Issue #19, 2004

The Opening of MNAC
Cosmin Costinaș

National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest,

October 29



On October 29, 2004, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest was inaugurated, the biggest project of contemporary art in Romania and the biggest Romanian governmental investment in con­tem­porary art.

The creation of this institution has caused a lot of controversy since the launch of the project in 2001*. But this won’t be the focus of this text.

I will, however, point out an aspect of the institution – which was one of the hottest issues in the debate surrounding the museum – the loca­tion in the People’s House, because this was one of the subjects on which the inaugural program was based upon and because this subject should be discussed by the museum in one way or another in the future. The com­plex identity of the People’s House means that this building can talk about the 20th century, about its utopias, its grandeurs and mis­eries, its dislocations and its moralities, maybe better than any other build­ing in the world. And to this heavy baggage, the postcommunist political power in Bucharest decided to add the placement in that space of both the Romanian parliament and the MNAC.

This multifaceted identity, which is to be found in each of the elements of the People’s House, from the (previously erased) urban space in which it was built to its architectural aspect or to its current function, was likely to raise debates and was impossible to definitively answer questions. The posi­tions regarding MNAC in the People’s House ranged between an attitude of exorcizm (contemporary art in that space would contribute to the symbolic and effective transformation of the building, it would integrate it into a new affective circuit of the city and implicitly into a Romania which thus assumes a new attitude towards the past) and one of contamination (the genetic monstrosity of the building and its current proximity to the political power cancels and disqualifies a priori any artis­tic gesture, in the same way in which the future of the project Romania is unviable without a morally correct foundation). What is ex­tremely impor­­tant is the fact that this discussion is actually a smaller scale version of a larger debate carried out in Romania in the last 15 years, on different intensities and without any significant concrete results, that on managing the communist past. There, the positions also range between a hygienic justice, between the moral cleansing of the society and the integration, the forgetting, the assuming of the past, the guilt, the trauma. What both sides ignore, however, are the theoretical premises on which their argu­ments are based. Both “the moral cleansing” and the ”exorcism of evil” are founded on an essentialist perspective on the society and, particularly, on the People’s House. The evil is thus natural, genetic, constitutive to both Romania and to that building which is seen as the monstrous symbol of the Romanian catastrophe in the 9th decade, as if history (read by both sides as a force exterior and independent to the mechanisms of the society) had created these viciated identities for eternity.

Not to insist too much on this, we must say that these sort of approaches won’t bring miraculous solutions for the People’s House, that de facto, the course of events would direct the perception on the identity of this building to a formula which in its effects will be similar with the model proposed by the ones believing in its exorcism, without having their essen­tialist premises validated by this.

The neutralization of this building will be done through a historicization of the subject, a process which will happen discretely and implacably in a society less and less willing to accept still and eternal identity models.

Similarly, in the particular case of MNAC, the relations to its concrete and symbolic host will have to take into account a fluctuant and flexible perspective on identity, in which the undeniable monstrous significance of the building at the moment of its initiation, shouldn’t be approached as a natural, allopathically to-be-exorcized data.

And besides this, the topics of discussion and the future strategies should be imagined considering also the pragmatic relations to the buil­ding, from filling its vast spaces, to obtaining autonomy from the political with which it cohabitates the building, from attracting a public in the space of the museum – placed in a socio-urbanely dead area, to educa­ting this public, unfamiliar with contemporary art, from adapting the curatorial programs to the specificity of the MNAC context, to avoid­ing transforming it in a continuous site-specific intervention.

From this last point of view, the inaugural program was a fortunate one, offering a balance between these tendencies.

