Drawing for Freedom An Interview with Dan Perjovschi

Dan Perjovschi lives and works in Bucharest. Recent exhibitions: Naked Drawings, Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany (2005) and Le quartier Centre d’Art Contemporain, Quimper, France (with Nahum Tevet, 2004); Drawing-Drawing, Gregor Podnar Gallery Lublijana (with Goran Petarcol, 2004)); Attila, Protokoll studio Cluj (2004); No Idea, Schnittraum, Cologne, Germany (2004).

Ileana Pintilie: Dan Perjovschi, you are one of the very few Romanian artists who built themselves an international career without leaving the country, a success story that is hard to explain from a domestic perspective. What was your formation like and what path did you choose later?

Dan Perjovschi: My formation was in the Soviet style: art school, art high school, art college. 12 years at the end of which I was no longer really fond of art. I graduated from the ‘George Enescu’ Conservatory of Iasi, the painting section. It sounds weird, but it was something serious. Listening to my music schoolmates rehearsing the same key for one whole month, I realized how much work was necessary to make a thing seem spontaneously well-done, and how lucky I was to be a visual artist who could afford to take it easy, to breathe. I was also lucky it was a bad school. I didn’t learn things I couldn’t forget easily later on.

It took me only ten years, other people haven’t got rid of them yet. At a certain moment, I realized that nothing I could do was interesting (or academic) and I gradually returned to the stage as I was making caricatures for my high school friends. At that time I communicated directly, without whims. Although I had done a little before 1989, my art transformed itself almost radically from poetic to political because of the socio-political transformations in Romania (revolution, democracy, the passage from communism to capitalism); the relationship with the press (I have worked for a political magazine since 1991); access to the international art scene (after 1990 I had the right to travel and take part in biennials, or exhibitions, visit museums). This is how a landscape artist metamorphosed into an artist with a political agenda.

I.P.: You like drawing, but this fact generated a sort of ironic commentary against society in general, not only the Romanian one. What does drawing mean to you?

D.P.: I understand the world through drawing. For me, it is a language and a set of tactics. My drawing looks like graffiti or a caricature. It’s not. I hide under these popular forms of visual expression. I make an intellectual caricature. In fact, a sort of compression. I reduce a film to a single close up. At this stage, it is also a political activity. Through my drawing, I express my views on society.

I.P.: Drawing is not, as might be expected, a final product, but rather a work in progress, a social and artistic commentary going on continually and on various supports: the illustrations of the ’22’ magazine in Bucharest, where you are part of the editorial board, or on the walls and floors of the exhibitions to which you are invited. How do you manage to create so much without repeating yourself?

D.P.: I repeat myself programmatically. When I make an exhibition or I draw in situ, I move drawings from previous projects into the new one, especially if the international situation has the same clich’s. My drawings are temporary in a relative way, in fact they pass from one wall to another or from a wall to the floor, in some cases. Re-drawings account for about 30% of the new projects. The rest is time specific, it happens in the world and with me in it. I travel in order to draw and because I draw. My art comes together with my physical presence and reinforces the right to travel I earned in 1989. I take pleasure in imagining the dictator having a hard time in his grave after keeping me locked up for a national cause up to the age of 29. For me, each exhibition is a victory. I don’t have a data bank from which I choose what I want to draw. Everything I re-draw comes from my memory. There is a lot of improvisation and chance in what I do, although the structure of the projects is strictly controlled.

I.P.: I find your site-specific working method very interesting as it implies your physical presence: a sort of performance without an audience, ending up with your disappearing behind your drawings. Is this method the result of nostalgia for your period as an actor?

D.P.: It is a performance. I decided even to impress this feature on the project several times. At the Ludwig Museum in Köln, where the exhibiting space had a balcony, we decided to give the public free access to the room from the first day. For a month I interacted with the visitors and, believe me, it wasn’t easy. To feel you are being watched from behind all the time, or to see the people having no reaction or unable to laugh was frustrating. I even got paranoid, imagining that my drawings were poor, or that my message was not clear enough, all sorts of things. My performances at the beginning of the 90s were transformed into drawn projects or the readings I do here and there. This direct connection with the public is enough for me. We live in a cannibalistic period, people simply want you.

I.P.: You are more and more often invited to the most diverse corners of the world; only in the past several months you have been to Istanbul, London, France, Santiago de Chile, etc. Your incisive comments have a social or even political hidden meaning everywhere; can these interventions and comments also carry connotations of cultural and social activism?

D.P.: Yes, I am involved in an activism of tolerance of the other. Because I have this quality to compress a complex problem into something simple and straightforward, a sort of awareness. I believe that we live in an intelligent epoch and I impose this condition on my relationship with art. My drawing looks simple, but it isn’t. I make people laugh and frown immediately afterwards. I criticize the world, its manners, its beliefs, its stupidity and greed. But I criticize it in an empathic way. My humour is not dark. I draw in white and black but my humour comes in many colours.

 I.P.: Because you have travelled so much, you are more familiar than others with the international artistic scene, with the level of contemporary art institutions; from this perspective, how do you find the situation of contemporary art in Romania and of the Romanian public and private art institutions? Is there a network that has started to function, even if in a timid manner?

D.P.: From a cultural point of view, Romania looks like a banana republic. Some people pick the bananas and other people sell them. We have a very underdeveloped artistic scene, but we have the largest museum in the region. We complain about the lack of international recognition but we have the same managers we had 15 years ago. If we keep being relaxed about the current value promotion system, we won’t have anything to say for a long time to come. The good news is that, in this small centralized world, there are oases of independence (in Timisoara, Iasi, Cluj) producing events (the Periphery biennial, the Zone triennial), magazines (IDEA – Art and Society, E-Cart.ro), or strategies (Protokoll, Harta), which are good.

