Food for Thought: Branislav Jakovljević, Gertrud Stein & Nastasia Louveau in Conversation (on Walter Benjamin’s Recent Writings)

Branislav Jakovljevic, Gertrud Stein & Nastasia Louveau in Conversation

Doing Performance Art History. Graphic Proceedings of the Conference. Day #3.

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Doing Performance Art History. Graphic Proceedings of the Conference. Day #2.

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Doing Performance Art History. Graphic Proceedings of the Conference. Day #1.

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Stasi-Dada: How artists work with their Stasi records

Usually, the official records of secret services reveal little far less about those being observed than they do about the various fears of those doing the observing. These fears can be retraced in the minutiae of state security records: their narratives, vocabulary, abbreviations, punctuation and omissions. On the 12th of February in Cabaret Voltaire, as the writer and artist Gabriele Stötzer read from her Stasi records, and an opera singer voiced her Stasi-alleged offence with characteristic trill, the fear expressed in the language metamorphosed into shrill sounds.

The hostile basic attitude of the person in question, as well as her objectives of disseminating hostile ideas and affiliating herself with other similarly hostile persons as sympathisers, is apt to aid the achievement of the objective of the hostile political underground in the GDR.

In the original German, the mantra-like, almost incantatory repetition of the word ‘Feind’ – approximated here by the English ‘hostile’ – indicates not merely the hand of an agent handler in command of stylistically confident ‘Stasi-German’, it also hammers a particular word into these records, which itself first produces the ‘Feind’ (‘enemy’). In the case of Stötzer, the word ‘Feind’ refers not to a terrorist planting a bomb, but to a student hoping to improve rather than topple the GDR, and artist who mocked the established model of femininity in East Germany. The Stasi designated her a ‘feminist’, which at the time in the GDR was considered a Western import, and thus an ‘enemy’ word.

Gabriele Stötzer certainly does not draw a connection between the Stasi and Dada because of the immigration police’s monitoring of the 1916 Dadaists’ activities in Zurich. Back then, the Swiss secret service (the ‘political police’) recommended the expulsion of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings from the country for the “propagation of revolutionary ideas”. Stötzer wants to, to quote Hans Arp, shift the attention away from herself and onto the “directors of stupidity”, and onto their reality-shaping verbal nonsense.

Stötzer is not however the only artist concerned with official records of herself. Only recently, Max Frisch’s painstaking close reading of state security records, Ignoranz als Staatsschutz? (Ignorance as National Security?), was published, courtesy of David Gugerli and Hannes Mangold. After his study, Frisch’s file, which the Swiss state security had compiled over the forty-two years between 1948 and 1990, was returned to him via due legal process. The largely ridiculous entries about meetings with intellectuals from the GDR have been meticulously corrected and ironically commented on by Frisch. Above all, he has supplemented them, and indeed with far more notable events than those the state security had taken note of once or twice a year, mostly through second-hand accounts. Frisch’s Stasi records, then, are presumably more ‘exact’ than the Swiss political police’s thirteen-page document.

The majority of artistic involvements with secret service records are found in Eastern Europe, however. For example, Cornelia Schleime, who left the GDR in 1984, re-enacted particularly banal sentences from her state security records photographically in her ‘Stasi Series’, such as those in which her “anti-social lifestyle” is criticised. To accompany these, she created a montage of frivolous, decadent self-portraits on fifteen different pages of the original record transcript: we see her slouched on a bed reading Bravo, dancing naked in a poppy-field, or posing in front of an American limousine. Schleime too visualises fears, namely those concealed behind the term “anti-social, anti-socialistic lifestyle”. The Hungarian artist György Galántai, on the other hand, made his state security files public via the internet, displaying them in his art archive artpool, in part also as a means of documenting performance art in Hungary. The first happening in Budapest had not been documented by anybody so accurately and in such detail as it had been by the national secret service…

