Freedom in the Gray Zone – Film and Photography in pre-’89 Romania

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Freedom in the Gray Zone
by Olga Stefan
Appeared in the September 2015 issue of Art in America in a shortened and slightly edited version, which you can download from the link above.

“Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”

—Susan Sontag

freedom in the gray zone aia

It’s possible to come away from many art fairs and international biennials with the impression that Romanian contemporary art is defined largely by the work of painters from the city of Cluj, who found critical and commercial success in the last 10 years or so. The Romanian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale – funded by the ministry in collaboration with the Romanian Cultural Institute features the work of young Cluj painter Adrian Ghenie in a show curated by his gallerist at Plan B, Mihai Pop.  His richly colored canvases, blending figuration and abstraction, are highly prized by collectors. However, the story of Romanian art since the 1960s can be told from another perspective, one that foregrounds experimental—if visually understated—work in film and photography. Often produced illicitly, the films and photographs of vanguard Romanian artists are being reexamined today because they offer some of the most incisive reflections on the country’s tumultuous political history —and because they may provide insight into contemporary social realities in Romania and even throughout Eastern Europe.

It is well known that in the 1960s and ‘70s, film and photography began to figure prominently in the work of Conceptual, performance and Land artists active around the world. But while in the West the films and photographs of such artists as Yoko Ono, Robert Smithson and Carolee Schneemann were written about, exhibited in important art institutions and integrated slowly but surely into the contemporary art world, in Romania such practices remained underground, undertaken by a very limited group. The art system was officially controlled by the Union of Plastic Artists (UPA), which distributed funds for commissions and maintained a monopoly on the country’s network of exhibition spaces. In turn, the UPA answered to the state, which favored or endorsed Socialist Realism in painting and a positive image of the socialist society in other mediums.

The indexical quality of film and photography was perceived by the authorities as a potential threat, a way for the common person to “denigrate socialist reality” by recording and showing the dismal reality that actually existed. Artists such as Ion Grigorescu and Geta Bratescu sometimes used film and photography in ways that authorities would have found unacceptable. These artists deviated from the official aesthetic policy by producing work that evoked individual experiences of pain and disenchantment. Consequences to these experiments could include various forms of censure, from the forced closure of exhibitions to the confiscation of equipment to questioning by officials.

However, the mere existence of such experiments points to porous zones—the gray areas—from which some artists were able to circumvent censorship while reflecting on their social condition. These spaces of relative freedom allowed for alternative forms of artistic production, and these practices influenced subsequent generations of artists.

The decade following Nicolae Ceauşescu’s ascent to power in 1965 is often seen as a golden age of Romanian culture, society and life under Communism. Viewed as a reformer during the early years of his rule, Ceauşescu instituted a version of socialism with a nationalistic flavor; he moved the country away from the dominance of the Soviet Union and established more contacts with the West. This process of liberalization reached its apex in 1968, when Ceauşescu denounced the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. The West, and especially the United States, immediately embraced Ceauşescu as a bulwark against Soviet hegemony in the Eastern Bloc and started bestowing financial credits and other economic advantages on Romania. Trade with the West increased, international cultural exchanges were encouraged and, in 1969, an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionist paintings traveled even to Romania. Sorin Preda, a Romanian journalist and writer, describes that moment eloquently:

“Tired out, history left people alone for a few years, forgetting about denouncements and workers’ wrath, about suspicions and ugly memories. It was the artists’ time—including those just released from prison. It was the time of the thaw.[1]”

During this lull, the artists who would become the representatives of the Romanian neo-avant-garde finished their educations and started taking artistic risks, while in cinema some of the most important and critical films, like Re-Enactment by Lucian Pintilie, were produced and even distributed. Yet even as they benefited from the thaw, Romanian experimentalists maintained their official duties as academics or members of the UPA, producing art sanctioned by the state. This oscillation between private and public practices—the effective splitting of the artistic self in two—also informed the content and form of the work. Unlike their peers in the writers’ union, visual artists in Romania made few overt criticisms of the government. Instead, private or masked expressions of discontent became the modus operandi.

