Daniel Kozak June 7, 2019

Belu-Simion Făinaru
Dan Mihălțianu
Miklós Onucsán
Comissioner: Attila Kim
Curator: Cristian Nae
Assistant curator: Mădălina Brașoveanu

The Romanian Participation at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, May 11th – November 24th 2019

The exhibition, installed in two complementary venues, presents contemporary versions of significant art projects realised by three uncompromising artists whose singular artistic trajectories, spanning more than forty years, expand the geography of contemporary art constructed according to national categories. Including the Romanian diaspora, it reveals the cultural mobility of these artworks across both space and time, rejecting the understanding of the artistic object as a fixed art historical entity. Central to the exhibition as a critical form is the ability to provide a space of encounter for post-conceptual artworks whose political potentiality derives from the interplay between their imaginary and material configurations.

The Romanian Pavilion displays reconfigured art installations, dating from the 1980s and 1990s, which were often subjected to material or conceptual transformations in their own exhibition histories. On display in Venice, they either acquire a different meaning or change their formal structure, and thus, become new and topical art pieces. This time, these counter-monumental art installations are adapted to the scale and shape of the Romanian Pavilion and extended in the space of the New Gallery of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Venice. Reconsidering the history and the significance of these sites, the artworks are critically recalibrated as a poetic response to neoliberalism, nationalism and populism. They mobilise an aesthetic of the sublime against the abuse of symbols of power in contemporary visual culture, and prompt the viewer to reconsider the familiar notion of ”imagined communities”.

Each art project suspends, displaces or disperses the notion of locality. The selected pieces also disrupt the conceptual couple visual representation/national representativeness, by revealing multiple absences fissuring its core. Exhibited together, they raise another vital question: to what extent can the excavation of recent art historical past provide a response to the current troubled times, understanding the present as a coexistence of temporalities?

Belu-Simion Făinaru (b. 1959) has a conceptual artistic approach that revolves around themes of absence, loss and the need to rebuild links in communities. The experiences of exile and that of cultural displacement, as well as the shock of separation and adaptation to a new place play an important part in the biography of the artist, who was born in Bucharest, where he lived during the early years of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, emigrated to Israel in 1973, and afterwards studied art in the USA. The fact of being at a crossroads, at the frontier of two separate identities, makes him seek out to explore the commonality, the familiar. Working with art installations which include video art, photography and objects, the artist often uses familiar, discrete items and imagery that are re-contextualised and transformed to create uncanny associations. His series of artworks create long-term connected projects which relate to his Israeli-Romanian roots and the nowadays pressing socio-political issues of conflict and migration.

For the Romanian Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Făinaru proposes an installation entitled Belongs Nowhere and to Another Time. Drawing upon elements of Jewish culture, it appears as a memorial for a living and personally experienced cultural memory which takes the form of an uninhabited domestic interior. Located at the entrance of the Pavilion, it situates the visitor in the in-between space of a non-specific and transnational culture, problematising displacement, migration and nomadism. The participative monument dedicated to nothingness, installed on the building’s façade, pierces the architectural configuration of the site, which thus symbolically resembles a wounded body. The entire installation introduces an imprecise temporal dimension which combines the scale of individual experience with the one of collective history, both dialectically compared to the idea of cosmic temporality.

In the space of the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice, Belu-Simion Făinaru extends the installation Belongs Nowhere and to Another Time, articulating collective memories for a possible common future in the form of a pseudo-anthropological archival research. This part of the installation contains an interactive art piece produced in collaboration with computer science specialists that raises the question of digital memory, setting up a distant dialogue with its counterpart installed in the Romanian Pavilion. The resulting pseudo-domestic environment combines again metaphysical and spiritual references with commonplace objects to create a disturbing sense of shifting temporalities which ultimately evinces a politics of perpetual exile.

