Issue #42, 2012

Law Enforcement And Spiritual Forces
Igor Mocanu

Bogdan Gîrbovan, born in 1981, he is artist photographer, lives and works in Bucharest, Romania. In 2008 he graduated from the University of Fine Arts in Bucharest, Photography and Video Department. He had four personal exhibitions in Bucharest, in 2008 Passato Prossimoat UNA Gallery, 2009, 5@14at Draft One Gallery, 2010 10/1at Atelier 35 Gallery, 2011 Romanian Police Hierarchyat PosibilăGallery, and in Paris, 2011, Paysages intérieursat Rue de L’Exposition Gallery.

The image of a man wearing an Orthodox robe and a Militia cap and holding a black leather briefcase as he crosses an underpass in Moscow Subway is now widely known. One year later, at the other end of the Eurasian Continent, a commando made up of seven nuns, resolutely and relentlessly crosses one of the boulevards in Barcelona, all wearing the khaki canonicals of a Catholic order. Voyna Group’s action (Ment v popovskoy rease,2009) (A cop in a priest’s robe)
and Berta Jayo’s action (Salvation Army,2010) bear three subverters: of the law enforcement authorities, of the ecclesiastic organisation,
of the European instinct of obedience to both these institutions.

Certainly, the criticism of the two institutions taken separately has
a tradition of at least eight centuries, equally rich and prestigious,
I might add. It suffices to mention Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349– 1352) or Marquis de Sade’s books to evoke a respectable starting point for such criticism. More recently, in the contemporaneity of
the 20th century, in the film L’Âge d’or (1929), Buñuel will directly and unyieldingly throw out of the window a Catholic Pope, a gesture iterated by Sinéad O’Connor during a concert in the 2000s when
she tore to pieces a picture of the Pope. In Russia, criticism of the
Orthodox Church and Russian Police in art is of quite recent date,
if we were to overlook Stalinist criticism of the former, because
the art community was actually supporting the church at the time. Actions of the punk band Pussy Riot or those of the Voyna Group
are too famous to be mentioned here again.

Nevertheless, these are all hermetic discourses, directed towards an organisation or another, always denouncing either the official erotic ideology and the political involvement, or the religiously-financial partnership of the institutional structures, placed somewhere at the elusive border between civil and ecclesiastic laws. And every time, the patriarchal religious figure appears in dictatorship armour, persecuting human freedom and anathemising the humanism of such freedoms. Bringing together the two, church and police, the priest and the police officer, has a different aim, as it does not state that church is like the police or that police gives out religious thrills, but that the civilising act, revived from pre-colonial times, holding the sword in the right hand and the cross in the left, subject salvation and the rest of the sacraments, on the one hand, and human safety and dignity, on the other, to the unwritten laws of a social contract that is increasingly based on principles of added value and on financial profit. Despite all appearances, the artistic actions of the Voyna Group, or those of Berta Jayo, are deeply religious and, at the same time, deeply civil acts, specifically because they are not political,
as they concern one of the fundamentally human freedoms – that
of choosing who to entrust yourself to and who to trust into, both rețexes extracting their linguistic radical from the verb “to trust“.

