Visavis Exhibition view Photo by Sebastian Apostol
Visavis Exhibition view Photo by Sebastian Apostol
Original Adidas, 2019 Ceramic tiles on MDF, glass display case, bronze 135 x 45 x 120 cm
Original Adidas, 2019 bronze
Hanging Planter, 2019 Ceramic tiles on MDF, hanging house plants 120 x 30 x 15 cm
Hanging Planter, 2019 Ceramic tiles on MDF, hanging house plants 120 x 30 x 15 cm
Self Portrait, 2019 metal frame, MDF, mirror, ceramic tiles 94 x 217 x 91 cm
Visavis Exhibition view Photo by Sebastian Apostol
Vis a vis, 2019 Welded iron, ceramic 90 x 90 x 45 cm
Vis a vis, 2019 Welded iron, ceramic 90 x 90 x 45 cm
Dialogue (after Natalini and unknown Romanian architect), 2019 welded iron, black paint 205 x 64 x 38 cm, 180 x 48 cm
Map of the World (after Martin Hylacomylus 1507), 2019 Handmade ceramic tiles on MDF panel 540 x 260 cm
Map of the World (after Martin Hylacomylus 1507), 2019 Handmade ceramic tiles on MDF panel 540 x 260 cm (detail)
Visavis Exhibition view Photo by Sebastian Apostol
Swing Me, 2001 - 2019 looped video, metal swing dimensions variable
Self Portrait, 2019 metal frame, MDF, mirror, ceramic tiles 94 x 217 x 91 cm
Self Portrait, 2019 metal frame, MDF, mirror, ceramic tiles 94 x 217 x 91 cm
Viorel Trocan, Anca Oțoiu Project for 24 villas in Abu Dhabi, 1984 ink, collage on tracing paper
Viorel Trocan, Anca Oțoiu Project for 24 villas in Abu Dhabi, 1984 ink, collage on tracing paper
3 Vases, 2019 ceramic tiles on MDF, chrysanthemums, gladiolas, carnations 45 x 30 x 30, 60 x 30 x 30, 30 x 30 x 30 cm
3 Vases, 2019 ceramic tiles on MDF, chrysanthemums, gladiolas, carnations 45 x 30 x 30, 60 x 30 x 30, 30 x 30 x 30 cm
3 Vases, 2019 ceramic tiles on MDF, chrysanthemums, gladiolas, carnations 45 x 30 x 30, 60 x 30 x 30, 30 x 30 x 30 cm

2019: Vis a vis

curated by Jonatan Habib Engqvist

18 September – 9 November 2019
at Suprainfinit Gallery, Bucharest, Romania

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre the Ural region in Russia. Produced by the American experience design company Lorem Ipsum; it is a mammoth free-market themed fun-park-cum-museum-spectacle showcasing Yeltsin’s decisive role in ushering free-market policies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It encompasses a recreated Kremlin office with the original furniture and a row of rotary-dial telephones and mock-ups of an empty grocery store in Moscow as well as an “authentic” living room with the ballet Swan Lake playing on loop on state television, as happened in 1991 when Soviet hardliners staged a failed coup. In a glass vitrine – the famous briefcase – that had a button inside authorising the use of nuclear weapons, now with electronics removed. And on the top floor with a magnificent view of the city of Yekaterinburg, The Freedom Room, which explains how important market economy is for individual emancipation. In this remarkable mirror chamber films of politicians and celebrities from all over the world, with the likes of Tony Blair and Bill
Clinton, suddenly emerge through the mirror glass to convey a message of freedom like ghosts from a future past.

Now, with the future behind us one might ask how free this freedom was? And for whom? What has changed in the era facial recognition technology and increased surveillance, legislation and bureaucracy of the contemporary free world? These associations come to mind when encountering a mirror (2019) with a cube of white title placed in such a way that the tiles obstruct the reflection of your face.

Stonewashed jeans stuffed into tennis socks, pink neon legwarmers, shoulder pads, leopard patterned spandex and ruffles. With Diana Ross, Adam and the Ants, The Thomson Twins and through the barricades – the aesthetics of the Western world went POP, screamed “Freedom” and girls just wanted to have fun. Meanwhile it would seem that Romania of the mid-1980’s mainly proposed beige and grey, cold, rational, Tjernobyl aesthetics. Or at least that’s how the story often is told.

Vlad Nancă tells me that one of the few things you could find in the grocery stores of Bucharest in the during this period was pig feet. In the local vernacular these were known as Adidas (connoting any training shoes). In Nancă’s exhibition, the new version of work titled Original Adidas (2003/2019) is at first sight reminiscent of a pair of “golden boots” that one might acquire by winning a football tournament. They have been placed in a vitrine inspired by something between a post-Soviet butcher shop and the Italian utopian architects Super Studio´s grid. The work is a remake of the artist´s earlier, and by far less durable, artwork with the same title that consisted of actual pig feet with the famous three stripes tattooed into their skin. A decade later they are cast in bronze – as “originals”. The gallery space is a former butcher shop, where you originally would find these original Adidas.

As China was recovering from the Cultural Revolution it gradually started opening up to Western Culture and when Wham! went to China in April 1985, they were the first Western pop act to play a concert in that country. While the lyrics themselves weren´t intended as political, footage from this trip was used to make a music video, implicating a wider global meaning. The video opens with a full minute of the band talking while we see clips of daily Chinese life and of the countryside. MTV wanted to cut out this lengthy intro (this was before Michael Jackson’s game-changing Thriller film) but their manager refused. Wham!’s music was distributed on contraband cassette tapes and passed among students. But the band was mainly known as Wei Meng, a phonetic translation of Wham! that also means “ferocious” in Chinese. Ceausescu’s July Thesis is of course not comparable to what took place in China even though it of course entailed an extreme limitation to the influences of Western Culture*.

