Friday, 18 November 2011

Accidents, Mutation and Mistakes, ceramic works by Liliana Basarab, 2008

Text by Mihaela Varzari, published with, Bucharest, 2010 (

Family Connection, 2008, courtesy the artist  

Different Teams, 2008, courtesy the artist
In our western culture a tripartite installation is never innocent of the loaded symbolism to do with the family unit, Christianity or the idea of perfection served to us via classical symmetry. Visual artist Liliana Basarab does not shy away from using the canon to its imminent exhaustion. The three ceramic based sculptures titled Different Teams, Family Connection and Untitled (Pregnant bottles) examine with wit and energy the impotency and frustration of familial, thus inescapable relations. Crippled representations such as shoes, bottles, football players all suffer from the uncanny, for having gone through severe modifications. The narrative starts with the pregnant bottles which, due to their maternal qualities make possible the appearance of a perverted, dysfunctional family where mother, father and baby are interlinked through the continuous rear straps of the sandals while the brothers share one leg with catastrophic consequences for their football game. Oppression of and futility at one’s action due to strict social interconnections create the imagine of a doomed family with no future prospects.  Liliana Basarab's incorporation of the unexpected - a product of readdressing the need for representation in western culture - becomes particularly important here.  

Untitled (Pregnant bottles), 2008, courtesy the artist

Galeria MORA and Liliana BASARAB presents Accidents, Mutation and Mistakes ceramic works.
Private view: Friday, April 16, 19H00
The exhibition remains open until May 6 Monday-Friday 11H00-17H00 by appointment at 021 3165541
Liliana BASARAB (born 1979), visual artist, lives and works in Iasi, Romania. In 2005-2006, she participated in the residency programme of the Pavillon / Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France.

Vanessa Billy: Who Shapes What, Exhibition Review, 2011

Review by Mihaela Varzari, published with, 2011 (

Artist : Vanessa Billy
Title : Who Shapes What, installation shot
Website :

Credit : Courtesy of the artist and Limoncello, London

Vanessa Billy’s second solo show ‘Who Shapes What’ at Limoncello Gallery initially begins an investigation into semiotics and perception through its unconventional press release. Drawing upon Francis Ponge’s enquiry of ‘Sliding With Things’ (1942) and his approach towards symbolism, we are simply asked how to define a pebble if in doing so one has to make reference to the ineffable concept of a stone. Indeed the exhibition unfolds as an exploration of our perceptions, through a presentation of substantial materials and implications, which waver on the verge of the ephemeral.
Entering the exhibition space, passage is unexpectedly channelled by two flat, rectangular patches of sand on the floor titled ‘Glass Ceiling Once’ and ‘Glass Ceiling Twice’, immediately initiating a dialogue with the audience by demanding our attention not to step over, but confront it. ‘Weight, Appearance, Expectation and Neighbour’ is a training mat and ball, painted black and sitting in one corner. Easy to miss is a sleeve carrying debris, hanging from the ceiling and ‘Horizontality/Verticality’, which depicts two black and white ’60’s style, and seemingly found, photographs. An elderly man and woman handle a blow up doll, or the life size picture of a young woman, over a hole in the ground that appears to be a grave. Puzzled and nevertheless amused, one moves across the rather small gallery space to watch the video ‘Hands Bar’ featuring a female gymnast training on professional flexible training bars.
‘Who Shapes What’ comprises of eleven pieces in total, arranged as a treasure hunt-like game, each possessing their own raison d’etre and yet sparking off each other. Through poetic association with found objects, Billy’s show triggers analysis of our perceptions - the way we have been taught to think and respond, and the logic that exists prior to experience. The work here presents a plea for sustained consideration as a way to ‘see’ in order to make the invisible visible, and to encourage one to go beyond conventional meanings and values ascribed to matter. The exhibited ‘objects’ are memory carriers, working as reminders of the past, but nevertheless obstructing progression. Such a hindrance reflects media theorist Marshall McLuham’s influential dictum ‘We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.’

Don't try this at home / A nu se incerca acasa, Performance Review, 2008

text by Mihaela Varzari

published as part of Periferic 8 Biennale's research project initiated by Dora Hegyi, art as a gift, 2008, curated by Dora Hegyi (HU), Iasi, Romania

English version 

For the uninitiated, the introduction into performance as an artistic representation could become an instrument for understanding and interpretation of one's inner issues. One of my first experiences, that I can remember, took place at the French Cultural Institute, Iasi, during the Periferic Biennial in 1998. Bearing in mind that I was a young Spanish & English Literature student of 20 years old,  thus coming from a different area of interest but nevertheless experienced through and with reading literature, the meeting with this new form of art was quite unique. I counted myself amongst the very few ones who saw Gustáv Ütö  &  Rékà Könya's performance. The Romanian artistic duo was eating quietly for a few minutes at a table in front of a 30 people audience, when they started stubbing each other using forks, which remained still on their protected vests.

