A Context Both Distant and Close: A Review of A Matter of Contemplation and Discontent

An exhibition of contemporary Romanian artists situated in a Philippine art space is not an idea carried out just-so. The exhibition contributes in the local art scene through the artistic discourse on a new context, both distant and close, it encourages — distant, given the lack of interaction between Filipino and Romanian historicity; and close, given the unexpected parallelisms in the experience of the two nations. It is in the appeal to the curiosity of the local audience as to how the experience of the Romanian artists relate to what the Filipinos have experienced so far that this exhibition has set its entry point to the viewers.

This goal has been made given by the skit performed by exhibition curator Anca Verona Mihuleţ, Romanian artist Alexandru Antik, and Vargas Museum chief curator Patrick Flores. Guiding a metaphorical blind man, perhaps referring to the audience without any prior knowledge on Romanian history and thus, the parallelisms with Philippine history and experience, the two curators immerse into a casual chat pointing out similarities between the two countries. Both countries have undergone national transitions in the setup of government — Romania from communism to democracy, while the Philippines from a colony to democracy. In addition, prior these processes of transition, both countries experienced being squeezed in between two great forces — Eurasia and the Roman Empire, then Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, then Soviet and Western empires for Romania; Spanish and American colonializers, then American and Japanese occupants for the Philippines.

The exhibition opening then moved on to Antik’s talk about his works, which includes the protest banner screaming “An Artist Who Cannot Speak About Himself Is No Artist”. As per the artist, it is his personal, and seemingly gentler take on Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović’s 1994 banner saying “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist”, which sarcastically criticizes the need for the grasp of a language rather than one’s own to be acknowledged in the world of art. Such advantage, which may already border into bias, towards English-speaking nations is apparent not only in the art scene but also in different sectors as well.

Inscribing one’s country’s name on one’s body can be the most literal way of showing one’s nationalism — a mark of commitment, some people would say. Artist Dan Perjovschi had Romania tattooed on his left arm as part of a performance during the 1993 festival “Europe Zone East” held in the city where the Romanian revolution sparked. Ten years later, Perjovschi performed Erased Romania where he had the tattoo erased, declaring himself healed of Romania and a citizen of the world. This declaration denotes commitment realized, less of commitment given up, and it voices out the artists’ discontent and refusal to settle down, now playing in the wider field of the global world.

In his poster works entitled Post R, whose title is possibly a smart play of the words poster and post-Romania (referring to the communist Romania), he sarcastically labelled photographs from his country to deliver political statements. One ironic poster labelled “The most beautiful country in the world” shows a beautiful view of Romanian rural countryside smacked with a dilapidated toiletroom leaking waste into the river. A historical and political poster labelled “Always between two empires” shows an Eastern Orthodox church sandwiched between two huge unattractive buildings, referring to Romania being squeezed in by two big forces, mentioned above. Such political commentaries also resound to Filipino psyche, as these issues have been encountered and are currently being encountered in the country.

The photographs of artist Ion Grigorescu, showing innocent children playing around construction areas, are best viewed upon reading the story he had written about an experience last June 1993:

June ’93. I turn into the street named after the Romanian poet Panait Cerna, a landscape of dust and high-rises. I notice a parrot standing on the ground. I feared that the children could see him. Instantaneously, this actually occurs — their pursuit lifts him into the air for a few metres. He comes back down, and flies again, sent fleeing by the stones that don’t spare me, either, on the same road, until he climbs onto the stump of a building, an abandoned construction site. The boys are up there in no time, take him into their fist, and what do you think they do? Do they admire or stroke him? They throw him down like a stone! The bird opens its wings near the ground and takes flight again.

Through the interplay of the photographs and the story, the artist piques the mind of the audience to reflect upon who plays the role of the parrot and the children in Romania during the time the photographs were taken. Who has the power? And who is the weak who was able to escape? The same can be asked in Philippine society, both in the past and in the present.

In artist Sandro Bartha’s work entitled Breathing, he uses a video recording of a man breathing to demonstrate the state of Romanian society after the end of its communist regime. Described as reduced to respiration, a primordial act of existence, the act is not of the normal, calm one. The voice of the actor gasping for air is audible in majority of the exhibition space, symbolizing the struggle to breathe, the struggle for survival. Transitions, of any kind — from personal to political, in Romania or in the Philippines — can really be sensitive, and the level of certainty of success is unsure.

In Lokomotiv Karussell, artist Peter Jacobi documented monumental structures which have been significant during the World War II, specifically the Siegfried Line as shown in the diptych. Previously instruments of violence and mass-killings, these structures were transformed into land art or minimalist art through photography. This style, perhaps might come up as disagreeable for most, make strange the essence of photography in depicting history. Is art or beauty being used to blur histories? It pretty much sounds familiar. manilaartscene_favicon

The exhibition will run from the 22nd of September to the 19th of November, 2016 at the Vargas Museum, University of the Philippines — Diliman, Quezon City.

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