In Romanian visual culture, the prestigious history of rendering the contiguity between the social, mundane order and the religious starts with the votive medieval paintings in the 16th–17th centuries, in which the voivode appears, sometimes joined by all his akin, with the sceptre, scimitar or sword in his right hand, while in the left holding a cross, a mitre inlaid with precious stones or the model of the place
of worship where the mural was painted, thus setting a sort of an autotelic, autarchic and self-righteous mise en abîme. However, beyond the functionalism of monastic painting, as church murals had
a precise political function, this cultural history is more separating than uniting the two religious and civil tiers. Critical discourses created by Romanian artists favour church, putting forward, as it does it the West, a separate approach of the two institutions, the sacred and secular. Our legacy of the 18th century is an anonymous manuscript from Bihor of the theatre play The Girl and the Lad (1750–1754), in which the girl character holds the lad responsible in front of the bishop for having her committed worldly sins, in exchange for gold. The bishop’s ruling is severe and worthy of the official erotic ideology of the age when the play was written: “Unless it was your will/You would have not admitted him [the la]).“ More recently, in the 19th century, Ion Creangă is the Romanian writer to launch the most bitter diatribe aimed at the figure of the priest in The Tale of the Tales (1874), widely known as The Tale of the Dick. In the end of the story, a priest pays with sodomy for the unappeased curiosity of looking through the bundles of a madam hiding magical phalluses, bought at the fair from a peasant whose corn field had been blessed by the Saviour himself to grow dicks instead of corn cobs. In the same period, at the end of the 19th century, I. L. Caragiale creates the emblematic figure of the drunken, pilferer police officer, set on swindles, accomplice to corrupt civil servants of liberal party, with his character in the comedy A Lost Letter (1884). Closer to our times, Tristan Tzara will urge in the poem Join Me to the Country (1915): “We could get to the nip/ The priest to outrage and the girls to delight...“, after Brâncuși had sculpted the Prayer (1907) for the tomb of lawyer Stănescu, in Buzău. There is nothing wrong with the work of the Romanian sculptor, only that it represents a pubescent feminine nude, kneeling in a half-leaning position, leaving us wondering about the reaction of the priest at officiating funerals in the proximity of that precise tomb. As for the other institution, the entire comprehensive amount of inter-war as well as post-war literature is filled with men in uniform being țamboyantly ridiculed.
In contemporary art, Dan Perjovschi drew a phallus from a submedian perspective with three Orthodox crosses placed on the semispheres of the glans and the two testicles. Vlad Nancă performed an intervention on a photograph of the Palace of the Parliament (“People’s House“), drawing cathedral domes above each wing of the building. Another work critical of the People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest is Dragoș Burlacu’s painting showing Ceaușescu surrounded by party members around a table holding the model of the place of worship. To conclude, the most recent critical approach of the Romanian Orthodox Church comes from choreography and performance, with an action
of Farid Fairuz collecting symbolical donations for the People’s Salvation Mosque in the opening of the Documentary Film Festival One World Romania (2011) and with that of țorin țueraș opening the place of worship in 2012.

But from the Bihor manuscript, to Dan Perjovschi, criticism of the religious institution and its representatives remained nearly exclusively within the borders of satirized erotic ideology. This may be explained by the fact that Romania did not actually experience any sexual revolution from a genuine cultural and political perspective. The attempts of the historical avant-garde in the ’30s of bringing about such an emancipating revolution were quickly smothered
by the ultraconservative and anti-Semitic interwar phalanx, in court and through preventive detention. Later, the prohibition of abortion by Ceaușescu in the ’60s, further inhibited the local erotic culture, generating in the ’90 an actual genocide of mass abortions, rețected now, in 2012, in the crisis of Romanian universities, because generations supposed to attend university today are simply nonexistent. Only in the 2000s, due to the literature of the “Millennium“ generation (as it was labelled by part of the literary critics) and the film productions of the new wave of directors, we may say that we witnessed a political and cultural sexual revitalisation as such. As one might notice, although they are mainly directed to the image of the church, only the most recent artistic actions (Nancă, Burlacu, Fairuz, țueraș) part with the idea of erotic prohibition, taking the discourse to the political and social field. This is also the point where Bogdan Gîrbovan joins this trend, but also the point in which he parts with it, as we will see, taking the discourse to the area of anthropological research.

These are the historical premises and cultural background that one must take into account in considering and understanding the project Uniforms & Vestments carried out by Bogdan Gîrbovan since the end of 2009 – beginning of 2010.