Like a bird snatches up a fish from the water, a number of elements are taken from history and placed in the artist’s nest at the top of a cliff. Swing me (2001) with it´s two-tower socialist apartment building in the background, seems to be indicative of this method. A flat screen which shows a film that has been recorded by placing a camera on a swing as well as physical swing hanging from the ceiling, invites the viewer to watch while swinging. And somehow your body immediately wants to get into the rhythm of the swing. Swing me, seems to me, in the context of this show, to be a kind of memory box, or subconscious, in a back room, which informs the rest of the show: rocking-back-and-forth, forcing us to readjust our optics and a handle a sensation of warped gravity. In this show it is revisited and reshaped, with a tiled swing that not only refers to the other works in the show but also creates a sense of ambivalence vis-à-vis the artwork as a utilitarian object.

*After a visit to China, Ceausescu issued the Theses, which contained
seventeen proposals, including: continuous growth in the “leading
role” of the Party; improvement of Party education and of mass
political action; youth participation on large construction projects as
part of their “patriotic work” (muncă patriotică); an intensification of
political-ideological education in schools and universities, as well as in
children’s, youth and student organisations; and an expansion of political
propaganda, orienting radio and television shows to this end, as
well as publishing houses, theatres and cinemas, opera, ballet, artists’
unions, etc., promoting a “militant, revolutionary” character in artistic
productions. The liberalisation of 1965 was condemned, and an Index of
banned books and authors was re-established.

With the found architectural drawings Rom Proiect Bucuresti – sketches for a villa complex from the mid 1980´s as part of an overall scheme of selling Romanian architectural solutions abroad, the perspective is shifted once more, and we are brought back to a semi-domestic space with several structures created for plants and a hybrid sculpture somewhere between a so-called vis-à-vis chair with tiled seating and a modernist monument.

Nancă´s use of square standard tiles is also play with the utopic architecture of Italian Superstudio and their continuous grid, of ideas of flat earth maps brought to the world of socialist Romania. Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map (copied by Hylacomylus in 1509) which is the point of departure for Nancă s hand-crafted tile work in this show, was in fact the first to name ”America” in honour of Amerigo Vespucci who was the first European to concretely prove that the ”New World” was not Asia’s eastern outskirts (as Columbus first thought). Although Nancă’s Map of the World (2019) is based on the 16th century drawing it clearly has no text, no nomenclature. It is merely the glazing of the hand made tiles that suggests any difference between bodies of land and the sea. It brings to mind one of the most well known advocators for individual freedom, the Irishman Oscar Wilde, who in The Soul of Man under Socialism writes that a “map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”

Elisabeth Grosz has shown how we often misinterpret utopia as space, when it is in fact a question of time, and in a posthumously published book, Retrotopia, a 91-year old Zygmunt Baumann convincingly argues that we have long since lost our faith in the idea that human beings could achieve human happiness in some future ideal state—a state that Waldseemüller’s contemporary, Thomas More (executed in 1535), tied to a topos, a fixed place, a land, an island, a sovereign state – a brave new world with justice for all. But while we might have lost our faith in utopias, Baumann argues, this human vision is so persuasive that it has not disappeared. Rather it is re-emerging today as a vision focused not on the future but on the past, not on a future-to-be-created but on an imagined abandoned and un-dead past that he calls retrotopia. Having lost all faith in the idea of building an alternative society of the future, many turn instead to the grand ideas of the past, buried but not yet dead: Zombie life in the midst of that Disneyland-emancipation which Zadie Smith once called the “belief in believing”.

Foucault’s analysis of heterotopia – a concept originally presented to us in contrast to the idea of utopia is in line with his overall endeavor to construct a genealogy of knowledge and power, which he later came to call a ‘history of the present’ or an ‘ontology of actuality’ might hold some potential when it comes to understanding how Vlad Nancă’s work positions itself with regard to Bauman´s notion of Retrotopia or a post-Soviet “Ostalgia” (nostalgia of the former east). It is a genealogy that implies a resistance towards what he felt to be the all too facile themes of utopia and transcendence as traditionally bestowed upon us. In
Swedish philosopher Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s words: “such a counterhistory also requires that we somehow free a virtual becoming, or a becoming-virtual, inside the present in its relation to a past that is no longer simply past, that we release a swarm of other pasts and futures that constitutes a proliferation of doubles, so as to resist a historicist version of history as a burden that enforces an already formed future upon us. In this sense we may take heterotopia as a reformulation of utopia, or as an attempt to excavate an untimely moment inside utopia, for which the other, the heteron, at a certain point appeared like a more
apt term than the negative ou, the negative non-place in u-topia.” Somehow the term vis-à-vis signifies an era, a defining moment of events where cultural identity often was justified ”in comparison with” or ”in relation to an idea of another”. After the cold war it seems as if the vis-à-vis has changed and with it how we think of the future from
the past.

Text by Jonatan Habib Engqvist

Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, Polity, Oxford, 2017
Michel Foucault, Des espace autres (published posthumously in 1986) and based on an informal lecture to architects in1968. Citated here from
Elisabeth Grosz, Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space, MIT Press
Zadie Smith, Feel Free, Penguin Books, London, 2018
Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Architecture, Critique, Ideology: Writings on Architecture and Theory, Axl Books, Stockholm 2016
Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891,