Art Guide East

City of Records

The former shine of the »Paris of the East« has disappeared in the bitter charm of its post-Communist capitalistic present. The contemporary art scene is small, however in the past five years a number of interesting spaces and projects for contemporary art have been created. By Raluca Voinea

Romania is one of the most original destinations for Western European travellers and the like. Indeed it is a big country of numerous possibilities and even greater projections. Having been among the most isolated people in the entire former Eastern block, Romanians are today unconditionally embracive of Western values, which are in most cases over-translated there, and only countered by the ultra-orthodox return to so-called »national spirit«, which takes different public manifestations. The Romanian artists Cristi Pogacean and Dan Acostioaei, for example, have both realized short videos in which one can see people in the city making the sign of the cross when passing by a church, a habit still widely spread. The mix of primitive and emancipated behaviours, the relativity of borders separating private from public space, and the disordered urban development are some of the most immediately striking characteristics of Romanian cities.

The capital in particular offers as much as an entire country in unforgettable experiences, although »it is not a city which lets itself be easily unveiled«, as Fernando Klabin, a translator and tourism guide in Bucharest puts it: »The speedy visitor who is discouraged by the dust, the chaotic traffic and the confused effervescence of people, who seems to want to compensate all at once for the 42 years of Communism through a too intense consumerism, will miss the opportunity of knowing a city full of charm, which gathers in one place influences as diverse as the Byzantine and French.« Indeed, the city appears to be first a puzzle, albeit one which doesn’t need solving, for there isn’t a complete image that each fragment should fit into, but everything is developed according to an inner logic, and diverse strata coexist. A city of contrasts, intense aggression and inestimable charisma define Bucharest and make most people not like it, but eventually fascinates them, and they end up loving it.

Vasile Ernu, the author of the Romanian bestseller Born in the USSR and a recent Bucharest inhabitant, (he declares it his 7th cityhome), explains this eclecticism: »A city with an oriental savour, in a geographical area under European influence, over which came waves of Turks, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Hungarians, and, not just recently, Gypsies. Among all of them, there were also many Romanians. This mix and these cultural and identity gaps are noticeable everywhere, in the architecture, in everything that moves in the city. Even people, without necessarily having the memory of this history, carry its direct fingerprint.«

Sometimes one can get the feeling that Bucharest’s residents are so fond of the city that they live in that they take all their time to admire every inch of it, judging by the time they spend in traffic. According to police statistics, horse-driven carriages at the beginning of the 20th century in Bucharest moved faster than cars there do today. However, traffic is only one of numerous records that seem to take Bucharest out of its oriental haven and situate it directly on the map of paradoxical metropolises, found in constant competition for something »big«. We not only have the biggest parliament building in Europe and the biggest diversity of European architectural styles in our city, the mayor put Bucharest in the Book of Records with the biggest cake ever baked, the city is proud of its »biggest« Christmas tree and the nouveau riche’s cars grow bigger with each passing year. One could continue this enumeration with peculiarities from the art field, such as the biggest museum in the country, the MNAC, the National Museum for Contemporary Art, in the biggest building in town, Ceausescu’s most famous architectural accomplishment. There are the three international biennials for contemporary art, all happening in the same year: Periferick in Iasi, the Bucharest Biennale and the Biennial of Young Artists, also in Bucharest. This all does not mean that our art scene is ready for the cabinet of curiosities. There are certain anomalies that were determined by the long time needed to unlearn dependency on the state, by some missed opportunities and unfavourable political conjunctures, as well as by the exacerbated egos of most actors active on this stage. 

Since then however, the increasing number of opportunities which have arisen, and the »professionalisation« of the generation who has »die Gnade der späten Geburt« (the mercy of late birth), those who are said to be old enough to understand the chronic mistrust acquired during the Ceausescu epoch, but also young enough to have almost completely escaped its contamination, determined the development of a much more flexible and nuanced situation today. 

For artists it is essential that, in the last five years, the platforms in Bucharest that exhibit and promote contemporary art are multiplying and diversifying, for there was a long period in which the only alternative they had was to join the obsolete and almost bankrupt National Artists Union, the centralized structure which, once upon a time, provided artists with everything from social status to studios, teaching positions to travels abroad. The alternative was to use their creativity in the service of the advertising industry, the booming business of the late ’90s, alongside real estate and plastic thermo-framing for windows. 

Today the spectrum of opportunities available is much broader. For example, artists can participate in the decoration of the metro stations with the project I love Bucharest, an initiative dedicated to community art and urban intervention. They can design the trendy coffee shops or stores in the capital in the newly refurbished streets of the historic centre Lipscani. They can have their works sold by commercial galleries such as Andreiana Mihail, a gallery which the eponymous owner tries to keep »consistent with the dynamic and intensity of the city«, bringing together some of the most successful artists of the young generation while at the same time confronting the international standards of the art scene. The artists can also »feed on the capital of cool«, as the Romanian curator Stefan Tiron would say, by attending the parties on the terrace of MNAC, overlooking a wasteland where the biggest (!) Orthodox cathedral in the country may one day be erected. 

The fact that structures which functioned, until now, informally have become institutionalized, enjoying a large public visibility, proves that people have actually learned more than sheer survival techniques. Lia Perjovschi’s Contemporary Art Archive, which has functioned for years in her studio, is now partially moving into a new centre for contemporary art, the Pavilion Unicredit, which is initiated by the creators and organizers of the Bucharest Biennale, Razvan Ion and Eugen Radescu. Located in the former offices of a bank, which is also the supporter of this ambitious project, the new space promises to be a white cube for exhibitions and a resource centre. 

However, beyond these examples (and keeping in mind that there are not many others), Bucharest remains a city of hopes and dreams, where the most rewarding experience is walking at a slow pace through the fast-changing urban maze, preferably accompanied by a local guide who can tell you all the intrigues and histories of the past 20 or 200 years, depending on which route you decide to take.

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