METAPHOR. PROTEST. CONCEPT.
Performance Art from Romania and Moldova
Edited by Iulia Popovici, Raluca Voinea
Published by Editura Idea, 2018
Romanian / English
16 x 23 cm
I first visited Bucharest in 2011 as a participant of the Crooked Days festival organised by Caminul Cultural (Manuel Pelmus, Brynjar Bandlien, Farid Fairuz). Here I got to know a crowd of performance artists experimenting with inspirational formats that reinterpret theatre, visual arts, and the public space. Last December I travelled once again to Bucharest to catch up with the latest developments. That is when I learned about the recently published volume of interviews by Iulia Popovici and Raluca Voinea entitled METAPHOR. PROTEST. CONCEPT, introducing performance art in Romania and Moldova through the accounts of the most significant figures on the scene.
Dan Perjovschi, first among the interviewees, is one of the very few artists who represented performance art in Romania before 1989. Of course this was not an expression in use at the time, even in the library of the Romanian Artist Union one could only read about “happenings” in Allan Kaprow’s book available there. Moreover, the performances were mostly not really about presence, but had a role in experimentations with media. The very first event expressly about performance art was the Zona festival in Timișoara, which began in 1993 (and continued until 2002). In recounting this Perjovschi says that by then he saw the scene as more and more homogeneous, and performance art as a genre became increasingly exact and definite. As a critique of the “entertaining and ephemeral show” he took part in the first festival with an anti-performance that both boring and long-lasting: he had “Romania” tattooed onto his shoulder, also as a statement against former communist political figures who switched to the new regime and managed to stay in power. He removed the tattoo 10 years later, as a part of another performance in Kassel.
Anca Benera and Arnold Estefán are, like Pejovschi, visual artists, and speak about drawing or drawing a line as and act, with the subject of this book as reference. They work in different media, but their first work together was in fact performance art, entitled Pacta sunt servanda (2011). The main message of the work concerns how differently Hungarians and Romanians approach history. In the first part of Pacta sunt servenda (Agreements Must Be Kept), which can be seen on video, they simultaneously read interpretations of 1848 and the Treaty of Trianon in Hungarian and Romanian history books. The second part compares (Hungarian and Romanian) media content on the ethnic conflicts that occurred in Târgu Mureș (in Hungarian: Marosvásárhely) in March 1990, and relate the events of what became known as “Black March” exclusively in live performance, because these events were not recorded in history books. Benera also recounts that though they had very limited information about performance art during her university years, she and her peers regularly visited Dan and Lia Perjovschi’s studio and learned about it amongst others.
Mihai Mihalcea (later Farid Fairuz), performer, choreographer, and curator, was a definitive figure in the history of the Romanian performance scene. In his account, for a long time the freshly graduated choreographers could only become acquainted with new tendencies of dance and performance through the resident programme of the Viennese Tanzquartier. Grown frustrated with this, a number of artists joined together and succeeded in opening the first state-supported contemporary dance centre in Bucharest, with the most progressive approach until then, and Mihalcea as its first director (until 2013). The establishment of the CNDB (National Dance Center) as part of the National Theatre – and in its building – was the outcome of a series of performative manifestations lasting years. One of these performances/manifestations was To Hell With Posterity, I Want to Dance Now, scheduled for the visit of the French cultural minister. Even after the CNDB opened, Mihalcea continued his fight against “showcase culture”, which leaves too little room for the contemporary arts. With a group of artists he boycotted the George Enescu festival of classical music in 2005: the dancers formed a human carpet on the staircases with placards on their chests reading “Contemporary artist fallen in the battle against showcase culture”. This was Mihalcea’s farewell not only to CNDB, but also to certain artistic concepts he had developed, followed by his reincarnation as Farid Fairuz, a medium from Lebanon. (Recently though, he has begun to work again for the centre, to much appreciation from everyone.)
