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Notes on Photographic Practice before 1989: an Interview with Ion Grigorescu

Ion Grigorescu (b.1945, Romania) is an artist that since the 1960s has worked on social and political issues, engaging with recent historical processes. He became well known internationally for his hermetic performances, as well as his photographs, films, drawings and paintings that address themes of body, sexuality and the realities in Romanian society during the socialist period and the transition to capitalism. In this interview we have focused on a lesser known aspect of Grigorescu's practice, namely his collaborations and friendships with other artists, writers and critics of his generation.

Corina Apostol (CA): Which were some of the challenges you confronted as an artist before the fall of the dictatorship in 1989?

Ion Grigorescu (IG): In the 1970s, I started making some exhibitions with photographs in my apartment, exhibiting my works and those by visual artists, art critics, composers about whom I knew also made artistic photography. I remember I asked Radu Bogdan, an art critic to participate, because I was aware that he was also practicing classic photography; or Ştefan Zorzor who produced abstract photography, working directly on the photographic paper. I also collaborated with photographer Pavel Ilie, before he emigrated, who used to make works that engaged with the material culture of everyday life. In Transylvania, artists who participated in the Atelier 35 network exhibited documentary photography of body-art, performance.

These exhibitions did not taken place within the Artists' Association, which refused to give us a hall for showing such works. Officially, they explained this through the fact that they did not have a photography department, but I found out that they directly stated that: "This is not art". For them, art was painting, sculpture, handmade artifacts that excluded devices and mechanic reproduction.

This is how I started to make these exhibitions at home, initially with photographs, and later I was captivated by the film camera and the tape recorder. I used to record conversations, friendly meetings with other artists or simply myself without a specific agenda. It was a form of self-teaching. For economic reasons – the emergent crisis of rolls, photo materials and imports –, but also for practical reasons – I did not want to make only this type of essays, or to complete them, for that matter – I decided to abandon this, I simply stopped doing it.

CA: What were some of the topics relevant to you during the 1970s and 1980s?

In 1974, I had a piece at an exhibition called Art and History: it was a photograph of a television screen showing the August 23 demonstrations, juxtaposed with quotations from Ceaușescu's speech published in the Scînteia magazine. My goal was to test this text, which I used freely, to emphasize Ceaușescu's text about how much sacrifice the Romanian people has brought for the current achievements and about the coming cultural revolution. I have realized that the censorship cannot touch this work. But immediately after, there come a prohibition for artists to extract quotations and to use them as they wanted in their works. Later, in the 1980s, it was not even possible to use printed words, only images.


marea demonstratie de 23 August ziua eliberarii 1

marea demonstratie_de_23_August_ziua_eliberarii

                                   Ion Grigorescu, "August 23rd" Demonstration, 1974

At the end of the 1970s, the difficulties discussed by everybody have appeared: the infernal lines for food products, traveling on fully packed trams and buses in the mornings, surviving on staircases – people would live inside their frozen or overheated apartments. To my mind, all these difficulties seemed to be completely linked with the concept of art. In this period I got bored with the other artistic genres, film, photography, and I was thinking about a new method – performance; at that time I did not know it was called like that, the terminology came later.

Later, in the 1980s it was dangerous to obtain photographic evidence of demolitions taking place in Bucharest and of construction sites. Today, there is a documentation – incomplete, it is true –, but there is one.

CA: Who were some of the artists you were interested in when you began your artistic practice?

IG: When I started to work in the late 1960s, there were sources of information on art in libraries, the Library of the Artists' Associations, the Library of the National Art Museum, the Arta magazine. I could also access international journals: Artforum, Kunstforum and Art and Artists Guide. These were in a certain sense up to date, and here, at the periphery, the distance between developments in the art world and their representations in journals was almost insignificant. I recall that I was interested in some artists working in contemporary art and following the developments from abroad: Paul Neagu, who had an exhibition before emigrating to the U.K., or Iulian Mereuță, who was also an editor of the Arta magazine. At that time, I had some isolated attempts at doing something, without discussing with other artists, without checking on each other. We did not exhibit and had in common only very little and very vague things.

CA: In what ways do you think the fall of the dictatorship affected photography in Romania and art in general? How did it affect the artists?

IG: In the autumn of 1989, I was gone to work on a church restoration site in Mehedinți county. There I have listened to radio Free Europe, as other people, priests and peasants, did, even though we never talked about what we were listening on the radio. In December I heard about Timișoara, and I went to Bucharest immediately. I arrived at the moment when they were shooting at people and canons were placed in the windows of the Art Museum. Although I was in the crowd, in those moments I was more concerned with my family, I did not have the intention of entering the Central Committee's building, as other people did. I was thinking very little about art, and I did not take any photographs, although these were events worth of recording. I experienced a fever of participation then, I was not interested in aloof recording, removed from the events.

In the first "free" art salon since the events in December 1989, there was not a single work on revolution, or about the fact that people have died and have shot one another. There were almost exclusively landscapes and still-lives, just as before the revolution. I believe this also demonstrates the culture of a people.

In the 1990s, stimulated by the establishment of the Soros Center, artists and theorists have started to build archives and publish studies about the previous generation, materials that were very good. Some interested researchers from abroad started coming. At the same time, I have noticed that many youngsters took me (and not only me) as a model, a dissident with an exemplary attitude. I realized that I must create exhibitions in which I can show the truth, speak about the compromises, about the fact that everyday life was not only about clenching our teeth against a dictatorship that I believed to be endless.


*Part of this interview appeared in Corina L. Apostol and Amy Bryzgel, "Reflections on Artistic Practice in Romania: Then and Now," IDEA Arts + Society #45, November 2014. For this entry I have included parts of the longer interview related to Grigorescu's photographic practice. 

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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