Calin Dan at MNAC

January 22, 2011

To its credit, the National Museum for Contemporary Art in Bucharest, in December 2010, managed to have exhibitions on display throughout almost all of its huge spaces and at least two of them were good, while another one was at least nice and fun to see. Though I can’t  find any reasonable motivation for cramming the non – retrospective, so to speak, of Horia Bernea, titled Real Time, on one floor of the museum, while the fairly mediocre show of Davide Bertocchi and Samon Takahashi ludicrously occupied two floors, I readily admit that the former was a challenging exhibition. The selection of works made by Mihai Oroveanu has the merit of casting a welcomed light on some aspects of Bernea’s work that are less familiar to the art professionals as well as to the wider public. Golden Flat & Co. wasn’t a great show, its core being comprised of some “must see” items of Romanian recent film production; however, it was entertaining and witty. But the truly moving and captivating show in the MNAC was undoubtedly Calin Dan’s Anturaju’ & Other Stories, curated by Raluca Velisar.

The exhibition is the third outcome of a project in which the artist had engaged in 2005, when he began working with and, I would say, for the inmates at the Colibasi penitentiary. A theatre play was written by Calin Dan, who had also directed its staging, when it was performed by a group of the mentioned inmates at the Odeon Theatre in Bucharest. Wings for Dogs is defined by the artist as a follow up of this initial outcome of the project and it mainly consists in a video piece, shot throughout the prison, with inmates being depicted as some sort of Greek tragic heroes. Both artistic endeavours are present within the exhibition at MNAC: the Wings for Dogs video as such, while the theatre spectacle is documented by means of an installation consisting in video fragments and various objects functioning as memorabilia of the initial artistic action. Still, the most prominent and poignant part of the show is represented by the montage made out of more than sixty hours of interviews with the inmates.

Now, this type of artistic projects is no staggering novelty in the context of contemporary art. Whether we coin it socio – political art, engaged art or else, such projects have been rather common in the Romanian and, of course, international artistic practice during the past several decades. Too many of those projects realized in Romania or by Romanian artists lack two things which I hold to be important: visual poignancy (still, one has to keep in mind that such a lack is in some cases intentional) and real social meaningfulness, or, to otherwise put it, efficiency in forging or encouraging real and significant change for the better, in either social, political or relational terms.

I believe Calin Dan’s show at MNAC is a very good example of a masterfully carried out, if the syntagm can be used in such a context, socio – political art project. I do not have enough instruments and information to accurately assess the social efficiency of the project (obviously, this is inherently difficult for the art critic as such), but there are still important arguments supporting the impression that his artistic actions would have been more and truly useful than many others. Thus, the rather long period of time in which the artist actually worked with the inmates presumably provided him with a pretty good understanding of their personalities, views and even needs. Also, the variety of forms and the rather lengthy period of time in which Calin Dan is “releasing” to the public the artistic results of his endeavour are elements that create a sort of recurrence that should favour a real raising of the society’s awareness level with regard to the social problems and groups envisaged by the artistic project. Finally, getting the inmates out of prison, so to speak, and bringing them in front of us, in an almost affectionate manner and certainly without creating us any feelings of unease or fear, either on the stage at Odeon (where the spectator could have physically encountered them) or in an exhibition room at MNAC (where the viewer can get in touch with their narratives), is of utmost importance for producing what one might call social empathy.

Calin Dan proves thus to be a socially engaged artist that takes his role seriously and actually tries to mediate between one social group of interest and the larger societal environment, to really create the premises for some social improvement. Not being utopian, but rather careful and calculated, not trying to assert social theory via artistic projects, but rather intending to get social focus on the particular issue at hand, not acting like a visceral and enthusiastic revolutionary, but rather like a savvy social strategist: all  these help the artist endowing his artistic actions with a significant degree of immediate relevance, which I believe is the first important quality of the project as a whole and of the show at MNAC.

