Certainly the most controversial exhibition shaping the Parisian cultural landscape this autumn is Murakami Versailles, probably one of the most unexpected juxtapositions of contemporary art and a historical site seen during the last years: the playful, manga – inspired and so decidedly Far East looking art works of the Japanese artist and otaku king Takashi Murakami are hosted by the vast, cold, overwhelming and hardly welcoming rooms of the Versailles Palace.
As it was to be expected, the idea of such a show stirred controversy, since many considered it inappropriate for the rather solemn and historically charged venue of the former royal residence turned into prestigious museum. Petitioners who opposed the event were more than 11000 and some tens of people even protested in front on the palace’s gates trying to stop the exhibition from being opened. Charles – Emmanuel de Bourbon – Parma, a descendant of the French dynastic family of the Bourbons filed a lawsuit with the same intent (lawsuit which he unsurprisingly lost, as was the case also, two years before, when he attempted to prevent the Jeff Koons exhibition from being installed at Versailles). Accuses of pornography (not stopped by the clear announcement by the organizers that no sexually explicit art works by Murakami would feature in the exhibition), of degrading cultural heritage, of mocking one of France’s most cherished and famous symbols for the sake of media attention, of betraying the museum’s true mission etc. were quite vigorously launched in the weeks preceding the opening. None of these deterred either the 48 years Japanese art star or Jean – Jacques Aillagon, president of the Établissement public du musée et du domaine national de Versailles and so the exhibition opened as scheduled on the 14th of September. It comprises twenty two works, displayed in no less than fifteen of the palace’s salons and in its garden (namely, a monumental piece of sculpture placed on the Water Parterre). According to the artist, half of the art works were created especially for the exhibition, which intends to establish a meaningful dialogue, both in visual and in conceptual terms, with the environment in which they were going to be presented.
Welcoming the viewers in the water parterre, a monumental figure, called Oval Buddha, is placed in a vantage point above the vast gardens of Versailles. Made out of bronze and covered in gold leaf, the work exemplifies coherently some of the most important and frequently encountered characteristics of Murakami’s art: a mix of references to tradition and manga – style upgrading of that tradition, the use of ambivalence (the Buddha …, like many others of his “characters”, presents a smiley face on one side and a menacing appearance on the other), playfulness and a tendency to carelessly and joyfully border kitsch. Though it is not a site specific work in the true sense of the concept, its golden surface (that ironically makes reference, for me, at least, to the monumental golden gate of the château, probably the most neurotically and pointlessly luxurious element of the monumental venue) and monumental sizes, its placement between the baroque sculptures in the parterre and the nonchalance with which it dominates the surroundings generate a tensed, yet meaningful relation with the site.
Establishing such a relationship, such a dynamic dialogue is, I believe, essential for the whole exhibition and unfortunately Murakami’s works in the Versailles salons hardly succeed in coherently sustaining this dialogue, in reflecting on and in challenging its viewer to reflect on the relationships between the historical and the contemporary, between the fascination of power and the desire to mock its epitomes, between frivolity and the spectacular, even between the sacred and the profane. Within Versailles, the Japanese artist performs once more what one might coin as his usual “peaceful invasion”. The space he is getting in contact with becomes a conquered territory, its look, dynamics and atmosphere being brutally altered. Yet, the viewer can hardly perceive the sheer aggressiveness of the intervention, since the attack is performed by such innocent looking, viewer (i. e. consumer) friendly and cheerfully coloured “soldiers” as dollish looking boys and girls, dozens of (smiling) flowers, jellyfish eyes or colourful mushrooms. However, much too often in the case of Murakami Versailles, the invasion looks pointless, that is the same as to say that the exhibition seems almost conceptually gratuitous. Many of his work seem unable to really dialogue with their unexpected environment or to do more than just disrupt its cold, overwhelming and majestic atmosphere. The feeling is less that you are walking through Alice’s Wonderland than that Wonderland has been scattered all over the château with no clear purpose in mind.