It makes one even wonder how these people hang on since no one ‘ the state or individual sponsors – seems to pay attention to them. Unfortunately, the Romanian artistic scene passed from the neo-orthodox landscape straight to the cool postmodernism. Instead of priests, we now have DJ exhibitions. On the other hand, there are many contradictions and frustrations, gritting teeth, rising conflicts, and this is a good thing. Something’s gotta give! Coming back to your question, yes, there is something that does work. We have to see how it works and how long it will last.

I.P.: What is your position in the Romanian cultural environment (including the critical discourse) and why do you always feel motivated to return home? Is there a challenge in this environment that makes you be permanently on your guard?

D.P.: Romania doesn’t have a critical discourse. With very few exceptions (CAA, IDEA). Everybody agrees this is good and this is bad. The same people complain to one another or congratulate one another, then go together to pick up their state allowance. Neo-liberalism is blossoming. The entire intelligentsia is rightwing. Art is nowadays part of the market economy. Sponsors are given more space on posters and banners than the artistic event itself. Whoever has political or economic power is omnipotent and entitled to claim supremacy. Sometimes I find it hard to believe how much obedience I see around me! I am tired of being totally involved in the Romanian environment. I no longer want (as Lia does) to change things. I want to change only a few things. I want to hang on. By proving it is possible to do it beyond backstage tensions. Quite surprisingly, I am fascinated by the Romanian context. I feel I have a responsibility I can’t account for. This is why I don’t give up. Could it be the age?

I.P.: At the beginning of the 90s, you acted out in front of the public and took part in some performance festivals in various parts of the country. In this context, the Zone festival in Timisoara witnessed the ‘anti-action’ entitled Romania, when you had the name of the country tattooed on your shoulder; beyond the ongoing critical comments, what was your motivation for a gesture that left such ‘traces’? I remember I found it defying and pathetic at the same time. But because the action was not spectacular, lasting quite a lot, the audience was bored and couldn’t make very much out of what was happening.

D.P.: When I had “Romania” tattooed on my shoulder, I was quite angry at the context. I am still angry, but I moved on to a superior level of expression. At that moment, it was a basic, brutal reaction, just like the surrounding system. Now both the system and I are more sophisticated. It is true that few people understood what I was doing, and, you see, the performance has become famous now that it no longer exists, but I wanted to make history, as it were, and I did. Both when I had the tattoo and when I removed it. I always wanted to be non-conformist; I had the ambition of being different. This is the motivation for the tattoo. To have something less ephemeral than a performance. This is the motivation for removing the tattoo. To have it remembered.

I.P.: Ten years after this action, during the same festival, you made the solemn promise that you would have the tattoo removed, something that happened in 2003 at Kunsthalle Fridericianum in Kassel. My next question is: has the situation in Romania really changed or are we changed?

D.P.: Both Romania and I are changed. You have changed, too. We survived. Zone as a festival did not. In 1993 I could afford a rocker with four needles, in 2003 I could afford the best plastic surgery laser made in Germany! What do you think? This is, in fact, the history of the performance. From my body to the body of art. Paradoxically, I am more interested in Romania and its future now that I have had the tattoo removed than I was 10 years ago.

At that moment, I was using only the context; I was trying to transform the disadvantage of living in a rudimentary country, with miners hitting me in the head with an axe, into a quality to be exported. I wanted to forget. This is why I branded myself like a beast carried to the slaughterhouse. Now I can afford to take a critical and attentive look at my country. I no longer need marks on my body.

I.P.: Beside your own artistic projects, you are running a more complex cultural programme, where I would include your common projects with Lia, curatorial projects and also projects for the promotion of young Romanian artists; what do you have in mind?

D.P.: I have joined the chart created by Lia Perjovschi, entitled CAA, the Contemporary Art Archive, transformed into the Art Analysis Centre, because I find it a generous and important project. From private discussions to debates on TV, from book loan to international exhibitions, CAA has acted as a server of the Romanian and international artistic context. Through CAA, we have given this context what we have been denied ourselves. We have our reservations about that monstrosity entitled ‘The National Museum.’ We encourage independent stances and we help talented people of all ages to get where they want by offering them contacts and expertise. Lia has a more radical attitude and I have tried to imitate her. This is no easy thing nowadays. I think this is her major achievement. Having the courage to stand up when everybody is down on their knees. I realize that, with our position, we have put a distance between us and many people but somebody had to do this, too.

We know too much and we have too much experience to let things go the way some people want. CAA has become a sort of crossroads where different platforms, people and ideas can meet. The network you were mentioning in a previous question has been the result of the opposition against the monopoly of the state institutions in the capital city. If you ask me, the network doesn’t function very well, but it’s a starting point. For the future, we are planning to have a center with a real address (so far we have been nomads or we have used our own studios) and, for the more remote future, we are planning a museum.

Bucharest, February 2006.

Dan Perjovschi lives and works in Bucharest. Recent exhibitions: Naked Drawings, Ludwig Museum, Cologne, Germany (2005) and Le quartier Centre d’Art Contemporain, Quimper, France (with Nahum Tevet, 2004); Drawing-Drawing, Gregor Podnar Gallery Lublijana (with Goran Petarcol, 2004)); Attila, Protokoll studio Cluj (2004); No Idea, Schnittraum, Cologne, Germany (2004).

Ileana Pintilie is a contributing editor to ARTMargins.