The second such quality has to do with the earlier mentioned visual poignancy. The display in the semi-dark room of the MNAC that hosts the most part of the show is cleverly enticing the viewer to look and listen more and more attentive to what is being offered. More than forty black TV sets are in the room, on each of them the text of one inmate’s story being legible, interrupted at intervals by blurred black and white images of the inmate. Each TV set is accompanied by a set of headphones, so the interviews can also be heard. Some thirty or so TVs form a black triangle in the large room that acts like a mesmerising installation. The sheer visual impact of the environment helps raising the level of attention one is actually willing to pay to the inmates’ confessions themselves. I have spent more then an hour listening the stories and watching various TV screens, even though the stories are far less different or spectacular as one might imagine. I am aware of the downsides and the dangers of aesthetically overcharging an artistic discourse that is suppose to circumscribe harsh social realities, but, although it is visually compelling, Calin Dan’s exhibition is keeping away from such dangers. Rather, he is wittily using the visual poignancy as an adequate and efficient instrument to get his message through.

This message is a serious and somewhat touching problematization of the role that the society might actually play in the generation, the perpetuation, but also the prevention of criminality. After all, anturaju’ (the Romanian word for “entourage”) keeps coming back in almost all of the stories told by the inmates interviewed by the artist. It is almost as if anturaju’ becomes a collective character present in all those scripts, or a mysterious force driving, altering or shaping human destinies. Nevertheless, Calin Dan’s project is not about helpless compassion, about romanticizing the penitentiary or about creating an artistic framework for formulating hypocrite excuses. Rather, genuine problematization, an effort to urge real reflection and moderate hope paired by lucidity are dominating it.

In the end, Calin Dan’s show’s most impressive qualities are that it can make one, step by step, experience uncommon sensations, that it can make one understand the apparently simple, yet problematic and even sometimes troubling content of what is seen or heard and that it can compel one to think of things one wouldn’t usually think about. And when art, political or not, has the ability to do all these things, it reaches more than its conceptual or aesthetic goals: it reaches its audience.

2011 started off at Casa Matei Gallery of the University of Art and Design in Cluj with Alexandra Bodea’s exhibition, titled Desenează ca şi cum ar avea consecinţe (Draw as if It Would Have Consequences), which was on display between the 13th and 21st of January. The artist is a young graduate of the university and she is currently continuing her studies as a master student. Even though her BA was in painting, the current exhibition features only drawings with permanent marker, which are strictly black & white. There is no color experimentation whatsoever, which may seem peculiar, but can also be challenging for an artist whose supposedly main medium of expression is paint.

The drawings are simple and sketchy, having the appearance of caricatures, and all of them are accompanied by caption texts, which are actual parts of the images. The simple graphic aspect thus allows for the focus to fall on the text, or rather on the relationship between the texts and the drawings, relationship that constitutes, after all, the essence of the show. Many of the images can only be understood via their captions, which thus serve as explanations. It can rightfully be said that the drawings actually benefit from the texts, as they bring a deeper and slightly odd meaning to each  of them.

Although the entire visual outline screams of Dan Perjovschi’s influence, Bodea doesn’t seem interesting in tackling political and social aspects, instead focusing much more on personal experiences, on religious quips, on commonplace, mundane things and proving a wittiness all of her own. The downside to what seems to me a highly personal exhibition, even bordering the realm of idiosyncrasies is that too many of the displayed works tend to get slightly too hermetic. Obviously not all of them can resonate with the viewer’s own experiences and thus there is the risk of them seeming somewhat absurd, or dare I say, pointless. Now, this aspect is probably not a downside for works of art in general, but an art that wants to deliver a message needs to makes sure that the message gets through. Even so, this still leaves a handful of drawings in the exhibition which are meaningful and “legible”, while at the time being very clever and highly amusing.

Probably the best liked piece of the show (also the largest, not that it should have anything to do with size, mind you!) is 238 mici portari care strigă în cor “NU AI VOIE!” (238 little doormen who shout together “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED!”), a funny and relatable work, underlining the widely shared feelings of frustration, angst and powerlessness in front of a rude administration, in the framework of which technically low ranking people have power and inspire a strange feeling of fear and shame. A neat aspect of the exhibition is the showcasing of the works, an installation of sorts, consisting of polls on which the drawings are attached at eye-level, thus having the general appearance of small flags. These are either lined up along the walls or gathered in clusters, with one notable exception of Ridicat dar pus în umbră (Highly positioned, yet  in the shadows), for the display of which yet another clever solution was found (the work being placed in a rather large niche in the impressive stone walls of the exhibition venue). Another quite original and efficient proposal of the artist were the rocks with drawings on them that were available at the opening. The stones featured works from the exhibition and they were given away to the viewers, making for a nice piece of memorabilia, of greater impact, than, for example, a postcard.

