The Hand Listens

Contemporary Art, Music
She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018

Aura Satz, She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018

This short essay was published in the publication accompanying Aura Satz’s recent exhibition in the Fridman Gallery in NYC (November 2018). The images are taken from the Gallery’s site.

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She Recalibrates, Aura Satz’s new series of drawings are portraits fashioned from details. Most derive from publicity for electronic music presenting a composer at work in a studio surrounded by banks of dials, switches, tape reels and faders. Satz’s gallery of immortelles features Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Suzanne Ciani, Wendy Carlos, Beatriz Ferreyra, Else Marie Pade, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux and Tara Rodger. Some were ‘pioneers’ of electronic music from its early days in the 1950s and 1960s, and others are still active today. All are women.

Satz’s portraits include many women who enjoyed little public acclaim, even within the rather recondite field of electronic music. Only occasionally did they occupy centre stage (Wendy Carlos attracting the brightest lights). Their recordings were only rarely issued at the time of their creation. A 1970 ‘Electronic Panorama’ of new music from around the world was issued on the Philips Label: not one woman featured among the 26 contributors to the four LP box set. And yet, as Christoph Cox notes, women ‘have been much more than a token presence within the experimental tradition and have produced work as significant as that of their male counterparts.’[1] In a one sense, Satz’s She Recalibrates forms part of a larger recuperation of these women and their work in recent years. But this drawing cycle asks more of its viewers than simply to pay homage.

Satz’s drawings are presented behind magnifying lenticular sheets and in precise circular frames. The optical effect of the grooves on the transparent disks is an invitation to the viewer to move to the find the point at which the image resolves (not unlike the pleasure of turning a CD in the hand to see diffractive patterns on its surface). In effect, the viewer has to tune in to the visual signal of Satz’s circular dials. The drawings record a repertoire of gestures involved in the work of the composer in the studio: the turn of a dial to change the frequency of a pulse; the careful splicing and editing of magnetic tape to combine sound clips; or the depression of keys on a keyboard to effect tempered pitches. Working the instruments of the studio, the hands also signal close listening. Hands and ears sculpt disembodied sounds – either generated entirely electronically or abstracted from concrete sources – to form acousmatic compositions. Working as a producer and composer of soundtracks for Danish Radio from the mid 1950s, Else Marie Pade returned to the studio ‘after hours’ to work on her own compositions. They include early experiments like ‘Seven Circles’ (1959) in which a serial pattern of notes is shifted, accelerated and layered over seven cycles according to a careful set of calculations. Its score is an exercise in geometry and tabulation. Pade relished the ‘microscopical precision’ afforded by the studio’s instruments: ‘The possibility to achieve the exact pitches you want to manipulate, so that they match fully with your own perception of pitch. The sounds that I’m looking for can have an airy character, but still be very concrete.’[2] Others stressed the improvisation which was required in the early years of electronic music. Éliane Radigue worked as a voluntary assistant for Pierre Henry in Paris at the end of 1960s. In return, Henry gave her two first generation tape recorders which, though limited, were ‘tough enough to support feedback experiments’. Radigue set up a small home studio, working intensively with tape techniques of speed manipulation, overlaying and feedback. ’Sometimes,’ she recalls, ‘it was enough to touch one of the recording or playback potentiometers to develop a sound. In this way, I discovered the pleasure of a work made with the tip of the fingers.’[3]

By centring in on the hands, She Recalibrates allows for a kind of pulling back too. Where else have we seen these hands? Where are these gestures also made? The image of the hand operating the console was one of the key signifiers of the information revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. It was the harbinger of both dreamworld and catastrophe: push button technologies promised ‘miracle kitchens’ and, at the same time, Cold War command and control centres threatened planetary annihilation. In the ‘third industrial revolution’, the dial inferred new relationships between people and machines based on automation and cybernetic regulation. The role of the human in future manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems was to become that of an overseer in a clean, frictionless world. This promise was also underscored by existential anxiety: the image of the fallible human being replaced by new forms of automata was the subject of doomy prophecies in the 1950s and 1960s. In his essay ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’, Norbert Wiener, for instance, reflected on the threat to humanity posed by cybernetic machines: ‘It is quite in the cards that learning machines will be used to program the pushing of the button in a new pushbutton war’.[4] In this scenario, a thinking machine commands the console; in other words, it commands itself.

The potencies of utopia and disaster were also invoked in discussions of new electronic music. In 1970, French writer and composer Maurice Fleuret, described the turn of the dial in euphoric – even cosmic – terms in publicity for the ‘Electronic Panorama’ box set:

 

Time and space shrink. Tokyo can hear what is happening at any instant in Paris. Turn a knob and you can be at the ends of the earth, or even on the moon. …  The walls dissolve, the ceiling vanishes, and we are released on the flying carpet of the sound-dream; all kinds of geographic, historical, and acoustic perspectives are open to us. Fiction outstrips reality at the gallop. The eye listens, the ear sees: a new sense is given us.[5]

 

Electronic music would not only expand human capacities, it was, it seems, even capable of recalibrating the senses.

Writing two years later, British composer Daphne Oram was more circumspect, warning of a ‘world where freehand, empirical, human control is withdrawn and everyone (and everything) is submitted to total permutated “logical” control by computers. It appears an arid, cold, inhuman world to me and not what I would choose; but others may prefer it and certainly in the 1950s it looked as if the world was heading in that direction.’[6] She welcomed the spread of aleatoric techniques in the composition of music in the years since, whether the ‘spin of the coin’ or ‘the random number table housed in the computer’. Such techniques would ‘keep much of the responsibility out of the freehand human control but escape the regimentation of total serialisation’. They would ensure ‘a feeling of individuality which is not arrogant, not conceited, but is based on inner conviction and faith, based on what lies beyond.’[7]

Oram, like other composers and musicians portrayed by Satz, pulled away from the carefully controlled world of precise instruments towards New Age thinking – to what lies beyond. Else Marie Pade imagined ‘that the stars and the moon and the sky uttered sounds and those turned into electronic music’.[8] American musician and composer Pauline Oliveros, celebrated for her ‘sonic meditations’ (group listening exercises) and ‘telepathic improvisation’ techniques, began her work in electronic music. Her sense of the beyond began there. Experimenting with signal generators working beyond the range of human hearing to create electronic music from ghostly combination tones in the mid 1960s, Oliveros was accused of ‘black art’: the director of the studio where she was working unplugged her amplifiers.[9]  Perhaps the director found something unnerving in the composition. Certainly, Oliveros’ recordings from the mid 1960s – often created live in the studio – have qualities which challenge description. Music critic Frances Morgan writes: ‘Sometimes when I listen to Oliveros’s early electronic works, I think about how I can only explain certain audio phenomena or functions on a synthesizer by gesture – by demonstrating on a machine or, in the absence of something with dials and knobs, by waving my hands around, drawing shapes in the air.’[10]

For many of these composers, electronic music seems to have been less a way of producing calculated sonic effects than a kind of unstable threshold between worlds. Oliveros, Radigue or Oram at the console call to mind German sociologist Georg Simmel’s brilliant essay ‘The Handle’ (‘Der Henkel’, 1911).[11] Reflecting on those things like vessels which invite holding, he came to the conclusion that for all their purposefulness, these ‘interfaces’ act as a kind of portal between worlds of utility and fantasy, and between ordinary material and ineffable immateriality. Simmel was drawn to organic forms, imagining the ceramic stem of a handle as a kind of extrusion of nature and of the body. Potentiometers and mixers – clad in plastic and accompanied by gauges and numeric scales – don’t lend themselves to this order of naturalism. Nevertheless, for Oram at least, they opened up a kind of posthuman imaginary: ‘We might now perhaps wonder further – wonder whether the human body is one vast “tuned circuit” embodying within it all these millions of smaller tuned circuits. (Maybe the spinal column is the coiled wire; maybe the brain … (the frontal lobes?) … and the solar plexus (with the sexual organs?), are the plates of the capacitor?)’.[12]  Rather than being simply instruments managing electric and sonic flows, perhaps the studio dials and switches – which have drawn Satz’s attention – might be understood as valves for the body too. Composer Annea Lockwood said something similar when she wrote these words to Oliveros: ‘Seems possible to me that however intensively we compose with them and process them, sounds process us much more deeply. And so far I know so little of the changes which go on when sound goes through me.’[13] These composers embraced the kind of disordering – of music, of themselves, of spaces, and of the social world – which these electronic thresholds invited. These effects were not merely accidental or impetuous. After all, she recalibrates.

 

[1] Christoph Cox, ‘A La Recherche d’une Musique Feminine’ in Her Noise, ed. Anne Hilde Neset and Lina Dzuverovic-Russell (London: Forma, 2005), pp. 7–13.

[2] Pade interviewed in the Ja Ja Ja (4 November 2014) https://jajajamusic.com/magma/else-marie-pade – accessed August 2018.

[3] Radigue interviewed in ‘A Portrait of Éliane Radigue’ (2009) issued on DVD by Institut für Medienarchäologie, Hainburg, Austria.

[4] Norbert Wiener, ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ in Science, vol. 131, no. 3410 (6 May 1960), p. 1356.

[5] Maurice Fleuret’s sleeve notes fort he ‘Electronic Panorama’ 4 LP box set, issued by Philips, 1970.

[6] Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electricity (London: Gaillard, 1970) p. 58.

[7] Ibid

[8] Sleeve notes on ‘Else Marie Pade. Electronic Works 1958-1995’, CD, Important Records, 2014.

[9] Pauline Oliveros, ‘Some Sound Observations’ in Software for People. Collected Writings 1963-1980 (Baltimore MD: Smith Publications, 1979) pp. 26-7.

[10] Frances Morgan, ‘Diffuse, open and non-judgmental: Frances Morgan on Pauline Oliveros’s early electronic music’ in The Wire (December 2016) – https://www.thewire.co.uk/in-writing/essays/Pauline-Oliveros-Frances-Morgan accessed September 2018.

[11] Georg Simmel, ‘The Handle’ (1910) in The Hudson Review Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1958), pp. 371-385.

[12] Oram, An Individual Note of Music, p. 121.

[13] Annea Lockwood letter to Pauline Oliveros (9 May 1970) in Martha Mockus, Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 57.

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To Rend and To Sew

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

This essay was published in a catalogue accompanying Beata Ewa Białecka’s 2018 Ave Kobieta exhibition at the National Gallery in Gdansk.

 

 

Who are we looking at when we look on Beata Ewa Białecka’s portraits of children in death and those who grieve them? With very few points of reference provided by dress or setting, these women and their daughters appear outside time and place. We are used to reading faces for signs of history and experience, but in their cool, dispassionate demeanour, these women and girls reveal little. In Białecka’s art we don’t know who they are, what has happened or when. (Though perhaps we sense that all these women are Białecka and we know that even when the child appears at different ages in a single canvas, she is simply too young). And unlike so many representations of death, we lack the cues which afford its understanding. In movies or novels, for instance, death is connected to the fate that has been given to the individual by the narrative, and it is understood by the way it is witnessed and interpreted by others. Religion, perhaps more than any other form of human expression, is deeply invested in what Vivian Sobchak once called ‘narrative death’, seeking to render the end of life legible or meaningful.[1] What is the Christian church but a device created to suggest that one’s own death is part of some great design? But when it comes to the death of children, religion confronts perhaps the most formidable limit of comprehension. What meaning can be attached to a life which ends before it even has begun? It is hardly surprising then that it is a subject which is taboo. 

