Contemporary Art in Romania with a Political Twist
13 september, 2023
A brief Introduction by Valentina Iancu
In this essay I will discuss a few of the many artistic initiatives that shape Romanian contemporary art today, using as the main compass the history as I remember it, works that I’ve seen often discussed, names that are most often on display or critically acclaimed. It cannot be a complete history, but a very reduced introduction pointing out some of the local energies.
The enormous effervescence of today’s Romanian visual art scene is the result of an accelerated and in many senses difficult process of recovering, discovering and reconnecting with the rest of the world’s cultures that started immediately after the violent fall of communism in 1989. On 25 December 1989 Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were shot dead, after a secret military tribunal found them guilty of genocide. The images of their murder travelled around the world, being probably the first televised spectacle of a dictator’s death. In the days that preceded this murder, around 1200 civilians were killed during the protests demanding the end of communism in the whole country. The events, as recorded by television cameras, were assembled, a few years later, in 1992, in the documentary “Videogramme einer Revolution,” directed by Andrei Ujică and Harun Farocki.
What kind of beginning was this end? Certainly a traumatic one, ending the age of totalitarianism that lasted more than a half of the 20th century. Romania was ruled by a far-right dictatorial regime in the forties, followed by one of the most repressive systems from the so-called “Eastern Block”. The newly achieved freedom, highly celebrated, marked the start of a wild breed of capitalism, during the so-called years of “transition”. The return to private property, the rapid privatisation of all the economical infrastructure, violent mine workers’ protests and a new wave of nationalism were plaguing the society in the nineties. It was a time of rapid transformation where society was, of course, disoriented. All these tensions were highly felt and registered by the art world. The previous regime, together with its ideological limitations and censorship, offered a system of privileges as well: studios, galleries, program of acquisitions for public collections, museums, fellowships etc. The status of the artist, together with that of the communist institutions, started decaying immediately, slowly making space for the organization of a neoliberal art market. “New horizons appeared for the art worlds of former socialist states following the dismantling of the Iron Curtain and opening up of the borders between Central and Eastern European countries that had hindered the free flow of artistic exchange since the 1950s.” ¹
In the first comprehensive study dedicated to historicizing the artistic practices from Romania in the first two decades after communism, a local art historian and curator, Erwin Kessler² observed that the reconfiguration of culture in post-communist Romania started with a dialectical tension between those reconnecting with experimental avant-garde practices versus the dominant voices of neo-traditionalist creators, the defenders of the Christian-Orthodox national values. At the beginning of the nineties a Neo-Orthodox direction took the lead of reforming the art institutions, dominating the visual scene both in exhibitions and media coverage. Conservative figures with an interest in religious subjects, mysticism, spirituality or Romanian identity, such as Horia Bernea (1938-200), Sorin Dumitrescu, Marian Zidaru, Victoria Zidaru, Suzana Fântânaru, Constatin Flondor, Marin Gherasim etc. were highly visible for a short period. It was a time when Christian mysticism was perceived as a form of anti-communist resistance, therefore their activity in the last decade of communism became highly acclaimed immediately after the Revolution. With the help of the Soros Centre for Contemporary Art (CSAC) artists oriented towards visual experiment and political thinking were empowered, and after a few years they took the lead in terms of visibility. Dan Perjovschi, Lia Perjovschi, subREAL (Călin Dan, Iosif Kiraly, Dan Mihălțianu) or Ion Grigorescu were at the core of what was historicized as “the neo-avant-garde”. This flashback to the twenties was the way several generations of artists educated during the communist times were celebrating freedom of speech, while making efforts to understand the artist’s place, given the new possibilities to travel, and to connect to a global art system. By “flashback to the twenties” I understand a similar debate between a nationalist traditionalism and an avant-garde spirit of the New and Now, a debate that time turned in favor of the multicultural and internationalist discourse of the avant gardes. By the end of the nineties we see “moments when a political awareness of the urgency of change begins to develop in Romania, of the need to develop critical positions, but also the courage to assume irony, sarcasm, cruel humor and even nihilism against the local mental status quo. It is the moment when many artists begin to assert with enough determination unmistakable truths about inherited clichés and about historicalized, expired, obsolete cultural acquisitions”. ³
Among the first artists who engaged with critical discourse, creating a space for political debate and awareness around various activist causes, was Dan Perjovschi. Known worldwide for his intelligent drawings, full of humour, ironic without being cynical, Perjovschi paid attention to all meaningful moments that shaped our present: free speech, gentrification, racism, poverty, identity politics, the globalisation of the art world, ecology and much more. With a simple line he makes a point towards a wise and wider perspective on how the various inequalities shape the world nowadays, questioning, challenging, offering complex thought through simplicity. Dan Perjovschi, together with his life partner Lia Perjovschi, was involved in educating the art scene, constructing a space for contemporary art education. Back in the nineties they opened their Bucharest studio to other artists or students to study in their library. Their collection of magazines, books, catalogues, and flyers about international exhibitions became the first locally accessible archive containing information on contemporary art. Before the end of the ’90s, the CAA (Contemporary Art Archive) had accumulated a considerable amount of material and become an essential resource on a cultural scene still deprived of information. Lia Perjovschi tackled this lack of access to information on contemporary art on a global scale, which was an initial hindrance in her artistic development, by creating a corpus of knowledge permanently performing its own educational institution. From 1999, the CAA began operating under the name of the Center for Art Analysis, later complemented by the Museum of Knowledge. After being evicted from their Bucharest studio, the institution continued its work in Sibiu, in the Perjovschis’ home. Driving forward the project represents Lia Perjovschi’s interest in art history, especially of contemporary art, stemming perhaps from the traumatic pre-1989 isolation.⁴ Being passionate about knowledge Lia continued a practice of collecting and archiving, which later developed into a series of projects aiming to make information accessible.
