Up against the wall
Few studios, no support, a lack of understanding and attention: life for artists in Bucharest is a struggle, argue Dan and Lia Perjovschi
Last year in commemoration of the 1991 Mineriade, when President Ion Iliescu ordered miners to descend on Bucharest to violently break up an anti-neocommunist demonstration, married artists Dan and Lia Perjovschi set up a living sculpture on the site of the attacks, Piata Universitatii. In the piece, a student and a miner faced one another in a series of frozen images.
From the crowd, a couple of art students came up to Dan to criticise the work. One of them asked him: "Why is there no action?" Another said: "It would be very cool if you beat us! A miner could beat the people!"
The 47 year-old Romanian artist shakes his head. "They don't have a conceptual attitude," he says.
In May this year Dan visited the same location to see another work, again remembering the Mineriade, but by younger artists. "These guys complained to me that there was no action, so they did action," says Dan. "There was a pillow fight in Piata Universitatii. To stage a memorial to the dead, they performed a pillow fight. Like Paris Hilton. For 15 minutes. I was outraged, but at the same time I thought, I would never do this, Lia would never do this, but they can. It's not so bad, because they can enlarge the way we look at history."
Sibiu-born Dan and Lia, who trained under Communism and have built up an international reputation for graphic, performance and installation art, with their solo and couple exhibitions shown in Porto, Madrid, Tate Modern, Moscow, Kosovo and last year at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, will now be kicked out of their studio in central Bucharest by the end of the year.
Inside the space that has been an artistic home to the couple for a decade are boxes of monographs, plums and peaches, photographs of visitors to the work-shop and a packet of red plastic cups, made in China, but branded with the name ‘Monet’. The ramshackle 19th century studio with a view onto the Catholic Cathedral and an abandoned 18-storey office block is about to be sequestered by Bucharest Arts College, rendering Romania's premier artistic couple homeless. There is not a great surprise to them both.
"To do art in Romania is suicidal," says Lia. "You don't have any support. You don't have conditions. You don't have any perspectives."
The problem is not the state stamping its jackboot on self-expression. The city mayor is not locking up artists for performing ad-hoc mime in the city centre, scribbling political manifestos on the wall of a shopping mall or wearing odd hair.
"Here it doesn't matter if you scream on the street at 11 pm at night or attack somebody," says Dan.
Bucharest should be a playground for artists, but the problem is indifference.
"You can do whatever you want, but this doesn't mean people around you will understand what you are doing," says Dan. "They will see you as a clown in the public space. Advertisers are much more radical. They have the money to put a giant Coca Cola bottle pouring into a glass along the roof and along the side of a building, such as in Piata Romana. If you do something artistic on the street, the public will think you are selling a mobile phone."
Another problem is access. There is no large public space in the city. The area in front of the Hilton and the Athenaeum, Dan and Lia argue, should become the main public square. But this also needs to be a place of respect, because it was the site of Romania’s bloody Revolution of 1989. However this is currently surrounded by a network of streets and a car park.
"In the ground zero of Bucharest," says Dan, "we have a fucking parking lot."
Censorship in Romania today is only economic, argues Dan. Artists find it hard to find studios due to high rents and there are few non-commercial spaces to display their work. One of the single institutions, Galeria Noua on Strada Academiei, was closed down earlier this year by Bucharest City Council.
The only major space for new art is the National Museum of Contemporary Arts (MNAC), a giant glass box clasped to the side of the People’s Palace commissioned by former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Dan argues that MNAC has absorbed all the available support into one institutional leviathan.
"MNAC takes our sponsors," says Dan. "They work with the French Cultural Institute and the Goethe Institute and everyone who is traditionally supportive of the scene. Then the sponsors will choose not to sponsor my studio, but will sponsor MNAC. There is nothing left for independent art."
One major criticism is that MNAC has large spaces which are inaccessible to artists. The museum owns one level and offices in the National Theatre and a wing of the Parliament Palace.
