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.