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Appropriation and re-staging in subREAL’s photographic archives

The archival projects of the Romanian photographic duo subREAL emerged in a period of discussions around recuperating historical consciousness in the 1990s, a time not so far removed from the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin wall, that still resonated with the aftereffects of the dramatic geo-political and social transformations of the 1980s. During this time, artists and scholars from Eastern Europe have stressed the need for engendering socially-oriented artistic platforms that facilitate processes of engaging critically with the so-called interrupted histories of this region. (1)

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C.N.S.A.S/ National Council for the Study of the Secret Police Archives, Bucharest

The 1990s are significantly marked by heated debates around archives: the most famous case, the East German Stasi archive based on exhausted data gathering, privileged access and geared towards institutionalized oppression was critically opened-the data related to the heavily surveyed situation of the population was disseminated, made available to the general public, subjected to the interpretation of the individual and collective body. The Romanian situation was (and still is) far more complicated, as the Romanian Securitate archives were partly destroyed immediately after the Revolution, and fierce debates still range in the government between those who would want them open only to certain authorized officials and those who request full access to the materials. What all these debates have in common is the recognition that archives are an embodiment of the cultural heritage of a community in a period in history – albeit a heritage that is not easy to come to terms with.

Unlike contemporary artistic traditions emerging in the West, largely revolved around aesthetic concerns, photography was understood in relation to politics, social concerns and national identity in Romania. Specifically photographs were submitted to several boards of official censors. Few artists active in the unofficial scene, including subREAL, Ion Grigorescu, Geta Brătescu and others used the medium to document performances and as aesthetic experiments.(2) The tension between authenticity and memory, and the disjuncture between official histories and suppressed narratives, are themes which inform subREAL's projects, imagined as unconventionally installed photographic archives reflecting on the relationship between photography and historiography. By appropriating the a significant photographic archive and re-staging it under different guises over the course of 10 years - in the so-called transition period in Romanian society from dictatorship to the free market economy - the collective made visible crises in narrating suppressed recent histories and the need to testify to them. Photography is at the core of subREAL's practice, the artists having an attuned understanding of the medium's potential for reflection (related to witnessing people and events); but also their practice undermines the viewer's assumptions about what and how is being represented and frames it as a political gesture.

subREAL was formed right after the 1989 Romanian Revolution, most famously remembered as the first televised revolution in European History (and the most violent in the Eastern Bloc). Art historian, curator and artist Călin Dan and photographer and artist Iosif Király were trained at the Art Academy and respectively Architecture Institute in Bucharest. Both were profoundly aware to the powerful role media - especially documentary photography, photojournalism and film-played during recent historical events, most dramatically exemplified by the Revolution in their home country.

As subREAL, Călin Dan and Iosif Király started producing conceptual installations appropriating and re-staging an archive that for decades had belonged to the influential Artists' Union, and the Communist State in its different regimes of rule. In their official biographies, Dan and Király claim that their artistic projects before the Revolution were related to art photography, performance and mail art; they do not deny also being a part of the Artists' Union, the only means through which they could exhibit or write about art in public space. This double role is key to understanding their artistic development throughout the 90s and leading up to the contemporary period.

From 1987 and up to 1993, Dan and Király worked as art journalist and editor in chief and respectively photographer for the art magazine "Arta"-the only publication dedicated to the visual arts in the Socialist Republic of Romania. Between 1953 and 1989, it served to control art's public representation in the country – reflecting on local and international art histories from antiquity to post-modernism. Out of an eclectic pool of negatives documenting art objects, "Arta" only published a narrow selection approved by several boards of censors.

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In 1993, Dan and Kiraly collected the demised communist state's photographic material which they stored in their artist studio in Bucharest. Their claim to the archive was that they were saving it from imminent destruction.(3) The bulk of this material consisted of black and white photographs, negatives and color slides. As Călin Dan stated in "Untitled Celebration,"(4) there was no inventory, no system or retrieval and no criteria for collecting and discarding of the material at it accumulated over decades. He explains that subREAL decided to give this pre-packaged chaos purpose and meaning, treating it as raw visual material – an archive of photographs that were being developed and seen for the first time.(5)

Art History was constructed via a prescribed formula that remained remarkably uniform throughout this period: art objects were captured in front of a black(or white) cloth propped by assistants using an analogue camera. The composition of these photographs is nearly identical: the object is positioned in the center of the frame, clearly lit from both sides, the perspective is linear. This straightforward method is commonly employed to photograph art objects in a museum or a collection for archiving. It divorces the object from its immediate surrounding such as : the artist's studio, the space for which it was created, the museum wall or display case and other works of art. In other words, through this method of photo-archiving art loses its context and becomes a visual symbol to be inserted into a larger discourse.

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subREAL, C-prints from "The Art History Archive"/ "Arta" Archive, date unknown (pre-1989), 20 x 20 cm

What made the negatives from "Arta" appealing to subREAL is that they were used as cropped images in the final layout of the magazine. The cloth behind the object, the people holding the cloth in place, all the props involved in creating images of artworks on pure black background were erased in the final product – as if frozen in time. Annulling depth, space and people was part of the process of reproduction, the transformation of 3D objects into a 2D discourse devoid of its original context.(6) Throughout the cropped negatives the scale of the object to the dimension of the background was preserved- thus the viewer's relationship to the object represented was to be conserved in a present-future devoid of cultural memory.

