Review #viennaintransylvania by Voica Puscasiu

#viennaintransylvania @ Atelier Patru

Cluj-Napoca, August 13th – September 13th 2015

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The small, independent venue of Atelier Patru is a relatively recent appearance of the Cluj-Napoca gallery scene, but throughout the monthly exhibits, it already managed to gather a steady audience with its smart choice in artists. During “regular hours”, the location functions as a studio for three painters, this makes it an artist-run-space, a much needed initiative in a city which is abundant in artist, yet somehow still lacking in institutions.  Until now, Atelier Patru has provided a valid alternative space for Cluj-based artists, but with this particular show it has spread its base towards the international sphere. The concept of #viennaintransylvania is interesting not only because it offers a great opportunity for people in Cluj-Napoca to be able to view works of foreign contemporary artist, but also because of the obvious historical symbolism in the choice of Vienna, former capital of an empire that once included Transylvania. In an era where decolonization in the art world is, at least theoretically, of increasing concern, the act of introducing Western artists to the “exotic” East block is bolder and less common than the other way around, which has become rather passé.

Curated by Alexandra Tătar, a graduate of the Universitatea de Artă şi Design in Cluj-Napoca and currently a student of the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna, the show brings together several artists whose common meeting point is Vienna, despite the fact they are not all from Austria. This reinforces Vienna’s image as a hub for contemporary art, and by extension, Cluj-Napoca also benefits from this afterglow. Many of the artists present had already participated in numerous and important international shows, so their presence here is notable, in spite of the fact that the works in presented in this show are not always their most relevant, which was to be expected.

An inherent characteristic of group shows is their diversity, and the different styles and pieces are often hard to conciliate. In this case, the small space actually worked in its favor since the number of pieces had to be kept reasonably low, thus the selection was strict, and yet still managed to include graphic works, painting, sculpture, video, photography, and installation, without clashing terribly despite them all being in a single room. This also meant using the space in a creative manner that went beyond hanging works on a wall. The sculptures were on pedestals, one of the videos was projected onto the floor along with Madame Pipistrelle’s (Barbara Stöhr) newest work Epilepsy is Dancing (2015), an otherwise flimsy installation, and so a visually interesting space was created when entering the show.

Brazil-born Roberta Lima is an artist with a large and expanding body of work who is currently based in Vienna and in 2013 she was the recipient of the Award for Excellence from the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research. The work chosen for #viennaintransylvania was Imprints, a video part of a larger series of works called ReBirth (2012), a performative and site-specific installation done in collaboration with Fearghus O’Conchuir in Chicago, which is consistent with the artist’s interest in her own body, both as a reoccurring theme and as a means to creating art, referencing the works of Ana Mendieta. Although the video was taken out of the context for which it was initially created it didn’t suffer quite as much as expected, the main loss being that the viewers did not get to experience ReBirth as a whole and perhaps grasp its greater concept. The video itself, in which an anonymous figure – only later did I find out it was actually the artist herself – bruised, smeared, and abused is struggling to leave its mark in the wet concrete through various movements like scratching, crawling, dragging, manages to make its point across, which is the resilience of an apparently fragile structure after being confronted with adversities. It also tackles a deeper subject which is man’s need to leave a mark, and not just any mark, but that of his own body; a primal concern, if we think back to the hand silhouettes of cave paintings, but still valid, as if leaving a print in a permanent setting is a therapeutic gesture, bringing comfort against the realization of the transience of our short and battered lives. Despite the theme, visually speaking the video is not particularly violent, and through the softness of the image, and the pink hues it builds towards an aesthetic that reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, which is refreshing considering that both video and performance art are too often raw and gnarly, especially when concerning the female body, like some act of bravado.

