Impressions from the 4th Bucharest Biennale (Article)

Bucharest Biennale poster.The Bucharest Biennale runs until July 25th at various venues in Bucharest, and with a series of parallel events in Stockholm (3 June to 24 September). For details go to

I arrived at Bucharest’s retro-communist, chaotic airport the day when there were large demonstrations in the streets of Romania’s capital. Most of the demonstrators were over 60, and they were protesting against the cuts of their state-pensions.  It is a mystery where the money sent to Romania by the IMF has gone.  It’s not a mystery, however, to the locals on the Crânga?i tram: “Este putrezire,” they shrug, “It’s the corruption.”

During my stay in Bucharest I trekked from luxury hotels to abandoned garages, from office blocks to down-and-out community centers. And I went up five double floors up the backside of Ceaucescu’s Palatul Parlamentarului to Bucharest’s collection-less Museum of Contemporary Art.  The political edge of the Bucharest Biennale means that it avoids “art spaces” – hence my perambulations. BB4 sees itself as a challenge to the city’s social, economic and political agenda.

The story starts in the chrome-gold kitsch of the Intercontinental Hotel (Dallas-style capitalism in the Eastern bloc) where on gilded salon chairs a motley mix of mainly English speaking (though mostly second or third language) artists and reporters had gathered (“I’m doing a project in Barcelona”/ “ I was in Turkey, it’s so cheap to get here”/ “I never knew there were so many artists in Bucharest”) for an (accidental) preview of a scripted performance piece by Nicoline van Harskamp that plays around with ideas of expression and language in Romanian and with the role of English as a lingua franca (some lucky visitors had managed to lay their hands on an English transcript).

As its 23-year old guest curator Felix Vogel points out, the German word that was chosen as the theme for the Bucharest Biennale 4, Handlung, is rather ambiguous. It can mean action, agency, possibility, or production. Razvan Ion and Eugen Radescu, who run the Biennale and a gallery space and publication called Pavillion, received no state or municipal funding for their event. Instead they worked with sponsorships – and with a long list of volunteers. BB4 certainly isn’t Venice, and Radovan frankly doesn’t want it to become an “art circus.” The agenda at BB4 is overtly about changing the political climate to a more (dare I say it?) socialist one.  But then, some of the demonstrators held placards for Ceacescu and the Communist years which they call the epoca de aur, the golden age.

My own tour of BB4 started at what is perhaps its most hidden venue.  Lured by the name Paradis Garaj and by the fact that it was closest to the Intercontinental, I set off on Batistei Stada street – passing the Romanian Passport Office and the High Court – between scattered between empty sites, run down villas, sandwich shops and Bucharest’s chaos of overhead wires and parking. Nr. 20, it turned out, is hidden behind trails of ivy and some impromptu car repair shops. In a tiny space (more domestic than car dealer) London’s Otolith Group were screening their enigmatic and haunting dreams of the present as seen from the past – women’s space flight, Chandigarh, and an unmade science fiction film made from home movie footage and news-reel clips. This was a suitably mysterious start to my tour that turned the secret garage courtyard into a gateway for a dreamlike, alternative present.

Next I went along Boulevard G. Magheru, around Piata Romana and up Blvd. L. Catargui to the urban wilderness of Piata Victoriei to BB4’s headquarters, the ground floor of a modern office block clad in concrete that was left unfinished. Outside an old peasant lady was selling wilting flowers. On the inside the highlights are two extremes of conceptual art. To the left, Goldin+Senneby (Sweden) have taken Art and Language’s Air Conditioning Show (1972) to extremes and politicized it with a commentary on the relation between air conditioning and the complex calculations of international financial speculation. All you really see is an empty white room with a factual commentary. On the right, US artist Sabrina Gschwandtner can be seen knitting. Her Wartime Knitting Circle is a gentle recreation of the knitting groups that were during WWI and II to help “our boys,” but the context here are the on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The artist does not prescribe whose side the knitters are on, and you can talk to her while she knits.

