The States of Mind of Romanian Visual Arts: The Personal Exhibition of Lia & Dan Perjovschi

Nasher Museum, Duke University, August 2007 – January 2008.

The title of the first retrospective exhibition of Lia and Dan Perjovschi at Duke University’s Nasher Museum suggests the effervescence of the Romanian “beginnings” in the 90s.(The States of Mind was the first big collective exhibition organized without communist censorship by the Art Museum of Timisoara, in 1991, following the initiative and concept of a group of young artists, among whom we can mention Sorin Vreme; Ileana Pintilie, museum curator, was in charge of the exhibition logistics.)  Considered two of the most significant artists of experimental art in Eastern Europe, trained in the 80s and reaching maturity in the following decade, Lia and Dan are presented to the American public in a coherent artistic evolution that includes drawings, objects, installations, as well as detailed documentation. The whole event is accompanied by an impressive catalogue that contains essential information about the artists and provides an in-depth account of the Romanian context.

From the exhibition. Courtesy of Nasher Museum, Duke University. From the exhibition. Courtesy of Nasher Museum, Duke University. From the exhibition. Courtesy of Nasher Museum, Duke University. From the exhibition. Courtesy of Nasher Museum, Duke University.

According to exhibition curator Professor Kristine Stiles,(Kristine Stiles is professor of contemporary art and visual culture at the Art History Department of the Duke University.) the two artists’ beginnings have to be traced back to the non-conventional works they produced for themselves, without ever envisioning a public. For Dan Perjovschi, drawing was a means and a chance to survive during communism, enabling him to withdraw from conventional art and to comment on a cruel reality (Alone and Grey, 1989). His “wrapping” of his own apartment during a celebration, for example, became an original form of evasion that was later transposed into fiction (Red Apples for Lia, 1988).

Both artists were interested in mail art, a type of alternative art that spread in the 80s among younger artists. With the help of mail art networks these artists could get in touch with other artists around the world and make contact with the outside. This was the context in which Lia Perjovschi started to produce her “discrete messages,” drawings on paper or on her own body (The Sleep Test, 1988) that she would send away so they could be included in exhibitions abroad. This type of body drawing thus became a form of visual expression that communicated better than any other artistic form a message about the passivity of the exhibited body, about sadness and non-action and more generally about states of mind generated by the feeling of “captivity” perceived by everybody on a general scale before 1989.

Examples of these oppressive, frustrating states of mind can be found in several works created in that period and exhibited immediately after 1990, such as Dan Perjovschi’s Anthropoteque, an installation comprised of hundreds of drawings which expressed anxiety and dismay, as if jotted down on a notepad; or Lia Perjovschi’s installation Impression Folder which is made up of canvas and paper shaped in a female body, a sort of écorchés about absence. These installations helped the two artists organize their first joint personal exhibition.

For Dan Perjovschi, the experience of drawing as a continuum, an existential state of mind, led him to a new artistic practice in which drawing became a performance that implied the subject’s presence and that at the same time diminished the artistic object.(The drawings on the walls and floors of art galleries are conceived by the artist as ephemeral forms of art, doomed to extinction, when the exhibition is over. Dan Perjovschi’s conviction is that his gesture matters more than these works, thus opposing future manipulations of his art.) In his performance States of Mind, presented at the homonymous exhibition in Timi?oara, in 1991, his confinement for three days in the porter’s lodge at the Art Museum and his gesture of “wrapping” up that place in paper and drawing it in shades from white to black, became a model of his current artistic practice. Anthropograme (New York, 1996), rEST (the Romanian Pavillion, the Venice Biennial, 1999), The Room Drawing, Tate Modern (London, 2006), What Happened To Us? , MOMA (New York, 2007) are only a few of the stages that led to the elaboration and accomplishment of this practice. If, at the beginning, he would draw a checkered grid to cover evenly the large surfaces about to be drawn, this practice disappears gradually. The artist works freely, managing to dominate these surfaces with the help of ample compositions, visible from a distance, the site and time specifically adapted, offering, in other words, a commentary on what was happening at that given moment in the place chosen for the performance around the world.

