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.