Issue #30-31, 2008

The Compromise Of A European Integration: Points Of View
Mihaela Varzari

Periferic 8 – Art As Gift, Biennial for Contemporary Art, Iași, October 3–20, 2008

The eighth edition of the Periferic Biennial in Iași aimed to empha­size different equations, paradigms, common places and relations resulted from the analysis and the reflection on the concept of Art As Gift. The biennial curator, Dóra Hegyi (Hungary) brought two sets of values into discussion: on one side, art closely related to the market, on the other side, some alternative models which come out as a result of the gift economy. In order to emphasize one interpreta­tion of the vast concept of Art As Gift, the biennial has invited the public to meditate on the mechanisms and power plays which lay behind art’s valorization system invoking the percentage of compromise existent within the relations between the public and the art production, the artist and the artistic environment and then extrapolating the case of this compromise to that of the new European Union members. Thus, Periferic 8 raised some stringent questions related to the present economic mutations, but in a rather safe manner, leav­ing no room for radical critical interventions.

Therefore, choosing a topic such as art as gift, which is placed at the conjunction of economy, philosophy, art theory and sociology, wasn’t accidental. The curator and the organizers sought to dispose of yet another of the many veils draping the mythology of the art groups raised to a sacerdotal value, which indulge themselves in absolutist self-definitions especially in Romania and even more so in Iași, where art continues to be seen in anachronistic terms.

The itinerary marked by many of the exhibition spaces – The National Theatre, The Sport Hall of the Art University, The Students’ House, Pogor House, Info Point and The Faculty of Architecture – allowed the public to take a pleasant walk in the old city.

While at the previous editions the social and economical relations determined by Iași topography and history have been explored in works dealing directly with the local context, this year few of the projects of the approximately 22 international artists were closely related to the city. Periferic 8 tended to bring important names to Iași, such as Joseph Beuys and Félix Gozález-Torres, an inspired choice for the illustration of the biennial concept, but which, at the same time, calls for a meditation on the necessity of an institutional corpus of autochthonous contemporary art. Some names recently accepted into the international circuit have been also invited: Mladen Stilinovic, Yuri Leiderman, Hila Peleg, Daniel Knorr, Dora García and Gregory Sholette.

The Vector Iași Association, led by the artist Matei Bejenaru, which has been organizing the biennial ever since its first edition (as a performance festival in 1997) has continued the previous editions’ efforts to broaden the educative program for the young public. This time it was about two ambitious projects of creative mediation for pupils and students, but also for the wider public, consisting in conferences, debates, workshops, guided tours which took place on the whole duration of the biennial. A studio for artistic practices and debates has been created, with a very consistent and varied pro­gram during the first week, where artists, professors, art theoreti­cians and activists have been invited to the Sports Hall and the Faculty of Architecture.

The National Theatre came up with its own provisional stage in its courtyard – due to the renovation process it’s going through – a build­ing shaped like black cube, a project which has even won a medal at the Bucharest Architecture Biennial.1 Inside the building, the walls draped in huge red velvet curtains created a somber, but also playful-dramatic environment. This space was used by the curator Guillaume Désanges to present his video installation, drawings and photographic projections, the result of the experimental work­shop (the history of famous performances, starting with the 60s, re-written in a gesticulatory manner as adaptations) with the 8 year old pupils of an elementary school in Iași. Apart from the didactic aspect it engages, that of working with these children and explaining the prin­ciples of conceptual art to them, the curator has managed to approach the issue of art as an international language, but also that of the reception of a de-contextualized artistic product by the public.

It was expected that Periferic included at least one work related to the history of performance, in view of the fact that its first form of existence, in 1997, was that of a performance festival. By emphasizing the educative and interactive aspect of the biennial, Johanna Billing’s workshop, which took place at the Students’ House, brought together a choreographer from Sweden, musicians from the Iași Philharmonic and young people interested in this genre who created a piece of contemporary dance which shall be issued as a video. This work with multiple valences marks out the lack in Iași of a platform for those interested in approaching contemporary dance.

The concept of a free market where everything, if properly directed, may be presented as a gift, has entered Romania recently, along with the major themes of globalization. But this should not stop us wonder: is the recent integration into the European Union a gift or does it create a situation of compromise?

... și cel moldovean (2008) [... and the Moldavian One], Aurelia Mihai’s video, has presented in a specific and evocative manner a regret­table situation – the disappearance of the tradition related to sheep breeding and transhumance abandoned in favor of the supermarket shopping. The cheese made by the sheep breeder can no longer be sold legally or conveniently or used in the archaic economical process of barter. What do we lose by uncritically embracing Western values? Is capitalism the only chance for the former communist countries? The work also investigates the distances between the two Moldavian regions which were imposed by the different economic and politic situations, as ... and the Moldavian One, along with another work exhibited at the biennial, that of Veaceslav Druță, La cumpărături [Shopping] (2008), is part of the project RO-MD/Moldova în două scenarii [RO-MD/Moldova in two scenarios], a collaboration between KSA:K (Chișinău) and Vector (Iași).

Aurelia Mihai’s film may be seen as a synthesis of the situation in today’s Romania, which is on the point of adopting a market eco­nomy, “a new order“ imposed or desired as part of a process of neo-colo­nization, as the work analyses implicitly the effect of globa­liza­tion on local art in an era when “the state“ is tributary to multinational companies from outside the governments’ power of decision.