This has not always been the case. Early photographers were often commissioned to take post-mortem photographs of children. In the nineteenth century, juvenile death was so frequent that it touched all. Embracing the commemorative potential of the camera, parents of the dead dressed and carefully arranged their unlucky offspring in poses which suggested peaceful passage into the afterlife. Thereafter, photography – in the intimate form of the carte-de-visite – acted as consolation. According to Nicola Brown, ‘The photographs themselves, as objects, invite touch, and became miniature substitutes for the dead child whose image they recorded. As such, they filled the empty hands of the bereaved parents who mourned their dead children. They helped them to feel that their children were not lost to them, for they were, in a significant way, still there among the living’.[2] Photography’s much-celebrated capacity to continualise the present added greatly to this sense of being ‘still there’.

The biographies of the women and girls in Białecka’s art may be unavailable to us. But that does not mean that they are without histories. Białecka threads fabrics and other materials into her canvases: tulle veils act as diaphanous garments for her subjects; sometimes she embroiders her paintings with a dense lattice of needlework; and, occasionally, the surface is augmented by careful appliqué or beadwork. These threads lend Białecka’s art another kind of history, namely one made with stitches. The girls in the ‘Hodegetria’ paintings of 2009 are given, for instance, bodices featuring a rich and regular pattern of metal threads and glittering beads in the Renaissance manner. To be bejewelled in this way was once to be accorded status and, often, power. Here, in Białecka’s canvases the as yet unfolded tags which accompany these bodices suggest the pleasure of childish play and fantasy.

Other elements in her paintings have their histories too, not least the gestures of hands. ‘Priestess’ is a portrait of a woman with hands raised in supplication, a gesture adopted for the ritual of the Early Christian mass from Greco-Roman paganism and suggesting, perhaps, the outstretched arms of Christ crucified. She wears a triangular collar reminiscent of a liturgical vestment or perhaps even an iconostasis in the Orthodox tradition. Naked female figures occupy four niches in the semi-architectural structure embroidered in golden threads. Organised with careful symmetry, two identical women guard their nakedness – perhaps Eves in Eden – occupy the flanking panels; two more feature women who seem to be undergoing martyrdom in a hail of arrows; while the central tondo is filled by a two faces – one radiating brilliant golden light and holding her hands in the same gesture of supplication. In the Roman Catholic mass, this gesture – known as the Orans Posture – is reserved for the priest alone, and, as such, is the property of a man. In the way in which Białecka’s embroidered vestment reveals the gender of its wearer, one senses a feminism which the art historian Rozsika Parker once called ‘the subversive stitch.’[3]

In the eighteenth century, the handwork of stitching was swept up by a fashion for mourning embroidery. Young, middle class women in Europe and North America were encouraged to mark a death in the family with the production of a sampler or embroidered picture. In societies which laid down strict conventions about ‘appropriate’ behaviour, it is unsurprising that these acts of mourning took on conventional forms too. Typically, a death was marked with a embroidery of a tomb under a weeping willow tree or an urn with rose petals strewn nearby. In the Victorian period, the hair of the dead was threaded along with the coloured silks to keep a connection between the living and the lost. While grief was structured by a strong set of rituals, there is no reason to believe that it was not sincerely felt. To stitch was, in itself, a way of mourning.

In the two canvases which make up ‘Must Have’ (2015), Białecka stitches two red roses into the open palms of a pair of grey hands. Referring to the  tradition of commemorating the dead with flowers that can be traced back to the Roman festival of Rosalia, they too materialise grief. A sharp contrast is drawn between the sanguineous red of the flowers and the hands drained of life; and between the flatness of the paint and the veiny threads of the crewelwork. To embroider a canvas is to pierce its surface with a needle, to pull threads through a flat skin. Subtle differences in the colour of the threads allow textured blocks of colour to be built up and form to be modelled. The technique demands considerable attention, each of the many thousands of punctures being a point of precision. Nevertheless, Białecka allows odd threads hang loosely, like uncooperative hairs.

Białecka has exhibited ‘Must Have’ in intimate proximity to ‘Dolorosa’ (2015), a remarkable portrait of a woman with a prone child on her lap. Dressed in black and with an ashen pallor, mother and daughter mirror each other. But only the mother lives: her eyes are open and a vivid red heart is tacked to her chest with sewing pins. Vein-like threads hang towards, but fail to reach, the child. Unlike paint which can be worked to create illusions of size and distance, the thread always keeps its original scale. Drawing the eye, it pulls the viewer in and invites close looking. In fact, in Białecka’s threads and beads stimulate the memory of touch in the viewer. We know what these materials feel like: imagination can stroke the soft fibres of the flower and the desiccated surface of the painted hand. This envisioning allows the haptic associations of the word ‘touched’ to be connected to its emotional ones. As Susan Stewart writes, ‘to be “touched” or “moved” by words or things implies the process of identification and separation by which we apprehend the world aesthetically … we do not see our eyes when we see or hear our ears when we hear, but tactile perception involves perfection of our own bodily state we take in what is outside that state. The pressure involved in touch is a pressure on ourselves as well as upon objects’.[4] In other words, touch can know both connection and separation. Białecka’s art seems to want to hold on to the felt sensations of warmth of another’s body and, also, its coldness after death.

Alluding to the Sacred Heart and the meditative practices associated with the Rosary, hearts and the roses have special places in Catholic mysticism. They feature in Białecka’s art alongside other Christian devices and symbols including the lamb and the dove and, of course, titles like ‘Dolorosa’. They have been chosen by the artist for their revelatory associations, no doubt. But they are what we might call heterotopic tissues too – an effect suggested by the stitch. Heterotopic – a term employed in medical science – describes a displaced growth. Stitched into the canvas, a rose on the hand is both a bloom and a blooming. Similarly, outside the body, the heart seems to be an organ of growth rather than regulation. As such, both symbols express a hopeful but surely impossible desire for élan vital to yet overcome the stilling effects of death, to bring life to motionless. And yet, Białecka knows the limits of this desperate hope. Nothing is more marked by dark experience than the troublingly beautiful portrait of the girl entitled ‘Coffin Portrait of Klara’ (2015). Dressed in black shift and cap, she lies with her eyes closed, floating in an inky sea. Her garment bears an oversized heart embroidered in silver thread. Each ventricle and vein seems to have detached and withered. The silver of the thread is mirrored by the cold hues of the girl’s skin.

Is ‘Coffin Portrait of Klara’ the end? Or the beginning? It is tempting to put Białecka’s works in some kind of order; to produce the ‘narrative death’ which our culture seems to require and which religion promises. Placing it on a timeline with Białecka’s other works would be to claim it as a frame in a film or an episode in a tale. More than that, mourning itself in classical psychoanalytical theory is described as something like a story in which the mourner passes through different states of grief in order to come to terms with their loss. Freud distinguished mourning with melancholia; to his mind an unhealthy state in which the grieving person, compelled to revisit the trauma over and over, lives in death (eschewing ‘the instinct which compels every living thing to cling onto life’[5]). Death has to be made to die. Białecka’s ‘Narcissus’ (2015) shows a woman on all fours, collapsed in grief and staring into a platter. Her gaze is returned by the image of a skull framed by a floral border (enduring skulls and fugitive flowers forming symbolic axis of the Vanitas tradition in the history of art). The border is thickly embroidered in a silver silk, and the skull has a moire effect which is known as ‘watered-silk’. The woman, it seems, is finding herself as death in a watery mirror. In this way, ‘Narcissus’ might be taken as a portrait of melancholia.

In the Freudian tradition, all-encompassing grief is something which needs to be overcome, a condition which needs correcting. But is it? AS Byatt, the art historian and novelist, has often addressed her son’s death at the age of eleven in her poems and short stories. She describes mourning as a matter that ‘will go on and on till the end of time, it’s a continuous present tense’.[6] After death, a child is perpetually present, to his or her mother, whether she crafts momento mori like poems or paintings or not. Viewed in these terms, the ‘abnormal’ melancholic refusal to end the process of grieving is in fact a way of not killing the dead again. It is what one writer has called a ‘protest against the amnesia of mourning’.[7] Eschewing narrative cues and embracing affect, Białecka’s art is surely a touching act of not-forgetting.

 

[1] Vivian Sobchak, ‘Inscribing ethical space: ten propositions on death, representation, and documentary’ Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 9 (1984) cited in Jonathan Kahana, ed., The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism (Oxford: OUP, 2016) 880.

[2] Nicola Brown, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children’ in Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (2009).

[3] Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the making of the Feminine (London: Women’s Press, 1984).

[4] Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 162.

[5] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XIV., ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press) 246.

[6] A.S. Byatt, ’The July Ghost’ in Sugar & Other Stories (London: Vintage, 1995) 39-56.

[7] Colin Davis, Haunted subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Return of the Dead (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007) 148.

On Andrzej Klimowski

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

This essay was commissioned for a new book on the posters of Andrzej Klimowski published by Self-Made Hero in 2018.

 

In 1980 English-born Andrzej Klimowski had been living in Warsaw for seven years and was working as the designer of posters for the state film distributor and a number of theatres around Poland. That year, he put his commissions on hold to make a film for the Se-Ma-For film studio in Łódź. The studio had a high reputation for experimental short films and animations, and gave even novice film-makers like Klimowski access to 35mm cameras, professional lighting rigs and skilled technicians. It was one of a number of surprisingly free zones of artistic expression in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Entitled Martwy Cień (Dead Shadow), Klimowski’s ten-minute film lays out the symbols and themes that he had already been exploring in posters for most of the 1970s, and continue to occupy his imagination almost forty years later. A man sits at home, sleeping. We are granted access to his dreams and nightmares, many of which are haunted by the face of a woman. Her photographic portrait looks down from the wall of the apartment, framed alongside others from an earlier age. She also appears in print: the man leafs through an album of Victorian monuments, and Renaissance mausoleums and churches, before turning to a newspaper which features her portrait framed with a black border. The mood of the film is intensely introspective (an atmosphere heralded by a rapid descent down a musical scale before the action starts). Full of memories and desires, the home in Martwy Cień is what art historian Andrzej Turowski has called a ‘utopie rétrospective’.[1] Such places idealise settings and times – like the homes of childhood – which can no longer be accessed. The only incursion of the world outside the home comes in the form of a flickering television screen in which the same woman appears as a news presenter introducing reports of military violence and police brutality. In the final scene, she features as if in ‘real’ life only to turn to a deathly mask when embraced by the man. Whether as photograph, as half-tone illustration on the printed page, as video, or as celluloid, she is a ‘dead shadow’ who haunts the present.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Torment’.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Nashville’.

The woman was not a new discovery. She had already starred in many of Klimowski’s posters: in dark eye-make up in his design for Olea’s film Torment (1974); with foaming hair and in profile for the publicity for Robert Altman’s movie Nashville (1975); and, three years later, brightly decorated with stage-paint and peering out from the stage curtains to announce the thirtieth anniversary of the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław. Yet she was not an actress. She was and is Danuta Schejbal, a theatre designer, Klimowski’s wife and sometimes his creative partner. (Most recently in their joint graphic memoir of life in Poland in the 1970s[2]). Her appearance in his work may be explained pragmatically as the convenience of having a model ‘on call’. Or it may be explained emotionally, as an expression of love and desire. But this intimacy also opens up the prospect of viewing the men who feature in his images as self-portraits (even if the man in Martwy Cień was not played by Klimowski himself) and the poster as a vehicle for some kind of self-inspection.