As a spectator, the first feeling to experience was of freedom generated by this new artistic form. The close vicinity in which the performance took place gave birth to a tension which implied emotional involvement on audience's behalf. The fact that we were dealing with a domestic, a la Ionesco, scene, created an abrupt interruption of rhythm, which ultimately facilitated a meeting with the self. The exteriorization through performance created freedom like feelings but nevertheless angst. Through the shamanic and exorcizing use of the body, the encounter with performance freed myself from a confused mind set and created another one following and leading a personal process of introspection; it also initiated an interior chaos, in which every gesture, expression, body movement became a performance, a gesture full of meanings. I tried to follow the organically newly thus created chaotic and liberating personal universe and I wrote my own draft for a performance but was told by an artist friend that was worthless.


Romanian version 

Pentru un neinitiat cu tipul de reprezentare artistica numita performance, ea poate deveni un instrument de intelegere si interpretare a propiilor problematici. Una din primele experiente de acest gen de care imi aduc aminte, a avut loc la Centrul Cultural Francez, Iasi in 1998, in cadrul Bienalei Periferic. Pentru cineva care vine din alta zona de interes dar cu o imaginatie exersata prin lectura, a fost o experienta cu adevarat inedita. Este vorba de un performance, mai putin cunoscut duo-ului artistic  GustáÜtö  &  Rékà Könya, in care cuplul de artisti romani maninca asezati la o masa, pe scena, in fata unei audiente de 30 de persoane. Artistii maninca linistiti, ca dupa citeva minute cei doi, sot si sotie incep sa-si infiga furculitele unul in pieptul celuilalt. Furculitele ramin intepenite in vestele captusite cu polistiren purtate de cei doi iar totul se desfasoara intr-o completa liniste.
Primul sentiment generat a fost de libertate personala indusa de posibilitatea creata prin aceasta noua forma de manifestare artistica. Tensiunea izvorita din proximitatea in care se desfasoara actiunea cere un grad mai inalt de implicare afectiva din parrtea privitorului. Faptul ca scena trateaza un subiect domestic de genul "ionescian" creeaza cu atit mai mult o intrerupere brusca de ritm existential, facilitind astfel o intilnirede grad superior cu sinele.

Exteriorizarea prin performance mi-a stirnit trairi datatoare de libertate dar si de angoasa. Samanic si extorcizant prin folosirea propriului corp, intilnirea cu performance-ul m-a eliberat de niste stari de confuzie si daruit altele care urmaresc un proces personal de introspectie; initiaza un haos interior in care orice gest, expresie, miscare, atitudine devine un performance, un gest artistic plin de intelesuri. Am incercat sa-mi urmez organic noua orinduire pe cit de haotica, pe atit de eliberatoare si am scris propriul "scenariul" pentru un performance, care dupa parerea unui prieten artist nu avea nici o valoare.

'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.

CONGO MEETS THE WEST IN FANTASY, Exhibition Review , 2009

Review by Mihaela Varzari, published with 
IDEA arts+society, Cluj, issue, 32 2009 (;, 2009 (; 

translation by Alex Moldovan

The Double Club in London – a bar, a restaurant, a discotheque, a Carsten Höller Project by Fondazione Prada.
An art project dealing with the clash between civilisations is no novelty for English society, built as it is on fertile soil inseminated with a long running and deeply grounded tradition in multiculturalism. Dealing with culture clash is, however, a new terrain for the German born Sweden-based artist Carsten Höller. Placed in the rather affluent borough of Islington in North London and tacked behind Angel tube station in a warehouse, Double Club is a six-month long art project (extended to eight months due to its success), created by Carsten Höller, financed by Fondazione Prada and designed in collaboration with architects Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar.

It does what it says on the tin. It is a bar, a restaurant and a discotheque all in one, a space divided by an invisible line: the bar area is half Congolese, ornamented with plastic chairs and a barbeque, while in the disco space both Western and Congolese food is available and music is played. The dialogue between cultures continues with the artworks covering the walls; a self-portrait by Congolese artist Cheri Samba with a paintbrush in his teeth and Flying City, designed by Russian architect Georgi Krutikow in 1928. The mechanics behind the existence of this utopian city are left unquestioned.
As per the good Western tradition, a percentage of the profit will be going towards City of Joy (not exactly a utopian city), a charity for Congolese genocide rape victims. Höller’s relationship with Congo goes back to around 2001 when he started visiting the country and found himself fascinated by the high quality of music and the power it exerted over people’s lives. Indeed music is the power, as Fela Kuti suggests, the Nigerian iconic musician who also played a political role in the struggle against dictatorship. So, bringing Congolese musicians over to London to perform at the Double Club presents an opportunity to get to know Congo through music, following the Mali example.
As the intention of the project suggests, the audience is mixed. The aloof and arty London crowd is well represented, also students and others experiencing each other’s cultures within this cocooned environment, watched by no less than six very friendly bouncers. Mingling and chatting with random people in the crowd, it seems that the project indeed works in the sense that people are generally having a good time.