All in all, it is a solo show that speaks of everyday things in a clever and sarcastic voice. It comprises simple images and constructions that have the potential to stick with you after you have left the gallery space, somewhat like a catchy commercial. One disappointment though was the low public presence at the opening of the show, compared to others I’ve witnessed at Casa Matei Gallery, a factor that just might unfortunately downplay the sheer relevance of the exhibition, given the reduced number of people it has actually reached.

Text by Voica Puşcaşiu


January 22, 2011

hey, everybody,
starting today iacob’s review is going to host, under the category “guest’s review”, critical texts written by others than Bogdan Iacob.
For getting published on the blog, the texts have to submitted to and supervised by Bogdan Iacob. In order for this to happen, all those interested are to send their reviews at the following email address:
Several guidelines are to be kept in mind:
1. the texts’ authors should be art or art history students, art professionals or art aficionados, preferably under the age of 40
2. the texts should be written in English
3. the texts should comprise between 3000 and 10000 characters
4. the texts should be about relevant, current or recent contemporary art exhibitions.
The first guest review is to be published today.
Thank you!

On December, the 2nd, 2010, the second museum solo show of the emerging, yet esteemed, controversial, yet significantly revered Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie was opened in Gent, namely at the S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst), probably one of the leading and certainly one of the most dynamic institutions for contemporary art in Europe. The exhibition summed up, more or less comprehensively, the artist’s works produced over a period of roughly two years, including mostly painting (the artist’s medium of predilection), but also a few of his so called studies (predominantly black, white and grey collages of printed images and paint) and the impressive installation titled Dada Room. From the perspective of the art critical discourse, the show at S.M.A.K. is a very good opportunity to bring into discussion several rather unflattering critical assessments of his recent artistic production.

Thus, a more and more frequent accusation with regard to Ghenie’s art is that it is easy: easy as in kind of too rapidly done, easy to understand as immediate message or in terms of content and, as some keep this also in mind, easy to sell. All these would presumably make his art of the last three years or so facile and consequently somewhat irrelevant, if not plainly dull. Almost as if to contribute to proving these allegations right, the show in Gent, just as the one in Bucharest, opened towards the end of 2009 at the National Museum for Contemporary Art, lacked a title, as well as a serious curatorial problematization of his production. I don’t know if this is becoming a PR strategy or a conceptual feature assumed by the artist, but what I’m sure of is that, from the outside, it looks as if his curators appear to believe the same as his detractors: that all you can do with his works is to hang them on the white walls as a gathering of collectible items realized by a young, charming star of the international art scene, which actually lack serious and poignant conceptual content or intellectual insightfulness.

However, I believe that the above mentioned negative assessments of Adrian Ghenie’s art are not really founded and I shall try bellow to substantiate my position. Also, another rejection of the young Romanian’s art is concerning a sort of mannerism, the fact the he had supposedly become stuck in the redundancy of a painterly recipe, the use of which would allegedly be detectable throughout most of his body of works. Now, I think the S.M.A.K. exhibition in itself is doing a pretty good job in refuting this critical perspective and I will attempt also further on to briefly circumscribe the rather simple, yet compelling way in which the show is doing this.

Let’s take into consideration, first of all, the issue of easiness, in the three above evoked meanings. It is true and it doesn’t require to be a keen expert or an exceptionally skilled painter to realize it, that Ghenie is painting (when I say “painting”, I refer to the actual action of putting paint on the surface of the canvas) rather fast. I’ve argued elsewhere that this rapidity is paired by a rather painstaking effort of  building the works, conceptually and compositionally, but even that is not necessarily important here. It seems to me to be much more useful at this point the recollection of the fact that the history of art (of whichever sort one might fancy or favour) comprises quite a number of fast, easy working painters. Far from my intentions to say by this that Ghenie is the equal of Rubens, for example. However, if this kind of easiness is obviously not a solid argument for excluding someone’s oeuvre from the art history, it certainly cannot be a solid argument for denying relevance or value to someone else’s artistic endeavours.