Gabriele Stötzer bei ihrer Perfor­mance “U-Haft” (1990). Foto: Bernd Hiepe
Gabriele Stötzer during her perfor­mance “U-Haft” (1990). Foto: Bernd Hiepe

Back to Gabriele Stötzer, however. Reading her almost entirely preserved and voluminous records is not only important for understanding how authoritarian systems function; these records are also relevant from a literary-historical and art-historical perspective. That these documents can be read for the purposes of research is thanks to Stötzer herself. On December 4th, 1989, along with a group of other women, she occupied the Stasi headquarters in Erfurt, in order to seal the rooms and thus prevent the destruction of state security files. In Stötzer’s case, the documents in question number several thousand pages of “assessment reports” from agent handlers, surveillance reports from over twenty different unofficial collaborators, confiscated letters, surveillance photos, sketches of her apartment, her private ‘gallery in the hallway’ and reports monitoring her circle of friends. The catalyst for all this spying was a letter, also signed by eighty-three others, that she sent in 1976 to Margot Honecker, then the education minister of the GDR, as a protest against the expulsion from university of her fellow classmate Wilfried Linke. The consequence of this was her own expulsion, along with her being banned from attending university anywhere in the German Democratic Republic. After she took part in a signature campaign organised by well-known Berlin authors against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann in the same year, it was a step too far for the Stasi: Stötzer was, at the age of twenty-three, arrested and convicted to a year without parole in the notorious women’s prison, Hoheneck, in Stollberg, Saxony, for “defamation of the state”.

The files on Stötzer contain four “operative precedents” and give witness to the uninterrupted spying activity that took place between 1976 and 1989. The Stasi classified Stötzer during this period as a “person treated as operative”. The German equivalent of “treat” as used in this context, “bearbeiten”, describes in its connotative associations the true actions of the state security service. Monitoring and surveillance were always mere prerequisites to “treatment”. “Bearbeiten” – to “treat”, but also to “edit”, “revise”, “pester” and “bludgeon” – entailed, above all, “zersetzen” (“to degrade/undermine”) and “liquidieren” (“to eliminate”). With “zersetzen”, another key word of Stasi operations, Stasi functionaries denoted the “splintering”, “crippling” and “disorganisation and isolation” of opposing groups and individuals. According to Stasi guideline 1/76, this meant also the “systematic discrediting of public reputation, renown and prestige on the basis of related true, verifiable, discrediting information, as well as untrue, yet believable and irrefutable, and therefore equally discrediting information” (Lexicon of the Ministry of State Security).

The Stasi also instructed their unofficial collaborators (“IMs”) to invent facts as they saw fit. The IMs were given “cover stories”, with which to arrange the “systematic organisation of professional and societal failings in order to undermine confidence” (MSS Lexicon). Or one would “eliminate” artists’ galleries and other artistic actions, raising doubts about their capacity to successfully implement their planned activities (BSTU, AOP “Toxin”, 0011). In his book Stasi Konkret (Stasi Concrete), the historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk lists over two pages of further examples of established “Zersetzungspraktiken” (“undermining practices”) used against oppositionists, among them the spreading of rumours that they themselves are working with the Stasi!

Gabriele Stötzer, „Winfried“ (1985)
Gabriele Stötzer, „Winfried“ (1985)

In the case of Gabriele Stötzer, the Stasi’s “Zersetzungsarbeit” (“undermining efforts”) focused not just on her person, but also on her art. In their reports, all the unofficial collaborators always set the words “artistic” or “art” in inverted commas, and denigrated her literary texts as “uninteresting” and “unintelligible”. On top of that, the Stasi resolved “to create the preconditions for legal prosecution”. In other words, the state security attempted to imprison Stötzer for crimes they themselves had commissioned!  The Stasi smuggled unofficial collaborators into Stötzer’s photo-actions as models. When Stötzer became interested during the shoot in cross-gender actions, the Stasi promptly sent in a transvestite. Mission: incite Stötzer to do a pornographic scene, which would then render her “criminally liable”. Stötzer claims that, when she showed the pictures semi-publicly the first time, an accusation of pornography was received, one which is not contained within the Stasi files and cannot be located anywhere else. When she wanted to make a Super-8 film with punks in Erfurt about the scaling of phallic architecture, the Stasi planted a particularly acrobatic punk in the scene, who then, in his role as a collaborator, became “Breaky”, the main actor in two films.