Double Club plays a unifying role in Höller’s oeuvre, as it is identified as the driving engine behind a plethora of mediums, covering almost all forms of artistic representation. What becomes almost representative of Höller is the practice of creating a safe environment where danger is present, in order to channel different methods of perception. Double Club is presented as an art project which DOES NOT address more problematic issues raised by putting together Western European with Congolese traditions. Even though it is certain that any project addressing Congo is a strong elicitor of all kinds of projections, Carsten Höller advocates a light-hearten approach and sidesteps the issues raised by massacres, genocide and refugees: “I am proposing this model as a situation, where you think you have to decide between this and that, but you don’t!” Indeed, doubt is above all the main engine of Höller’s personal system of beliefs and artistic legacy. When he initiated a project he calls The Laboratory of Doubt (1999), Höller drove in to Antwerp in Belgium trying to spread doubt. With the help of a microphone and speakers on top of the car, he was faced with his own inability to deliver his objective. He then started asking individuals how to spread doubt, but no one could provide him with an answer, leaving him to find out how to do it alone.

By being an art project which requires a time frame, we shall never see whether this place for bringing different cultures together has the potency of developing organically into a reference venue, like the ones in Brixton, South London, for example, where the existence of the club/church, Mass, has proved the possibility of Afro-Caribbean and Western traditions to coexist through the bond of music. At the same time, by looking around the Double Club with the knowledge of Congo’s tragic history in mind, one might be inclined to think that the point cannot just be these good looking black bouncers, “wanna-dance“ tunes, the tin roof of the bar and the smell of barbequed kebabs.
Carsten Höller states that this is a non-political project. However, his art is based on challenging the perceptual apparatus. As the name suggests, the project, apart from being divided physically in two, can have a double meaning. There must be more to it, otherwise the Double Club becomes an unauthentic set design, fetishising Congolese culture and making it palatable for the general public where people’s enjoyment or experience becomes a by-product. Indeed it is very difficult to approach the Congo problematic without showing images of starving children, dead people and raped women. By deliberately not using any of these clichés, Höller acts in a kind of post-traumatic way: he suppresses reality and withdraws himself into a fantasy world governed by music. In order not to victimize Congo again, Höller proclaims a kind of silent protest and throws a subtle provocation in the face of Western Europe. He holds a mirror up to the Western Europeans and delivers what is expected from the Congolese tradition: good music, cheap food, fun loving people.
The Congolese relationship to the West, more precisely to Belgium (where Höller grew up) and the UK has a long and entwined history, as described by Conrad in the famous novel The Heart of Darkness. This book (published in 1902) anticipated Congo’s independence from Belgium in the proceeding decades, and the same kind of flagship was raised by the documentary film Enjoy Poverty (2008), made by the Dutch born Belgium based artist Renzo Martens. Shot over three years, the documentary in Congo clearly states the ongoing colonialism and domination by the West in the shape of Doctors Without Borders, UN Troops and plantation owners. Martens smartly allows himself to be cynical and ironic, declares himself impotent, caught in artistic self-referentiality, even vanity, as he presents himself in the film.

One should take into consideration the double interpretation of Double Club at least for fear of making Höller play the saviour; one who takes himself seriously and has the power to import Congolese musicians to make their fellow countrymen proud of their tradition and restore their external image. He thus brings to attention the problem of Congo, mainly the unacknowledged holocaust and the ongoing colonialism. As Deleuze would say “there are not only right and wrong solutions to problems, there are also right and wrong problems”. In our case we are dealing with a false problem, which is not that of Congo having a bad image but that of inequality, exploitation and injustice on a massive scale. The project shows the opposition between those who are born into the culture, completely ruled of it and those who enjoy it. Höller can be self-critical of his role of successful contemporary artist who lives in an airplane and commissions his works from airports. He admits suffering with a kind of “hysterical production, where one is so busy with producing so much that he or she does not let doubts “come by”. Producing then becomes the cause and effect of having doubts, which is the only way to acquire clarity of thought.