Things are pretty much the same as far as the legibility of his works’ immediate message or conceptual content is concerned, or, even better said, as far as the plain character of their aboutness (to use one the most useful terms coined by Danto) is concerned. There’s hardly anything cryptic in the paintings of Balthus, yet they are charming, perverse and forceful; Courbet’s aboutness is hardly veiled, yet this doesn’t make him a discardable painter and so on and so forth. Moreover, if it is true that the contemporary art is a field where the multiplicity of criteria rules, it is equally important to find the adequate criteria for assessing a particular art work or body of art works. Or, Ghenie clearly seems to be one of these artists for which the criterion of the coherence between the means deployed and the intended aboutness is far more important than that of the depth of his subtlety or that of the hermetism of his elegance. And by that criterion, most of his art seems to be quite solid.

As for the issue of easiness caused by the fact that his art is unproblematically collectible, I believe it is actually linked with the problem of the already mentioned presumed mannerism. Of course, common sense will tell you that the collectors would more readily acquire the works of an artist which resemble other already collected works. However, firstly, just as it is bad for an artist to work in order to please collectors, it is rather pointless for him or her to work only in order to baffle or annoy them. That is unless, of course, the artistic project developed at some point focuses specifically, more or less critically, on the role of the collector in the contemporary art world, on the relationship between the artist and the collector under the auspices of late capitalism etc. Still, generally speaking, it is just as unfruitful for an artist to work with the collector in mind as it is blunt for the any type of critical discourse to discard (or to praise just as well) someone’s art because it sells.

Secondly, the show in Gent convincingly proved that Ghenie’s art is in process, in motion and, in my opinion at least, in progress. Both from the point of view of the deployed chromatics and from that of the embedded subject matter, the works produced in 2010 and displayed at S.M.A.K. are significantly different from those earlier realized by the artist (for example, those that feature in his Hatje Cantz catalogue and that were displayed in the M.N.A.C. show). No, there is not a stylistic revolution; he did not abandon figuration in favour of the abstract realm, nor did he entirely gave up the too much discussed greyish tones, choosing to paint with red, yellow and blue pigments solely. Still, an evolution is clearly visible (the Dada Room being obviously its most prominent epitome) and to abruptly coin his approach as mannerist, under these circumstances, is not the same as, but also not that far from downplaying Picasso for not switching styles fast enough, or  from dismissing Rauch because of his recurrent use of decadent – like and poisonous looking colour tones.

As for the exhibition itself, it was a rather compelling display of painterly strength and of quite personal understanding of the field of art and of history, although, it must be said, it was a bit crammed and lacked, in a certain degree, unity and coherence of the narrative. The Dada Room installation was arguably the most spectacular piece of the show, intelligently and meaningfully placed in such a way that one could experience it either on the way in or on the way out of the exhibition.  It consists in a reconstruction, of just slightly smaller size, of the First International Dada Fair built up in the tormented Berlin from the years just after the end of World War I. But, if the general setting of objects from the impromptu artistic venue is carefully reproduced, many of the objects to be found in the room, as well as the paint somehow frantically spread on the walls and floor make direct reference to Ghenie’s own idiosyncrasies and dilemmas. The installation ends up being an almost surrealistic and quite nauseating blend of historical reference and artistic studio, connoting both pride and fear, both hubris and neurosis. As it happened before in his career, he shows himself perfectly aware of the historical burden that the contemporary artist is more or less forced to sustain. This time, however, the prestigious ghosts of history and the  nightmares of the past seem to overwhelm him and the artist is violently, yet presumably uselessly trying to purge them: absent from the Dada Room itself, he portrays himself vomiting amidst its blurred setting, in a painting tellingly titled Devil 1.

The Devil / Evil is, for that matter, one of the most frequently alluded obsessions that can be detected in his painterly works produced throughout 2010 (since I’ve discussed the previous works of Adrian Ghenie elsewhere, I’ll briefly focus here on these more recent ones). The atom bomb is depicted several times or is alluded to in paintings that eerily and somehow aloofly present the destructive effects of its blast. The bomb is an obvious epitome of evil and destructiveness, although its creation is the result of deploying such defining features of the human race as intelligence, creativity and inquisitiveness. For Ghenie, the image of the atomic cloud is iconic for our contemporary civilisation, it seems to function, in his view, as ultimate symbol that can give us an appropriate, in depth understanding of our era.