Those who depict the party dictatorships in Eastern Europe merely as societies under surveillance or control underestimate an essential political function of a national security service: its enactment mandate. It is therefore entirely correct, as historian Malte Rolf does, to depict such Eastern European party dictatorships as dictatorships of enactment. Admittedly, Rolf intended something else with this term: the permanent enacting of ideology in rituals and festivals. In this context, as the close reading of Stötzer’s state security files shows, “dictatorship of enactment” means the permanent enacting of events in the creation of internal enemies. There is much that remains to be done in a vast section of applied theatre, whose research ­– from a theatre studies perspective – is still somewhat fallow. With Gabriele Stötzer, the Stasi actively attempted to induce her to crime, and in other cases actively inhibited the artistic activities of the underground, so that censure, and thus a ban, would no longer be required, such as in cases where it was determined a gallery or an artistic action should simply be banned. The “elimination” of Gabriele Stötzer’s gallery was accomplished through the termination of her rental contract; in other cases, a broken water pipe would be arranged if an unofficial gallery opening was supposed to take place.

In Russia, we can even still observe these censure practices today. In December 2014, in teatr.doc, the most renowned off-theatre in Moscow, the showing of Igor Savychenko’s documentary, More Powerful Than Weapons, a film about the Maidan resistance and the war in east Ukraine, was cancelled due to a fake bomb threat. Shortly before the film began around twenty police officers, together with civil servants from the Ministry for Culture, burst into the cellar, evacuated the building, just about dismantled the screening equipment in the process, confiscated the film, ruined the premises and destroyed the cinema’s properties. The film screening could no longer take place.

While in current Russian cultural policy the practices of the secret services have obviously survived – perhaps a result of the secret service’s records being inaccessible – the now-defunct secret service archives of former Eastern Bloc nations, such as Hungary, Czech Republic and Poland are nowadays easily researched. This is not just bad news for the history writers of party dictatorships; it is also revelatory for the writing of literary and art histories. It may indeed be self-evident that one cannot simply use Stasi records as (art-)historical sources for those persons spied upon and their predecessors. One should never forget that the respective documents primarily illuminate the functioning of the Stasi itself. This also applies if, in Hungary for instance, the records fill particular gaps in the history of performance art: even here the records document not only a happening, but also the act of spying. Beyond this quasi-documentary value, it is nevertheless important to consider that the actions and values held by Stasi collaborators documented in these records were themselves reality-shaping. Collaborators also had the task of interfering in art production and impeding the work and recognition of specific artists. It is for this reason that, in today’s writing of art history, one should not be taken in by any of the Stasi co-produced canon.

German version: http://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/stasi-dada-gabriele-stoetzer-las-im-cabaret-voltaire-aus-ihren-akten/

Of night rides and comparisons

Night buses, night trains and night flights have been my favored way of moving around lately. No real comfort, no sound sleep either, just plain moving forward, a night shift of seating and reading. Then: the cityscape in all its blue glory, a sunrise slowly adding nuances of yellow and pink to the skyline. Stepping out into the city and walking among the early birds hastening towards their duties, taking in the atmosphere. (Do birds, even early ones, actually have duties?)

