Circulating Images, Diverted Images, and Bodily Images in Romanian art since 2010

Adrian Bojenoiu and Cristian Nae, eds., Romanian Contemporary Art 2010-2020: Rethinking the Image of the World: Projects and Sketches (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020), 208 pp.

Defining the perpetually shifting trends of art in the present can often lead to contradictory arguments, and thus there are few bold and risky examples of efforts at historicizing artistic phenomena that are still in the course of development. At the same time, however, there seems to be an urgency to facilitating the entrance of very recent art from the countries of the former Eastern bloc into the global consciousness. This is happening not only through exhibitions, which have gradually but significantly been increasing in number in the decades after 1989,(For a brief chronology, see the text written by Claire Bishop, as an introduction to her chapter “Exhibiting the ‘East’ since 1989,” in Ana Janevski, Roxana Marcoci, and Ksenia Nouril, eds., Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology (New York: MoMa, 2018), pp. 67-71.) but also through consistent publications. For example, in the past 20 years such volumes have been dedicated to the artistic scene of Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, or Bulgaria,(Krasimir Purgar, ed., K15 – Concepts in New Croatian Art, Art Magazin Kontura, 2007; POLISH! Contemporary Art From Poland (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011); Svetlana Rakic, Art and Reality Now: Serbian Perspectives (A. Pankovich Publishers, 2014); Diana Majdáková, Fifty Contemporary Artists in Slovakia 2014 (Slovart Publishing, 2016); Vessela Nozharova, Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art (Janet 45 Publishing & Open Arts Foundation, 2018).) through the contribution of art historians and curators from these countries. There are two problems that can arise in the case of such publications. One is the subjective perspective due to the short time that has passed since the period in which a certain artistic phenomenon took place. The second is sometimes linked to the support coming from influential galleries and foundations, which casts suspicion on the books as promotional publications.

Black and white cover of book with line drawingRomanian Contemporary Art 2010-2020: Rethinking the Image of the World: Projects and Sketches can be situated among the most recent publications that assume the role of surveys on the contemporary art scene from particular former socialist countries. The book starts from the premise of an underlying radical paradigm change in the art of the last decade’s generation, compared to the 20 previous years that passed since the Anti-Communist Revolution in Romania. Paradoxically, the Revolution remains a point of reference for very recent art theory, and the two editors—Adrian Bojenoiu and Cristian Nae—base their argumentation on the ideas presented by the media theoretician Vilém Flusser, who considered that the television-broadcast Revolution of 1989 perfectly demonstrates the “power of images to construct history” and “the reversion of causality between reality and representation.”(Adrian Bojenoiu and Cristian Nae eds., Romanian Contemporary Art 2010-2020: Rethinking the Image of the World: Projects and Sketches (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2020), p.3.) Consequently, the selection of works in the volume follows the problematic of image production and the political and social implication of this phenomenon, posing a fundamental question from the very beginning, which goes beyond the specificity of genres, themes or means of expression: “To what extent is artistic labour still implicated in changing the world today?” This is the first volume using such a perspective in analysing post-communist Romanian art, arguing on the above-mentioned themes.(The previous volume dedicated to Romanian art after 1989 was published by Erwin Kessler in 2013 and has a self-reflective, locally oriented approach: Erwin Kessler, X:20. O radiografie a artei românești după 1989 [X:20. An X-Ray of Romanian Art after 1989] (Vellant, 2013).)

The editors Adrian Bojenoiu and Cristian Nae are also the main authors of the introductory texts for the book’s sections. Both belong to the young generation of Romanian theoreticians and curators, highly active after the 2000s. Adrian Bojenoiu is known primarily for his curatorial activity, especially for his work on exhibitions presenting contemporary Romanian art outside the country, as well as for his work managing cultural spaces for emerging artists.(Adrian Bojenoiu is the co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Culture – Club ElectroPutere.) Cristian Nae’s career is founded on his academic work at University of Iași and on his research activity, which lead to important publications.(Cristian Nae edited (In)visible frames. Rhetorics and Experimental Exhibition Practices in Romanian Art between 1965-1989 (Idea Design & Print, 2019).) He also collaborated with several art spaces as an independent curator. These aspects regarding the two editors’ biography are important for considering the selection of artists. Most of them are related to the previous projects of ElectroPutere Center or to the art scene from Iași, where the authors have worked as curators. Nevertheless, there are also a considerable number of other artists, enough to support the editors’ points of view and observations about the way in which Romanian art has evolved in the past decade. This also makes the volume more than simply a catalogue of artists with whom the two editors have previously worked.