Carsten Höller’s work is being followed incessantly by the idea of doubt as a result of allowing oneself to play a double role, of both the subject and object in order to achieve self-reflexivity. His interest seems to be partly determined by his own personal professional experience, where he is educated to doctorate level in psychopathology and agronomic entomology and by his exuberant energy to produce art. Moving from an over-specialized area of science to a very wide range of artistic mediums affected his artistic vision to such an extent that his participatory sculpture and installation is derived from devices and techniques originating in different areas of scientific research. The most famous example is Test Site (2006–07), the ultimate in experimental and interactive installation. These giant slides were installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, where indeed an impressionable number of visitors did slide down. If doubt is what Höller is trying to get people introduced to in order to achieve clear judgment, then it is most unlikely to have happened in this situation, since one needs critical distance, whereas the slides are more likely to produce amazement, a state of joy in the here and now. Adding the slides under the doubt-creating artworks would be wrong, as the state of doubt and the state of amazement are two different things.


Text by Mihaela Varzari, published with Public Preparation catalogue, Estonia
commissioned by the curator Rael Artel, 2009

Jens Haaning’s performance Bicycle Holiday in Poland, 1979
Crisis Special in November 11, 2009
Museum Sztuki, Lódz, Poland

Faithful to his discourse formed as a politically driven conceptual artist, Jens Haaning presents his project Bicycle Holiday in Poland, 1979 in a self-criticizing manner whether he addresses the Scandinavic political system or himself as being part of it. On this occasion he shifts attention from the excluded due to political systems, a familiar subject to his previous work, to how we identify each other as nations. As to say, we are subjects to our different cultural background and ultimately products of the political system we are affected by.
   In his performance, the artist introduces a series of 24 photos taken while holidaying with his Danish parents during the summer of 1979 in Poland. Each photograph is accompanied by the artist’s mother commentaries, as he remembers them. The Haanings took the initiative for this bike vacation to Poland out of curiosity raised by the Marxist propaganda leaflets received through their letterbox, back in Copenhagen. Denmark represented at the time a Scandinavian model of social democracy, which made Copenhagen the gateway between Scandinavia and mainland Europe. Marxist interest was more common in posh areas where intellectuals lived. Haaning family lived in one of these areas in Copenhagen, even thou they were neither rich nor highly educated. Family pictures depicting the parents and the three children traveling through Poland are common snapshots. The mother’s comments range between sweetness and warmth with a general tone of  sincerity and genuine naivety. Meeting a different culture that you know of through socialist advertising is bound to establish some preliminary thoughts on what you are to encounter and upon one is going to form an opinion. Whether the East for the Haaning family represented a socialistic dreamland or the sight of queues for rationed food shortages is going to act as a barometer or reference point for further interpretations of the new environment. How are to deal with this baggage is also investigated in a project dealing with a similar issue - where how we identify each other as notions on the basis of our perceived knowledge in relation to the Other and which has ultimately a self-reflective potential - was commissioned to David Cerny by the European Community in Brussels in order to create an installation called Entropa, 2009. The project consisted in the artist being in charge with commissioning other 27 artists, representatives of all European Union’s members, whose artworks were supposed to depict the prejudices they harbor one of each other. Without consulting anyone Cerny decided to make himself all 27 artworks, which in the end had legal repercussions. The Netherlands was shown as series of minarets submerged by a flood, Romania as a Dracula theme park and Bulgaria’s location on the European Community’s map was represented by a Turkish toilet. In the end the project had to be removed at the demands of the Bulgarian government, due to the country’s representation as a Turkish toilet. This project sets out on unmasking the very misconceptions that one is operating with when asserting the other, how this process works on the basis of projections and that it mainly brings to light features belonging to the speaker. In Cerny’s case he only depicted what different countries are known for in order to show how ignorant and ‘naively’ prejudicial one of another we may be. Both artists Haaning as well as Cerny are set out to expose how we generally color our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known. We populate a new land with remains of our own reality, history and expectations. With slight misconceptions of reality we fabricate our hopes and beliefs and we behave like poor children who make believe they are happy by living off crusts that we call cakes. And this is how a particular system generally known as civilization works. The idea of a different civilization consists in giving something a name that does not belong to it and then dreaming over the result. In the case of Jens Haaning’s mother, her description joins to the true dream and create a new reality and thus the object does change into something else, because we make it change involuntarily. The physical borders start taking shape of mental borders, the latter being more difficult to erase as is usually inherited from the previous generation in a process known as ‘mental mapping’. In order to explain how deconstructionist works in relation to politics, one should focus on Homi Bhabha’s, by now influential quotation – “Nation is narration” [1][1] which implies that the so called unity of narration is a construct realized as a result of discursive and literary strategies. One’s experience of any culture differs according to how one is positioned by and positions oneself within it according to a variety of parameters like age, gender, and economic situation. These parameters in themselves are subject to a constant modification which gives rise to new identifications and affiliations