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One of these night trains took me to Berlin, where I was invited on November 20-21 to take part in a workshop at the Department for Theatre Studies of the Free University Berlin. The workshop was part of the research project “KunstPaare” led by Jenny Schrödl and her inspiring team of young researchers. It aimed at taking a closer interdisciplinary look at couples in the performative and visual arts, in literature and social sciences. The performativity of the figure >couple< was to be scrutinized by a dozen of German-speaking scholars from various backgrounds. And I was there to speak about my PhD topic, ie. about artist couples in Yugoslav performance art during the Communist period.

 

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I started my doctoral studies about exactly a year ago at University of Zurich. Interestingly enough, my doctoral curriculum actually all started with a get-together for PhD students in this very room at the Department for Theater Studies in Berlin-Steglitz. I remember being elated about getting to know such smart folks but also feeling not quite at ease with this new research subject of mine about which I still knew so little. To say the least, I was speechless, could not even pronounce a few articulate sentences about these performance artists I would be doing research on for the next couple of years. And here I am again, after a whole year of research at U of Zurich and around Ex-Yugoslavia (Belgrade, Ljubljana…), full of new input and after a long night shift of last-minute preparation, ready to speak about an exhibition that took place in June 1974 in Belgrade, 1 & 1, conceived of and curated by artist Raša Todosijević. In this exhibition, fourteen artist pairs were asked to contribute artworks — or the documentation thereof — produced in a process of double authorship. All propositions had a processual aspect: be it the photographic endeavour of German artist couple Bernd and Hilla Becher making a non-exhaustive but systematic inventory of architectural shapes — their “anonymous sculptures” —, two mail-art submissions as participatory gestures, or the many performances documented through photographs, drawings and texts, it is all about co-authored art, some kind of pair performance.

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All the talks given during the workshop were thought-provoking and stimulating. There is one that especially caught my attention, though. Because of its contents as well as its form — Matthias Weiss gave much thought to both. His address was the very last one after two intensive days of discussions, he had been chosen to close the line-up. Before starting, he made slight changes in the room’s arrangement, breaking the democratic U-shape, ordering all the chairs around one table, calling everyone to come closer and sit down, like a storyteller about to recount a fairy tale to his mesmerized audience. Dressed in black, his hands resting next to a pile of photographs on this unusual stage-like white table top, Matthias told us he decided for once to turn his back to the all-digital and the impalpability of slide presentations to come back to a physical, tangible means of communication. He thus brought and showed reproductions of famous paintings of “Unequal Sisters” as the title of his critical talk on comparison as an instrument of Art History stated: Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister by an anonymous painter of the second School of Fontainebleau, a twin self-portrait by Frida Kahlo that has a somewhat similar composition, various paintings that clearly quote Kahlo’s self-portrait and a black and white photograph of conjoined twins, so-called Siamese, physically joined at the head. Matthias illustrated his point with some brio: the method of comparison so dear to art historians assuredly has its limits, it is only moderately productive. And still, its appeal cannot be fully discarded. Here something urges me to chime in: even within performance art for example, the überfamous mannerist painting of a nude Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister nurtured the work of numerous artists: Tanja Ostojić and Marina Gržinić staged an evident reference to the painting taking the peculiar pose for “Politics of Queer Curatorial Positions: After Rosa von Praunheim, Fassbinder and Bridge Markland” (2003). After seeing the performance “The Artist Is Present,” Marina Abramović sitting motionless in MoMA’s atrium in spring of 2010, I made a painting called “The Artist Is Present (fake)” showing my naked self next to the artist, impersonating the painting and the performance at the same time. In the ensuing discussion, I couldn’t help but compare my work with the paintings Matthias Weiss had just examined so readily, so I shared it with him and the audience.

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Comparison was a big topic that also accompanied me earlier that month on my trip to New York City (once again a destination I reached after a long night’s ride on a bus). I went to NYC to visit the group exhibition Transmissions: Art from Eastern Europe and Latin America (1960-1980) at the Museum of Modern Art. The comparison entailed in the subtitle brings together two far-away geographical regions, the link of which probably resides in their respective histories of totalitarian political regimes. It is nothing new though, as several curatorial and research projects of the past decade have picked it up already: in 2009 the exhibition Subversive Practices at the Württemburgischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart and its comprehensive catalogue (Hatje Cantz, 2010) to which colleague and friend Sabine Hänsgen collaborated, but also a special issue of journal ArtMargins on Artists’ Networks in Eastern Europe and Latin America (2012) for example.

