This is a bit problematic text and it is definitely vulnerable to criticism from an ethical point of view. It is about things that happen(ed), albeit somewhat autonomously,  in an institution I work within and which were done by young artists which were, until very recently, students of mine and still are students of the aforementioned institution, namely the University of Art and Design in Cluj – Napoca. Thus, I could be suspected of parti pris when writing to signal the appearance of Atas Project Space, a new, young and, I should say, rather efficient and meaningful initiative managed by some of them and used as artistic platform by some others. Moreover, I am, for more solid and hopefully easier to understand reasons, generally reluctant in reviewing the artistic production of very young artists. However, the Atas space managed to become, I believe, a significant presence on the local art scene of Cluj during the last six months or so, therefore justifying a critical review of its activity. The present text is rooted in this belief of its author, who assures the reader that he is perfectly aware that, in this particular instance, is probably more susceptible to subjectivity than usually, yet hopeful that this situation will not impeach on his intellectual bona fide.

It must be, first of all, said that Atas has been a space for young artists’ projects in the early 2000’s and has made quite a reputation for itself, hosting some of the most exciting shows of that time in Cluj. Youthful and daring, truly innovative, albeit sometimes a bit gratuitously spectacular art was skilfully showed there, on the premises of the dynamic art school in Cluj and under the successive curatorial coordination of Mihai Pop (later become and far better known as director of Plan B, Romania’s top gallery for contemporary art) and Kudor Duka Istvan (currently teaching at the university’s painting department). However, the space has only been temporarily used for exhibitions over the recent years and the memory of “the first Atas” has gradually faded in the art community, especially among the young. Now, a second Atas is functioning, really lively and coherently, under the name Atas Project Space. The venue (or part of it, since the current exhibition space is a bit even smaller than the already rather small initial one) is currently managed by ASUAD, which is the association of the students of the University of Art and Design.

The programme of  the art space is both ambitious and comprehensive, though, at the same time, somehow fashionably vague, as one can understand by reading its own mission statement. It aims at being concomitantly a platform for promoting young artists and a space for discussions and debates on relevant contemporary cultural topics. Now, it is true that this can mean a lot of tings, although not anything, as one might be tempted to say; however, before discussing the profiles and quality of the events organized here, one is to notice the consistency of the actual events’ programme. Thus, since November 2011 until the end of March 2012, Atas Project Space has hosted no less than six exhibitions, a performance show and three artist talks. The sheer pace of the Atas’s activity is therefore commendable in itself, to the extent to which it renders problematic the very possibility of actually maintaining it in the long run. The renewed art venue has also managed, being mainly coordinated by Flaviu Rogojan and Iulia Boscu, in a rather short period of time, both to secure a public composed mainly of students and young artists, but also to expand its audience by attracting the attention of a part of the larger local art world (although there is much more to do in this direction).

The debut show was that of Cristina Mircean, titled Step Back. It consisted of a flickering, prismatic fitting, provided with neon tubes, constantly and randomly switching on and off. Permanently in motion, in a way, Mircean’s work was constantly unstable, simple, yet compelling, impossible to visually grasp as a whole and irritatingly fascinating. Hazard and what could be called electric randomness are somewhat replacing the “sacred” artist’s will, as she intentionally and wittily gives away the traditional obsession for complete control over the art work. Nevertheless, although it is both catchy and intellectually engaging, the work’s declared intention to conceptually explore and dispute the concept of finished art work is hardly realized (the fidgetiness of the flickering neon lights actually functions as an end in itself).

With Abracadabra, George Cringasu succeeded in attaining something rarely seen when it comes to young artists: to build an exhibition that is conceptually poignant without turning it didactic, explicative or boring. It was a compelling show that made a relevant point without over – emphasizing it to make sure that people get it. Abracadabra revolved essentially around two somewhat antagonistic, yet, as wittily and convincingly proved by the exhibition itself, profoundly related topics: that of the seemingly perennial character of people’s need for the spiritual and the supernatural and that of the equally recurrent turning into banality, truism and kitsch of this very fundamental inner drive. Using materials as diverse as raw meat and golden tinfoil, printed images of a religious icon and the signed poster of a nationally known performer of soft, corny music, an animal skull and a low – tech, ironically mysterious, projected retro soft porn image, the artist brilliantly acted, convincingly and challengingly, as a trickster who paradoxically makes the effort to trap you in his magic, only to urge you not to believe in it (or in any magic, for that matter).

