Belu Simion Fainaru at Plan B

April 10, 2012

Born in Romania, in 1959, Belu – Simion Fainaru is, so to speak, a living argument supporting the idea that contemporary art and artists can only be international. Living, working and teaching in Israel and Belgium, present in iconic international artistic events such as the Documenta or the Venice and the Havana Biennale, having solo shows hosted by prestigious institutions such as the S.M.A.K. in Gent, Fainaru is also currently the driving force, as well as the artistic director and curator of the Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Israel. In more ways than one, he is an excellent example of a cultural producer who can meaningfully use specific cultural ideas, a particular spiritual mindset and tradition, as well his personal biographical background to reach very different audiences and to respond to diverse expectations, which are yet far from being levelled by the globalization processes.
After exhibiting together with Victor Man, in 2007, at Plan B gallery in Cluj (in a far from poignant show called More or less in the same place or another), the artist came back this year for a solo show at the same gallery, titled Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void. Opened at the end of February 2012, the exhibition was intelligently pairing remarkable clarity and coherence with less obvious conceptual complexity, was charmingly juxtaposing a sort of optimistic humour and an almost spiritual seriousness, and was concomitantly joggling with visual mojo and intellectual rigour. Thus, Fainaru’s truly impressive recent show confronts the viewer with a mature artist, who fully masters the tools of his (very personal) trade, yet remains remarkably inquisitive, dismissing both laziness, in all possible forms and bravado as if they were, to use a sharp, yet problematic syntagm, artistic sins.
The void and the nothingness appear to gain, somewhat paradoxically, positive value in Belu – Simion Fainaru’s apprehension. For what is worth, he is not the first proposing such a comprehension. Used recurrently throughout mankind’s spiritual history to define the indefinable, deployed to denote an absolute, incomprehensible reality or entity, the concepts of void, emptiness and so on have represented, for many religious thinkers or philosophers not the equivalent of non – existence, but, on the contrary, that of ultimate levels of being and of knowledge. Fainaru’s approach of the concepts of void and nothingness, which are, in fact, alluding to one and the same semantic realm, somehow paroxysmically highlighted by the use of both words in the seemingly categorical title of the exhibition, is rooted in such intellectual endeavours. Contemporary Jewish philosopher and Kabbalah researcher Moshe Idel shares and studied, mostly within texts composing the mystical Judaic tradition, some similar ideas about the nature of reality and deity. As he is a long time interlocutor and, I dare to presume, intellectual sparring partner of the artist, the Romanian born thinker has, in this respect, a considerable influence upon the artist’s conceptual and even spiritual world, which the latter admits without hesitation. Nevertheless, making an art that is not simply figurative, but, in a way, downright concrete and still embed in it references to the poetics of absence is, if taken seriously, a formidable task. Embarking on such a daring endeavour is precisely what Fainaru often does, most times with truly admirable and also even gently touching artistic results.
Think, for example, at his A Penny for Nothing interactive sculpture, featured in the exhibition at Plan B. A rather big, predictably white freezer has been filled with water and awaits the viewer, who is given the following instructions: “Count your pennies and throw one penny in the freezer: one penny for your hunger, one penny for your thirst, one penny for nothing”. To turn a common freezer in a fountain of wishes is a kind of ironic critique of consumerism, but this semantic layer is so secondary in Fainaru’s art work. What is more important is the ritual that is being instituted, as the instructions are precise as religious prescriptions. The religious or spiritual formalism is here alluded to, yet the artist is not necessarily criticizing it, not really trying to deconstruct it as void, stiff or meaningless, as has been done countless times before, to the point that the practice had became somewhat fashionable, not only in the artistic realm, but also in theological or pseudo – theological writing and predication. Hunger and thirst are both powerful and common metaphors of spiritual needs; however, the coronation of the ritual envisages their surpassing and accessing a sort of comprehension, or at least acknowledgement of superior nothingness. Then, after such reflections, one sobers up and realises that it’s still just a freezer, filled with water, into which contemporary art spectators tend to throw small coins, many of them smirking or smiling with presumably superior understanding while doing so. One realises, too, that it is in this very tension and in this very sharp, yet subtle humour that art somehow resides.
There is a strong connexion to be detected, in many of Fainaru’s works, with the concept and the practices of magic. Transformation is one of the key features of magic, one could rightfully say its fundamental purpose and it always envisages objects or substances with strong symbolic power. Transformation leads to the occurrence of a new reality, i. e. a new symbolic order. Something of this dialectics can be detected, for example, in such a work like Fears and Tears, the artist’s performance at the opening, when he placed one dollar bills into a toaster. Three domains of reality, which are in many ways profoundly antagonistic, yet often intertwined, are tensely brought together, as the dollar bill symbolically and uncannily becomes a loaf of bread: that of capital (where money are transubstantiated into power), that of religious beliefs (where matter is transubstantiated into spirit) and that of family life (where small rituals are transubstantiated into harmony).
