Cultural intimacy in art at the national cultural institute – the case of the Romanian Cultural Institute of Stockholm

Giorgiana Zachia presents her practice on cultural intimacy writing about the specific work with contemporary art in the frame of a national cultural institute.

Cultural intimacy in art at the national cultural institute – the case of the Romanian Cultural Institute of Stockholm

Stefan Constantinescu, Archive of Pain, video installation, 2000

Stefan Constantinescu, Archive of Pain, video installation, 2000

In my text about cultural intimacy, I discussed the concept’s relevance for the work of national cultural institutes: the analytical separation between what a nation, a community or a couple displays externally and what they share internally; the intimate dimension of what makes people feel they belong together; the occurrence or risk of embarrassment and shame and the very dealing with things that may cause these feelings. These aspects are important parts of what makes up culture, in both its anthropological and artistic sense, and cultural intimacy involves conceptual tools that help us become aware and reflexive about it.

During my work with contemporary art at the Romanian Cultural Institute of Stockholm (RCIS), I wanted to scratch the surface of intimacy not only with regards to Romania but in terms of the relationship between East and West. Using the framing of the institute I took the chance to go beyond the images of rueful self-recognition projected by both Romania and Sweden and, instead, explore those instances where national identity is cast and how they make sense in the globalized world we live in. In this attempt I tried to collaborate with those artists and curators whose practice focused on exploring the fundamental conditions of life in Romania and Sweden alike, and indeed elsewhere if necessary. In this process of getting Sweden intimate with Romania and vice versa, I took the chance to reflect on the role of national cultural institutes today which owe their birth to cultural nationalism, but derive their life energy from a more market-driven version of it.

Viktor Rosdahl, From One thing to the Other, 2009 exhibition view

Viktor Rosdahl, From One thing to the Other, 2009 exhibition view

In what follows, I shall develop and contextualize the examples mentioned in my previous text, focusing in particular on the works of artists Stefan Constantinescu, Viktor Rosdahl, Pablo Bronstein and Ciprian Muresan.

Firstly, Stefan Constantinescu’s project Archive of Pain, made together with director Cristi Puiu and designer Arina Stoenescu, was shown at the RCIS in the autumn of 2008. It comprises a complex film installation and a book and deals with the history of the generation of Constantinescu’s grandparents. More specifically, the project takes up the history of the resistance against communism in the late 1940s, and that of political prisoners in the communist jails of the 1950s and 1960s. The starting point for this project is a classical revolt against the official writing of history that had been severely distorted in Romania prior to 1989, depicting reality in stark contrast to Romanian everyday life. Constantinescu’s method, used in other projects as well, entails appropriation of archive photographs and other materials which he weaves into interviews and personal stories to tell the history of ordinary people, often with a connection to his own biography.

Pablo Bronstein, A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, 2008

Pablo Bronstein, A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London, 2008

Archive of Pain addresses a sensitive issue in the country’s post-1989 history. In Romania in the 1990s and up to the mid-2000s, politicians and others in the leadership of the country were not keen on taking measures towards shedding light on Romania’s recent history. Constantinescu’s art projects reveal the difficulties of dealing with those moments of the past which cause discomfort and shame. Dealing with its communist past would imply re-imagining the national identity in some way for example, as a country which does not attend to human rights. As of 2008 Romania had offered relatively little compensation to the victims, no one had been condemned for communist crimes, no law of lustration had been passed, or a law prohibiting communist symbols, and there were  no nationally sponsored museums that acknowledge aggression or atrocities committed during communism.

At the same time, the exhibition Archive of Pain at the RCIS was shown in a period when Romania was taking certain steps towards coming to terms with its past. In 2006, President Traian Basescu had established a commission led by historian Vladimir Tismaneanu to investigate the Communist regime as experienced by Romania and provide a report which led to the official condemnation of Communism in Romania on 18 December 2006, making Romania the third country on the former Eastern Bloc who officially condemned its communist regime. One of the measures suggested by the report of 2006 was the foundation of a Museum of the Communist Dictatorship of Romania, a project which as of 2013 has been rejected by the current Romanian Parliament, dominated by socialist-liberal representatives.

Secondly, Viktor Rosdahl’s somber paintings of modernistic architecture and factories in Sweden deal with solidarity in the collectivity of the Swedish Folkhemmet, with social security, housing for everyone, assistance of all kinds and a higher living standard which made possible higher education for all those interested. They also deal with the flipside of that coin where the individual who did not fit in the new and clean society was excluded, the hidden racism, and the bureaucratic control of the citizens. The paintings, which are often made on found objects, show a Sweden in a transition from the welfare state to neoliberalism, they have the quality of the materialization of a memory, which is what the ideal of the folkhem is perhaps soon going to be.

