“ALL OF THESE BIENNALES boast of being a forum for the exchange of ideas,” curator Adrian Bojenoiu, cofounder of the Mobile Biennale, reasoned over a Bellini and a tomato-mozzarella skewer on the steps of the Museum of Fine Arts in Craiova, Romania. “We thought to ourselves, if that’s the case, why not just put the emphasis on the ideas? Why even bother with the exhibition part?”
We had gathered to toast the launch of the Mobile Biennale, whose “emphasis on ideas” translated to packing a bus with around thirty potential idea-havers, -sharers, and -negaters for a seven-day tour across what some may see as the armpit—albeit a well-formed, beautifully groomed, entirely desirable armpit—of Romania. The biennial’s founders, Bojenoiu and artist Alexandru Niculescu, had earned street cred as the minds behind Club Electroputere, an artist-run space based in the old cultural center of a factory that once produced locomotive engines. While many artists may have decamped to Bucharest or Cluj, Bojenoiu and Niculescu chose to double down in Craiova, a town whose substantial artistic legacy (it is home to some of the only early Constantin Brâncuşi works to remain in the country) is being mined for a revival of sorts, thanks to the race for the 2021 European Cultural Capital. According to Vlad Drăgulescu, director of Craiova’s campaign, “Everyone writes off Craiova as the underdog in the competition”—which includes frontrunner Cluj, Home of Painters—“but if you look at the criteria, category by category, Craiova comes out on top. Especially when you add the surrounding area of Oltenia!”
The Mobile Biennale would take a closer look (and a gazillion Instagrams) at what Drăgulescu was talking about during its weeklong exploration of Oltenia. Club Electroputere had tried a beta version of the trip two years ago that attempted to cover all of Romania. “That was way too intense,” Niculescu confessed. “Romania is a big country.” Oltenia was a much more accommodating size, with a stunning mix of topographies—from the lush, boat-lined bays of the Danube, to the watermelon-bearing flatlands, to the pristine Transalpina, running along the ridges of the Carpathian mountains—all within a two- or three-hour drive.
The biennial’s championing of “Mobility” may have deemphasized place conceptually, but that didn’t mean the participants—all either invited or selected through an open call—didn’t have every opportunity to play the tourist. The itinerary included a photo op at the Iron Gate II (which sounds straight out of Westeros but is in fact a hydroelectric dam); a pilgrimage to Brâncuşi’s Endless Column at Târgu Jiu; and a brief respite at a chalet in Turcinești, where Niculescu and Dan Vezentan’s Cannibal Disco party featured a human-shaped mirror-ball roasting on a spit over red neon “flames.” Along the way, there were monasteries, mammoth caves, and hot springs galore, not to mention—crucially—outposts to replenish supplies of alcohol and cigarettes. And yes, there were the nightly presentations, more or less formal, though the real conversations raged over bottles of red wine and roadside tuică. Topics skittered from what it might mean for an artist to take responsibility for his or her work to whether an artist could ever effectively comment on another culture to who was left behind on a mountaintop (a conversation I missed, being one of the ones left behind on a mountaintop).
The first major stop was Port Cultural Cetate, a former agricultural port on the Danube, recently transformed into a lovely holiday haven and artist residency by its new owner, celebrity dissident, poet, writer, and sometime vintner Mircea Dinescu. “The whole country has seen this house,” curator Raluca Velisar explained. “Dinescu hosts a talk show where he invites guests here and cooks a meal for them.” “Like Martha Stewart?” ventured Vilnius-based curator Juste Jonutyte. Velisar responded with a wry smile: “Not exactly.”
That evening would culminate in a midnight buffet served dockside to the sounds of Impex, a trio fronted by Dinescu’s violin-wielding son, Andrei Dinescu, who himself is best known as a member of Steaua de Mare (“Starfish”), popular for their electronica spin on Romanian folk music. First, however, we paid a call to Cetate Arts Danube, the neighboring artist residency program launched by Joana Grevers, collector, patron, and founder of Bucharest’s 418 Gallery. The sprawling estate had belonged to her family before communism. By the time Grevers was able to buy it back, many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, including the magnificent stables, whose collapsed roof had allowed plants to colonize the building. Still, Grevers had managed to retool a hulking barn as the “Cetate Atelier la Dunăre,” a studio space for residents, and the property’s small chapel had been completely redesigned by architect Alexandra Afrăsinei. “I think it’s always best to start with a chapel,” Grevers mused, as we sipped a local rosé wine beside the lavender fields. (She could have said anything at that moment and I would have agreed.)
