Getting Real at Bucharest Biennale 4
By Daniel Tucker
Published in H-Art Magazine (Belgium), June 2010
Das Kapital, the book that changed the world, is the subject of Alexander Kluge’s 90 minute film contribution to this year’s Bucharest Biennale 4 (BB4). Excerpted from the 570 min original, this version of News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx – Eisenstein – Das Kapital was fittingly installed at the Institute for Political Research at the University of Bucharest, a unique space for critical ideas about regional politics. Like all of the BB4 venues, the IPR is not an art institution and embodies the organizer’s goals of using an exhibition to influence the culture and politics of Romania. Included in interviews between Kluge and a range of philosophers, there is a charming dialogue with Hans Magnus Enzensberger about how capitalist crisis can be represented in art. This soon transitions into Der Mensch Im Ding a small film within the film produced by respected Berlin filmmaker Tom Tykwer who uses Marx’s analysis of capitalism to dissect every manufactured material visible in a short slow-motion film scene of a woman running down the street. From the connection between her skirt and the global textile industry to the surprising story of fasteners uses to hold street signs in place, Tykwer elegantly exposes the inescapable complexity of contemporary capitalism in the materials, which make up our lives.
Kluge’s work is presented at IPR alongside the brilliant Golden Age for Children by Stefan Constantinescu and the simple and highly effective The Only Reason by Fereshteh Toosi which presents a 1970s American white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan membership card reading “The Only Reason You Are WHITE Today is Because Your Ancestors Believed & Practices SEGREGATION” detourned to read “The Only Reason You Are A CITIZEN Today is Because Your Ancestors Believed & Practices IMMIGRATION.” The cards were nonchalantly stacked on one of the building’s radiator, free for visitors to take. This casual display method generally worked well, blending the works into the context in which they were presented, even though sometimes it was cramped and difficult to identify which work was by whom and some of the installations seemed haphazard with audio levels off and video loops failing to loop.
Other works from other venues, which stood out, included the Danish collective Fieldwork’s Workarounds – The Politics of everyday life, Åsa Sonjasdotter’s Small Potatoes Make Big Noise, Judi Werthein’s Brinco, the films by Otolith Group, and Spectral Aerosion by Société Réaliste.
In the basement of the IPR is the Magnus Bärtås video Madame & Little Boy, which skillfully blends scenes of interviews with South Korean actress Choi Eun-Hee (aka Madame), footage of the always-impressive North Korean group choreography, and North Korean monster film clips directed by Choi’s ex-husband Shin Sand-Ok. Choi and Shin had been kidnapped by the North Koreans and coerced into jumpstarting their film industry, and their story is told by popular folk-singer Will Oldham who presents their story assisted by traditional Korean picture cards. His presence is initially odd and out of place, though we later find out he is in the barracks nearby to the Nike Missile Station north of San Francisco at the Marin Headlands artist residency. The atomic war context connects to the climate of North Korea’s paranoid culture with the United States, and Oldham explains “in 1969 people had flowers in their hair [in San Francisco]…little did they know that just a few miles away there were 20 little boys” referring to the nickname given to the first nuclear weapon ever deployed, by the United States on the people of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Bärtås uses Oldham to create distance between his project and the traditional documentary format. Initially I was confused (why is this person narrating in this way from this place?), and then as he explains the story, shuffling printed photos correlating to the lives of these two remarkable figures, it becomes apparent that it is not important who narrates and in what fashion, as long as the story is compelling and that it is shared.
Storytelling, truth telling and the documentary form are dominant themes of this exhibition of primarily film, video and photographic installations. Felix Vogel, the BB4 curator who has gotten much hype because of his young age of 23, chose the theme of Handlung, a German word strangely translating into both Action and Narrative. The connection between stories and actions is an appropriate conceptual framework for the mostly well-selected works in this show. It is not overbearing as a theme, but productively connects all of the work in the exhibit.
“The idea of documentary or what is called the essay film were very important for the research of this exhibition, though I am not so interested in documentary in the classical sense.” Vogel explained to me in an interview following a discussion he facilitated with the artists in the show. “I am interested in documentary if it can involve going beyond mimetic representation of reality. If something else happens, if different narratives evolve, different formal executions occur…I am interested in how artists are changing documentary. I think most of the artists in this show would have something against [being labeled documentary makers]. There is a suspicion of documentary, and this combination of facts and fictions, fictionalization of factual material, is much more important to this exhibit than just [traditional documentary production]. The works in BB4 are intended to introduce action in a way that traditional documentary does not encourage.”
