Art and Architecture

Dr Bob Jarvis


Bob Jarvis reports on Bucharest’s Biennale of Contemporary Art.
I arrived at Bucharest’s retro-communist chaotic, airless airport, Baneasa, the same day there were more demonstrators on the streets of Romania’s capital than since 1989. And most of them were over 60, in protest against the cuts in state-pensions (the breadline for many of Romania’s elderly) of 15% and 25% in state salaries. Where the money that the IMF bailed the country out with has gone is a mystery. Not to Romanians on the Crângaşi tram though- ‘Este putrezire’ they shrug. I left on a new Romanian Orthodox State Holiday – when you have to be careful if you hear voices.

Between the two I trekked from luxury hotel to abandoned garages, from office block to down and out community centre. And slid five double floors up the backside of Palatul Parlamentarului (as Ceacescu’s real stone and marble, as I discovered close up, centre for all Romania’s administration has now become) to the empty, collection-less Museum of Contemporary Art : BB4 gets better box office.

The story starts in the chrome-gold kitsch of the Intercontinental Hotel (Dallas capitalism in the Eastern bloc) where on gilded salon chairs – how wonderfully inappropriate – a motley mix of mainly English speaking (though mostly second or third language) artists and reporters gathered (“….I’m doing a project in Barcelona”/ “ I was in Turkey but its so cheap to get here”/ “Never knew there were so many artists in Bucharest”… can guess the rest) In an accidental preview of Nicoline van Harskamp’s (Holland) scripted performance piece playing around with ideas of expression and language in Romanian and the role of English as a lingua franca. Some lucky folk got an English transcript .

We were in these high kitsch surroundings for the opening of BB4 - Handlung : the German word is delightfully ambiguous as guest curator Felix Vogel (a 23 year old art theorist – yes TWENTY THREE) points out – it can mean action, agency, possibility, production… no clue as to what we might get there then. Except the political edge of BB4 has kept it deliberately out of ‘art- spaces’ – hence my perambulations, and the biennale sees itself as a challenge to the city’s social, economic and political agenda. Radovan Ion and Eugen Radescu who run not only the Biennale but also the gallery space and publication Pavillion get no state or municipal funding and run with sponsorship (Unicredit Bank and Pilsner Urquel principally) and a page long list of volunteers.
Venice this isn’t – and Radovan doesn’t want it to become such an art circus either – the agenda here is overtly to change the political climate to a more (dare I say it?) socialist one. But then some of the demonstrators held placards for Ceacescu and the Communist years are called the ‘epoca de aur’- the golden age.

My tour started at the most hidden venue – lured by the name Paradis Garaj and that it was closest to the Intercontinental, I set off up Batistei Stada, past the Romanian Passport Office – no photographs - and the High Court, scattered between them empty sites, run down villas, sandwich shops and Bucharest’s chaos of wires and parking. Nr. 20 it turns out is hidden behind trails of ivy to the ground and some impromptu car repairs. In a tiny space (more domestic than car dealer) London’s Otolith Group were screening their enigmatic and haunting dreams of the present as seen from the past – women’s space flight, Chandigarh, and an unmade science fiction film woven out of home movie footage and
news-reel clips. A suitably mysterious start, turning the secret garage courtyard into a gateway to an alternative dreamlike present.

Along Boulevard G. Magheru, round Piata Romana and up Blvd. L. Catargui to the wilderness of Piata Victoriei ( you soon learn in Bucharest to keep to the safe crossing signs. And look both ways, twice) to BB4’s headquarters – the ground floor of a modern office block in sub-postmodern concrete, left unfinished and now lined with the ubiquitous art gallery white walls. Outside an old peasant lady sells wilting flowers. Inside the highlights are two extremes of conceptual art. To the left, Goldin+Senneby (Sweden) have taken Art and Language’s ‘Air Conditioning Show’ (1972) to extremes and politicised it with a commentary on the relation between air conditioning and the complex calculations of international financial speculation – but all you see is an empty white room, welcomingly cool with a quiet, factual commentary. To the right Sabrina Gschwandtner (USA) sits KNITTING. Her ‘Wartime Knitting Circle’ is a gentle recreation of the knitting groups set up to help ‘our boys’ in WWI and II in the context of the on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But she does not prescribe whose side the knitters are on. And you can talk to her while she knits.

Down the side streets where glossy unfinished office and hotel centres mix with the villas of the old elite and academies to the Institute for Political Research where outside seminar rooms and lecture theatres of Bucharest University’s political nexus BB4 has installed a series of explorations of Romania’s past – which may be uncomfortable for the political guru’s thinking up its future.
The neo- classical hall, dark marble columns around an double height atrium echoes to the haunting dinosaur booms of Kalle Brolin’s (Sweden) video ‘Gorgeousaurus- founding myth’ where children in one of Romania’s forgotten industrial areas make huge wind instruments and then play them in an abandoned coal-mine intercut with footage of political meetings. Upstairs a real welcome surprise – large, realistic paintings! Like much in Romania these days there is a tinge of irony and nostalgia in Ştefan Constantinescu’s (Romania) ‘ Infinite Blue’ series, but since he worked as mural painter in the Romanian Communist Army such perspectives are from life not theory and his ostensible artistic purpose to investigate the techniques of such painting. Alongside them his ‘Children’s Pop-up guide to the Golden Age’ – a beautifully crafted and manufactured history complete with moveable churches and dress up dolls – establishes that this is not just a momentary twinge of pain – this recent past still haunts the Romanian consciousness.

