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Heroism Rises in a Warehouse


"Veten," (Homeland) Zamir Suleymanov's open-ended film shown in a loop is the starting point of the current exhibition, "Heroism Rises in a Warehouse," at Salonul de Proiecte in Bucharest. The film explores the habitual movements and interactions between a group of young boys in a former Soviet era cinema in Baku, which now functions as a games centre, cafe, perfume shop and pet shop all at once. Blurring reality with cinematic fantasy, the film constructs a dynamic portrait of its main characters, while navigating the interior environment where they seem to spend most of their time - indeed the film give the impression that the young men never leave the cinema. Suggested by the title of the film, which is also the name of the former cinema - "Homeland" - playing on the idea of home, as both a private environment, as well as a public, official defined territory, the film presents life on the periphery of consumer culture, of friendship and of reality itself. The last frames of the film show a boy falling asleep on a bench, intensifying the dream-like quality of the work, suggesting that the viewer has been immersed not only in the architectural space where the young men spend their daily lives, but also the constructed space of their fantasies.


Much of the works selected after an open-call by the artist duo Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor in the exhibition use irony, camp, performance, photography and low budget film to explore present day social issues related to the environment, science and technology, politics, religion, the culture of violence and the entertainment industry. As the artist-duo explained, they envisioned "Veten" to be the inspiration for the selection, and indeed the works presented lend themselves to the themes explored in the film and Suleymanov's strategies, especially the focus on repetition, ritual and present-day social exclusions set on the background of a crumbled Soviet, socialist culture that has been swiftly replaced by a consumer-oriented one. Some of the most interesting works in the exhibition are short films, which show local artists pushing further beyond traditional mediums and boundaries.


Sitting on a chair while facing the viewer, Iulia Toma carefully refurbishes and cleans her father's military uniform, almost ritualistically. The artist's delicate fingers clasp onto a wooden frame which she uses to secure the bulky golden buttons of the uniform and then painstakingly dusts. At times she sows back the shabby lining of the uniform with great care. The camera zooms in and out, focusing on the movements of the artist's body and especially her hands as she performs various improvements to the garments. As Toma explained, her gestures caught on camera are a reenactment of her father's own routine as he prepared for military service. The film plays on the absence of the father and Toma's memory of his habitual cleaning of the uniform, a gesture that has come to define him in her mind. The very male figure that embodies the uniform is absent, giving way to the body of the artist herself that draws the viewer into her memory of him. Although the work can be read as personal, related to Toma's own family history, it also speaks to a gendered military culture, a masculinity that is dominant in institutional and public spaces.


Claudiu Cobilanschi's film "Bucharest West" is shot in black and white making it falsely look documentary, even though the images depicted are from the present. The landscapes and the artist's interaction with nature truly picture the sites of decay of our time, but at such a distance that they look mythical. The former socialist-era greenhouses have been transformed into eerie forests, abandoned construction sites, emptied roads, mysterious bunkers. The film is chillingly quiet, as if shot on another planet. In this silent nature documentary, Cobilanschi's performances appear as bizarre happenings in these public spaces, which have been depleted of people and infused with wild vegetation. The former heroes of socialism are gone, having been replaced with the strange character of the artist, measuring, feeling, observing what is left. Despite the film's explicit reference to decay, ruination and a certain feeling of death or passing (of institutions, of ideas, of a lifestyle and of a society), the artist does not focus on horror or dread. Rather he plays on the irony, absurdity and fascination with the aggressive sprawling of plants, trees, weeds, bushes, that paradoxically combines references to both death and life.


Back into the thick of urban life, Simion Cernica stealthily captures groups of construction workers having a meal at the end of their labor activities. The angle of his short films played in a loop is always from above, grouping them in almost classical-painting compositions that remind one of the famous canvases of the Italian Renaissance or of Post-Impressionism. The artist hints as much by titling his work "The Last Daily Supper," which may refer to both Leonardo da Vinci's famous "Last Supper" in Milan and the supper between Jesus and the apostles described in the Bible. The work also plays on the idea of ritual, repetition, performance (of the artist acting as a detective or a spy, and of the workers' themselves) - however Cernica does not provide a positive catharsis at the end, rather the suspended, repeating interactions are grounded in the aggressive urban renewal associated with Romania's drive towards free-market capitalism in the 2000s. In this regard Cernica is more of a Realist, engaged in the paradigm shift of the economic framework, wherein the accumulation of capital has created class inequalities and exclusions that are discernible in the shadows of the new architecture of malls, parking-lots and high-rises.


Ivana Mladenovic focuses on the larger-than-life persona of Cristina Pucean, the 2014 winner of the title of "Miss Piranda," a competition for young Roma girls that rewards beauty and oriental dancing skills. Pucean is shown in full costume executing her dance movements that immediately captivate. However, the artist has removed the performer from the stage and placed her in front of a green screen usually used for shooting film scenes. Never directly gazing at the viewer, Pucean appears intently focused solely on her dancing, immersed in the spectacular character that has been already written for her. We learn nothing save for her young age and the title/character that she inhabits, a "manele" dancer. Her own volition, desires, affects remain hidden in front of the camera, instead the film reveals more about the response of the viewer and his/her fantasies and emotions. Pucean's dancing, grandiose persona is striking in the context of present-day Romania, where the "manele" are a strongly disputed musical genre, considered of poor taste by many upper-middle class Romanians. This opinion is coupled with racist feelings against the Roma who account for the majority of the performers. On television and the radio, the music and performers are rarely seen or heard on mainstream stations; instead they are broadcast only on specialised, smaller stations. Some cities in the country have even prohibited playing "manele" in public places and on means of transport.


