In the Wind

Sabrina Mandanici on the Art Encounters Biennial

Installation view at Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum. All photos by author.

ENCOUNTERS, BY DEFINITION, occur unexpectedly. Woven within the fabric of everyday life, like a tear, an encounter cracks the familiar. But how do you prompt this experience when the “encounters,” as the title of Timișoara’s current Art Encounters Biennial suggests, are expected to happen? One answer: You entwine the mystery of place. Located within the Banat, a geographical and historical region divided between Romania, Serbia, and Hungary, Timișoara has been defined by centuries of migration, both forced and voluntary, and is home to a deeply rooted, at times conflicted, ethnic diversity. (The biennial’s title is translated in the city’s spoken languages: Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, German, Roma, Hungarian, and English). This presence, still palpable in the architecture, which spans from the Renaissance to Communism, and the past-evoking names of its piazzas, buildings, and streets, gives rise to startling contrasts—as does the city’s ever-alternating blasts of strong sunshine and freezing winds.

Pertinent questions regarding borders—and the ways in which they both construct and displace ethic and national identities—resonate among the works exhibited at the Maria Theresia Bastion, a preserved wall of the city’s Austro-Hungarian fortress and one of the more than thirty locations displaying the biennial’s sixty-three artworks (twenty-three of these are new commissions). Pınar Öğrenci’s poetic video A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us, 2017, captures an oud floating on the sea, while Baghdad musician Ahmed Obaid Shaqaqi narrates the story of his escape to Europe, relating when he was forced to leave his precious string instrument on a beach. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s play, Tanja Muravskaja’s two-screen installation Three Sisters, 2015, documents the complicated relationship between two Ukrainian cousins (“cousin” and “sister” can be used interchangeably in Ukrainian); one supports and one protests Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, while a third woman—the artist—watches from behind the camera.

Photographer and writer Louise Long and artist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas.

I responded most viscerally to Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s spellbinding patchwork collages depicting Roma women of different ages absorbed in various quotidian activities: smoking, playing cards, sewing. These “situations,” as Mirga-Tas called them during a conversation at the French Institute’s opening party, are based on photographs that she receives “from friends and relatives of diverse Roma communities” in and outside of Poland (where she resides). The artist then incorporates pieces of the women’s clothes, uniting personal history, activism, and storytelling, to challenge discriminatory stereotypes still widely held against the Roma people.

Later that day, we walked to the Public Transport Museum—home to Swedish artist Bella Rune’s gorgeous mohair-and-silk sculptures, floating like giant jellyfish between other works—passing some of the biennial’s many site-specific works en route. These included Ahmet Ögüt’s intricate street painting portraying Hüseyin Hilmi Bey, the founder of the Ottoman Socialist Party, and Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek, one of the founders of the Ottoman Society for the Defense of Women’s Rights, in close proximity to a plaque commemorating Timișoara’s otherwise invisible history of Ottoman rule; Gunilla Klingberg’s graffiti reverse silhouettes of abstracted plants native to the Banat region; and posters of Agnieszka Polska’s Wayward Pigeon, the biennial’s mascot. A digitally manipulated photograph of a “disobedient” homing pigeon, Polska’s work does not deliver any predetermined message, instead straying from its path and carrying ideas across physical and metaphorical boundaries.

I remembered the advice Maria Lind, who cocurated this year’s biennial with Anca Rujoiu, had given us earlier: “Don’t think of this as a thematic exhibition. It is not.” The curatorial “winds,” as Lind and Rujoiu refer to the biennial’s recurring topoi—such as “borders and translations” and “visibility and invisibility”—began to spin in my head. And I began to wonder what the residents made of all this art suddenly appearing in their city.

Installation view of Céline Condorelli “Collection Show” at the Banat Museum.

I found an answer the following day, when the Hungarian art historian and writer Krisztián Török and I walked to the Soarelui neighborhood, one of Timișoara’s last working-class districts, to see Ciprian Mureșan’s site-specific sculpture The Plague Column, 2019, a remodeled and altered replica of the monumental Baroque column in the city. Upon studying the piece, an elderly man approached us, agitatedly speaking Romanian. Relying on Krisztián’s translation skills as well as Google Translate, Lörinc (his name, we learned) shared his thoughts: The sculpture means nothing to him or the neighborhood because it does not look like what it is supposed to be. He understands that the piece is about memory, but knows the real column and does not need to be reminded of it. A cleanup of the park or planting a tree, he said, would be much better. I agreed with him—the sculpture felt out of place. Only then did I see his Trump 2020 hat, and my first impulse was to not engage anymore. Instead, I told him about my favorite site-specific work in the biennial: Dan Acostioaiei’s Sees Under Deserts, 2019, a beautiful mosaic installed in a railroad passageway. Based on a postcard that the artist’s Romanian father, while working as a cartographer in Syria, sent him as a child in the 1970s, the mosaic, inscribed Souvenir de Syrie, evokes not only the forgotten political and economic relationship between the two countries, but also the recent destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage and its ongoing refugee crisis. Delicately suturing personal and transnational histories, the piece shelters the essence of memory itself—a fragment, caught in passing, impossible to fully grasp, yet seeking to be inhabited. Lörinc promised to go. I hope he does.

Dido Gompertz, publicist for Sam Talbot with Gunilla Klingberg's work at the Botanical Garden.

Curators Maria Lind and Anca Rujoiu.

Works by Bella Rune and Agnieszka Polska at the Public Transport Museum.

Poster of Agnieszka Polska’s “Wayward Pigeon.”

Opening at the Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum.

Installation view of work by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas.

Installation view of work by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas at the Maria Therezia Bastion.

Installation view of Tanja Muravskaja’s “Three Sisters” at the Maria Therezia Bastion.

Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum.

Installation view at Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum.

Dan Acostioaiei’s “Sees Under Deserts.”

Ahmet Ögüt's History Otherwise.

Curators Maria Lind and Anca Rujoiu at the opening ceremony.

Curators Anca Rujoiu and Maria Lind; Diana Marincu, artist director of the Art Encounters Foundation; Timisoara's Vice Mayor Dan Diaconu, and Ovidiu Sandor, CEO of the Art Encounters Foundation during the opening at the Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum.

Cocktail party at the French Institute.

Ciprian Mureșan’s “The Plague Column.”

Artist Virginia Lupu in front of her photographs.

Artist Matts Leiderstam in front of his work.

Artist Gary-Ross Pastrana explaining his work to the press.

Artist Dan Acostioaiei.

Artist Bella Rune in front of one of her sculptures.

Art critic Sabine Vogel; Dido Gompertz, publicist for Sam Talbot; art critic Donna Schons; Mary Doherty, publicist for Sam Talbot with Monotremu's “Q.E.F.”

Alexandra Pintea, communications manager of Art Encounters and Diana Marincu, artistic director of the Art Encounters Foundation with work by Gunilla Klingberg.