Fainaru’s artistically induced / endowed magic is far from being a mockery of magic practices and beliefs, as he does not assume the position of the fake, tongue – in – cheek, postmodernist – like trickster. At the same time, though, his artistic endeavours are not as spiritually charged as to claim the actual ability to trigger transubstantiations of some sort, at least not with the seriousness assumed by artists such as an emphatically theatrical Nitsch or a utopian Beuys. The result of this, one could say, ontological and axiological indecision, is an inherent semantic tension, which provide his works with the ability to concomitantly be wittily attractive and imprecisely disquieting. Think, for example, of an installation like Black Milk, composed of a rather large number of white ceramic pieces of tableware, arranged in a rectangular shape on the gallery’s floor and filled with a translucent, black liquid. More than one kind of ritual and more than one type of liturgical discourse could come to one’s mind in front of the work, while the visual play carried out by the shiny white and the shiny black surfaces possesses a definitely hypnotic quality. Still, one can finally find out that the mysterious black liquid is nothing less trivial than spent engine oil; thus, the commonplace realm of the technological abruptly interferes with any spiritual references and awkwardly, almost shyly downplays metaphysical implications.
As forcefully proven by the solo show at Plan B, Belu – Simion Fainaru’s art, when deployed with full impetus, can hardly be confined to the clearly delineated borders of the gallery’s “white cube”. The main reason for this is that, leaving magic and rituals aside, he is the kind of artist who strongly needs to physically alter the environment in which he “performs”, to somehow inscribe his passage into it. Thus, he often marks the broader spatial context of the exhibitions with items that force the occurrence of a somewhat disguised, yet refined poetics. In the specific case of the Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void show, for example, before entering the courtyard of the Paintbrushes Factory, in which the actual gallery and thus, presumably, the exhibition are situated, one is met by a traffic light. The green light has the text “money” written on it, while the red light reads “no money”. Placed high above the entrance gate, Fainaru’s traffic light half playfully awakens the superstitious alter ego most of us possess, whether we like or not, whether we admit it or not. At the same time, the work obliquely performs a critique of the contemporary art system, suggesting that it matters if you enter the space of contemporary art with or without money, seeking money or not. Instead of furiously and pointlessly blubbing about the unfairness of the capitalist (art) market, as so many artists do, in, unfortunately, often dull manners, he brings a bit of lyricism, a touch of sharp irony and the shadow of a wise and indulgent smile into the discussion.
Lyricism, in its plain, but not corny form, reaches its peak within the show with the installation that took over a whole wall of the floor in the Factory where Plan B is situated, titled Monument for Nothingness. Small holes were drilled into the wall, at even intervals, disposed on several rows and a bouquet of roses is placed at the end of the corridor. Again, the prescribed mode d’emploi is disarmingly simple: “Take a rose petal. Think of a wish. And insert the petal into the wall”. No promises are made, no guarantees are granted that the wish will be fulfilled; one can only secretly hope for it, just as one bluntly, irrepressibly and so humanly hopes that the good predictions of the stupid morning horoscope. The visual effect on the viewer of the white wall dotted by the fresh red rose petals is fascinating; at the same time, as the first petals slowly decay and some fresh are added (increasingly rare, as the period of the exhibition nears its end) the wall becomes a saddening vanitas. Nevertheless, one must not overlook that understanding that vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas is a classic first step, in several traditions of thinking, in elevating one’s consciousness to a superior level of understanding the fundamental void of the world. And thus, true hope rises out of evanesced wishes: the petals were anyway far too beautiful to actually be able to kill all hope.
One more issue which needs discussing when it comes to the exhibition in Cluj, but also to Fainaru’s art in general is that of travelling, in the broader and complex meaning of the word. The artist has been in the fairly awkward position, as he left Romania, to emigrate from his country of birth to, literally, his fatherland. Being at the same time a native and an immigrant is a paradoxical status, one that he often explored in his artistic endeavours, as it might actually be the position of the truly irreducible stranger. His life and career could support such an assertion: he was the young and a bit strange immigrant accepted rather late by the Israeli art world, he works and teaches in Belgium as a Jewish artist from abroad and he is more or less a foreigner when he revisits the place where he was actually born.
From this position, he naturally tunes in to certain types of nostalgia related to geographical and mental maps of belonging. The assumed stranger’s identity, but that of the stranger who is at home almost everywhere, is referred to in such works as Another Time, the abat – jour lamp hanging from Plan B gallery’s ceiling that reads Belongs nowhere and to another time, sentence which seems to function as a sort of identitary mantra for the artist: he uses it, sometimes in slightly varying forms, again and again as he speaks of himself or his art. The same topic of belonging is epitomized in Jerusalem in the pocket, a white shirt’s sleeve provided with a pocket filled with earth from the holly city. The fundamental Jewish feeling of religious belonging is brought into discussion, as well as the binary semantics stemming from a Romanticist ideology, which was able to generate aggressive nationalisms, on one hand and sincere, sentimental, maybe even pathetic emotional attachments to “special” places, on the other hand.
Finally, it should be said that Belu – Simion Fainaru, a stranger or not, is a true traveller: he does not go to places to see them, but to somehow take them in, to capture their spirit, with glamour and dust, with the memories of bloodshed and the hopefulness of weddings. I strongly believe that this one of the crucial features of his personality which allows Fainaru, the artist, to be a genuine, first hand teacher.

For photos of the show, go to http://www.plan-b.ro/index.php?/expo/belu-simion-fainaru/.

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