The following evening we settled into a cabana outside Eșelnița, where, with a little ingenuity and a lot of extension cords, we were able to set up a riverside screening of The Ister, a 2004 film by David Barison and Daniel Ross that travels up the Danube while revisiting Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Hölderlin’s hymn to the river. As Bernard Stiegler voiced his thoughts on Prometheus on-screen, across the river, Zeus himself decided to weigh in, unleashing one of the most stunning thunderstorms any of us had ever witnessed. The lightning began over the Serbian highlands, but it soon swept to the Romanian side of the river, eventually drenching the hotel with a downpour as mighty as the light show.
In the morning we would learn that the storm had flooded a large part of the region, leaving some of our route blocked. No matter. While participants were dutifully awed by official stops like the Tismana Monastery or the Rovinari open pit mines, we were just as content with spontaneous stops for cigarettes and alcohol. Smoke breaks were held in the strangest of places—on a speedboat in the Danube, in a cave outside the spa town of Herculane. “You know what they say,” chided architect Thomas Tsang. “When in Romania…”
Rumored to have been founded in 102 AD by Emperor Traian—responsible for the “Roman” in Romania—over the centuries, Herculane has hosted the elites of myriad empires, from Marcus Aurelius to Franz Joseph I and his wife Elizabeth (immortalized on film as Princess Sisi). During the land grabs of privatization, many of the town’s more jaw-dropping Austrian Baroque mansions were snapped up on the cheap, and they now belong to people who can’t afford to maintain them but refuse to let them go. “I mean, you could sink a million dollars into fixing up one of these buildings, but then you would never see that money again, so long as the rest of the infrastructure isn’t here,” illustrator Alex Neagu lamented. Perhaps the most impressive building of all, the Imperial Austrian Baths, sits boarded up, its badly patched windows offering glimpses of the grandeur (marble tiles, gilded chandeliers, indoor fountains, etc) within. Upon discovering a door with its bottom panel kicked in, we couldn’t resist a little bathhouse B&E. Inside, the long corridors were lined with stall after stall of private baths where emperors could come to soak their troubles away. “Talk about a spot for a biennial,” Bojenoiu cooed, with an appreciative whistle.
On the last day, we fudged the rules slightly, slipping out of Oltenia and into the neighboring region of Transylvania to visit the home of artists Lia and Dan Perjovschi in Sibiu. Lia greeted us with platters of local delicacies and her home-brewed wonder tea, before indulging us with a tour of her archives, which she has organized by shelves: “The Earth, The Body, Science, Culture, The Universe…” The stacks of books were propped up by jars full of such museum store finds as a magnetic Obama finger puppet and a breath spray promising to help users “Understand Modern Art.” (“I don’t really care for that kind of irony,” she admitted, “but I thought it was important to acknowledge that it’s out there.”) The artist maintained that she is more strategic in her acquisitions than her “collector” husband. “Dan just wants to buy any and everything. I have to be more selective. I never buy anything above the budget of fifty euros,” Lia glanced affectionately at her spouse. “Dan’s more successful; he doesn’t have to think about budgets.”
Lia envisions her archive functioning as a Knowledge Museum. “Knowledge is expensive, but knowledge is also survival,”she continued. “Someone asked me if I thought we had landed on the moon. Did we actually land? I believe we did. But if we didn’t…? What does it matter, whether or not we actually went there?”
One place the Perjovschis won’t be going is the MNAC, Bucharest’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which in 2004 relocated to the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, the world’s second-largest administrative building (after the Pentagon), as well as its heaviest. “It’s like we’re in a village, where there’s one big house, and you make your parties, your funerals, and your politics all under the same roof,” Lia snapped. “Why the provincialism? We can afford to build these things their own buildings!”
Half the group had to catch the train to Bucharest, but Dan led the stragglers on a walking tour of shamelessly charming Sibiu, which already had its turn as Cultural Capital in 2007. Over a stop for—what else?—cigarettes and alcohol, talk turned to the next Mobile Biennale, which is considering a tour of Hong Kong. Even more pressingly, the MNAC had offered the Biennale an exhibition of its own this coming November. What would a biennial dedicated to ideas have to show for itself? “We’ll have to think about it,” Niculescu shrugged. And just like that, we were planning the afterparty.