In the first two decades of the 21st century two major events changed the possibilities of Romanian culture: the birth of the art market and a return to the political subject in the independent zone. Thanks to the global art market, the phenomenon known as the “Cluj-Napoca School” took shape. The heart of the movement are painter Adrian Ghenie and gallerist Mihai Pop, the founders of the very known internationally Plan B Gallery. The gallery was opened in 2005 in Cluj-Napoca, out of an impulse of Adrian Ghenie, who returned to Romania after failing as an artist in Vienna. Plan B was Ghenie’s project of “managing failure”. The gallery supported a generation of artists, friends, starting with: Victor Man, Șerban Savu, Mircea Cantor, Ciprian Mureșan, Cristi Pogăcean and Gabriela Vanga. Each of them has their own style, passions, specificity. They are a collective of strong individuals who come together out of need for a survival strategy. The gallery opened with a Victor Man exhibition and continued with both personal and collective shows. The highest impact was the Adrian Ghenie exhibition from September 2006: “If You Open It You’ll Get Dirty”, showing a series of grisaille paintings, representing the Russian dictator Stalin’s tomb. Death was not a subject in Romanian art, nor Russian dictatorship times, therefore Ghenie’s choice was shocking and impressive. His reduced palette was criticized by some, but immediately created a school of followers and imitators among very young generations of painters. Despite the criticism he was recognized and soon after the exhibition he became highly acclaimed worldwide. Adrian Ghenie’s painting in the 2000s is in a dialogue with art history, especially with Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter and some painters from the Leipzig school.
He recycles various styles and mixes them into powerful and strong compositions. His favorite subjects were inspired by historical narratives, investigating stories, specific details, travelling with subtlety from communism to nazism, to those stories no one wants to hear about in Romania. Ghenie is passionate about history, without claiming a position of knowing, owing any truth or teaching lessons. “What I’m interested in, for example, is a certain kind of texture, a specific dirtiness which wasn’t to be found just in Romania but in the whole of Eastern Europe, dirt induced by a specific ideology, a specific way of life, a mixture of a rusty, old Dacia, ’50s furniture covered in bric-a-brac, my gran’s old mouldy carpet…” ⁵
A few years later the Cluj-Napoca art scene gathered in the Paintbrush Factory, an abandoned communist industrial site converted through artistic energy into a community place hosting artist studios, galleries and artists run spaces. From 2009 the place became the most visible site of the Romanian cultural art scene, being the first project on such a scale. Among the artists working in the factory was Ciprian Mureșan, a powerful voice of critical art. Mureșan is a pluridisciplinary artist, working with various media from sculpture and drawing to video and text. Most of his topics dig into hegemonic historical narratives, religion, post-communism and childhood, questioning everything into playful scenarios. Mureșan questions myths, passing from nationalism to capitalism and communism, tackling various categorical amnesias in culture. His iconic work from 2006 “Communism Never Happened” has a multitude of meanings, all opening into a complexity of misunderstandings. First and perhaps the most obvious is the discrepancy between communist theory versus practice. The work also addresses a general amnesia towards an epoch that massively changed society. Ciprian Mureșan often uses simple observations to raise complex questions in order to challenge the way we see reality. Ciprian Mureșan is part of the collective that founded the Idea art and society magazine, one of the few initiatives dedicated to the publication of theory informed by the new left’s favorite topics. The magazine is published in the frame of Idea Design & Print Cluj Napoca, the only publishing house devoted to a variety of subjects, informed as well, just like the magazine, by leftist theories. Idea published studies or artist books covering the most complex voices from the Romanian contemporary art scene: Dan Perjovschi, Lia Perhovschi, h.arta collective, Daniel Knorr, Mircea Cantor or Alexandra Croitoru and translated a number of important international publications.
