Interview with Iosif Kiràly

Iosif Kiràly. Iosif Kiràly is one of Romania’s most prominent contemporary artists. He teaches at the National University of Arts in Bucharest, where he is also the co-founder of the Department of Photography and Time-Based Media Arts. Kiràly lives and works in Bucharest.

Ileana Pintilie: You are at present one of the best-known Romanian artists active on the international art scene. Please talk about your formation as an artist, about the artistic elements that influenced your development.

Iosif Kiràly: My background is a hybrid one. In the 1970s, I attended a Bauhaus-like art school in Timi?oara (the only one existing at that time in Romania). That institution was a “pedagogical experiment / firing range” for the so-called Sigma group. It promoted the merger of art and new technologies, along with a type of neo-constructivist aesthetics. I graduated from the Institute of Architecture in Bucharest. However I chose to return to contemporary art with a focus on installations, performance and photography.

Iosif Kiràly.Iosif Kiràly is one of Romania’s most prominent contemporary artists. He teaches at the National University of Arts in Bucharest, where he is also the co-founder of the Department of Photography and Time-Based Media Arts. Kiràly lives and works in Bucharest.

Ileana Pintilie: You are at present one of the best-known Romanian artists active on the international art scene. Please talk about your formation as an artist, about the artistic elements that influenced your development.

Iosif Kiràly: My background is a hybrid one. In the 1970s, I attended a Bauhaus-like art school in Timi?oara (the only one existing at that time in Romania). That institution was a “pedagogical experiment / firing range” for the so-called Sigma group. It promoted the merger of art and new technologies, along with a type of neo-constructivist aesthetics. I graduated from the Institute of Architecture in Bucharest. However I chose to return to contemporary art with a focus on installations, performance and photography. In the 80s I was very involved in the mail-art movement and through it I was introduced to Shozo Shimamoto, one of the members of the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai. The meeting with him (he visited me in the dark mid-1980s in Timi?oara) had a great influence on my future artistic activities. At the beginning of the ‘90s I was granted a scholarship to study with Geoffrey Hendricks, one of the Fluxus artists, and during that period I had the opportunity to meet few of the artists who represented this movement (Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Ben Patterson, Emmett Williams, Ben Vautier, etc.).



I.P.: Your beginnings as an artist lie in performance art. Does performance still play a role in your work today, or was it tied to the specific conditions that existed under the Communist regime?What are the links between photography and performance in your work?

I.K.: I would say that my beginnings as an artist lie in something I would call “performance photography” because those early performances were conducted with photography in mind. Due to the fact that the Communist regime did not consider performance to be a valid art form and did not allow them to take place in public spaces, each of those performances was made (and staged) in a private or isolated place. In order to reach an audience, such a performance had to first become a photograph, because photographs could travel in space (e.g. as mail-art objects) and preserved for future audiences. Now I can say that for me, each performance I conducted during the period of Communism was a photographic “message in a bottle.”

I.P.: How did you come up with the system of panoramic photography in Reconstructions (and elsewhere)? What were the first variants, the beginning of this multi-layered perception?

I.K.: The perception of time, the distortions of memory, and the dynamics of changes that affect our perception of individuals, objects, and urban spaces, at different speed levels were fascinating to me years before I began this project. I have sought and experimented with different visual formats before finding the one through which I could better express such concepts. My pursuit of a visual language that would be adequate to the Reconstructions project developed in the context of a profound shift in the field of photography, namely the abrupt transition from analogue to digital technology. The first “reconstructions” were photo-montages that consisted of photographs/snapshots taken with film-based cameras. By the end of the 1990s I purchased a camera that had the possibility of inscribing each photograph with the time, date and year in which it was taken. In this preliminary stage of the project, the time-code was visible in all the fragments (snapshots) that made up the “reconstruction.” After realizing the possibilities of the digital technology and the fact that it could help me to better develop this project both from a conceptual standpoint and from a visual one (for example, digital photography made it easier to zoom-in and zoom-out from an image, and to navigate through the different visual layers of a panorama), I began to work exclusively with digital cameras and computers. The act of taking a photograph with a digital camera is not radically different from its analogue equivalent. However, constructing the panoramas (photo-montages) using digital technology is a totally different experience because instead of using scissors and adhesive tape I am using computers, software programs, graphic tablets, digital pens, and erasers.

