Art in Boxes

Ileana Pintilie, Actionism in Romania During the Communist Era. Bucharest, 2001 

At the beginning of the 1960’s Paul Neagu placed his art objects in black boxes, making them invisible for the spectator. With this allegory on the situation of Romanian art Neagu succeeded in expressing what could not be seen: art outside of censorship. Like everywhere ‘in the east’, Romanian art remained in the back rooms, where it either discreetly fit itself into its environment, so as to remain unnoticed, or secretly simulated actions of everyday life. The art of concealed action became a form of articulation in its own right in Eastern European Action Art. In Neagu’s boxes there were “small objects of variable form created with an exhaustive imaginative verve.” The ‘spectators of art’ could only reach inside, thus they became ‘touchers of art’, forced to conjure up their own image. Soon these tactile objects reached a fetishistic status and they circulated in the unofficial art-circles, “taking on a life of their own”. The meaning of their secret contents were known only to the ‘initiated’.

Pintilie’s book Actionism in Romania during the Communist Era introduces twenty-eight Romanian artists working between 1960 and 1989, the actions of whom now clarify the following to the uninitiated: There is no action or performance without narration. Or to put it another way: Without narration or legend, actions would besubject to the transitoriness, with which they had endeavored to eliminate the artifact of creation since the 1950’s.

This is probably true of any art form concentrating on the process of perception in the artistic act, but it certainly applies to Eastern European art as it always retains an aura of the secretive. These actions existed without being noticed, without spectators and without official discussion by the art critics. For the artists themselves this invisibility was not so much secretive as isolating. Like Mirca Stenescu in Lethal Counting they counted the days as they passed by in Transylvanian seclusion and made art of ‘virtual dissidence’ using the paper on which they had crossed out time. Ileana Pintilie, art historian, curator and senior lecturer at the West University in Timisora, collected all these fragments and leftovers in her study, and not only managed to make Romanian art since the 1960’s visible, but she also gave it a narrative. With her book she closes two gaps: one in Rumanian art history and another in the theory of performance. In the title of her book, Pintilie introduces the term ‘Actionism’. This might interest or even irritate theoreticians of performance as the artists come from various fields. But Pintilie justifies her choice. ‘Actionism and action’ refer to the doings of the artists and are in contrast to performance art or happenings independent of an audience. This most certainly applies to the situation in Romania. However, the very expansion of the term ‘action art’ makes the terminology too arbitrary, as Pintilie subsumes under ‘actionism’ almost all “artistic gestures and performances in front of an audience or body-art in front of a camera.”

At the beginning of her book Pintilie places Romanian Action art in an Eastern European context and offers an overview of the development in Romania since the 1950’s. The author portrays the difficult situations of the artists, who had to split their lives between official work for the Union of Fine Art and their personal artistic interests. They lived with the fluctuations of repression, relaxing censorship and its consequent tightening. This was particularly the case since 1971 when the so-called ‘ideological theses’ were published in Romania. Pintilie refers to the situation as “the real split in the ‘artistic personality’: the ‘public style’ on the one hand and the ‘personal style’ of his own work on the other.

Pintilie then portrays the works of the artists, which she organizes in two groups, the first containing works created from the 1960’s to the 1970’s, the second concerning the 1980’s. The collection of material is supplemented by a “chronology of cultural events between 1950-1989 and actionism during the communist era.” Her study shows that only a few of the groups formed developed a specific aesthetic. In Romania, the works of individual artists were the focus. This is in contrast to Moscow’s conceptualism or Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). Traces of minimalism, conceptualism, neo-dadaism and even folklore can be found in this art, similar to Western art of the time. Despite isolation and censorship there is little difference when looking at the numerous photographs and other material. But still, the charming, analytical character of Eastern European art can be found when the artist’s own situation becomes the subject of his/her work, when cultural and artist performance merge. What Moscow’s conceptualism called ‘subversive affirmation’, and the NSK ‘over-identifying’ does not find a new slogan in the Romanian context, but there are numerous examples of interacting artistic subversions. In an international context it is precisely these devices and tactics, which brand Eastern European performance art as a specific “art of action.” The art of creating actions in impossible circumstances, of inserting such actions unnoticed into everyday performance and thus doubling cultural performance, becomes visible. Such tactics and strategies have as of yet not been sufficiently discussed in performance theory and Pintilie has to be credited with offering genuinely new material in this respect.

The works of Paul Neagu and Ion Grigorescu are examples of such Action art. Grigorescu’s action In Prison, which took place in his own apartment, could be understood as an inside view of Neagu’s aforementioned boxes. The action watches Neagu as a prisoner of his apartment-box. Art under control and censorship was also the topic of Romania’s first public performance on a Bucharest street in 1968. “On a busy main road placed Neagu his ‘merit-collectors’, which measured the honours of selected people passing by.” Wanda Mihuleac’s “patriotic community works” of 1974, as well as Ana Lupas’ and Eugenia Pop’s “ritual actions” likewise belong to these actions, which defamiliarize societal rituals. Pintilie shows how actions, in the second phase of actionism, become, on the one hand, politically more radical, demanding to communicate with an audience, and on the other, subject to worsening governmental oppression at the end of the Ceaucescu era. Like elsewhere in Eastern Europe Action art turned into a sociological experiment. Younger artists such as Alexandru Antik began to create ‘sociological microevents’. Artists like Baász Imre explored the increasing intrusion of politics into private space of citizens and pathological dissidence. Theodor Graur and others looked for a European identity (which also became a central theme in Bulgarian Action art during the 1990’s). Amalia Perjovschis tried to communicate “by shaking hands as a gesture of connection.”

Pintilie’s book clearly shows that the isolation of Romania’s art from the international art scene became a central theme in Romanian art. Despite this difficult situation, or rather precisely because of it, the artists managed to develop new forms of articulation and performance, which to this day are not appropriately considered by critics of performance. As a follow up to Pintilie’s book it would be interesting to investigate how action art further developed in an international and Eastern European context during the 1990’s. If at first a spirit of optimism seemed to be predominant, the art scene soon faced a new set of limitations, which was, in some instances, celebrated with a peculiar mix of victimization and rebellion.

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