Especially the human (or almost human) figures made out of fibreglass and plastic and covered exuberantly with acrylic paint appear rather abashed in the luxurious setting of the salons. Thus, childish characters as Saki or Tatsuya (a delicate, really corny, yet charmingly shy little girl, probably one of the best works in the show) are touchingly funny, yet they hardly blend into the environment or critically challenge it. Murakami’s caricature – type self-portrait with his dog (Pom and Me) presents us with the artist’s figure having his mouth wide open and the right arm pointed forward, as if he was asking the person facing him to stop in his / her tracks. The sculpture is funny and friendly and it shows that Murakami is capable of self – irony, but after the smile fades off your face, you probably wouldn’t give the work much thought. Miss Ko2 is a typical Murakami style teenager girl, exaggeratedly sexualized, but is far from attaining the same poignancy as his iconic Hiropon (also made in 1997, unfortunately not present in the show, where I believe it could have made much more sense than many other displayed works).
Moving from people to flowers, so to speak, the viewer reaches the former room of the king’s guards, which has been intensely restaged by Murakami. The floor is covered by a carpet full of laughing flowers. Some three quarters of the longest wall in the room is covered by wallpaper – like painting representing a lot of laughing flowers. Finally, two lamps ensure the lighting of the space: two spheres made out of plastic looking laughing flowers. It is probably impossible not to feel good and appeased in such an environment; withholding a childish smile is equally unattainable. And I’d love to loosen up in a chill out club styled like this. Still, after leaving the room, certain dissatisfaction arises, because, even if it is absolutely ok for an artwork to be funny, genuinely pleasant and spectacular in a simple way, shouldn’t it also be at least a bit challenging and problematic? Drawing a parallel to Arcimboldo is hard to resist and that’s not really flattering for the Japanese artist.
All these do not mean that there are no art works in the show that are quite compelling and that also function better in the difficult context they’ve been placed, proving Takashi Murakami to be more than just a media made art star, showing that he is a genuinely inventive, visually convincing artist that masters an extraordinary imaginative power. I’ve already mentioned the golden, monumental Oval Buddha in the courtyard. A smaller version of the work, cast in silver, is displayed inside the palace. It is a truly beautiful piece of sculpture, with its morphologic exuberance being subtly tamed by the elegance of its surface. The small Oval Buddha also relevantly communicates with its environment in a provocative way: its silvery elegance seems to fit in perfectly, while its shape makes it coherently stand out in the opulent salon. Given all that, it was a real pity that the way the work was displayed made it impossible for the viewer to circle around it, to see what must have been the menacing reverse of the calmly smiling face welcoming the spectator. (By the way, there were several other display mistakes: some other sculptures were impossible to see from all angles, the minimum distance one had to keep from some of the works was just a little too big, in my opinion, just big enough to become annoying).
One of the most impressive works in Murakami Versailles is Flower Matango (d), adequately installed in the famous Hall of Mirrors. The rather large sized sculpture is made out of fibreglass and iron, again painted in oil and acryl. The name Matango is a direct reference to the eponym movie directed by Ishiro Honda, famous among the tokusatsu movies fans. It denominates both the evil fungi, affected by radioactivity, that transform people in monstrous creatures and the creatures themselves. Murakami’s Matango however is composed of two balls of flowers placed one on top of the other, from which branches carrying more flowers are generated. It takes a closer, more careful look for one to notice the menacing elements disturbing this atavistically grown, cheerful floral Godzilla, namely the hysterically colourful thorns on the branches. Flower Matango (d) is about typical Murakami topics: the nature and its potential destruction by men, monumentalizing popular culture’s items, the difficult relationship between irony and beauty. Displayed toward one end of the Hall of Mirrors, the work reveals its full visual power, managing to eerily disturb and even dominate the lastingly fancy and slightly tedious royal salon. Thus, it poignantly epitomizes cultural tension, born out of the reciprocal incomprehensiveness of two civilizations and it reveals the relationship between contemporary art and the historical venue as problematic and challenging. In other words, it does what the whole show is trying to do, yet it so often fails achieving.
Among the most provocative works on display there was Emperor’s New Clothes – a rather small size piece of sculpture representing a ridiculously looking, short and fat royal figure, with a ludicrous moustache and a tiny deep red crown on his head. The work is ironic indeed, though its irony is not necessarily a subtle one and it is somewhat gratuitous. I can certainly understand why some might find inadequate to display the work in the rooms of Versailles, especially in the Coronation room, where David’s Le Sacré, his Distribution of Eagles and Gros’ Battle of Aboukir, all of them glorifying Napoleon’s era and his great deeds, are looking down at Murakami’s insolent intervention. On the other hand, I believe this is one of the best situations that Murakami has created within the palace, for it raises, or it should raise awareness about the paradoxes and turbulent evolution of Versailles. Thus, it is hardly attainable that placing his sculpture in the palace could ever be more offensive to a dynastical past than placing here the paintings of a regicide (David) who took part in the killing of a rightful owner of Versailles and ruler the French kingdom (king Louis XVI), paintings which, all the more, flatter and glorify an unlawfully crowned emperor (Bonaparte). Seen in that perspective, Murakami’s work can be genuinely challenging, not just visually amusing, but also intellectually exciting.

