Posted on 17 July 2012 | By Lisa Paul Streitfeld
The fifth Bucharest Biennale (BB5) curated by Ann Barlow, comes in the midst of a scandal plaguing the Institutal Cultural Roman (ICR), the project’s main local sponsor. A government committee looking into the spending of this nationally funded art organization is threatening its existence.
There may not be another Bucharest Biennale, so let’s take a look to see what BB5 adds to the global art map.
Left: Entrance to 2005 Bucharest Biennale 5 Pavillion, in former Kruschev-era apartment building. artes fine arts magazine
A great deal, in fact, by inadvertently reflecting the insular, self-satisfied posturing of the inner circle of collusion that keeps global art curation safe from undermining a system that—like all systems—takes care of its own and pulls up the ramparts to keep outsiders from getting in. “Sort of like the old communist system,” says Marius Tichescu, the Bucharest photographer who was the only person I met in the city that knew anything about BB5.
I nearly failed to locate the Pavilion space in a building marking the shift from Stalinist to Capitalist society: transforming in 1993 from communist Russian styled hruschiovi flats into a bank.
Here is prime evidence of the international system of curators (who get paid to create the show) critics (who get paid to write essays) and artists (who get commissions to create the work). It’s a collusion of individuals brought together by money rather than the passion needed to fuel an authentic art movement. And in this case the money greasing the machine has become a public scandal with a perceptive Irish curator’s hand holding up a light to the problem.
The general consensus is that public funding is necessary to protect art from the tainted marketplace. Yes, but this demands an investigation into works produced under such conditions – commissions made for specifications that undermine the very idea of art taking on a life of its own.
Some critics might say that such public funding is necessary to produce art outside of the tainted sphere of the global marketplace. Yes, this is all the more reason to turn a critical eye to works produced in public spaces—commissions made for specifications of subject, time and place would seems to undermine the very idea of art taking on a life of its own, meaning art that has the power to ride the quantum wave breaking from the collective unconscious into the collective consciousness.
My personal experience of the lack of local engagement was mirrored by an outspoken monitor wielding a telltale short list of visitor e-mails on her clipboard – proclaiming she couldn’t get anyone she knew to come and see it. I could only surmise that this makes the organizers happy, a risk free venture to put on an international art event with government funds that serves to secure their own positions of gate guardianship without having to endure the specter of public criticism.
So here, in Bucharest, we actually have a remarkable mirror for the global art system taking care of its own, with an entire exhibition of works revealing how national boundaries are surpassed through, well, Tactics for the Here and Now which happens to be the title of Barlow’s fifth installment of this international art exhibition.
Like most of so-called “contemporary art”, the exhibition was big on concept and fell drastically short on visual stimulation. It is peculiar that in a foreign culture where words divide due to separate languages—despite the global art speak that is incomprehensible in any dialect – words would have such importance.
In the case of Alexandre Singh (The Pledge,2012), for example, words were paramount as the complex photographic installation was based on the expansion of a personal social network (a novel idea to make such hidden tactics so obvious, yet this was not the intent of the installation) via a series of interviews with art world personalities published by Palais de Tokyo. Why was the missing document in Japan? Because the director of Palais de Tokyo was one of his interview/participants! What a tactic!
Repeating images of the self-destruction Tower of Babel had resonance in that Singh’s tactic to line up his next exhibition through his newly expanded network, courtesy of his undigested concept, was the only meaning here that wasn’t lost on the viewer.
The actual Tower of Babel was a symbol of divine punishment for the arrogance of humanity attempting to get closer to God through the creation of a universal language. The global language of art stems from the conceptual, yet without the emphasis on emotion and therefore the personal and public body, the majority of art today in non-traditional media is too undigested for audience participation.
Here and the Alert Studio checkerboard floor of Haris Epaminonda’s reflective Polaroid carried thru the curator’s tactical motif of chess game…where it reached its culmination in the Institute for Political Research of the University of Bucharest inside MarinaAlbu’s 2012 emotionally resounding The People’s House.
Creating a sense of intimacy and knowing, Albu stripped away art world pretense through her narrated installation piece reflecting on The People’s House as a symbol of Romanian communism. I quote here from her statement:
“We are all in this situation and we feel it in the same way. We are companions and accomplices to one another. We are open; we put our arms, guards and shields down. We realize that not everything we urged to do is that urgent or even needed. Paradoxically, closer to darkness we see more clearly. In darkness, at candlelight, people have the tendency to be more honest, to be close together, to be themselves. There isn’t any light put on you, you mustn’t show anything.”
The artist might as well be describing the purity of being in the artistic underground, where the light of recognition doesn’t distort an authentic mission to communicate. Albu makes all the right moves, paradoxically, by presenting the checkerboard as emotional artifact (My dad used to accept my invitations, he was also the one that taught me) refusing to play the tactics game in the interest of expressing her truth, beautifully executed to reflect the universal truth of diminishing resources darkening the humanity’s present crossroads.
As proof, there is Albu’s bio from Pavilion: Journal for Politics and Culture #16, the catalog for “Tactics for the Here and Now”. I copy this here at full length because it is such an enlightened extension of her artwork that enlightens as to what is truly (r)evolutionary in art today:
“I realized just now why I always delay sending/writing my bio. I know it for sure at this moment. I DO NOT BELIVE IN BIOS. Bios do not matter to me. At all. Which city once comes from, where one works, if one has well-known artist-or-something-else-ancestors, how old or young one is or if the university where one studied has renowned teachers or ex-students. It does not matter how many exhibitions one had and where they had it, it does not matter what prizes they won or at what prices they sell. At most, all these are future conversation started, guesses on influences or familiarity highlights. I do activate for several years in the art zone and I try to touch nerves and transmit all I can through this, mostly thoughts, sensations, emotions, the private, the public, the hidden and the shown, observations or desires. I am all around us, the human kind, our behavior, habits and that what we perceive. This is what I have for input. And this makes me just as much as you. The selection is what makes us different, and the reasons why we do this. And my reason is our growing out of our fears, sufferings and uncertainties.“
Gratefully, this Romanian artist gifted me with the embodied experience that brought me to Bucharest: the illumination into a system’s failure providing a glimmer of hope into the potential for human connectedness. Whether by accident or design, the astutely talented curatorial skills of Anne Barlow have pulled back the maneuvering tactics propelled by another system’s demise, thereby obscuring the universal fear of the darkness surrounding humanity’s future course.
By Lisa Paul Streitfeld, Contributing Writer
Lisa Paul Streitfeld is a cultural critic attending the European Graduate School.