Matei Bejenaru is an artist and initiator of Periferic Biennial in Iasi, Romania. Established in 1997 as a performance festival, Periferic transformed into an international contemporary art biennial defined as a platform for discussions on the historical, socio-political and cultural context of Iasi. Together with a group of artists and philosophers from Iasi, Matei Bejenaru founded in 2001 the Vector Association, a contemporary art institution which supported the local emerging art scene to become locally and internationally visible. He is also member of the editorial stuff of Vector – art and culture in context magazine, a publication that mainly analyses the regional artistic and cultural situation of the South East European countries, in the process of transition, and the Middle East region, subdued to the pressures of conflicts..
As an artist, he is socially engaged in analyzing the way globalization affects postcommunist countries labor force and rapidly changes mentalities and lifestyles. In 2003, for the second edition of Tirana Biennial he installed a water post in the center of the city offering a free water distribution for Albanian inhabitants. In 2004, he initiated the cARTier project, a socio-cultural project aiming to regenerate a workers district from Iasi. In 2005, he published in the Idea Magazine and later exhibited at Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art in Vienna, a Travelling Guide for Romanian illegal workers. In 2007, he developed the project Impreuna/Together involving the Romanian community from UK and showed it at Tate Modern – Level 2 Gallery. In 2008 he participated in the Taipei Biennial where he presented the video Maersk Dubai, a documentary about the assassination of three Romanian immigrants.
utorak, 14.07.2009. at 19.00
G-MK | Galerija Miroslav Kraljević
Interview Dan Lungu – Matei Bejenaru
Dan Lungu (DL): What would be the characteristic features of providing your social practice with an artistic dimension? What makes it different from that of a sociologist or of a «social activist»?
Matei Bejenaru (MB): PrFirst of all, such an artistic project would be different from a sociological study in terms of its purpose, which is not a concrete, a measurable one. It should be «read» in a metaphorical key. Also, as Bourriaud stated in the Relational Aesthetics, a great part of the contemporary artistic projects achieved during these last two decades involved social interactions, created new sociability patterns or employed artistic objects and situations that produced sociability. These new sociability forms are creative and original and go beyond the usual patterns of the conventions we are used to.
DL: This means that artists promote new ways of experiencing inter-human relationship…
MB: Yes, that’s the truth. These projects determine us to go beyond the «social routine» and take off through art, at least for a short time, the «tight social clothing» that we’re wearing virtually all the time. In comparison with the Western societies, where the degrees of social freedom are well defined, in our post-communist society you still have all sorts of freedom degrees, which afford you the possibility to be a «social outlaw».
DL: Is this type of artistic projects a way for you to experiment a certain social weightlessness, a state of grace and creativity obtained through «parenthesizing» the social constraints? Weightlessness supposes a getting out of the system, whereas critical thinking is found within it. Weightlessness is not against the system, but in spite of it.
MB: Each and every artist is responsible for the artistic standpoint he or she adopts. There are artists who can afford to make any type of art, because their financial means are independent of their artistic production, a production that doesn’t have to be capitalized a priori. And the artistic system makes the existence of this type of art possible. Within the Romanian context, there isn’t a well-structured mechanism yet, and the artists are as weightless as they are hungry. Many of them cannot cope with the situation more than a few years, and after that they give up and go work in advertising or in the media in order to survive. As for those who manage to resist and go on doing non-commercial artistic projects, sometimes even using video or digital technology, I think they have a very clear political standpoint.
DL: Why did you decide to take on social criticism in your works? Why not use it in the media or the public events…?
MB:First of all, because I believe the art field to be a bulwark that proves hard to conquer or buy out by the system. The period that we’re now living in Romania is dominated by a primitive hoarding up of capital, when by the side of the road that has been recently asphalted with European money you can see a lot of barefoot people. This gets to me, and I couldn’t confine myself in the test-tube space of the studio when I know that there are so many terrible and unfair things happening out there. Moreover, my projects based on the social practice are also a challenge addressed to our artistic system. Only these last few years have began to appear the first institutions (museums, galleries) that are trying to «feel the beat» of these types of artistic forms. (…)
DL: How did your own artistic vision and attitude change from the older project involving the devices for smoking pork meat to the more recent Traveling Guide for the illegal immigrants in England? How do you relate to your own artistic itinerary?