The mass-produced poster seems like an unlikely medium for this kind of turn inward. After all, modernist design theory had emphasised the poster’s public duties. Famously, A.M. Cassandre, the celebrated French designer, laid out the case for the poster as a kind of impersonal medium in 1933: ‘The poster is only a means to an end, a means of communication between the dealer and the public, something like telegraphy. The poster plays the part of the telegraph official: he does not initiate news, he merely dispenses it.’[3] But the conditions which prevailed in the People’s Republic of Poland when Klimowski began his career, released the poster designer from the pressures of commercialism or even the task of accurate delivery of information. Hardly required to ‘sell’ seats in cinemas and theatres, and benefiting from a strong belief in the autonomy of the artist which was shared by many working in the arts, poster designers probably enjoyed more freedom of expression than their counterparts in the West. Posters had to pass through the state censor’s office, but were rarely banned. Klimowski recalls only one such incident; when the film distributor required that his poster for Torment be reworked before it was sent to the censor. He recalls

The communist state was very careful not to aggravate the church. There was a Spanish film about a priest who was under the control of a woman, unable to escape her influence. I made a photograph of Danuta naked from the back. I had to use delay timer because I had my hands around her, holding a cross and bound in a rosary. The response was outright no. The publisher said the censor won’t pass it.[4]

When commissioned to promote imported movies like Torment, poster designers in Poland had little access to publicity photographs and might not even see the film in advance. Instead, they might be given a plot summary by the distributor. And in the case of theatre, the posters had to be printed long in advance of the premiere. Often, all that was available to the poster designer was a script or libretto. In such circumstances, poster design was, necessarily, an act of fantasy and improvisation. This added greatly to their autonomy. After his return to UK in 1981, Klimowski continued to work in much the same way. His intuitive approach to the image was hardly suited to the regimes of market research and PR which shape publicity in the business-minded world of graphic design in the West, and so while the supply of poster commissions continued, they were never to be as plentiful again.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Kartoteka’.

Klimowski’s posters, book jackets, illustrations and his film Martwy Cień evades simple interpretation, yet the repertoire of images and devices which appear in his works is remarkably concise and constant. The repeated overlay of one person’s eye on another’s face or the attachment of wings to a human torso are not arbitrary combinations, guided by some kind of surrealist fascination with the effects of chance. These gestures recur so frequently that they are more like Klimowski’s own idées fixes. And if the meanings that might be attached to such montages cannot precisely determined, say in the manner of a rebus or even an allegory, they are best understood as poetic metaphors, sometimes for what cannot be seen. In fact, many of Klimowski’s poster images and illustrations allude to blindness or to what might be called ‘displaced’ sight: a 1998 poster produced to promote the 28th Short Film Festival in Kraków features a transparent blindfold through which, paradoxically, light emanates; in others, like the posters for Jacques Deray’s movie Flic Story (1976) and Tadeusz Różewicz’s play Kartoteka (1984) or a performance of Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki (1981), a human face is either hidden or abruptly cut-off. Sometimes, the eye has left its conventional position altogether: for an adaptation of Botho Strauss’s die Zeit und die Zimmer (1993), for instance, a large eye peers back at the viewer from the frame formed by the crooked arm of a woman holding her head. Is the eye hers? Or yours? Or God’s? There is, of course, something capricious about using a medium that is tasked with pleasing the eye to explore blindness or displaced eyesight. But Klimowski seems to be suggesting that external sight must be extinguished for internal vision to flourish.

Klimowski is by no means alone in making this suggestion. Late in life, philosopher Jacques Derrida was invited to curate an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. True to his deconstructive method, he set out to expose that which had been repressed in an institution which was a cornerstone of Western art history. The result was his Memoirs of the Blind, an exploration of the images of non-seeing in the museum’s vast collection displayed in the Napoléon Hall in 1990-91. Classical mythology and the Bible have provided dozens of instances of blindness – usually as divine punishment – for artists to envision. In the accompanying publication, the philosopher placed particular attention on drawing, arguing that even those artists who draw their subject d’après nature face two orders of blindness. Attentive to the drawing in hand, he or she is blind to the subject, and when gazing on the subject, is blind to the drawing. What holds these activities together is the resort to memory and experience – forms of what Derrida calls ‘autoreflection’. A drawing of blind person – perhaps using touch to ‘see’ the world – is a kind of doubling too: ‘if to draw a blind man is first of all to show hands, it is in order to draw attention to what one draws with the help of that with which one draws, the body proper (corps proper) as an instrument, the drawer of the drawing, the hand of the handiwork, of the manipulations, of the manoeuvres and matters, the play or work of the hand – drawing as surgery.’[5]

Klimowski has in recent years spent much of his time drawing, not least the frames of the graphic novels he has authored since his first, The Depository, in 1994. But his posters continue his long-standing practice of photomontage, involving the excision and combination of images from existing printed sources. This is its own form of ‘drawing as surgery’; one in which different orders of image – whether wood-engravings in medieval bestiaries, halftones from the illustrated press, or plates from the Victorian illustrator Gustav Doré’s books – are sutured together and then photographed for reproduction. Photomontage allows for repetitions and collisions, as well as abrupt shifts of perspective and distortions of scale. It has a long tradition in the visual arts and cinema, but Klimowski’s points to the special impact of reading Latin American writers in the 1970s, not least Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar’s short stories in Zofia Chądzyńska’s brilliant translations. For instance, in Cortázar’s ‘Las babas del diablo’ (which provided the original idea for Antonioni’s movie Blow Up), a French-Chilean translator and amateur photographer called Michel captures on film a selfish attempt by a woman to seduce a boy on the streets of Paris on a bright November day. Only after he blows up his photo to the size of a poster one month later, does he realise that he had actually witnessed the efforts of a man to trap the boy. Perhaps this man is the devil suggested by the story’s title. By making the print, Michel gives the boy a chance to escape, at least in his imagination.

Shifting perspective, this fragmented short story moves back and forth between first and third person: sometimes Michel explains his actions using the personal pronoun, and, at others, we observe him from afar. What begins with the bright confidence of photographer in his ability to reveal the lines of beauty and order that run through Paris, ends in breakdown. Michel enters the photograph on his apartment walls:

… I realized that I was beginning to move toward them, four inches, a step, another step, the tree swung its branches rhythmically in the foreground, a place where the railing was tarnished emerged from the frame, the woman’s face turned towards me as though surprised, was enlarging and then I turned a bit, I mean that the camera turned a little, and without losing sign of the woman, I began to close in on the man who was looking at me with the black holes he had in place of eyes, surprised and angered both, he looked, wanting to mail me onto the air, an at that instant I happened to seeing something like a large bird outside the focus that was flying in a single swoop in front of the picture and I leaned up against the wall of my room and was happy because the boy had just managed to escape …

A human camera, he then frames and focuses the boy’s tormentors:

Out of breath, I stood in front of them; no need to step close, the game was played out. Of the woman, you could see just maybe a shoulder and a bit of the hair, brutally cut off by the frame of the picture, but the man was directly centre his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree and I shut my eyes, I did not want to see any more … [6]

Michel then breaks down into tears, another kind of blindness.

The mysterious symbols in Cortázar’s short story as well as a kind of suspicion of claims on objective reality bind Klimowski to the Argentinian writer, but it is perhaps the affinities of technique, despite the differences in medium, which are most revealing. ‘Sometimes within a short story, just four pages long’, says Klimowski, ‘Cortázar could shift reality totally. So, a character being observed is, at the end of a story, waiting to being observed. It is a sudden shift. And that shift of two realities is what happens in collage or photomontage’. Sometimes these shifts are between worlds, as Michel’s step into a photograph taken one month earlier proposes. And, at others, they are shifts in time. Combining both an endless present and a vertiginous sense of the past, this is one of the chief effects of the photograph. (Of one print showing ‘two little girls looking at a primitive aeroplane above their village’ Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida ‘how alive they are! They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead.’[7]) The possibility of folding different orders of time together also explains the deep interest in photomontage in communist Poland. So many of the brilliant image-makers working in the country in the 1960s – Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Daniel Mróz and others – reactivated imagery from the past in their posters, illustrations and animations, often from the lost worlds of their childhoods or even earlier. Eschewing activism and agitation, this is the closest that these artists came to contesting state ideology. Irrational, ‘obsolete’ and yet highly-charged images – portraits of film-stars, family photographs, religious imagery and so on – offered the means to tap suppressed values in a socialist society which endlessly trumpeted its rationalism and progress.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘The Omen’.

Klimowski had close affinities and, in the case of Lenica and Cieślewicz, good relations with these artists but he belongs to a younger generation. He also brought a strong fascination with patina – the marks of age and time – in his poster designs and other images. In a memorable scene in Martwy Cień, the camera tracks right to left across a cityscape composed of photographic images. Neoclassical temples turn into modernist housing. Once pristine, they now seem marked by age. Crumbling walls bear graffiti and torn posters from different times and places: a piece of propaganda in Russian, a French ad, and a contemporary poster designed by Klimowski himself (for Richard Donner’s film The Omen). Similarly, his posters feature imperfections – surfaces are blemished or marked by signs of their making. This was, in part, a matter of necessity. The faulty materials available to artists in Poland in the 1970s and the need to improvise by, say, converting a bathroom into a darkroom had both aesthetic and intellectual effects: ‘Grit is important’ he says. ‘This dawned on me when I was in the darkroom and I could not get the dust off. I could not avoid getting negatives scratched. So, I thought that this is part of it … these bits of hair floating in amongst the half-dot screens and the scratches. That’s texture.’

For some commentators sensing the breakdown of the material world of real existing socialism, Poland was too full of texture. Setting the scene for his short story, ‘A sense of … , Janusz Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.[8]

But one suspects that the attraction of grit to Klimowski was not simply a sign of the times: but that in these blemishes and marks signs of vital life were to be found too.

Klimowski celebrates the power of images to elude precise definition. He freely admits that he does not know what the images in his posters and illustrations might mean or even why they recur with such frequency. This is perhaps where their uncanny power lies. And like the woman who haunts the sleeping man in Martwy Cień or the devil in Cortázar’s short story, it is not clear whether Klimowski sought out his images or if they have found him.

 

Dublin, 23 October 2017

 

[1] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-il un art de l’Europe de l’est? Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986) p. 265.

[2] Andrzej Klimowski and Danuta Schejbal, Behind the Curtain (London, 2015).

[3] Cassandre cited in David Crowley and Paul Jobling, Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation since 1800 (Manchester, 1996) p. 149.

[4] This quote and all others from an interview with Andrzej Klimowski, London, August 2017.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-portrait and Other Ruins (Paris, 1993) pp. 4-5.

[6] Julio Cortázar, Blow Up and Other Stories, translated by Paul Blackburn, (New York, 1968) pp. 114-15.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard (New York, 1981) p. 96.

[8] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p. 72.

Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

A piece written in 2010 ….

 

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. Perj 2In ‘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. TateAt 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.

CAmille

late C13th copy of Aristotle’s Physics

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. [no image but would like one] 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]).

Perj 6What 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. [image 8] 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). 22One 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. PerjAn 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.

Per

Art Space Alina Romania, 2011

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.

Études with a camera – Dóra Maurer’s films and photoworks

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Music, Uncategorized

 

What can one do with a cobblestone?

