As I was to discover one recently passed Saturday in Bucharest, our capital city is not a place where you can easily enjoy contemporary art. In conceiving and organizing events and / or exhibitions, lack of professionalism and especially conceptual shallowness and inconsistency, often pretentiously hidden behind “clever” PR practices, poorly understood and inefficiently put in practice, fake glamour, impressive venues’ facades and bombastic discourses, still impeach significantly on the city’s otherwise vibrant art scene. This is not the case of Bucharest alone, but also of many other places in Romania, without a doubt; however scale can make things more annoying and that is exactly what happens in the big city’s case.

I arrived at the venue of one aggressively self-promoting, recently opened with a buzz gallery on what was supposed to be, according to its own website, the day before the closing of its inaugural exhibition, only to find out that the exhibition had already closed. Closed was the gallery, too,  for installing a new show, as I was kindly informed by the announcement quite uselessly placed on a small piece of paper on the entrance gate. Frustrated but undeterred, I continued my search for art and located another private gallery, certainly a more established one. However, it was another dead end, for I’ve encountered another closed door, this time with no explanatory and ridiculous pieces of paper on it and no one to open it for the visitor (I did rang rather insistently and I was within the opening hours announced by the gallery).

But there was more to come. After just over two wasted hours (except for the beautiful weather and some truly impressive pieces of architecture I encountered) that I’d spent chasing inaccessible exhibitions, I headed for the heart of the city to visit a presumably ambitious group show of Bucharest based artists, revolving around the topic of figuration in contemporary Romanian art. I was taken aback by finding out that the art centre hosting it  was closed during the weekends. In fairness, this is their official program. Still, I maintain that a contemporary art venue which is closed throughout the weekends is a pretty unique place. I abandoned this third attempt in a row and went to a meeting with a fellow art historian. Just in case you’re wondering, yes, she did show up.

I was however able to see art that Saturday, for example, at the National Museum for Contemporary Art. But, as not just once before, it wasn’t a particularly rewarding experience. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting tired with MNAC. And it’s not even because of it being catastrophically located in the Ceausescu’ s “House of People”, with all the well known inconveniences stemming from this. I (unfortunately?) kind of got used to the situation. It’s also not because I would think only bad about the institution. On the contrary, I think it is one of crucial importance for the Romanian art scene, possessing an impressive collection and organizing, from time to time, meaningful and informative shows. I also do respect director Mihai Oroveanu (his numerous detractors may crucify me, should they wish to), as well as I unreservedly respect a few professionals working there, as well as some initiatives such as the recent Salon de proiecte (Projects’ Salon). But I’m tired of being the only visitor in the museum for more than an hour, usually until two or three Scandinavian looking guys show up in the vast rooms or in the cafeteria. I’m tired of seeing the huge spaces filled with art in such a manner that it leaves me the impression that it is displayed for the sole purpose of filling them. I’m tired, in other words, of seeing shows that lack minimal conceptualization, that pose no intellectual or aesthetic challenge to the viewer. I’m tired of inconsistencies, compromises and complacency, of which one becomes bitterly aware when visiting the museum with a more or less scrutinizing eye.

The most ambitious show I’ve seen at MNAC on that occasion was Marilena Preda – Sanc’s solo show titled Crossing Self – Histories 1981 – 2011. It is the last of a series of rather large scale, retrospective or retrospective – like exhibitions dedicated to Romanian, living artists. One of the main problems I have with this exhibition programme of the institution is that it hardly looks like a programme at all. Thus, it remains for me impossible to grasp the conceptual “red thin thread” that could actually link, in a meaningful way, show’s like Gorzo’s (one of the best MNAC has ever displayed), Ghenie’s (which I still maintain that it was less an exhibition than a 3D version of the artist’s Hatje Cantz catalogue), Comanescu’s (an over – theatrical charade, focused on a champion of knee-jerk redundancy who just might still have greatness within his reach) and the current show of Preda – Sanc (which is not as much a retrospective as an overcrowded, somewhat hysterical display of art works).

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t consider the latter to be a bad artist. On the contrary, I appreciate her feverish passion for her artistic endeavours, as well as her commitment to the belief that there is something utterly serious about art. I value the formal coherence and sometimes poignancy of her paintings, as well as her vivid interest in expanding her production beyond the borders of a single medium. Although neither post – constructivist painterly structures that incorporate a sensuality awarded by the very textures of the painterly matter, nor dramatically existentialist renderings of female silhouettes in desolating pseudo – landscapes necessarily fit my personal taste, I cannot but praise the straightforward visual attractiveness of the former and the truly moving melancholy of the latter.

However, the show itself is simply misconceived and rather inconsistently realized. There are too many works on display, rendering the show suffocatingly  demonstrative. One is left with the impression of redundancy, as the retrospective equally fails to coherently articulate phases, turning points and even encompassing topics in the artist’s production. Distances between the works on the walls are often scenographically wrong, while the selected videos are acutely uneven in terms of quality. All in all, what you get from the show is the impression that you are not offered the artist at her best, or even a comprehensive overview of her production, with ups and downs. Thus, both aesthetic pleasure and the possibility of meaningful assessment are drastically limited.