One of the projects, Under Destruction (curated by Mihnea Mircan) was imagined as a dialogue between this institution and the building which hosts it and determines it in such an intense manner. The first phase of the project – which intends to constantly haunt the museum/building – Under Destruction #1, had Gianni Motti and Cristoph Buchel as invited artists. The two Swiss artists concentrated throughout their spectacular and many times scandalous career just exactly on pushing the limit to which art can efficiently intervene in society. Their projects try to reach that concreteness of finality which many other socially engaged artists ignore. In the relation between Motti and Buchel and respectively the People’s House, it is worth mentioning some of their preliminary propos­als for the project because each of these answers a problem/dilemma/ paradox of the building and of the institution. From the proposal to dig in the body of the building in search of the golden boxes, sealed by the Ceausescu couple and integrated in the foundation during the construc­tion with the purpose of its symbolic consecration, to the proposal to make a hole in the (thin?) wall separating the wing of the museum from the wing of the parliament in order to create “the biggest political peep show in history” (Gianni Motti) and also the proposal to invite at the opening all the people involved in one way or another with this building (a rather dangerous project, considering the difficulty to estimate the level of impact of this building on the Romanian society, a list of some million guests to the cocktail still having the chance of being accused of exclusivism). Transparency, independence, representativity, things that MNAC has to accomplish.

The project eventually realized by Motti and Buchel is an electoral fair in the legendary basement of the building. In a kitsch, but none-the-less common setting for Romania’s city centers in the weeks of electoral cam­paign which followed the opening of the museum, tables were installed for each presidential candidate. Each of the electoral stands presents, besides some promotional objects, a 2 minute tape in which the artists requested the candidates to abstract their platform for Romania. The TV sets are all connected to the same plug-in, and the tapes – played at maxi­mum volume – are synchronized to overlap the word sacrifice, pro­nounced (shouted) by the candidates. (Obviously, the use of this word has not been prescribed by the artists, this synchronization having com­ple­tely other causes.) Such a political circus, enacted in the basement of the palace speaks about the ambiguous relationship between the buil­ding and politics, such as it does about the inconsistency of politics itself.

Choosing the basement, base/foundation of the building, but in the same time a hidden and inaccessible space, reinforces the political identity both of the building and of the museum. But politics at the People’s House has meant in a relatively short period of time both totalitarianism plus brutal manipulation and experimental democracy plus demagogical manipulation. The encapsulation of the electoral charade in the guts of the building is set to worry, a subtle horror scenario, in a palace where the victory of the free spirit is being celebrated, some demons still remain, somewhere in a cellar.

The large exhibition Romanian artists (and not only) love Ceaușescu’s Palace?! curated by Ruxandra Balaci, art director of the museum, actually represents the statement of the entire MNAC project. It intends to put together different attitudes of the Romanian artists towards the People’s House and towards the pieces of history which this building describes.

On one hand, the exhibition generates itself on a narrative logic, which starts with the association of delirious representations of the People’s House in the etnoproletcult painting with the clandestine works of Ion Grigorescu (perhaps the most remarkable works in Romanian art under communism) and continues with the postdecember works. One could see in the exhibition two different types of attitude, one specific to the begin­­ning of the nineties (subReal, Grigorescu, Euroartist etc.), a post­traumatic and still shy approach of the artists to the building, with the intention of studying, of appropriating and of partially bypassing its symbolic value, and the attitude 2000, where in a relaxed and sometimes irresponsible manner, the artists face the past and all its implications on the present (Irina Botea, Ștefan Cosma, Nicolae Comănescu etc.).

The noir story of the People’s House in this exhibition reaches other topics, like nationalism, national mythologies and the subculture of resistance in the years of communism (Alexandra Croitoru, Gorzo, Vlad Nancă, Cristian Pogăcean etc.), topics for which the People’s House functioned simultaneously as a cause and effect, as catalyzer and inhi­bitor in the complex alchemy of Romanian identity in the last decades. Besides these evolution lines in the exhibition (which reproduce some points in the evolution of Romania) there are some works by international artists (Jordi Colomer, Josef Daberning etc.), mainly focused on the mat­ters of urbanism raised by this building. From this point of view, the People’s House appeared exactly at the right time on the world art scene which had a special interest in the nineties towards urbanism and its social implications).

It is fascinating, however, the way in which a criterion upon which it is generally difficult to create an exhibition – a building – gathers some of the icon works of Romanian art in the last decades and many of the names which created it. Again, we are reminded that this is more than a building.

The weak point of the exhibition consists in the indecision between an archive, an exhibition which documents a subject and one which is exclu­sively discursive, the interestingly constructed narration in the exhibition being blurred by works which would only be justified in an archive-exhi­bition on the theme of the People’s House.

