I hadn’t been to an international biennial before. So when invited to travel to this one, I stopped working on my book about Evelyn Waugh and flew to Bucharest where there is a crude air conditioning box attached to the wall close to almost every window. I guess it’s hot in summer.
On the day before the opening, a roundtable discussion had been arranged off-site by META Cultural Foundation, co-organisers of the biennial. About ten European curators and critics took part. The biennial’s theme of ‘art always seeming to be somewhere else’ left the panellists from ex-Communist Eastern Europe in particular with plenty to say. The discussion was in English, emphasising how close to the centre of things we are in Scotland. It also seemed over earnest and interminable from where I sat. Of course, this only underlines the relative comfort of a British-based position in the art world. If you’re working in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Dundee—never mind London—you are likely to feel a lot more secure and connected than if you’re working in intellectually isolated and arts funding-starved Croatia, Moldovia or Romania. That is fundamental.
The venue for the show itself was Bratianu Palace. This once splendid private house, which had been used as a hospital during Communist years, is an effective backdrop for contemporary art, the Romanian context remaining omnipresent. Tobias Sternberg took especially good advantage of this in his installation: a cramped interview space which was entered by a grand constructed curtain from one room in the house, but which appeared to be a single anonymous office in a modernist block from another room. Formal interviews with Romanian cultural experts could be booked in this space, thanks to Sternberg’s collaborators ‘add’, a Bucharest-based agency. This collaboration pointed towards the biennial organisers’ main medium-term aim—to help show how a healthy infrastructure for contemporary art in Romania can be developed.
This joint work was one of five projects curated by Dundee-based Jenny Brownrigg under the heading ‘AWOL in Romania’. Brownrigg was only one of five curators in all, yet her part of the show was for me much the easiest and most rewarding to engage with. This was partly because—by linking UK artists whose sensibility she knew something about, to Romanian artists who she felt were working in similar areas—she was building from a firm base. The showing together of strong pieces on the theme of how buildings affect the people who live in and amongst them by Marcus Coates, Will Duke and the Bucharest pairing of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, still resonates in my mind.
Transplanted from his home town of Glasgow for ten days or so, Stuart Murray, another Brownrigg selection, was introduced to Romanian artists long enough to make portraits of them. Would these socially engaged, career-nurturing individuals have had an inkling of where the Scottish working class Murray with his hair meticulously slicked back was coming from, literally or aesthetically? It didn’t look like it. The drawings—many of which bring to mind Hank Hill of the American cartoon King of the Hill— poke fun at the glibness of the intellectuals who give the impression of having granted Murray five minutes of their valuable time. Yet an audience of younger Romanians were laughing out loud at the work.
One of the joys of travelling to an event such as this is that some people of the host country will make an effort to give of their own time. A day or two after the opening, Florin Tudor took me by metro to the site of his and Mona Vatamanu’s piece Vacaresti . In the film, Tudor is shown stumbling around a frozen marsh, knocking pegs into the ground. What he’s doing is marking out the boundaries of an 18th century monastery that was raised to the ground during the reign of Ceausescu. Nearby there is the brutal concrete foundation of a sports stadium that was never finished, and a man-made wilderness stretches almost to the horizon. For an hour we stood there, in the cold, at the exact spot that the artists’ fixed camera was set-up in the film. And I learned in detail how such urban blight came into being and how frustrating it is for Tudor that nothing has been done to rebuild or commemorate the site since the overthrow of the Communist dictator. Being a self-absorbed westerner, eventually I got tired of listening to this historically-aware and highly motivated artist. But not before an overview dawned on me. The artists maturing in the ex-Communist block at the moment are bound to be very different from those in the west. Whether an Eastern European was born in 1960 or 1970 or 1980, his or her society was completely changed by the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late eighties. Only then did information begin to flow freely. The waste of human resources, the hypocrisy of those in power, the fear of the Big Brother state that undermined most people’s lives under Ceausescu: all was laid bare. Many artists from ex-Communist countries must feel they have no choice but to follow through on that experience of psychic upheaval, that revelation of negative legacy.
When I returned to the show after this site visit, I became aware of several videos showing disturbed young adults. One poor guy in These Days by Croatian artist David Maljkovic, keeps saying robotically, ‘I feel sick today’. Well, I felt I understood why. But, I’m not sure I agree with Branko Franceshi, the curator who chose this work and others just as disturbing, when he states in his catalogue essay, ‘I am inclined to consider artists the lucky ones who, thanks to the given creative impulse, have an actual chance to sidestep the oppression system and go AWOL.’ Sensitivity to the plight of their tribe is often the principal trait of the artist.
Duncan McLaren is a writer.