Distances, Stopovers and Land (Only Twenty-five Days in Romania)

Textos / Text
58 Plantelor Residency / Bucharest
8/2018

A trip should always be an opportunity for discovery. This one began with the summer heat and the slowed-down rhythm of a city on holiday. Upon arriving, I thought about what it means to accumulate distances. My own distance, coming from Spain but with a biography of kilometres going back to South America, and also time distances. The perception of time in the stories someone traced, in the memory of mankind and of the Earth.

In the middle of the patio at 58 Plantelor there is a fig tree and a dog, the neighbour’s, who lays in the sun. I look at the clothes hanging out to dry by the windows. Without understanding, I listen to the conversation between a married couple that comes out of the wooden galleries, the sound of a radio someone left on a table. The building was originally a travellers’ inn during the second half of the 19th century. The nearby streets are almost empty, there is not much traffic, only a few people walk around, while others seat at the tables in the gardens that have been turned into cafés. I cross the city by bike to go downtown. Getting around is easy. Since there are few cars, I can take my own shortcuts driving on the wrong side of the road.

I visit several museums. Two of them fascinate me. I walk into the National History Museum. Behind the classical façade and a large hall that looks like a mixture of a ministry and a train station (though it was originally the Postal Services Palace), there is a pavilion. Built in the late 60s, it holds the collection of classical and medieval stone sculpture, as well as the national treasure. But, above all, it holds the different pieces of Trajan’s column in a 1:1-scale reproduction. Of its more than 30 meters of height, only the base is assembled. Around it, displayed as a labyrinthine frieze, are scenes of the Romans’ victory over the Dacians, which we could never see so closely in the original. The Romanian government commissioned the reproduction to a group of artisans from the Vatican in 1934, but it did not reach Bucharest until 1967. It was installed in what at the time was the History Museum of the Romanian Communist Party, until in 1972 when it was moved to its current location. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland after drinking the growth potion.

Another visit takes me to the Geology Museum. It was renovated in the 80s and, since then, only a few papier-mâché dinosaur sculptures have been added, in an attempt to go along with the new Jurassic trends, I suppose. The geodesic glass domes, the orange curtains, the lighting, which sometimes flickers in the neoclassical and neobyzantine rooms. The set-up captures my attention. The plant drawings, the illustrations of Earth layers connected to rock samples by wool threads, the diagrams about fossilisation… they are all fascinating. In this glossary of minerals and fossils, something stands out: the explanation of the difference between relative chronology –with the drawing of a calendar, in whose first page we can discern the silhouette of a mammoth– and absolute chronology –where a large chronometer, almost like a Dalí clock, lights up the stairway, with a jellyfish in its lower section and a man in suit and tie in its upper part.

I skip through time and distance. Crossing the north of the country by train, I have arrived in Iasi, the northern capital that is closest to Moldavia; that is to say, one of the eastern borders of the European Union. In the city centre lies the Palace of Culture, a neogothic building –the same style that Disney copied for its princesses– which went from being a courthouse to concentrating four of the city’s historical collections. Iasi is hotter than Bucharest. Not many people are visiting the museums. But several groups of brides and grooms wait in line with their guests to take pictures in the building. Right next to it, a large shopping mall has been built, with a glass ceiling, air conditioner, outdoor restaurants with music, and franchises of international brands.

On the same street as the National History Museum, in the centre of Bucharest, is the building where dictator Ceausescu gave his last speech before the 1989 revolution. I have gone by it several times these days. Calea Victoriei is one of the few avenues with a bike line. My memory is confused. I saw the recordings of Ceausescu’s harangue in the 1992 work Videograms of a Revolution, by Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica. I thought it had taken place at the People’s House. Both are neoclassical buildings with balconies between columns. But the People’s House was not finished in 1989. By the time democracy came, they contemplated demolishing it, but eventually its pharaonic 315,000 square metres became the headquarters of the legislative and judicial powers and the Chamber of Deputies, guarded by the Romanian Intelligence Service. In 2004, the new National Museum of Contemporary Art was inaugurated in a glass annexe, precisely in the space where the overthrown dictator’s private area was located. Almost in front of the building, the new Orthodox cathedral is being built, with the same spectacular sense of scale.

Two of the temporary exhibitions in its programme have captured my attention. On the first floor, a study of the monumental photographic reenactment of the ensemble Brancusi designed in Târgu Jiu, in 1936, produced by Dan Er. Grigorescu for the 1982 Venice Biennale. Brancusi’s ensemble was conceived as a memorial of the battle against the Germans during World War I. Visiting the show has been my way of approaching The Gate of Kiss, The Table of Silence and the Endless Column these days.

Two floors up, Closed Doors, Open Envelopes. Iosif Király – Early Works, 1975 – 2000 shows a parallel reality, the experimentation carried out by the artist across three fields: the action, with no specific audience, on the streets of Timisoara and its surrounding nature, the experimentation in his study, and the international relationship with other artists through mail art.

The dog days of summer, the succession of historical milestones, their reappropriation to build nationalist identities, and their images, make me think that my stay in Romania could be understood as a continuous crossing of heterotopias, those “other places” that Foucault showed us, where potential utopia can be found.

What if trying to approach an art scene was like crossing an heterotopia? The summer facilitates unhurried encounters, something unusual nowadays. The lines that I manage to trace after my conversations with artists in Bucharest and Iasi connect me to narratives that I have also found in other parts of the world, narratives of resistance in one’s own body and of infiltration through practices from everyday life; narratives that re-examine power structures –be they physical or temporal, such as those associated with monumental and/or modernist architecture and its idea of progress, which we already know to have failed– and that question the socioeconomic realities articulated by these structures, as well as the people who inhabit them.

A photograph, a film, a video, a digital simulation. The registration of an object, or an instant, or an action. They discover projections of possibilities for me. All of them, despite their temporary nature, are images that create a memory, sometimes of something as old as a rock or a tree, of events that could have happened but did not, and also of things that might be yet to come. The production of images from the art field manages to project a reflection on this social body, from what has been imagined. It produces a connection through fiction and establishes a dialogue with what is immanent –in nature or in the spiritual realm, understood in its most human and broadest sense.

That potentiality inherent to art clashes with what still seems utopian: the existence of a consistent sociocultural fabric that supports its development, beyond the determination of artists and cultural agents. A balance of distances, layovers and land.

Thank you all (in alphabetical order):
Dragos Badita, Vlad Brăteanu, Matei Bejenaru, Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan, Roberta Curca, Stoyan Dechev, Adriana Gheorghe, Ion Grigorescu, Nona Inescu, Adelina Ivan, Aurora Kiraly, Iosif Kiraly, Olivia Mihaltianu, Vlad Nanca, Mircea Nicolae, Alexandru Niculescu, Daniela Palimariu, Anca Poterasu, familia Poterasu, Magda Radu, Cristina Stoenescu, Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, Kristin Wenzel, and Radu Lesevschi.