Seizing on the discrepancy between the cropped and un-manipulated negatives, subREAL subjected it to a critical process of display. By centering ideologically sanctioned works while excluding the context in which they were produced and marginalizing art that did not conform to the views of the State, the photographs in "Arta" documented the way Romanian society represented its own artistic output – this documentation became "weightless" after the Revolution, with the toppling of the political system that dictated it. The same material was "weighted" by the practices of subREAL, which used the archive as a historical interrogation.(7)

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subREAL, A.H.A. Deconstruction (Art History Archive Lesson 3), installation Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, July 1995

In a sense then, the photographs that lined up the walls of the A.H.A. installation at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien were seen for the first time in 1995, even though their object of focus – the artwork itself- had been in circulation in the pages of a widely disseminated art magazine before 1989. Moreover, I argue that these photographs become auratic, problematizing Walter Benjamin's famous conclusion that with technological reproduction, the artwork loses its aura of originality.(8) subREAL's appropriation strategy turns the tables on the original and the copy: what was once reproduced in bulk on the covers of Arta in cropped form, becomes the object of discovery of a web of human interactions within an oppressive system, information which was meant to fade away from the photograph. The artwork represented in the photograph is no longer the focus of the image, instead the complex mechanisms involved in the process of art reproduction become the focus of critical reception.(9)

In exhibitions in across Europe, subREAL regrouped the photographic prints around installations, performances and lectures. Through these interventions, the Art Historical Archive or A.H.A. (1995-1998) problematized the relationship between art, art history, historical narrative and cultural representation. Through A.H.A., Photography became not only a way of remembering art through photographs, but also its defunct system of promotion and the political entities supervising its dissemination to the masses.(10) The A.H.A. installations play upon Derridean and Foucauldian definitions of the archive as form and medium. While built as structures of containment and accumulation of photographic information -establishing what can and cannot be seen and said- as re-staged by subREAL, they became among the first publicly open archives in Romania since 1989, engendering a process of democratization of access and interpretation. 

Moreover, not only did the artists appropriate the archive, but they lived inside it for several days (in some installations a week)– using it as a studio apartment in which the photographs covered every inch of the walls, dramatically changing the architecture of the space. Over the course of the time they spent inside the space, the photographs became unhinged, falling haphazardly on the floor and furniture. Viewers were invited to observe this process as it unfolded, and after the artists left the space, they contemplated the decaying photographic environment. Through this meta-referential gesture of inhabiting the archive subREAL seem to provide form and meaning to A.H.A., only to reveal the futility of this gesture shortly afterwards: one is left to meditate over the re-formed chaos of photographic information that seemed to have been securely categorized and given signification in the staged archival structure. The awe of discovery of these never-before seen images is replaced with the frustration that it all amounts to a solipsistic search for significance. The two ionic columns in the center of the room emphasize both the stability of the pre-defoliated environment and the decay that inevitably engulfs it. Does this mean that the archive has failed as guardian and disseminating agent of critical information? I would like to suggest otherwise.

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subREAL, What Does a Project Mean? (Art History Archive. Lesson 2), installation, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, May 1995- January 1996

In these aesthetic staging gestures, subREAL occupy the role of both conceptual artists/photographers and art historians: their projects are subtitled "Lessons" and titled under rhetorical questions directed at the viewer. Not only do they take it upon themselves to put forth aesthetic models for mnemonic experiences, but also to guide one in the direction of self-reflexivity. One such question was "What Does a Project Mean?," part of the A.H.A. Lesson 2, an installation realized at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 1995.

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subREAL, What Does a Project Mean? (Art History Archive. Lesson 2) - Ion Irimescu, installation, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, May 1995- January 1996

Approximately 90 black and white photographs reproducing sculptures were cut and pasted on plywood and exhibited in an illusionistic way: seen from the front they looked as if they were real 3-D objects on pedestals. From the back however, the ruse of Photography was revealed: the plywood support was left visible and the pedestals themselves were shown to be hollow inside. Facing forward however, the entire show looked as if it were the retrospective of a sculpture – and in a metaphorical way it was. On the wall at the back of the installation a portrait of the sculptor of the photographed works – Ion Irimescu – was shown surrounded by other photographs capturing his activities in society and politics. The comprehensive biography attached to this eclectic portrait revealed that Irimescu (born in 1903) had been an official figure in the Romanian art scene for over 60 years, a time span that exceeded even the communist regime in the country. It was also revealed that the sculptor was the president of the Artists' Union between 1978-1990. Since he was both an artist and a political figure, Irimescu's life was extensively captured in photographs during this period. While Irimescu's work adopted one style after the other as dictated by the politics of the times, the photographic installations functions as a system of leveling this body of work. The plywood supported photographs were roughly the same size (10 x 15 / 18 x 24 cm), printed in black and white, creating the impression of an out-of-scale retrospective. As the 90 photographic objects flood the room in regimented order, they engender a similar tension between order and chaos as in the installation of A.H.A. Lesson 1. They also suggest that Irimescu was the creator of an infinitely reproducible array of works at the same time that his life, not only his art was the subject of Photography.


subREAL, Serving Art, installation, Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart,February-March 1998

In 1998, the A.H.A. changed its form once again to the project "Serving Art," presented at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in the same year and then at the Romanian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1999. This time, subREAL emphasized the unintentional information contained by negatives before they were cropped to be reproduced in "Arta." Out of the over 10.000 negatives in the A.H.A., subREAL selected 1000, through which they investigated the socio-political framing of the photographic image in relation to the framing of the artworks themselves in the photographs.

