BY H.G. Masters in Features | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150

In Focus: Mircea Nicolae

Interventions in Bucharest's history of state bureaucracy and brutalist architecture

BY H.G. Masters in Features | 01 OCT 12

The figure of the flâneur is as detached as he is knowledgeable about a city’s intimate characteristics. In that Baudelairian tradition, Mircea Nicolae’s projects derive from a lifetime of strolling through his native city of Bucharest. Once known as ‘Little Paris’, the Romanian capital has been disfigured by communism, the Eastern Bloc’s brutal version of Modernism and, more recently, by material scarcity and poor governance. For Nicolae, however, Bucharest is not a place to experience passively. Instead, the city serves as a field in which to interject his presence into the colluded systems of state bureaucracy and market capitalism, and to commemorate a rich (if at times unlovely and dejected) history.

Nicolae’s first series of works, ‘O Sută de Intervenții’ (One Hundred Interventions, 2007–ongoing), comprises 100 impermanent acts – initially graffiti and, later, found or constructed sculptures and conceptual projects – documented on the artist’s blog. In early pieces, Nicolae applied his handwritten slogans on various surfaces: ma duc la (‘I am going to’) and si eu (‘me too’) on two billboards on the Bucharest-Pitesti highway; and nimeni nu poate citi pe intuneric (‘no one can read in the dark’), on the walls of the pressure chamber of an abandoned sanatorium in Râmnicu Vâlcea. Along with his unauthorized sloganeering, he created improvised in situ sculptural works, such as a square of sawdust in a blackened meadow of scorched grass. There are also found objects, as in 37. accident: ‘Wrecked ambulance abandoned at a crossroads in the centre.’ 

From the series ‘Metal Doors’, 2011, digital colour  prints on  dibond, each 90 × 70 cm. All images courtesy the artist

As the series progressed, Nicolae expanded the definition of ‘Intervention’. In 93. home gallery, the artist converted the living room of the apartment where he lives with his mother and sister into a small space for exhibitions by removing much of the furniture and carving white foam blocks as ersatz plinths for the remaining objects. Between August 2008 and June 2009 he hosted ten shows by emerging artists there and, at the end of each opening, raffled off the art works. The final intervention, 100. anything, anytime, anywhere, encompasses ‘the things that I have already done, but also those that follow’, theoretically prolonging the series indefinitely. 

Nicolae, who studied both literature and architecture, constructs narratives as adeptly as he identifies features of urban development. The central subject of his 55-minute video Romanian Kiosk Company (2010) is a family saga spanning the years 1953 to 2010 (closely based on his own, but with embellishments), in which he interweaves episodes from Romania’s political history with the halting development of the family’s kiosk-building company. Travelling around Bucharest, the narrator documents the current condition of its street kiosks, many of which are disused or in disrepair, while explaining their architectural significance: from the styles of the 1970s that mirrored the flying roofs of Eastern Bloc Modernism, to the crude ad-hoc productions of the early 1990s, to the later, more standardized versions required by the municipality. Interspersed is archival footage portraying the grisly execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the violent clashes between miners and protesters in 1990, and Romania’s path to NATO and EU membership. 

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Between this documentary footage, we see the narrator’s hands placing family photographs on a red carpet. Through them, we learn how his father preferred to sing at weddings and to drink rather than design kiosks, before dying of a stroke after battling cirrhosis. His mother quit her job at a bread factory to run the kiosk business and, after her husband’s death, married the company’s head engineer. His sister becomes a heroin addict. The protagonist falls in love with a married woman and, at one point, tries to commit suicide; to heal himself, he starts doing ‘interventions’ in public spaces. Throughout the film, the protagonist continually notes the demolition of Bucharest’s buildings, and eventually the kiosks themselves, or their integration into more contemporary, regulation-grade structures. With their preservation in mind, he creates scale-models of four of the kiosks, at roughly three-quarters of the original size, making them large objects, but dwarf buildings.

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In conversation, Nicolae expresses the urgency of documenting the particularities of Bucharest’s architecture. ‘Metal Doors’ (2011–ongoing) is a series of large-format photographs of the decorative elements found on the city’s portals, before the municipality removed them to install ‘thermo-insulated prefabricated aluminum panels’ as part of a ‘beautification’ campaign. If our conception of the beautiful is closely related to what is rare or rapidly disappearing, then this typological venture records the small traces of a human touch amid an architectural schema implemented on a mass scale.

As a final note, it turns out that Mircea Nicolae is not, in fact, the artist’s name. For 99. my name, he describes an occasion when he was teaching high-school students and he suggested that they write under psuedonyms. He and the students placed three names of authors whom they liked in a bowl. Appropriately enough, he drew Mircea Eliade and Nicolae Labis, becoming Mircea Nicolae, the amalgam of a historian and a poet.

Mircea Nicolae lives and works in Bucharest, Romania. This year his work has been included in ‘Pink Caviar’ at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, and ‘One Sixth of the Earth: Ecologies of Image’ at MUSAC, Leon, Spain. In January, he will begin a four-month residency at the International Studio Program in Brooklyn, New York, USA, supported by the Pinchuk Foundation, after being awarded the People’s Choice Prize as part of the Future Generation Art Prize 2010.