Earlier, during Vogel’s discussion with the artists, he was utterly unprepared to facilitate, awkwardly asking the audience if his discussion prompt was ok: “What role does narrative play in your practice and how are you transforming those narratives in your work?”
And then the drama started.
“Its not about narratives.” Exclaims BB4 participating artist Jean-Baptiste Naudy (member of Société Réaliste from Paris). “I am a professional artist, which means I pay my rent, feed my daughter, buy clothes, Champaign and kebab while practicing art. This event has been produced; there are lots of people involved in putting on such an event. All of the people that work here, the press, the artists. Everyone is a professional. And everyone is being paid. Because it is your work. I know that you fundraised a lot of money to produce this event. I guess you have an agreement with the Hotel Intercontinental in order for me to sleep in a five star hotel. On Monday I was sleeping in a park and tonight I am sleeping in a very nice, good, fancy, expensive bed.
And my question is how is it possible, that in an international event like this one that pretends to raise questions about political economy, possibility to produce differences and open the field of knowledge and consciousness…how is it possible that I don’t even have 20 euro of per diem?…How do you pretend to contest the dominant political economy while you have people working to produce your damn event who are not getting paid! I know there are people in this exhibit who were paid, and I was not. Why!? We can talk about theoretical things, we can talk about abstract things, but this is reality. I am a worker, a proletariat, I am producing works for your context and I am not paid!”
Then people start clapping, as many artists had expressed frustration over having production budgets but no payment for their labor. People were also frustrated by the censorship of one of the pieces in the show by one of the venues, which resulted in a last-minute reshuffling and editing of the show which left some works cut in half, cramped, and poorly installed. There was clearly conflict in the room and around this exhibit.
Vogel tried to deflect and to respond, “I think it’s supposed to be about some other questions but I will answer your question briefly. The pay was based on embassies and sponsors and it’s according to their rules and not ours. We did raise money, but everything is still on a very low [budget]…”
Naudy cuts him off: “Are you paid?”
“Yes…” Vogel replied
“Well I am not!”
Slam! Went the door behind Naudy and everyone was startled. The audience was silent and for the rest of the evening, the conversation never really regrouped.
The other artists I spoke to confirmed they were not paid by BB4 to come to the opening, that they had negotiated that money from their home country’s art councils. Razvan Ion (co-director of the Biennale), stood up and grabbed the microphone from Vogel, furiously reprimanded the audience and the participating artists, “When someone behaves this way and you applaud when you don’t know nothing, that’s perfect – you can follow the same way! I don’t care because I don’t make any money out of the art world. The explanation is this: Jean-Baptist was paid completely and entirely by the French Institute…If he wants to fight with someone then it should be the director of the French Institute and his own embassy and not with me or with him [gesturing to Vogel]. The artists which have a per diem, have it from their own [countrys’s] cultural institutes…this is the real situation, and if you continue on these topics it is really offending. You come to Bucharest from somewhere in the West and try to tell us how rich we are and how poor you are. That is not a topic…and this kind of behavior is not really acceptable.”
Again, the room was silent. People’s concerns not really resolved. Naudy’s outburst and the subsequent applaus represented a clear desire to engage in this subject. Vogel’s lack of preperation and faciliation opened the door for such anger to take hold of the room. As Ion dramatically walks back to his seat, he hears the silence and exclaims “And now you can applaud. I think I deserve an applause, OK?”
I asked Vogel to reflect on how this experience might effect his career in the arts, how it might influence him? “It is my hope that my innocence, lack of legacy and of experience, can benefit the show. Its not like it’s my 12th biennale. It is important to me to try to retain this fresh outlook somehow, so that I can go into a new context with a very fresh mind from the beginning.”
But I hope that Vogel, Ion and the team who put together the incredibly rich BB4 will not remain innocent in the face of their experiences. This conflict that emerged, however misguided or misplaced, is an important debate to have. In order for BB4 to move from conceptually questioning the dominant narratives that construct reality to really doing it – they have to address the material conditions which Kluge and Tykwer address in exhibited works of art. I have never experienced such palpable tension in a forum for contemporary art. This is exciting and makes the works so much more alive and real.
[Note: I wrote a different review of the same exhibit which focused on different artists for Art-Agenda]