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subREAL, C-prints from “The Art History Archive”/ “Arta” Archive, date unknown (pre-1989), 20 x 20 cm

In the "Serving Art" series, the stories unfolding in the margins are no longer suppressed; the people that are controlling the display of the artworks become active signifiers of a context that was meant to fade away. Cropping, focusing and framing the originals around the margins rather than the subject of focus, subREAL re-signified the A.H.A. Presenting the preliminary phases of art reproduction, they illuminated the role other "Servants of Art" or participants in the heavily surveyed Romanian art scene played in streamlining art into photography. In a sense, the case of Ion Irimescu multiplied 1000 times over, showing the banality of the process of art reproduction. subREAL recast this process in relation to the dominant ideology of the period, bringing back into memory the role these photographs played in shaping the cultural politics of their time, engendering a process of self-reflectivity. This series deconstructs the illusion of (Art)Historical narrations' objectivity, instead allowing for different yet contingent historical perspectives to exist in the same framework.

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subREAL, Serving Art, installation, Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart,February-March 1998

By constantly remapping and recasting Photography's traditional characteristics – its capacity for representation of the real, framing and focusing-subREAL arrive at a certain form of appropriating the medium itself within an open-ended archival structure. They make Photography their own project by constantly pushing the limits of representation. Within this line of inquiry about power, depiction and historical consciousness, the group places the medium it at the intersection of documentary style, conceptual art, architecture and sculpture – while insisting on the importance of the material trace, the photographic object which makes the material of the archive. The medium of photography is revealed to be both the carrier of the traces of the real, and the means through which the construction of the real in the photographic whole can be deconstructed and subjected to critical reception.



1) The expression "interrupted histories" was introduced by Slovenian art historian Zdenka Badovinac in 2006. Badovinac curated an exhibition with the same name at Moderna Galerija in Ljubjliana, Slovenia. The exhibition presented works from Eastern European and Middle Eastern artists, representative of areas that have not been able to integrate fully the processes of modernity, for political and economic reasons.

2)See the discussion of Experimental Photography in Romania in Alexandra Titu and Magda Carneci, eds. Experiment in Romanian Art since 1960 (Bucharest: Soros Center for Contemporary Art, 1997)

3)The artists claim to have capitalized on the legal ambiguities surrounding the Arta archive. As the poltical power that created and controlled it faded away, it did not exactly belong to any one.

4)Călin Dan, Untitled Celebration, in Primary Documents. A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), pg. 281-285.

5)Here I am referring to the fact that, as they were reproduced on the covers of Arta, all the photographs had been cropped and altered in some way – to focus on the work of art being depicted in the center of the image. In their first installation using this artchive - "Dataroom," at the Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien in April 1995 – subREAL showed the photographs as they were originally taken.

6)Looking at the covers of Arta displayed in never-ending series accumulated for over 40 years, the artworks seem to lose their individuality, becoming metonyms for an eerie equivalence, a mythical fixation. They do not show a clear sense of progression usually associated with art historical narratives, but resist displaying changing cannons of representation. Their indexical tie to the periods in which they were produced is shifted to reflect the politics of the state – it is the Party's perpetual ghostly presence, which is never verbalized or written but ubiquitously known.

7)According to Călin Dan the archive was also literally weighted for the first time in March 1996: subREAL moved the archive from Bucharest to a new artists studio in Berlin. The Romanian Post Office and Customs classified the material as 650 kg of photographic material. The artists have since donated the archive to ArtExpo (The National Office for Art Documentation and Exhibitions), based in Bucharest.

8)Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) was originally published in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1936.

9)subREAL, "Serving Art," Artelier, No. 2 (Bucharest: Artlerlier, 1998), pg. 22.

10)These installations of a seemingly ever expanding art history transform the architecture of the space, creating a total environment; audiences walk along the walls and corridors becoming themselves witnesses to the re-enactment of history through photography. 

Corina L. Apostol
Author: Corina L. ApostolWebsite: Country: Romania
Corina Apostol (B.A., Duke University, M.A. Rutgers University) is a Ph.D candidate in Art History at Rutgers University - New Brunswick, with a focus on modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia. She holds a Dodge Fellowship, working as a curatorial assistant for the Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union at the Zimmerli Museum. She is the co-founder of Art Leaks, an organization which fights for artists rights in the workforce, and co-editor of the ArtLeaks Gazette. Corina contributes to The Long April. Texts About Art, IDEA Arts+Society and Arta.

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