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Dan Perjovschi: “It’s not my style to cause scandals”

Ave Randviir (3-4/2009)

Ave Randviir interviews Romanian Dan Perjovschi, who visited the drawing marathon at the Estonian Academy of Arts this spring. He is an artist with a critical eye, and his work combines drawing, performance art and installation.

Based on your presentation at the Estonian Academy of Arts, one can draw several parallels between Romanian art-life towards the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s and what was happening in Estonia during the same period. The most recent so-called ‘golden age’ of socio-political critical caricature in Estonia was during the 1970s, under the conditions of a relaxed censorship, and in the second half of the 1980s, in the atmosphere of perestroika, when artists felt a greater freedom of expression, similar to what you talked about [regarding Romania]. It was a time when caricatures were produced which have by now acquired iconic status. However, at the end of that period and largely due to economic reasons, the genre of caricature fell into oblivion; and it seems today that the younger generations of artists are not so much interested in communicating socio-political commentaries through drawings, caricatures and comics. What is the current situation in Romania? What are the traditions of political caricature in Romania and, in your opinion, are you part of such a tradition in Romania?
As we were not part of the Soviet Union, we didn’t have perestroika. Although caricatures were published in Romanian press, they were not political – generally they addressed safe topics. We lacked the tradition of comics entirely. Now the situation is different. There actually are younger generations producing comics, but I myself don’t belong to any tradition. I come from nowhere. There is a link connecting me with the past, but I wasn’t aware of it for a long time – there is a renowned Romanian caricaturist and drawer, Saul Steinberg, who lived for several years in New York and worked for The New Yorker magazine. I had never heard of him, but then I ‘discovered’ him and I realized that the style of his drawings – utmost simplification – resembles my way of thinking.
People who produce caricatures for the press always think that art lies somewhat above them, and so they try to engage in bronze sculpture or painting on the side. I have never done this. Drawing is my way of expression.
Returning to your question – it is interesting what you said, that in a closed society, people possessed a greater freedom of expression. Young people no longer have to do what the caricaturists in those times had to do: they express their point of view in the streets with stencils and such, doing graffiti – this is their caricature. They no longer need newspapers. This may be the reason why we increasingly see less of the caricature genre: young people have found alternative techniques and ways of expression. Also, the society at present is more complicated – you no longer see such clear-cut limits which need to be broken, nor fighting to overcome them. There are no limits, seemingly.
You mentioned that young artists who have taken their visual messages out into the streets. You don’t do this, you always draw on or between the walls of institutions – museums, schools, etc. Why is that? Surely not in order to demonstrate your belonging to the clique of the aforementioned ‘high art’?
No. When I started making art there wasn’t yet a functioning art market, there were no galleries. When I got taken up by institutions my works found their way into museums and only later into galleries. I do not need to be out on the streets because I think that, although it looks like it, my creative work is not graffiti art. My pictures will create a better contrast and express greater freedom if they stay in the museum. I like that I am surrounded by a conceptual framework, which is what both the newspaper and the museum are. Besides, these days museums are very accessible. They are not solely for the rich. If people want to go there, then they will go. If they don't… I wouldn't like to be so easily accessible. When I took part in the group exhibition in Warsaw, it was visited by about two or three thousand people. After the exhibition, I published an eight-page extra in Gazeta Wyborcza, which is the biggest daily newspaper in Poland, and there several hundred thousand people saw my work. That is enough for me and it is also the reason I draw for newspapers.
Also, I don’t take my work out into the streets because I find the public space very complicated. I don’t want to take that kind of responsibility. Who am I to start taking my messages there? I can do this in the museum because people have a choice: either they go there or they don’t. In the city space they don’t have a choice whether or not to look. What is more, people who actively operate in the streets, in theory, should be there because they hate the system. I don’t hate the system, I am part of it. I want to use the system. I use it in order to keep the discussion open on a certain level, in order to make people think – not about aesthetics, but about ideas, conceptions, about what art in the end is. But I am interested in what goes on in the streets. I like graffiti. It can express our urbanized life in a fantastic way. It fascinates me, but I am not part of that world.
You said that the driving force of your work is freedom of speech and testing its borders. However, in the same lecture you mentioned how, before your exhibitions, you study the background of the country and the local taboo subjects, because addressing them might be too painful for that particular country; for example, the Orthodox Church in Russia. Could we then say that you actually do know, where the limits of freedom of speech are drawn, and that you knowingly don’t touch them?
Perhaps I wasn’t quite precise describing my work method. Sometimes, in problematic spaces, such questions indeed arise, but usually, whether it is Germany, UK or wherever, I don’t scout the country beforehand: I just show up and do what I went there to do. Maybe at MoMA in New York I had to consider the fact that I couldn’t use pornographic elements in my drawings because I wasn’t working in a gallery but in the foyer where families with children passed through. In a more controversial space, I ask more questions in order to set the framework for myself. When I have come across a more delicate subject, I won’t give up on treating it, but I will take it more cautiously – I try to go deeper into it than I would usually do. It is not hard to joke about President Obama, but if I start to draw the American flag I have to deliberate for a while, because I am dealing with a symbol that has many meanings. In order to test the limits of freedom of expression, and to expand them, you first have to sense them – without doing that you lack a source problem.
Returning to the initial question, as I said in the lecture, it is not my style, either as an artist or as a person, to cause scandals. I don’t want to cause problems for the people who are responsible for me. Maybe I am the only artist who behaves like this, because generally nobody cares about other people – everyone plays their own little games. I care, because I come from a culture where the people who have tried to support me have got hurt.
I think people in the 21st century are a lot more intelligent than they allow themselves to appear. I think that we should deal with complicated subjects in a very intellectual way – in a way that wouldn’t hurt people’s feelings. I don’t run from problematic subjects, but I treat them very carefully.
Are you already acquainted with the great art scandal that is boiling up in Estonia as we speak – the ‘Golden Soldier’, this year’s Estonian project for the Venice Biennale? [This interview took place on May 21st 2009 at the Estonian Academy of Art, a couple of weeks prior to the opening of the Venice Biennale – Ed.] Although the artists had already carried out their action on May 9th, the press has yet to find another issue that would excite people so much. Put it this way: it is hard to remember another artwork that was met with such a response from the public. Do you have any thoughts about the work?
Yes, causing problems is the mission of a certain type of artist. I come from a country that was partially responsible for giving us Dada – Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and others who founded the movement, came from Romania. They introduced anarchy into artistic thinking, and I don’t judge them – I praise them: these are also things artists must do. Society needs such behaviour, because we won’t change our ways of thinking without such contradictions. Society should be glad that these things take place. At the same time, the artist has to take responsibility for what he or she does. People working in today’s art-world or intellectual sphere often think that causing scandals can be part of their PR strategy. If this is the sole purpose of the scandal then it is bad, because after the first scandal they will have to organize another and another and so on.
I am not entirely sure about the project of the soldier. I understand what the ‘Golden Soldier’ is doing here, but what is it doing in Venice where the right context is missing? If the aim of the project was to change the way local people understand their history then it is good, but if they put it together solely for going to Venice then it is wrong. If you are a political activist then stay that way, stay in your country and change it as well the people’s views; don’t try to impress a curator from Washington – it shouldn’t matter. My own experience in Venice tells me that people try to show off there: they take the drama which happened back home, package it and sell it on the international market. In my view, this is problematic behaviour.
Final question. Your drawings are, for the most part, temporary. You use a marker to draw on walls, a chalk to draw on boards etc. Why have you decided to allow your art such a short lifespan?
I am energetic, I draw a lot and I also preserve my drawings – in artist’s books, newspapers etc. Yes, my big installations and spectacles are destroyed, but the ideas remain, and I am more interested in ideas than spectacles. As a matter of fact, I have a permanent installation in the foyer of the Prague National Technical Library – that is what I decided to do because it is a library, a world of books, not a museum. I try to leave behind traces, but the show element, on the other hand – it vanishes.