What’s like living in your reality? Don’t answer it!
   Were Marxist ideas flourishing and being appreciated in the West, on a territory reigned by freedom of speech, or better say fetishist in the same way as the beauty of a naked body is only appreciated by cultures that use clothing? The funny thing is that socialist ideology in the East now is a kind of recycled version of what once existed and it comes back via West. After 30 years since the photos were taken, Poland does not represent any longer the exotic other but the new Europe that is subject to all the changes like the other new EU members are. While the rampant economies of hedge fund investors, creative financiers and ‘adventurous capitalists’ of the turning of the 21st century vane on the horizon, the satellite states of the European Union look to neo-liberal system still as their only possible economic salvation. Betrayed by socialist ideals, they are embracing what remains of the economic haven offered by the European Union as an attractive option. Western model of democracy is being spread mechanically to other societies with different historical experience and cultural traditions.
But it was soon very clear that western capitalism, too, deprived of its old communist adversary and imagining itself the undisputed victor and incarnation of global progress, is at risk of leading western society and the rest of the world down another historical blind alley. The current economical crisis comes with a temporary rebirth of a social conscience in the Western World and acts as an indicator of what the belief that ultra liberal capitalism is the only way forward and so eagerly embraced by the new EU states. Given the current economical situation and the recent reshaping of the global map there is the urgency for self-reflexivity and the need to rearticulate itself despite its economic superiority.

Let me color your reality

   Within the current global climate cultural boundaries are never fixed but subject to constant change, which does not quite fit the idea that the West still posses of the East. As the world is progressing towards looking as a sole organism, the old economical barriers between different countries are now to be found within the same country where first, second and third worlds co-exist. Within this increased homogenized political-economic space the issues of ‘we’ and ‘them’, the processes of ‘otherness’ have to be redefined according to the change of paradigm engineered by the increasingly predominant division between rich and poor. The 19th century project of the creation of national identities is being replaced by that of transcending them, which in the case of Europe do not necessarily translate into a shared European consciousness, especially as the media usually present European issues through their national element.[2][2] It came as a response to pressures from national state and their citizens to resist any further erosion of national identity as well as sovereignty. Under this influence which still prevails binary bifurcations and pyramidal system there is a long way before emancipatory concepts will start to take shape. According to cultural theorists such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak[3][3] or Boris Buden[4][4] it is in this context that the notion of cultural translation is of paramount importance. It first of all combats the very idea of an original cultural identity, which multiculturalism, as the basis of future Europe, is grounded on and secondly it focuses on rearranging relations between countries engaged into a reconstructed concept of universalism. Cultural translation is drawing away from the literary translation where one word is given a different meaning in several languages and takes one step beyond into a zone which neglects the existence of original and reproduction.
   In a broader sense, Jens Haaning’s work identifies a step towards perceiving a different culture no longer as something alien, determined by the abstract notion of nationality, but as a reality that people live. In other words a reality which is the result of a mediated and negotiated relationship where one is mirrored in the other not on the basis of old dichotomies like identity-alterity, inside-outside, East-West.

[5][1] HK Bhabha (ed), Nation and Narration (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) p. 204
[6][2] As a Romanian living in London around the time of joining the EU, I was exposed to a tendency in the media which would put an emphasis on more of the negative elements of Romania or Romanians living in the UK, as an ‘explanation’ on why we should feel forever grateful and indebted for having been accepted.
[7][3] (accessed February 20, 2010)
[8][4] (accessed December 18, 2009)

Towards Post-Re-Construction - Young Artist Biennial Bucharest, 2008, Exhibition Review, 2008

Text by Mihaela Varzari, written as part of the Workshop for Young Art Critics run by Adam Budak, Contemporay Art Biennial for Young Artists, Bucharest

October 2008 Dalles Hall Bucharest - this year Contemporay Art Biennial for Young Artists’ venue - presents one space of multifactious artworks under the umbrella term, Re-Construction, chosen by the internationally renowned French curator Ami Barak. At its third edition, the biennial is confronting and translating into contemporary art domain, the issues raised by the intense and radical economical and political transformations that Romania has been undergoing during the, by now, “never-ending” period of transition started in December 1989. During its struggle to become internationally visible, Romania is running the danger of a cross-cultural normalization in the form of cultural homogenization. The feeling and searching process for a 'normalization' is part of the necessity to enter and integrate within the processes of contemporary post-modernization. The necessity of being part of the world stage is sought by embracing experiences which are culturally different without developing a critical understanding of the cross cultural implications.

