Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

The international art world ‘discovered’ Dan Perjovschi in 1999 when his drawings were displayed in the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.[1] Under the title ‘rEST’, he covered the floor with cartoons and slogans in thick marker-pen reflecting on life in Eastern-Central Europe since the overthrow of communist rule 10 years earlier. Over time, his cartoons slowly disappeared under the traffic of visitors.

But just as Columbus could hardly discover a populated continent, the art world could not ‘discover’ this Romanian artist. In 1999 Dan Perjovschi had already been active for more than a decade in North America and throughout Europe. Moreover, the techniques of erasure and abjection that brought poignancy to his drawings in Venice were already key features of his practice. In ‘Anthroprogramming’ made in 1996 in New York, he had laid a loose grid on the walls of the Franklin Furnace artspace and then fill each box with a quick-fire portrait sketch. He then spent ten days systematically erasing the grid and its occupants. In ‘Live! From the Ground’, a 1988 performance in Chisinau in Moldova, he crawled prostrate along the city’s main street. Addressing the cracked tarmac, he called out ‘Ground to centre! Come in! Come in! I can’t hear you’ like some kind of desperate army telegraph operator. Dan Perjovschi saw this action as a metaphor for life in the communist and post-communist years when Romanian society moved at a crawl ‘unable to tear ourselves off the ground’.[2] Witty and sometimes sardonic, the Venice drawings also owed much to his work as a cartoonist for 22, a fiercely independent political magazine published in Bucharest to which he had contributed since the early 1990s. Dan Perjovschi’s work in Venice drew praise for pointing to the disappearance of ‘the East’ in the face of ‘Western’ values and the rise of the market conditions: it also signalled the rise of a new phenomenon, that of the Eastern European artist, a new exotic species in the fauna of art.

In the years since, Dan Perjovschi has drawn commentaries on life in the era of globalisation directly on the walls of many galleries and museums around the world. His thick pen has marked the crisp white surfaces of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2007) and the crystalline walls of the extension to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (2009) designed by Daniel Libeskind. When invited to participate in biennales and other short-term art events, he often works in chalk on the exteriors of buildings or on the paving stones of the street. Increasingly Dan Perjovschi himself features as part of the visual spectacle, working while the public looks on. This is an aspect of his practice which causes Dan Perjovschi some disquiet: ‘We live in a cannibalistic period,’ he has said. ‘People simply want you’.[3] Never permanent additions to the collections of the institutions which commission him, his drawings are painted over a few weeks later or, when produced in an ephemeral medium like chalk, disappear naturally. At Tate Liverpool in 2008-9 this pattern was reversed: Dan Perjovschi’s blackboard drawings were slowly overwritten over the course of two months by chalk cartoons and graffiti by the city’s school children. A frenzy of buzzing lines and words slowly swallowed his work. At the end, the only way to leave a mark on this billowing surface of chalk dust was to draw with a wet fingertip.

Despite the enthusiastic embrace of his work in the high temples of the art world, Dan Perjovschi continues to occupy the margins, sometimes literally. He draws in corridors, around the doorways on ceilings and on floors, sometimes making a feature of the edges of the space. Occupying the dizzying atrium space in the monumental lobby of MOMA in New York in 2007, Dan Perjovschi’s drawings were ‘interrupted’ by the floor and folded around the corners of the wall. Edges are not necessarily marginal spaces. In fact, they offer up ideal positions for critical perspectives.