Dan Perjovschi’s drawings also changed their substance and composition; while his works in the early 90s – The Anthropoteque, Confessional, Scan or Manual Scan – preserve the much more elaborate forms of somewhat unique drawings or drawings in whose motifs, figures or characters the echoes of previous periods can be perceived, once he joins the editorial board of the 22 magazine and gets involved in the political debates of the period, the drawings’ composition becomes more radical and gains a powerful simplicity, a sharp irony. These drawings, critical about the society and the political situation, become his new visual language, accessible to the general public, even to the public who is not aware of Romanian issues. This is because the artist takes on general themes, such as identity and globalization,the East-West opposition, economic, political, cultural liberalism vs. the individual, to mention only some of them.

Dan Perjovschi before the entrance in Nasher Museum, decorated with his drawings. Courtesy of Dan Perjovschi.

Lia Perjovschi’s artistic expression has also evolved, gradually moving from drawing to performance to conceptual art. At the beginning, she was aware of the empathic link between the inner world, full of states of mind, and the closed outer realm, confined in an endless grey. Works from this period obsessively promote the theme of the double, visually represented as a shadow “crawling” or “walking” upside down (The World Upside down, 1992) or “assisting” the artist during the performance. The lack of communication in the society is the source of inspiration for a series of works with “hidden meanings,” meant to secure a precarious medium of communication with the outside, or, on the contrary, to reject this communication with the public programmatically (see the performance Zone Forbidden to Any External Utterance).

Gradually, the artist changed her point of view and devoted herself exclusively to the critical analysis of the Romanian political and cultural context, assessing it according to her own grid of values. Ever more aware of the lack of artistic context – leading to the artist’s marginal position in the society – she wanted to create a milieu for debate. Consequently, both Lia and Dan Perjovschi initiated an entire strategy of presenting their own ideas and positions in a series of publications, such as “newspapers,” released after various public events (e.g., Zoom / Slideshow, Meaning, and CAA, the Contemporary Art Archive, later the Centre for Art Analysis).

Both artists tried to create this milieu for debate, opening their own workshop to the public, organizing meetings between artists and cultural figures, and conceiving a series of TV shows on contemporary art, which was used as a pretext for debates on various current themes. Lia Perjovschi focused on making “diagrams” that presented cultural sites in connection with representative personalities (Mind Maps). Her research moved towards a much larger context, exploring a wide range of historical periods and civilizations (Research Files. General Timeline: from Dinosaurs to Google Going China, 1997-2006). These “diagrams” became her new works of art, where the writing has a profoundly visual character, converting the content into a visual expression worth noting.

The concept of her CAA project enjoyed international recognition, so that her archive was presented in various locations, enabling the artist to expand her research and present it to an ever more curious public. Following these repeated journeys, another artistic project was born: The Globe Collection, an open project that can be continually amplified. Impressed by the idea of the globe and globalization, and still having, as a result of living in the communist era, the frustration of not being able to travel, it seems the artist found the psychological motivation for the accumulation of objects from the most varied categories, evoking the globe as a fetish-object.

 One of Dan Perjovschi`s works at MOMA, New York. Courtesy of MOMA New York. The exhibition States of Mind at the Nasher Museum presented the two artists in a fluent, coherent manner. The curator’s main feat consisted in finding a balance between the two artists and between their objects and installations, borrowed from various European collections, offered to the American public, and accompanied by detailed documentation that consisted of films, photographs, and early drawings. The exhibition catalogue with its richly illustrated presentation of Lia and Dan Perjovschi’s biography is will keep the two artists in the international limelight long after this event is over.

This wonderfully conceived and professionally organized exhibition benefited from the two artists’ presence in the form of the site specific drawings that Dan Perjovschi made for the museums’ stained glass-decorated hall. As soon as the exhibition opened, a debate with guest speakers was organized, entitled Perspectives on Romanian Culture: Then and Now, with the participation of several Romanian curators and art historians. This rich accompanying program would not have been possible without the joint support of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, which proved, once again, its efficiency.