However, he painterly approaches the image of the atomic mushroom with vigorous and mostly gestural brushstrokes, the final result being some unashamedly sensuous art works. There is colourful joy in these paintings as well as there is danger, they are, concomitantly and disconcertingly, visually delightful and sickeningly menacing. In other words, they are works possessing a quite legible, yet deeply paradoxical, arresting and disturbing aboutness. Thus, the manner in which the visual, media purported icons of the atomic era are depicted by the Romanian artist could make us think of and even reconsider the established (thanks to Hannah Arendt) thesis of the evil’s banality. Ghenie is not far from convincing us that the romanticists were actually right: what makes evil truly dangerous is actually not its banality, but the sheer sublime of some of its embodiments.

All in all, the end of 2010 was a rather fruitful period for the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj. Despite unavoidable internal tensions, seemingly endless and often pointless disputes about the mission of the ad hoc cultural centre as well as about the fact that it is increasingly perceived, more or less rightfully, as a sort of a cultural mall, the Factory has hosted several interesting exhibitions, some of which were even truly rewarding, during the last two months, all of these events being opened by the middle or the end of November 2010.
By far the most active exhibition venue was Laika. The already prestigious artist run space, which is now in the course of transforming itself into a hopefully boosting commercial gallery, opened two coherent, meaningful shows in less than twenty days. The fact implied a remarkable logistic and conceptual effort; still, the impression that the exhibition programme was a bit crammed could have hardly been avoided. Firstly, Ioana Joa’s solo show (titled Shadows) opened up on November, the 12th. No more than six wooden panels with strongly peculiar portraits that the artist realized by the artist were on display, yet they managed to offer the viewer a fully comprehensive image of the artist’s approach to issues such as memory, death and the ephemeral.
The forces of nature (mainly solar light, to be more precise) are literally instruments used by Ioana Joa to construct her images. The panels of wood, with some areas protected by sheets of more or less opaque paper were left outdoor, thus being exposed to the action of the elements. In a rather long period of time, their caressing, yet shaping action changed the colour tone of the unprotected wooden areas, creating stencil – like, chromatically dual and seemingly evanescent silhouettes of faces belonging to passed away persons.
The simplicity of the drawing procedure is what strikes in Ioana Joa’s works just as much as the sheer ingenuity from which the procedure stems. The portraits thus may sometimes appear as emotionally aloof, while the next moment they reveal themselves as charged (even overcharged) with an intrinsic melancholia. The realm of death is approached kind of gently, with sorrow instead of horror, with a sort of affectionate acceptance, rather than with bitterness and revolt. There is an undeniable pop look that her solar drawings retain, but that only makes their diffuse sadness even more daunting. There is something out of Warhol’s approach of death as well as out of Boltanski’s approach of memory in her portraits; however, their almost naïve, yet heartfelt mystique ultimately saves them from the suspicion of epigonism. And, as corny as it might sound, it is difficult, I believe, to avoid the thought that, while the sun shaped these faces, the earthly elements continued acting toward the organic oblivion of the respective bodies.