Combining Bojenoiu and Nae’s rich experience, Romanian art from a decade barely passed is reflected in this book, which was in fact published when the debated timeframe had not yet ended, which explains the practical omission of artistic practices from the year 2020. In some of the cases though, the selection includes works from before 2010, to offer a more expansive context for the works of artists from the previous generations. For example, Geta Brătescu’s film from 2014, The Line, is illustrated together with the photographic actions from the 70s, Towards White. Self-portrait in Seven Sequences, and The Studio. Brătescu (1926-2018) was a prominent figure of the Romanian neo-avantgarde,(See also Magda Radu and Diana Ursan, eds., Geta Brătescu: Apparitions (Koenig Books, 2017).) active since the 1960s. She had a personal exhibition at the Romanian Pavilion from the Venice Contemporary Art Biennale in 2017. The editors justified her presence here, as well as that of other intensely active artists from the previous decades (Lia Perjovschi, Dan Perjovschi and Ciprian Mureșan), thanks to their prolific engagement in the last ten years in circulating/redistributing the appropriate images within their art practice.

The book, in its essence a monographic study, is produced moreso with the methods of curatorial research than of art historical research. In fact, the 2019-20 exhibition Rethinking the Image of The World: Projects and Sketches, at theIanchelevici Museum in Belgium included 18 of the artists presented in this publication. Therefore, without necessarily being an exhibition catalogue, the book continues a research project that Bojenoiu and Nae initiated as curators of that exhibition. The main essays, written by the two editors, situate the artists’ creative actions in an articulated theoretical framework. The research was also enriched through the contribution of a great number of authors(Carmen Casiuc, Magda Radu, Ciprian Mureșan, Jesi Khadivi, Valentina Iancu, Anca Verona Mihuleț-Kim, Bogdan Ghiu, Ionuț Cioană, Caroline Dumalin, Sabin Borș, Cătălin Gheorghe, Mihaela Varzari, Maximilian Lehner, Daniel Ricardo Quiles, Iara Boubnova, Lia Perjovschi, Raluca Voinea, Florin Flueraș, Ion Dumitrescu, Diana Ursan, Farid Fairuz, and Liviana Dan.) writing short texts referring to every single artist.

The subjectivity of the selection is assumed and acknowledged by the authors; the introductory text of the volume also mentions other artists for the 2010-2020 period, that are not represented here, but who are just as relevant for a profound analysis. However, what justifies the selection of artists, as well as the structure of the book, is the idea that a new discursive position appeared in the creations of these artists, that they share a thematic approach. This approach is characterized by a critical perspective towards the image, understood as a universal language of mass communication. This theme leads the authors to structure the material into 3 sections entitled: Circulating Images: New Materialities and Abstraction, Diverted Images: The Production of Critical Knowledge, and Bodily Images: The New Performativity. Each section follows the same clear pattern (the introductory text of the section, the selection of works in alphabetical order according to the name of the artist, the pages with the technical details of the works, the grouping of critical texts dedicated to each artist), which confer cohesion to the arrangement of the material, and which gives the book a functional and ergonomic character.

The first section includes works by artists who show interest in the materiality of the image and the complicated relationship between the actual reality and the represented reality. The concept of the network-image is explored through various mediums including photography, post-photography, painting, drawing, performative-drawing, and digital collage. The authors consider the general frame in which digitality has a privileged role in contemporary visual culture and in which the online environment offers a huge flux of visual information. All this has consequences for artistic strategies and for the artists’ decisions to choose a certain medium. The relationship between the digital image and its potential return to palpable mediums is analysed in this section of the book, together with new trends noticed by the editors in the field of abstract painting.

For example, the tactility of painterly matter and its relation to the body are the main characteristics of ALB’s abstract canvases. She uses a type of paint that later allows her to peel off the layers of the canvas. The new image created by the consistent intervention of the female body—sometimes literally walking between the canvas and the painting layer­—can be interpreted as the opposite of the digital production of images. Another interesting category of images analysed in the first section of the book is the college produced through over layered drawings. Ciprian Mureșan’s drawn fragments recompose new palimpsestic and accumulated figurative realities. These two examples are perhaps the most relevant for new strategies of image production in the art practices of the last decade. However, all the other examples discussed in this section show a sort of a detachment from recent history, from subjects referring to a specifically local context, instead migrating towards the cross-cultural and the global.

