BAK, basis voor actuele kunst
06/09/09 - 09/11/09
During a brief stay in Berlin at the end of August, my friend picked up a book in a leftisch bookstore at Kastanienallee called Wie das Marxsche Kapital lesen?. Only one week later we were caught up in a fierce late night dinner-discussion with a close Mexican friend who proclaimed that we need no less than a total apocalypse to overcome the neo-liberal hegemony of capitalism. It was not meant a a joke or exaggeration, he was deadly serious about this! (As an architect he’s developing a new socialist city and has serious connections with Chavéz, the president of Venezuela. Need I say more ?) That same week I read several articles in the newspapers about Slavoj Zizeks much debated book Violence (2008), just released in Dutch translation. In his latest book the Marxist philosopher states that the use of violence against the destructive forces of capitalism can be defended within certain circumstances.
Needless to say that all this demonstrates how much the process of revisiting the legacy of Marx is at the center of attention at the moment. I follow it with great interest, though on a certain distance, in terms of: where would I position myself in all this? For the Romanian artists Mona Vătămanu & Florin Tudor, whom I spoke just before the opening of their exhibition Surplus Value at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht, this is entirely different. For them the Marxist ideology doesn't only represent a historical legacy, it's a lived experience, so to say.
Vătămanu & Tudor grew up in Romania, under the regime of Ceauşescu and witnessed the Romanian Revolution in 1989 while they were coming of age. Now they wonder, with a kind of critical skepticism, what the status of their country has arrived at the present time. That doesn’t seem possible without re-visiting the past and the ideology they were immersed in as youngsters. In one of the video’s in the exhibition is called Das Kapital (2007): the only thing we see is the slow turning of the pages of Marx’ Das Kapital, the idea behind this is to invite viewer to read the book together with the artist. ‘We always refused to read the book when we were adolescents, although it was omnipresent, it functioned as a decoration on the bookshelf of every Romanian family’, Florin Tudor explained, ‘It was strange but also exciting to read the book so many years after I first got to know it.' Mona Vătămanu added: ‘An art critic who wrote about our work described this as a kind of re-working of a traumatic experience, and I guess she’s right about that, we need to look back to understand our past and somehow get at ease with it.’
This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in their new film Plus valoarea (Surplus Value) (2009). As part of the Marxist ideology (or to be more precise, as curator Cosmin Costinas rightly states: the nationalist ideology of Ceausescu consisted of some kind of particular local form of Marxism-Leninism) students were required to take manual labor classes, involving wood and metal carvings for boys. At the end of the year the students were required to buy back their own manufactured objects, the more complex the piece was, the higher the price had become. InPlus valoarea they choose to re-stage one of the absurd assignments they had to do during class: whittling down a piece of metal into nothing. Because the action is filmed in super-8, which gives the film a definite nostalgic feel, it's not entirely clear whether their action belongs to the present or the past. And this seems to be what the artists are after; they personalize history, initially this is only a part of their own re-working of the past, but during the process, their experiences become a subject that might concern us all.
In most of their work buildings are the protagonists of their films and performances. The architecture - or the disappearance of it - functions as the embodiment of the political and social structure of time. Through their interest in architecture, Vătămanu & Tudor also started to visit cities and buildings in other European countries that embody the memories of socialist history. The short film Manifestul (2005), for instance, shows the artists launching clean white sheets of paper into the evening sky from the top of a high-rise modernistic building that used to be a socialistic workers quarter in Vienna. Vătămanu & Tudor told me it was a highly personal statement and action. It took some years before they were willing to take these recordings in the open. It’s a beautiful poetic gesture and film. The building looks like a historical monument with its strange, abstract, concrete form. But what used to house the working class, has been taken over entirely by real estate companies: at present it houses one of the most expensive and fashionable apartments in Vienna.
I was thinking about taking my Mexican friend to the exhibition, but seeing this will probably only convince him more about his proclaimed apocalypse. But then again maybe I will, because if there’s one thing the highly personal, intimate and sober installations of Vătămanu & Tudor do, is that they make us think about the complexity, nuances of and differences between all the bits and pieces of socialist history. This may lead to the conclusion that maybe we don’t need violence nor apocalypse to come into terms with the ultimate trauma of our own time.
Surplus Value is the first exhibition within a long-term project of BAK called Former West: