuale indatorată contribuțiilor din partea artistelor. Din moment ce nicio operă artistică nu poate fi redusă la o singură interpretare, natura senzuală adeseori prezentă, a fost asociată cu interesul ei în synaesthesia, teorie bazată pe influența unui simț asupra altuia. Linii gri cu negru, albastru și galben (1923) reprezintă sunetul în pictură. Artistul rus Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) a fost încă de la început interesat de aceeași descoperire, interpretată în seria lui de pictură Compoziții (1913).  

O’Keeffe e în primul rînd o peisajistă iar locațiile în care s-a aflat au exercitat o enormă influență. Din broșura expoziției aflăm că în timpul șederii la New York, în timp ce locuia la etajul 30, atenția i-a fost captivată de zgîrîie nori iar energia dinamica a orașului cu speranțe pentru viitor au fost îmbrățișate pe delin. Chiar dacă și-a păstrat stilul realist, zgîrîie norii din reprezentariile ei sînt cumva reduși de la înălțimile lor terifiante, astfel încît maiestatea lor e absentă. În 1929 a părăsit New York-ul ca urmare a crizei economice pentru a locui în partea rurală din New Mexico, o zonă uscată a Statelor Unite ale Americii, unde se va întoarce pentru șederi lungi pîna la stabilirea rezidenței permanente.

Expoziția urmărește un parcurs curatorial impus de instituții precum Tate, printr-o contextualizare detaliată a perioadelor petrecute înafara orașului, cu prezentări de  materiale bibliografice bogate, ce cuprind fotografii, scrisori și memorabilia. În deșertul uscat, a început să colecționeze cranii și oase de animale, devenite ulterior reprezentări în numeroase peisaje, într-un moment cînd scriitorii și pictorii erau în căutarea unei iconografii americane specifice. Ultimele camere expoziționale sînt dedicate materialelor arhivale precum fotografii și desene dar aflăm și de atracția ei către reprezentări de zeități pre-coloniale, precum în Kachica (1934), posibil un răspuns la istoria Americii, marcată de colonialism extrem de brutal și sîngeros, rezultat în decimarea triburilor indigene. Fie atrasă de augumentarea florilor ori diminuarea zgîrîie norilor, se evidențiază perspectivele ei de percepție mereu fluctuante, ce-i permit să genereze răspunsuri viscerale la diversele habitaturi pe care le-a ocupat.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Exhibition Review: Poetics of change, Museum der Moderne, Monchsberg, Salzburg (April – Oct 2016), curated by Sabine Breitwieser and Antonia Lotz

Text by Mihaela Varzari

Published with Revista ARTA, print version, issue 22-23, 2016
Thirty artists whose works belong to the collections of both Museum der Moderne and the Generali Foundation review the social changing in our recent times and its responses. Poetics of change starts from the premise that poetics respond to conceptual art’s lack of aesthetic qualities. A series of 22 photomontages titled Elke Krystufek reads Otto Weininger (1993), hang from the ceiling, allowing for the works to be viewed on both sides while only one work is mounted on the opposite wall. Sex with cartoon characters never seemed more fun than in this piece, where the Pink Panther touches the naked female body of a cut-out image from a porn magazine. Almost all works incorporate depictions of women from porn magazines and superimposed text extracts by not so popular with gender politics, the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger. Krystufek’s take on gender and sexuality within the Austrian context, introduces female characters, worthy of Russ Meyer’s oversexed power girls. If innocence is there to be lost and never regained, why not take control of our own female representations?  