Ion Grigorescu (b. 1945) is perhaps the best-known member of his generation. The subject of intense analysis and research in post-1989 Romania, his work has been included in Documenta and other major international exhibitions. The artist completed about 30 films in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, most of which he did not even print until after 1989. His private artistic practice—in contrast to his public one as a painter of Orthodox church murals, which he continues to this day—is characterized by performances that he filmed or photographed. While traditional performances are generally understood to have audiences, Grigorescu’s actions took place in the complete isolation of his studio and home, or while he was alone in nature. Grigorescu sometimes documented himself engaged in rituals of daily life: he filmed himself eating (Title TK, 1974) or simply walking (Walk, 1974). In Around My Apartment (Mozart Street), 1974, we are taken through the rooms of the artist’s home with a series of photographs shot with a fish-eye lens. Though Grigorescu deliberately invites a visual inspection of his domestic space, the work still projects an eerie feeling of voyeuristic transgression, perhaps revealing the artist’s anxiety about the pervasive atmosphere of constant scrutiny in which he lived.[2] Indeed, by the ‘80s more than 600,000 Romanians were registered informants with the Securitate secret police, establishing a general atmosphere of fear and paranoia, even among friends and loved ones.

The technology that Grigorescu used during this period was simple: a Soviet Quartz film camera and a [TK Brand] 35mm still camera. Despite the liberalization under Ceauşescu, such devices, as well as film itself, were rare commodities. The photographs and films that Grigorescu developed and printed at the time tend to be of low production value, exemplifying the modest circumstances in which he was often forced to work: in a makeshift darkroom in his apartment using improvised materials. For this reason, he printed many of his works from this period only after 1989. (we mentioned this earlier)

In the face of these difficulties, Grigorescu remained fascinated by the forms of serialization and sequencing that the camera allowed. For him, photographs and films could offer a “representation of the real.”[3] The artist was particularly intrigued by human anatomy, and he often used his own body as the subject of his work. In the photo diptych Our Home (1974), we see him in the nude, urinating and defecating almost on the lens of the camera. With this act of personal and private rebellion, Grigorescu highlighted his own corporeality, one element of his “reality” that he could still control.

Frustrated by exclusively private nature of such works, Grigorescu also sought exhibition opportunities outside the UPA’s channels. He discovered the Schiller house, a cultural center in Bucharest that was managed by art historian Alexandra Titu and had a reputation for being left alone by authorities. In 1976, Grigorescu organized the first in an annual series of photography exhibitions that would continue relatively undisturbed until 1979.

One artist who exhibited at the Schiller house was Geta Bratescu (b. 1926). Like Grigorescu, she also used her body as a subject while exploiting the provisional freedom that the domestic confines of her studio and home allowed. Almost a generation older than Grigorescu, Bratescu often collaborated with her husband, Mihai Bratescu, to create works like Towards White (Self-Portrait in Sequences), 1975, a series of photographs showing the artist’s face progressively obscured by a white film that appears more opaque in each image. The Smile (1978) documents discreet changes of the artist’s expressions through a serial arrangement of nine closely cropped self-portraits. The retreat from oppression offered by the studio itself is a continuous subtext of Bratescu’s work, and her most well-known project, a film simply called The Studio (1978records the artist’s highly performative process of creating large, improvised drawings.

If Grigorescu and Bratescu expressed themselves through the solitary, personal nature of their work, other artists found pockets of freedom and opportunities for public engagement by working in collectives. In 1970, the group SIGMA formed in Timisoara, the city where the Romanian revolution would start in 1989. Using high-tech equipment accessed at science labs, SIGMA artists created photographs, films and multimedia installations that bridged the fields of design, science and art. Started by artists Stefan Bertalan (1930-2014) and Constantin Flondor (b. 1936), SIGMA, whose name comes from the mathematical term for the summation of numbers or quantities indicated, soon brought in visionary painter Doru Tulcan (b. 1943) as well. Other collaborators joined for short periods of time as SIGMA offered a way for artists to work together in a voluntary collective, rather than state-enforced one which was the norm.[4]