MB: The project involving the smoking devices placed at Christmas time in the workers’ neighborhood Alexandru cel Bun in Iaşi, which took place almost 15 years ago, had been based on intuition mainly… I was still a student at that time and I knew virtually nothing about the social practice in the artistic field. Installing that smoking devices was for me emblematic for the way of life of the unemployed workers in our cities, workers who were no longer peasants, but who hadn’t become city people either. I was living in that neighborhood and I was sharing with them the morning queues for prime minister Văcăroiu’s state subsidized milk. In 1997, on the occasion of the project than took place at the Câlnic Castle, I think I introduced a certain critical attitude towards the local community there.
DL: In the project of the smoking devices I see in fact a sympathetic attitude, a fellowship with the unemployed in the neighborhood …
MB: That’s true. The Alexandru cel Bun project is a sad one, which reflects also the tough period that my family was going through at that time.
DL: In the Alexandru cel Bun neighborhood you created in fact a certain sociability pattern for the people in the building, who, crowded in the communist apartment buildings, had poor social relations. You created through your smoking devices a context and a new sociability space, which was a friendly one.
MB: That project was important to me because it elucidated my relationship with the people living there, it helped me define my own standpoint. The conversations I had with the people who were smoking sausages had been for me an opportunity to find out about their sometimes very serious problems… and at that time there were not many solutions for solving the crisis. After that project, there were people who referred to me as «the painter». I had gained a sort of identity in the neighborhood.
I believe that the experience of this project was the basis for the social culture project cARTier that I initiated a decade later within the Vector Association. By painting the exterior walls of several apartment buildings in the Tătăraşi neighborhood in Iaşi, my colleagues and I were trying to change the mentalities of the people, to make them take responsibility for the public space. In other words, we were trying to get positive social results through employing artistic means.
DL: Going back to the course of our discussion, which were the important moments that made you feel that you were going in the right direction and that you had developed your artistic vision?
MB: The experiments I conducted on my own as a student played an important part in defining my sensitivity in relation to the projects that involved the social practice and the interaction with the people. Not at all accidentally, as a student I achieved several performances that helped me get to know my own resources and artistic energies. As I was reading and seeing more and more things, I became aware of the fact that I was gradually including social practice in my projects. Through my speaking performances and the endurance projects in which I was testing my physical limits, I provided my works with a political dimension. In the performance that took place in Chişinău in 1999, when I read, facing the wall and without making any pause, all the words in the Romanian dictionary, I wanted to stress the paradox of the Moldavian language, which in fact doesn’t exist, as it is identical with the Romanian language; its only purpose is to serve as a diversion to the pro-Russian authorities in Chişinău.
After 2000, as I was traveling more and benefiting by artistic residencies, I had the opportunity to «uncouple» myself for a time from the Romanian situation and to re-contextualize what I had achieved as an artist. It was then that my artistic practice oriented towards the social and the critical and political thinking became clear to me.
DL: It is a very interesting fact, and it happened to me also as a writer and sociologist: once you begin to go abroad, your political sense sharpens and you become a more «political» individual.
MB: My recent project Travelling guide is explicitly political and somewhat subversive. I take on here the impersonal and objective language of this type of publications, but the information I provide is a detailed how-to meant to teach a Romanian citizen to get to England without having a visa. This contradiction between form and content is in fact the engine of the project. This guide is no longer operational in 2007, as Romania has joined the European Union, but when it was written, in 2005, many of the information were valid, their source being the immigrant Romanian workers who had penetrated into the UK illegally.
DL: If you had conceived it as a guide per se, not as an artistic project, do you think it would have sold? Supposing it would have been legal, of course…
MB: I don’t think it would have been legal, as it was encouraging the breaking of the immigration laws… Therefore, it wouldn’t have been lucrative. I had to explain over and over that it was an artistic project… that art had the right to be on the verge of the law and to criticize the system. In fact, I had conceived this guide as a sign of solidarity with the Romanian young people who couldn’t find their place in their own country and who were taking great risks to get abroad and make something of themselves. I would say that the tragedy of the two young illegal immigrants that were thrown overboard in 1996 by the Taiwanese captain of the ship Maersk Dubai is a symbol of the desperate ’90s following the dark ’80s dominated by the communist dictatorship…
Iaşi, 3. ožujka 2007.