Alexandra Croitoru is a pluridisciplinary artist, university teacher and one of the founders of the Bucharest art space Salonul de Proiecte. Her revolutionary artistic doctoral research dedicated to the myth of Constantin Brâncuși was published by Idea in 2015.⁶ The famous Romanian sculptor, known worldwide as “the father of modern sculpture”, is often celebrated with an enthusiasm that falls into highly nationalist politics. Croitoru’s research offers tools for a deep deconstruction of a local myth, criticizing the nationalist turn of memory without denying Brâncuși’s value in itself. Starting from this research Croitoru curated the exhibition series “Sons and Daughters of Brâncuși. A Family Saga” that gathered more artists questioning the Brâncuși nationalist cultural myth, such as: Dan Acostioaei, Vlad Cadar & Biserika & Tamtam, Simion Cernica, V. Leac & Ștefan Tiron, Manuel Pelmuș, Ciprian Mureșan, Monotremu, Dan Perjovschi, Sergiu Sas, Gabriela Vanga and others. To quote from the curatorial statement: “Nowadays, against a backdrop of globalisation and of European identity policies, the Brâncuşi myth is tending to be significantly exploited even in strategic planning for the branding of Romania. The Brâncuşi cult has been kept alive over the years by an excessive number of works by Romanian experts on the sculptor, who have now even come to influence the attitude to the artist adopted in governmental and commercial communication strategies, in popular culture and in a range of forms of discourse, whether nationalistic, such as that of the experts on the Dacians and of Orthodox specialists, or trans-national, such as that of yoga practitioners and of the Freemasons.”⁷ The exhibition was criticized by various conservative voices, being misunderstood as attacking Brâncuși’s art and not as a fair criticism to the nationalist myth that was rising on the behalf of his creation. The kind of criticism Croitoru encountered is a symptomatic attitude that keeps dominating the Romanian cultural scene: the refusal of critical thinking and politically engaged art while defending national values (especially from the inter-war period).
The political subject in art is most often received with reservations, if not with hostility by some generations of Romanian contemporary art workers. There is a fear of activism, a fear of political correctness, a fear of critical speech. Remembering the mandatory politicization of art during the communist years, this refusal can be explained. On the other hand, considering the struggle of everyday life in a fragile democracy in neoliberal times, problems such as racism, homophobia, nationalism, gender inequalities and poverty affect society at large as well as the distribution of power inside the artist scenes and are difficult to ignore. “Having in mind the wild capitalism that spread across the former East in the years that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, accompanied by the nasty neoliberal mechanisms of precarization and recuperation of creativity, of art, and of the vast field of reception that connects them to their publics, let us pose once again the question that has been approached by various scholars, activists, critics, psychoanalysts, and cultural anthropologists throughout the history: Can art seriously change the world?”⁸ Even if it cannot, the artists who tried challenging reality through politically relevant works, from a critical point of view, made a difference in Romanian cultural thinking. Raising questions was and is challenging.
Among the major political events of the period that notably influenced everything are: the decriminalization of homosexuality in 2001 and the entry into NATO (2004) and European Union (2007). Being part of the European community motivated more artists to reflect on democracy and made more space for political thinking in culture. As the historian Marius Babias rightfully noted: “Eastward expansion of the European Union and realignment of its common foreign and security policy are leading to a new perspective for European art and culture in a setting of international free trade, globalisation, and identity politics. Some of the groundbreaking artistic works of recent years - from both East and West - deal with questions of identity politics, relating to the body, gender and cultural status within social and transcultural parameters”.⁹ In the past decades indeed Romania is witnessing what can be called a “queer revolution” in terms of a new wave of LGBTQ+ visibility in arts and activism.
A strong fluid voice raising queer issues from a personal point of view is Hortensia Mi Kafchin, a transgender woman, the first trans voice active in the visual arts in Romania. Kafchin began her activity at the Paintbrush Factory in Cluj-Napoca, where she had a studio, and in 2014 she founded the artist-run space Superliquidato (SPRLQDT), together with Maria Balea and George Crângașu. The space was devoted to promoting hybrid ideas, soft subversions, twisting the traditional roles of the art scene. Hortensia is devoted to both making art and organizing artistic events for the community of friends around her. Currently she is living and working between Berlin and Cluj-Napoca.
Hortensia Mi Kafchin works in multiple media, from painting to drawing, sculpture, video or installation, choosing subjects from her personal universe. She dreams. The struggle of the transgender body, her feminine body built with anxiety, pain, social rejection is a site for imagination. She moves from personal to universal topics, such as time loops, spirituality, witchcraft, death or forgotten histories. Her magical universe is also oriented towards filtering information from the present, recycling images from video games, conspiracy theories and a radically new painting. One of the unique aspects of Romanian art are the questions about gender troubles, bodies and transition, as well as the queering of painting.
