Public Space Raluca Voinea
For a while one might entertain the illusion that at least the problems in Bucharest are similar to those of other postcommunist, neocapitalist cities—that it is just a crowded capital like many others, sharing the giant advertisements and skyscrapers of Warsaw, the stray dogs and derelict buildings of Sofia, and the largely intact communist housing blocks of Bratislava or Kiev. Most people, nevertheless, say that only the mix of all of them, together with the superimposed layers of history and other influences, is original. This is the kind of originality the former Romanian president Ion Iliescu was ascribing to the fresh democracy of the early 1990s: an originality which allows you to underline the things you are willing to accept or like, and close your eyes to the rest, no matter how obvious and annoying they are. Selective perception and, even more so, a very selective memory characterize the public conduct of both ordinary citizens and those in power.
In 2008, at Bucharest’s University Square (Romanian: Piaţa Universităţii), a pillow fight was organized by a group of young people to commemorate the violent collisions which had taken place between miners and protesters from June 13–15, 1990.1 The few young people who showed up drew media attention and declared their (inter)action, which had been announced and publicized a few days in advance, a “spontaneous gathering”—the same words president Iliescu had used with reference to the miners’ visit to Bucharest in 1990. Although the whole event looked rather silly, it is no less true that the participants relied on the official, simplified accounts of events they were too young to remember. According to those accounts, the miner-led incursions into the heart of Bucharest—which gave rise to the term mineriade in Romanian—were either self-organized manifestations of sympathy and unconditional support for the government of the recently elected president and an attempt to rescue recently acquired freedoms from the evil forces embodied by the demonstrators or, on the contrary, a gross and unabashed manipulation of a large number of people (all representing the working class) incited by that same government to come and suppress the largest democratic protest the city had seen since the revolution in December 1989. This polarity has hardly been contested over the past 19 years, and it is significant that although there have been a series of mineriade, they have all generically been identified with that of June 1990—the one most easy to characterize using the formula of “the good guys and the bad guys.”2 It was that historic event that was the reference moment not only for the pillow fight mentioned above, but also for another public call for remembrance of the University Square’s bloody days organized the year before (and thereafter largely forgotten) by the artist Dan Perjovschi.
As his contribution to the Spatial Public Bucureşti (Public Art Bucharest 2007) project,3 Perjovschi proposed the Monument (History/ Hysteria 2) project,4 consisting of a living sculpture posing for a few hours every day over a week in the same University Square. The monument was portrayed by two actors—one representing a miner (and dressed accordingly), and the other a “hooligan” (a name broadly used for the category of the intellectuals who were identified at the time of the altercations as enemies of the government). During the performance the two stood next to each other, frozen into a few different positions—some seemingly confrontational, others peaceful, and others more ambiguous. Encountering them was surely not a familiar experience for passers-by for, on the one hand, in contrast with other European countries, living sculpture is not a form of expression recognized in the urban cultural history of Romania; on the other hand, nonviolent manifestation of people expressing themselves publicly (aside from the hunger-strikers who can be found from time to time near official institutions, and the poor pensioners begging in front of churches or supermarkets) are rare. Usually, public spaces—from the streets to the halls of national institutions, television shows, and Internet forums—are dominated by aggression, excessive noise, intrusiveness, and intolerance. Even entertainment needs to be loud and in your face in order to attract audiences: fireworks, giant video screens, and concerts that make the windows crack are the preferred means used by both public and private institutions to keep their constituencies happy. Thus, it is no wonder that some of the people who saw his performance asked Perjovschi why the two actors were not fighting. As a discreet invitation for reflection, the monument was indeed rare and groundbreaking. Moreover, it departed from the way artists had been addressing political subjects until then (when they did so at all)—that is, through ironic or cynical commentary expressed mostly using traditional media, within the institutional sphere of art.5
Dan Perjovschi has become widely recognized throughout the world for his drawings/cartoons (which can be seen on the inside or outside walls of art institutions, at biennials, in journals and catalog, etc.), which comment wittily and synthetically on both local and global issues involving art, politics, and their reciprocal dependence. In Romania he has also been a well-known public voice since the early 1990s, contributing short notes and drawings each week to Revista 22, an independent political magazine published by the first NGO in post-1989 Romania, the Group for Social Dialogue. Members of the group were thought to be representative of the miners’ victims in June 1990 and thus implicitly to be victims and targets of political power. Dan Perjovschi, however, is constantly examining the complex and often painfully paradoxical context which surrounds every significant public event in Romania. With Monument (History/ Hysteria 2), by identifying himself not only as victim but also as a responsible party in the collective stigmatization and discrediting of the miners as a class,6 Perjovschi confronted the country’s public’s memory with its recent history while at the same time inviting Romanians to refrain from looking at it with Manichean glasses.