Finally, for an overall assessment of the exhibition, one could use as starting point the words of Laurent le Bon, the show’s curator and director of Centre Pompidou – Metz, who wrote about its aims: “Through sensual pleasures, the walk, a new labyrinth of Versailles, has the purpose of both distracting and entertaining the walker, beyond the clichés”. All in all, probably for anyone with a true interest in or love for contemporary art, the walk along the Murakami Versailles indeed offers, I believe, the opportunity of getting pleasantly distracted, entertained, even somewhat surprised. I do have serious doubts however that the show is able to get anyone, in anyway, beyond the clichés. To achieve that reflection is definitely necessary and Murakami’s show offers rather rare moments when the walker is truly invited or incited to reflect. Still, maybe the show at Versailles did reveal in the end something essential about his art, namely that, as spectacular and funny as it might be, as strong and versatile is the imagination some of his artistic production is based upon, it often gets dangerously closed to being redundant and conceptually void.

Photos by Anamaria Tomiuc

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was “much ado about nothing”, to quote Shakespeare, but it was certainly less than I expected: the exhibitions that were opened at the Paintbrushes Factory on the evening of the 8th of October, marking the start of a new season of events hosted by the Cluj art centre, were, on the whole, far less poignant than many of those organized between October 2009 and June 2010.
It is also true that not all the exhibition spaces at the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj restarted their program of events on the evening in question (and though I’m not one to believe that strength lies in quantity, I still think that the Factory functions best, as a whole, when all the art spaces within are proposing shows concomitantly). Thus, the Zmart Gallery was to wait until the following days to organize their first event of this autumn, while Clujest hasn’t yet done that. However, the most prominent art galleries residing in the venue had shows on display, and there was also a bit of a novelty, for me at least, consisting in presenting an exhibition in the Bosisio – Sabot Residency Space, which is mainly meant to be an art studio.
Laika art space hosted new works of Vlad Olariu, one of the artists who have also been managing the space since its launching some two years ago. There is no doubt in my mind for a moment that Olariu is one of the most intelligent, talented and savviest young Romanian artists. The force of his imagination is remarkably paired by his understanding of the mechanisms and practices that shape the realm of contemporary visual art. It was thus all the more surprising to see that his show at Laika art space, titled Memory of a Memory somewhat lacks coherence, as differences between the exhibited works, as far as the conceptual quality and the ability of being visually compelling are concerned, were quite obvious.
The most spectacular work in the show was undoubtedly Untitled (Black Unicorn), an impressive, somewhat monumental, without being of big size, piece of sculpture that stood in the middle of the exhibition space and truly mesmerized viewers’ gazes. A convincing, realistically rendered shape of an impossible being, the work really epitomized the concept underlining the show (albeit rather broad and fuzzy), as it was proposed by its organizers. Thus, lonely and elegant, beautiful and useless, not necessarily very original, but certainly visually compelling, touchingly naive, yet strangely menacing, Olariu’s Black Unicorn is “about simulation and consumerism, about affection, remembering, reality, about communication and the lack of communication, about shape and substance, about repetition, redundancy and illusion, about esthetics and tragic history, about monuments and commemoration, about presence and solidarity, about truth and forgery, about structure, about value and non value, about now and then, about borders and non reality, about essence and volume, about the symbolic dimension of the object and its performance, about the primitivism of the artistic gesture and its actuality”. Another highlight of the show was The Tree Makes the Forrest, a pine tree trunk with just a few remnants of its branches on one side of it, painted in black and dipped into a small block of cement. My first reaction when I saw it was to think of the bizarre consequences of the bizarre Tunguska episode. However, the sculpture has far more evocative power than that, vividly bringing to someone’s mind the idea of devastation, functioning like a telling, yet not humourless metaphor for disaster. These two works, together with Black Sun, a stool’s round upper part painted black and hung on the wall as an abstract piece of sculpture that approaches modernism in a classical, if one may say so, post-modern way, would have been enough to make a solid and quite coherent exhibition.