Rosdahl’s paintings were included in a project shown at the institute in the autumn of 2009, From One Thing to the Other, which was a more explicit tackling of the contemporary East and West theme occasioned by the 20 year anniversary of the events of 1989 in Romania. Rather than attempting a blunt celebration of those events, which would have been more natural for an institution of our kind, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the status quo. My question was one of adequacy: how can we make the change occasioned by the uproar in December 1989 in Romania relevant for the people living in Sweden of 2009? Not by showing how bad it was before 1989 and how wonderful the situation was now. Neither by praising the transition from planned economy to the free market, nor by showing the changes in the East as isolated from those that occurred in the rest of the world. Rather, I envisioned a broader approach that went beyond the fixed ideas of East and West, market economy and socialism, history and future, and, why not, Romania in the contemporary world picture.

With this in mind, I contacted Maria Lind, then Director of the Graduate Program at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in New York. Lind suggested a project about changes in societal structures taking as starting point the film Videograms of a Revolution from 1992 by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, a modern classic which both captures and discusses a moment of radical change, namely the events that led to Ceausescu’s fall in Romania. In addition to Viktor Rosdahl’s paintings the exhibition included video, drawing, installation and painting by artists whose works examined change from different perspectives, using a variety of methods: Åbäke, Marie-Louise Ekman, Harun Farocki/Andrei Ujica, Anja Kirschner, David Maljkovic, Ciprian Muresan, Dan Perjovschi, Stealth and Judi Werthein. This project dealt critically with a number of stereotypes and in that process made the beholder intimate with stereotyping as a tool of power.

Ciprian Muresan
 Pioneers Lithograph 2005-2008

Ciprian Muresan
 Pioneers Lithograph 2005-2008

Staying a bit with the East-West dichotomy, I think part of the quick and relatively great interest we attracted among the Stockholmers for our various projects lay in a kind of wonder about Romania as a mythic and exotic place, constructed through mediatized and stereotyped images of Dracula, Ceausescu, Dada or what have you. The revolution drew attention, as did the post-1989 transition process. At least in the beginning, the institute offered a context where some of the curiosity could materialize in concrete exploration, centering on the divide between geographically near but imagined culturally distant people. To no little degree, this may have corresponded with a certain prejudice not only of Romania, but of the function of the institute as well.

The East European transitional process had its rational and down-to-earth side, but there were also dreams, fantasies and desires involved. A desire of something that one thought existed in the West: western capitalism, the rarely questioned “good” democracy and all that this implied for a good and “civilized” life. In this process, desire was about lack or flaw, the flaws that appear or materialize when the ideal is confronted with the actual circumstances. But on the other side, there was another kind of desire, namely the West’s desire of the East. What did that consist of? A desire for the exotic, the different maybe. A desire to tame it, order it and own it. A desire to somehow have it remain as it was, or become it. Or a desire to learn something new. If one keeps thinking about this it soon becomes clear that it is not so simple to encompass desire, where it comes from, what it is directed at, how it changes and so on. In any case, I was often thinking of desire as a quite useful concept when trying to imagine the visitor at the other end of a project. He or she needs material to explore his or her desire to understand the divide, to know something about other European histories, to confirm ideas or to be provoked about what the changes in 1989 were all about. In short, to explore some of the cultural intimacies that may hold a society or a certain identity together, in terms of both internal and external forces.

Pablo Bronstein’s drawings, finally, from his publication A Guide to Postmodern Architecture in London (2008) and Ciprian Muresan’s series of lithographs entitled Pioneers (2008) were part of another project which related to the East and West theme, There Is No Alternative.  In this project, one of the focuses of curators Olivia Plender and Kim Einarsson highlighted artworks which took a closer look at the economic consequences of transition seen in the larger perspective of the world economic crisis and global free market capitalism. There Is No Alternative borrowed its name from Margaret Thatcher’s notorious statement from the 1980s which became a slogan for neoliberalism. The fall of the Socialist Eastern bloc was the evidence that the only viable economic and political system is global free market capitalism, coupled with the renewal of the creed of individualism. The aim of the project was to challenge the clearly hegemonic intent of Thatcher’s statement and examine the contradictory relationship between capitalism and the idea of liberty from a historical perspective.

Bronstein’s works refer to the Thatcher era’s preferred architectural style as symbols of the economic boom of the 80s but depict the buildings as romantic ruins. Offices of banks and other private facilities dealing with capital are disguised with the help of different architectural elements into open public instances of civic responsibility while the fear of the economic crash lurks around the corner. On the other side, Muresan’s Pioneers are shadows of the past haunting the present. Homeless children inhaling glue in the sewage system of Romania’s towns have been used as symbols of the early failures of the transition to capitalism in Romania when in fact they were just as much a presence in the communist past. Muresan’s drawings implode a multitude of aspects related to the more recent history of Romania but also to the use of myths in the writing of history in this country. Both artists deal with the bright promises of ideologies but at the same time the scars of their un-fulfillments.

These examples of projects at the Romanian Cultural Institute of Stockholm all involve a degree of self-reflection, at the levels of society and culture, memory and history, and to some extent also on the part of the artist. They involve artistic acts of displaying and exploring complex, sensitive, and potentially embarrassing aspects of contemporary society on behalf of its ideologies, leaders or people. They are not centered on pride and I know they broke down prejudices among the audience that came and visited the artworks. This is what a cultural institute can do, also!

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