Cobblestone

What Can One Do With a Cobble-Stone? 1971

This was a question asked and answered by Dóra Maurer in 1971. It is the title of a series of photographs in which she documented a cobblestone being obliged to participate in various activities. After tethering it with string for one photo, in another she pulls it along a run of marshy ground like a reluctant animal. Later in the sequence, Maurer washes and caresses the stone cube like a child. Then, after wrapping it in a sheet of paper, she sets fire to the package; the cube survives its ordeal. She then casts it into the air, as if attempting to rid herself of an encumbrance. Organized in a grid of 15 photographic prints, both the first and last images suggest different discoveries of the same cobblestone. It is an object that seems, at least in this arrangement, to keep reappearing like the proverbial bad penny.

Maurer was not the only Hungarian artist thinking with cobblestones that year. Film-maker Gyula Gazdag had just completed his movie, Sípoló macskakő (The Whistling Cobblestone), the story of a group of Hungarian teenagers at a KISZ (Young Communist League) work camp on a collective farm. Their listless summer is interrupted by a visitor from Paris who has a toy cobblestone dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Citroën, a ‘souvenir’ of the events of May 1968 in the French capital. The visitor encourages the students to follow the lead of the Les Enragés in France, to little effect. The taboo subject of the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956 – when cobblestones had been loosened to impede the progress of Soviet tanks – haunts their conversation. As one student notes, the cobbles in Budapest are now covered in Tarmac

In March 1972, inspired by Gazdag’s film and in support of demonstrations marking the anniversary of the 1956 Uprising (and the War of Independence in 1848), Hungarian critic and curator László Beke called for artists to make works featuring cobblestones (and, tellingly, gravestones[1]). In fact, this idea already had its proponents: Gyula Pauer made replicas of cobblestones incapable of bearing the weight of traffic (1971–72), and Gyula Gulyás fashioned a portable paving block with handles bearing the words ‘Made in Hungary’ (1972). Unlike, perhaps, the works of some of her colleagues, Maurer’s ‘What can one do with a cobblestone?’ expresses a cautionary view of revolutionary politics and of political art. This is not surprising. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, art in the Hungarian People’s Republic at the end of the 1940s had been turned into a tense zone of censorship and propaganda. Even the liberalization of Hungarian culture in the late 1960s was accompanied by prohibition, with officials identifying three types of art: that which could be supported and so can be called official; that which might be ‘tolerated’ (a category which included expressive forms of Modernism); and that which remained prohibited. Maurer was a central figure in a close and resolutely independent community of artists, musicians and poets that strove to create its own culture outside of this grading system. They organised their own exhibition spaces in apartments and, famously, a disused chapel in the resort town of Balatonboglár, over 80 miles from the capital;[2] they commissioned each other to make work with common themes; and they issued samizdat (self-published) journals. Usually described as ‘conceptual artists’ (or, sometimes, ‘concept artists’), this loose community is estimated to have created more than 50 such collective ‘actions’ in the first half of the 1970s.[3]

Writing in 1972, Béla Hap described the attitude of ‘unofficial’ artists to power in Hungary:

It is an artistic ‘movement’ that neither supports not attacks the establishment, but remains outside of it. Any attack on the establishment would acknowledge its existence. Being a real organized movement is another form of engaging in the game of the superficial world. The underground does not forbid its supporters from political subjects, as it does not forbid or order at all, but the appearance of such subjects is the private business of the artist.[4]

Demonstrating his point, Hap’s words appeared in Szétfolyóirat (Writing that Flows Apart), a short-run samizdat edited by Maurer in February 1973. Featuring experimental art and poetry, art criticism and philosophy, Szétfolyóirat was as much a concept as a magazine. Five copies were made of each issue (each edited by a different person) and then passed on to a trusted recipient who would add in at least 15 more pages and then send the augmented publication on to five new recipients. Szétfolyóirat not only put uncensored ideas in circulation, it knitted together a community of readers and writers.

‘Hungarian_ issue of SchmuckWhile Maurer has been resolutely independent in her career as an artist, she has often worked closely with others, most regularly her husband, Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the political repression that followed the Uprising. The couple met in Vienna in 1967 when Maurer was in the city on a Rockefeller Scholarship. Their marriage brought dual nationality, which meant that she could travel between Austria and Hungary with relative ease, becoming a key means of contact between unofficial artists in Hungary and their international counterparts. Maurer has also enjoyed productive exchanges with figures active in other areas of the arts. She has curated many exhibitions and edited anthologies including a ‘Hungarian’ issue of Schmuck magazine (in collaboration with Beke), which was published in Britain in 1972. With Miklós Erdély and György Galántai, Maurer developed a series of experimental workshops at the Ganz-MÁVAG Cultural Centre in the mid 1970s that were later known as ‘Kreativitási gyakorlatok’ (Creativity Exercises). Rejecting conventional art training and encouraging collective activities, participants were given playful group exercises, sometimes using video cameras – a rare resource in Hungary at the time.

‘The Form-language of film art’

Reversable

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.4, 1972

With its grid structure, What can one do with a cobblestone? expresses Maurer’s interest in motion and change. The vigorous and full-body actions documented by this work were, however, soon replaced by a focus on small human gestures. Her ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series of 1972, for instance, examines mundane activities such as throwing and catching a ball, the demeanour of a face or common hand signs. The first work in the series concentrates on interactions between a hand and a stone. Here the reproducibility of the photographic image allowed a small number of images – in this case, just three – to be placed in many different permutations. Like the syntax of words in a sentence, some of these image combinations – when read left to right – seem meaningful (a hand puts a stone in the corner); others do not (corner, corner, corner). When the order of the sequence is reversed, the meaning of the gesture changes (puts down becomes picks up). Highly systematic and accompanied by terse instructions or even diagrams, these works have the aura of a scholarly semiotic investigation into the logical relations of words.

Maurer was by no means alone in her interest in the operations of language. Conceptual art had kindled in others an enthusiasm for logic and linguistics, as well as systems and experiments. In 1973, the young film-maker Gábor Bódy established an experimental film-making programme at the state-run Balázs Béla Studió (BBS), which commissioned artists and composers to explore ‘film language’. The intention was for the techniques and tools of film-making to be put under scrutiny by creative artists using the resources and professional expertise of a well-equipped film studio. Later known as K/3, the programme provided remarkably unfettered opportunities for experimentation, even if its output was rarely screened. ‘K/3 was established,’ according to Miklós Peternák, ‘with the ambition of becoming a Bauhaus-like centre for research in the audiovisual area’.[5] In fact, Bódy imagined László Moholy-Nagy, the Modernist artist, film-maker and Bauhaus teacher, as an ally from the past (Bódy once planned to make a film in which Moholy-Nagy would appear on screen).[6] One of the greatest theorists of the modern image, Moholy-Nagy was only – and somewhat belatedly – being rediscovered in the People’s Republic after the prohibitions on Modernism had been relaxed.

DV-0105_MAURER_DORA_Relativ_lengesek_03

Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973)

Maurer’s three-part film Relatív lengések (Relative Swingings, 1973) was a product of the experimental programme at BSS. The ostensible subjects of her film are a cone-shaped lamp and a simple cylinder (like the elemental volumes that were the trademark of so many Bauhaus artworks and designs). Suspended from the ceiling, they are swung in horizontal and circular movements, as is the 35mm camera that films them. Maurer systematically explored the full range of combinations of swinging camera and swaying subject. Sometimes the image of motion is produced by moving the lamp and sometimes by moving the camera. Later in the film, all three elements are in motion, the light from the moving lamp creating different effects on the moving cylinder. To demonstr

Reversable 3

Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements No.2, 1972

ate the techniques involved in conducting this set of experiments into the nature of perception, this film is accompanied by another that shows how Maurer and the cameraman, János Gulyás, achieved a range of subtly different perceptual effects.

Ostensibly Maurer’s serial photographic works and structural films from the 1970s seem systematic, objective and rational. And in many ways they are. But images are not words, and bodies are not abstract symbols. The stuttering repetition of images or the viewer’s capacity to compare one sequence with another in the grid seem, perhaps inevitably, to point to human associations and limitations. Maurer also interrupts her own systems. The second work in the ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ series (1972), for instance, combines three photographs of a male figure in a field, in three different phases of the act of sitting. Like other works in this series, the piece explores all the permutations of these phases. A pattern logic seems to organize the composition until a ‘rogue’ image appears in the last frame: a photograph of a chair. Once the viewer becomes aware of this interruption, Maurer’s study suddenly seems to acquire existential associations – this is not just a chair but an empty chair. There is also something of this ineffable quality in her attempts to measure natural materials in works like Schautafel 3 (1973), which Maurer called ‘quantity boards’. Laying a cord grid of tidy squares over straw and sand gathered from a river bank, the piece is an invitation to count the infinite. Later – in 1976 – Maurer made a simple experiment with a piece of paper that was as long as she is tall. Folding the sheet four times, she created a proportional system for measuring her own body. Unfolding her new yardstick on the ground, Maurer then attempted to assess the span of her outstretched arms, the roll of her shoulders and other dimensions of her body against this new proportional system – an improvised version of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man or Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The video documenting this action – entitled Proportions – records both a bodily ideal and the ‘failure’ of a system.

 

Film music

While most of Maurer’s works can be – and often are – described as experiments, it is not always evident what is being tested or measured. In some, such as Relative Swingings, one can trace the outline of ‘the scientific method’: an experiment is set up in controlled conditions to test a hypothesis; the results of that test are recorded, ideally by an objective instrument, and then repeated as a ‘proof’. But increasingly over the course of the 1970s, Maurer’s films and photographs seem to be less documents of her activities than experiments on the viewer. Perception itself is being tested. Here one might sense a connection with the utopian Scientism that underpins Moholy-Nagy’s monumental and posthumously published book, Vision in Motion (1947). In this study, the former Bauhausler set a new agenda for progressive art that emphasises the body as much as the machine: ‘It is the artist’s duty today to penetrate yet-unseen ranges of the biological functions, to search the new dimensions of industrial society and to translate the new findings into emotional orientation.’[7] But rather than extend human potential, Maurer’s experiments seem to draw attention to the limits of human perception.

This focus on perception owes a good deal to her training and practice as a printmaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also has much to do with Maurer’s interest in ‘displacements’, a term which she adopted as the title of her solo exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz in 1975. Shifts in the placement of regular forms create associations with spatial depth and movement even in static, flat works. Many of these investigations into displacement take the form of abstract paintings. Maurer’s ‘5-from-4’ works, for instance, are painted boards that combine a series of four squares and five rectangles, as well as empty spaces between the reliefs. Organized as a horizontal band, the squares are ‘displaced’ onto the next relief in these works. Maurer points to the uncertainty that these combinations produce, writing ‘the interference of the two series trouble the viewer in concentrating on one single form’.[8]

Kalah182This idea of presenting the viewer with irreconcilable perceptual effects perhaps reached its apogee in Kalah, a 1980 experimental film made in creative partnership with Zoltán Jeney, one of the founders, tens years earlier, of Budapest’s celebrated Új Zenei Stúdió (New Music Studio). The structure of both sound and images in Kalah was provided by the traditional Arabic game of the same name that is played with 72 stones. Maurer prepared coloured panels – which corresponded to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale – which she shot on film in the Pannonia Film Studio in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the film and Jeney’s music, itself ‘composed’ from existing recordings on magnetic tape. The same aleatory system, derived from the way numbered stones are used in the source game, governed both sound and image. The result is unsettling as the viewer struggles – and fails – to make sense of the rapid combinations of sounds and notes. Kalah captures Maurer’s preoccupation with the effects of the shift – the marginal movement or dislocation of a filmic image – on cognition. Kalah was not made simply to be seen but to be experienced: Maurer and Jeney imagined viewers lying under a curved projection screen.

