Under destruction #1 – The noise of Politics
The noise of Politics – Christoph Büchel and Gianni Motti
by Mihnea Mircan
The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest, October – November 2004
Published in Vector Magazine, Iasi, 2005
The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest inaugurated its new location in October 2004 with five exhibitions, a program which in a sense mirrored the multitude of tasks at hand, some inherent in any such institution, some engendered by the particular Romanian political and cultural context, as well as by the history of this new venue.
Since the art project I will present here situates itself in critical relation to this context, an introduction is necessary. Between 2000 and 2004, the Romanian government had launched a policy of cultural initiatives, viewed by some as incoherent, detached from cultural necessity and designed solely for electoral benefit. Among those large-scale projects, creating a museum of contemporary art attracted a considerable amount of public attention. The inauguration of the museum answered a question discussed – sporadically yet always with a sense of historical urgency – by successive cultural administrators. Should Romania have a museum of contemporary art?, they repeatedly wondered, while the usual arguments of historical delay and disconnectedness from the international scene were deployed. If the necessity of such an institution elicited consensus, various impediments arose along the way, primarily concerning location. The question of whether to build a space or convert an existing one proved a sturdy obstacle for years. The latter-day cultural benefactors decided that the museum should be located in the Palace of the Parliament, in an uncompleted wing that was scheduled to turn into a white cube roughly around the time of parliamentary and presidential elections. Needless to say that this offer did not include an alternative option.
The initiative of the museum was thus not only conditioned but also contaminated by the political context. The museum was entrusted with two major tasks at the same time: to produce a viable program of contemporary art and to turn the Palace of Parliament into a plausible location for such an endeavour. I shall refer from here onwards to the building by its former name, more cynical but also more adequate in describing something that looks and feels like an open wound in the heart of Bucharest: the House of the People. The House of the People must rank high in some top 20 of difficult buildings to look at, come to historical terms with and digest culturally. It is a flaccid expression of communist absolute power, an empty interdiction directed towards the city, isolated from the life outside and folded upon itself in a megalomaniac entanglement of decoration, abuse and meaningless glorification. It, and the adjoining Civic Centre, gridlocked a sizeable portion of the city. I must confess I haven’t checked whether it still is the second largest building in the world, yet it certainly belongs to a universal architectural freak show as one of the twisted wonders of late modernism. The House treats the theme of political power in a style which is equally indebted to Baroque, Classicism and commedia dell'arte, looking like the background for some gigantic farce with scantily defined characters. In post-revolutionary years, it was the object of a significant perceptual shift: immediately after ‘89, the House was shortly opened to the public and Romanians enacted a strange political pilgrimage through its opulent marble halls. The healing potential of the act found its counterpart in the fact that many from the visiting crowds left very positive remarks in the guest book, expressing their admiration for the achievement. The uprooting of tradition effected by communist propaganda and architecture was thus welcoming back its offspring, a generation ready to concur to the loss of measure and ideas of national superiority. Then the House was closed to the public and taken into possession by the new powers, not in the least worried about ancestry. The displacement seemed unproblematic: taking over the symbol of power was a natural and rightful gain, expressing the new democracy’s solidarity with its electors. Because the House was no longer viewed as the actualization of terminal megalomania, as the product of a troubled mind which cannot decide whether to follow an inferiority complex or a superiority impulse, but, as the new reading proposed, as a manifestation of the constructive genius of Romanians, of their mythic potential for buildings things that last. Communist propaganda would not have disagreed, as the new reading meandered around all the hard facts and harsh conclusions of recent history and, moving in a loop, re-branded the House and closed it again upon itself*.
Instated by a questionable political decision, the Museum of contemporary art was nonetheless the first step in mediating between the life of the city and the lifeless relic. As a first foray into the forbidden city, the Museum had to negotiate between freedom and control: artistic experiment was supposed to happen in the proximity of political life, in the ideal setting for performing the post-communist syndrome in all its intricacy. And this perfectly democratic story was supposed to premiere around the time of elections. As curator for the museum, I proposed for the inauguration a project in many steps titled ‘Under Destruction’, which takes advantage of the new location of the Museum to engage in conflict with the House of the People and what it stands for. Because the House is not just an edifice but also a colossal accretion of historical inadequacies and local paradoxes, of complexes, maladjustments and discontinuities, as well as a symptom of what is awfully wrong with past and contemporary politics. 'Under Destruction' proceeds from a fairly urgent need of vindication and seeks to propose strategies of repossession.
For the first episode of the project, the invited artists were Gianni Motti and Christoph Büchel. The brief was obviously the blend of architecture and politics that the inauguration presented us with. The House in itself is a nightmarish Lego, further complicated by the political context – and all these called for substantial irreverence.
It all started one quiet afternoon, when, in a busy market in Bucharest, Gianni noticed a strange character absorbed in a strange activity – and it is Gianni’s natural tendency to look closely in such cases. A man was sitting at a desk on the street, the setting being completed by the fact that he had his own picture on the desk, accompanied by fliers, flag and other cheap paraphernalia. Gianni started a conversation and the man turned out to be the owner of a football team, Silvio Berlusconi’s biggest fan, a presidential candidate for the New Generation Party and the quite willing subject of an interview. In the ten days that followed, the other candidates to Romanian presidency provided the artists with short interviews describing their platforms and political projects. Gianni and Christoph were perfectly ambiguous as to the purpose of those interviews, yet the ‘aura of the artist’ worked wonders and ensured elated and eager egos on the other side. Caught mid-campaign, which was polluting the streets with more or less inane images and texts, the candidates seized the chance to speak their mind and program.