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Transmissions is the exhibition that opened the season at MoMA, a week or so before the opening of a Picasso sculpture exhibition. I had been looking forward to it as soon as I heard about it; I sadly couldn’t make it to the opening. Instead, I had been browsing the prolific online material complementing the exhibition on the MoMA website. Thanks to the C-Map Project, MoMA curators and contributors have been creating a fairly diverse set of online resources on Eastern European Art of the 20th century. Articles by art historians and curators, excursion diaries, video footage of talks at MoMA…
What were my expectations entering the exhibit? A well-documented, thorough research, well transmitted to the broad MoMA audience. First thing I noticed upon entering the exhibition space: it was full of artworks but fairly empty of visitors, lots of space and time to look at everything, while the Picasso exhibit two floors below was packed… Oh well, the disparate and obscure character of the art exhibited in Transmissions couldn’t compare with good ol’ Picasso.

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I was enthusiastic about finding a large range of artworks, starting with neo-constructivist experiments (Julije Knifer’s meander, cf. photograph above) and performance art documentation (Milan Knížák’s performance files 1962-85, pictures of Slovenian OHO group). There was a thematic and somewhat chronological organization of the exhibition space. One thematic room that I was especially interested in was the one on feminist practices: mostly works from the 1970’s, Geta Bratescu from Romania, Sanja Iveković and her gender-critical collages were there, Marina Abramović and her flaming “Rhythm 5,” Ana Mendieta for the Latin American comparison, Tomislav Gotovac for the male take on the female issue, and VALIE EXPORT’s “tapp- und tastkino” (tap and touch cinema) for example. What did you say, Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT!? I do admit Vienna is situated in the far Eastern outskirts of Europe, indeed, but isn’t it considered a major cultural capital of Western Europe? What is the curators’ concept of Eastern Europe that makes them include this Western European artist while all other artists shown come from totalitarian Communist regimes?

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A further exhibition space is dedicated to art dealing with political and daily parameters of life, including Iveković’s intriguing “Triangle” piece staging a private/public tension within Yugoslav decorum: a series of photographs show the artist masturbating on her roof terrace on the day of Tito’s parade in her home city of Zagreb; a sniper from the secret services on a nearby rooftop who supposedly spot her not participating in the parade and engaging in this highly private activity; and the crowd of good citizens below, indulging in the exciting Yugo public life. The next room shows narratives of family, I think there are only Latin American artworks, mostly paintings and sculptures, no conceptual art or performance. In a nearby space, there is famous and colorful Polish poster art next to Latin American posters looking very similar. Its lack of contextualizing info material is a bit disappointing. This is a critique that applies in my eyes to the whole exhibition. Not having much background knowledge on the political, historical, and artistic contexts of Latin America, most thematic spaces dedicated to it remained hermetic for my understanding, and I suppose that, the other way around, it must have been quite tedious for visitors not knowing much about Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, I was definitely charmed by the meticulous overview given on these various art movements from the 60’s through 80’s, the MoMA undeniably owns an impressive collection that is worth being examined. I could give here an only highly fragmentary insight into the exhibit.

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I was hoping to find some more context and to be able to keep the overview and the knowledge thus showcased in an in-depth, detailed catalogue edited by the exhibition’s curator team, but to my surprise there was none. Not a thorough one, but no small incomplete one either! (What a pity.)  In disbelief, I asked several times at the museum’s bookshop, until the salesclerk told me in a confidential whisper: “– It’s all because of Picasso,” he said, –“Picasso should have occupied the 6th floor, but the space was way too big, the architecture wasn’t right for his sculptures. So they put Picasso on the 4th floor and they had to cook up an exhibition for the 6th floor in a hurry… No time for a catalogue. Sorry, ma’am.”

