Navigating the Normalcy
A social history of art reproduction
by Geert Lovink
subREAL - 'Serving Art' -
exhibition @ Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart (Germany)
20.02-15.03 1998 See also http://www.waag.org/subreal with special images from the exhibition
The Trans-Romanian artist group subREAL seems to be obsessed with history. An old European disease, one could say. Instead of condemning and suppressing their totalitarian past, Calin Dan and Josif Kiraly have specialized in reworking the Romanian art data in a playful way.
subREAL is opening up the photo archives of the former art magazine 'Arta' (1953-1993), where they both worked as the last editor-in-chief, respectively photographer until the publication died in the process of economic liberalization. Unlike in other cases in the Former East, subREAL does not intend to reveal any scandals about compromised artists or alleged informers and secret agents working for the then so powerful secret service (Securitate). The 600 kg heavy archive is primarily visual raw material. The work produced in Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin ('95-'96), regrouped the prints in various formats and around different media (installations, performances, slides & video projections, lectures, theater plays) addressing different types of public - from international academics to the Kreuzberg lower middle class, and various environments - from the streets of small Transylvanian towns till art spaces in Rotterdam and Santa Fe.
This is the archive of a communist, state-controlled art magazine, closely tied to the rich and influential Union of Artists, started in the dark Stalinist early fifties, with a short period of reform in the late sixties, until the even more dark times of the Ceausescu regime, until its sudden, violent fall in December 1989. What is fascinating here is not its pompous propaganda art, heroic statues of the heavy industry workers or the posters stating 'Victoria Socialismului' (they do exist, of course). But the horror vacui of normalcy, the bewildering boredom of the works and their authors, desperately trying to avoid any visible form of dissent. This art, heavily surveilled by the authorities, was trying to escape history by doing exactly what the party officials were expecting.
In search for the eternal forms (like in the work of Brancusi), the metaphysical aims of this 'art' are becoming fully operational. Severely overcoded by its ideological tasks, there is always an element which will hopefully neutralize the official forms of expression. Here, art is not merely expressing the Will to Power of a few second class party intellectuals. This art tends to disappear and can no longer distract our attention, let alone subvert... No expression, no pain, no desire. Instead, we taken on an endless journey through blurry, impressionist landscapes, advanced forms of mediocracy, from which we will never know what is perhaps hiding behind these masks of oppression.
In the last months, working again in Germany, subREAL have been focusing on the nearly 10,000 negatives of the archive. As a result of this process, a selection of 1000 prints are now on display in the gallery of the Solitude palace, which hosts a rather luxurious artist-in-residence program near Stuttgart, on a hill overlooking the city.
'Serving Art' is dealing with the framing of the photographic image, in this case the framing of the artworks. The paintings and sculptures were taken out in the open by the photographers in order to make the so called art reproductions. Because of the square format of the negative, which is never matching the proportions of the reproduced object, and also due to the inability of the photographer, we can see a lot of things happening around the art object. the uncropped prints allow us to see is the full image, with hands holding black or white back-cloths, and with the artist, the photographer, his assistant/wife, or some other people involved in the operation. Also the muggy studios, the 19th century urban environments, forced to escape from a decayed modernity. The stories visible in the margins are not 'correcting' the artworks, but just recording a period that visibly wants to fade away. The context that we suddenly perceive is merely doubling the effect of normalcy.
It is not the glittering utopia in contrast to the dirty reality, which could function as a 'truth', correcting the 'false' works of art. The unity of art in its social context is the actual theme of these negatives which are on display for the first time. For the purpose of printing the magazine, the photographers used only cutouts, retouched with a brush, deleting the aura around the art object. In this pre-Photoshop age, the photo and its negative still had a material aspect, an element which subREAL is now exploiting purposefully. The archive is not yet digital, not yet virtual.