I.P.: To what extent is your photography an objective or a subjective document, stemming from immediate perception as well as memory?

I.K.: The function of objectively documenting reality, which has been photography’s claim since its inception, is becoming more and more controversial. Nowadays, when the photographic image can be produced, modified, and disseminated more widely and efficiently than ever, we are confronted with a bizarre phenomenon. On the one hand, the credibility of a photograph from the documentary point of view is greatly diminished, yet on the other hand our fear of becoming the subject of an unauthorized photograph has increased. Photography is evermore perceived as a powerful instrument that does not document reality but rather manipulates it. My own photographs – I’m referring to the Reconstructions series – are meta-images, subjective interpretations of reality produced from objective fragments (component snapshots). In film there is a term for this kind of work: “docu-fiction,” namely a fiction film made from documentary footage.

I.P.: Do you feel particularly close to a certain theme, such as the urban landscape? Or are you more interested in doing research into the society? What is the importance of trips, especially train journeys, in your life?

I.K.: Yes, the “urban landscape” is an important theme for me but not in the sense of architecture photography. It is one of the places in or through which one can see certain tendencies of society that populates and continuously changes the “landscape.” In my photographic research, it has been my collaboration with Mariana Celac (and my acquaintance with her extraordinary research in the field of urban development/evolution) that helped me even more than my background as an architect. Together we have made many photographic trips and we have had many discussions about my photographs.

As for the train, I can say that it was an important element in my life. In the 1980s, I had to commute for two years by train, I spent 5-6 hours everyday day on it. After the year 2000, I would travel at least once a month from Bucharest to Timi?oara (8-9 hours) to visit my increasingly aging parents who needed me more and more. During such trips, in addition to reading, I could meditate and recall many things, gestures, deeds which would otherwise have never reached the surface from the depths of my memory. The train compartment is an ideal place for meditating on themes such as time, space, memory, and perception. The world of the train inside the carriage is ruled by a different kind of time than the world as it is seen through the window of the moving train. The world is perceived by an observer inside a carriage differently than by someone who is standing outside and for whom the trains rushes by. Perhaps it was not by chance that Einstein chose the train as one of the examples for better communicating his theory of relativity to the general public.

I.P.: Many of your photos, especially those inspired by Bucharest, seem to be also a social commentary (I am referring to the emblematic snapshots of stray dogs, for example). To what extent does this apply to the photos inspired by other locations, such as those taken in Iran?

I.K.: I generally do not start with the idea of making explicit social or political commentaries in my photographs. However, I do not exclude the possibility of such commentaries being made by certain viewers in relation to these images. I will tell you an anecdote: once a reporter from a Romanian TV channel came together with a cameraman for documenting one of my exhibitions on the Reconstructions project. While they were filming the exhibition, a well-known Romanian philosopher entered the gallery. After he had seen the work on display the reporter approached him for a short interview. “Mr. X, does it seem to you that the author of these photographs managed to represent in any way the matter of memory and of the passing of time in his images?” The philosopher replied: “What time? What memory? I do not see memory or the passing of time. I would rather construe these images as urban landscapes that speak to Romania’s decline of and the fact that it has been anesthetized by so many disastrous governments with their mixing of traces of communism with aggressive and inhumane neo-liberalism.” I think that certain information regarding the past and the present, or regarding mentalities and political configurations can be inferred from the panoramas even when it comes to places where I did not photograph as systematically as in Romania.

I.P.: You wrote somewhere that, if you could, you would definitely like to expunge the 1980s, which you consider a painful experience. But weren’t those years also the model of an artistic solidarity that has since disappeared? How do you perceive the 1980s to have influenced Romanian art, as well as you and your own work?

