Thorgils Fridjónsson interviewed Ioana Nemes in Bucharest, 2010

We met in front of the Romanian Peasant Museum – an imposing building in the Brancoveni style in Victoria Square, in the middle of Bucharest. It was a hot day, 38 degrees Celsius in the shade. Most of the inhabitants escaped the heat and rushed to the seaside. Bucharest was deserted and looked more like an enormous empty set for an apocalyptic SF movie. Everything was lethargic, as if nobody was willing to waste more energy than necessary for survival.
We were glad to find the museum’s halls cool, although a bit dusty, with a worn-out decor that probably remained unchanged since its inception. There were some fascinating pieces, such as an entire old peasant house in perfect condition. We stopped in front of some old cheese stamps from Brasov, extraordinary wooden jewels.

Ioana Nemes: This is where I’ve seen for the first time the traditional cheese stamps that inspired the Stove piece. I was intrigued by the fact that they were used as a sort of tool for religious branding. The cheese was stamped during religious holidays and the patterns inlaid in wood have a very clear symbolic role, but there are very few people who still know what each symbol means. When trying to find some originals, I’ve realized how fragile the history of rural domestic objects in Romania is. Most of the old cheese stamps were used as firewood. For my piece I had to reconstruct an old stamp model from an ethnography book.

Thorgils Fridjónsson: Why were they used as firewood?

IN: They had to make way for the new domestic needs and tools, made of modern materials such as plastic or stainless steel. Isn’t that interesting? The Romanian peasant has internet wire through his yard, changes the ceramic-tiled roof with an aluminum one, replaces solid wood frames with the infamous white plastic ones, covers his hearth with cheap kitsch tiles and installs spotlights everywhere in the house. The Romanian village is in full esthetic and cultural emancipation.

TF: Wherefrom this disrespect for old objects charged with history?

IN: Romanians do not have a general disdain for anything old. It’s only that unfortunately for the rural landscape, old traditional Romanian houses are not considered valuable. I’ve been to the village of Nereju, in Moldova, famous for its artisans working wood and wool masks formerly used in rituals. In that beautiful landscape at the foot of the mountains the houses looked like hybrids. The contrast between old therefore useless and the new and modern was violent. Since old houses were not equipped for modern comfort – bathrooms, electricity, upgrades were made savagely, without any consideration for the original architectural materials and logic.
Certainly, 50 years of communism left an indelible mark. Isn’t it fascinating that this form of extreme socialism that raised peasant and worker on a grandiose pedestal turning them into heroes and models of the new world also triggered the irreparable destruction of these very social categories? Communist ideals were good on paper, nevertheless they were put into practice in a hallow way. The peasant’s life and values were devoided of meaning, while propaganda took over his craft and creative force in order to outline and glorify the new national identity. In this savage editing, many artists deemed dangerous were deposed, while others were reinvented and idolized, such as Brancusi.

TF: I wanted to touch on Brancusi subject during our interview. In your recent sculpture series Relics for the Afterfuture (Brown) one could feel his presence, not a direct one, but rather like a surveillance, a sort of Big Brother.

IN: My relationship to Brancusi is a rather complex one. While in primary school, I had been intoxicated with Brancusi, who was being introduced to students as the supreme genius who succeeded in abstracting the Romanian Spirit – this Holy Grail that we, as a people, are still looking for (see the yet another recent failure of country branding).
Brancusi, we were told in school, is invincible, impossible to criticize, he is a God. I used to hate him because he was so indestructible. Unfortunately, professors failed to explain why Brancusi was a good artist, or when they did it they used a pompous and adulatory language, smearing even more his image in our conscience. It’s only several years ago that I accidentally stumbled upon an excellent book, written in English, that not only presented his works but also the cultural context of those times. I was surprised to discover a Brancusi that was so logical and natural in his approach and didn’t at all resemble the one we learned about in school. After I read several books about him I began to creatively empathize with and better understand him.

TF: I know there are several young Romanian artists who approached Brancusi in their works. How do you see your approach in this broader perspective?

IN: The first work I’ve seen in this direction was a color photography in which some McDonald hamburger boxes were stacked vertically, quoting Brancusi’s Infinite Column from Targu Jiu. I think it belonged to Mircea Cantor. Then there was an intervention by a young artist in which the Table of Silence was wrapped in various kinds of artificial fur. In another proposal, artist Razvan Botis made an ironical performance in which he rebuilt a miniature Table of Silence out of pressed cheese and sausages.

Although I perfectly understand the thought mechanism behind these works, I find it childlike to solve a (communist) trauma through a mocking and derisive gesture. It’s maybe too easy, too superficial. It excludes the trouble to research and understand what actually happened during communism, why Brancusi’s oeuvre had been wrapped in megalomania and forced to embody the Romanian spirit and identity. Ironically, all these efforts did nothing but showed what a small, local culture we have.

TF: When trying to understand Brancusi, isn’t there the risk to fall in love and thus when turning to the past, to superpose over the gesture of the communist regime?

IN: Probably what young artists lack is this very generosity, or responsibility, to honestly fall in love with something. To try to understand, and not to aggressively treat any subject with irony. I think we have to separate Brancusi’s works from the stupid propaganda of the communist regime. See him not as an indestructible god but as any good artist from that period, alongside Man Ray or Duchamp. In today’s Romania, Brancusi is still perched on a white Moneasa marble pedestal. He is a national icon, nevertheless one that is understood locally, limited and contaminated by the communist propaganda.