After became one of Romania’s leading centres dealing with live art, in 2011 CNDB lost its building during the renovation of the National Theatre. This elicited a powerful backlash first from the artists around CNDB, and then the wider public. On the initiative of choreographers Alexandra Pirici and Madalina Dan, a group of artists occupied the CNDB building (CNDB Ocupat), and organized a series of day and night events (find the English text of the occupy proclamation here). One of the events was an action by Pirici called Caragialiana: the performance was an enactment of the Luca Caragiale (a playwright, after whom the theatre was named) sculpture erected in front of the theatre with living people, drawing attention to the fact that the construction of the memorial weighing tens of tons cost about as much as it would have cost the state to buy CNDB, which it evicted from the theatre, a new building (while it now has to squeeze into a rented, much smaller premises located well outside the centre of town). In 2016, CNDB was promised the former congress building of the communist party, the Omnia Hall, which will be comprehensively renovated beginning this year. CNDB is scheduled to begin its operation on the new premises as a regionally unique centre for the performing arts in 2021.
Pirici’s ongoing actions (some realized in cooperation with choreographer Manuel Pelmus and others individually) were seen at important museums and biennials across the world. In the interview in this volume she speaks, among other things, about the differences between theatre space, museum space, and public space. The theatrical space built on a pre-modern concept is the site of a collective ritual, where the audience has to watch a distinguished event for a predetermined length of time. The museum space in contrast is multi-directional, offers an array of possibilities, and rests on individualism. The public space, offers the greatest challenges, but as Pirici describes it: “In a pretty conservative time and space – in Romania – where ‘dance’ meant a certain type of movement, and where there were (and are) pressures for the ‘show’ to bring as much of the public as possible (something Oktoberfest would surely be better at), public space also felt like a context that could grant you freedom.”
Paul Dunca (some times Paula Dunker) is the figure in the Bucharest scene who is present virtually everywhere and is in contact with everyone. I last met him as a member of the techno-faggotique formation #FLUID. Putting on witch costumes for a concert with his partner, the musician Alex Bala, they pulled out a whole row of jewellery and dresses from beneath it while singing edifying songs about the erotic adventures of Dracula’s gay brother, the persecution of homosexuals by the communist secret service, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Lord and how to show Him devotion. In fact, one of their earlier songs was inspired by the occupation of CNDB. Dunca, active as a choreographer, performer, actor, and playwright, is also a key figure of the local queer scene. Apart from dealing with queer history and the challenges faced by LGBT people in many of his artistic projects, he is also an activist, and an initiator and organizer of the Queer Night series of parties, that has been going on for years. I have him to thank for being able to get to know in the course of my December visit, the hot spots and developments of the queer-feminist scene, such as the underground bar and political theatre MACAZ, or the issue of the first Romanian feminist magazine (available exclusively in Romanian for the moment), CUTRA.
There is an interview with Alina Popa (1982–2019) and her creative and personal partner, Florin Flueras as well. Inspired by the fine arts and contemporary dance at once, not only did Popa move back and forth between the black box and the white cube, but she drew no clear line between art and life either. Recently she was interested in affective spaces and the invisible aspects of performance, while her invention with her duo partner Irina Gheorghe called the Bureau of Melodramatic Research was an exciting intersection of pop and abstract genres, the telenovela and philosophy, melodrama and the office. In one of her last works, The Clinic, the gallery became a scene of performative therapies, with an underlying secret hope, as Flueras writes, that one of the impossible hybrids of medical science and art would offer a solution to the artist’s incurable disease.
According to Popa “immaterialism and conceptualism have always flourished in regions where there were no funds for more material art“. This statement currently presents food for thought in Hungary as well, where the state has been steadily dismantling the institutional means of support for the arts over the last decade. The difference is, perhaps, that too many people in Hungary still remember those times when there was a place to work and material to work with all too well, and now that it is gone, perhaps understandably, the subjects of decline, loss, and failure dominate, and not what we could make of what we have left, as it is. What is certain, is that conservative politics is not only a threat to the fine arts scene, but that measures are being taken to gain central control of the theatres as well, most recently through the elimination of the funding system based on the TAO (corporate tax diverted to fund projects and institutions), and the days of the Budapest Contemporary Dance Academy, responsible for the next generation of artists, are also numbered (closing in 2021). As the interviews in the book affirm: many artists find the very precariousness of the institutional system of the arts practical grounds on which to feel the attraction for performance. But here in Hungary, what new groups, formats and practises all this may lead to – we ask with undue optimism – we can only guess.
Translation by Bálint Bethlenfalvy
Cover image: Alina Popa (1982-2019)
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of Erste Foundation.