PRINT April 2013


performance art and politics in Romania

Andreea Novac, Pretend We Make You Happy, 2010. Performance view, National Center of Dance Bucharest, November 13, 2010. From left: Alin State, Istvan Teglas, and Stefan Lupus. Photo: Tonut Staicu.

OF THE VARIOUS TYPES OF NEGLECT, one is almost kind: letting something be, even freeing it by virtue of abandonment. Another form is aggressive, a traumatizing and annulling intervention on the part of a powerful entity imposing silence and erasure on a less powerful one. Neglect, first the one variety, then the other, forms the backdrop of contemporary Romanian art, and performance in particular.

Following the 1989 revolution, eager to reframe more than reform its structures of power, the Romanian state assumed a mostly laissez-faire position in the administration of its culture. Through two related institutions, the internal Ministry of Culture and the external Romanian Cultural Institute, the state allocated meager funds and welcomed assistance by the EU and countries elsewhere. It was in this atmosphere that the groundbreaking, state-funded National Center of Dance Bucharest (CNDB) helmed by the choreographer and performer Mihai Mihalcea since 2006 and still extant today, thrived between 2004 and 2010.

Considering, on the one hand, the “expanded field of choreography” that Mihalcea helped advance in Romania and, on the other, what Leo Steinberg once called the “plight of the public,” the “national” in the institution’s title is fairly radical. Performance art had been popular in Romania in the early 1990s, “recuperated,” according to the critic and curator Raluca Voinea, “as the experimental medium that allowed artists before ’89 to avoid the official art of socialist realism.” Voinea notes, however, that in the past decade, artists from dance and theater, less than those in the visual arts, have been preoccupied with performance art. As with any avant-garde, this expanded field exposes internal struggles within the Romanian arts, between what some artists want to present and what the audience (including a contingent of more traditionally minded artists) thinks of as choreography. Largely, this is a public that still expects Pavlova and Nijinsky, not Jérôme Bel, who presented The Last Performance (a Lecture), 2004, at CNDB in 2007. It isn’t surprising, then, that Romania-based choreographers and performers such as Eduard Gabia, Mădălina Dan, and Florin Flueraş seem better received outside their own country.

Still, critical dialogue about contemporary art did proliferate, through performances, lectures, and publications, including Idea, a print and online journal about art and society published in Cluj-Napoca. It featured the writings of artists such as Dan Perjovschi, Mircea Cantor, and Ciprian Mureşan, young critics such as Voinea and Iulia Popovici, and theoretical samplings from the usual suspects (Žižek, Groys, Deleuze, Badiou). In short, despite a dearth of resources, 2004 to 2010 was a uniquely exciting time to be an artist in Romania; while Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) were putting Romanian cinema on the map, the CNDB collaborated with the likes of Vera Mantero, Xavier Le Roy, Rachid Ouramdane, Janez Janša, and many others.

Housed in a space within the National Theater in Bucharest’s University Square, the fledgling CNDB overlooked the site of violent clashes in the early ’90s, between miners mobilized by the first post-Communist president, Ion Iliescu, and citizens who felt their revolution had been hijacked by the former apparatchiks. In effect, the CNDB operated as an asylum for the avant-garde precisely at ground zero of Romanian political activism—until the state revoked its rehearsal and performance space in 2010. In March 2011, artists and dance-center collaborators staged an unprecedented (for Romania) public-space intervention, a kind of Occupy CNDB confronting the Ministry of Culture; the artists insisted that the sit-in was “not a private struggle of a community to keep its space, but a fight against the perception of art as ‘recreation,’ as a disposable ‘extra,’ rather than sustained and continuous work.”

The state closed the center’s home to make way for a more than sixty million dollar renovation of the National Theater’s building (completion is slated for sometime in the next two years) that will replace the current facade with its original, Communist-era framework. As no new space was designated for the CNDB, the performing artists were literally let loose in the streets. And so this is where they next began performing. In 2011, Alexandra Pirici, a choreographer and performer, conceived a public-space project called If you don’t want us, we want you. The performance challenged the state’s unregulated creation of “public monuments,” the construction of which, in fact, requires no public consent. Almost every day for a month, Pirici and other performers gathered at the sites of Bucharest monuments—the equestrian statue of Carol I, the controversial and unsightly monument of the 1989 revolution, and the Palace of the Parliament—replicating the statues’ forms with their bodies. (In the case of the revolution monument, they lay in its long shadow, moving slowly with its sundial trajectory.) A year after these internal struggles, amid severe economic and political crisis, the country’s external cultural body, the RCI, was subjected to an “emergency ordinance,” considered by many to be an undemocratic overhaul of its resource allocation, mission, and personnel, which crippled projects already programmed around the world. Once again, artists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural leaders protested in University Square, this time managing to attract international media attention and reprimands (directed at Prime Minister Victor Ponta) from Brussels; the protesters had helped expose systemic dysfunction that went far beyond the cultural sector.