The same topic was approached in An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1991) – letters sewn on a piece of pink fabric resembling a flag, one of the three works of Mladen Stilinovic pres­ent here, emblematic, in fact, for the practice of this artist of a conceptual formation interested in analyzing the complex interactions of the visual and linguistic signs. Stilinovic catches in a visionary man­ner the artists’ struggle to overcome the transition process imposed by the social-economical situation of the non-English speaking countries, where the uncritical acceptance of the global culture leads to a devaluation of the local one.

Another exhibition space was the Sports Hall of the Art Faculty, once a horse stable, the former condition of which was reactivated by chance: one day during the biennial, at the building entrance one could see a horse and a carriage tied to the hand rail. A situation suggestive, in fact, for the context in which the biennial had to develop – on one hand, a contemporary art institution trying (and even succeeding) to rise to international standards, a construction winning a prize for contemporary architecture etc, on the other hand, within the same city, a horse tied up to one of the exhibition venues; what better example for a total schizophrenia?

This idea was also illustrated by Yuri Leiderman’s “tableau vivant“, a performance which, on the duration of the opening and the next day, used the entrance to the National Theatre cube. The work entitled Geopoetica – 15 presented two women wearing Russian folk costumes slicing cabbage with the framed portrait of Jules Verne in the background. The artist, invited for the second time at Periferic, creates a reference system of its own, wherein the ties between the historical meanings and valences, the old/new and tradition/innovation dichotomies meet, seemingly accidentally, as a break in the every­day normal and logical discourse.

If we were to identify a relational aesthetics avant la lettre in Hungary, then Miklós Erdély’s work reveals the power of the inter-human relations created at the 1956 moment. The work Unguarded Money consists in a photograph of one of the boxes placed all over Budapest for a public collection of money meant to help the relatives of those who died during the revolution. The action was a success and large sums of money were collected. Unguarded Money has all the ingredients needed to illustrate, in accordance to Nicolas Bourriaud, the influent theory of the relational aesthetics from the mid 90s, according to which the functionality of the artistic object is more important than contemplation, the plurality and the involvement of the viewer are being encouraged and the collective author is no longer seen as a curiosity. Thus, the “micro-utopias“, the interventions at a local level are being favored and supported in spite of the general directives regarding society as a whole.

Conforming to the concept of the biennial, the relationships between the plays of social mechanisms and those of the political strategies meant to exercise a control on visual arts are being synthesized and explored by CCCK (The Center for Communication and Context Kiev) as an exhibition in exhibition. It is an installation based on documentation which raises questions about the Soros institutions and the “gratuity“ of granting such European financing, calling for a meditation on the reverse of making gifts (because apparently nothing is for free) and the further cultural implications within the post-communist European space (where “the gift“ is the essence of the Soros Foundation, which can take the form of a neo-colonialism, and the “masters“ are the capitalist system based on the ideas of con­quer­ing and monopoly). Thus the biennial has succeeded to take a critical stance towards the mythology of the gifts received from “masters“, unveil­ing, at the same time, a whole set of relations and power systems around the permutable notion of “truth“ and the derivates, tem­porarily and geographically delimited, which it generates.

In the same train of thought, one should say that the film created by the curator Hila Peleg, A Crime against Art (2007), documenting a performance wherein known names of the international art life played different parts in a trial against the abusive way of exploiting the artistic system for the benefit of personal image. Through embracing a critical stance towards the artistic and curatorial practices, the film is in fact meant to reaffirm the position of the participants, revealing once more the mechanism which compromise, but also activate the ascension in the world of art.

The Casa Pogor Museum, the third exhibition space, which during the 19th century hosted the literary society Junimea, has invited the artist Dora García with a sculpture made out of her favorite books translated into Romanian, followed by a public debate with the participation of students from different Iași faculties. And since books are often used as a gift, the work questions the conceptual influence which the universal literature translated into Romanian had before and right after 1989.

A novel project for Iași was the temporary architectural structure Info Point placed in front of the A. I. Cuza University and which only functioned during the biennial. Conceived by the architect Markus Bader, the pavilion has both functional and metaphorical implica­tions, appealing to the need for public spaces. During Periferic 8, the Info Point hosted projections of video works created by Iași artists, two concerts held by a local DJ and a VJ, but also an information office related to the biennial.

So, the event in Iași dialogued with the public, co-opted it and kept alive its interest in an area, that of the contemporary visual arts, which the local community is less used to. Periferic 8 initiated and put into practice a diverse educative program, loosing, on the other hand, some of the experimental aspect in favor of a more classical structure, with vast topics, such as the investigation of the political and artistic networks responsible with questioning “value“, wherein the banking system (a fundamental element in a capitalist society) shapes the artistic one.

To synthesize Dóra Hegyi’s curatorial discourse, Periferic 8 aimed to and succeeded to bring into the foreground “the way in which art economy works and determines this cultural domain, from creation/ production to distribution and reception/consume“. Starting with the innocent gesture of making a gift, the works exhibited talked about the economies which it imposes and implies in a domino-like system, by introducing in a subtle and haltingly way the idea of compromise, not quite visible, however, when first visiting the exhibition spaces.

Translated by Alex Moldovan


1. The project National Theater in Iași – provisional stage (arhitect Angelo Rovența) has won the medal of the Section 1 (Architecture <1000 square meters) at the Bucharest Architecture Biennial 2008.