Dan Mihălțianu (b. 1954) exercises an artistic discourse that includes historical, political, social and trans-cultural aspects, using a variety of media and representational forms, from photography, film, video, sound, to installation, object, drawing, graphics and text. Canal Grande: The Capital Pool and the Associated Public conceived by Dan Mihălțianu for the Romanian participation at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, is based on his Canal Grande series of art installations. Conceived in the 1980s in the shape of reflecting pools, Canal Grande series initially referred to the Danube-Black Sea Canal, a construction site initiated by the Communist regime in 1949 as a forced labour camp for political detainees, and inaugurated in 1984-1986 as the “Apotheosis of Socialism in Romania”. According to the artist, ”it is an encrypted title meant to avoid the censorship of the time, ironically combining the ‘Death Canal’ (Danube-Black Sea Canal) and Canal Grande as symbols for ‘pain’ and ‘pleasure’ (leisure)”. The work was later installed in different exhibition contexts as a critical instrument meant to contextualise local social transformations, or to propose alternative economies revolving around the notion of liquidity.

The version on display in Venice consists in multiple elements installed in the two spaces, interconnected by the website www.capitalpool.net. The Capital Pool is centrally located in the Romanian Pavilion in Giardini. It functions as a wishing well, inviting the visitors to throw coins in its water as a widespread cultural ritual. Functioning as a concrete social and economic process, the installation establishes an autonomous art fund and invites the visitors to self-organise and to decide on the utilisation of the capital raised during the exhibition for social or humanitarian initiatives. This way, the public is engaged in the continuous remodelling of the artwork. The free association of the public into an open micro-community, Associated Public, proposes an aesthetic and political formula for exercising direct democracy through artistic practice during and after the exhibition.

At the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice, Dan Mihălțianu sets up a temporary treasure room, an ”art capital crypt”, which displays the transferred capital raised by the pool installed in the Romanian Pavilion in Giardini della Biennale, and records the process of its accumulation. The art installation metonymically replicates on the scale of artistic experience the myriad of capital flows that globally shape our current socio-political condition.

A series of performative events realised by Dan Mihălțianu entitled Discapital are scheduled during the biennale at the New Gallery. The public is invited to chew dollar-bills and spit the pulp into a glass container. The resulting blend will be distilled and bottled in front of the public, exemplifying the transformation of material wealth into artistic value through collective participation.

Miklós Onucsán (b. 1952) works in a rigorous (post-)conceptual vein, combining a broad spectrum of media, such as installation, text, object, photography, video and process art, interventions, actions, found objects and situations. His works aim for an apparent exhaustive systematisation of the world’s phenomenal reality into ideas and structures of thought uncovering processes and possibilities that usually remain unobserved or unexplored. But, paradoxically, they materialise in concrete forms that are lacking in emphasis, often employing modest materials and a self-assumed stance of the artist-as-observer. He allows for the phenomena and materials he comes into contact with to follow their own dynamic and rules-of-becoming, interfering minimally in their course. While the initial impulses of his works are often subjective and self-referential, they open instead to multiple interpretations, surpassing their initial context of production by reclaiming a potentially universal language.

His artwork produced for this exhibition, entitled The Restoration of the White Camouflage, operates at the threshold of the visible. It consists, at first glance, in a print which reproduces a previously produced art piece, The White Camouflage (1998-2007); the print is installed on a construction scaffold which surrounds the interior space of the Pavilion and cancels its white-cube appearance, staging the idea that The White Camouflage fills the walls of the Pavilion, but, since it undergoes renovation, it cannot be viewed. In its current version, the art installation proposes an invitation to mentally reconstruct an absent artwork, itself a deconstruction of the notion of presence, that temporarily suspends the functionality of the exhibition space, situating it in a conceptual non-place; thus, it reveals the inextricable relation between the image and the site it is presented in and, on a different level, it becomes an ironic reflection on the symbolic pressure that any image undergoes in the context of the National Pavilion, as well as on the capacity of artistic practice to generate strategies of art historical self-historicising and self-mythologising.

Referencing the more familiar artistic formats of conceptual art instruction pieces and self-made booklets, Miklós Onucsán’s Camouflaging Guide, exhibited at the New Gallery of the Romanian Institute for Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice, displays a collection of sketches for improbable art installations. Combining drawing, photography and text, they present a systematic analysis of potentialities to disturb the representational order inherent in the visual construction of La Biennale di Venezia, and to dissolve the implicit power relations associated to its structuring according to National Pavilions. The artwork raises a simple, but disquieting question: what if these signifiers would temporarily be displaced, transformed or simply disappear?