Bertalan was attracted to the plant, animal and insect kingdoms, or nature itself, as a way of escaping the ugly reality around him, much like Grigorescu and Bratescu did.  He created detailed photographs of organic matter using microscopes. The 1973 series of photomicrographs “Insect Studies,” comprises magnified shots of translucent wings and compound eyes. It was realized through the artist’s collaboration with the Institute of Medicine in Timisoara, which gave him access to advanced optical equipment. In addition, Bertalan experimented with modes of exhibition. For “Inflatable Structures” (1974), produced at Bastion Gallery, a UPA space in Timisoara, the artist worked with other SIGMA members to create dreamlike environments by superimposing several layers of slide projections, either on walls or on other objects, including balloons. Circumventing any social commentary or criticism while focusing on formal experiments gained SIGMA group acceptance and even popularity with officials.

Also founded in 1970, Kinema Ikon is considered to be the longest running art group in Romania. Launched in Arad, a town near the Hungarian border, Kinema Ikon was originally led by the film professor George Sabau, who on one hand produced official documentaries with university students to gain the trust of the authorities while on the other, experimented in forms of filmmaking afterhours. KI’s members came from various educational backgrounds, including philosophy, architecture, film, mathematics and computer science. The group’s interdisciplinary composition is reflected in the work they produced. Demian Sandru’s Open-Flash (1975) is typical example from the early years of the Kinema Ikon atelier. The black-and-white non-narrative film combines symbol-laden drama (a woman ties a slip knot around a man’s neck) with self-referential imagery (shots of camera lenses and viewfinders). Kinema Ikon traversed the decades of political and technological change, with the group’s focus moving from film in the 1970s to video in the ‘90s to computer-based art in the ‘00s, reflecting the delay of the technology’s reach into Romania.  Kinema Ikon too was focused on highly metaphorical and masked social commentary that eschewed the attention of the authorities.

In the last years of the ‘70s conditions in Romania became increasingly restrictive. Ceauşescu announced a “mini-cultural revolution” modeled on similarly draconian programs instituted by Chinese and North Korean rulers. The low-key and semi-private experimental photography and film exhibitions at the Schiller House were no longer tolerated, and the ministry of culture shut down Grigorescu’s 1979 exhibition.[5] Even during the height of Ceauşescu’s clamp-down, a few privileged artists with connections opened up another gray zone of possibility. These lucky few traveled and exhibited abroad even during the hard years of the ‘70s and ‘80s, returning with information about contemporary art from the West that continued to circulate within elite intellectual circles. The UPA even had subscriptions to most international art magazines, permitting some artists to connect their own work to global trends.

In 1983, Ana Lupas, a textile artist with an international reputation, became director of Atelier 35, a national network of exhibition spaces for artists under the age of 35. The Atelier system was established by the UPA in the late 70s with the aim of encouraging formal experimentation within a controlled environment. The youth-oriented galleries, opened in all major Romanian cities, became essential for many artists because of the increased supervision on cultural activity in Bucharest. It was in more peripheral or border cities such as Oradea, Cluj and Arad that much of the artistic experimentation happened through the 1980s, as exchange with Hungary and the west was richer and the authorities more lax. In Oradea, members of the local branch of Atelier 35 developed the Fotomobil biennial, which surveyed new photography and film from around the country in three editions from 1984 to 1988. Many of the artists in these shows followed the path opened by Grigorescu and Bratescu and documented simple performances or the creation of Land art. The work of artist Laszlo Ujvarossy, who also co-managed Atelier 35 Oradea, exemplifies this tendency. The young artist filmed himself illicitly painting a structure in the aptly titled Painting House Wall (1985). In 1984, Karoly Kovacs made a film documenting a land art action he conducted in Oradea that was unprecedented in Romania.[6] He built hills of a considerable height between rows of buildings in a neighborhood that was in the process of construction, enclosing the open spaces and limiting access to the entrance of the buildings.  How he convinced the authorities to allow him is not shown in the documentary and remains part of that gray zone of possibility. The list of participants in Fotomobil biennials reads like a who’s who of the ‘80s generation: Dan and Lia Perjovschi, Dan Mihaltianu, Calin Dan, Iosif Kiraly, Teodor Graur, Marilena Preda Sanc and Rudolf Bone, among others.