 

 

Photo credits:

All photographs of the FU workshop and the MoMA exhibit are taken by the author.

Black and white postcard invitation to 1&1 exhibition, June 1974, Student Cultural Center, Belgrade — Courtesy of the artist and curator, Raša Todosijević

Marina Gržinić and Tanja Ostojić, “Politics of Queer Curatorial Positions: After Rosa von Praunheim, Fassbinder and Bridge Markland,” 2003, Color photography by Jane Stravs) copyright: Tanja Ostojić: http://www.women-in-art.com/artists/item/137-ostoji%C4%87-tanja.html (accessed November 2015)

Nastasia Louveau, “The Artist Is Present (fake),” acrylic painting, 2010.

 

Talking to Ion Grigorescu / Day 5

DAY 5:

So I was walking around the block of Mr Grigorescu’s home for an hour before I rang the bell on the door — the bell that was ringing my utter failure. Behind the door I heard some noise of footsteps approaching and parallel to these steps my throught was getting narrower. I noticed that Mr Grigorescu had sensed my nervousness and he already knew about my incredible clumsiness with cameras and other recording devices — and I knew that I had to make a video interview with a man who was standing, lying or sitting before a camera for decades, who was an absolute expert on self-recording and the high priest of the aesthetics of self-documentation.

Our daily schedule was different this time. It was the last day on which I rang the bell. It was Sunday, he went to church, so we met at 12:30, and although we would usually start working immediately, this time he was leading me directly to the dining room where the marvellous mother-in-law, Adele Petrescu was preparing and serving lunch every day. (Mrs Petrescu was so incredibly nice as to show me her paintings and her collection of paintings in her room — an amazing concentration of intellectual, emotional and sensual impulses)

After lunch I was trying to adjust the camera, the angle and the width but I felt that I was so very disturbed by these preparations that without any tests I simply pressed the “record button” on the camera — which I didn’t know to handle although I had rented it from a professional store in Berlin to make the best possible recording, yet I was in fear of completely messing up the whole thing so I hadn’t really tested it beforehand.

We started. I asked the most trivial questions. But we went on thanks to the incredible patience of Mr Grigorescu for another 5 hours. And at the end we had arrived at some conclusions. Some Rilkean conclusions. To change life. To change art. To stop. And to start. To fail and to start again.

I still don’t know whether the recording worked out or not. But that’s also not the point. I’ll never be the same after that take-off to Berlin. And I know I can’t tell anybody about what happened. Because there is no language for that experience. Mr Grigorescu said that real life is always superior to art. I asked him: if that is the case, then what is he doing — he laughed and said, “I’m a revolting artist”. He turns 71 next year.

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Talking with Ion Grigorescu / Day 4

Arriving at Grigorescu`s home at 10 am as usual, I`m very excited how we will proceed when I ring the bell, next to his, the names of his father-in-law, the writer Radu Petrescu and his wifes names on that bell.

The ring on Mr. Grigorescu`s door

I already have a bad conscience about him spending the 4th day in a row with me, spending approx. 10 hours daily showing me his work and commenting on it – if I ask the right question, that is. His personal archive is perfectly organized and digitalized, although it is an order that might seem like chaos for the outsider. But it isn’t. There’s also an analogue archive in a cupboard in his room: any catalogue or the dates of any of his works in an old diary are just an arm’s length away.

(Though there is going to be a problem with the dates and titles of his works for future research as the titles differ [so do their English translations] and the dates of works are hard to remember after so many decades. And he is the only one who would know.)