   The biennial invites the viewer to meditate on the multiple possibilities of interaction between local and global. The curatorial statement reinforces the idea that this years’ main slogan “think global and act local” does not deliver anything if there is not an international recognition of the artists as well as a relationship between the objects of visual representation displayed globally and the local community.
Film still by Olivia Mihaltianu
Courtesy the artist
Fifty five international artists’ works, representing twelve countries, cover entirely the whole space, which becomes somehow insufficient, when dealing with such a high volume of art. In an attempt of trying to subtly induce the transitory road of the - once popular idea - market, which now has become super-market leading towards - under the well known path followed by the heavily capitalized countries- excess, as a future-vision as the state. Is Romania already leaving in the era of excess of production and consumption, as a path towards normalization? The problem of contemporary post-modernity and deconstruction processes, particularly when applied to Eastern countries, is principally grounded in a discourse of total acceptance. The reconstruction of a new society is made according to visual deconstructive parameters in the attempt to refute the failures of the past in their totality as a rejection of a failed cultural identity.  
   The personal stories in this context are the stories of the individuals' struggle to reconcile this transitional process. In this sense the video work of Olivia Mihaltianu, reminding of Cindy Sherman, is examining the influence of the western look and life style by the means of cinema from the late ’50 till recent days. Also, the impact of the western culture on the former communist countries is being investigated in Dan Acostioaei’ video work, this time on spirituality. Both examples introduce the idea that by moving from national cultural identities to global cultural identities in a an-critical manner, the individual feels the reality of contemporary globalizing processes and supranational institutions as a form of local cultural de-evaluation. The stories therefore necessarily become personal stories that address the difficulty in merging into a globalized lifestyle, into supranational networks, in forms of alienating exploitation of work and skills.
Film still from Crossroad by Dan Acostioaei
Courtesy the artist
   The artists move between the local and global and then back from the global to the local in search of the lost identity, having experienced the failure of a deconstructive normalization which is a forevermore alienation of the individual from its local roots as well as alienation of the individual by the post-modern global corporate frameworks. Lost in spaces, in between identities, torn apart and deconstructed, the artists try to dialogue. Bora Petkova’s work in progress occupies the main area of the exhibition, marking thus the biennial’s statement, in a more than obvious way. The works seem to be divided under different themes and deal with different issues like violence, religious problematic, cultural translation, globalization, border, national identity and history.

   The problem with choosing Re-Construction as a title is that it becomes too general and broad, too easily approachable and adaptable to and for any historical space. At the same time it illustrates the idea that Romania like other countries from East European but not only is undergoing a necessary process of re-construction. Thus, Fernando Sanchez Castillo is reconstructing imagines dipping into Spain’s recent history in his epic video Architecture for the horse, 2002, shot at Autonoma University in Madrid, where the artist is ridding a horse inside the building. The building was constructed after May 1968 in such a way that it would allow a policeman ridding a horse to enter and stop any revolutionary form on behalf of the students. Three old coats are hanging on a cloth hanger having the Romanian flag sewed in. It is Victor Man’s installation Untitled. Epic and evocative and perfectly installed on the exposition site but greatly misrepresented and misunderstood in the biennial’s catalog, Man chooses to represent the idea of nationality as something personal, intimate, which becomes very interpretable when seen in respect to collective memory.
Victor Man 'Untitled'
  The exposition seems crushed under the multifactious and versatility of the concept Re-Construction, too general to be pinned down. If the new economical and political context is demanding a re-writing of history, a rethinking of the national identity, the biennial explores and represents successfully all the possible variations, connections and dynamics that may arise.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Compromise of a European Integration: Points Of View, Exhibition Review, 2008

text by Mihaela Varzari, published with IDEA arts+society magazine, Cluj, Romania, issue 30-31, 2008 (

Periferic 8 – Art as Gift, Periferic Biennial 8 for Contemporary Art, curated by Dora Hegyi, Iași, Romania, October 3–20, 2008

The eighth edition of the Periferic Biennial in Iași aimed to emphasize different equations, paradigms, common places and relations resulted from the analysis and the reflection on the concept of Art as Gift. The biennial curator, Dóra Hegyi (Hungary) brought two sets of values into discussion: on one side, art closely related to the market, on the other side, some alternative models which come out as a result of the gift economy. In order to emphasize one interpretation of the vast concept of Art As Gift, the biennial has invited the public to meditate on the mechanisms and power plays which lay behind art’s valorization system invoking the percentage of compromise existent within the relations between the public and the art production, the artist and the artistic environment and then extrapolating the case of this compromise to that of the new European Union members. Thus, Periferic 8 raised some stringent questions related to the present economic mutations, but in a rather safe manner, leaving no room for radical critical interventions.
Therefore, choosing a topic such as art as gift, which is placed at the conjunction of economy, philosophy, art theory and sociology, wasn’t accidental. The curator and the organizers sought to dispose of yet another of the many veils draping the mythology of the art groups raised to a sacerdotal value, which indulge themselves in absolutist self-definitions especially in Romania and even more so in Iași, where art continues to be seen in anachronistic terms.
The itinerary marked by many of the exhibition spaces – The National Theatre, The Sport Hall of the Art University, The Students’ House, Pogor House, Info Point and The Faculty of Architecture – allowed the public to take a pleasant walk in the old city.
Sports Hall - in front installation by Félix Gozález-Torres