Ave Randviir is a co-editor of KUNST.EE and is currently studying for a Master’s degree in digital culture at Jyväskylä University.

Dan Perjovschi was born in 1961 in Sibiu, Romania. He lives and works in Bucharest. He has participated in Manifesta 2 (Luxembourg 1998), the 9th Istanbul Biennale (2005), the 48th Venice Biennale with the exhibition rEST at the Romanian National Pavilion (1999), the 52nd Venice Biennale at Robert Storr’s curatorial exhibition Think with the Senses – Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present Tense (2007), the 16th Sydney Biennale (2008), the 10th Lyon Biennale (2009) and at several other grand exhibitions of contemporary art. He has exhibited solo at Tate Modern (2006), MoMA and Kunsthalle Basel (2007), to name just a few. He is laureate of the 2004 George Maciunas Award. Since 1992, Perjovschi’s drawings inspired by current events are published in the Bucharest weekly newspaper 22.
Drawing Marathon
The drawing marathon was held in connection with the Tallinn International Drawing Triennial, Manu Propria, through May 20th–23rd 2009. Public lectures and master classes at the Estonian Academy of Arts and St Canute’s Guild Hall were given by Dan Perjovschi (Romania), Mårten Spångberg (Sweden) and Cynthia Kukla (USA). An exhibition of the works produced during the marathon was displayed at the Estonian Academy of Arts Gallery from May 26th to June 14th. The Drawing Marathon was organized by Anu Juurak, head of the Estonian Academy of Arts drawing department.
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