The works belonging to Michelle Karussell (Michaela Landricher) are all from the same series entitled The Ant is our Ontology (2012), the three graphic works and the video being the only black&white ones in an otherwise colorful room so they really stood out at a first glance. The video projected onto the floor seemed to really lend itself to such a presentation since it was a footage of black flies and other insects walking and flying on a surface. The grittiness of the video does not, however fall towards disgust, as we typically associate insects, especially flies, with pestilence and decomposition, and it also created a nice interaction with the viewers as their shadows became overlaid with the image on the floor. The graphic works had a common style and a common theme, they featured ant-headed humans in various social and working situations. The message is clear, and the composition of the pieces, very much resembling socialist propaganda posters, through their rhythm and juxtapositions makes it even clearer. By keeping the human bodies and giving them ant heads, the artist puts an emphasis on the anonymity of the workers by denying them particular features, particular faces, another gesture that further suggests the alienation of these characters. The association of humans with ants underlines the critique over the mindless working class, where everyone is equal and compliant with their place in the grand scheme of things, all working together towards an incomprehensible and thus irrelevant goal. The worker’s clothes and the environments such as the polluting factory in the background also allude to the socialist era, but the analogy can be taken further in the contemporary period where one of capitalism’s greatest inventions, the multi-national company and its ant-like employees are an ever-growing species, and giving rise to just as many frustrations and dissatisfactions as its socialist counterpart, except perhaps on more subtle levels, which makes them more difficult to spot.

Béatrice Dreux’s work in the show is also the only painting present, but it really encapsulates the joy of the act of painting. With rich hues, mainly blue accompanied by purple, like all her latest work, the work in its thin blue frame looks like an explosion of color. The artist being very gestural, the thick paint creates almost a relief on the surface of the canvas, following the shapes it renders. The work cannot be called abstract, since there are some visual cues such as the rainbow that occupies the center, and a sun, however the presumable landscape is far from being described through something other than atmosphere. A certain intentional naivety describes this painting, which does make it fit it with the nearby sculptures, together they seem to belong as decorum in a (highly conceptual) children’s room.

Perhaps the most captivating pieces in the show, at least from a visual point of view, were the sculptural works of Anna Khodorkovskaya, a Muscovite, living and working in Vienna, and winner of the Strabag Award in 2014. The works came from her collection Confusion (2014), each was approximately 30cm in height and entirely made out of many small figurines found in Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs or other such small toys. Resembling totems of some sort, very colorful and apparently haphazard, these immediately took the viewers back to their childhoods as everyone seemed to remember collecting or playing with them. The excitement was visible whenever someone stumbled upon a particular piece they distinctly remembered (for me it was a hippo). Besides gluing them all together, little alterations were made to the toys themselves, such as covering all the eyes with a neutral band so that it would not be too distracting seeing hundreds of little black dots, amidst the already chaotic color scheme and the multitude of shapes, this also helped make the object function better as a whole. Although I have seen other takes on sculptural works made from similar ready-mades, the mix of nostalgia and optimism transmitted by them was visually entertaining and ultimately fun, which is no small feat.

The only male presence in the show is also the only Romanian, Ovidiu Gordan, a graduate of the Photography department of Universitatea de Artă şi Design in Cluj-Napoca. According to his artist statement he means to “explore the aesthetic potential of the Romanian common place…trying to capture the beautiful poetry and drama of my country as it unfolds” and this may be true for his larger corpus of works, however through the two photographs presented at #viennaintransylvania, which are not definitory for the Romanian environment, he seems to take his search for the hidden aesthetics of the everyday even further. The fragments of the mundane are not bearing any location tag, so the fence, the shadow of a chair, and the bright summer light could practically be anywhere and thus the nostalgia they evoke is valid for a larger audience. The photos seem to have been “shot from the hip”, yet the composition is not careless, and by showing only apparently random fragments they seem intimate, like an inside joke, or a memory, without falling into Intimism.

The exhibition’s space was extended to the exterior in a very clever manner as Victoria Meyer’s piece was placed outside in the garden. A several meters long blow-up object completed the atmosphere of the show with its simple cylindrical shape and broad black and white stripes. As it is usually the case of soft sculpture, it integrated nicely among the vegetation without being invasive, since one could sense its frailty and temporary nature. The decision to integrate the outside space in the show was another good one among the many that made #viennaintransylvania a very particular experience. I cannot stress enough how much the light-hearted and fun atmosphere mattered in the reception of this show, and besides that it also managed to reach its desired purpose: to bring an improvement on Cluj-Napoca’s expanding artistic scene by showcasing young, contemporary artist from abroad, which happens much to rarely, despite it being very useful.

Voica Puşcaşiu

 

You can find a photo gallery of the exhibition here.

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