It’s been ten years since the Periferic Biennial was initiated in the north-eastern Romanian city of Iaşi. Like many ‘peripheral’ cities with a strong intellectual tradition, Ias¸ii began to rethink its cultural position in the region after the Communist regime was overthrown in 1989. Founded by artist Matei Bejenaru, Periferic emerged as a response to concerns shared by the local cultural community over the need to highlight Ias¸i’s art scene through an ongoing exchange with the international art world. Moreover, the project sought to invent new possibilities and conditions for creating an audience for contemporary art events.
The eighth edition of the Periferic Biennial, titled ‘Art as Gift’ and curated by Dora Hegyi, examined the ways in which the exchange between art works, artists and their audiences can be seen as an act of generosity, a mechanism for sharing knowledge or even a gesture of resistance. Throughout various venues, the exhibition traced the way the art economy functions and determines its own production, distribution and reception. The Biennial included a series of site-specific interventions around the city alongside historical and contemporary works that brought a critical perspective to the ‘Art as Gift’ theme.
One of the Biennial’s recurrent themes, thrown up by the concept of an alternative ‘gift’ economy, was the relationship between a city or community in transformation and a public art event. Works took a close look at artistic self-positioning, the art market, performance and the artist’s relationship to the audience. It also touched upon the condition of public space in Romania, in terms of both the ideology of public monuments and the notion of public space as a medium through which ideas and practices can come together.
Just before stepping into one of the event’s main venues, the Sports Hall of the George Enescu Arts University, visitors were confronted by Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic’s proposal for a public monument. Entitled Beginning (Hommage à Brâncuşi) (all works, 2008), the piece offered a possible reinterpretation of the modernist dream based on a translation of Endless Column (1938) by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Other highlights included My Gift by Budapest-based artists Róza El-Hassan and Salam Haddad – an ordinary gift package, wrapped in white paper and placed on a wooden structure in the temporary building of the National Theatre. With this gesture, the artists drew the audience’s attention to the unknown content of the gift, outlining issues of trust, public security and, by extension, collective paranoia. Markus Bader of urban theorists raumlaborberlin designed a minimalist, balcony-shaped structure, Info Point, which functioned variously for the Biennial as an information point, a public resting place and a space for screenings, thereby entering into a dialogue with the city. Bader also collaborated with Bucharest-based artists Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor on the realization of Rosa Luxemburg Square, which adopted the space surrounding Bader’s Info Point as a temporary public plaza. The artists shared with viewers their concerns relating to urban displacement in Romanian cities, which has resulted in a lack of public areas where people can meet. On one of the steps of Bader’s structure, the two artists placed a quote from Rosa Luxemburg: ‘Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.’
Hegyi’s strategy in the realization of ‘Art as Gift’ was to engage the local community in a dialogue that encouraged those who took part to acquire new perspectives about their city, its history and its art. This explains the emphasis, reflected in the Biennial format, on public education and discursive practices, which offered alternative views on the complex location of Ias¸i. The ongoing educational and event programmes developed during the Biennial responded to a general desire to enhance the local arts scene and to promote access to a variety of international reference points that could resonate with the life of the community.