The Bucharest Biennale: Somewhere Between Here and There
Romania is a country where religiosity is among the highest in the world along with Uganda and Iran, with 92% of the population considering itself religious. Here the government financially supports all church activity in order to promote national identity and moral values, resulting in a strongly rightist political rhetoric and public, with extremely conservative views. Therefore it is a welcome surprise that the most internationally visible art event in Romania is the Bucharest Biennale. The biennale is a platform that advances a left-of-center discourse, and is managed by the team that also manages the contemporary art center in downtown Bucharest, Pavilion Unicredit, as well as the internationally distributed magazine, Pavilion.
Pavilion Unicredit is named after the Italian bank Unicredit in which Libya’s Gaddafi owns a 7.6% share. This makes him the largest shareholder in the bank and allows him a representative seat on the board of directors. Pavilion Unicredit is sponsored by the bank with a free exhibition space and 40% of its annual operational budget. However, according to Andrei Craciun, the Coordinator of the center, besides having its name on the art center, the bank does not interfere in programming, thus allowing the management team to freely explore critical positions and experiment.
The Bucharest Biennale has managed in its 4 editions since 2004 to attract international attention to a burgeoning art scene and, through collaborations with foreign cultural offices in the capital, to bring international artists to Romania. Without local sources of support for participating Romanian artists, who have for the most part been left to produce the works by themselves, frictions and controversy about the way the biennale is managed have arisen within the Romanian art community, but in a country whose civil society is still in formation, the biennale is a testament to the ability of “producing possibilities”, which was also the theme of last year’s event.
Despite a lack of good exhibitions spaces for the biennale, in 2010 it took place in various places throughout the city, including the dormant and conservative Geological Museum where one of the pieces was censured, and the Institute of Political Research. A few other traditional art venues were also used for exhibitions. The large majority of participants were foreign artists, raising questions about the role of the Biennale in the country’s capital and its relevance for the Romanian art scene.
However, along with the production of the biennale itself, the management team is committed to creating a public for contemporary art in Romania, which is presently almost non-existent. Through its educational activities, media blitzes and knack for superlatives (press releases read “the most important”, “the youngest curator in the history of biennales”, “the largest…”), the biennale has impressed international curators and arts professionals enough to visit the country. More importantly, however, according to Craciun the biennale has started to create a more aware local public who is slowly developing an interest in contemporary aesthetics and critical statements, and with each event the Romanian audience grows. Through continued outreach, the biennale team hopes to create collectors and sponsors of local contemporary art and thus strengthen and stabilize the sector.
To highlight Unicredit Pavilion’s growing importance, Art-In-General chose the center as its third collaborating Eastern European partner for the Eastern European Residency Exchange Program funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding and The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. The artist recommended by Unicredit Pavilion was Ioana Nemes, considered one of the most important Romanian artists of her generation. After opening an impressive exhibition at Art In General, called Times Colliding, Nemes suddenly died of a cardiac arrest on April 23. Without money to bring her back to Romania, a collection has been set up by friends and colleagues. According to Dan Perjovschi, a prominent Romanian artist, this tragic event seems to represent the entire Romanian reality. “Behind this appearance of possibility, the underlying truth of the Romanian art scene is this: young artists don’t have a pension, don’t have health insurance, don’t have almost any sources of support; they live from one day to another.”