In the second section, titled Diverted Images: The Production of Critical Knowledge, the authors discuss positions that follow their own ways of investigating and knowing the world, transforming the artistic product into a point of convergence between different types of information and means of processing. Applying Simon Sheikh’s notion of “art as a form of undisciplined knowledge,” Cristian Nae proposes a series of artists that correspond to this tendency of transforming the results of research into “aesthetic ensembles.” Another characteristic of knowledge generated by art (which the author mentions starting from the concepts and terminology proposed by Sarat Maharaj) is that it does not obey existing rational patterns. This is the case of Lia Perjovschi’s series History Timeline or Diagram, where information structures itself in an experimental and intuitive way.

Working with images for emphasizing critical positions towards the social context correspond to strategies of post-production and allow connections for circulating and transferring images in contemporary visual culture. In Irina Botea’s videos, the layering of multiple temporalities creates sophisticated commentaries, involved in defying the limits between authenticity and fiction. The static, bidimensional image also has the capacity to decompose and recompose representations taken from mass-media in order to reveal problems that remain undealt with in public debates, but the discussion of which is necessary for a conscious and healthy society, as in the case of Dan Perjovschi. This type of artistic practice proposes alternatives in understanding the world by either critically investigating the present or the recent past, or by projecting utopic solutions through potential and not fully exploited connections for research, which disengage themselves from common classifications and purely scientific debates.

The artists presented in the third section illustrate new instances of performance and corporeality. The author of the introductory text for Bodily Images: The New Performativity is Raluca Voinea, who has previously been preoccupied with the subject of performance in Romanian art.(Raluca Voinea’s interviews with Romanian performance artists in the volume Iulia Popovici, Raluca Voinea, Metaphor. Protest. Concept. Performance Art from Romania and Moldova, (Idea Design & Print, 2017).) She considers the 2000s to have been profoundly marked by the presence of a choreography institution in Bucharest. The National Centre for Dance (CNDB) offered a flexible and adaptable space for a series of choreographers, whose trajectories met with something specific to visual art performance.

For these artists—such as Farid Fairuz or Alex Mirutziu—the body becomes an instrument of socio-political criticism, of engaging in discourses that shed light on dichotomous concepts, such as power and stinginess, brutality and fragility, and the coexistence of hierarchies and antinormativity. A key moment for this artistic approach took place in 2011 through the protesting action, Occupied CNDB, an act of resistance in which artists involved in the programs of this institution tried to transmit a radical message to the Romanian Ministry of Culture. The author considers the counter-monument, Caragialiana, created as part of the protest at the initiative of Alexandra Pirici, as a turning point for Romanian performance after 2010.

Often confronted with the public space, the humble, submissive, and static body, is—paradoxically—a sign of resistance through its mere presence in the various contexts that it problematizes. In 2010-2020 this kind of apparition is completed by projects with introspective and intimate or interdisciplinary nuances, based on theoretical reflections, as in the case of The Bureau of Melodramatic Research.

An important part of Voinea’s narrative is dedicated to artists that are not represented among the pages of selected works. For example, she emphasizes the important role Alexandra Pirici had at the beginning of the decade. She also highlights the contribution of the Local Goddesses group, which brought forth new feminist approaches coming from multiple perspectives, even the queer one, at the Moving Heads event in 2015. The body as a means of communication remains a valid means of expression for contemporary Romanian art, with a rediscovered and reimagined potential, especially after 2010.

Polyphonic, yet at the same time well-structured the book Romanian Contemporary Art 2010-2020 is an essential step towards starting a critical discussion regarding Romanian art from the last decade. The complex perspectives that it offers are related to theoretical frameworks that discuss the status of the image in the era starting from post-history and reaching post-truth. These perspectives fill a void when it comes to presenting an integrated and cohesive vision regarding the phenomenon of recent art production.

Maria Orosan-Telea
Maria Orosan-Telea is an assistant professor of art history at the Faculty of Arts and Design, West University, Timișoara, Romania. She specializes in contemporary art, with a particular interest in Romanian art after 1990. During her Ph.D., she conducted a study of Romanian art in the post-communist period. She is the author of the book Pseudo-signification and Hyper-signification in Romanian Art Since 1990 (2014) and several other studies and articles in art journals and collective volumes. Between 2019 and 2021 she was research assistant for the project Gender Politics and the Art of European Socialist States, initiated by Adam Mickiewicz University from Poznań, supported by the Getty Foundation.