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At one point he tells me that we can go and see his exhibition in Bucharest at 12 p.m., one that he didn’t exhibit in, but which he curated. I’m more than excited because due to the increased interest in his works especially since 2008 in the international “high life” (as he calls it), he has had many encounters with curators on a very wide spectrum. And that curators are the new censors might seem only one of the oldest critiques — if one sees the works, it is clear what is meant.

The exhibition is in a small gallery close to the House of the Parliament and when we approach the building the first thing one notices is that a beautiful dress is in the shop window with a text — at first I thought this was a very exclusive high fashion display window in the style of want-to-be avant-garde designers inspired by a non-existent, utopian “Berlin-style fashion”.

But it turned out to be a piece of the exhibition, which is hung and staged in a very simple but highly precise manner. Next to the staircase are staged pictures, on the first floor you can find lithographies, drawings and photographs – as well as a vitrine with the drawings and a text in an invented language by Mr Grigorescu’s son, Emil. One of the pictures from the 1960s is from an artist who – as Mr Grigorescu tells me – is now a monk in a monastery and it is very hard to get in contact with him and he doesn’t even want his work to be shown. In the whole exhibition, some lesser-known artists are represented with images and pictures, which don’t reflect what is in the broader spectrum of “contemporary art” – seemingly. Because they are also contemporary. In another way.

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When I asked Grigorescu what his motivation behind curating this show was, he told me there had been no specific concept or idea, but he tried to exhibit these works in Timişoara and by chance he found out about a conversation with his galerist, who declared that he doesn`t want to have an old man’s spleen in his show, only works by Grigorescu himself. So Grigorescu took the works and exhibited them in Bucharest.

 

This seems to be a kind of strategy of Grigorescu against the rules of the curators and for his individual and artistic freedom, as there was another occasion when the curator of the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, Ami Barak, refused to show the carpet series by Grigorescu, which he then exhibited in Bucharest. One image that appeared in the Venice catalogue was covered with a white cloth with text on it during the Bucharest show. Grigorescu said that when they hung the exhibition in Bucharest, a letter came from the curator, stating that every image that appeared in the Venice exhibition or the catalogue couldn’t be exhibited during the time of the Biennale — judicial restrictions would follow otherwise. So in the historical manner of censored images attested to another historical period, Mr Grigorescu covered it with that piece of cloth. The curators are the new censors – staged by Mr Grigorescu.

 

We also met Erwin Kessler in the exhibition who handed us his newest catalogue about Horia Bernea and Ion Ţuculescu. They had a discussion, which I, of course, didn’t understand and when the owner of the place asked who I was and Mr Grigorescu told him that I was an “art critic”, I meant to hear “merde” so I corrected him, and said that I’m actually an “art historian”. It didn’t seem to be a better choice though — neither for me nor for him. After picking up two pictures we drove home.

 

And we continued to work. From 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. It was I who had to apologize and stop the working process, as Mr Grigorescu’s energy seems to be endless. Only at one point did I notice a short interruption — where he had to yawn discretely while he was saying: “I’m the first victim of my films.” — with an unprecedently sharp self-irony I had never heard from him before.

 

So after I left his house in the night, full of massive impressions and despair about the impossibility of my language to communicate about his subject, I dropped my things in the hotel room and I was already late to meet the artists Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, my old friends from the time when I curated their first solo show in the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. It was impossible to get a taxi because of the demonstrations – and after arriving at Mona and Florin’s home we immediately started to discuss the current situation (which was not clear to me as I couldn’t follow the news). They told me that unfortunately even more people had died in the hospital because of the fire at the nightclub and that a high representative of the Orthodox Church had said that the people who were attending that tragic concert were “Satanists” anyway.