The parterre of the museum was occupied by two tribute exhibitions dedicated to the recently passed away artists Theodor (or Teodor, as I’ve been told to be correct) Moraru and Mircea Spataru. The idea is totally commendable, its execution, however, is not. Moraru’s paintings were placed in the larger hall at the entrance, appearing irritatingly far from the viewer as one enters the space. On the other hand, as you get closer to the walls, you realize the works have been crammed. All you can actually see is that he was a good artist, whose works in the MNAC collection were brought out from the depot and displayed without much, if any, research or problematization.

Same goes for the Spataru display (as it could hardly be called an exhibition), in which case matters are made worse by the hideous mismatch between his rather daring works and the bluntly ridiculous decoration of the walls. Now, I do believe that a Spataru retrospective is probably a must for the museum (just as Marilena Preda – Sanc’s probably wasn’t); but the current improvised display, though quite masterfully done, I must admit, in terms of its “composition”, so to speak, is certainly not a proper tribute. Instead of being an homage, it is rather an obituary; Mircea Spataru, controversial as he might have been or be, deserves more.

Bringing the MNAC survey to its end, little do I have to say about Alexandru Solomon’s retrospective of documentary movies. Solomon is truly a very good director and has produced some of the most relevant Romanian documentaries of the last decades. Nevertheless, projecting several rather long films in an exhibition space within a contemporary art museum is, in my view, never a good idea, no better than, for example, showing Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in the Bamboo Forrest at the Venice Biennale. People would simply not take the time to stay and actually watch the movies, while posters on the walls hardly add up to form an exhibition and poorly compensate the mentioned glitch.

My weekend search for contemporary art however was to be more consistently rewarded as I’ve participated to the opening of Gili Mocanu’s new show at Independent 84, a space that actually came to existence with this very show, titled Fara mine (Without me). Challenging result of the fortunate collaboration between the artist and the curator Oana Tanase, Fara mine  follows three other solo exhibitions of Mocanu from the first part of the passed decade, respectively titled Fara titlu (Untitled), Fara inspiratie (Without inspiration) and Fara tehnica (Without technique). Thus, the show at Independent 84 coherently continues  the conceptual endeavour of the Bucharest based artist of trying to convey / question the difficult topic of the “zero degree” of art. In a manner that is as humorous as it is desperate, as ironic as it is utterly serious, his attempt to practically or symbolically leave aside items and instruments that are often and by many considered compulsory in order for art to occur is actually a daring effort to circumscribe nothing less than the (illusory) essence of art.

Three works by Gili Mocanu and several other pieces from the artist’s collection were displayed. The latter (maybe not even the former) are not necessarily pieces of art, in the common sense of the word, but rather objects that embed personal memories, that more or less hermetically refer to one or another moment in the artist’s professional and personal trajectory. The guided tour of the exhibition performed by him and the curator at the opening was an excellent instrument put at the viewer’s disposal, with which to penetrate precisely this idiosyncratically originated hermetism.

A drawing by a Scandinavian artist of an African looking female nude bought by Mocanu in a restaurant, other clumsy drawings realized by kids in the historical city of Sighisoara, trying to represent its medieval towers and sold on the street, a collage made by the artist by juxtaposing a (stolen) collage by Ion Barladeanu and a fragment from a printed reproduction of a painting by Theodor Aman, four one – minute – made, quasi – identical small painted landscapes by an artist in Constanta, these are the kind of ambiguous objects on display. They are accompanied by three paintings by Gili Mocanu, the most impressive being the rather large canvas presenting a black swan throwing up some violet matter in murky green waters, a work that I’m irresistibly tempted to view as a metaphorical self-portrait. What was striking for me was the ability of such objects, especially when put together, to speak about seemingly irreconcilable worlds, habitus and cultural realms. Fara mine is not really an exhibition; it is a metaphorical tower of Babel, where radically different expectations and beliefs about art are brought together, conflictingly and somewhat tongue – in – chick  insanely, by rather humble objects. It is also a statement of Gili Mocanu, beautifully catalysed by the curatorial input of Oana Tanase, about his inability to make art without stubbornly trying to philosophically make sense of it. Paradoxically, this inability is, most likely, at the same time his perdition (for it can be paralyzing) and his salvation (for it can make his art meaningful).

But, finally, let’s leave aside my Saturday pursue of art in Bucharest, for it is truly irrelevant, when compared with the importance of Grupul Sigma – secvente si interferente / The Sigma Group – Sequences and Interferences show at the Cultural Centre Palatele Brancovenesti in Mogosoaia, near Bucharest. Dedicated to a crucially important section of Romanian post – war art, still insufficiently known and appreciated, in my opinion, the exhibition certainly deserves a coherent, distinct review, which, though, I will not write. And this is simply because I don’t fell competent to do it. Yes, I love Stefan Bertalan’s art, but I am not yet confident that I can actually grasp its full magnitude, nor its sickeningly pathetic component. I discovered in the show the work of Diet Sayler, an artist about whom, to my embarrassment, I knew nothing. His collages of small, colourful pieces of paper, deliciously minimalist, neurotically beautiful, and eerily fragile, simply thrilled me, but admiration is not quite critical assessment. I have been admiring Constantin Flondor’s art for some time now, but only at Mogosoaia did I encounter his solarograme and these exquisite works of art made me think I should reconsider my views on his production. And, above all, the main reason I am not going to review the show is that it left me somewhat dumbfounded in front of the complexity of the background / context from which “111” and “Sigma” groups stemmed in the late sixties, as well as by disquietingly complex and sometimes movingly naïve ways in which the envisaged artists reacted to that particular context.