Here, an analogy can be drawn from the past. In the Middle Ages, artists illuminating books would sometimes add mocking glosses and grotesque figures to the borders of the page. The anxieties which lurked in the dark spaces of the human imagination were given material form as dog-headed men, one-footed beasts and ape-angels. An illuminator might supplement his portraits of venerable saints and wise philosophers with depictions of profane acts and erotic fantasies. Off-centre and often humorous, these devices provided a kind of imaginative escape for the illuminator and the reader wearied by the orderly and uplifting content of the missal or book of hours. Some marginalia went further, seeming to offer critique of the text itself. The British Library, for instance, possesses a late thirteenth century copy of Aristotle’s Physics, a controversial text when it prepared for scholars in Europe’s universities (to the extent that it was ordered to be burned in Paris as a text which might encourage heresy[4]). On a page discussing the Heavens, a scholar in his study stares into the space above the block of text. His vision of the starry firmament is, however, obscured by a scabrous fool being transported in a wheelbarrow over bumpy ground. In his analysis of this marginal image, Michael Camille suggests that it is a satirical commentary on the consequences of acquiring too much knowledge.[5] Had the body buckled under the weight of all the lofty ideas contained on the very same page? Irreverent and witty, illuminated marginalia was inevitably dependent on the centre. The fact that these unruly images appeared on the same page as the sacred Word or brilliant philosophical treatises is what gave them such potency (and, as Camille suggests, perhaps, as a result, the centre was made all the more secure and stable by the presence of fantastic images on the edge[6]).

What is the relation of Dan Perjovschi’s graphic marginalia to the institutions on which they are quite literally inscribed? In many of his cartoons and slogans, he reflects on the condition of the museum and gallery in the twentieth-first century, deprecating the commercialism and sponsorship of culture. Like many Eastern European intellectuals, Dan Perjovschi possesses a sharp sense of freedom and so ‘free’ – whether attached to humans or things – is a word which invariably raises suspicion.[7] The excess and profligacy of the international biennale, a seemingly unending cycle of bonanzas, is ridiculed too (‘DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING THE VENICE BIENNALE WILL BE LOCATED TO STOCKHOLM’). Curators are identified as minor dictators, in one drawing framing the eyes of a faceless artist. Dan Perjovschi does not exempt himself from his critical pen: the figure of the ‘international artist’ who lives his or her life from a suitcase appears regularly in his cartoon cast. In one image that featured in his 2010 Royal Ontario Museum show, two figures, hands in pockets, exchange small talk. ‘WHAT YOU DID AFTER THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL?’ asks one. ‘BASEL ART FAIR’ replies the other. Positioned next to the text panel describing Dan Perjovschi’s art, this cartoon points to the art world’s keen embrace of the Eastern European artist (as well the commodification of politics in the form of artworks with expensive price tags[8]). In fact, the curatorial statement on the wall nearby begins by describing Dan Perjovschi as ‘One of Eastern Europe’s most sought-after artists.’

Dan Perjovschi’s wall-drawings look unplanned, unfinished and even instinctive (and, as such, a suppression of all that he had learned at the conservative George Enescu University of Art in the 1980s). Occasionally, scratching out ‘errors’ in thick black marks, his lines are quick and bold. He writes in English in hasty capital letters, seemingly with little concern for penmanship. Figures, buildings and actions are reduced to a simple graphic lexicon of silhouettes and loose geometric shapes. National and political symbols are drafted in as graphic ready-mades. His wall drawings are not, however, always as spontaneous as they might seem. While some figures are conjured up on the spot, others are distilled from the sketchbook he always carries with him. Over the years Dan Perjovschi’s sketchbooks function as a kind of archive of ideas, always ready when needed. The same figures and motifs appear in his wall drawings, still resonant 10 years or more after their first appearance. They pass from one context to another. The phrase ‘I AM NOT EXOTIC I AM EXHAUSTED’ often resurfaces, most recently at his show at the Centre for Visual Introspection (CIV) in Bucharest in 2010. Each time it materialises on a wall, it gathers new poignancy.

When commissioned to draw in situ, Dan Perjovschi absorbs himself in the press. This is not just a matter of expediency. When he was commissioned by the Ludwig Museum in Köln in 2005 to fill the white cube of its DC-Room over several weeks, copies of Le Monde, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek were arranged on tables in the centre of the gallery. In effect, viewers were invited to reflect on the relation between the detailed reports in print and his telegraphic images. (The exhibition extended beyond the walls of the Ludwig when, each week during the exhibition, die tageszeitung printed a visual digest by Dan Perjovschi on current events). One conclusion to be drawn from the comparison is that he is a brilliant visual and textual editor. In English, his word plays are often as sharp as any newspaper headline and his drawings deliver their message in a few telegraphic lines. These are skills honed over many years. When he joined the team of 22, the first independent weekly in Romania after the 1989 Revolution, he was involved in all aspects of the press from layout to proofreading. Established by a group of dissidents and intellectuals called the Group of Social Dialogue, 22 continues to defend freedom of speech and democratic rights in Romania. Loyal to the cause, Dan Perjovschi, wherever he is in the world, still sends cartoons to the weekly today.

