Postcard from Timisoara: An Inside Look At Romania’s Charmingly Unconventional Biennial

Pre-communism, post-independence, Romania gave us the patriarch of modernist sculpture. Those glory days might be over, but there's more to Romanian art than Brancusi.

Lea Rasovsky, “SOFT WAR (Bubble Gun of Sweet Surrender)”

Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane (and then a bus) to Hungary, and on to Timisoara. The third largest Romanian city, Timosoara is a melting pot of cultures, thanks to its close proximity to Hungary and Serbia. It’s also the European Capital of Culture 2021 (Bucharest missed the mark). The identity of this city is founded on its history, and it was the starting point of the revolution that would overthrow authoritarian communist leader Ceausescu’s regime.  But I’m not here to talk politics; I’m here for the art.

Art Encounters is no ordinary biennial. Everything about its odd conception is charming. The event has been made possible by real-estate mogul, Ovidiu Sandor, who’s also one of only a handful of art collectors in all of Romania. (He’s also an absolute delight). Timisoara’s eccentric mayor — who makes his own music and proposed birth control as a solution to the city’s crow problem — personally contributed a palm leaf to David Maljkovic’s work, because he loves palm trees. It may not be conventional, but what great events are?

Curator Ami Barak in front of Francis Alys’ “15+1” (2009)

Art Encounters is a huge deal for Timisoara, and for Romania. Post-communism, they were left to build the art industry back up from nothing. In an effort by the communist regime to “to eliminate and erase all traces of the previous configuration”, art institutions and legacies were eradicated, artists were killed and art was censored. “Romania had the harshest regime”, curator Diana Marincu insists, asserting the brilliance of the 1.1.1. artists, who made it against all odds. Art Encounters decision to painstakingly reconstruct the 1968 show that catalysed their international acclaim seems appropriate, but it’s Hungarian Fluxus artist Endre Tot’s works that make more of an impact. On the floor below, these “gladness” works embody a distinct moment in Eastern European history and a public resistance to political oppression,which lends itself well to the historicising context of the Muzeul de Arta. In one image Tót’s picket sign reads, “I’M GLAD IF I CAN HOLD THIS IN MY HAND”. In another, a banner — “WE ARE GLAD IF WE CAN DEMONSTRATE.” 

Post-communist caution continues to shape a contemporary Romania. “Romanians are cautious about being nationalistic,” founder Ovidiu Sandor tells me. That being said, these people are proud of their homegrown talent, and rightly so. The Art Encounters program is largely Romanian-centric, with over 60 Romanian artists are featured. There’s an affinity between Michel Blazy and Brancusi — with Blazy’s white foam emerging from wheelie bins seen as a contemporary re-envisionment of the “Endless Column”. Even works that aren’t explicitly linked to Romania find new meaning in this context. Next to Ahmes Ogut’s swinging door riot shields one finds Zbigniew Libera’s concentration camps made from Lego, each a reminder of turbulent political unrest. Francis Alÿs’ installation “15+1”, conceived for display in Hotel Datji, an Albanian landmark of Fascism, becomes all the more pertinent in its Romanian, post-communist setting. 

Michel Blazy, “Fontaine de mousse” (2007) installation view

Despite the obvious triumph of pulling together an event like this in Timisoara, there’s still an overriding sense of longing for Western Europe’s validation. Talks from the Tate’s Gregor Muir and about Romanian integration into the Venice Biennale speak to a sense of “official” acceptance in the art world. This truth is unfortunate, but paradoxically affirms the whole reason of Art Encounters’ existence: getting Romania on an art map that has heretofore excluded the former Eastern Bloc.

This year’s event is a firm step in the right direction, and, as they say, you live and you learn. Where Art Encounters faced organisational problems (there were apparent hiccups with venues and lighting prior to the event), they’ll certainly be pre-empted for 2019. And who’s to say how Art Encounters will develop by 2021, when it coincides with Timisoara’s Cultural Capital status? I for one hope Art Encounters succeeds in its hope of putting Romania on the art world’s radar.

Art Encounters runs until 5 November. Find out more here.

Dan Beudean & George Cringasu, untitled

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