The success of “new wave” art in Cluj, explained by curator Jane Neal. She set the capital of Transylvania among the 12 cities of Future Art.
This post is also available in: Romanian
In mid-September 2013, the British newspaper reported a new album release, published by Phaidon, which would bring great excitement for us: Cluj was nominated among the 12 cities of the Future Art. We found the one who made this unexpected gift to the city and to the artists from Cluj: the independent British curator Jane Neal, passionate of the Great East.
She signed the chapter for Cluj in the album . Jane believes the recipe with which the artists from Cluj managed to impose themselves internationally is that of looking with detachment and humor at their personal experiences with the communist dictatorship.
BF: You are a specialized curator in East-European Art. Why this interest?
JN: It wasn’t so much a decision as a process of organic evolution. Before I studied fine art, I took a course in medieval history in the early nineties, and I had a tutor, a young historian called Roger Moorhouse who was collaborating with Norman Davies on a book entitled ‘Microcosm’ which was about the history of Wroclaw and how it functioned as a model for what happened in so much of Europe in terms of population exchange and the re-branding of countries and territories. It was an exciting time to be re-looking at Eastern Europe; the Berlin wall had just come down a few years before and change was rife. It’s strange but now I’m writing about Cluj and Transylvania and realizing that so much of what I was discussing with Roger in terms of Wroclaw or ‘Breslau’ as it was known for such a long time, is true for Cluj with its mixture of peoples and their fates according to the different countries and Empires that ‘owned’ it. I have come to see how the identity of a place can change and develop over the years.
So, to return to the story: because of this tutor planting this seed of interest, when I went on to Art School (The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University), in the late ’90s, I received a travel award to spend some time in Prague. Two years later after I went on to study Art History and Arts Journalism, I returned to Prague in 2003 and again in 2005 as an arts journalist. It was while covering the 2005 Prague Biennale for Art Review Magazine that I met Victor Man who was participating, and his friend Adrian Ghenie. They were telling me about their plans to establish Plan B, which Adrian went on to do with Mihai Pop, and I went there for their inaugural show; an exhibition of Victor Man’s work in September 2005. Since then I have become more and more involved, not just in Cluj but throughout the Central and Eastern Europe region, through writing and curatorial projects. I went on to make a wider research in East Europe. I spent time in Poland and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 2008 I was invited to work as Artistic Director for a Not for Profit foundation in London that would focus on Russian and Eastern European Contemporary art. I was contracted to get the place up and running and establish the first year’s program. It was called Calvert 22. As a result of this I also came to spend some time in Russia.
BF: What makes Art from this part of Europe more attractive for the West? How did it all start? You have a personal history with this area, relatives, friends, etc
JN: As I explained above, my relationship with this part of Europe has evolved in quite a natural, organic way. I don’t have family in the region, but I do have many friends there.
In terms of art being ‘attractive’ – I do not believe you can just wrap up a bunch of artist from a specific area and categorize them as ‘the next hot thing’. That is irresponsible and also, it would not work. If there is nothing good or interesting to be found then who would be interested? Better would be to consider individuals who might happen to be working alongside each other in a specific context and then to apply various criteria as to the strength of their practices.
The first quality to look for would be integrity: is he or she committed to ongoing research into the work they are doing? If they are innovative, are they making something new or interesting, for the right reasons – because they are passionate and believe? Or are they just following fashion, something they think they should make; a trap artist can fall into, especially young ones, which is a mistake. Young artists are often hungry to follow the older generation, especially if they have been successful and it’s natural for them to want to emulate their success and have success for themselves – but this does not make for interesting art. An artist has to find his or her own voice and has to make something which adds to the ‘picture’ (in terms of the ‘bigger picture).
So if you take painting as an example, you begin at a point that is already layered with history. Whatever you do so much ‘ground’ has already been covered and explored. It’s not an easy task to be a painter, there is so much history to contend with, but this is not a reason not to do it, although for a long time people felt it might be a reason not to paint. I believe this was extremely misguided and a deliberate tactic on behalf of the international western ‘art police’ who were desperate to create a new language that would mark out the latter part of the 20th Century as different from the first part. In a way it was active propaganda: contemporary art propaganda – a new ideology for the new museums and institutions designed to separate the ‘thinking’ elite of the Western world from their counterparts elsewhere who did not ‘understand’ this new language.
Perhaps then we could argue that open minded people in places such as New York and London were intrigued by what they saw coming out of Eastern Europe because it was born out of a different perspective that wasn’t so self conscious and desperate to try and please the ‘tastemakers’, as some of the knowingly self referential art of ’90s Western Europe and America.
BF: I know you organized with an exhibition here in Cluj, but I don’t know when you first visited the city? What made you “search” for talents here and not in another city in Romania?
JN: I have worked with Mihai on several projects and hope to collaborate on more in the future. As to how and why I ended up in Cluj, you have the story now in my first answer. I first visited in 2005 and have been returning ever since. As to why Cluj and not another City – well you have the reasons as to how I came -as to why it’s artists are so successful I raise and discuss this question in my chapter for the Avant Gardes book.
BF: Can you describe your first impression of Cluj?