"They are a mogul of real estate in modern art," he says. "If an artist wants to rent a space to live of 400 Euro per month and another studio for another 400 Euro, that's 800 Euro a month – what artist has that money? MNAC should encourage affordable space for artists' studios."
He also attacks what he considers to be MNAC's failure to stand up for its own institutional integrity. Last August a Formula Three race closed off the roads around the Parliament Building, obstructing MNAC from accepting visitors. “I never heard any criticism,” says Dan. “[They should have said] we are the fucking national museum – how can you do that?”
Placing the cultural centre inside the seat of Government is also a controversial move. Lia argues Bucharest is still quite provincial. "Even the relationship with the museum and the Parliament is like a village where the town hall is next to the art gallery," she says, "where power and culture are together."
Dan believes the space should be turned into a Museum of Communism, which does not exist in Bucharest. “They should take an old factory, refurbish it and make a very nice display for the Museum of Contemporary Arts, which could create the possibility to improve an area of the capital,” argues Dan.
Both artists were born in Sibiu, which became Europe’s capital of culture last year and has undergone a significant makeover to its buildings, roads and public fora. "Sibiu got the cultural boost to remake the infrastructure and attract investment," says Dan. "There is zero unemployment. The standard of life has gone up. For Romania, this is fantastic. But to do a cultural capital, there should be low rents for artists. Artists will come to the town because there is no one else caring about them. Everyone is very nasty to artists. In Sibiu, they built hotels, but they never built a studio."
Many Bucharest artists have chosen to take to the streets. Graffiti and stencil art is now present across many walls in the centre. "It’s good," argues Lia, "because they don’t have galleries."
But the danger, Dan argues, is that some artists do not take responsibility for adulterating public space. One ubiquitous piece of graffiti shows Roma manele singer Adrian Copilul Minune with the theory of relativity 'E=MC²' above his head – an ironic reference to the folk singer's lack of schooling.
"This means that the guy is not a genius," says Dan. "This guy is a 'gypsy'. Therefore this is a racist statement. These people with stencils are playing at being cool, but they are not aware of the major issues in this society. I am not advocating a super-inquisitorial political correctness, but this country was very close to having pogroms. These people who are active in the public space don't have the notion or do not want to adopt the notion of responsibility of the kind of statements they are delivering. To laugh and make fun of someone is not enough."
Dogs, rocks and credit cards
Both artists' work target oppression, the pomposity of western ideology and the failures of a Socialist alternative. Lia has built up a significant body of work in performance art, reportage and collage, often using photographs, montages, found objects and inventories to deconstruct how society presents information and history. Last May at the Geology Museum in Bucharest she filled glass cabinets of large blocks of quartz and granite with objects showing the planet earth – such as a ruler, a pencil sharpener or a t-shirt. The world itself became a kitsch and insignificant image compared to a grandiose fragment of one its elements.
Dan is more overtly satirical in his work, which uses a cartoon format of naïve stick-like figures, some of which are gathered from his experience as an artist and writer for Revista 22, a magazine founded in 1991 by dissidents the Group for Social Dialogue.
Last year on the wall of Bucharest's National Dance School in Piata Universitatii, Dan created a series of drawings critical of contemporary life in post EU-accession Romania. This includes a single figure in front of a television set, the words '82 channels, one life' written above. In another piece, stray dogs wander around the city streets, while down-trodden figures shop, go to work or wheel a pram. This is underscored by a caption reading: 'Free dogs, occupied people'.
His faceless character often engage with abstract symbols – the rectangle of a credit card, a hammer and a sickle or the stars of the EU flag, accompanied by sardonic captions, such as a man at a cash machine who turns around to a CCTV lens and asks the camera: 'Do you remember my PIN?'
Each punchline is a body-blow to the self-satisfaction of modern society.
At MoMA in New York, Dan drew on a main atrium wall a series of images, most of which were satires on America in 2007. The piece was based on the conceptual pun that whatever happens to America (the US) also happens to Us, the people of the world. It criticised the military supremacy of America and its paranoia of others and its own Government. This included an image of a man looking out of the American flag as though the stripes were a row of Venetian blinds. This was a “greatest hits” of Perjovschi including around 90 per cent of images from previous projects.