The fact that Maurer calls some of her photo works ‘études’ and has read Anton Webern’s writings on serial music is significant. Meaning ‘study’, but usually describing a composition that is used by musicians to practice technique, an étude conventionally features a set of variations on a theme. Embraced by the 20th-century avant-garde, the form was extended to include experimental compositions that explored the structures and formal qualities of music itself. Famously, in his Quatre études de rythme (Four Rhythm Studies, 1949–50), Olivier Messiaen allocated numerical values to pitch, duration, dynamics and timbre. Maurer’s analogy becomes all the more vivid when one imagines a relationship with the work of American composer Steve Reich (a visitor to Budapest in 1977, where he performed and gave a lecture, and again in 1985 where he supervised recordings of his compositions by the Hungarian new-music ensemble 180-as Csoport (Group 180)). Reich’s minimalist compositions often involve subtle phasing of rhythms and musical phrases. In his works for ensembles of two, four, six or even 18 musicians, one player will follow another, playing the same material perhaps a quaver later each time, or slowly speeding up while the other remains at the same tempo. ‘Displaced’ in this way, simple musical elements – such as the single chord of Four Organs (1970) or the rhythmic pattern of Drumming (1971) – come to produce a huge diversity of unexpected rhythmic and harmonic possibilities; moreover, they generally follow a kind of cyclical structure as the musicians wheel through the phases. As in Maurer’s ‘Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements’ photo series, repetition in Reich’s compositions is often combined with other expressions of restraint. Pieces like Six Pianos, as the title makes clear, achieve their mesmeric effects using the musical colour of a single instrument, albeit in phased layers. Tuning into the ever-shifting patterns, the listener becomes aware of the subtlest modulations of rhythm and harmony.

Triolák

Triolák

The musical qualities of Maurer’s art are more than mere analogies. Affinities between the worlds of experimental music and conceptual art were stronger in the 1970s than perhaps at any other time, as Maurer’s creative partnership with Jeney in making Kalah testifies. Perhaps the work that in its attention to displacement comes closes to Reich’s employment of the phase is Maurer’s Triolák – 18 variáció 3 objektívre és énekhangra (Triolák – 18 variations, 3 objectives and a singer), a BBS film made in and around Maurer’s studio in 1980–81. The film is divided into three horizontal bands, each of which features a one-second camera pan in opposite directions. Each pan has been shot with a different lens (standard, wide angle and telephoto), which adds to the sense of multi-perspectival space. The movement of the film camera starts relatively gently and the displacement of the image is minor. Thereafter, the sweep of the pan extends and the camera moves faster. Some of the variations combine elements that feature different viewpoints – looking into and out of the studio, or at Maurer’s face and that of her cameraman. The effect is one of growing perceptual disorientation as the viewer struggles – and fails – to reconcile the three moving images. Each camera pan is accompanied by improvised vocal glissandos by the singer Eszter Póka. Rising and falling as if produced by the movement of the camera (or as if the camera had a voice), these shifting pitches create unexpected and sometimes jarring harmonic effects. Maurer’s work is a remarkable experiment into audio and visual perception.

As Reich’s music makes clear, striking differences can be created from subtle shifts within a framework of repetition. What is required is remarkable focus on the part of those playing the music. In both her resolute individualism and her close and productive relationships with other artists, as well as in the remarkable consistency of her ideas and interests over a wide range of media, the same can be said of Dóra Maurer. Above all, displacement – the concept which she developed more than forty years ago – remains fixed at the centre of her practice as an artist.

 

 

[1] See Dékei Kriszta, ‘A szabadság szele’ in Beszélő (October 2008) – available online at http://beszelo.c3.hu/cikkek/a-szabadsag-szele

[2] See Júlia Klaniczay and Edit Sasvári, eds., Törvénytelen avantgárd. Galántai György balatonboglári kápolnaműterme 1970–1973 (Budapest, 2003)

[3] See Miklós Peternák, Concept.hu. The Influence of Conceptual Art in Hungary (Paks, 2014)

[4] Béla Hap, ‘Halk magyar underground-kiáltvány’, Szétfolyóirat (February 1973) – available online at http://www.artpool.hu/Aczelkor/Hap.html

[5] Miklós Peternák, ‘A Short History of the Avant-Garde in Hungarian Cinema’ in Undercurrent 18, (Autumn, 1989), p.34

[6] Miklós Peternák,’Gábor Bódy. Film and Theory’ in Bódy Gábor, 1946–1985: életműbemutató, exhibition catalogue (Budapest, 1987), p.25

[7] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago, 1947), p.12

[8] Dóra Maurer, ‘Über die ‘5 aus 4’ – Arbeiten (QUAD 1, Maarssen, 1980) cited in Dieter Ronte and Lászlo Beke, Dóra Maurer Arbeiten Munkák Works 1970–1993 (Budapest, 1994), p.116

Review of Liverpool Biennial 2014

Contemporary Art

This review appeared in Frieze, Sept. 2014.

 

IMG_0871You can imagine the bemusement when the commission arrived. British artist Chris Evans – a participant in this year’s Liverpool Biennial – invited Boodles, the celebrated luxury jewelers in the city, to craft a piece of jewellery in response to the art festival’s press release. This is the latest in a series of works created by Evans over the last decade by commissioning others. Boodles set to work and the figurative title of the biennale’s exhibition theme, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack’, is now carried by a ring – a semi-precious stone wrapped in a twirling festoon of diamonds – on a large plaster plinth in the Old Blind School, one of the five venues which, together, accommodate the six shows which form the 8th Biennial Exhibition.

Like the proverbial needle (and the inscription that remains almost unseen on the inside of the ring) the theme itself is often difficult to find in the patchwork of venues, events and exhibits that form the biennial. This, however, comes as something of a relief. The curatorial concept – which might be summed up as a thread linking art which both reflects on but also disrupts everyday life – is forgotten easily enough in the main exhibition, let alone the other shows across the city, which include ‘Podwórka’ (Courtyard, 2009), a work by American film maker Sharon Lockhart at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) recording how children living in the rundown Polish city of Łódż make their own worlds; a retrospective of the arts programmes made prolific Belgian TV director Jef Cornelis between 1964 and 1997 at St Andrews Gardens; and a lightweight survey of the late 19th century painter James McNeill Whistler at The Bluecoat. Other new commissions timed to coincide with the biennial are exempt too. These include a Mersey pilot cutter in a dry dock with a livery conceived by the venerable Venezuelan op-artist Carlos Cruz-Diez – titled a ‘Dazzle Ship’ to recall (not very convincingly) the role played by modern artists such as = in producing disorientating optical effects for the Royal Navy in the World War I.

At Tate Liverpool Mai Abu ElDahab, one of the two curators of the biennial, worked with Claude Parent, the nonagenarian French architect best known for his collaborations with theorist Paul Virilio in the 1960s. The pair developed the theory of the ‘fonction oblique’ (oblique function), calling for a renunciation of the perpendicular angle in architecture. Tilted floors and open expanses would revive the dynamism of the revolutionary avant-garde (think of El Lissitzky’s wedges) and promote non-conformist ways of walking, sitting and being. Architecture, they claimed, should shake people out of the passivity required of them by the consumer society.

Parent is both architect and curator at Tate Liverpool, filling its double-height Wolfson Gallery with steep timber ramps, temporary walls stretched with transparent fabric and a curving concave quarter pipe to form a rampscape for energetic encounters with artworks he has selected from the Tate’s collections. Walking up and down these steep inclines has, for instance, the effect of amplifying the flickering kineticism of Physichromie no. 123 (1964), another work by Cruz-Diez, much smaller and more convincing than the ‘Dazzle Ship’ outside. Parent’s architectural additions are engaging enough, affording a cocked version of what Le Corbusier called the ‘architecture promenade’ to Tate visitors. This might well fit the biennial theme but it is Parent’s curatorial eye that stimulates the imagination. He has selected a number of 20th century works that seem to be motivated by lunar exploration – sometimes literally, in the form of Gabo’s miniature model for a rotating Monument to the Astronauts (1966–8). Other works suggest imaginative journeys taken by the moonstruck, such as Paul Delvaux’s canvas Sleeping Venus (1944). This is a quiet, lyrical call for visionary culture.

Freed from the responsibility of carrying big ideas, many of the contemporary works in the Old Blind School have a twitchy, fretful quality. Artist Marc Bauer, according to the curators, abandoned his studio for a ‘dingy’ Liverpool hotel for a week. The result, a large charcoal drawing in which workers loom out of the darkness is claustrophobic. So is Judith Hopf and Henrik Olesen’s film, Türen (Doors, 2007) in which die Polizisten walk in and out of the rooms in a large apartment over and again, never enjoying the leisure for which they seem to be preparing.. Even a work that seems to take on momentous political and historical theme, Rana Hamadeh’s audio play Can You Pull in an Actor With a Fishhook or Tie Down His Tongue With a Rope? (2014), achieves its effects by being mounted in grotty office environment. A re-scripting of the Shiite ritual of Ashura, a form of public mourning in which thousands reenact the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, the piece turns the experience of listening into an ordeal: heavily distorted sounds – delivered by large subwoofers set in the ceiling – seem to disarrange both words and listener.

Perhaps the anxious quality of the works in the biennial’s group show is amplified by its decrepit setting: the Old Blind School is a labyrinthine building that functioned as a trade union centre in the 1980s. It has all the seductive effects of the modern ruin, often overshadowing the art its houses. In a cupola, a crumbling mural celebrating the city’s labour history seems to have as much to say today as Evans and Boodles’ luxury trifle or Bauer’s obsessive drawings. With its images of the People’s March for Jobs in 1981 (a protest which consciously drew on the hunger marches to London in the 1930s), the mural is a reminder of the time when Liverpool was the most important site of resistance against Thatcher’s privatization policies. After the precipitous decline of traditional industries like ship building from the 1970s onwards, the city became a testing ground for all kinds of regeneration projects including, since 2004, the biennial.

Attempts to use culture to reverse post-industrial decline are, of course, often vexed and Sally Tallant, biennial director since 2012, is keen to distance the project in Liverpool from simple-minded equations about value and short-term thinking. It is, she says, a year-round opportunity to build an audience and a critical context. Practically, this means an on-going public programme of talks, performances and classes, sometimes in unexpected locations (in November last year artist Chris Evans persuaded biennial founder and art collector James Moores to open his home to the public for one such conversation). Moreover, Tallant has already declared a ‘Ten-year plan’ for Liverpool to escape the helter-skelter search for spectacle that has characterized the global biennial phenomenon. ‘Embedded, integrated research into architecture, urbanism and into artistic practice – this is what the biennial sits on. The work is not about Liverpool but it is located in Liverpool’, she says. ‘I think that artists – and writers, architects and others – have a role to play in how we express value in the world.’ This – as she freely admits – is a much bigger task than mounting a sixteen-week art festival.

