Bucharest Biennale 4
For the fourth time, Bucharest’s biannual influx of international contemporary art has invaded the city; this year with the work of over 30 artists. Whether this will have registered with most of the city’s residents, however, is unclear. The Biennale sits quietly in its urban setting, largely hidden from view in six discreet cultural outposts. Meanwhile, Bucharest goes on with its daily rhythm of change and no change. It’s not hard to find the legacy of communism still displayed alongside the city’s burgeoning capitalist spring. From the two men employed to sweep sand around a government car park to the monumental imposition of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Casa Republicii – home to Bucharest’s National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) – old structures are entwined into the city’s fabric.
For the organizers of the Biennale too, stifling bureaucracy and class struggle have played their part in shaping this year’s installment. Before this edition even opened, one of its chosen venues, The National Geology Museum, refused to display Kaucyila Brooke’s photomontage, ‘Tit for Twat: Can We Talk?’ (1993–2010), on the grounds that its depiction of nude lesbians was unsuitable for the institution’s regular visitors. Responding to the censorship, the Biennale organizers declared it a ‘Stalinist act’, out of place in a European Union member state. Worse was to come, however, as French artist Jean-Baptiste Naudy of Société Realiste, publicly abused the Biennale’s curator Felix Vogel at an open discussion. With Vogel, who is only 22, clearly unsure how to respond, Naudy described himself as a ‘proletarian artist’, and expressed outrage at not having been paid for his contribution. To complete their protest, Société Realiste have now removed their wooden relief sculpture, ‘Spectral Aerosion’ (2010), from the Biennale.
Such complications point to the difficulties of hosting a biennale in Bucharest. Since there are few opportunities for the Romanian public to view a curated assembly of international artists, the Biennale is an important initiative. Its successful implementation, however, is hampered by a lack of support from the city and national authorities, the shortage of suitable venues for displaying work, and the divisions that exist within the Romanian art world. Pavilion, the organization behind the Biennale, is itself a polarized node in the art scene, highly critical of Bucharest’s Contemporary Museum. For that reason, MNAC, the largest venue for contemporary art in Romania, plays no part in the Biennale programme. Instead, Pavilion have made a point of positioning the Biennale as a kind of grassroots event, working in collaboration with some of Bucharest’s other independent initiatives. This alternative approach means that visitors should expect a more minimal, experimental event than some grandiose showcase.
Vogel has chosen ‘Handlung. On Producing Possibilities’ as the Biennale’s overarching theme. The curator defines the German term handlung as bridging the divide between action and narrative – throughout the Biennale, though, it is the idea of narrative that comes across most forcefully, art works coalescing around forms of presentation, ways of telling stories and methods of reenactment. Within those bounds, Vogel has put together a conceptually strong presentation that makes abundant use of politically aware art. In most cases, action comes into play primarily as a means of communication, whilst it is the relationship between depiction and truth that really gauges the interest.
In Olivia Plender and Unnar Orn’s video work, Table Read (2010), we intrude on rehearsals for a fictitious play ostensibly focused on the backroom behaviour of human rights activists, the layers of pretence raising questions about what is real, but ultimately creating an impenetrable narrative haze. Seemingly more concrete is Criminal Case 40/61 (2009) by German Andrea Geyer, in which a single actor reenacts transcripts from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Geyer’s video throws us into the question of how history is edited; how we can reliably record facts when we can’t possibly return to every second of the past. The way in which we remember important events is also critical to the more meditative videos of The Otolith Group where, in the three-part ‘Otolith’ series (2003–9), an evolved race of humans in the 22nd century look back from space on 20th-century earth.
The Otolith Group have been given the best presentation within the Biennale, with their videos displayed in an exclusive venue, the artist-run space ParadisGaraj. Whilst the works of Biennale artists are displayed in close proximity at other venues, the former garage nestled in central Bucharest makes for an intriguing, impromptu cinema. Pavilion’s own art centre, Pavilion Unicredit, has also been used to good effect, with works laid out in a similar pattern to the centre’s recent temporary exhibitions.
Pavilion Unicredit is perhaps the most contemporary exhibition space in Romania and works by the likes of Swedish artists Goldin & Senneby, the USA’s Sabrina Gschwandtner and Argentina’s Judi Werthein are all neatly presented.
Judi Werthein, Brinco (2005)
Less successful is the use of the National Geology Museum. The backdrop of the Museum’s retro exhibits does make for an interesting dialogue, but problems with hanging works on the Museum’s walls and malfunctioning videos have maligned the viewing experience. A better presentation here could also have been made of the text ‘Bucharest and its Utopia’ (1935) by Dada founder Marcel Iancu. Iancu’s vision for a Corbusian ‘Garden City’ of skyscrapers and parks is highly relevant to the experience of visiting a biennale in contemporary Bucharest; a city redefined by the madness of Ceauşescu around the time of Iancu’s death in 1984. The text, though, is merely pinned to the wall and is insufficiently lit.
Overall, despite several issues regarding organisation and presentation, Bucharest does need the Biennale, as well as independent organizations like Pavilion, in order to build a thriving domestic art scene. On that basis, the Biennale’s fourth instalment marks a step forwards, bringing more international artists to the capital then ever before, and doing so with a tightly curated selection of works. Visiting the event in person also provides a revealing insight into the workings of the Bucharest art world, which is an intriguing experience in itself.