Hans Hollein, 1969 Mobile Buro. Courtesy of Museum der Moderne Salzburg
Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer’s Face Grimaces (1969–1970), a series of 12 black-and-white photographs of himself pulling faces, bear the stamp of the Situationists’ Aktions. Had they been made now, they could have added to different ways of avoiding face recognition on and offline within the current era ridden with surveillance. Like in Krystufek’s montages, the installation of Face Grimaces allows for one work to stand out, a photograph painted over with heavy black paint strokes. On both instances the choice of setting apart two works grant them status of singularity and insularity; or perhaps they become written announcements, posters like for the respective series. 
Portfolio of Doggedness (1968) stays within the realm of direct art and it documents VALIE EXPORT barely containing her laughter taking Peter Weibel for a walk on a leash through the streets of Vienna. Mobile office (1969) is an inflatable, transparent little tower to fit one person, a type writer, a phone and an agenda. It becomes an anticipation of our current lifestyle where administration tasks confuse leisure and work time. The Viennese architect/artist Hans Hollein’s intention was to offer a quite humorous alternative to architecture’s obsession with building houses for sale. Another temporary construction of similar size but in a see-through red tent decorated with tiny, hand knitted boots, which gives it an Oriental twist. It houses a small figurine featuring pre-historic motifs drawn on the base supporting two tiny tiger-like animals in motion. Brazilian Henna Night (2014) is only one of the four works the Turkish artist Nilbar Güreș features in the show. The Red Tent (1997) is also a novel by Anita Diamant, set in during the First Testament time. The red tent is a place occupied only by women while menstruating or giving birth, a place of comfort and mutual understanding, similarly to today’s Damascus, which is mainly inhabited by women since men enrolled in the army or became refugees. 
Hans Haacke, Visitors' Profile, 1971. Courtesy of Museum der Moderne Salzburg

As opposed to the American conceptual artists interested in the dematerialization of art as a critique of the market, it appears that humor allowed the Actionists to dismantle formalism in quite different ways. The more clinical and cold conceptual art the show claims to challenge is represented by the German-born, US-based artist Hans Haacke (1936) who re-enacts a much older work, which introduced statistics into the arts for perhaps the first time. The visitors are asked to fill in a questionnaire related to ethics within art and education institutions. The responses are pinned up on the wall, facing the sculpture Ice Table (1967). At first, this approx one square meter of white-ish masse sitting on a metal pedestal indicates a whole range of possible materials from marble to plastic or salt. Upon closer inspection it proves to be ice and the metal pedestal is a fridge, which keeps this oversized ice cube alive. Haacke’s sculpture is analogous to the power structure maintaining the existing institutions whereas the ice stays cool as long as the power structure is preserved. 
For better or worse, the change in Europe is in the air and circling around such redundant discussions like analysis versus beauty or thought versus desire seems increasingly alienating. In addition, humor surfaces as an unintended thread, which pushes the Austrian artists associated with Actionists into a different direction, freeing it from the so-called rational aesthetics, announced by the curatorial team.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Eseu: Cădere, meșteșugul și conceptualismul, 2016

Text de Mihaela Varzari
Publicat de Revista ARTA versiunea print, nr 20-21, 2016
parte a dosarului Conceptualismul în Europa Centrală și de Est, coordonat de criticul Cristian Nae

Orice discuție despre arta conceptuală din România se izbește de “înainte” și “după” ‘89 sau de ce nu, de continuarea stării de criză începută cu mult înainte  și devenită permanentă. Schimbarea de la economia de stat la piața liberă marchează și trecerea de la artă conceptuală făcută în apartament, la cea expusă în galerii, ce semnalează în același timp și timida proliferare a unei piețe artistice. A mai însemnat și accentuarea unui proces, numit de Dan Perjovschi, auto-amnezie sau auto-colonizare, ce a culminat pe plan istoric cu aderarea României la Comunitatea Europeană ca stat membru cu drepturi depline, într-o manieră în care negocierile au fost inexistente iar compromisul nu a fost asumat de către noul stat membru. 
Andrei Cădere s-a aflat într-o situație asemănătoare, cea de rudă îndepărtată și sîcîitoare dar cu aspirații uriașe de a aparține lumii artistice contemporane de atunci, cînd a părăsit România în ‘72 și s-a stabilit la Paris. Seria bare rotunde de lemn, realizate de Cădere între sosirea lui și ’78, anul morții sale, sînt bazate pe un algoritm matematic ce include o eroare și care determină ordonarea segmentelor colorate. Această eroare nu a fost niciodată mistificată de Cădere, care a susținut tot timpul că indică poziția lui anarhică, de rebel ce luptă din interiorul sistemului. Interesat, la fel ca și Daniel Buren, în deconstruirea picturii, barele rotunde de lemn au fost descrise chiar de Cădere ca “pictură fără început și fără sfîrșit.” Plimbările sau promenadele lui prin Paris cu bara rotundă de lemn pe umăr, erau considerate înca de atunci acte performative. La fel sînt și aparițiile lui ostentative sau mai bine spus intervențiile neoficiale la vernisajele galeriilor de arta din Europa vestică, unde nu era întotdeauna bine venit din moment ce obiectul lui interacționa cu lucrările deja expuse. Bara de lemn rotundă era manifestul lui cu care forma one man museum, cu care a operat timp de 6 ani la Paris dar și singura lucrare produsă pe care și-a asumat-o, și pentru care a emis certificat de autenticitate. 