Early Works. Bernea & Neagu, exhibition realized by Mihai Oroveanu (director of MNAC) brings together works from the sixties and the seven­ties, a period of experiments for the two artists. Paul Neagu and Horea Bernea were two of the most important Romanian artists for the evolu­tion of the art “experiment” in the communist decades, creating in that (short) period of (partial) freedom works which were connected to the debate of ideas in the world art of that period, in a greater degree than it would have been possible for Romanian art in the rest of the commu­nist period. The exhibition wants to be both a statement of recuperation and one which marks a kind of museum discourse of the MNAC, one of presenting and slowly constructing a historical context for Romanian con­temporary art. Besides the merit of initiating this path through the presentation of these works it would have been interesting, to have some proper display principles being identified for works already “dated”.

Besides the 3 “local” exhibitions, we must add the travelling show of the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Vivienne Rehberg, Camera, and the first stage of Nicolas Bourriaud’s project Stock Zero – Opera.

Camera finds its place in this program through the questions it raises on subjects like the link between the complex evolution of a society and the development of the urban matter in that society. The two curators colla­borated with the Chinese architect Yung Ho Chang for producing four scenographic structures, each of them reproducing the interior of a photo camera (Polaroid, Leica, Seagull and Nikon). In this setting, the videos of Fudong Yang and Jian Wei Wang were projected, jointly giving a panoptic image of the evolution of the Chinese society in the 20th century, with a special focus on the real economic, social and implicitly urban revolution of the last 2 decades, which transformed China in a giant scale laboratory for the ideologies and some phenomena specific for the contemporary society. The exhibition’s discourse touches subjects such as the role and the identity of the individual in the context of such evolutions, the possibility for controlling or influencing such tendencies, as well as the mirroring of such issues in the urban geography of the society in question. Yung Ho Chang tries to find formulae for balancing and discussing the urban trends in China of the last decades, through proposing some human scale solutions, aware in the same time of the complex relations of the individual with his or her own identity, with the society and with the environment.

Nicolas Bourriaud initiates at MNAC a multilayered project, Stock Zero – Opera, a discourse based on the circuits of the capital in the contempo­rary society. Although it is difficult, on one hand, to foresee the direction of the analysis or the guidelines of the project from the aperitif served at MNAC, the exhibition is probably the most visually impressive and it includes 3 of the most amazing works in the museum, the videos, The landscape is changing (Mircea Cantor), Beyond Good and Evil (Kendell Geers) and the wall painting John 8:32, belonging to the later. On the other hand, these works are rather disadvantaged by the limita­tion of their reading to the context of the exhibition, their visions reaching beyond the chapter of political economy in the manual of con­temporary art. The Landscape is Changing shows a group of people march­ing in the streets of a city, carrying large mirrors instead of ban­ners. The lucid realism of this video, tough in its discretely fascistoidic and menacing atmosphere, is suspended in some of the possible reading keys of the story. It’s quite difficult to believe throughout the 22 minutes of the video, that this work analyzes aspects of social protest in the capi­talist society. And actually, some of the intuitions of the film undermine the very roots of the leftist art establishment. The images in Beyond Good and Evil and the white Truth coming out of the black wall in John 8:32 also enlarge the spectrum impregnated by the exhibition. Bourriaud also includes some art positions which study the different variations of the unhappy, but none-the-less solid and durable relationship between art and capital. (Plamen Dejanoff, Collective Wishdream of Upperclass Possibilities etc.)

This text will naturally end without a conclusion. We must say, however, that in spite of its ambiguous identity and its uncertain status, it is diffi­cult to deny the fact that one can see in Bucharest works and curatorial approaches in a manner which would have been impossible before. About all the other functions of a museum, one must wait.


P.S. Three weeks before the opening of the museum, Jacques Derrida died in Paris. Some of the works in the museum, some of the arguments in the discussion on the MNAC, as well as some ideas in this text would have been unimaginable without Derrida.


* The main opponents of the MNAC project are Dan and Lia Perjovschi. Besides the debates carried out on nettime-ro mailing list concerning this subject, they created around the space and the publication of the aac, a critical platform centered on MNAC and on the independent scene.

In August 2004, the artists Ciprian Mureșan, Duo van der Mixt (Mihai Pop and Cristian Rusu) and István László, as well as the author of this text quitted the project of the opening of MNAC.