October 2011 Cluj Overview

October 15, 2011

As I live in Cluj for quite some time now, I had several times the opportunity to hear various people, especially those who really feel for the city, that Cluj is the most beautiful in October. In several ways, indeed, this is the month when the city boosts back to life, with its stream of students flooding the streets again, with traffic getting annoyingly, yet lively busy, with the particular Autumn light being shed on its more or less history embedding buildings. And, of special interest for art lovers and professionals, at least in the last few years, the “exhibitions season” starts, usually with a roar.

I’m pretty disappointed with the current debut of October from this latter perspective. The Paintbrushes Factory, which undoubtedly became, during the last couple of years, the city’s most important venue for displaying, promoting and discussing contemporary art practices, hosts at the moment four new exhibitions and yet, on the whole, their quality is rather dubitable and their consistency is rather thin. Financial burdens and (internal) communicational mishaps and problems took their toll. Thus, generally speaking, I couldn’t shake the impression that most of what was offered was not only low budget, but also “screamed” low budget disturbingly loud, while pretending it doesn’t do that. And I don’t think that this little psychological charade is meaningful in any way. Also, one could notice that the evening of the openings attracted some fewer viewers than usually present in the venue at such collective, wide range events. It may not be very important, but it impeached a bit on the rather cheerful, positive atmosphere that the Factory normally creates, as did the apparent and regretful demise of two art spaces in the art centre, namely Laika and Zmart.

Plan B Gallery did surprisingly little to actually promote their current show, namely the Korsakow installation titled Vergessene Fahnen (Forgotten Flags) by the German artist Florian Thalhofer. The show wasn’t even announced on the gallery’s website by the evening of the opening. Many people present at the Paintbrushes Factory that evening found out on the spot that there is a show at Plan B. Is it that the gallery itself views the current display as an intermezzo rather than a serious exhibition? It wouldn’t be the first time and it is certainly understandable, yet a slight dissatisfaction remains after nurturing this thought. In fairness, one should acknowledge that the main organizer of the show was the German Cultural Center in Cluj. However, Plan B is hardly the kind of gallery that just puts its space at disposal for various events. Thus, any show taken place here is naturally considered to be, on way or another, endorsed by the gallery, with responsabilities following from this.

Anyway, the work uses a specific filmic procedure, the above mentioned Korsakow system (an open source software that allows users with virtually no technical expertise in cinematic or programming techniques to create database cinema), invented by the author himself, to investigate the complex and often contradictory relationship the Germans entertain with their national identity and with its most powerful visual symbol, namely the national flag. Thalhofer interviews various people who kept unfurling the flag months after the end of the football world cup in 2006, while most of their compatriots had them taken down. The interviews reveal a vast array of attitudes of German people towards the idea of national identity, from pride to doubt, from the self assuring affirmation of the German citizen of Turkish origin that he is German to the feeling of fundamental and unsolvable rupture between East and West Germany expressed by a former GDR citizen.

The work is somewhat insightful and often funny. It is a good, albeit loosely produced, documentary, cleverly done by one of the rightfully praised Berlin based film makers. It circumscribes its subject quite coherently and at times it even manages to reveal some crucial, somehow recurrent items of the German perception of their contemporary identity. But this is pretty much all there is to it. It is not a mind-blowing documentary and, if one actually reflects upon it, it becomes plain that it is rather predictable. It sheds light on clichés that anyone would have guest they exist, without watching the Thalhofer’s film. It is frustratingly neutral: no controversy can be born out of this filmic piece and hardly any meaningful debate. If the installation is intended to cross the border between documentary film and media art, as claimed in the event schedule released by the Paintbrushes Factory, well, it fails to do so, as one shouldn’t simply equate media art with media technique, albeit generous in intention and somewhat democratizing in its effects. Don’t get me wrong: it is a coherent, decent show. But the problem is that being decent is a bit (or much?) too little for Plan B and disappointing for many viewers. That is a problem that naturally occurs when you are, undisputedly, the best Romanian gallery and the only one truly able to round up with some serious contenders on the international contemporary art market.

Sabot Gallery has managed by now to become known for its appetite for conceptually daring, sometimes deeply problematic shows, and they are to be respected for that. One outcome of such a situation is that when they get it right, they make delightful shows (I would still, without hesitation, rate their Being Radu Comsa show among the best four, five exhibitions I’ve seen in Romania during the last five years or so). The downside is that when they don’t quite get it right, the result can be drastically unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, this is the case with the current exhibition, the elegant, yet verging on the realm of pointlessness solo show of the Italian artist Stefano Calligaro. Now, I do understand that Calligaro is a convinced minimalist and that he strives for not turning all my nothing into something, as the exhibition’s title plainly states. However, his small, minimalist objects and pseudo-images (a small black circle on a piece of paper, some little bowl – like shapes on the floor, a folded carrier bag, another small circle made of plastic) looked lost in the rather big space of Sabot Gallery. The space itself turned from simply rather big into deserted looking, certainly a bit desolating.

