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.