I could, of course, deplore the absence of an exhibition catalogue or the difficulty of actually getting to Palatele Brancovenesti in Mogosoaia (if you don’t drive there, this is). I could question the curatorial decisions to include works done by the artists long after the demise of the Sigma group, as well as of Sayler’s, who was not truly a Sigma member. I could praise, on the other hand, the good display of the works in the rooms of the palace, achieved by, I presume, its curator, namely Andreea Palade Flondor. But all these appear to be small talk, when faced with art works from a time in (Romanian) contemporary history when some could still view art as something of lifesaving importance and with artists who –so strangely for us now, after the deconstruction of all great narrative– honestly and somewhat childishly believed that art can be a path to some fundamental wisdom. These are forceful artists, but who, one can suspect, probably wouldn’t get the irony embedded in the famous neon work by Bruce Nauman which states that the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.

For photos of Gili Mocanu’s and Sigma group’s shows, go to http://www.facebook.com/bogdanteodoriacob

Take painting as a medium, pop art as an ironic approach and Bucharest as a bottomless visual reservoir for the sleazy, the crammed and the apathetic, mix all these and you get Berceni, Nicolae Comanescu’s show at the Museum of National Contemporary Art. It’s a recap of roughly ten years of the artist’s work as a painter, time over which he conducted a vast study on the social landscape of a post-communist society, still stuck in the chaotic maze of its own transition.

There are a few dozen canvases which can be seen at MNAC, as the exhibition is comprised of various series produced during the past decade. Whether one takes into consideration Grand Prix Remix, Wrong Paintings or Beach culture in Bercsényi, the images are extremly violent as far as color is concerned and almost insulting with regarding to their content. The sheer amount of images done in this manner is, in all honesty, extremely confusing as far as the purpose of this very amounting is concerned, simply because at one point the endeavour actually stops being about the irony and too much about the artist indulging in the topic towards which the irony is presumably pointed at. The pile of works start to sink in a very similar mess to the one they were meant to show, as they become harder to “read “ and even harder to process, as a fair number of images repeat themselves in terms of content, therefore appearing pretty redundant.

Adhering to a sort of uncertain surrealism, most of these frantic images are a result of mixing various sights of Romania’s capital city with representations of pop culture figures or stereotypes, as well as all sorts of reflective quotations drifting around a bunch of odd characters that spring out of nowhere into the painting. As far as the visual aspect is concerned they seem to be dangling somewhere in between Daniel Richter and Jeff Koons, suggesting at times a rabid psychedelic mess and, other times, a rather obvious grin of irony aimed at behavioural clichés and resented mentalities that inhabit  this peculiar environment. The zombie-eyed cats, the crazed city traffic and the delirious settings with blinking signs and street lights, the bizarre palm leaves placed in the middle of a concrete wilderness or the portrayals of cheap summer delights are some of the topics the artist chooses to include in this hysterical circus of everyday trivialities. Of course, all this is topped by the use of an irritating abundance of colour, as he shamelessly saturates everything in highlight tones, disregarding any kind of attempt to please the viewer’s eye. His intent is pretty clear, as this fashion of painting stands in utter opposition to his “dust paintings”, a project conducted around a concept of recycling filth (literally and metaphorically) found in this same hectic environment by using actual dust as a painting medium. The result was a series of extremely pleasing monochrome images which added a very noticeable refined and tasteful factor to the same type of urban scenery that can be seen in the exhibition at MNAC.

As it is a retrospective of the artist’s work, the show sits well inside the museum’s walls, but as a visual spectacle in itself it’s rather overflowing with too much art. It’s hardly pleasurable and rather exhausting. The effect you get is more similar to experiencing an installation than a painting exhibition, simply because it’s extremely difficult to undergo each image in itself, while it’s more likely to submit to the overwhelming flood of this glitzy and quite nauseating depiction of disorder and negligence. Nicoale Comanescu is not being belligerent in these paintings. The best argument of that is the passive stance demonstrated by the obsessive use of views from inside the intimacy of the car and of reflections in the side mirror of sights already passed. All in all, it’s a junction of a lamented passenger’s disgust and his freakishly feverish imagination. But what is more unsettling, is that the endless string of these paintings doesn’t really imply at all a humorous snicker, but a sentiment of resignation and unredeemable acceptance.

 

Text by Adelina Cacio

For photos of the artist’s work, go to http://comanescu.blogspot.com/

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.