I also understand that Calligaro is trying to rather leave marks than to create objects or images, which can be a very fruitful way of approaching art. Yet, such marks would need to be challenging, intriguing or intellectually stimulating. The Italian’s don’t compellingly possess, at this moment at least, any of these qualities. I had (yes, childishly, but with no harm intended) the idea of placing a small, rounded pretzel on the floor, in the show. A playful friend of mine enthusiastically carried out the idea. The pretzel fit in so smoothly, that, before being removed, some visitors were observed discussing about its particular meaning in the display; I’m not sure this makes for a plea in favour of its forceful versatility … All in all, one can say, regarding the show, that, well, we all know by now that, many times, less is more, but this is just a bit too much.

At Clujest, British photographer David Sutherland presented The Orange Way. Still and Moving Pictures 2011. Some four thousand pictures of the city of Cluj were taken by the artist after he arrived here by bus (an Orange Ways bus), printed in minuscule size, set in a metal frame and displayed along a video projection of the same type of images. They were supposed to offer a non – touristy approach of the city and offer somehow a fresh view on it. They don’t. They don’t challenge the viewer in any way, except maybe by making him or her try to guess where this or that picture was taken. Move the show to Berlin, Poznan, Granada or Craiova and you’ll be left with even less. Yes, it is a good photographic diary of a feverish traveller and many of the photos don’t lack charm. But these features alone would hardly guarantee a meaningful show, as randomness kicks in hard to downplay its insightfulness.

The Bazis Gallery, one of the latest new comers in the Paintbrushes factory community managed to propose maybe the most consistent show of the evening, featuring Betuker Istvan and Lidia Tropea. The rather small, serious and yet somehow coquette exhibition is titled Vulnerable and it brings together several elegant, though quite sombre paintings by Betuker and four photographic portraits of the same old woman by the Italian photographer and video artist Tropea. Both artists tackle issues like death and human frailty, in strong images, though I wouldn’t go as far as to consider Tropea’s photographs really outstanding in any way. Still, they coherently pair Betuker’s works, for which the main encompassing concept seems to remain that of the uncanny (to which also many of his previous works tend to refer to) and the haunting signified is the disturbing, remote, yet omnipresent menace of death in everyone’s life. Technically solid, as usual in his case, Betuker’s paintings embed a Romanticist vein and challenge the viewer to make his or her uncomfortable choice regarding what he or she is looking at: a sleeping person or a dead human being.

            Moving from the periphery to the city centre, so to speak, one can check out the contemporary art “offer” of the Art Museum Cluj. Its most recent show is called The Cutting Edge and it presents the visitor with the artistic outcomes of an international art camp organized by the admirably active Act Art foundation in a venue of the University of Art and Design at Belis, in the mountains near Cluj. Exhibiting the outcomes of such a loose endeavour as an art camp is always difficult, in terms of coherence of the resulting show and the exhibition at the museum proves it. It featured no less than seventeen artists, mostly Romanian, but also from Greece, Italy and the United States, belonging to various generations resorting to various media of choice (with a slight predominance of painting, though). Unavoidably, some works were significantly better than others. One could have been impressed by the forceful Cinder Forest of Ioan Sbirciu, a monumental and particularly refined, at the same time, painting, by the visually compelling sculpture of Veres Szabolcs, an exceptionally gifted painter, who’s latest three – dimensional works seem to represent a challenging new phase in his production or the exquisitely delicate painting of Betuker. Remarkable, too, are, for example, the theatrical and sort of morbid staging of yet another dance move in Radu Solovastru’s long ago started tango with the topic of sexuality / pornography, as well as the confirmation of the continuous improvement in the use of painting by Irina Simion.   However, too many of the works in the show were rather dull and the overall effect of the show was not really helped by an ingenious display. Also, as commendable as it is (and it truly is) the fact that the organizers were able to produce a catalogue of the exhibition, it is beyond my understanding what possessed them to write down the artist’s emails instead of any other information about them in it and why couldn’t they avoid to make it look just a bit too much as a pub menu (it’s not just a personal impression, I’ve asked people around and many actually believed, at first glance, that it is a menu).

           The most interesting and compelling exhibition to see in Cluj at this beginning of October undoubtedly is the Quadro gallery’s solo show of key post-war Romanian artist Stefan Bertalan, tilted The Emigrant Clown. The show comprises mixed media works, photography, photo documentation and video pieces, most of which are exhibited for the first time and were produced between 1986 (the year the artist immigrated to Germany) and 1989. From the perspective of the relevance of the art works in relation to a system of thinking about and producing art, specific to this permanently intriguing artist, the exhibition is, in more ways than one, more a “museum show” than a gallery endeavour, which is all the more commendable for Quadro, the gallery also intending to accompany the show with a catalogue that has all the chances to become a crucial instrument for approaching Bertalan’s oeuvre.