The second show organized by Laika in November 2010 was Felix Deac’s Life, arguably the best and certainly the most visually arresting exhibition displayed at the Paintbrushes Factory during the last several months. The young Cluj based artist presented his recent series of small sculptures –one that is still in progress– representing some hyperrealist renderings of anatomical fragments along with several more abstract forms. The latter might resemble the organic and have a perfectly similar texture with the mentioned bodily fragments, but they end up being uncanny, fantastic and even grotesque precisely because of the tension that springs between the realistic appearance of the surfaces and the lifelessness suggested by the sculptural volumes.
The artistic work deployed by Deac is a painstaking one. In an attempt to mimic the look of the organic as close to perfection as possible, he uses silicon as support for inscribing all the formal features as well as the imperfections of the skin. He literally “plants” each hair (often extracted off his own body) into that skin to make the sculptures even more plausible as lively form. His series started small, with various experiments which were just as many attempts to produce pieces of “skin”. The following step was producing “body parts”, with a clear preference for those anatomical parts most linked to sexuality: the mouth and the vulva that Deac has carefully shaped and casted undoubtedly retain an obsessive quality. The third phase of the lab – type project the that he undertook, present in the show at Laika, is the moment when the organic surfaces are forced upon non – mimetic shapes, the result of this alienation of the logic of the living consisting in the artistic “birth” of nauseating impossible “animals” (Eidetic I and Eidetic II) or the shaping of some tumour – like, delicate and strange abstract objects (Untitled). The whole process develops in a fierce logical manner, following an almost scientific planning, while at the same time, paradoxically and tensely, the results are progressively straying from the plausibility and the logicality of the functional living being.
It is difficult not to observe or to feel that even the most realistically rendered, the most truthfully anatomically shaped forms proposed by Deac (the previously mentioned mouth with its tongue leaning out, juxtaposed to the vulva, both sadistically placed in a medical metal recipient, the bony hand showing us the middle finger etc.) appear to be somewhat diseased, plagued. Their rendering by the artist leaves no place for human warmth and brutally excludes mimetic sensuality. The only sensuous part, in a bizarre way, is represented by the intrinsic plastic, visual qualities of the material and surfaces themselves. But that sensuality, just as their realism, only adds to the sheer monstrosity of their appearance. A tormented love / hate relationship can be suspected between the artist and his objects, or between him and what / who they might stand for as memorabilia, an almost sickening mix of sadism and masochism being emanated by the works, while an inextricable mix of attraction and repulsion is what dominates the viewer upon contact with Deac’s sculptural pieces. If sensation (be it even with spelled, imperatively, Sensation!) is a key word for the contemporary art of the last two decades or so, the young Felix Deac is proving to have the courage, the tenacity, and an inner need for inducing / producing it, as well as the savviness to manipulate it.

Sabot Gallery invited Italian artist Valentina Miorandi for its November show, titled “Ne vedem!” (an expression that means See you! both in Romanian and in the Italian Trentino dialect, Trento being the birthplace of the 1982 born artist). She experiments with several technical media, such as classical photography, sound art and, most prominently, video, all of these media being brought together in her solo show at Sabot, the result being a somewhat challenging, somewhat disconcerting and somewhat loose ended exhibition.
Among the most remarkable works displayed was Top 20, a wall display showing the most requested twenty books at the library of the Italian Institute in Bucharest during 2010, that alludes interestingly enough to –although it fails in proposing a real artistic analysis of– cultural exchanges and the sometimes strange circumstances into which they may occur (the same topic is referred to also by the title of the show itself, given, among others, the fact there was a significant Trentino immigration towards Transylvania in the nineteenth century). The video pieces in the show, namely Numerabilis and Waterproof, use, rather witty, the procedure of superimposing visual and symbolic elements that are visually and semantically remote, but between which similarities can also be traced or built. Numerabilis is thus a rather blurry video of a Eucharistic ceremony synchronized with the all too familiar sound of a barcode reader. In Waterproof (a quite transparent allusion to the Watergate scandal as we’ll further understand) the images of a splendid fish swimming majestically are mixed with sounds and images related to the turbulent political career of Richard Nixon.
Both video pieces are visually pleasurable and rewarding to watch. Their main problem is that they seem so conceptually carefree, that they appear to dangerously border gratuitousness. You get at some point the impression that the artist is pleased to escape the clichés of the commonplace only to embrace those of the contemporary art world and practices. We can understand that they are the about the mix and the media, about clichés and about power; but we are at the end left with the impression that nothing was intended to be predicated about these issues. What are we to understand from Numerabilis, for example: that the church is functioning like a supermarket or that the institution of the church is greedy as the corporatist bodies? Or is it all a big joke on both of them? Or they have just been juxtaposed because of the superficial resemblance they possess, given that they both have to do with crowds, repetition and ritual? (Then again, they would both just as well resemble football and rock concerts.) Kind of left empty handed, best we can do is to just enjoy the art works of Valentina Miorandi for being savvy and somewhat cool and to hope that the gifted young artist (for she is certainly gifted, intelligent and medium aware, all of these being important qualities for an artist) will manage to inscribe more meaningfulness in her future, hopefully more straight forwarded and poignant works.

Photos credits: Laika and Sabot Gallery