Cădere a înțeles lumea artei de atunci suficient de bine pentru a decide să se “furișeze” prin ușa din față, și să exerseze gimnastica mintală specifică unui agent dublu. Cădere era marginalul generației asociată cu Hans Haacke, Michael Asher sau Marcel Broodthaers, care a înțeles că a lăsa lucrurile să vorbeasca de la sine înseamna, întotdeauna, a lăsa formațiunea hegemonială să-și spună cuvîntul. Acestă generație, se știe, a devenit extrem de importantă și a fost asociată cu prima etapă a criticii instituționale din care, istoria artei a ales să nu-l includă pe Cădere. Atitudinea lui critică s-a reflectat în munca lui nu doar în raportul cu lumea artei dar chiar cu generația din care făcea parte la acel moment, reflectată printr-o respingere imediată a esteticii practicii artei conceptuale din SUA. 

Profund conștient de diferența lui constitutivă, Cădere a decis să-și joace ultima carte și să introducă, în mod inopinat în sistemul galeriilor relevante ale vremii, arta meșteșugului, considerată de conceptualiști ca fiind pur decorativă și artizanală. Se poate spune chiar că acest gest este similar cu cel al artei practicate de artistele feministe ale vremii, care foloseau materiale sau spații domestice pentru a critica societatea patriarhală dominantă și sistemul artei opresiv care expunea puține femei. Acest detaliu de a include meșteșugul, absolut necesar fabricării barelor, devine important in discuția despre îmbrățișarea în mod necritic a valorilor occidentale de către România. 

Barre de rond bois, Andre Cadere, 1973, courtesy Modern Art Oxford

Prin practica sa, Cădere “a forțat” lumea artei de atunci sa-i accepte alteritatea, dezvăluind astfel contradicțiile și elementele absurde chiar ale sistemului artistic
alternativ. Discuția incepută de Cădere este încă vie. Numele barei, Barres de rond bois, bare rotunde de lem nu reprezinta altceva decit calitatile fizice ale obiectului în sine, fără nici un fel de trimitere poetică, de parcă obiectivul artistului ar fi fost să reducă actul creator la cît mai puțin posibil. Acest puțin însă înseamnă transparență, re-orientarea atenției de la obiect către context, unde potențialitatea lucrării de artă este în relație directă cu poziția discursivă pe care o impune. Auto-amnezia României actuale, devine la Cădere o auto-exotizare, exploatată însă în mod asumat prin performativitatea actului ei. Folosirea meșteșugului devine un act subversiv și indică o raportare critică și personală la canonul vestic al sistemului de artă

În România arta conceptuală co-există cu practici artistice bazate pe cercetare artistică sau discursivitate, cE favorizează procesul și nu ideea dar care ramîn tributare dematerializării, ce a permis dezvoltarea lor. Spre deosebire de alte influențe vestice ca minimalismul sau expresionismul abstract ale caror urme s-au făcut atît de vizibile, arta conceptuală prin atenția acordată contextului social și prin critica instituțională pe care a și inițiat-o, a putut fi adoptată de zone geografice diferite în moduri ideosincratice. Referindu-se la spațiul SUA, Lucy Lippard vorbește despre un eşec al artei conceptuale, care în ciuda caracterul ei politic, de refuz al comodificării artei a fost incorporată în circuitul de piața al artei, imediat după ce a fost considerată un succes. În România de după ’89, arta conceptuală a fost primită ca singura forma artistică eliberatoare, asociată cu noul, într-o perioadă în care ideologia de stînga era prost înțeleasă în țările ex-comuniste, adică nu exista încă.
Per total, armonizată sau nu la mișcările sociale sau feminism, arta conceptuală a supraviețuit și cred că în viitor poate exista la fel de mult ca și pictura, atîta timp cît va trece printr-un constant proces de re-evaluare. Fără a folosi cuvinte goale și bombastice ca neo-avangarda românescă, discuția despre arta conceptuală românească cred că are de-a face cu acel tertip, meșteșugul folosit de Cădere în raportarea lui la canonul vestic.