While at the previous editions the social and economical relations determined by Iași topography and history have been explored in works dealing directly with the local context, this year few of the projects of the approximately 22 international artists were closely related to the city. Periferic 8 tended to bring important names to Iași, such as Joseph Beuys and Félix Gozález-Torres, an inspired choice for the illustration of the biennial concept, but which, at the same time, calls for a meditation on the necessity of an institutional corpus of autochthonous contemporary art. Some names recently accepted into the international circuit have been also invited: Mladen Stilinovic’, Yuri Leiderman, Hila Peleg, Daniel Knorr, Dora García and Gregory Sholette.
The Vector Iași Association led by the artist Matei Bejenaru, which has been organizing the biennial ever since its first edition (as a performance festival in 1997) has continued the previous editions’ efforts to broaden the educative program for the young public. This time it was about two ambitious projects of creative mediation for pupils and students, but also for the wider public, consisting in conferences, debates, workshops, guided tours which took place on the whole duration of the biennial. A studio for artistic practices and debates has been created, with a very consistent and varied pro gram during the first week, where artists, professors, art theoreti­cians and activists have been invited to the Sports Hall and the Faculty of Architecture.
The National Theatre - The Cube Building

The National Theater came up with its own provisional stage in its courtyard – due to the renovation process it’s going through – a building shaped like black cube, a project which has even won a medal at the Bucharest Architecture Biennial.[1] Inside the building, the walls draped in huge red velvet curtains created a somber, but also playful-dramatic environment. This space was used by the curator Guillaume Désanges to present his video installation, drawings and photographic projections, the result of the experimental work shop (the history of famous performances, starting with the 60s, re-written in a gesticulatory manner as adaptations) with the 8 year old pupils of an elementary school in Iași. Apart from the didactic aspect it engages, that of working with these children and explaining the principles of conceptual art to them, the curator has managed to approach the issue of art as an international language, but also that of the reception of a de-contextualized artistic product by the public.

It was expected that Periferic included at least one work related to the history of performance, in view of the fact that its first form of existence, in 1997, was that of a performance festival. By emphasizing the educative and interactive aspect of the biennial, Johanna Billing’s workshop, which took place at the Students’ House, brought together a choreographer from Sweden, musicians from the Iași Philharmonic and young people interested in this genre who created a piece of contemporary dance which shall be issued as a video. This work with multiple valences marks out the lack in Iași of a platform for those interested in approaching contemporary dance.
The concept of a free market where everything, if properly directed, may be presented as a gift, has entered Romania recently, along with the major themes of globalization. But this should not stop us wonder: is the recent integration into the European Union a gift or does it create a situation of compromise?

Film still Orasul Bucur by Aurelia Mihai

... și cel moldovean (2008) [... and the Moldavian One], Aurelia Mihai’s video, has presented in a specific and evocative manner a regret table situation – the disappearance of the tradition related to sheep breeding and transhumance abandoned in favor of the supermarket shopping. The cheese made by the sheep breeder can no longer be sold legally or conveniently or used in the archaic economical process of barter. What do we lose by uncritically embracing Western values? Is capitalism the only chance for the former communist countries? The work also investigates the distances between the two Moldavian regions which were imposed by the different economic and politic situations, as ... and the Moldavian One, along with another work exhibited at the biennial, that of Veaceslav Druță, La cumpărături [Shopping] (2008), is part of the project RO-MD/Moldova în două scenarii [RO-MD/Moldova in two scenarios], a collaboration between KSA:K (Chișinău) and Vector (Iași).
Aurelia Mihai’s film may be seen as a synthesis of the situation in today’s Romania, which is on the point of adopting a market economy, “a new order“imposed or desired as part of a process of neo-colonization, as the work analyses implicitly the effect of globalization on local art in an era when “the state“ is tributary to multinational companies from outside the governments’ power of decision.

Mladen Stilinovic
The same topic was approached in An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1991) – letters sewn on a piece of pink fabric resembling a flag, one of the three works of Mladen Stilinovic’ present here, emblematic, in fact, for the practice of this artist of a conceptual formation interested in analyzing the complex interactions of the visual and linguistic signs. Stilinovic’ catches in a visionary manner the artists’ struggle to overcome the transition process imposed by the social-economical situation of the non-English speaking countries, where the uncritical acceptance of the global culture leads to a devaluation of the local one.
Another exhibition space was the Sports Hall of the Art Faculty, once a horse stable, the former condition of which was reactivated by chance: one day during the biennial, at the building entrance one could see a horse and a carriage tied to the hand rail. A situation suggestive, in fact, for the context in which the biennial had to develop – on one hand, a contemporary art institution trying (and even succeeding) to rise to international standards, a construction winning a prize for contemporary architecture etc, on the other hand, within the same city, a horse tied up to one of the exhibition venues; what better example for a total schizophrenia?

