I have been off the bus for approximately ten minutes before I come to the slow acknowledgement that I am definitely on the wrong street. The directions to my hostel contain no street names and my initial sure footed confidence in striding out from the bus stop has slowly turned into the muted realisation that I could very well have been going in the wrong direction since I set foot on this massive central boulevard in Bucharest.
I am here to cover the 6th edition of the Bucharest Biennale, an exhibition that was initiated as more of a festival than a Biennale in 2005 by Pavilion Centre for Contemporary Art and Culture, and since 2006 has been held every two years in the Romanian capital. During the Press Conference the next day, co-founder Răzvan Ion characterises Pavilion and its wider work as “15 years of resistance,” and this socially and politically engaged emphasis is a useful framework with which to approach the exhibition and its surroundings.
Set across four main venues throughout the city, with a host of collateral events in Bucharest and as far afield as Tel Aviv and Zagreb, this iteration of the Biennale is curated by 21 year old Gergő Horváth under the title Apprehension. Understanding Through Fear of Understanding. The main exhibition contains the work of 19 artists from 11 countries, with performances, talks and other events taking place from May 23 until July 24. The exhibition itself is a fascinating mix of works within a unique framework which feels very much tied to the context of its location. The significance of the Biennale’s claim as “the only contemporary art biennial in Central and Eastern Europe” is also clearly important to the organisers.
Obviously to try and review the exhibition in its entirety would go beyond the focus of re:sculpt, however there were several sculptural highlights which stood out amongst the body of works on display which may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.
For me personally the highlight of the whole exhibition was Hungarian artist János Sugár’s work Mute, an installation on view at the Romanian Peasant Museum. Consisting of five muted television screens, the work presents the heavily choreographed political leader’s debates from five different countries, all playing with no sound. Instead, subtitles running along the bottom in the relevant languages play off jokes and stereotypes within the politics of contemporary arts.
“What were the media artist’s last words?”
“Relax, I know what I’m doing.”
As self-reflexive criticism the work feels sharp and effective, addressing the hierarchies of medium, gender, money, position and bureaucracy. Sugár’s inclusion at the Biennale feels significant given the political undertones of much of the exhibition. His dubious honour as the first artist within the EU to be prosecuted in court for their work (in 2008 for Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art) makes Sugár feel like the ideal participant in a Biennale which began with another work, BB+, conceived byCezar Lăzărescu & 1+1 being cancelled due to a contracted car company pulling out of its role due to the work’s perceived criticism of the Romanian government.
Equally pointed is Romanian artist Marilena Preda Sânc’s work, Globe. The small sculpture measuring just 35 x 35 x 35 cm and also on display at the Romanian Peasant Museum consists of a battered globe, distressed, torn apart and riddled with rusty nails. In one place it seems to have split with its contents sticking out like a worn teddy bear losing its stuffing, nestled on a bed of more bent and rusty nails. There is an accompanying video work by the same name (not on display at the Biennale but available on Youtube
which appears to show its creation. The artist’s destructive gestures as she scratches the surface of the globe with a box cutter, sets to it with a small saw and then proceeds to pound nails clumsily into its surface feels like a particularly timely political statement. All of the initial gestures are focussed on the European Continent and somehow echo the mood of many after the recent elections for the European parliament, where an unprecedented number of far-right extremists gained seats amongst widespread dissatisfaction with the political status quo in Europe.
A third and final highlight for me would have to be American/Filipino artist Stephanie Syjuco’s massive installation Free Texts: An Open Source Reading Room, which takes up the top floor at the Institute for Political research at the University of Bucharest. The display is spread across three walls and features posters of varying sizes advertising the URLs of a host of texts which all relate to the open source movement, copyright, digital reproduction and file sharing. At the bottom of each poster tabs with the URLs can be ripped off and taken home, like ‘Help Wanted’ ads on a lamppost. While there is clearly a commentary being made about access to cultural and academic resources, the artist also draws a link in her accompanying text with the struggle for physical and natural resources, and the way large companies are trying to patent genes of plants and animals as well. It raises striking questions about the so-called gate keepers within society and serves as both an attempt to shine a light and a kind of call to arms.
The political emphasis of the works within the framework of the Biennial as a whole makes it an altogether different animal from larger exhibitions in cities like Venice and Berlin. One journalist I spoke with seemed to think this was inevitable given its location and the challenges of holding it in a country like Romania, not just in terms of the difficulties faced by the contemporary arts establishment within the country but also because of the widely imbalanced portrayal of the country propagated outside its borders, especially in the West. Certainly the responses from people I experienced in both Bucharest and back in London supported this idea of the city and the country as a whole facing complex pressures for multiple sides. As a form of engagement with these myriad obstacles, the Biennale certainly feels like a fitting forum to try and address them.
By Will Gresson