Life a User’s Manual

Mining the history of political insurrection of its host city, a biennial focusing on links between East and West

BY Emily McDermott in Critic's Guides | 10 NOV 17

During lunch at a pub midway through my visit to Timișoara, Romania, for Art Encounters 2017, the artist Pavel Brăila placed his backpack on his lap and removed a bottle of Călărași Divin, a five-year-old cognac he had brought from Moldova. He served five small glasses, as the President of the Art Encounters Foundation said, only partially joking, ‘people in this part of the world need to be self-sufficient!’ In differing ways, this sentiment resonated throughout my visit.

Situated near the Western border of Romania, nearly 342 miles from the capital of Bucharest, Timișoara has seen some of the country’s most important political moments. When Romania broke from the Axis powers and joined the Allies towards the end of World War II, German and Hungarian troops repeatedly failed to take Timișoara by force. After the war the city underwent Sovietization under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and the city was transformed by the urban planning policy of systematization enacted by Nicolae Ceaușescu. In December 1989, a series of protests on the streets of Timișoara began what is now known as the Romanian Revolution. Three days later, it was declared the first Romanian city free of communism. 

Ștefan Bertalan, Maxwell’s Demon, 1967–68, black and white cotton threads in wood frame. Courtesy: the Art Museum, Timișoara; photograph: Francesco Galli

In 1966, influential artist group 111 emerged in Timișoara. Comprised of Ştefan Bertalan, Roman Cotoșman and Constantin Flondon, the group focused its practice on constructivism and the Bauhaus movement, despite heavy censorship. 111 were included in the Nuremberg Biennale in 1969, after which Flondon emigrated to Germany and the two remaining members founded the new collective Sigma, which remained active until 1980. Members of Sigma – including Bertalan, Cotoșman and, at times, four other artists – taught at Timișoara’s Fine Arts Academy, making it the only art school in the former Soviet bloc to adopt the Bauhaus curriculum.

Serge Spitzer, Seeing Red, Seeing Yellow, Seeing Blue, 1976, c-type print, 62 x 246 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Serge Spitzer

Sigma and 111, along with other historically important Romanian artists such as Ana Lupaș, receive special attention throughout Art Encounters 2017’s main exhibition ‘Life a User’s Manual,’ curated by Ami Barak and Diana Marincu. Taking its title from Georges Perec’s multi-layered novel, the biennial encompasses 14 subchapters across six locations. Three floors of the Timișoara Museum of Art are dedicated to three historical exhibitions. ‘Reenactments. 5 Artists from Timișoara — Kalinderu Hall 1968’ re-stages an exhibition first hosted at Kalinderu Hall in Bucharest in May 1968, primarily focusing on abstract-constructivist work by the 111 and Sigma groups. ‘Decebal Scriba and Serge Spitzer — 40 Years After’ presents two Romanian artists who, although they met in art school, followed different paths and had little contact throughout their careers – Scriba remained in Romania while Spitzer emigrated to the US. ‘The Historical Avant-Garde’ showcases work from the ’60s and ’70s by seven southeastern European artists, including Lupaș and Dimitrije Bašičević as well as one painting by LA artist Channa Horwitz.

Ana Lupaș, East, 1994, installation view, the Art Museum Timișoara. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Art Encounters / Ovidiu Micşa

By including Horwitz the curators seem to diminish the self-sufficiency of the regional artists as each seems to be validated by the presence of a Western artist. Yet her careful, rigorous aesthetic resonates with the other artists included and it’s important to remember she only gained the recognition afforded to her male contemporaries very late on in her career. Exploring this tension of East and West, validation and recognition, Ana Lupaș’s installation East (1994) presents wall labels from a dismantled exhibition that included her work amongst that of Marina Abramović, Constantin Brâncuși, Marc Chagall, Christo and Wassily Kandinsky.

Ahmet Öğüt, The Swinging Doors, 2009/17, riot shields, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Vlad Cîndea 

Outside of the Museum of Art, three venues in Timișoara and one in Arad (a town 37 miles north) present contemporary exhibitions divided into thematic sections including ‘That Obscure Object of Desire’, ‘Home, Sweet Home’, ‘Urban Insights’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Politics’. In total, about one-third of the represented artists are international and the rest have Romanian heritage. Displayed in a recently renovated though unused train museum, the chapters ‘Urban Insights’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Politics’ blur together. The back room of the space screens Anri Sala’s film 1395 Days Without Red (2011), a collaboration with composer Ari Benjamin Meyers that sees a young woman relive the traumatic experience of the siege of Sarajevo. The preceding hall displays a mixture of painting, collage, installation, photography and sculpture, including: Lea Rasovsky’s giant inflatable, bright orange military tank, entitled SOFT WAR (Bubble Gun of Sweet Surrender) (2017), which was supposed to be pink and to which Ami Barak and the artist still refer to as ‘pink’; Ahmet Öğüt’s The Swinging Doors (2009/17), an ongoing series in which he installs local police riot shields literally as swinging doors; and a version of Michel Blazy’s Fontaine de mousse (2007), three foam coils that slowly grow and emerge from yellow, industrial garbage bins. As in the other spaces, all of the artworks fit within the thematic subtitles, yet they lack the dialogue and tension found within a more tightly-curated show.

Lea Rasovszky, SOFT WAR (Bubble Gun of Sweet Surrender), 2017, inflatable, 6 x 3.5 x 2.5 m, installation view ‘Life a User’s Manual’, The Tram Museum Timisoara. Courtesy: Art Encounters; photograph: Ovidiu Micşa

Despite some missteps the scale and level of professionalism seen throughout Art Encounters 2017 was impressive. Viewing its historical exhibitions, in conjunction with the contemporary showcases engendered dialogues that would otherwise have gone unnoticed to my own Western perspective. The inclusion of Horwitz in ‘The Historical Avant-Garde’, her discrete way of working and lack of recognition until after her death, also speaks to how Lupas, who, at the age of 77, continues to work in seclusion and remains under-recognized. The meshing of ‘Urban Insights’ with ‘Who’s Afraid of Politics’ drew attention to the fact that the urban fabric of Timișoara is itself deeply rooted in political uprisings. These small connections to Western art found throughout ‘Life a User’s Manual’ helped place each regional artist and topic within a greater, more relatable context. This framework might seem to deprive local artists of a sense of immediate agency, but it invites a wider audience to approach and understand the artists’ practices and regional histories. In a city with Timișoara’s tumultuous history, eliciting dialogue can only be a good thing.

Emily McDermott is a Berlin-based freelance writer and editor.