Naturally, the state’s actions have forced artists such as Pirici to grapple more directly with politics, but her work sides with Claire Bishop’s argument regarding the social responsibility of art: that art must resist sacrificing aesthetics “at the altar of social change.” Take Căluşarii, 2012–, which draws from a galloping folk dance associated with mythical members of a Transylvanian male-only secret society, the Căluşari. When the original dance is performed in folkloric festivals, one member of the troupe is paraded by the others atop a kind of float. He swings a club or sword or flag, which Pirici replaces with an aluminum broomstick. In a video of this piece, performed in Limassol, Cyprus, in 2012, she reproduces the steps of the dance, alone, in earnest accuracy, to an audience of passing traffic. Pirici’s frame is wide enough to reveal environments chosen along specific aesthetic criteria: not the deterioration, but the banality that exists on the fringes of empire. Căluşarii underscores the RCI’s revised mission; instead of promoting evolving, contemporary Romanian culture abroad, as it had done for the past decade, it now pushes the “national culture” or, as artists bemoan, festivals of mititei and sarmale, the sausages and stuffed-cabbage dishes that typify traditional Romanian food.

Like Căluşarii, Pirici’s Home 2.—Global Exoticism, with Andrei Dinu, from the series “Home,” 2012–, addresses representations of the foreign abroad, underscoring the “dystopian trend of cultural consumption of an ever-growing periphery by an ever-retreating center,” an inverted echo of the hermetic “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” In practice, the piece is a mobile homeless shelter set up in affluent locales, offering (as Romanian movies at Cannes also do) a taste of “interesting poverty” to the comfortable class. Alternately, the shelter can be erected in a place that is already a tourist site, such as the Amathus ruins in Cyprus, where Pirici held a residence last year. This is a double-sided mirror: On one side is the export of Romanian culture in the form of (the homeless artist) Pirici; on the other is a comment on the West’s appetite for exotic Eastern Europe, even as it provides opportunities for these countries’ artists to exhibit their work. The project recalls Schopenhauer’s “twin evils of life”—as Susan Sontag put it, “pain for the have-nots, boredom for haves.”

The centerpiece of “Home” is Home 1. & The Institute of Empathic Practice, 2012–, a one-on-one interaction that any two people can perform. While inevitably evoking a certain The Artist Is Present spirit, Pirici’s piece differs from Marina Abramović's in critical ways: With two sets of “guidelines” for preparing and staging the meetings, and a time frame of just under an hour, Home 1. can involve speech, touch, and the sharing of food and takes place in complete privacy, in a neutral space. Pirici chooses one of three costumes at random for each meeting: a priest’s robe, a doctor’s white lab coat, or the dress suit of a banker. “I am not performing the costumes,” she says. “I use them as a visual filter, to establish relationships with people in a hierarchical, institutional framework of power relations,” e.g., the sinner at confession. It’s unsurprising that an artist living in a historically pious society that endured decades of totalitarian rule, only to find itself floundering in its capitalist experiment, would highlight these particular institutions and the public’s relationship to them. (A quick survey of the Romanian films of the past decade reveals the same points of interest, and, in fact, each of Mungiu’s three feature films touches on one of those themes.) The essential question in Home 1. is: Can getting a loan, going to confession, seeing a doctor, result in an empathic, even intimate, interaction between two people? Pirici tries to dissolve standard dynamics during the course of the meetings, through simple, communal experiences limned in the guidelines, for example sitting together in silence for five minutes, guessing things about each other, or forcing some very minor social discomfort. For the prescribed sharing of fruit, for example, she generally chooses an apple or pear in the winter, but a very ripe peach in the summer, because “it’s harder to eat it elegantly—it drips and you can easily become a little embarrassed.”

Pirici’s work simply refuses to go away, an aesthetic-activism-as-self-preservation mechanism that may have already proven its promise: This year, the Ministry of Culture chose her and fellow artist Manuel Pelmus’s An Immaterial Retrospective, 2013, to represent Romania at the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale. A loose evolution of If you don’t want us, we want you, the piece will reproduce, by live reenactment, hundreds of artworks from the annals of the Biennale. That the very political institution that inspired, through protest, the first project is now sponsoring An Immaterial Retrospective is an unexpected and, dare one say, hopeful sign that it might be possible to see neglect—both forms—transform into attention.

Oana Sanziana Marian is a writer currently living in Los Angeles. Her translation of Norman Manea’s novel The Lair was published by Yale University Press in 2012.