JN: Several things struck me and still do – it is such a vibrant city with a beautiful historic centre but It also feels so young – full of students, cafes and bars – the ideal city for meeting up and discussing and furthering ideas – the perfect hub for intellectual discussions over coffees and late night drinks.
BF: You worked (or are still working) with whose paintings became a real success in the past two years. Ghenie himself seems a very discreet person unwilling to monetize his art or talk about it, so we don’t know much here in Cluj/Romania. What do you think people like in Ghenie’s paintings? What attracts them?
JN: Adrian is a great painter. He is discreet – that’s in his nature – but anyone who knows him understands that he is also extremely clever, has a brilliant sense of humor and he is very generous and kind. He is simply one of the strongest young painters working today in the world. He has vision, energy and skill but everything is underpinned by his intellect and by a love for the medium he has chosen – you can feel this in his work. Adrian emerged at a time when painting was really still quite overlooked and he fought this – not by coming up with cleverly ironic interventions, but by challenging this status quo head on through pushing the boundaries between abstraction and figuration with his unique personal technique and manipulation of his subject matter, and by using paint to interface with some of the great questions of our age, the hangovers from the fall out of the previous Century. In this way he has thus proved to the world what a plastic, contemporary and vital medium paint is. If anything, I would argue that it is photography today that is under threat thanks to smart phones and other digital technology, whereas painting is thriving.
BF: I am sure that not only Ghenie made you reach the verdict that Cluj will be one of the Art Cities of the Future. What or who else convinced you?
JN: I was asked by the editor of the Phaidon book: ‘Why Cluj?’ And also if there were common themes in the Cluj School artists’ works, and I think there are two things: one is a shared interest in twentieth century history; this is definitely a theme that the artists are visiting. There is a focus on not just what happened under communism, but on other, powerful things that happened across the world that echoed throughout. It’s not simply a case of the artists recording what happened to them, but as Adrian Ghenie described to me, it’s possible to read the twentieth century as a century of humiliation, the repercussions of this affected his family directly, but this experience functions as a model for what happened to people all across the world. The Cluj artists have succeeded in evoking the essence of what is close to them, but also in recognizing that these individual experiences are a global phenomenon. What marks them out is that they are looking from their own unique perspective. The other recurrent theme is a shared sense of humor and irony when examining the darkness of things. The 30 + generation grew up with the promises of communism, only to watch its demise, and then capitalism arrived with its new set of promises and the people’s expectations faltered as the reality failed to match the dream. And so a certain watchfulness set in, yet it did not descend into cynicism; somehow hope and ambition were retained. And this then appears to be how the artists go about negotiating their place in this world.
In terms of evaluating the artists’ positions and their practice, if you look at the different artists in Cluj you will find that they are all conceptually driven; so in this way they satisfy the international market. So you have who looked afresh at the Stalinist social experiment of the 1950s: the ‘creation of new man’ and its legacy in contemporary Romania and Eastern Europe, and Adrian Ghenie who has been inspired by the great forces, good and bad, of the 20th Century and how the seeds of change in the 19th Century continue to affect the present. Essentially, his question might be: ‘How can something intended for good become used for evil?’ In a sense then he is considering one of the great universal philosophical questions. Victor Man is more difficult to pin down, more subtle and chameleon-like in his practice yet it is possible to say he is strongly influenced by the great myths of modernism and struggles of the 20th Century. Marius Bercea is strongly influenced by Brutalist architecture, the physical manifestations of totalitarian regimes. I think all these artists – and many more that we unfortunately do not have time to consider right now, were aware that they had to do something new, they had to engage with what they personally relate to; they also recognized that they would have to produce work that stands out internationally.
BF: As you probably know, Cluj is one of the candidate cities for the European capital of culture in 2021, that’s why your article in the book is so important to us. I would like to ask you to do a small exercise of imagination. You are visiting Cluj in 2021. What do you see on the streets?
JN: I think it is notoriously difficult to project into the future like this. In my experience, the more you try and visualize what these futuristic buildings or projects will look like, the more arcane these ideas appear when you arrive at this point in time and look back on what you imagined or designed. However, I would hope that in 2021 you would continue to see bustling cafes and bars in Cluj, and all that makes it so attractive as a city today, but in terms of the visual arts and general arts spaces, it would be great to find more pop up shows, ‘off’ spaces, perhaps a kunsthalle or a library or archive dedicated to visual art and more good public sculpture and artist interventions.
BF: In your opinion, how can Art give identity to a City? How important is Art for the public space? Can you give us some examples?
JN: Art is vital – if we look at the UK, consider how the Baltic museum and Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’ have really helped put the north east of the country on the map by providing a visual emblem with which this area – which was really depressed after the demise of the coal mining industry- is now identified. Similarly artist interventions are remembered and remarked upon – especially those that interface with the public space – think of sculptures by lauded international artists such as Anish Kapoor, Brancusi and some of the icons of ‘land art’ for example. Even works that are more ephemeral but conducted in public places – such as performance pieces – leave a trace, a shared memory in the collective unconscious of a generation that is then passed down. How dull and deadening life would be without the color or even provocation that art brings.
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