Bucureşti sits in its watery cage, the Balkan jumble of fin-de-siècle villas and concrete towers ringed by deluge shedding storms. Unfurled by the rain, a chemical-metallic, organic decay infects the air, the sewers overflowing over Vlad Dracul’s ruined citadel. And as the people stumble between the puddles, umbrellas flanked to the sky, a speeding car sends up an almighty wave, drenching already sodden clothes.
Pre-cursing the rains that have flooded parts of England and Wales and helped unburden the Shires of drought in recent weeks, the Romanian region of Walachia was similarly saturated at the end of May. On the 25th of the month, the night of the late night public opening of the fifth Bucharest Art Biennale, floods sparked fires in the metro system, and the city was sodden to its core. Coinciding with Bucharest’s annual White Night of the Galleries evening, when a hotchpotch of commercial and independent spaces open until 4am, the wet evening made for an atmospheric, if cumbersome, start to Romania’s bi-annual influx of international contemporary art.
Initiated in 2004 by Pavilion – a journal-style publication covering politics and culture that now operates its own art centre – the Bucharest Art Biennale is one of only a handful of constant Romanian events to bring quality foreign art into the country. Curated by Glaswegian Anne Barlow, the director of New York art centre Art in General, BB5 maintains that mission, but the current economic climate means the 2012 edition is operating on reduced resources. A modest total of 20 artists, drawn from countries from Lebanon to the USA have participated, though Barlow says that with or without extra funding it was always her intention to present a select grouping. Utilizing mostly pre-existing artworks, the resulting exhibits are spread across seven venues in central and peripheral Bucharest, with the most notable being the communist-era House of the Free Press.
Barlow’s title for the biennial is ‘Tactics for the here and now’, the concept being to showcase artists who engage with political and social issues, but in a way that is more subtle than simple moralizing or hectoring. In practice, the background theory translates into informal, largely minimalist works that exist somewhere in a space between conceptual enquiry and physical art, or else engage with slippery subjects such as memory and the nature of experience. Sparingly displayed in Pavilion’s own exhibition space, two of the best examples of BB5’s refined aesthetic are the installation and wall drawings made respectively by French/US artist Alexandre Singh and Belgian Rinus Van de Velde. Like framed snapshots from their protagonists’ mental processes, the scattered prints of Singh’s installation, The Pledge (Simon Fujiwara) (2011), illustrate, with varying degrees of surrealism, a recorded conversation between Marc-Oliver Wahler, director of the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, and fellow artist Simon Fujiwara. Based on collages of collected material, text and pencil drawings, the prints reflect the way our view of the world is built upon fragments of experience. Delving into a similar sea of illusive reality, Van de Velde’s haunting charcoal wall drawing, Untitled (The Lost Bishop) (2012), acts like an extra from an illustrated comic, sucking the viewer into a crazed first-person narrative where the artist re-imagines himself as real-life chess player Bobby Fischer.
An echo-chamber for mental contemplation on a much grander scale, Bucharest’s Casa Presei Libere, or House of the Free Press, provides a weight of tarnished reality with which few contemporary artists could hope to compete. Still standing in its socialist realist architectural garb from the days when it was at the centre of the Ceauşescu establishment, the outer House hides a near-ruined interior. Where once printing presses might have turned out propaganda and appropriated truths, vast halls now stand empty, though parts of the building are actually still in use. Co-opting what spaces she was allowed, Barlow has cleverly infiltrated the building, showcasing work that draws on the contextual environment rather than seeking to overshadow it. Evocatively placed in a cavernous basement, Marina Naprushkina’s video, Oleg Alkaew (2012), is a case point, depicting with uncluttered directness an interview with a former Belorussian head of executions. Most striking of all the work displayed in the building, though, is the juxtaposition of Abbas Akhavan’s line of living cedar trees, Untitled Garden (2009-2012), with an installation by American artist Jill Magid. Akhavan’s trees hem in the entrance to a hanger-like hall, creating a tangible barrier to the space beyond. Separated by ruined emptiness, Magid’s ‘installation’ sits far off at the end of the hall. A pair of armchair’s and coffee table placed to allow visitors time to read copies of Magid’s book Failed States (2012), a “non-fiction novel” exploring media portrayal of the War on Terror, the exhibit sits perfectly in its surroundings, not least with the rain leaking through broken windows and forming puddles that create barriers of their own.
Elsewhere in the biennial, photographs by Haris Epaminonda and Vesna Pavlović similarly evoke a sense of fleeting memories irreversibly trapped in time, while young Romanian artist Marina Albu has created an atmospheric installation filled with oil burning lamps in a form of memorial to the power cuts that afflicted Bucharest in communist times. Collectively, the exhibits make for a light, poetic display with the better moments lingering in the mind long after viewing, while the deeper theoretical roots are well covered in the accompanying edition of Pavilion. Bucharest as a city, though, would benefit from a better funded event with a wider programme able to attract more culturally aware foreign visitors to the Romanian capital.
Bucharest Art Biennale 25 May – 22 July 2012
The author has been supported by grants from the Romanian Cultural Institute in 2009 & 2011
Words Richard Unwin