TF: To close this subject, I will return to the initial question. How did Brancusi’s work influence you in the Relics for the Afterfuture (Brown) series?

IN: Just like him, I was fascinated with the poetry of the traditional wood sculpture in Romanian villages or the African sculptures. Brancusi was a talented designer, if he were alive today he would probably design for Ikea. When I began working for my series, I knew I didn’t want to make any direct commentary to his works, nevertheless I kept in mind the superficial, ironical approach young Romanian artists had. As to the influences, Matisse’s gouache collages and Jean Arp’s colored wooden reliefs had a bigger influence than Brancusi’s works.

TF: What took me by surprise the first time I saw your works in Berlin was how different they were of anything I saw coming from young Romanian artists. Because the approach was different and because there was great attention paid to form, to the esthetic and to the finishing details. I’d say your works are somewhere at the border between art and design.

IN: Indeed, with this series I entered an inexistent territory unfortunately in Romania, that of the product design. I have a background in design too. For the last 4 years I’ve been part of Rozalb de Mura fashion collective – the first avant-garde label in Romania which gained hardcore fans among international stylists and fashion magazines. Also, the fact that I work with Rochite - one of the most talented Romanian musicians, couldn’t but influence me. For me, art is not indestructible, it must be constantly bombarded from different fields, be it design, science, anthropology, politics, etc.

TF: This is why sculptures in the Relics for the Afterfuture (Brown) seem suspended in time, ignoring current tendencies in Romanian contemporary art.

IN: I prefer to call them objects and not sculptures. Indeed it’s more of a luxury to do this kind of projects when you come from Romania. It almost seems like an autistic gesture. Nevertheless I think each artist should be honest with his interests, oblivious to passing trends. I’m addicted to design, art, books; 90% of my knowledge comes from foreign publications in art theory, philosophy, literature, anthropology or psychology, and even more from the internet. I’m located in Bucharest, though I live in the books I read in English and in the multitude of virtual spaces on the internet.

TF: How influenced are you by the context in which you live ?

IN: Since on the international art map Bucharest is a peripheral city, the relationship we have with the centre (Paris, Berlin, London, NY, etc) is one of constant referral. We model our identity by looking into the mirror of the powerful ones in the centre. We constantly adjust our image thus validating the labels that are being stuck on our foreheads. Eventually, it is a subordinating relationship of dependence.
Objects in the Relics for the Afterfuture (Brown) series try to push into the future the potential that the history of our traditional “objects” have. Without embracing the past – with its rural architecture, domestic tools or rituals there is no future for the Romanian design. Since the last 50 years were destructive from this point of view, we might start digging even deeper and see how objects, houses, churches, villages were made, used and preserved.

TF: Why isn’t design encouraged in Romania?

IN: For various reasons. First of all because the new Romanian industrialists opted for short time strategies, choosing the lohn production or the hacking of Western patterns with cheap materials and manufacture rather than investing in local design. We are still in a primitive phase, working with the hardware and ignoring the software. We prefer exporting timber instead of producing wood objects with competitive design. Design is a value added over a primary need, a luxury therefore, and we are not yet at that level. This is why all incentives that should help a young designer to develop are inexistent, from small, flexible workshops able to produce limited series, labs for experimenting, specialized magazines, to grants and funding by the state. For Romanian politicians the profession of independent designer simply does not exist, therefore it doesn’t need to be encouraged.

TF: What about Rozalb de Mura, isn’t it a success story?

IN: We knew from the very beginning how we want to position the label within the niche of experimental labels, always taking into account the international context. Paradoxically enough, when we became visible in this cruelly competitive world, the factory that supported us in Miercurea Ciuc sort of bankrupted. Currently, we are in a process of reorganization. Most probably we will push the label even further in the experimental zone.

TF: Carpathian Mountains seems different from the rest of the works, can you tell me more about it?

IN: It doesn’t seem different to me. It’s situated in a cubist-abstract zone, but it’s not the only one heading that way. Rope (Z) and Ponytail are part of the same family. Carpathian Mountains was supposed to be this Western mirror in which we look when we want to know who we are. The work must always be placed parallel to a brown painted wall, in order to underline its mirroring characteristic. Therefore, it’s neither the brown field nor the geometrical frame that suggest the Carpathian Mountains, but this projection in the mirror.

TF: Last question, why the brown color in the title of the series?

IN: Because it seemed to me the most suitable shade to describe today’s Romania: spectacular and primitive nature, abused or abandoned, villages deserted by people who left to work in Spain, beautiful Maramures houses bought and moved to France, dusty little towns with communist blocks like ugly shipwrecks, sweaty buses and an intoxicating traffic. Brown is horizontal, a colour to begin with.

Thorgils Fridjónsson is a freelancer curator and writer. He co-curated the show The End by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Venice Biennale 2009. Studied at CCA – Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan and was guest teacher at Reykjavik Art Academy, Iceland, 2010 and at Valand Art Academy of fine Arts, Göteborg, Sweden in 2008. He writes for various art publications: Bidoun, Frieze , Kaleidoscope, 032C. Lives and works in Reykjavik and Berlin.