The artist carries around his entire repertoire in his head. With nothing more than a felt tip pen, he can redraw his entire portfolio on a notebook, the wall of a cafe, a pavement or a gallery floor, a serviette or envelope. In a gallery in Madrid he made the same copy of a cartoon one hundred times. “There are no originals,” says Dan. “I can draw it two metres high or three centimetres. The size varies, the combination varies, the context varies and drawings change.”
After meeting in high school in the 1970s in Sibiu, both Lia and Dan committed their lives to creating works of art, even when no one else was listening or watching. In the 1980s Dan studied painting for four years in Iasi and moved to work in a gallery in Oradea in west Romania, while Lia designed stage sets for a local theatre. For six years, Lia attempted to gain entry into an art academy, before being eventually accepted by the University of Bucharest.
There were few young artists in Romania, because every artist had to be a member of a the artists' union. “If you were a member, you could ask the state for money, space and loans to buy colours,” says Dan. “But because there were too many artists in the opinion of Mr Ceausescu, they denied anyone else entrance into this union.”
Instead there was a waiting room called Studio 35, so named because the artists here were under 35 years of age. “It could have been a more progressive part of the union, but we were very conservative,” says Dan.
All art on display in an official gallery was subject to three levels of scrutiny before the public could view the works. “The committee of censorship from the union of artists would come to see all the works,” says Dan. “Then the cultural committee of the city hall would come and see the works. Then the cultural committee of the Communist Party would come and see them. The Communists were pretty harsh. It was random what they would not like. If there was a naked body, they said: 'What is this? The ethical and moral code of the Communist society will not allow this.' Sometimes they looked at an abstract and they asked: 'What is this?' I would explain and they would say: 'We don't understand anything, you can't show this. Why don't you young artists paint something joyful?' It was humiliating.”
“They were only coming,” says Lia, “to see if Ceausescu was hung upside down.”
“They never asked me to have a Ceausescu in the show,” says Dan. “We squeezed some of the works we wanted in. We were not radically cut or suppressed. They were much smarter than this. They just pressed you. If there is something definitely controversial, we would hang it at the end of the gallery– so they will be too tired to take it out. So we also start thinking in categories. We start deciding what is controversial – and later my mind was affected because I realised I was censoring myself.”
Instead the flat where the couple lived became a blank canvass and a stage for their work. “Lia did some performance art, where I was sometimes the only witness,” says Dan. This included Lia drawing hieroglyphics on her skin and wrapping herself in twine. The couple regularly covered the entire flat in paper and plastic and splashed paint, comments, cartoons and agitprop across the white walls.
Dan displayed around 100 shows in Oradea with young artists, of which maybe only one was of any consequence. “Now no one cares about these works,” he says. “But what Lia did in private in our flat made her an international career. If you abide by the rules and the official version of what everyone believes is the representation of good art, it ends up in the dumpster. If you do what you have to do, without being known, you still have a chance to be rediscovered and seen later.”
The couple took part in the 1989 revolution and state that they lost the whole of 1990 'in the street'. In 1991, in Timisoara they started to stage some performance art.
“Because it was cheap,” says Lia.
“It was radical to use the body and we could use it for the first time,” says Dan.
One of Lia's performances included beating up a giant human doll soaked in water, which she smashed against both the walls and members of the audience. The doll was a double of Lia and wherever the doll landed, she occupied the same position.
“With this performance, I was fighting against the public because at that moment there was the question – who is guilty?” she says. “Ceausescu is guilty. But I wanted to say – you the people are guilty. But I didn't want to act superior, so I fought with myself. When people were hit by the doll's leg or a hand, they really felt it. The doll made them bleed and they didn't move. I would have run away and let the crazy woman do what she felt she had to do. But they were like chickens.”
“It was very brutal,” says Dan, “but very beautiful.”
By Michael Bird