Following the 1989 events that ousted Ceauşescu, artists began working in new, more overtly political ways. They were free from the ideological constraints imposed by the UPA but also lacked the financial support that the state agency provided for official work. In the void created by the system change, the Soros Center for Contemporary Art, founded in 1992 by the American financier George Soros, became a key resource, especially supporting production of video and other new mediums, as here artists suffered years of lost time. The Soros Center also promoted moving image work through national exhibitions such as “Ex Oriente Lux” (1993) and “01010101” (1994). One of the most important groups to come out of this milieu is subReal, co-founded in 1991 by art historian Calin Dan (who also directed the Soros Center and is now director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art) and artists Iosif Kiraly and Dan Mihaltianu. The collective engaged critically with the country’s turbulent cultural history through projects such as Art History Archive (AHA), 1995-1998. This ambitious effort primarily involved researching and exhibiting material from the archive of ARTA magazine, the official publication of the UAP, which Dan had once edited but which was defunct by the early ‘90s. Photographic selections included documentation of art objects produced under the Ceauşescu regime. One version of AHA, presented at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 1995, featured thousands of these photographs affixed with an adhesive to gallery walls. Over the course of the exhibition, the images slowly peeled off and fell to the floor in a symbolic reenactment of the regime’s downfall. The display also evoked the systematic censorship that occurred under Communist rule. Images of artworks had been cropped or altered for publication in ARTA, a process made apparent by subReal’s installation of the original, pre-publication images sent to the magazine.

subReal’s attempts to excavate decades of work, bringing to light both the veiled social commentary that took place under Communism and the mechanisms through which state institutions controlled artistic expression—has helped foster new inquiries into Romania’s past.

Other artists addressing the past, such as Matei Bejenaru, employ journalistic modes of filmmaking. Battling Inertia (2011), one of his many short documentaries, is about a literary group at the Heavy Equipment Plant in Iasi that was active during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Or filmmaker Stefan Constantinescu, one of the first to use the documentary genre in contemporary art, with his installation The Archive of Pain (2000), a series of interviews with former detainees in Communist prisons, including a more questionable figure and former Legionar or Legionar sympathizer reflecting Romania’s complicated relationship with its past.

And the legacy of the Communist state lingers over the work of those who were very young in 1989. Irina Botea’s We, in the Year 2000, (2011) combines video and Super 8 footage. The title might allude to (brings to mind) Alain Tanner’s film about the fallout from the May 1968 uprisings in France, Jonas who will be 25 in the year 2000, and to an eponymous Romanian children’s song from the ‘70s that describes a utopian socialist future. The work juxtaposes footage of third-grade children deciphering the lyrics of the song and nostalgic Super 8 footage of the adults who grew up singing it.

The official censure on speech and creation is, of course, no longer in place in Romania. But the contemporary neoliberal economy has created its own set of unwritten codes and rules. As in many places, artists whose work takes the form of films, videos and conceptually oriented photographs are still relegated to the margins of a market system that values painting far more highly.  Where are today’s gray zones of freedom?  As with all transitions, they are still being formulated, but specifically these exponential developments in digital technology also result in decreased production costs which have widened access to these media, offering a glimpse that more creative freedom can be found in self or crowd-funded undertakings, away from dependence on institutional and market support, which are still scarce in Romania. But if there is one thing that’s constant, it’s change itself, and the Romanian artists’ ingenuity at navigating its historical meanders.

[1] Sorin Preda, “Cu dragoste, despre București…” (“With Love, about Bucharest…”), in Formula As


[3] Marturii XX1, Confessions in the 21st Century, GALERIA Una, Ion Grigorescu, 2012

[4] Ileana Pintilie, Photography in the Context of Romanian Contemporary Art, ARTA, nr 6-7, 2012, pg. 43

[5] Magda Radu, Dialog cu Ion Grigorescu, ARTA; nr. 6-7, 2012

[6] Laszlo Ujvarossy, Experimental Art in the 80s in Oradea


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