 

Public art and its opponents

Contemporary Art

This is a review of two books – Joanna Rajkowska’s Where the Beast Is Buried (Zero Books, 2013) and Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation (Duke University Press, 2013) – which appeared in Frieze magazine.

 

 

Rajkowska's Peterborough Child, 2012-ongoing - sketch - from http://www.rajkowska.com

Rajkowska’s Peterborough Child, 2012-ongoing – prep. sketch – from http://www.rajkowska.com

Recently, a work of art returned to Warsaw after spending almost two years in an anonymous storage centre in a small city in the UK, Peterborough. Joanna Rajkowska’s The Peterborough Child (2012) was commissioned by the city council and the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts as part of their joint ‘Arts and Social Change’ scheme, a programme with the aim of ‘creating new connections between people and where they live in order to strengthen participation in community life’. This sounds like the mantra of many public art projects in Britain in the last decade. Rajkowska’s artwork for Peterborough presented itself as a burial pit containing the skeleton of girl who had died 3,500 years earlier, alongside a beaker, the skull of a fawn and other grave goods. These were fabricated in Germany and Poland for installation in a Peterborough park in what was meant to look like an archaeological dig. Nearby, an information plaque was to be installed to identify the ‘The Peterborough Child’ as the progeny of a mother from Eastern Europe. Her child’s death was to have been the result of a rare eye cancer. Rajkowska also proposed highly individual viewings of the installation. Parents of ill children or of those who had died were to be invited to meet the artist at the site or to supply photographs, clothes or written testimonies which would demonstrate ‘the never-ending care of children’ even after death. On the eve of the installation, Rajkowska was invited to describe the project to community groups in the area. The meeting exploded with discontent. The council and the Royal Society pulled back from the project, fearful, it seems, of the unpredictable wave of anger that was stirring.

The unfinished history of ‘The Peterborough Child’ is one of a number of episodes that Rajkowska recounts in her new book, Where the Beast is Buried. Each chapter charts the origins and fate of her public art works in Poland (her birthplace), Sweden, Palestine, Turkey, Germany and the UK (where she lives today). Other sections take the form of interviews with the artist. What is striking about the book is that it recounts more failures than successes, at least when completed schemes are tallied up. A two-year project to dress a historic factory chimney in Poznań in Poland as a minaret from the Grand Mosque in Jenin on the West Bank failed in 2011 after an often rancorous public discussion that drew in the local Muslim community, the Historic Conservation Office, the city authorities, school children, right-wing commentators, academics and architects working on nearby regeneration scheme. Killed off by bureaucratic indecision, the funeral procession for the scheme was ‘The March Backwards’ made by the Minaret’s supporters from the cathedral to the city’s former synagogue. Heading backwards and stumbling as they looked at the church’s twin spires, they were saying something about progress. After all, Poland was once a multi-confessional state.

Rajkowska has, it seems, an intuitive knack for ideas for public art which attract deep enthusiasm and splenetic opposition. In fact, her schemes are far less important as modes of representation than for their capacity to spawn what Bruno Latour would call acts of representation by others. Welcoming the Minaret project, Essiekh Mohamed Saleh, president of the Muslim League in Poznań, said: ‘We do a lot of things in Poland, but we still remain invisible’, whilst local architects revealed their thin-lipped ethnocentrism by declaring the Minaret project as being ‘culturally alien.’ Where the Beast is Buried does not so much record Rajkowska’s projects as these responses. Commissioning bodies – which espouse an inclusive rhetoric about cultural dialogue or social participation – turn out to be paralyzed by a fear of unpredictable exchanges. And often, it seems, the final decision whether or not to make a work of public art does not rest with the agencieswhich have been charged with this role.

Is Rajkowska settling old scores? Maybe, but Where the Beast is Buried is far more interesting (and readable) than that. Rajkowska offers an extraordinary and often painfully intimate description of her experiences. It becomes clear that The Peterborough Child was an attempt to come to terms with the terrible fact that her own baby daughter, Rosa, was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer, bilateral retinoblastoma, in 2012. Elsewhere, the reader follows Rajkowska’s response to the death of her mother after enduring Alzheimer’s Disease. Rajkowska decides, in her words, to become her own mother, by enacting her escape from hospital. ‘I had the impression that my mother had filled me, that she had entered all my orifices, that I was defenceless against her and her fear.’ The effort seems to lead to her own breakdown. These often disconcerting autobiographical passages – interwoven throughout the histories of her schemes – make it clear that this unusual book takes the form of a testimony and, like all testimonies, its claims on truth lie not in objective facts but in the closeness to the events described. Made by an individual, they are public acts: testimonies have to be voiced or written for others.

Tom Finkelpearl’s book What We Made also employs testimony. It features 15 interviews and conversations made in 2004–11 with artists, critics and participants in various kind of interactive, collaborative or participatory art and architecture – hence the pronoun in the book’s title. Looking back, they reflect on the motivations for and effects of making different works of participatory art either in America or at least in the country’s long shadow since the 1990s. Finkelpearl has a close relationship to the subject too as the Executive Director of the Queens Museum of Art since 2002 and before that as a curator at MoMA PS1.

The book behaves like its subject – each chapter is a conversation. Finkelpearl interviews some conspicuous names including Grant Kester, an art historian who published a key book in 2004, Conversation Pieces. Community and Communication in Modern Art, and artist Tania Bruguera, amongst others. Unsurprisingly, most of his interviewees are advocates for collaboration, albeit not uncritical ones. Sometimes Finkelpearl leaves the talking to others: artist Wendy Ewald converses with social scientist Sondra Farganis about ‘Arabic Alphabet’, an installation that she made with Arabic-speaking kids from Jackson Heights for Queens Museum just after 9/11. Finkelpearl calls on participants too. He interviews Jay Dykeman, the owner of Jay’s Quick Gas in Portland, Oregon, who dreamt of filming a version of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses on his garage premises. Dykeman’s vision was realized – brilliantly, and in a bespoke fashion – by artist Harrell Fletcher in the 2002 film Blot Out the Sun. Mechanics and customers performed for Fletcher’s camera and the resulting film was screened on the forecourt. There is clear merit in Finkelpearl’s approach. If we want to judge the claims made by the champions of social cooperation in the arts – those who’ve pinned Joseph Beuys’s 1974 proclamation that ‘every living being is an artist’ on the doors of their hearts – then it is important not only to record the experience of curators and artists, but also non-professionals who were swept up into participatory art schemes too. Dykeman might be a living illustration of Beuys’s vision, though almost ten years later he does not recognize himself as an artist. That remains Fletcher’s domain.

Some of the conversations in What We Made were conducted almost a decade ago (before much participatory art was cast so vigorously as a ‘nightmare’ or as ‘artificial hells’ by writers like Claire Bishop, herself an interviewee). Occasionally, the time lag tells (and Finkelpearl admits as much). But there is much about this book which is current. Attempts to model alternative modes of education are mapped out in vivid reflections on the Chicago Urban Ecology Action Group established by Mark Dion in the early 1990s and Bruguera’s thoughts on the Cátedra Arte de Conducta in Havana (2002–09). The role of the artist as curator of the skills of others or, as architect Teddy Cruz puts it, as ‘cultural pimp’ as well the pervasive desire to demonstrate the everyday usefulness of art in the face of its spectacularization by the market are recurrent themes. Some less convincing preoccupations of the present surface in these conversations too, such as attempts to quantify the social benefits of participatory art and housing design schemes.

Finkelpearl presents his social collaboration both as a critique of America, a country that he describes in conversation with Bishop as an ‘extreme form of self-oriented individualist society’, and as an attempt to demonstrate the vitality of ‘America’s most significant contribution to philosophy, pragmatism’. In fact, the conclusion to What We Made offers a kind of a posteriori thesis which sets out to reclaim the thinking of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey who died in 1952 and in particular the idea that truth – for which we might read ‘art’ – is made in the act of inquiry and through social interaction. This is not the first time that Dewey’s ideas have been resurrected. In the 1970s Richard Rorty turned to his writings to mount a postmodern attack on universal values, whilst nevertheless admitting that Dewey ‘insisted’ in a rather un-postmodern way ‘that only point of society was to construct subjects of capable of ever more novel, ever richer forms of human happiness.’ Here is the forthright claim on progress which motivates many of Finkelpearl’s conversationalists too. Is this another version of American can-do? After all, if Rajkowska’s book is a critical balance sheet that seizes failure and even trauma to make its points, then Finkelpearl’s claims the social importance of success.

 

The Dark Side of the Modern Home

Architecture, Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

This is an extract of an essay published in Sparke, Massey, Keeble and Martin, eds., Designing the Modern Interior (Berg, 2009)

The modern home is, conventionally, bathed in the light of order. Adolf Loos’s vision of a ‘New Zion’ stripped of its nostalgic ornament; Le Corbusier’s ‘fenêtre en longeur’; and Pierre Koenig’s glass curtain walls and open plans constitute steady steps in the progress of the rational, improved home from its Enlightenment origins. But they do not represent the only kind of modern dwelling. In fact, such domestic utopias might be an inadequate measure of twentieth century modernity. The ‘most terrible century in Western history’ provides many images of broken homes.[1] Windowless bomb shelters, the maternity wards of Heinrich Himmler’s lebensborn programme, ghetto towns like Terezín and the ruins of war-torn cities like Beirut constitute an landmarks in an alternative and unwritten history of the modern home. How might these homes be understood not as ‘accidents’ of history but as its design? And, if viewed in this way, what are the aesthetics of these ruins of history?

Ruins have, of course, long been aestheticised by being seized as symbols through which to reflect on the irresistible passage of time. Their broken state invites comparison with the frailties of the body: while the weeds that thrive in their cracks testify to the triumph of nature over culture. Many eighteenth and nineteenth century aesthetes – famously Wordsworth, Piranesi, Diderot and Michelet – found a melancholic pleasure in contemplating the ruin as utopia in reverse.[2] This sensibility is by no means exhausted today. Recently, for instance, the depopulated centres of America’s rustbelt cities in a similar fashion.[3]

But it is important to stress that two new orders of ruin emerged in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which laid a claim on modernity. Linda Nochlin has observed that the French Revolution marked the first moment in history in which architectural fragments appeared ‘as a positive rather than a negative trope’. The ruin was drafted to symbolise the march of progress:

[T]he fragment, for the Revolution and its artists, rather than symbolizing nostalgia for the past, enacts the deliberate destruction of that past, or, at least, a pulverization of what were perceived to be its repressive traditions. Both outright vandalism and what one might think of as a recycling of the vandalized fragments of the past for allegorical purposes functioned as Revolutionary strategies.[4]

Mikhail Yampolsky has written ‘Destruction and construction can be understood, in certain contexts, as two equally valid features of immortalisation …’[5] The erection of a new monument on the site of an old one is an act of double commemoration or, as he puts it, immortalisation.That a Russian intellectual has allegorized destruction as progress should not come as a surprise. After all he was schooled in a society created by revolution.

