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Age of irony

Rich, vulgar and compelling - a new exhibition takes a sarcastic glance at Ceausescu’s so-called Golden Era of the 1980s. Review by Michael Bird

December 2010 - From the Print Edition

6 Photos
Is now the right moment to make fun of the so-called Golden Era for Romania? That devastating period in the 1980s when Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist party machine ramped up the propaganda, stuck its jackboot further into the face of the population and sold its food to Russia to pay off the country’s international debts.
This new exhibition at Bucharest’s National Museum of Contemporary Art - the former palace of the ex-dictator - takes the forced smile of 80s Romanian media and pickles it in a bitter acid, but does not launch an offensive against the hated regime.
At the centre is Alexandru Poteca’s ‘Golden Flat – the Last Carnival’ - an apartment of artefacts from the artist’s 1980s childhood, where bread, dolls, ceramic dogs, a radio, a model of the Statue of Liberty under a television set and even the laundry are all dipped in gold paint. This is a childhood memory of a household recreated as a treasure hoard, but with every item rendered useless by its exterior of precious metal.
One could argue the piece takes the metaphor too literally – Ceausescu’s Golden Era becomes a memory in golden colour – but this is an impressive installation which touches Romanians in their 30s and 40s who look back on the epoch with mixed emotions.
Meanwhile in the collages of Ion Barladeanu, Ceausescu becomes a comic character undertaking wild adventures in glittering international locales.
Outsider artist Barladeanu scouted rubbish dumps for images abandoned by Romanians in the 1990s and 2000s and stuck them together to create surreal and satirical assemblages.
Here Ceausescu is fashioned in a pastel-coloured suit, flat cap and thick black overcoat and accompanied by any bizarre image ripped out of a TV guide or erotic magazine - he is next to Yoda, opposite Kermit the Frog, dancing with naked African women in front of the Taj Mahal or accompanied by a midget Ceausescu – an eerie copy of the murderous despot.
Barladeanu uses nuclear explosions as a regular backdrop, soft porn, Tarom and Lufthansa planes, Bucharest’s Intercontinental Hotel, pictures of the Gestapo, a perm-haired Mel Gibson gripping a revolver and Sophia Loren in a mix of the aspirational and the violent – holidays and Armageddon - the bikini and the swastika, all overseen by the mean grin and waving hands of Romania’s ex-dictator and his grim wife Elena.
While Romanian exhibitions in the 1990s and the 2000s were keen to catalogue the tragedy of the 1980s – the half a million secret police informers, the country as a giant prison camp, the black market, the lack of food – now artists are reassessing this period as one of farce.
But there is one problem here – were the 1980s no more than a joke? Is there enough distance from this time to comfortably laugh at the period?
With a growing nationalistic sentiment gripping Europe and a recent poll indicating the majority of Romanians are nostalgic for the 1980s, it may not be the best moment to ironise the glamour of this era.
But if artists always acted as the conscience of society - such as promoting a liberal philosophy when the tide was inching towards Fascism or showing an even hand when the movement was towards revolt - they would abdicate their necessity to be contrarian.
So this display ignores political responsibility to show off those successful traits of Romanian art - a vulgar surrealism, a passion for the absurd and a proneness to overstatement. ■

Golden Flat & Co
Ion Barladeanu, Stefan Constantinescu, Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Poromboiu, Alexandru Poteca
National Museum of Contemporary Art,
Palatul Parlamentului,
Calea 13 Septembrie entrance
Until 20 February 2011

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