However, the bidimensional art works exhibited were less impressive and certainly hardly cohesive with the items mentioned above. I did like Skydivers, for example, some sketchy silhouettes made out of golden leaf and pasted onto drywall, however their reference to 9/11 (namely to the images of people who died jumping off the windows of the twin towers) was perhaps too obvious to let any other meaning unfold around them and this somehow places them in the realm of the anecdotic. Atomic Projection uses again the golden leaf on drywall, but offers a visually richer image, though a more abstract one. Yet, the work gave me too much the impression that it should be part of a bigger project in order to become meaningful: it seemed seminal, yet not convincing on its own, although it possessed a dose of decadent, sort of toxic refinement. Finally, The Palace of People, a black and white painting representing a monumental architectural structure with a huge, heroic – type statue on its top looks again so much like an experiment. Now, exhibiting the results of experiments is perfectly legit and can be absolutely impressive, as has happened so many times before. Still, there are two crucial requirements to be fulfilled, which I believe Olariu’s work didn’t: the result of the experiment should be coherent and it should make plain the purpose(s) that motivated the experimental endeavour.
Vlad Nanca was the artist presented by the Sabot Galley, which organized its solo show titled Works. It featured several of his sculptures (though it is perhaps more accurately to describe them as “objects”), made out of materials as commonplace as wood, plastic, textiles and cement, while also integrating some ready made objects. Nanca is a young artist, yet already widely acknowledged by the Romanian contemporary art world and with a significant presence also on the international art scene. His art is definitely conceptual and mostly political in its content and intentions. Nanca has remarkably succeeded, as he was still in his twenties, in producing art works which have gained a kind of an iconic status during the last decade. Thus, the Terrorist Balloon, I do not know what union I belong to anymore or maybe even Dacia – 30 Years of Social History are probably some of the best examples in that respect.
He works with political symbols (from national anthems to “the national car” and to various other visual items connoting socio – political identity and mythology), displacing their initially intended meaning, mixing contradictory symbolic elements into implausible objects and deploying irony as a main instrument for producing his art. Finding a funny way to express serious political ideas is an art procedure with a venerable tradition, however there is something genuinely fresh in Nanca’s endeavours in that direction. Still, way too many of his works of that type lack serious reflection, that allowing redundancy to make its way into his art. Often, the impression left by his works is that the one thing the artist has been the least critical about are the very ideas on which his art has been built upon. Also, his street interventions, the stencils as well as his various objects placed in the public space, certainly represent one of the most compelling sections of his art, but then again there is almost always a difficulty with them: they do have something facile about them, yet at the same time they are way too arty and obviously not simple and poignant enough to truly represent a protest street art. Not that he is necessarily one of them, still I can’t refrain here from remarking in passing that there are probably too many artists in Romania that could bring to someone’s mind the memorable lyrics of one of Edwyn Collins’ songs: “Too many protest singers / Not enough protest songs”.
Vlad Nanca’s show at Sabot was coherent, yet hardly challenging and maybe even a bit boring. The best pieces in the show were by far the Mattress and the Concrete Bag on Wheels. The first work consists, as its title makes plain, in a mattress, but one of unusual sizes: if its width is rather normal, its length exceeds by far the usual dimensions of such a utilitarian object. The unusual sizes and the blue and white stripes that ran along its surface gave the object a kind of hypnotic quality and, I believe, stirred in many of its viewers an urge to sit, to lye or to tumble on it. In the most focused and to the point essays in the journal – type brochure accompanying the show, Erden Kosova wrote that the mattress “evokes nitty – gritty of sharing house with at least a dozen others”. Though I may agree with that, I would however argue that the work’s ludic and even savoury childish appearance interferes with the intended social meaning. The Concrete Bag … draws its visual and conceptual energy from the tension between opposites: stillness and weight (the concrete) are juxtaposed to mobility (the wheels). Eye catching and intellectually exciting, the work is having less problems than the Matrress, in my view, in fulfilling its presumably intended task, namely that of connoting “the promotion of private ownership of automobiles, which –in times of urban congestion– comes to represent urban annoyance and temporal inefficiency, rather than personal liberties and speed” (quoting Erden Kosova again). Then again, I am not at all convinced that this is really the way our society really perceives “private ownership of automobiles”, which, I think, still is, in terms of mentality, linked to speed, freedom, comfort and superior social status, rather than “urban annoyance”.