It is, perhaps, more difficult to limn the ruins produced by industrial warfare, although of course many have tried.[6] The products of this order of modernity – the results of mechanised violence – seem less innocent or optimistic. The ruins of Rotterdam, Leningrad, Dresden, Warsaw, Hiroshima, Mostar and even New York could and can not function as what Simmel called the ‘naturalised artefact’ because their origins lay in catastrophe.[7] Their status as symbols is overshadowed by their status as indices of events. As Andrew Hersher has argued of the modern ruin in another context:

Damage is a form of design, and the traces of damage inflicted by political violence – a facade stippled by the spray of bullets, a penumbra of smoke around a hole where a door or a window once was, or a pile of rubble no longer identifiable as architecture at all – are at least as significant as any of the elements from which buildings are constructed for living, for the living.[8]

In this sense, the ruins produced by violence are far more ‘legible’ than those produced by the effects of entropy. Comparing the kinds of objects which provoke nostalgic reverie such as the pressed flower in the scrapbook with souvenirs of death like relics, Susan Stewart has written: ‘they mark the horrible transformation of meaning into material more than they mark, as other souvenirs do, the transformation of materiality into meaning.’[9] This contrast also structures the differences between the entropic ruin and the debris of modern war.

It is not surprising that the image of the house in ruins, and its accompanying figure, the displaced person, was a persistent theme in Europe after 1945. It formed the mis-en-scène for novels by Heinrich Böll, Marek Hłasko and Graham Greene as well as films by Roberto Rossellini, Grigori Chukrai and Andrzej Wajda. The destruction of the home was a powerful allegorical form through which artists and writers could reflect not only on the difficult conditions of the present, but also on the problems of remembrance and forgetting. The condition of house in fragments – decayed and riddled with spatial and temporal uncertainties – seemed much like the condition of memory itself facing the recent horrors of war and, in the East, the pressure of an ideology which claimed to already know the past and the future. Equally, the utilitarian modern homes promised to Europe’s displaced peoples – in the new geography of East and West in the aftermath of war and mass destruction – were criticized as being inadequate precisely because they could not inspire memory work of dreams.[10]

Humankind seemed to be stripped of its humanity when displaced from home. In 1945, General Patton, for instance, expressed higher regard for the Germans in their bombed out ruins than the Jews who had survived the camps and were now searching for homes and families in Europe’s ruins: ‘[General] Craig … told me he had inspected another Jewish camp yesterday’ he wrote in his diary, ‘in which he found men and women using adjacent toilets which were not covered in any way although screens were available to make the toilets individually isolated, which the Jews were too lazy to put up. He said the conditions and filth were unspeakable. In one room he found ten people, six men and four women, occupying four double beds. Either these Displaced Persons never had any sense of decency or else they lost it all during their internment by the Germans’.[11] Housing not only provides shelter: it makes people orderly in the minds of others, tidying lives and bodies.

Whilst the image of the home in ruins may have been at it peak in the 1940s and 1950s, it has been a persistent theme in twentieth century culture. What should we make the image of the home in ruins at the end of the century? What perspective might be taken on the debris of domestic life in the twentieth century? In the remains of this short essay, I will turn to the work of two artists, Gregor Schneider and Ilya Kabakov, both of whom have created homes from and with the debris of modern life. Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’, an installation based on the form of the communal apartment, and Schneider’s Totes Haus u r (Dead House ur) are powerful commentaries on the catastrophes which shadow modernity in the ‘medium’ of the home.

It would surely be possible to read the domestic spaces exhibited by both artists as autobiographies or even psychological portraits. Kabakov has described his early installations in his Moscow studio as ‘an experiment of biography in the installation genre’ in which he ‘became a character of himself.’[12] And Schneider’s seemingly compulsive and secretive behaviour as well as the assault on his own home which is the basis of the Dead House has encouraged many to follow this line. Paul Schimmel has called the Dead House as ‘life’s echo.’[13] Such readings reproduce one of the principal myths of the century: that the home is a mirror of the individual and a container of private memory. As Ivan Illich puts it, ‘to dwell means to inhabit the traces left by one’s own living, by which one always retraces the lives of one’s ancestors.’[14] But Schneider and Kabakov’s artistic archaeologies drawn attention to a wider and perhaps more disturbing set of modern ambitions of the domestic ‘perfection’.

Undiscarded things

Ilya Kabakov, active in non-official art circles in the Soviet Union from the 1960s, emerged into the consciousness of the West in the late 1980s, his art drawing attention to the textures of life and the residual utopianism of the Soviet Union at the time when it was being dismantled. His first major installation exhibited in the West in 1988 was ‘Ten Characters’, an extension of the themes he had been exploring in albums and paintings made since the 1970s.[15] His installation – a series of cell-like rooms off a shabby corridor poorly lit with electric light bulbs – presents the possessions and living spaces of ten absent Soviet citizens. In their absence, their lives are described in a series of vivid extended texts (often in the heterogeneous voices of official reports, newspaper articles, diaries and ad hominem reflections) and, of course, their possessions. The viewer is invited to be both a psychologist and an archaeologist, extracting meaning from the debris of life and fragmentary reports. In this work, Kabakov recreated a communal apartment (komunalka), the most distinct space in the domestic landscape of the Soviet Union, domestic exotica for audiences in Washington, Paris and London.

The komunalka is a fascinating historical artefact: it remains both a symptom of the radical hopes and, in the event, the failure of the Soviet dreamworld. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, the ‘bourgeois’ conception of home as a private space – both socially and spatially – was rejected in a series of decrees issued from 1918 nationalising land and abolishing private ownership of property. Collective modes of housing were not only adopted as a matter of exigency, but also proclaimed as the democratisation of space.[16] Large pre-revolutionary apartments, once occupied by the wealthy and their servants, were sub-divided to provide homes for a number of working class and peasant families. In his Moscow diaries Walter Benjamin described, employing a characteristically surreal metaphor, how these private homes had become common property and were now over-populated by numerous families and their meagre possessions; ‘Through the hall door one steps into a little town’.[17]

The komunalka was an instrument with which to create the new collectivity. It was to be the first stage in a new domestic landscape which would be furnished with dom komunii (communal houses), glass and steel building-machines which would accommodate hundreds of adults and children meeting their basic needs with by collective facilities like public canteens and an on-site boarding schools. Minimal allowances of ‘private’ space were to be provided to foster the kind of communalism lauded by communist ideologues and inhibit the ‘private’ possession of things. In fact, the desire for such things was expected to disappear when all human needs were satisfied by the perfect environment.[18] Andrei Platonov in his novel, The Foundation Pit (1930) described the ‘All Proletarian Home’ as a step towards Communism itself. His hero, predictably an engineer who is – less predictably – riddled with doubt, designs a

single building that was to replace the old town where … people lived fenced off from one another on their private plots: in a year’s time the entire local proletariat would leave the old town and its petty properties and take possession of the monumental new home. And in another decade or two, some other engineer would construct a tower, in the very centre of the world, where the toiling masses of the whole earth would happily take up residence for the rest of time.[19]

Such new collective homes were never (or hardly ever[20]) built. And whilst the mass housing schemes promoted by Nikita Khrushchev and his successor Leonid Brezhnev dramatically altered the face of cities and the living patterns of society, they did little to break up the institution of the family (in fact, in the form of the single-family apartment they did much to reinforce it). Moreover, the komunalka – the first phase in the campaign against bourgeois domesticity – remained a lasting feature of domestic life in the Soviet Union. In 1989, for instance, one-quarter of the population lived in komunalkii, sharing a common kitchen, a common toilet and a common telephone in an apartment subdivided by flimsy partitions, sometimes little more than curtains.[21]

Conventionally art historians have turned to Kabakov’s ‘Ten Characters’ as a comment on the forms of horizontal surveillance which operated not in only in the communal apartment but throughout Soviet society. Constantly aware of one’s movements and opinions being detected by others, the individual modifies his or her behaviour. Life is reduced to one of vigilance and performance or as Boris Groys puts it elegantly ‘the communal turns everyone into an artist’[22] For the purposes of this essay, another feature of the installation calls for attention, the debris from which Kabakov fashions his art. One space – once occupied by a cosmonaut who seemingly has flown into space by means of a catapult – is a ‘spectacle of total devastation’.[23] A massive hole in the ceiling created by an explosion detonated at the moment of take off has left the room littered with plaster fragments whilst the former occupant’s possessions are strewn all around. The room itself, bathed in the red light of propaganda posters, is a temple for Soviet dreams of futurism, of transcendence.[24] After the departure of this anonymous Gagarin, all that remains however is junk.

Another room – occupied by ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is far more orderly and retrospective in tone. Scraps of paper and film, slithers of packaging, rags, tins and jars are carefully arranged in vitrines and hung on the wall. Each has a label attached to it, in the style of a museum catalogue, with a number and an inscription. The room itself is short and narrow, like a corridor, and contains two doors, one of which is permanently locked. This is the living space of an individual, but no furniture is visible, except a small divan.

Svetlana Boym, in her brilliant study of the myths of everyday life in Russia, describes the komunalka as the place where ‘domestic trash’ triumphed.[25] Far from being a new commonwealth in which the frictions caused by attachment to possessions was eased by the benefits of collective life: things (and often the social divisions they represent) announced their presence loudly, if sometimes mysteriously, in the communal apartment. This is Kabakov’s own description of the corridor:

Despite regular cleaning …, there was always a heap of undiscarded things. No-one knew whom these things belonged to, what they were used for, nor was it known whether the owners of these things still lived in the apartment or if they had already left. These things were scattered in all the corners, hung on the walls, stood along the entire length of the hallway. Because of all this, the apartment took on the appearance of a mysterious cave, full of stalactites and stalagmites, with a narrow passageway between them leading the constantly open kitchen door … Near the large discarded things – big wardrobes, cast-iron stoves, couches and other household junk -, smaller things were piled up on all sides and on top of the other ones – pipes crates, boxes, old buckets, bottles, both broken and complete … [26]

Recycling and garbage were prominent in the ecology of late Soviet socialism: a greasy tide of filth seeped into public spaces such as common hallways, streets, parks and beaches; whilst shortage turned citizens into skilled fixers of broken things, adept at the everyday arts of bricolage. On when things were completely exhausted (itself never a certain state), could they be dumped. But Kabakov’s debris – collected by the pseudonymous figure of the ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ – is neither a practical resource nor is it without value. It evidently operates within the memorial economy rather than the economic one.

But what is being memorialized in this collection of things? Might this room operate as what Mikhail Epshtein, writing at same time, described as a ‘lyrical museum’, a home for things cycling between the warehouse and the dump? The collection of the ordinary stuff of everyday life, he says, is a response to modernity: ‘Our ancestors would hardly have thought of trying intensely to understand surrounding Things or of creating a memorial for them because the homes they lived in were such “memorials.” The Thing was meaningful from the start when it was inherited … and meaningful at the end when it was passed on …[27] In the Soviet Union, the figure of the collector – an activity laced with pathos – is rendered poignant by the fact that he was a representative of a social system which made the greatest possible claim to free mankind from the weight of the past and from the alienating effects of things. But Kabakov’s collector does not preserve fragments of a pre-revolutionary world (say in the manner of Chatwin’s fictional Utz or Dombrovsky’s Keeper of Antiquities[28]): he collects the debris of Soviet socialism. Even before the end of the Soviet experiment in 1991, Kabakov sensed how this dreamworld could become a ruin; how the future could become the past; and how utopia could become trash.