The artists associated with the POST-Spectacle are also focused on the entertainment industry associated with the culture of capitalism. Their strategy is to infiltrate the institutions and structures where the spectacle of consumption unfolds and subvert them from the inside. For this exhibition, Ion Dumitrescu and Florin Flueras have selected to show documentary footage from a collective action that took place on Romania's national holiday, the 1st of December in 2010 at one of the largest malls in Bucharest, AFI Palace. In the documentary film, members of the fluid collective, who come from different fields such as dance, philosophy, visual arts, music, take the stage adjacent to a skating rink, under Dumitrescu's whimsical moderation, performing different characters : a dancing ensemble, representatives of a human rights organisation, an Orthodox priest, an architectural historian, etc. Enacting an act of piracy of the big spectacle that is at the core of Bucharest malls, the collective hacks into the fibre of highly sensitive topics in Romanian society: the role of religion, violence against women, racism, the recent history of totalitarianism, drawing pointed connections with a far from benevolent capitalism that has replaced socialism.


The exhibition also includes performance-related installations that deftly combine different media, props and engender specific interactions between the visitors and the exhibition space. Upon entering the exhibition the viewer is immediately immersed in a make-shift chapel and prayer/rite corner of sorts. Including an agglomeration of religious paraphernalia carefully arranged between a dramatic red curtain, and an improvised chapel lit in an equally ominous red, the project by the group made up of Stefan Tiron, Paul Dunca and Mihai Lukacs is imagined as a "parish of the excluded." The artists will activate the unconventional parish through a series of performances related to orthodox rites, such as baptism, confession, exorcism, that push the boundaries of religious tolerance and comfort with social groups that in the artists' view represent "the excluded" in our society.


Alexandru Fifea, Cătălin Rulea and David Schwartz present the documentation attached to their performance "You didn't see anything!," an investigation into the mechanisms of police brutality that is based on the case of a young parking attendant that was beaten to death in a Bucharest police precinct. Displaying newspaper articles, ads, photographs, stories published on the internet on a simple office board together with police batons, belts, gloves, handcuffs, pepper spray, a plastic gun and a typical black hat of a policemen, the artists show how this is not an isolated incident, rather it is part of a widespread culture of abuse against certain social categories. International new stories pinned directly on the board and documentary photographs give details about similar cases perpetrated against homeless people, sex workers, ethnic grounds that are coded "criminals" by society. Black-ink sketches add a further dimension to this social critique, by showing middle-class people consuming this culture of violence or ignoring the violence and racism that prevails in Romanian society today. The display reminds of the installation strategies of pioneering groups such as Group Material and Art and Language who in the 1970s and 1980s used didactic tools and educational, informative material in sophisticated projects that dealt with socio-political issues around the culture of inequality, social exclusion, violence, war in the West.


Finally, Irina Gheorghe's installation is set around the Politehnica University research complex. At the centre of the installation the artist has placed a hexagonal symbol derived from an existing one on one of the floors of a main hall at the university. This functions as an activating marker, connecting a series of photographs, performances and texts. The artist invites us into the world of science and technology, revealing its political, ideological role during socialism, as well as introducing a layer of humorous uncertainty about their function today. In two performances, Gheorghe discreetly intervenes in the physical space around Politehnica, adding parts of words to playfully detourn the meanings behind the name of the "Preciziei" subway station that is on the line that leads to the university and the "Energetica" college. The artist herself moves stealthily between various temporal and spatial markers of the Politehnica complex, as a secret agent who reveals discarded information, and works to destabilize stable, objective meanings, instead incorporates and emits multiple meanings.


All in all, the exhibition comprises of different artistic strategies that take a critical position to documentary film and photography, combining personal observations, recollections, confessions, elliptical narratives, together with humor and irony, in order to trace complex portraits of certain social categories and histories occupying a pracarious and fragile position in the current political climate. Excavating the recent past, some of the artist act as urban anthropologists or unconventional scientists of areas around the city, trying to capture characters, institutions and locations that seem destined to be left behind, discarded or swept away by the acceleration of the transition to capitalism. Performance and its documentation play an important role in these investigations, each of them unique, yet preoccupied with related social issues. The artists are at the same time negotiating their own positions between the political, the public and the personal, raising incisive and uncomfortable questions about our contemporary society and the direction in which it is headed.


The exhibition "Heroism Rises in a Warehouse" can be seen at the "Salonul de Proiecte,"Anexa MNAC in Bucharest between March 5th and May 24th 2015. Participating artists: Simion Cernica, Claudiu Cobilanschi, Ion Dumitrescu & Florin Flueraș, Paul Dunca & Ștefan Tiron &Mihai Lukacs, Alexandru Fifea & Cătălin Rulea & David Schwartz, Irina Gheorghe, Ivana Mladenovic, Zamir Suleymanov, Iulia Toma

The selection of the works was done by artists Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor

All photographs © Stefan Sava. All rights reserved

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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