The other works in the show are far less convincing and sometimes boring in their quoting of minimalism. For example, the Portals, abstract sculptural structures, made out of wooded slats, with shapes reminding vividly of Robert Morris, would have probably look paradoxical and act irritatingly (which is a form of posing a challenge, after all) if they had been laid on a busy sidewalk. In the gallery space though, they are at least as dull as they are elegant. As for the Funnels, colourful juxtaposition of small plastic ready-mades in a corner of the exhibition space, they might allude to the politics of exchange that inform a certain kind of solidarity between the poor in times of crisis and distress, but I have a hard time understanding why several such objects (or how many, for that matter) would be more conceptually compelling than one. This sort of inconsistencies, this insufficient reflection and a certain lack of serious critical thinking are the factors that downplay the overall value and diminish the impact of the exhibition.

Definitely, of all the exhibitions opened on the 8th of October at the Paintbrushes Factory, Cristiana Palandri’s Sleeping Time, hosted by Bosisio – Sabot Residency Space, deserves most credit. The show is the conclusion of the art residency awarded by the Sabot Gallery and its collaborator, the painter Roberto Bosisio, to the Florence born artist. The initiative of such a residency is itself to be praised, being almost unprecedented, to my knowledge at least, in the Romanian contemporary art world. When the beneficiary of the residency is an artist from outside Cluj, I believe that Sabot Gallery is doing more than trying to gain some commercial advantage: it is aptly contributing both to the enrichment of the local artistic life and to making the local scene more adequately acknowledged by non-local art professionals. Palandri took full advantage of the opportunity, and during the three months she stayed in Cluj, she was an active figure of the art milieu, and the exhibition concluding her work in Cluj was truly worth seeing.
Sleeping Time is composed of two art works, namely the photograph titled Outside and the sculpture called Stare.

Outside is almost a by-product of one of the artist’s performances, the medium of performance seeming to be one of her favourite expressive tools (Oversight is a fine piece of such artistic endeavour, which she undertook in 2008 at Museo Laboratorio di Arte Contemporanea in Rome). However, not knowing the performance, the meanings of the images remain rather fuzzy, if not hermetical altogether, with its hardly distinguishable human silhouette surrounded by pieces of debris and bizarrely accessorized with some fur “coat”. Nevertheless, Stare is a truly impressive piece of sculpture. A wood and wire staircase starts its ascendant trajectory from the floor of the space, while its upper end is seemingly going out on the high positioned window just under the ceiling of the forth floor room. The staircase seems made out of locally found debris, it is blackened as if it was churned and most of the stairs are broken. It is a device that can be perceived as being meant for escape as well as for suicide, for taking off into the blue as well as for aimlessly or hopelessly staring (there is a consciously assumed play of meanings implied by the phonetic similarity of the words stair and stare) into the dark void. Yet, with its broken stairs, the device becomes useless, unable to aptly sustain any of the above mentioned actions and turns into a visually arresting metaphor of the futility of big hopes and of the unavoidably utopian character of heroism and grand gestures.
The last event to be taken into consideration would be the show called home – studio – university – city ’90 – ’93, hosted by Plan B gallery. As Mihai Pop, the co-director of the gallery also admitted, it was more an intermezzo between shows than an actual exhibition. Though I do understand that preparing the participation at two major art fairs, separated by a few days only, namely Frieze and FIAC, requires significant efforts from a commercial gallery, I still believe that the event on the 8th of October was important enough to make the viewers expect a bit more from the leading Romanian gallery.
Some five hundred black and white photographs, result of the work of a “collective author” were projected in a (long) loop on one of the gallery’s walls. The images mainly constitute documentation of the activities, more or less artistically motivated, more or less interesting, of a group composed mainly of, by then, very young art students (some of whom are now rather known figures of the cultural life of the city, such as Mihai Pop, the artist Cristian Rusu, the respected academic and art historian Vlad Toca and so on). For many of those involved in those activities the event definitely presented an emotional component, though other spectators were also able, I believe, to tune in to the vibe of a period in the (cultural) history of Romania when it seemed that everything was young and when the youngsters were fascinated with their freedom more than both before and after. However, on the whole, what the show did was to create a nice, cosy and maybe a bit nostalgic atmosphere, but arguably little more than that.

Photos by Filip Zan