Down a few side streets where glossy unfinished office and hotel blocks mix with the villas of the old elite, BB4 has installed a series of explorations of Romania’s past at Bucharest University’s Institute for Political Research. The neo-classical main hall – dark marble columns around an atrium with a very high ceiling – echoes with the dinosaur groans from the video  Gorgeousaurus – the Founding Myth by Kalle Brolin in which children in one of Romania’s forgotten industrial areas make huge wind instruments and then play them in an abandoned coal mine. The whole thing is intercut with footage of political meetings. Upstairs I get a (welcome) surprise – large, realistic paintings! As with many things in Romania these days, there is a tinge of irony and nostalgia about the Infinite Blue series by ?tefan Constantinescu who worked as a mural painter in the Romanian army in Communist times.

Alongside these works there is the Children’s Pop-Up Guide to the Golden Age, a beautifully crafted panorama complete with moveable churches and dressed up dolls that establishes that what is happening in Romania at the moment is not just a momentary twinge of pain, and that the recent past continues to haunt Romanian consciousness.

Finally I make my way back to the Center for Visual Introspection, a shop space in the central area of Bucharest that is located next to an art gallery. Again it was the work by artists from Romania that appeared to me to be the strongest, in this case Mona V?t?manu and Florin Tudor whose recreation of the 1926 Russian revolutionary banner  Long Live and Thrive Communism Capitalism brings together  many of the changes that are apparent  all around Budapest. This becomes even more evident during the Q/A session with the curator when one of the French artists who was staying in a five-star hotel turned the curator’s demand for a subisidy to cover his bar bill into an artistic manifesto. When I later talked with  a Romanian art student on my way back to the hotel it became clear (unsurprisingly) that there is a huge gap between the art shown at BB4 and the way fine art is generally taught in Romania. Most of the work shown at BB4, in this perspective, seems as if from a different planet, with the represented artists figuring as brave astronauts who send back messages from distant political and conceptual galaxies.

By Saturday afternoon  I was in dire need of  the parks and spaces that ring the north of the city centre. The high-19th -century Romanesque National Geological Museum with its dusty, hand painted dinausaurs and its grim oil paintings of past presidents of Romania may not have seemed a likely venue for an art Biennale, and yet it is here that BB4’s interventionist style really starts to pay off. The school parties winding their way  around the museum displays all want to play with Lan Tuzon’s Riot City models, and they marvel at Ion Grigorescu’s photographs of the secret election day in 1975  when Ceaucescu tightened his grip on power. These images must bring back bad memories to many. But the most powerful piece here is no doubt Bucharest and its Utopia (1935) by Marcel Iancu, which shows a 50-year agenda for modernism. In a back room Swedish artist Asa Sonjasdotter grows the kind of potatoes outlawed by EU norms and shows that these regulations reach even the smallest farms  in rural Romania.

On Sunday I visit the clean rebuilt cottages and farms of the popular and busy Village Museum on the edge of Lake Her?str?u with its stalls selling populist folk art. The contrast with the urban wilderness of Rahova/Uranus, my last BB4 venue, could not be greater. Here, piles of rubbish, huge puddles, a half-built two-lane highway, scrapped cars, and the ubiquitous packs of dogs line my approach to the nightclub and community workshop La Bomba.  Art here is action – improvised bands and reclaimed, even a haute-couture fashion workshop for a community literally on the edge of the art galaxy, and in the shadow of the incomplete Romanian Academy where metal rods used to reinforce buildings are being pulled away for scrap across the street from an Italian designer furniture store.

On Monday I came back to La Bomba for a jam session with an American trumpet player and local percussion players. I took two reams of paper as a thank you gift with me. There were no white walls or high conceptualism here. “You understand what we are all about,” organizer Irina Giadiuta said. Will BB4 survive the hard times Romania faces? Will it grow bloated, fat and complacent, like so many other events of its kind? Or will the sprightly spirit of Romanian Dada keep it alive just as it kept its organizers going? It remains to be seen.

Bob Jarvis. Image courtesy of the author.Bob Jarvis teaches urban design at LSBU and is setting up the Anglo-Romanian Urbanism Network at the following email address:

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