The development of the collaborative project of Irina Botea and WeAreTheArtists, the process of getting the show together, was as much a part of the exhibition as were the videos playing in the Kunsthalle space by the Chicago-based Romanian artist, Israeli duo Ruti Sela and Mayaan Amir, and Turkish artist Ferhat Özgür. This process, containing emails between curator Oliver Kielmayer and Irina Botea as they were brainstorming the show together, and later, emails with the other participants, were published in the WeAreTheArtists newspaper that came out in conjunction with the show.
WeAreTheArtists is a network of artists, curators, and other creatives that most of the time appears in print form, and other times in various collaborations. Here, for this show, WeAreTheArtists became an exhibitor, the fourth participating artist, with a new picture story, Natural Born Curators , along with the previously mentioned newspaper, but also with a self-portrait installation called This Is Me, for which members of the network were asked to submit a photograph that represents them the most.
Teresa Chen’s photograph, featuring her Chinese-American family at Christmastime posing behind a turkey, smiling uncertainly towards a self-timed camera impressed me. So much was captured on her family members’ faces by that unexpected click – Teresa herself looks determined and a bit sad, while her mother looks hopeful and proud. The immigrant story of trying to assimilate, but with an even more complicated fate – Teresa herself is now Swiss.
The videos in the exhibition were all excellent. Out of the five videos by Irina Botea, Ladybug was truly exceptional. It seems to have been an unplanned recording in Bucharest of a group of Roma kids who start singing and dancing for the camera while Irina compliments their talents. Ladybug is a little eight- or nine-year old girl who is the central dancer, around whom the rest of the group clap and sing to encourage her suggestive and highly sexualized movements. This seemingly-improvised recording speaks volumes of the situation of the Romanian Roma population. Their Indian roots are still present in many of their traditions, and in none more so than in their dancing and singing. These traditions have undergone many transformations with the moving of the tribes throughout Northern Africa and Southern Europe over the centuries. But the Romanian Romas have been highly influenced by the Ottoman traditions since a large part of the population comes from Turkey, and Romania itself was under Ottoman rule for many centuries. Therefore, we can see in their dancing what we associate with Oriental movements, belly dancing and hip-shaking. And this is what Ladybug shows us – these Oriental moves set to music that also has an Oriental rhythm.
But the lyrics of the song are in Romanian, and sound so disturbing coming out of the mouth of little kids. The song speaks of a man that gets drunk to forget his sorrow and pain over a cheating wife. And yet the impact of this movie is not only that it is somewhat disturbing and yet endearing, but it is so precisely because it reveals the cultural conflict between “us” and “them”. And this is ultimately the fate of Romas in European countries. Having maintained many of their traditions (like nomadism, marriage at a young age, tribal allegiances) that for many European people seem to not be compatible with European way of life, the Romas are often treated as second class citizens and become the scapegoats for social problems. As a result they have also remained in dire poverty.
But after the spell of the dancing ends, Ladybug and her friends turn back into normal, innocent kids with kid interests and preoccupations. They thank Irina politely for having recorded them and leave to play in the backyard, signaling an entirely different and much more complex reality than the assumed identity we ignorantly so often place on them.
The video by the Israeli duo Sela and Amir is extremely poignant, riveting even. Set in a hotel room where the girls interact with a series of men who answered their sexual encounter newspaper ad, the film reveals an incredibly nuanced glimpse into the Israeli political situation. The men are asked to take off their clothes while a conversation ensues between the girls behind the camera and the men who answer candidly, in the nude. Initially, they are all interested in one thing: they come thinking that there would be a sexual encounter. But somehow the two women manage to navigate their expectations and get them to talk on camera about extremely personal experiences in the army.
One example is the guy with the scar who was told by Sela and Amir that he looked like a sex-kitten as he lay on the bed, nude, discussing how he may or may not have killed an Arab who attacked him and cut him with a knife. After a series of questions and his answers, it becomes clear that he isn’t so interested in the sexual encounter anymore, but instead has been transported back to a disturbing episode in his life that haunts him still.
Then there was the weird incident with one man who entered the door with an erection, and immediately proceeded to take off his clothes. He spoke about his sexual exploits and his ambition to become a porn star. He also revealed how he served time in prison for stealing money from Arabs while in the army. Behind-the-scenes we find out that this character became quite aggressive as other appointments continued to show up.
Through their stories, after having been stripped down and rendered vulnerable in front of a camera, we understand a bit better the complexities associated with life in this country – people trying to hang on to normal lives yet at almost every turn being eclipsed by a harsh reality, that never offers a clear idea of right and wrong.
And as an interesting juxtaposition, the Turkish Ferhat Özgür records his mother and a friend exchanging clothes. One wears a traditional babushka headscarf and many layers of clothes, while the other a modern outfit with a sweater and black pants. As they exchange the clothes in front of the camera, issues of shame, modesty, and of course identity and religion are explored in a subtle and indirect way.
The idea of the project was initially to exhibit other video artists who deal with the same issues as Irina, but ultimately it turned out, with or without their intention, into a much more layered and subtle exploration of identity, politics, and social status in different countries and among different peoples.