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February 26, 2021

The political vocation of contemporary art

The achievements of a capitalist society can be measured, among other means, by the art object we may find in the homes of rich people. And we do not mean the kitsch you may find in Gigi Becali’s palaces, nor the heterogeneous collection gained by Adrian Nastase as artistic “prey” after “hunting” all over the world’s antique shops. We mean the rich people who combine their own tastes with the advice of a competent gallery manager. They thus invest, somehow, “with a method” and are complementary to state-managed art museums, for whom culture is not a priority.
Obviously, we frequently notice that it’s sheer snobbish vanity and not a sense of public responsibility but, until we have our own Musee d’Orsay, we may start by having our small local versions of the Guggenheim collections.

Let’s consider Cluj, a city included by a book published by the prestigious Phaidon Press among `the 12 global cities to watch for exciting contemporary art`, a statement that was also promoted by a review that appeared in the New York Times. An unconventional space of art galleries and performance venues, `the Paintbrush Factory`, created in the previous location of a disabled Communist factory, focuses on avant-garde and a connection to international post-modernism, with a special taste for conceptualism and aesthetic deconstruction, and has already gained international notoriety due to a few young visual artists from Cluj who gained worldwide acclaim, granting huge attention to a local experiment, so that local people instantly created a pretentious (and vain) self-title: “The School of Cluj”. Even the Tate Modern Gallery sent a few scouts to test Romanian contemporary art and, on this occasion, the city recently organized Cluj Art Weekend, a premiere due to the massive exhibition network. The most spectacular event was a united exhibition of three collections owned by private persons in Cluj, inside a recently finished office building was not yet decorated and equipped to serve corporate interests. Similarly to the graces of the fallow hotel located in the centre of the city, who also turned into a (slightly more experimental and improvised) temporary art gallery last month, this artistic functionality provided on special occasions shows the limits of Romanian capitalism, which is yet unable to create permanent spaces according to a more refined aesthetics. A city is able to place itself on the world’s cultural travelling map only if it affords a MuseumsQuartier like the one in Vienna.
Besides, it would be interesting to examine on a political level the works by artists representing “The School of Cluj”. After being exhibited, among other locations, at Jardin de Tuileries, somehow shadowed, we might say, by the Eiffel Tower, the draft reproduction of a traditional wooden house created by Mircea Cantor was finally exhibited in the front of a modern office building of concrete and glass. Actually, it is a frequently mentioned political and cultural tradition, but actually, it is unable to reach past the stag of an eccentric failure, left behind as a pretentious improvisation, as a project that is ambiguous, inadequate and nostalgic at the same time. Although equipped with a porch, the interior of the house is so closed that it suggests outright cloistering, something between a refuge and a prison. The roof is taller than the actual house and us reduced to its edges an contour, which is a sign of extreme vulnerability, but also of losing contact with present urban structures, which seek harmony in multiple vertical arrangements. Another ironical geo-political perspective is offered to us by the same Mircea Cantor: “Europe supported by Africa and Asia”, a work consisting of three female nudes of the respective races, in positions that remind us especially of a “Pieta” (the compassion for Jesus deceased after the crucifixion, editor’s note), and less of the Three Graces, as they were imagined by William Blake – the officially mentioned source of iconographic inspiration, that nonetheless featured America, not Asia. Europe is obviously under a crisis and lacking vitality – an already cliché approach which is also completely unconvincing – but is fully benefiting of the infusion of immigrants, part of them coming from its former colonies.  Is this work talking about a change of direction in history, about a movement of the power centres? Or is it actually a subtler neo-colonialism?
Artist Cristi Pogacean brings even more explicit political allusions. His wall carpet “The Abduction from the Seraglio”, that hints to a very popular Romanian home decoration which has established itself as an icon of kitsch, as it may be found in many rural and even urban homes, represents a contemporary version of the old story, by reproducing an image of Romanian journalists kept hostages in Iraq, guarded by armed men wearing cagoules. The escape of the odalisque from the ancient Ottoman palace is replaced here by a different kind of liberation: freedom from the chains of a new Islamic reality, where slavery has lost its picturesque allure. In the same style of ironic pop art, we must mention the work “Breaking Heart”, depicting a medallion that seems to reunite two hearts stuck together and yet distinguished, representing small maps of Romania and the Republic of Moldova. It is a single medallion for two necks / persons / countries.
Another artist, Adrian Ghenie is inspired though by Neo-Expressionism. His work “Basement Feeling” depicts two neighbouring armchairs placed near a dark, warped wall. It is an extremely gloomy atmosphere. It seems a place of “passing”, perhaps a hotel, exposed to any existential side-slip, but also an empty dialogue, a neurotic closeness, a subliminal absence in the crepuscular shades of time that played abstract games with the wall. It may also be a frame in a Romanian political thriller, where dialogue was interrupted and the destiny of the characters is buried in mystery.
As shown in his personal exhibition at the Art Museum of Cluj – a sequel to a previous project, Ciprian Muresan is challenging at another level: his works are exhibited, but cannot be seen because they are covered by plaques, which on their turn are covered by patrimonial sculptures (copies of them, this time). We are talking about sculptures of other times, baroque or proletkult works, as a concentrated history of art which inhibits a fresh aesthetic perspective. How much art can we witness before going blind? But, most of all, why do we think that our eyes have an undisputable right to look at artt? Shouldn’t this be a right that would be achievable as the result of an effort?
Similarly to the other rights democracy is so proud of – it is a combination of a gift granted to us by others and of personal merit. Yet, the gift itself represents an effort from behalf of the giver. Unfortunately, we are prone to forget this dialectics of rights too easily.

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