Live from the Ground was performed by Dan Perjovschi in Chişinău as part of a performance festival organized by the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts (SCCA Chişinău, Moldova) with the title “Gioconda’s Smile: From the Mythical to the Techno-Ritual,” in 1998. During the performance, he gave an account of the world as seen from the perspective of a frog, crawling face-to-earth on the streets of the city from the exhibition space to the presidential palace. Speaking into a microphone connected to loudspeakers, trying to communicate with an ostensible “center” for directions (“Ground to center! Ground to center! Come in! Do you hear me? I can’t hear you! Please come in!”) and describing every sensory detail he was seeing in front of his eyes for the public (such as holes or cracks in the asphalt) in ominous detail.7 Live from the Ground was one of a series of performances in which Perjovschi used his own body to comment on the individual’s relationship to society.
For the first edition of the Zon performance festival in Timisoara (1993), Perjovschi had the word Romania tattooed on his arm, an irreversible, “antiperformance” to last as long as its bearer. However, in 2002, at the fourth edition of the same festival, he wrote a letter promising to laser-erase the tattoo, which he later did, as his contribution to an international show in Kassel, in 2003.8 Beyond the significance of these actions in the framework of Perjovschi’s artistic career, they are part of a more general and longstanding trend in which Romanian artists have employed their bodies as the medium of their works—not only as the ultimate surface onto which symbolic value is inscribed, but also as the most accessible means they had for public expression.9
Even if Dan Perjovschi played the role of the hooligan alongside the miner for the first staging of Monument (History/ Hysteria 2) at the official inauguration of Spatial Public Bucureşti, the work embodied a certain shift; he was no longer making reference to his artistic body but representing the socially engaged public body. If his Romania could be seen as an antiperformance, History/ Hysteria 2 was an antimonument which, instead of delivering a definitive statement, called attention to the biased position from which most accounts of the troubled postcommunist history of Romania have been given. The work was thus an appeal against judging based on selective memory.
1 / The organizers of the “velvet mineriada,” available at http://1315iunie.blogspot.com/ (accessed March 29, 2010).
2 / Only recently has a more objective approach been taken which analyzes the events together with the records and other evidence. In 2007, the Romanian anthropologist Alin Rus published a book called Mineriadele. Intre manipulare politică şi solidaritate muncitorească (“Mineriadele: Between Political Manipulation and Worker Solidarity”), a documented chronology of the six mineriade (three in 1990, one in 1991, and two in 1999), along with an analysis of the political and economic context in which each one occurred, a critical review of the most important theories used to interpret the phenomenon, and an overview of symbolic image and role of miners in different historic epochs and countries since the 19th century.
3 / The project, developed between April 20—October 15, 2007, was an initiative of Goethe Institut Bukarest, the Romanian Cultural Institute and the Allianz Cultural Foundation. It was curated by Marius Babias and Sabine Hentzsch.
4 / Dan Perjovschi, “Monument (History/ Hysteria 2,)” Bucharest Public Art, http://www.spatiul-public.ro/ro/perjovschi_p/perjo_proiect.html.
5 / I am avoiding the term “safe art institution,” as recent outbursts of nationalism, bigotry, and right-wing extremism have turned even projects realized in art galleries into risky adventures. See for example the case of the “Euromaniac,” an exhibition of work by artist Benedek Levente at Atelier 35 Gallery in Bucharest, 2008. The exhibition was vandalized and the artist accused of denigrating state symbols. See details at:http://atelier35.blogspot.com/2008/09/follow-up-euromaniac.html. It is interesting to note that the instigators of this vandalism, two brothers well-known in Romania for their neoorthodox fundamentalism, are mentioned by Alin Rus (see note 2) as victims of the mineriada of June 13–15, 1990; yesterday’s victims, today’s aggressors? This is one more example showing the type of imbroglio which has prevented a real clarification of the events which took place.
6 / For more details see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViEJACTGX6U (accessed March 29, 2010).
7 / For description of the performance, see Kristine Stiles, ed., States of Mind. Dan & Lia Perjovschi, exh. cat., Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2007, p. 73.
8 / Dan Perjovschi, “Romania,” Zona Festival, http://www.zonafestival.ro/arhiv/perjovschi.htm, Dan Perjovschi, “Erasing Romania,” Zona Festival, http://www.zonafestival.ro/arhiv/perjov_4.htm.
9 / One must not forget that alongside a fascination for technology, performances and body art were the preferred media used by artists in Romania until the early 2000s, and at the first relatively large-scale contemporary art events were performance festivals such as Zona, mentioned above, in Timişoara, Periferic in Iaşi (initiated in 1997 and turned into a biennial in 2003), or the Annart Festival of Living Art in Transylvania (1990–1999).