Dead House u r

Much distinguishes Kabakov’s installation from Gregor Schneider’s project, the Dead House. The Russian artist’s prolixity and his interest in the structures of ideology, reason and progress are very distant from the obdurate preoccupations of the young German artist. Nevertheless, Robert Storr writing in Art Forum in 2001 saw in Schneider’s work at the Venice Biennale that year ‘evidence of the delayed but growing influence in the West of Ilya Kabakov’s gritty, dystopian fantasies’. [29]

In the mid 1980s, Schneider, then a young man, began remodelling his own three-storey family home in Rheydt, a district of Mönchengladbach. By removing and duplicating walls, he created twenty-two rooms as well as numerous passages and dead-ends. Massive structures – suggesting inverted houses – were built into existing rooms. Doors to bedrooms were hidden behind heavy, brick walls which Schneider could move, albeit with difficulty, like a sliding door, to welcome (or incarcerate) his guests. Entire rooms could rotate on their axes. Many of the spaces created by these radical modifications were cramped and oppressive, punctuated with holes which penetrated through floors and what Schneider calls ‘in-between rooms.’ Blind windows were built directly in front of actual windows facing the outside world. Cupboards functioned as doorways into secret rooms. Hidden lights and ventilators produced the illusion of daylight and fresh air. And, like Kabakov’s lyrical museums, the Dead House became a kind of exhausted kunstkammer filled with decaying photographs, rolled up carpets, stuffed animals and dingy antiques. In these ways, it became a kind of mutant home formed from the corpses of other homes nearby, many of which were abandoned when the authorities forced their occupants to move so that the coal-rich ground could be mined.

Schneider’s dead ends, blind windows and cells within rooms suggest spaces of burial and torture, extra-territorial zones where the ‘rules of life’ are suspended and violent forces unleashed (Some floors were lined with lead, whilst some walls were dressed with sound proofing materials). This is perhaps where the bloodshed or loss suggested by the project’s title, Totes Haus u r, occurs. But the project also pointed to birth. u r – ostensibly refers to the first and last letters of the street on which it stands, Unterheydener Strasse. But of course, ur also means origin. Homes are conventionally sites of social and biological reproduction. In its decomposed state, Schneider’s house combines the symmetry of womb and tomb (poles that Freud famously conjoined in his essay on the Uncanny[30]). In the mid 1990s Schneider said:

I dream of taking the whole house away with me and building it somewhere else. My father and mother would then live in it, older relatives would like dead in the cellar, my brothers would live upstairs, around and about there would be men and women who don’t quite know where else to go. Somewhere in a corner would the large lady who constantly makes children and throws them out into the world.[31]

Schneider figured aspects of this particular nightmare in the form of portrait photographs concealed within the layers of rooms: each generation sealed, invisibly, as layers between walls.

In the 1990s and the early years of the new century Schneider’s elements of the Dead House were carefully removed from its Rheydt site and reinstalled within the white walls of galleries throughout Europe and North America. The Dead House achieved its greatest exposure at the Venice Biennale in 2001 when the artist represented Germany. This setting brought one of the Dead House’s most potent themes to the fore: the German pavilion had been remodeled in 1938 by the Third Reich in order to conform to the neo-classical idiom. Architect Ernst Haiger replaced the iconic columns and a modest gable of the small classical temple with four massive flat pilasters carrying an austere architrave. It represented an unmistakable projection of fascist aesthetics onto the international stage.

In this particular setting, Schneider’s Dead House was unmistakably drawn into the orbit of German history (somewhat inevitably following Nam June Paik and Hans Haacke’s treatment of the historic space in 1993 in their installation ‘Germania’[32]). Schneider created a claustrophobic labyrinth within the Pavilion and set a common glass-paned door from Rheydt into its grand entrance, a gesture which perhaps points to the complicity of ordinary homes in the reproduction of Nazism and even as the site of the execution of its crimes. This has repeatedly been the accusation made of German society. But the idea that a house is somehow guilty of crimes seems illogical, a category error which confuses mind and matter. Yet, the places in which tremendous violence has occurred are often demolished in order to exorcise their ghosts (or to deny ghost-hunters). In 1946, for instance, the garden of the Reich’s Chancellery, the site of Hitler’s bunker, was razed and the area leveled by the communist authorities which now controlled the Eastern sectors of the city. The bunker was buried (again). Similarly, in 1952, the Bavarian government blew up the ruins of the Berghof, Hitler’s heimatschutzstil home on the Obersalzberg. In an effort to stop the site becoming a site for Nazi and neo-Nazi pilgrims, the building could not be allowed to remain (though this intention to suppress memory was somewhat undermined by the choosing to commit this domicide on the anniversary of Hitler’s death, 30th April).

But of course Schneider has not destroyed the Dead House, but expanded and mutated it. In a strange twist, his secret rooms and false floors seem to echo the desperate attempts by Europe’s Jews to fashion places in which to hide in Germany and the occupied countries of the Second World War. These were, as we know, too rarely safe homes. ‘Street by street, house by house, inch by inch, from attic to cellar’, wrote one survivor of a German ghetto-clearing in occupied Poland, ‘The Germans became expert at finding these hiding places. When they searched a house they went tapping the walls, listening for the hollow sound that indicated a double wall. They punched holes in ceilings and walls ….’. [33] Entering into the constricting passages and false rooms was an uncertain experience, particularly for those who visited the ‘original’ incarnation of the Dead House in Rheydt: it produced the uncanny double effect of hunting and being hunted.

The Dead House was, in this regard, a strange kind of countermonument, a celebrated genre of public artworks through which Germany was asked to confront the Holocaust in the 1980s. Far more typical were those schemes which – by means of disappearing columns or as street cobbles carrying the names of Jewish cemeteries on their underside – asked Germans to reflect on the absences in their midst.[34] This phenomenon sought to address the aesthetic problem of the monument, historically an object associated with triumphalism, by seeking to produce a sense of anguished reflection on the part of its viewers. Such counter monuments have attracted a good deal of controversy. As Richard Esbenshade put it in 1995 ‘The celebration of counter-memory or counter-history begs the question of who is doing the remembering and the rewriting of history.’[35] A far more disturbing (and tactically irresponsible) countermemorial is perhaps one which simulates the conditions in which people became prey.

Inconclusive material

Historian Eric Hobsbawm has represented the late twentieth century as an era of disconnect: ‘The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century.’[36] Living in a ‘sort of permanent present lacking any organic relations to the public past’ the ‘historical memory is no longer alive’ in modern societies. Hobsbawm’s observation made in 1994 was intended to reaffirm the role of the historian as a political and social conscience. What kind of connection with the past is made Kabakov and Schneider’s homes? After all the eerie is precisely the sensation generated by both installations.

Both Kabakov and Schneider explore the ways in which ordinary things might materialise memory, an inquiry which was all the more powerful for exploring the debris of the home. In environments in which homes were experiments for either the disavowal of domesticity (the Soviet Union) or its perversion (Nazi Germany), these artists produce spaces for an examination of the trash produced by modernity. The facticity and durability of material has long been claimed as its value. Hannah Arendt argued, for instance, that it was these qualities which ‘gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them … . From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[37] But in societies which have been forced through the mill of history, the ‘sameness’ of that chair or table might be the very cause of disturbance.


[1] Isaiah Berlin cited by Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.1.

[2] Charles Merewether ‘Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed’ in Michael S. Roth, Claire Lyons and Charles Merewether, eds., Irresistible Decay (Los Angeles, 1997), pp.1-13. See also Christopher Woodward, In Ruins (London, 2002).

[3] James Jeffrey Higgins, Images of the Rust Belt (Kent, OH, 1999)

[4] Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity (New York, 1995),p.8.

[5] M Yampolsky, ‘In the Shadow of Monuments’ in N. Condee, ed., Soviet Hieroglyphics, (London, 1995), p.100.

[6] The damaged yet preserved state of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, for instance, represents a humanistic view of the ruin.

[7] Georg Simmel ‘The Ruin’ in Kurt H. Wolff, ed., Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics (New York, 1965), pp.259-66.

[8] Andrew Hersher, ‘The Language of Damage’ in Grey Room, 7 (Spring 2002),p.69.

[9] Susan Stewart, On Longing. Narrative of Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London, 1993),p.138.

[10] Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Boston, MA., 1994), p. 64.

[11] George S. Patton (September 21st, 1945) The Patton Papers, 1940-1945, edited by Martin Blumenson (Cambridge, MA., 1998) p.759

[12] Ilya Kabakov, Der Text als Grundlage des Visnellen / The Text as the Basis of Visual Expression, edited by Zdenek Felix (Köln, 2000) p.269.

[13] Paul Schimmel, ‘Life’s Echo’ in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003), pp.103-118.

[14] Ivan Illich H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Reflections on the History of ‘Stuff’ (Dallas, 1985),p.8

[15] It was first mounted at Ronald Feldman Fine Art in New York in 1988.

[16] Milka Bliznakov, ‘Soviet housing during the experimental years, 1918 to 1933’, in William Craft Brumfield and Blair A. Ruble (eds), Russian Housing in the Modern Age: Design and Social History (Cambridge 1993), pp.85–149.

[17] Walter Benjamin, ‘Moscow’ (1927) in One Way Street (London, 1979), pp. 187-88.

[18] On the early Soviet critique of the commodity see Christine Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions. The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge MA., 2005) particularly pp.1-88.

[19] Andrei Platonov, ‘The Foundation Pit’ (1930) in Catriona Kelly, ed., Utopias (Hardmondsworth, 1999) p.21.

[20] On attempts to produce new experimental collective whousing schemes in the 1960s see Monica Rüthers, Moskau bauen von Lenin bis Chruscev. Öffentliche Räume zwischen Utopie, Terror und Alltag (Cologne, 2007), pp.248–61.

[21] See K. Gerasmiova, ‘Public Privacy in the Soviet Communal Apartment’ in David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ed., Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (Oxford and London, 2003), p. 207-30.

[22] Borys Groys, David A. Rose and Iwona Blazwick, Ilya Kabakov (London, 1998), p.63

[23] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen p.332

[24] For a brilliant analysis of this space see Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (London, 2006).

[25] Svetlana Boym, Commonplaces. Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), p.123.

[26] Kabakov, Text als Grundlage des Visuellen, p. 300.

[27] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ in Efimova and Manovich, ed., Tekstura (Chicago, 1993), p. 164

[28] Bruce Chatwin, Utz (London, 1988); Yury Dombrovsky, The Keeper of Antiquities (London, 1968).

[29] Robert Storr ‘Harry’s Last Call’ in Art Forum (September 2001), p. 159.

[30] ‘To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all. And yet psychoanalysis has taught us that this terrifying fantasy is only a transformation of another fantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it al all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness – the fantasy, I mean of intra-uterine existence.’ S. Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ in Art and Literature (Collected Works) (Hardmondsworth, 1985) p. 366

[31] Gregor Schneider in an interview with Ulrich Loock in Gregor Schneider (Milan, 2003) pp.99-100.

[32] The marble floor of the pavilion interior was smashed into fragments at Haacke and Paik’s instruction. The visitor had to walk with great care over the uneven and unstable surface. As they moved, their steps were amplified and broadcast back into the echoing space. Here was a national pavilion – and, by extension, a nation – without solid foundations. See Dario Gamboni The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution (London, 1997) p.166.

[33] Henry Orenstein cited by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London, 1997), p. 395

[34] see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London, 1993) and James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London, 2007).

[35] Richard S. Esbenshade ‘Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe’, Representations, 49 (winter 1995), pp.72–96.

[36] Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London, 1995), p.3.

[37] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, 1999) p.137. I am grateful to Paul Betts for alerting me to this passage in Arendt’s book.

Dan Perjovschi: The Power of the Margins

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe

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.