One of the very first artists involved in activism through artistic means was Sorin Oncu (1980-2016), a gay Timșoara-based artist who is almost unknown. Homosexual identity has become the central theme for Sorin Oncu’s research, ever since he finished his studies. During 2004-2007 he worked on multiple series inspired by the LGBT life dynamics and the problems faced by homosexuals in post-communist Romania, most of them being presented in group shows in Timişoara. This was a time when the artist worked especially with flat surfaces, using painting, sketching and collage as his main techniques. Over time, his interest steered towards the bidimensional, opting for the arte povera language in installations of found objects that acquired new meaning via recontextualization. He explored multiple experimental territories: video, animation, found or built assemblages, using the most unusual materials. Sorin Oncu approached art through the filter of his personal experiences: he would either make art with an identity role or he would criticize the mechanisms for exclusion and oppression that function in contemporary society. Almost at the same time Alex Mirutziu started addressing similar questions in Cluj-Napoca, making use of a more poetic means. In Bucharest, the choreographer and performance artist Paul Dunca marked the beginning of queer art questions on the art scene. Mirutziu and Dunca have gained more visibility in the past few years, after 15-20 years of sustained activity. Oncu passed away before being recognized. But, thankfully, things are changing fast!
In the past decades feminist conversations have been introduced in art, both from the materialist recuperatory perspective and the challenging intersectional one. Aurora Kiraly is one of the first voices interested in searching for historical female ancestors, addressing the topic of gender imbalance in the art world. The much younger Alexandra Ivanciu and Gabriela Mateescu have signed significant projects looking into learning through creativity and artistic research about the activity of other female artists forgotten by history. Intersectional feminist topics are addressed more through various theater and performance practices, being less present in the field of visual contemporary art. Through the lens of queer-feminism theory we can read the art of Katja Lee Eliad, an artist born in a family of Jewish migrats from Romania. In her pluridisciplinary practice, going from drawing to painting, installation, sound, video or poetry, Eliad has addressed mental health issues, lesbian identity or migrant problems. One of her recent exhibitions at Posibila Gallery in Bucharest raised a painful but obvious question: the absence of representation for non-Romanian artists. The exhibition “Bucharest White World” is a reflection on identity myths and historically oppressive exhibitions, raising a multitude of questions, making space for both reflection about the present and grief for the victims of a criminal past.
Although the Roma community is the biggest minority in Romania, there are a few known creators of Roma origin, and most of them are active in contemporary theater. Visual artists, such as Mihaela Cîmpeanu, Julio Elvisey, George Vasilescu, Eugen Raportoru, Kurt Vio, Marian Petre or Anton Nistor, Roma artists, are complete outsiders, while some Romanian white artists are being criticised for capitalizing on Roma subjects. The topic is very new, open and under construction.
In the frame of a general absence of critical thinking, the cultural scene is dominated by male creators. Yet the neoliberal rainbow diversity from the post-queer Western cultures is fighting to rise up on the Romanian art scene. For the moment women, queers or Roma artists are mostly absent and only gain recognition after 50-60 years of work. A case in point is that of Geta Brătescu: she became highly acclaimed only a few years before her death, at almost 90 years old. The enormous effervescence of today’s art world is the result of individual efforts, fighting the absence of institutions and precarious living and working conditions. I took a chronological path that is not necessarily representative of the times of many coincidences that shaped the recent art history. I remember a recent private conversation I had with Dan Perjovschi, where he pointed out something that should be known: “Romanian art scene is very precarious, but alive. A scene of resilience. A scene of resistance.”
Instead of a conclusion I would like to express my deep apologies to the many meaningful artists and artistic initiatives there were not mentioned in this text. The Romanian contemporary art scene is very dynamic and there are a multitude of efforts and energies that deserve recognition which are not even mentioned in this very short introduction. Each attempt at historicization is a complex process of remembering but as well of forgetting.
Valentina Iancu (b. 1985) is a writer with studies in art history and image theory. Her practice is hybrid, research-based, divided between editorial, educational, curatorial or management activities and oriented towards solidarity, activism, and political art. After almost a decade of activating within the National Art Museum of Romania, where she took care of the modern Romanian art heritage and signed a series of extensive exhibitions, Iancu works independently, between Bucharest and Berlin, devoting herself in particular to queer studies of contemporary art. She frequently publishes local and international art history studies, and since 2011 she has been writing for Arta Magazine. Check out the column of Valentina Iancu - Queering the culture.
This article was presented by Valentina Iancu to Artslooker. The author wishes Artslooker to direct her honorarium to support the text of the Ukrainian author.
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Arta magazine collection, 2010-2020
Idea Arta + Societate collection 2005-2020
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