Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago
“I protest against myself because I keep hiding in the bin while everything gets taken away from me.” – Ciprian Mureșan, I’m Protesting Against Myself
It is a lot to take in, overwhelming even, a lot to consider: images and films of personal and public struggles that simultaneously look forward and back, outward and inward. In every way, it is a world completely foreign and unknown to me, because of distance, the opaqueness of history, and my own admitted unawareness. Curator Olga Stefan does an excellent job providing knowledge and context with which to view the works both historically and currently, and she has crafted and engaging, edifying, and poignant journey in Few Were Happy With Their Condition. The notions of hope, disappointment, uncertainty, and transition are undeniable and resolute; and they are easily found and experienced here, collectively and personally, often without the need of words. I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced, but I am different none the less.
The use of film, video, and photography as the means for expression and documentation is an interesting one, and the exclusive medias utilized here. These are genres we comfortably feel are truthful, realistic, whole; when in reality, they are. But they can also be means to lie, manipulate, and distort. In the work Untitled by Cristi Pogăcean, these intentions also question the construction of memories as well as the past. Specifically, the nature of individual resistance in an almost futile if not uphill battle against today’s societal machines (government, economic, religious, etc.). Utilizing the iconic footage of Tiananmen Square from 1989 when a defiant, sole protestor faced down three tanks, Pogăcean has removed the individual who stood between the masses and the regime meant to represent them. It becomes a dance of the government against an invisible opponent: a reflection of the both the power of the image to influence and the power of the individual (even when not visible) to still, albeit briefly, alter the current state of affairs.
What Goes Around, a slow-paced and minimal video by Dan Acostioaei, reflects on an actual event that happened near Suceava when tourism and finance ministers were invited to the inauguration of a newly-built ski lift that had also been recently blessed by a priest per the request of the town mayor. Images of the lift, an endless up and down cycle of empty chairs swinging over rough, brown, snow-less terrain fills nearly the first half of the film – the occasional scrape of the lift seat as it crosses a support tower or circles round the bold yellow carousel for another trip up the mountain, and the chirping of birds are the only sounds. Nearly halfway through, four middle-aged men in suits and ties seated together in one lift, with their feet dangling towards the earth, appear. They are carried up and then down, again and again, with no reaction, no emotion, no purpose. Then, a gentleman on each end of the seat dips a bundle of non-descript foliage into a stainless steel bowl of water one of his companion holds and haphazardly blesses the air in front of him – flinging droplets of water carelessly in unison with his mirrored counterpart on the other side of the bench. Round and round they go until finally the cars stop, empty, a breeze moves through the trees, and clouds begin to cover the landscape. Acostioaei’s work addresses the current cultural condition in Romania, where moral ambiguity is no longer the exception as you move between different social spaces as well as the uncomfortable intertwining of the three pillars of power in Romania: politics, business, and religion. The absurd placement of these men in an empty ski-lift in the middle of summer reflects the same lack of meaning found in these pillars once removed from their so-called necessary contexts. It is lengthy, and at times slow, but I find that the crux of the Acostioaei’s position – as this country transitions from one extreme to the other, milestones (small and large) are few and far between, and in many cases, seem to have little point.
On the Other Side, a looping life-sized projection by Ștefan Constantinescu explores the relationship of the modern heterosexual couple. A man’s body, his silhouette diffused behind the glass in a set of locked French doors, shifts uneasily and in frustration as he is unable to connect physically or audibly with a female out of frame (but perceived to be in the room). Incrementally, his soft words build to verbal and physical threats, he is screaming and banging on the door; the universal emotions of hope, frustration, and finally resignation reverberating in his voice. The implications here are numerous: the obvious alienation felt and expressed in contemporary society of the sentiment of never genuinely connecting with another, the idea that love may be an illusion (a projection even) that is not real and unattainable, or that genuine communication with others (even lovers) not only doesn’t exist, but is impossible. It is powerful and intimate and absolutely gut-wrenching: a heart-breaking work that ruptures over and over as the man’s exasperation and anger and sadness slowly build and hauntingly echo through the gallery.
Life in post-communist Romania is undoubtedly difficult and complex: a time that appears (and is) corrupt and hopeful, disappointing and wanting, and seemingly never ending. Launched by the violent overthrow of the government and removal of the Communist regime after the Romanian Revolution in 1989, this cyclical search for freedom amid economic worries and governing instability weighs heavily on its people. The Communist past and the capitalist future alternately raise and crush the collective and the individual, and the influence of this near constant upheaval permeates all levels of their society. Looking inward, many of the artists here honor the private conflict that is so indicative of the difficulty of survival in a contemporary capitalist society – the near constant competition, the unfair and uneven hierarchies, and the blind ambition that is always shoving and pushing us to be more, be better, and that we are never enough. Few Were Happy With Their Condition thoughtfully reveals all the raw feelings of discontent, anticipation, fear, and longing these artists must navigate, communicate, and suppress in order to eke out their own new contemporary Romanian identities.
Few Were Happy With Their Condition, curated by Olga Stefan, is open now through March 12 at Gallery 400, located at College of Architecture and the Arts at University of Illinois at Chicago, 400 South Peoria Street (MC 034), Chicago, IL 60607.
It includes artworks from the following artists: Dan Acostioaei, József Bartha, Irina Botea, Razvan Botis, Claudiu Cobilanschi, Ștefan Constantinescu, Alexandra Croitoru, Cristina David, Bogdan Gîrbovan, Alex Mirutziu, Ciprian Mureșan, Vlad Nancă, Mircea Nicolae, Cristi Pogăcean, Ștefan Sava and Mona Vatamanu & Florin Tudor.
Images (from top to bottom):Ciprian Mureșan, I’m Protesting Against Myself (still), 2011, single channel video, 31 minutes, courtesy of the artist; Cristi Pogăcean, Untitled (still), 2011, single channel video, 29 minutes; Dan Acostioaei, What Goes Around (still), 2011, blue-ray video, 15 minutes/56 seconds, courtesy of UAGE Iasi, FAVD, Photo-Video Department, to view: https://vimeo.com/80935779; Ștefan Constantinescu, On the Other Side (still), 2015, color HD video, 9 minutes/21 seconds, courtesy of the artist; Alexandra Croitoru, The Cabbage Process (still), 2012, single channel video, 35 minutes/49 seconds; Few Were Happy with Their Condition, 2016 (installation view) – Right: Ștefan Constantinescu, On the Other Side, 2015, color HD video, 9 minutes/21 seconds, courtesy of the artist and Center: Cristina David, A Voice, 2013, video, 2 minutes, courtesy of Point Barre organization and Left: Claudiu Cobilanschi, Microclimates, 2015, series of 6 black and white photographs, 31 x 39 inches, courtesy of Kunsthalle Krems