 

I made my way with Mona, Florin and their wonderful daughter Clara (who speaks fluent English and German at the age of 8 or 9) to join the demonstrations, but when we arrived and came out of the Metro a completely different picture was there than yesterday: nationalistic songs at the highest volume, Romanian flags without the hole (the sign of the revolution 1990) and football hooligans headbanging. Total aggression and a completely different atmosphere than yesterday. On one of the banners was a citation from the Bible, “Without us you can do nothing”, and the image of an icon. This made even Florin and Mona anxious about the direction the demonstrations were taking and we decided to leave immediately. After arriving home at my neo-baroque hotel (which was to me reminiscent of 19th century Bucharest how I imagined it) I couldn’t sleep at all the night before the last day with Mr Grigorescu. I thought about the whole process and I was sure I would fail. I must fail as I have to make an interview, an impossible interview, because it was strikingly clear to me that it would be an impossible dialogue to happen between an art historian and a real artist. Not because of a false respect or an over- or underestimation of one’s possibilities, but because there was no common language of understanding. Speechless. Completely. And I was awake all night to find out how I could overcome this speechlessness although I knew, I was sure that I would fail. Completely. But I had a mission — and I had to be brave. Or pretend to be. But my sleep was restless and my dreams bewildering — as I could hardly wait to get up and go over to Mr Grigorescu’s house – for the final day, where I had to record this damn interview with him – with a person who was self-interviewing himself through images and texts all his life. I was in fear.

 

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Talking with Ion Grigorescu/ Day 3

DAY 3:

One moment has faded with time so I can’t connect it with a specific date — there was a day when Mr Grigorescu was so generous as to take me with him to one of his collectors: a huge house in the suburbs of Bucharest with an automatic gate and lots of still lifes on the representative ground floor and a lot of Teodor Graurs, Tzaras, Brâncușis and 3 Grigorescus in the attic. I couldn`t really understand the vast diversity of styles and quality of those works – ranging from one of the biggest collection of Romanian historical maps through African sculptures as well as intimidating overcolored sculptures between two suitcases that once belonged to Brancusi. Including what was in there. I asked the collector on how he came to the idea of collecting Grigorescu as it didn`t seem to me, that contemporary performance or conceptual tendencies were his focus. He replied that he saw his name in the Pompidou noticing his Romanian origin and back in Bucharest asked for a meeting with Grigorescu. The collectors background was business and he told me that his friends and colleagues thought he was insane when he was showing them the attic – so he decided not to show it anymore to visitors – probably that’s why he was visibly surprised that I was recognizing some of the works…When I was alone for a moment in the room a ca. 7 year old boy turned up and asked me (in good English) that he heard I was an art historian – and what this was. I tried to answer but then alreday the next shot came: whether I would write about the world wars. I said not directly – and when I saw, he was disappointed I replied that I still feel the courage in me to try to answer his questions, so we were talking about the influence of war on art – but suddenly the adults came in and the boy disappeard. Grigorescu was born on the 8th May 1945.

When I was asking Mr. Grigorescu later whether this was a typical Romanian contemporary art collection and was, expressing my bewildered astonishment about that diversity, he replied that this is a situation due to the fact that there are no major museums and all the collectors think they have to grasp the whole thing – from historical maps to Grigorescu…

On our way back to Mr Grigorescu we stopped by his brother’s house — a 19th century villa where the three Grigorescu brothers spent their childhood, in its staircase a fresco by Ion Grigorescu’s brother, Octav, and another fresco from a 19th century villa from a demolished house in the vicinity where the former House of the People was erected — the last remnant of the earthquake not in 1977 but which destroyed Bucharest even more — Ceaucesu’s quest for power. It is this house where Ion Griogrescu’s works and catalogues are stored in an attic with spare light and narrow steps. To tidy up here is one of his duties for a later time. And to finish the restoration of the church in his street — and to take care of the house of his mother-in-law in Câmpulung and of that of his parents in Bengeşti. There are two bas-reliefs in that house as well — made by him and by his youngest son Emil, depicting their ancestors. It is the family, the family you have to take care of, which is reality. And it is true — it is superior to art, but for me neither of them can exist without the other. So I went back home to my children and husband a few days later — arriving as if from the front: my life has changed but I can’t talk about it.