Iulia Boscu’s performance at Atas was part of her Sluffing (she uses the term in the meaning given by the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)  project, which also included an artist talk / debate in her studio, meant to highlight the sources and the development of the project. If the talk didn’t actually bring any meaningful plus to the project, its explicative character rather downplaying the intensity of the Atas performance, the latter was a really coherent, elegantly carried out and exciting example of the use of the medium / realm of time based art. The artist, sit in a corner of the space, in rather bright light, talked, smiled and nodded for some forty-five minutes, in an absurd “conversation” with spectators moving about, all the time her words being impossible to hear because of the loud music around, functioning as a sort of white noise. An epitome of communicational mishaps, a somehow imperative allusion to the sheer difficulty of sending out a message, Boscu’s performance pointed at the unnerving possibility that all acts of communication might actually be, one way or another, instances of communication breakdown.

For her first solo show, Anca Sanpetrean relied on the dialects of traditional vs. contemporary, art vs. kitsch, museum vs. proletarian neighbourhood to construct, at Atas Project Space, the exhibition titled BibeLow. Several iconic modernist or contemporary art works were downsized and downplayed by Sanpetrean’s ceramic replicas of them. The white ceramic forms reduced monumentality and / or cultural prestige of Kapoor’s Tower or Duchamp’s Fountain to domestic looks, while their placement on modest pieces of furniture transformed them into banal and half – kitsch decoration. The exhibition though fails to go all the way, in two formal directions, as it does not decidedly function as a full, complete installation, nor does it firmly valorises the little sculptures as independent art works.

Designer Ana – Maria Abrudan proposed at Atas, or rather took over its space with an installation based on the ideas that inform the development of “slow design”. Experience Design, as her project was called, manipulated geometrical shapes and volumes, as well as light to produce an eerie, yet softly friendly atmosphere, while at the same time transforming, so to speak, space into structure. Formal elements that recall those put at work in “classic” object design were deployed in an almost mathematically creative manner in order to completely move the emphasis from functionality to gentle and intriguing engagement with the implausible design object, in other words, from usage to exploration.

Limited Edition, Sebastian Baculea’s solo show, was a delightfully smart endeavour, which succeeded in being entertaining in an elegant and poignant way, as an exhibition of an artist who is trying to step up from “young” to “emerging” probably ought to be. Baculea has compellingly proven himself able to endow the objects he produces with a crucial quality which is required from an art work in order for it to have a shot at becoming iconic: the ability to stick to one’s mind by being concomitantly simple and witty. These are the core features that strikes you when encountering the Surrealist – like Shrek version of the Muffin Man crucified on two intersecting candy stick, placed upon a vertically erected ironing board. The eyebrows raising ability and the remote, yet fine irony are possessed also Baculea’s assemblage consisting in a cell phone engaged in what appears to be a conversation with the older, presumably wiser, analogue telephone, provided with a tube that shelters its “brain”, represented by a nut kernel. As in the case of Cringasu’s show, the miraculous and the kitsch are suggested to be two sides of the same coin (of consumerism?).

Vlad Capusan’s project, titled Time & Life, was based on the performative installation The Box of Time. In darkness, for some forty minutes, fine threads of sand were pouring down in the space from a box hanging from the ceiling, onto the beautiful, fresh, downright shiny apples from a bin placed on the venue’s floor, while the video piece presenting a seemingly endless stream of tap water was projected onto a wall. The pile of sand, unassumingly laying in the middle of the room at the end, stood in sharp contrast with the rather dynamic, even spectacular minutes which led to its formation. Straightforward and coherent, Capusan’s visual metaphor of the inexorable and life destroying passing of time doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a plain allegory, and this is precisely what makes it unpretentiously beautiful and conceptually well rounded.

Drawing the line so far, the exhibition programme at Atas Project Space offered events which were definitely rewarding. Nevertheless, the space still has several important issues to address. Among these, one could mention a clearer decision regarding whether it aims at being a space with a definite profile, as far as the type of art it shows is concerned or it seeks a broader medium diversity, a more coherent and more consistent documentation of the events or a more active and forthcoming communication with some sectors of the local, but also broader, art scene. Collaborative actions involving cultural or intellectual producers placed outside the field of what we generally call visual arts, from music to theatre to social sciences would be another perspective to reflect upon, as otherwise assumed by the young artists managing the project space.

But there is both time and hope for all these, and, all in all, what strikes me as being definitely remarkable and impressive is the impetus behind Atas Project Space. There is energy here and, more than this, it is an energy which is complemented by intelligence and a surprising maturity, a sort of intellectual pragmatism that leads to noticeable efficiency. Atas is a lively place, which has already succeeded not only to become locally known, but also to generate dispute and a bit of mistrust from some (that’s almost always, in the art world as we know it, a good thing, though never sufficient for anything in itself). More than anything, I believe that the new Atas is a symptom of a specific kind of passion and of a particular type of artistic and cultural creativity, that could be the attributes of something that might just become a “generation” to be reckoned with in a not very distant future.

For photos and further info, go to http://www.atasprojectspace.wordpress.com.

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