The first exhibition, a solo-show called Hierarchy of Romanian Police, was open in 2011, at Posibilă Gallery in Bucharest (curated by Igor Mocanu), and it exhibited the 11 photographs + 1, featuring the main strategic ranks (“strategic“ is the term employed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Romanian Intelligence to define their uniforms and ranks) in the organisation: agent, principal agent, chief deputy agent, chief agent, principal chief agent, deputy inspector, inspector, principal inspector, deputy superintendent, superintendent, chief superintendent and the quaestor at the time, who although officially endorsed the artistic collaboration, eventually refused to figure in the exhibition himself. During one single year, the public image of the Romanian Police had undergone significant changes, which culminated in a general strike directed against the President of Romania, Traian Băsescu, a right wing politician of neoliberal-Darwinist-social views, and against the Boc Government, so that the organisation rapidly turned from being regarded as a crowd of corrupted and bribe-taking bad boys, into true Robin-Hood-like good guys ready any time to ally with the people. Romanian social reality at the time, as well as the local artistic context, had thus thrown the initial aim of the project into an inextricable dilemma of the critical position. It made sense to be critical towards the Romanian Police as long as it eluded the mission and duties assigned to it. But as long as the Romanian Police raises and claims rights in the streets, on its own behalf and on the behalf
of the rest of the civil servants, criticism is pointless and leaves room for sympathy and solidarity, an idea also anticipated by director Corneliu Porumboiu in his film Police, Adjective (2009). The only artistic approach possible, in order to remain visible in the immediate political context, so freely changing nowadays, became the cognitive approach, of depicting the hierarchy of the organisation through the function of outfit, that is their uniforms, because regardless of who is wearing them, the uniform conveys the same institutional message: we are the agents of law enforcement, we have the authority to keep the order in place and the power to discriminate within the potential social entropy. Therefore, the discourse of separate display in the exhibition at the Posibilă Gallery, in one of the gallery halls, on walls painted in military blue bathed in cold neon light supported an active experience of the strategic uniform and the hierarchy it conveys, a strategic endeavour for an impartial dialogue with the Power. Others are the public perceptions of the Romanian Border Police and of the Romanian Gendarmerie, but they don’t make, for me moment, the object of the project research, as monastic clerics, male or female, were not considered in the making of the Romanian Orthodox Church hierarchy.

The second show, Hierarchy of the Romanian Orthodox Church, was opened in 2012 at Salonul de Proiecte, within a group show, Behind the Scene, curated by Magda Radu. Placed in a collective context, the series of photographs was determined to work in a group, namely to answer the general theme of the exhibition – that of decoding the social subliminal and making the invisible visible (Groys), in
a society absurdly spectacular (Debord) –, but also to carry its own artistic discourse within that group. A long white wall thus hosted the horizontal display of such hierarchy otherwise deeply vertical: deaconess (“the woman in service of the church“), grave-digger, chorus, gospeller, deacon, chrism priest, parish priest, protopresbyter, bishop, archbishop and metropolitan and, at the top, the patriarch. Although removed from the official clergy since the 19th century,
the lower clergy (deaconess, grave-digger, chorus, gospeller) is present within the hierarchy as it bears a strong presence in the collective imaginary, especially in the rural one where, for example, the grave-digger is a key character in the community, as he looks after the village grave yard and, in funerals, when the community emotions climax, there is always need of a practical person to realistically manage the moments of the passage rite. The images thus aimed
at bringing together the parishioner and the functional members of one of the strongest organisations in the society. Its message: these are the people you associate with and that legitimate your status
in the community through baptism, marriage, and funeral. Previous to the show at Salonul de Proiecte, Romanian Orthodox Church had been the subject of several media debates sanctioning most of its initiatives that exceeded the limits of the religious cult and going into secular areas with dogmatic purposes, through a series of complicities with the Romanian State which, in fact, claims to be a secular state. Furthermore, there had been an Eurobarometer conducted that reached the conclusion that Romanians trust mostly church and least the army, and that the trust in an institution like the European Union works in a copy&paste model of the trust into church. Differently put, to the Romanians in 2010, UE was ... church. An open dialogue with the clerical hierarchy, declined on its ranks, had thus become imperative, and the show at Salonul de Proiecte concerned this very aspect of approaching the image of the clergy, in a society where the visual and the spectacular have monopolised any other form of analytical expression and discourse.