I.K.: In the text you speak of, I imagined a hypothetical situation in which my memory would fill up like a hard disk. If I wanted to add new memories, I would need to delete some of the old ones and in this context I would give up my recollections of the 1980s without much hesitation.

You are right, those years were a model of human solidarity and perhaps of artistic solidarity as well. We used to meet in small groups. The two of us – I am sure you remember – partook in such meetings with Constantin Flondor, Stefan Bertalan, and the Tulcan family. We would meet every week for readings and discussions in order to maintain a connection with a system of values that we considered correct at the time– probably because it was opposed the system of values promoted by official Communist propaganda). We were a close-knit community because a clear and easily identifiable danger was hovering over us and we did not want to be annihilated by it.

As for artistic production in Romania during those years, I believe there is only a rather small number of works that would be of interest from a contemporary perspective (a perspective that views the work of art in relation to politics and social issues). From the standpoint of nature and ecology, though, there might be more things produced during that time would be of interest.

Of course to those people who did not experience the Romanian Communist way of life because were not born at that time or were too young or were not living in Romania, the official art produced in those years could be appealing, since now it seems comical and grotesque. Resistance art, on the other hand, is difficult to read today since it’s obscured by its various historical codes that are difficult to grasp today.

The history of Romanian art from the Communist period must be revised with a view to detailing the social and political context and its promotion of primitive and aggressive atheism, raw nationalism, and the cult of personality surrounding the Ceausescus. Such a revised history would need to outline the connection between art, artists, and the social and political situation. I believe that the artists and the artistic experiments of the period of communism should not be idealized or overestimated. Nor should they be derided and dismissed. I noticed that some of the more radical critics are tempted to consider the value of the Romanian and Eastern European art and artists from the Communist era in relation to what was happening in Western art during the same time. In this line of thought, an Eastern European artist is considered more valuable today if his/her art produced in those years seems from today’s point of view to be somewhat in concert with the productions of the great American or Western European artists of the same period. According to this reasoning, which is based on synchronism, one can compare the Romanian painter Corneliu Baba with the American Andy Walhol during the ‘60s, or, in the 1970s, Geta Bratescu with Bruce Nauman. Whereas in the field of economics, such comparisons may be beneficial and are considered a gesture of maximum transparency, when it comes to evaluating artists, one has to proceed more carefully and in a more nuanced manner. It is like appraising the importance and value of the Trabant brand for East Germans by comparing its technical performance against cars like Mercedes or even Volkswagen!

As far as my own work from the ‘70s and ‘80s is concerned, I cannot and will not reject it. However, I cannot help imagining what my art would look like if I had had the opportunity from a young age to be in direct contact with important international artists , to visit significant contemporary exhibitions and museums, or to communicate and collaborate with peers from other parts of the globe (I have always had a disposition for communication and cooperation). The only way in which I could do this (to an extent) was to get involved in the international mail-art movement, an alternative artistic trend that was rooted in Fluxus but that was also totally marginal and parallel to the network of Western art galleries and museums. The mail-art network began in the ‘60s, reached its climax in the ‘80s, and came apart in the ‘90s with the advent of the Internet. For many young Romanian and Eastern European artists in the ‘80s, mail-art represented an alternative and the illusion of being part of a very active international artistic movement. In fact, Eastern European artists were among the most interesting participants to the network. The network functioned in a manner similar to the Internet, comprising of a number of experimental artists (doing performances and a kind of visual poetry), a few respected Fluxus and Gutai artists, but also all kinds of freaks, amateurs and people of various professions who were eager to communicate (and possibly collect mail-art objects), but who did not have much to say artistically.

I.P.: In a way, the early 1990s continued the Communist experience. However, this was publicly acknowledged only after 1989. In this context, how do you re-evaluate the activities of the subREAL group, of which you were a member?

