Truth is Stranger
On the Bucharest Biennale 4: Handlung. On Producing Possibilities 21 May – 25 July 2010
Published in Art-Agenda
I have always wanted to show how … your problems are also our problems and vice versa but I also wanted to show the way which our histories are interwoven and dependent on one another. I think we have to continue to place socialism and post-socialism in a larger context, we must continue to ask the difficult questions and search for the complicated answers. There are too many stereotypical narratives.
–Agnes, Stockholm (April 10, 2008)
In Stefan Constantinescu’s The Golden Age for Children, the above excerpt appears in a lengthy letter from a Swedish friend of the artist who shares his concern with the legacy of Communism in Romania. The piece, a colorful pop-up book complete with pull tabs and 3D archival photos jumping out from every page, stands out because of its humor and craft and also as one of the works which best exemplifies the exhibit’s theme. Constantinescu created the work in order to recount his experience – living under the regime of Ceausescu – to his daughter. In the process he encounters the challenge of telling the story and of passing on history to younger generations as he weaves text and photos from his own life with briefly stated historical facts in textbook form.
This year’s Bucharest Biennale is focused on the conceptual framework of “Handlung,” a German word which translates into both plot and action. The curator, Felix Vogel, has brought together 37 works that intersect documentary, contemporary art and storytelling. Vogel also wanted the exhibition to engage the city of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, as a site of Handlung – a place where action might be crafted, and where the audience is forced to navigate the complex urban terrain to simply participate and view the works. This is exemplified through the local relevance of the works that address the Romanian context such as Åsa Sonjasdotter’s Small Potatoes Make Big Noise, which examines the conflict between biologically diverse food grown in small gardens and the narrow-minded regulatory regime imposed on new EU countries. This is further emphasized in works that involve specifically urban and spatial themes like Spectral Aerosion by Société Réaliste which elegantly carves out of a slab of wood the palimpsest of borders imposed on Europe over the last 2000 years.
What is most engaging about this exhibition concept is it’s framing of art as a kind-of storytelling – narrating life and creating it at the same time. The Otolith Group approaches this blurry line in their futuristic video titled Otolith, set in the 22nd century and looking back at the life of group member Anjalika Sagar from the perspective of her future descendent. The beautifully slow (and often slow-motion) film addresses political agency, the influence of the USSR on Indian Socialism, and the Cold War themes of nukes and space exploration. It is at times difficult to follow, but captivating just the same, watching the actress float in zero-gravity while sleeping in a disoriented future reality. Here we all live in zero-gravity chambers because our inner ears (also known as the otolith) have lost proper functioning.
BB4 Handlung is an emerging space for dialogue and debate. The organizers claim to want to use these exhibitions to change culture in their country, and in the process have encountered significant conflict along the way. The Geological Museum, one of the exhibition venues that caters largely to children, censored the work of Kaucyila Brooke for being pornographic, just days before the organizers failed to find another venue. Other participating artists’ works were rearranged and downsized to accommodate the change in layout with no public acknowledgment, leaving some works feeling literally cut in pieces. A local group citing male chauvinism on the part of the organizers announced an action entitled Queer Bucharest Biennale, which would creatively confront the exhibition (though no evidence of this could be found at the opening in late May). A participating artist used a panel discussion to shout his concerns about the economics of the exhibition and a perceived inequality in the artists’ fees before storming out the door and leaving the audience in a haze of confusion. These conflicts and critiques seem productive and useful – they represent “difficult questions.” It is my hope that the organizers can find a way to respond to them and not shy away from the hard work it takes to change peoples minds in the “search for complicated answers.” If this happens, the Bucharest Biennale is sure to write its own narrative, chart its own path, and earn the respect needed to change culture in Romania and perspectives on post-Socialism abroad.