Bringing together the two hierarchies meets, as suggested in the beginning of this essay, the critical actions of Voyna Group and those of Berta Jayo, but the local cultural and political background in fact causes this association to be mainly cognitive with clear implicatures and strategies of subversion. There is, as suggested by the contemporary context, on one hand, a social and cultural imperative of
documenting the two hierarchies within the two most ințuential institutions in the state and/or society. They are ințuential because the first step that a citizen, the parishioner respectively, needs
to take immediately after walking out of his private space, in order to join the community, is that of going first to the Police Station to get an identity card or a birth certificate, and then to church to get, most often, a Christian-Orthodox baptism. In other words, the social legitimation process of the individual is, or must be, filtered through the related ideological categories of the two institutions. Without the police there is no civil identity, without the church, no religious identity, without the two, people don’t exist from a community perspective. The password, the bar-code, the paralinguistic code of these two stages is metonymically placed in and by the collective imaginary into the uniform, which reaches, in time and with the age, into a sort of implicit automatic heraldic of authority. Uniforms and stoles thus trigger into individuals as sort of subconscious civil obedience, without questioning for a second the legitimacy of the uniform or clerical robe, and above all, their strategic disciplinary, police function and religious function respectively. And there is, on the other hand, the human resource filling the uniform or the clerical vestment, the wrapped human body needing to be photographically interpreted, as if claiming a right of answer addressed to the wearer who is functionally and publicly identified with the outfit in everyday life, thus equally determining the camera to operate a sort of implicit ethical discrimination, wondering: is the individual that wears a uniform or church vestment completely cancelled in the service of the cause, or do they still encapsulate a drop of worldliness, making him culturally and politically akin to myself; are we a community or am I here for him to develop his own real estate or funeral business, and am I thus turning into a potential client to him instead of his community neighbour? Bogdan Gîrbovan’s documentation is placed between these two coordinated axes, partially disjunct, partially conjunct, as if we were to express this in terms of linguistic pragmatics and narratology, we are looking at a modalised documentation and display, meaning to say that it is neither subjective, nor objective, but bearing a certain focalization point.

So it happens that focalization means not only focusing into a centre the rays of light (waves or particles or motion) or the act of setting an optical device so that the image is clear, as dictionaries teach us, but a narratology concept describing the way in which the author of a work of art chose to affirm, assert, show certain things and not other, in a certain order and not other. The “focalization“ concept was launched by Gérard Genette in France in the 1980s, to operate more clearly the distinctions between the types of prose writing, describing a sort of narrowing of the narrator’s “visual field“. The term would be soon borrowed by Jacques Pouillon, Tzvetan Todorov and Roland Barthes, to transfer the discussion from the formal area of interpretation to a more ideological area, distinguishing between external focalization (when the author attempts to țee from the narration, simulating a selective objectivity), internal focalization (when the author is in the middle of the issue and does not make out quite everything) and degree zero (when the author of the work is omniscient and conducts the story from the inside). All these three situations can be characteristic of the photographic discourse, but documentation, anthropological photography is closer to the external focalization narrative formula, where the author rejects the comprehensiveness of the relate, in favour of a selective seriality with aesthetic, epistemological, politic or entertainment purposes.

For the project Uniforms & Vestments, Bogdan Gîrbovan imprints
the photographs, the compositional portrays that he creates, with modalisation or focalisation related rather to a certain personal aesthetic ideology of applied social photogeny. To Gîrbovan, the social fact, reality, no longer needs aesthetic enhancements or aesthetic processing, as it is photogenic in itself, with the outcome of a certain egalitarianism of vision. As for Bogdan Gîrbovan there are no noble or ignoble, high or low, rich or poor subjects, but what matters is
the relevance of the subject in the common body of a given series. And the concept of series, intensely employed by the photographer, describes precisely this egalitarian auctorial positioning, rețected both in the camera chosen to shoot the photographs, and in the quality of the prints or the exhibition discourse. The same Bronika GS1 approaches both the agent and the superintendent, both the deaconess and grave-digger, and the metropolitan. And the same can be told about the quality of the digigraphic print, maternally wrapping the characters, their own stories and, from a point on, even the viewer. Equally egalitarian is the display of the two series
of images. Any pyramidal hierarchy calls for vertical display, but the display is non-discriminating for Gîrbovan who goes for a horizontality which deconstructs the pyramid of power tier by tier, bringing hierarchic members close to the eye of the viewer who can, for the first time, look them into their faces.

This is also the political lesson given by Bogdan Gîrbovan by the non-hierarchic and egalitarian approach of the law enforcement and spiritual forces haunting Romanian space, an egalitarianism that gulps
in everything and that does not unburden the viewer of the active involvement in this social equation, but to the contrary, calls for his courage and strength to look into the eyes of those “worshipped“ and to confront directly, in an open field, the institutions legitimating his community status.