View of “Bucharest Biennale 5,” 2012. Inside: Vesna Pavlović, Search for Landscapes, 2011. Outside: Abbas Akhavan, Untitled Garden, 2009.

View of “Bucharest Biennale 5,” 2012. Inside: Vesna Pavlović, Search for Landscapes, 2011. Outside: Abbas Akhavan, Untitled Garden, 2009.

Bucharest Biennale 5

Various Venues

View of “Bucharest Biennale 5,” 2012. Inside: Vesna Pavlović, Search for Landscapes, 2011. Outside: Abbas Akhavan, Untitled Garden, 2009.

The heart of the fifth Bucharest Biennale wasn’t one of the works in the exhibition. Rather, it was a library, unrelated to the biennial, that happened to be located in the middle of Pavilion, a nonprofit storefront art space in the city center. Pavilion was founded in 2004 by the curators and theorists Răzvan Ion and Eugen Rădescu, who are the directors of the space, the editors of the journal Pavilion, and the organizers of the biennial, which began in 2005 as an annual festival for art and photography but has been scheduled to occur every other year since 2006.

This year, Pavilion’s buzzing energy was generated by not only its two street-level galleries but also its impressive, carefully tended collection of books, housed in a tiny room in the middle of the space, which was open at both ends to encourage circulation and a sense of seamless movement in and out of the exhibition. Besides setting the tone for this biennial, the library conveyed the ethos of the center’s wider, long-term work. There one could find books on anarchism and resistance, for instance, and the works of radical playwrights such as Jean Genet, whose book The Thief’s Journal seemed to be in purposeful dialogue with Ciprian Homorodean’s 2010 manual for stealing, Take the Book, Take the Money, Run! Some of the library materials also reflected concerns that were common across several of the works in the biennial, particularly those by artists dealing with corrupt or dictatorial states in the Middle East.

The exhibition itself, curated by Anne Barlow and subtitled “Tactics for the Here and Now,” had something of the do-it-yourself spirit of a community-action committee. With twenty artists, seven venues, four print projects (including a catalogue and three interventions by the artist Jill Magid in local magazines, part of her project Failed States, 2012), and a budget of less than 125,000 euros, this edition was outrageously modest compared to other events of its kind. Barlow, a Glasgow-born curator and the director of Art in General in New York, clearly knows how to do more with less. She drew heavily on existing but relevant works, such as Anahita Razmi’s twelve-screen video installation Roof Piece Tehran, 2011, which moved Trisha Brown’s choreography for a dozen rooftop dancers in New York to the loaded context of postelection, green revolution–era Iran, when protesters traded slogans against the nighttime sky; two examples of the Egyptian artist Iman Issa’s mesmerizing “Triptychs,” 2009, made of city snapshots, framed still-life photographs, and sculptural elements that speak of unmoored memories; a selection of Haris Epaminonda’s evocative “Polaroids,” 2008–2009, paired with a collage of found Super 8 film footage called Chronicles, 2010–; and Ahmet Ögüt’s Stones to Throw, 2010, the documentation of a project for which the artist sent nine out of ten painted stones through the postal system from Lisbon to Diyarbakir, his hometown in the restive Kurdish province of southeastern Turkey.

Barlow amplified the political resonance of these works by drawing on Bucharest’s turbulent history and placing them in highly charged sites throughout the city. Abbas Akhavan’s Untitled Garden, 2009, a barrier wall of fragrant cedar hedges in planters with soil, took on bold new meaning in a cavernous hall that once housed the printing press of Romania’s official Communist Party newspaper. Marina Albu’s The Real People’s House, 2012, a moving recollection of her childhood set to the jarring rhythm of power cuts and electricity rationing in the Ceaus¸escu era, took a pensive turn in the University of Bucharest’s Institute for Political Research.

Between Albu’s roomful of flickering candles and Klas Eriksson’s opening-night performance involving one hundred volunteers burning flares on the terraces of the Inter-Continental Hotel, Barlow’s exhibition smoldered with ruminations on artistic survival and political subversion in tough economic times. “Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create,” as W. G. Sebald wrote in The Rings of Saturn. “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie