Friday, 18 November 2011

'All that Remains... the teenagers of Socialism' , Waterside Project Space Gallery, Exhibition Review, 2010

Text by Mihaela Varzari

Stefan Constantinescu's participation at ‘All that Remains…the Teenagers of Socialism’ show, Waterside Project Space Gallery

As part of the exhibition ‘All that Remains… the Teenagers of Socialism’ at Waterside Project Space Gallery, curated by Maxa Zoller, the artist Stefan Constantinescu’ double participation with a short film and an installation, becomes emblematic for the entire show. A significant piece within his body of work, the short ‘Trolleybus 28’ becomes analogues with a constant negotiation between his personal memories and Romania’s communist past during the 70’s and 80’s. Showed for the first time at Venice Biennial 2009, within the Romanian Pavilion, the short was part of the exhibition ‘Seductivness of the Interval’ and was curated by Alina Serban. The film was well received at the time and it later travelled to Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, as part of the same exhibition.
   The 20minutes long film is the first from a series of 7 and addresses couple relationship issues and taboos. A man in his late 30’s gets on a trolleybus in Bucharest makes a phone call from his mobile phone but the conversation gradually resumes to life threatening, intimidation, bullying and shouting. A lady in her 50’s seating next to the person is visibly becoming increasingly irritated and embarrassed with the situation but shows a refrained posture. The man makes a second phone call when the violence of the language spills out with vehemence in a nonchalant manner and ‘I kill you and your family’, ‘shut up your trap’, ‘you stupid whore’ is everything he has to say. Then he makes a third and a fourth phone call. Every time he makes a phone call, we get the impression that the person at the other end somehow manages to calm him down but without too much success, as one phone call follows the other.
Film still from Trolleybus 92, courtesy to the artist
   After spending 20 years away from his native country, Constantinescu becomes self-reflexive in trying to understand himself as the product of a certain era, a social structure and a political system. The physical resemblance to the character is not incidental, as the artist admitted. The scene is, to a certain extend, a re-enactment of a similar situation witnessed by the artist three times on the trolleybus 92 in Bucharest. The angry man is the artist himself, he too feels like bullying, abusing and intimidating but does not allow it due to self-censorship. As peculiar this type of interaction might seem, seen in the light of power relationship within a political regime, it actually universalizes the victim abuser pattern, where the victim avoids assuming responsibility and the abuser reiterates this type of hierarchy. But what makes one a victim? How can one be a victim in an abusive relationship when no outside reality is known? This kind of inquest is reminiscent of the entry scene of the Romanian film ‘Mic Test’ (1980) by Mircea Danieluc, where a young female after being beaten up and raped by some man, wakes up the next day alone, hostage in a flat and starts cleaning and tiding up. Is this the case of serene acceptance or mute endurance on behalf of the victim or the person in question is so used to violence to the point that she either gets used to it or she thinks is deserved somehow and does not allow herself to voice it. Oppression was a crucial feature of social existence and after '89 becomes primarily, like in Constantinescu’s film, a problem of psyches confronting each other in society. To take this debate further on psychological realms, the obscenity and vulgarity of the language predict the strive for recognition on behalf of the individual which under a totalitarian regime is crushed under its weight. The individual becomes mute and insignificant without rights and when allowed to speak would do anything to make him/herself heard. This is characteristic for 90’s Romanian films where the violence of the language is unprecedented, attitude which becomes less obvious in the new millennium ‘s films. Or is an attempt at damasking a deeply macho-istic society, which would make Constantinescu a feminist.
   Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu, who belonged to the Romanian underground art scene back in the '70's, also questions the very foundations of the social and political order by turning his sex and gender into a medium of expression in home made 8-mm films. Any authoritarian system or its extreme totalitarianism can function safely only with constant and hierarchical social structures whose foundations seem to be phallocentrist. If Constantinescu investigates the consequences of the politics on the human behavior, Grigorescu aims at developing a tool kit directed at scrutinizing the authoritarian social and political structures. In one of his home made video, the artist is boxing alone, naked as if fighting an invisible enemy, as to say the state.
In relation to the its recent past, there is a tendency in Romania of turning the page without necessarily reading it thoroughly. This desire for a resolute forgetting of the past was mostly politically motivated. The vast majority of Eastern Europeans were involved one way or another in the structures of communist power and helped to maintain them. A certain distance in time, and sometimes in space, was needed for a younger generation of artists to come to terms with the past than the norms imposed by institutionalized history and memory. This approach is encapsulated in his artist’s book, the second work present in the exhibition, titled ‘The Golden Age for Children’, presented in the shape of a pop up book. It features Romania through moments of personal history, propaganda materials under the Ceausescu regime between 1968 and 1989, which coincides with the years spent in the country by the artist.
   It is through the prism of answering questions about his own past and identity that Constantinescu is trying to give meaning to something as ubiquitous as the communist part. The personal tone that Constantinescu chooses to use is a sign, that closure with the moments of the past might not be possible yet, as Romania strives to fulfill its new given destiny as an EU member.

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