Nothing Raluca Voinea
The European Influenza project, by the artist Daniel Knorr, was selected to represent Romania at the 51st edition of the Venice Biennale. The Romanian pavilion in the Giardini di Castello was left empty, its gray walls bearing the traces of past interventions—small scratches and peelings. A label announced the title of the work, European Influenza, part of a series of “visible invisible” projects, which the artist has been working on since 2001. The two doors of the pavilion were both left open: the entrance door from the Giardini, and the exit door, opening onto a park—the Romanian pavilion is the only one with an exit door leading out to the “real” world, outside the space of the biennale. A reader was published to accompany the exhibition, and distributed for free at the exhibition entrance, in which the commissioner of the pavilion, the German curator and theoretician Marius Babias, gathered a number of texts on the issue of the EU expansion and the Eastern European self-(re)definitions of identity.
Of all the venomous reproaches the project received in Romania before and after its opening, the one aimed against the “nothingness” which supposedly constituted the substance of the pavilion was undoubtedly the most striking. With his meticulous adherence to what amounts to his artistic credo—the materialization of the invisible—Daniel Knorr gathered all the media coverage the project attracted in a book.1 Reading it today, one would probably not be wrong in assuming that if the idea were submitted now, it would be greeted with the same anger and frustration—or worse. Even if European Influenza was only that—nothingness pure and simple, at an artistic event which suffers anyway from being too full—it would still be worth a bit more consideration. Instead, the international context of conceptual art from the last century, in which nothingness, absence, and the void occupy significant positions, was not even mentioned by the Romanian media. Why? On the one hand, detractors said that if this concept could find supporters in Western Europe, it was due to their own crisis of identity; on the other, they said Romania, a country with so many values which had been repressed under communism, needed to be able to show them at last a proof of its extraordinary spiritual richness. Marius Babias recognizes in this categorical dismissal of the project a return of the Romanian intellectual elite to primitive thinking structures, an escape from the responsibility of coping with the recent past and with the present context in which Romania has to function:
“ … I have remarked that in all developing countries it is fashionable to be antimodernist at the moment. Antimodernism means not recognizing modernism as the root of civilization or even negating it, destroying it, and looking for the root in another tradition, in another epoch, in an archaic mythology. In Romania there is the desire to look for an identity that is not anchored in modernism, because it is too difficult to work with it.”2
Is it this endemic antimodernism of the Romanian so-called elite (and the younger generation of journalists) which makes them sanction as “non-value” any cultural product (and particularly those related to visual arts) which does not correspond to their canons? In this particular case, their rejection of the pavilion’s emptiness could be seen as a horror vacui, which does indeed represent the general approach to culture in Romania. Alongside iconophilia, it characterizes a society living under the heavy influence of Christian-Orthodox dogma, in a perpetual state of postcommunist (and, to a large extent, anticommunist) confusion identified until recently as typical of a posttraumatic state—and this interpretation is tempting, for is horror vacui not characteristic of the art of the outsider, of the mentally unstable, of the patients of psychiatric hospitals?
At the same time, this rejection must be seen in context, as a rejection of the Romania which is “void,” of the empty representation of Romania before Europe, that Europe which, at the time, it was still aspiring to be part of. The Romanian pavilion was to be, like any other “official” mirror, a representation of the fact that Romanian culture was up to the confrontation—that it deserved, more than ever, to be brought forward as the true emissary of the country.
According to art historian Piotr Piotrowski, Western culture was the equivalent of a universal language, and belonging to it was imperative for the Eastern European countries, whether they could link the endeavor with particular references in their past or not—as Piotrowski points out, if the tradition is lacking, “the will to have a heritage” can be a good enough reason for the “effort to revalorize our culture in universal terms, which in practice probably means ‘under Western eyes.’ It is not only a specific strategy of assent to the imperialism of the ‘Western idiom,’ but a more general attitude—an endeavor to inscribe our culture in the universal perspective.” This becomes one of the essential elements in the “identity building of Eastern European intellectuals,” and the mechanism triggering it is identified by Piotrowski as “mythologization”: “The mythological function of culture deprives it of its critical capacity, especially with respect to geographical relations. In other words, trying to develop his or her identity against the background of the universal culture, the Eastern Central European artist would actually petrify the classic center-periphery order.”3
Daniel Knorr’s project, which invited de‑mythologization and critical reflection on the enlargement of the European Union, was instead received as the work of an artist “who has nothing to do with Romanian art,”4 and therefore it was considered that what he had to say in its name was, precisely, nothing. It might be that what engendered this reaction was mainly a fear of self‑reflection: in an empty space, what people can encounter best is themselves. If one looks at the space of the pavilion, the way it was stripped bare to reproduce the context in which it had to exist, the absence staged by the artist was in fact a loaded one; it was similar to the symbolic void identified in December 1989 in the hole in the Romanian flag.5 The dread of actually confronting this void, of stepping beyond one’s boundaries, is what prevents the accomplishment of its potential. As Romanian poet Bogdan Ghiu sees it, it is we who have to “fill the empty place, to ‘complete it’ with ourselves,” a place that “we are already completing, but in absence and as absence.”6
1 / Marius Babias (ed.), European Influenza, Idea Design & Print, Cluj and Verlag Silke Schreiber, Munich 2007.
2 / Babias, European Influenza in an interview by Ana-Maria Onisei, “Art Works Independently of Parliament,” first published in Suplimentul de Cultură 71 (April 8–14, 2006).
3 / Piotr Piotrowski, “The Framing of Central Europe,” Romanian Pavilion’s Reader, ed. Marius Babias, 2005.
4 / In Babias, European Influenza, Marius Stefănescu, “The Artist Representing Us at the Venice Biennale Has Nothing to Do with Romanian Art,” first published in Gardianul, March 8, 2005.
5 / Marina Gržinić cites this as an example of the field which, according to Žižek, lies “beyond the good, the beautiful, and the truth,” and which “presents a terrifying source, which is constitutive for the background of the good, the beautiful, and the truth,” Marina Gržinić, Fiction Reconstructed, Springerin, Vienna 2000, p. 21.
6 / Bogdan Ghiu, “20–9 (2009 proiecte 2),” Atelier LiterNet, article 7042 (2009), http://atelier.liternet.ro/articol/7042/Bogdan-Ghiu/20-9-2009-proiecte-2.html.