Resolutely anti-communist, Dan Perjovschi has, by an accident of history, fulfilled a communist vision of the radical newspaper. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the young Bolshevik state encouraged the production of wall-newspapers or what in Russian are called stengazety.[9] Workers and school children were encouraged to paste up news, cartoons, to ‘publish’ documentary photographs and commentaries on the transformation of their world. Soviet citizens were, as the Communist Party loudly trumpeted, living through the greatest social transformation in the history of mankind. Their reports, sketches and cartoons were displayed on the streets, in factories and hospitals as well as in schools and apartment blocks in Soviet Russia.

The wall-newspaper was not just a medium for the transmission of ideas: it was, according to its champions, a mechanism for the transformation of consciousness. In recording and reporting their world, not least on the walls of the stengazeta, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of their own progressive influence in the world. In other words, they would become real revolutionaries. The efflorescence of proletarian creativity was an illusion: in fact, considerable effort went into providing ‘advice’ about how and what to write for the stengazeta, all material required permission of communist authorities. Although the wall-newspaper was exported to the newly-formed Eastern bloc in the late 1940s including to Romania, regulation and control eventually did for the format. The wall newspaper became a moribund relic of revolutionary socialism. By the 1960s, state printers in East Germany were turning out wall-newspaper ‘cut and paste’ kits. Printed reports, logos and stencils turned the act of authorship into one of assemblage (not unlike writing for the official communist press). The events of 1989 in Eastern Europe put an end to the wall newspaper: in the years since, Dan Perjovschi has restored this low-tech medium reviving its critical, comic and unruly energy. Preparing ‘The Room Drawing’ at Tate Modern in London in 2006, he took the views of museum staff, Tate members and representatives from Tate Modern’s Council. The drawings which filled the Members’ Room – a clubish space for fee-paying affiliates, open to the public for Dan Perjovschi’s exhibition – incorporated their comments and views of local and international events and ‘personal issues’.

Offering a distinctly critical perspective on the interests at work in the world without the heavy hand of propaganda, Dan Perjovschi’s work is often described as ironic. Irony is a form of dissimulation: an ironist says one thing but means another. Dan Perjovschi’s images are irreverent but they feign little. They show the world exactly as he sees it, albeit often in its most incongruous forms. When his drawings are absurd, it is because life is absurd. Looking at his wall drawings and slogans we see what we already know: communities living on fault-lines (East-West/Christian-Muslim) fail to understand each other; politicians are ruled by their egos and their libidos; and advertising makes us unhappy. In an age infected with the plague of irony (sometimes glossed as ‘postmodern irony’) Dan Perjovschi’s direct humour seems to point to an earlier, though no less sophisticated, way of viewing the world which exposes the vanity of people and the irrationality of systems which organise life. In this regard, he seems closer to existential skepticism than the postmodern taste for irony. ‘No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute’ wrote playwright Eugène Ionescu 50 years ago. ‘It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.’[10] These words might be used to caption Dan Perjovschi’s drawings today.