I.K.: From 1990 to 1993 (when we were the only three members) the subREAL group was rooted in Romanian conceptual art of the 1980s. At the same time it was focused on the new realities of post-Communist Romania. From 1995, Calin Dan and I continued the activities of the group, creating a consistent body of work (mostly photographic projects). The starting point at that stage was the photo archive of the magazine Arta (the only Romanian art magazine during the period of communism). All subsequent projects grew from this initial point and diversified. The main themes and centers of interest for projects such as “Art History Archive,” “Serving Art”; or “Interviewing the Cities,” were the work of art; the artist and the creative act in relation to the political and administrative power; public and private space; architecture; and the relationship between history and technology.

I.P.: What does the group mean to you nowadays? Is it still viable? Do you continue to exhibit together with Calin Dan? Do you still feel represented by the themes tackled by the group?

I.K.: For both Dan and me the group’s activities were complementary to what each of us was doing as an independent artist. Perhaps our joint activities lasted for so many years because there were no conflicts of interest between group projects and individual ones. Since the group’s inception in 1996, we have lived at the opposite ends of Europe (Calin in Amsterdam and I in Bucharest). The most intense creative activity took place during various artistic residences – lasting between one month and one year – in places like Berlin, Stuttgart, Vienna, Stockholm, Helsinki, Zurich, and Montreal. Little by little, our individual artistic projects, as well as personal matters, began to prevail over the activities of the group, and so we found it increasingly difficult to spend such extended periods of time away from home. In fact our last new works were created and exhibited in 2005. Since then, we have participated in several exhibitions with older productions. My relationship with Calin Dan, as well as with Dan Mihaltianu, is very good. The three of us have the responsibility and interest to manage the legacy and image of subREAL in the future. A couple of years ago we wanted to organize a retrospective exhibition and a comprehensive publication that would have brought together all the works produced in the 15 years of the group’s existence. However, we soon realized that in Romania there is still very little institutional interest and funding for such an endeavor. Perhaps the future will bring more favorable circumstances. Until then, each of us will concentrate on other projects.

I.P.: For some years now your professional efforts have been focused on creating a public platform for contemporary photography. Can we still talkabout a new generation of Romanian photographers? Can you name a few young artists who, in your opinion, will continue the struggle to establish photography in such a conservative, closed society as ours?

I.K.: In a cultural and economic context that is indifferent and occasionally hostile to contemporary art, the effort necessary for creating such a platform is disproportionally great when compared to the results obtained through it. In a country that does not facilitate artist-in-residence programs and scholarships for young artists and where the contemporary art market is insignificant and not very keen on photography, it is very difficult to persuade someone to choose such a path in life. I had many talented and intelligent students. However, they eventually turned to other fields, such as advertising or mass-media where they work as photojournalists or photo/video-editors). This reorientation was fatal for their artistic careers.

On the other hand, it seems clear to me that now, more so than 10-15 years ago, artistic success is more and more similar to success in sports: Do you want to be famous, have money and be admired by the world? If yes, you have to play for a big club. Between two artists of the same age and value, the one represented by a powerful gallery and an influential agent will have more advantages and chances of success than the one who lacks these things. Perhaps for this reason, young artists today are more sensitive to such things and evaluate their chances more pragmatically.

While for most artists of my generation, their exhibition record (besides their artistic message) became the most important thing, for young artists of today, artistic success is incomplete and even questionable if it is not accompanied by material gain. I have cultivated to the best of my ability those who seemed keen on continuing the struggle you mentioned. I invited some of them – such as Alexandra Croitoru and Nicu Ilfoveanu – to develop what they learned at the National University of Arts’ Department of Photography and Time-Based Media Arts, where I also teach. Others are building their artistic career from more alternative positions. I am thinking of Vlad Nanca, Daniel Gontz, Bogdan Bordeianu, Irina Gheorge and Alina Popa among others.

Bucharest, 20 January 2009

Ileana Pintilie is an art historian and art critic. Her books include Actionism in Romania During the Communist Era and the volume Mitteleuropäische Paradigmen in Südosteuropa. Ein Beitrag zur Kultur der Deutschen im Banat (with Roxana Nubert). She has also published many articles and essays on contemporary art in Romania and abroad in international catalogues and volumes. In 1994 Pintilie won a National Award for Art Criticism. She is a contributing editor of ARTMargins.