Yuri Leiderman

This idea was also illustrated by Yuri Leiderman’s “tableau vivant“, a performance which, on the duration of the opening and the next day, used the entrance to the National Theatre cube. The work entitled Geopoetica – 15 presented two women wearing Russian folk costumes slicing cabbage with the framed portrait of Jules Verne in the background. The artist, invited for the second time at Periferic, creates a reference system of its own, wherein the ties between the historical meanings and valences, the old/new and tradition/innovation dichotomies meet, seemingly accidentally, as a break in the every day normal and logical discourse.
If we were to identify a relational aesthetics avant la lettre in Hungary, then Miklós Erdély’s work reveals the power of the inter-human relations created at the 1956 moment. The work Unguarded Money consists in a photograph of one of the boxes placed all over Budapest for a public collection of money meant to help the relatives of those who died during the revolution. The action was a success and large sums of money were collected. Unguarded Money has all the ingredients needed to illustrate, in accordance to Nicolas Bourriaud, the influent theory of the relational aesthetics from the mid 90s, according to which the functionality of the artistic object is more important than contemplation, the plurality and the involvement of the viewer are being encouraged and the collective author is no longer seen as a curiosity. Thus, the “micro-utopias“, the interventions at a local level are being favored and supported in spite of the general directives regarding society as a whole.

Conforming to the concept of the biennial, the relationships between the plays of social mechanisms and those of the political strategies meant to exercise a control on visual arts are being synthesized and explored by CCCK (The Center for Communication and Context Kiev) as an exhibition in exhibition. It is an installation based on documentation which raises questions about the Soros institutions and the “gratuity“ of granting such European financing, calling for a meditation on the reverse of making gifts (because apparently nothing is for free) and the further cultural implications within the post-communist European space (where “the gift“ is the essence of the Soros Foundation, which can take the form of a neo-colonialism, and the “masters“ are the capitalist system based on the ideas of conquering and monopoly). Thus the biennial has succeeded to take a critical stance towards the mythology of the gifts received from “masters“, unveiling, at the same time, a whole set of relations and power systems around the permutable notion of “truth“ and the derivates, temporarily and geographically delimited, which it generates.
In the same train of thought, one should say that the film created by the curator Hila Peleg, A Crime against Art (2007), documenting a performance wherein known names of the international art life played different parts in a trial against the abusive way of exploiting the artistic system for the benefit of personal image. Through embracing a critical stance towards the artistic and curatorial practices, the film is in fact meant to reaffirm the position of the participants, revealing once more the mechanism which compromise, but also activate the ascension in the world of art.

Dora García

The Casa Pogor Museum, the third exhibition space, which during the 19th century hosted the literary society Junimea, has invited the artist Dora García with a sculpture made out of her favorite books translated into Romanian, followed by a public debate with the participation of students from different Iași faculties. And since books are often used as a gift, the work questions the conceptual influence which the universal literature translated into Romanian had before and right after 1989.
A novel project for Iași was the temporary architectural structure Info Point placed in front of the A. I. Cuza University and which only functioned during the biennial. Conceived by the architect Markus Bader, the pavilion has both functional and metaphorical implications, appealing to the need for public spaces. During Periferic 8, the Info Point hosted projections of video works created by Iași artists, two concerts held by a local DJ and a VJ, but also an information office related to the biennial.
So, the event in Iași dialogued with the public, co-opted it and kept alive its interest in an area, that of the contemporary visual arts, which the local community is less used to. Periferic 8 initiated and put into practice a diverse educative program, loosing, on the other hand, some of the experimental aspect in favor of a more classical structure, with vast topics, such as the investigation of the political and artistic networks responsible with questioning “value“, wherein the banking system (a fundamental element in a capitalist society) shapes the artistic one.
To synthesize Dóra Hegyi’s curatorial discourse, Periferic 8 aimed to and succeeded to bring into the foreground “the way in which art economy works and determines this cultural domain, from creation/ production to distribution and reception/consume“. Starting with the innocent gesture of making a gift, the works exhibited talked about the economies which it imposes and implies in a domino-like system, by introducing in a subtle and haltingly way the idea of compromise, not quite visible, however, when first visiting the exhibition spaces.

[1] The project National Theater in Iași – provisional stage (architect Angelo Rovența) has won the medal of the Section 1 (Architecture <1000 square meters) at the Bucharest Architecture Biennial 2008.