Refusing to be anyone’s representative, Dan Perjovschi has repeatedly expressed his dislike of the label ‘Romanian artist’ or even ‘Eastern European artist’, viewing both terms as limitations. To judge from the tremendous popularity of his work around the world, his art has a universal appeal which transcends such narrow categories. Nevertheless, Dan Perjovschi’s relations to Romania – past and present – are complex and ultimately productive. In 1993, he staged his commitment to the country by having a tattoo of the word Romania on his shoulder as a public performance at Zone 1, a festival in Timişoara. An ambiguous gesture, the tattoo implied both choice (this I chose to do) and compulsion (‘my’ national identity is marked on me). In 2003 he had this tattoo removed in three public sessions at ‘In the Gorges of the Balkans’ exhibition in Kassel, Germany, a gesture which marked a break with the nation. Kristine Stiles, in her landmark study of Dan Perjovschi and Lia Perjovschi’s art, identifies this action with a renewal of their vows of dissent. Thereafter, they became increasingly critical of the activities of the political and cultural elites in Romania.[11]

There is reason to be critical. Despite the violence that it unleashed, the 1989 Revolution channelled tremendous hopes for democracy, freedom of speech and the dignity that comes from an improved quality of life. Those who took power in 1990 – and their successors – have been keen to hold on to it, sometimes with little regard for the actual workings of democracy. The bodies responsible for ‘decommunisation’ – the process by which those who supported or benefited from the Ceauşescu regime are denied power or influence – have been neutralised. Capital is concentrated in the hands of a small number of oligarchs, many closely connected to political cartels. The courts and the media seem to serve the interests of the elite. Meanwhile, Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe with broken roads, schools and hospitals.[12] Dan Perjovschi has been highly critical of the political culture in Romania, refusing to be swept up in the populist nationalism which stirs the country periodically. His 2010 CIV exhibition in Bucharest offered brilliantly incisive commentaries on the failures of the Revolution. One figure carries a national flag which has had its central motif excised. In 1989, revolutionaries cut out the coat of arms which signalled the Romanian Socialist Republic, producing an icon of erasure. In Dan Perjovschi’s 2010 image, the flag-carrying figure has placed his own face in the hole or, perhaps, the hole has become his face, a device which points to the arrogance and petty nationalism of the politicians who have led Romania in the last two decades.

Despite his strong criticisms of Romania today, Dan Perjovschi continues to make his home in Bucharest (and, as such, is unlike ten per cent of the adult labour force who have left the country to work abroad[13]). The country remains a productive place for his art and for reflecting on the processes of globalisation underway in Europe. When, in 1989, communism collapsed, bankrupt and exhausted, many in the West predicted a future for the countries of Eastern Europe in terms determined by neo-liberal capitalism. This was the ‘natural’ and incontestable face of the modern society. What Dan Perjovschi’s art exposes is the hubris and injustice in the ‘New Global Order’. One cannot help but think that his perspectives on the political, social and economic interests shaping the world are more sharply focused because of his Romanian vantage point. This view is all the more powerful because it is taken from the margins.

[1] This was a joint show with subREAL, a group formed by artists Cãlin Dan and Josif Király in 1990.

[2] Dan Perjovschi cited by Kristine Stiles, States of Mind. Dan and Lia Perjovschi (Durham, NC., 2007), 73.

[3] Dan Perjovschi, interviewed Ileana Pintilie (December 2006) www.artmargins.com/index.php/5-interviews/154-drawing-for-freedom-an-interview-with-dan-perjovschi – accessed July 2010.

[4] Haig A. Bosmajian, Burning books (Jefferson, NC, 2006), 49.

[5] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London, 1998), 22-23.

[6] Camille, Image on the Edge, 26.

[7] See Svetlana Boym, Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea (Chicago, 2010), particularly chapter five.

[8] Of course there is nothing new in this. See Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Boston, MA, 2008).

[9] Catriona Kelly, ‘”A Laboratory for the Manufacture of Proletarian Writers”: The Stengazeta (Wall Newspaper), Kul’turnost’ and the Language of Politics in the Early Soviet Period’ in Europe-Asia Studies (June 2002), 573-602.

[10] Eugène Ionescu (writing in The Observer, 29 June 1958) cited in Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Harmondsworth, 1968), 126.

[11] Stiles, States of Mind, 79

[12] See Tom Gallagher, Theft of a Nation: Romania since Communism (London, 2005).

[13] See Tom Gallagher, ‘Romania and Europe: An Entrapped Decade’ (March 2010) – www.opendemocracy.net/tom-gallagher/romania-and-europe-entrapped-decade – accessed July 2010.


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