Finally back to the Centre for Visual Introspection, a shop space in the central area alongside a ‘proper’ art gallery – frames and bright abstracts and prices, its title questioning what was going on here. Again it was the Romanian work that had the most strength – in this case Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor (Romania) whose mis-reading and recreation of the (1926 Russian) revolutionary banner ‚Long live and thrive Communism Capitalism’ brings into question many of the changes current all around the city. This becomes more apparent when after the curator’s question and answer session which itself broke down almost at once when one of the French artists, from the five star luxury of the Intercontinental tried to turn his demand for extra subisidy for his bar bill into an artistic manifesto. He should be so lucky; I made do with a two star ‚suite’ in a one star hotel. But walking back in the dusk talking to a Romanian art student it became clear that there is a huge gap between the art at BB4 and the way fine art is taught in Romania; most of the work in the Biennale is as if from a different planet : making its Directors brave astronauts, sending back messages from distant abstract, political and conceptual galaxies.

By Saturday afternoon I needed the parks and spaces that ring the north of the city centre. The National Geological Museum - in high 19th Century Romanesque style (neo-brâcovnenesque to be precise and local) with dusty hand painted dinausaurs and severe oil paintings of past presidents - hardly seemed a likely venue it is here that BB4’s interventionsit style starts to pay off.
School parties being dragged round the sediments and strata want to play with Lan Tuzon’s (Phillipnes) ‚Riot City’ models and the secret election day photographs from 1975 (Ion Grigorescu , Romania) when Ceaşescu’s power was reaffirmed must have brought back memories to many. But the most powerful piece was a long scroll of text – and the oldest work in BB4 – Bucharest and its Utopia’ by Marcel Iancu(Romania, d. 1984)from 1935– a 50 year agenda for modernism that can be seen in the full scale fragments of the Communist city – make of that what you will – while in a back room Asa Sonjasdotter (Sweden) is growing peasant potatoes outlawed by EU ‚nornalisation’ that reaches to even the smallest smallholdings of rural Romania. The ‚Workarounds’ Lise Skou and Nis Romer and Palestine Academy of Art sketch and document from the scarred streets of Palestine are alomost the norm.

The contrast on Sunday between the clean and trimmed rebuilt cottages, mills and farms of the popular and busy Village Museum on the edge of Lake Herăstrău where stalls were selling populist ‚folk art’ and the folk dance groups quickly change back into their street clothes for the coach back to Bacau and my last BB4 venue across the city on the wrong side of the Palatul Parlamentarului in the urban wilderness of Rahova/Uranus could not be greater.

Piles of rubbish, huge lake size puddles, a half -built dual carriageway , scrapped cars and ubiquitous dog packs were my approach to LaBomba. But it was here in the dark and humid night club/community workshop/music venue that in a mix of French and my bad Romanian I discovered that there had been a mix up on the programme where I found a spiritual home. ‘Art’ here is action – improvised bands, reclaiming open spaces, collecting memories and building identity - and even a haute-couture fashion workshop for a community literally on the edge of the galaxy, in the shadow of the incomplete Romanian Academy where you can hear the reinforcing rods being pulled away for scrap across the street from the Italian designer furniture store. On Monday I went back for a jam session with an American trumpet player and local percussion players and I took two reams of paper as a thank you : ‘You understood what we are about’ organizer Irina Giadiuta told me. No white walls or high concept conceptualism here.

So is BB4 a success? Will it survive the hard times that Romania faces? Its two sponsors were committed and prepared to stand up and be counted and its two organisers Răzvan Ion and Eugen Rădescuhave started and run Pavillion from scratch. As a visitor from the other edge of Europe and not really part of the ‘art world’ (an urban designer) it appealed enough to get me on a cheap flight, but whether it’s art as comment and surprise interruptions to the shopping frontages, museums and academies will work locally is more difficult to judge as Bucharest stumbles like a somnambulist into post capitalism. Will it grow bloated and fat and complacent – a Venice of the east? – or will the sprightly spirit of Dada (Romania’s gift to world culture) keep it alive just as it does Răzvan’s and Eugen’s hairstyles. I hope so.

(1,893 words)

BB4 – Handlung runs until July 25th at various venues in Bucharest – and with a series of ‘parallel events’ in Stockholm (3 June to 24 September) for details go to

Bob Jarvis teaches urban design at LSBU and is setting up the Anglo-Romanian Urbanism Network

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