The resulting videos were installed in the museum’s storage area, in the basement of the House of the People. The idea of the installation was to create a ‘political fair’, with the normally commercial overtone of a fair transformed into advertising a political project. We used the shabbiest tables we could find and the volumes of monitors were turned to the maximum. The fact that the storage only had one electric socket provided the show with an additional metaphor.
What noises were coming from the bowels of the House? I would say it was the perplexed buzz of a rudimentary, nascent democracy. The recurrent story one could hear throughout the political cacophony was a story of sacrifice, sacrificing oneself for the collective welfare. There were additional stories of imminent national danger and salvation, eschatological laments, bad grammar, the rhetoric of the nation and the discourse of the revolted periphery, imprecations of political adversaries, business plans soaring to national relevance, there was talk of normalization and European values, the very stuff of Romanian politics and all the things that the nation needs to hear to feel at ease with itself. And all voices were trying to mute each other out, to out-scream the competition, which in the context had the effect of belittling the message and defeating the purpose. That desperate collision of voices provided visitors with an adequate image of contemporary political life in Romania, of the painful birth of democracy, revealed through what could be described as a political ambush.
Yet, to my mind, the main significance of the political fair in the context of the inauguration resided elsewhere, in the fact that it disrupted the plan of the government to present the museum as a pre-electoral achievement, to channel the significance of the event into a gain of popularity. Ideally, there were supposed to be radiant Maecenas, surrounded by beautiful works of art installed in an aseptic milieu. The fair meant an act of opposition to such a representational claim inasmuch as it allowed to the fore all political voices, and placed the ‘ruling voice’ inside the dissonant concert of varying political stances, and not isolated in the self-congratulatory position it aspired to.
The basement was a particularly appropriate space for the project, which thus situates the origin of contemporary politics in the entrails of the House, in the centre of the system it claims to supplant. The basement is also home to considerable conspiracy folklore, it is said that it actually goes all the way down to the atomic bunker and to a private metro station, other versions elaborate technologically the enigma. So the basement becomes a station on the golgotha of Romanian politics.
The noise of politics, in the sense of harmful interference into cultural matters, was transformed into confusing physical noise, and redirected towards its source, jamming the political machinery. Those disruptive sounds served to draw attention to the frailty of democracy, to the issue of excessive dependency and poor institutional culture. The noises resonate in the area of conflict between political life and cultural initiative, a terrain that Christoph and Gianni have explored in other projects, specializing in the production of irregularity, in accelerating the circulation of signs between the centre and periphery of the system. The electoral ‘ciorba’ (broth) as they jokingly called it, boiling in the shadow of the basement, worked homoeopathically. It used politics in the utopian, but nonetheless significant attempt to cure politics. The project brought to light the relationship between site, museum and politics, the untroubled continuity of some political practices between totalitarianism and democratic demagogy – while speaking of institutional precariousness and of the misery of contemporary politics, it provided the museum with a model of political action. Control was brought to light and held in check, by the fact that the museum became seamlessly integrated in the tissue of political strategies, mimicked and finally disproved. The show closed the day the new president of Romania was announced, and as they were removing flags and photos of victors and losers from the streets, we were cleaning up the mess of political propaganda in the museum.
P.S. While doing the famous SWOT analysis for ‘Under Destruction’ and beginning talks with the artist selected for the second episode, a piece of news/ gossip (a difference always hard to tell in Romania) left me feeling dispossessed of the project. For anyone unfamiliar with the transactions between the Romanian church and state this might sound a bit puzzling. The new curatorial team, larger than the one assembled for the latest Documenta, is formed by members of the new government, in conjunction with high representatives of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Their new project consists in erecting, on the desolate lawn in the back of the House, an architectural object called the St Andrew’s Cathedral of National Redemption, something that belongs to the 19th century and certainly not to that part of city. This sounds like the nightmare of an over-budgeted ‘Under Destruction #2’, with Andrei Rubliov invited for a site-specific intervention and proposing a rather unsophisticated clash between good and evil where no one prevails. If the plan of the new government is to enlist the support of that segment of population which needs this cathedral, and meanwhile safeguard the imperial isolation of the House, then the project can work. If the plan is to cover the whole idea of urbanizing the House with a thick layer of ridicule, then the project is truly advisable. If the grandiosely confused plan is to build a sacred counterpart to the obscene violence of the House of the People, then the project is ill-advised. So is any thought that this might infuse life to an entire area ravaged by communist urbanism, or trigger the post-traumatic process. Anyway, the plot thickens. One possible outcome is that a museum of modern and contemporary politics, presenting in a natural-history style the ignoble precursors of democracy and public debate, might prove a more exciting alternative and a more valuable learning experience for local audiences and possibly to large crowds of foreign tourists.
Under destruction #1 – The noise of Politics
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