In a way, much and yet far too little has been written about Bertalan’s art; as for me, I will not attempt here an overview of his art. I will remark though that the show at Quadro confirms that Stefan Bertalan is one of those artists that can be humble and humbling at the same time, that embed paradox and neurosis in their work with perplexing ease, as they keep feverishly talking about the simple tragedy that is human life. The works on display were produced in a dramatic period in Bertalan’s life, whose immigration to Germany hardly brought him success or even peace of mind. The work that gives the exhibition’s title, presenting a kind of mad picaresque figure, perfectly illustrates the status of an artist that was forced into masquerade by the madness of the Ceausescu regime and by his burdening moral integrity and that gets painfully aware that he can no longer get rid of his saltimbanco self. One can say that the displayed works revolve around two compulsively recurring topics, concomitantly banal and madly broad in their complexity: the “self” and the “world”.

The former appears to be, for Bertalan, defined primarily by parenthood, which is understood, in his mixed technique works on display at Quadro (that are by far the most impressive pieces of the show), I would risk to say, in an almost biblical way, which does not exclude though neither a psychoanalytically grounded sense of trauma nor the presence of simple and moving tenderness. As for the “world”, it is mostly vegetal for Bertalan, who keeps on producing explosively colourful, somewhat apologetic images of the most commonplace plants or simple photographs of tree trunks in winter, for example, in front of which one gets the disquieting and frustrating feeling that there is more to them than meets the eye, but the artist might be the only person that actually knows what that “more” is. As noticed by Andrei Plesu with regard to previous works of the artist (in The Daily Itineraries of Ştefan Bertalan, a 1979 study published in Arta magazine, which might just be the most beautiful text about the artist to date), the propensity towards dissecting and the strong sensuousness are crucial drives of his production. Indeed, they form a schizoid and tensed basis for an art that is, at the same time, annoyingly hermetical and disarmingly simple (a child could, probably, be joyfully fascinated by much of it), downright bizarre and gracefully haunting.

The display of the show is daring, but, unfortunately, not necessarily inspired. Suspending the works above the eye level, along threads of wire, put them on an unwelcome pedestal, rather than transforming them in loosely floating images, which was, I presume, the curatorial intention.  The result was a kind of semantic overcharge that was unnecessary. But one can get over this less accomplished aspect of the show, mainly because, all in all, The Emigrant Clown has the crucial merit of being not just a must see, which it surely is, but also a “must – reflect – upon”.

In the end, I should acknowledge that the overall situation of Cluj in October 2011, from the perspective of its artistic life is, however, significantly better than one might be tempted to imagine reading the lines above. One should notice that the stars of many Cluj based (or “exported”) artists shine brighter than ever on the international art scene, as, for example, London’s new “exhibitions season” includes the two concomitant shows of Ghenie and Bercea at two really important galleries and Serban Savu installed a compelling exhibition in New York, at David Nolan Gallery. From another perspective, a young and intelligently dynamic generation of artists seems to be on the move. The locally famous Atas space was recently reopened and the programme designed for the venue by the ASUAD (the association of the students of the University of Art and Design) sounds promising. The opening show, Cristina Mircean’s Step Back, comprises a neon lights installation, a flickering, dizzying, somehow obsessive art work that could plausibly be taken into consideration as a candidate for the title of show of the month, should such a thing exist, albeit the fact that it downright fails in its announced attempt to question the arbitrariness or the verisimilitude of the moment when an art work is considered to be finalized. The Soimii patriei project (also a venue for very young art) continues and the opening of Nagy Maria – Krisztina’s solo show, It’s Just a dream, Dear is announced for the 20th of October. Iulia Boscu and Maria Balea opened their studio to offer the visitors a complex, cleverly realized, conceptually demanding and a bit overdone, yet still convincing installation, in which the sometimes too rhetoric semantics are fortunately counterbalanced by playfulness and the overall tactile quality of the work.

Also, the following weeks seem to be even more promising. Plan B announced a solo show by Simion Belu Fainaru, a remarkable, far too little known, in Romania, artist of the Romanian Diaspora. Bazis will host a project by esteemed Hungarian artist Kicsiny Balazs, rightfully known primarily for his Venice Biennale pavilion of 2005, one of the best of that edition. Peles Empire and Quadro also intend to propose, rather soonish, ambitious new shows. The Art Museum Cluj finally has a fully confirmed director, namely the capable art professional Calin Stegerean and one is thus entitled to hope to see meaningful contemporary art shows soon in rooms of the old Banffy Palace. So it just might be the case, from the perspective of those written above, that this year Cluj will be the most beautiful in November.