On Identity, Concept and Process in Contemporary Art – An Interview with Mircea Nicolae

On Identity, Concept and Process in Contemporary Art – An Interview with Mircea Nicolae

BT: Why “Mircea Nicolae”? Is he the alter ego, a project within a project or a character you actually turned into?

MN: I think it is both. It started out as an idea of authorship that I embraced because of my previous experience with creative work. At some point I wanted to be a writer, and after an initial success, I crumbled under my own criticism of my work. And then I gave up. For a number of years I refused to write, or read literature.

So this time, I said to myself I would not make the same mistake. Mircea Nicolae was a name that was randomly created with the help of some students who took part in a creative writing class I was teaching at a high school.

For some time, the name worked as a deflector shield against my own criticism. It also came with the resolution to do whatever came to my head, without thinking too much about its so-called ‘quality’.

I was running the risk of doing a lot of nonsense, but at the same time I was no longer running the risk of doing absolutely nothing. I had already done that after giving up writing, and it was paralyzing and crippling at the same time. In the end I found out that a longer leash and a true dedication to work is more productive than constant bickering, while waiting for the masterpiece to materialize on its own, without any effort on the producer’s part.

Basically, Mircea Nicolae was a stage in the process through which I became more mature vis-à-vis my need to do art projects, in general.

In the end, I did turn into the character. This is at the same time funny and strange. When I started up, I would not associate my face with the ‘artist’ who was doing the work. There was still a distance. But then, when I was invited to speak publicly, or to present my own work during an exhibition opening, I decided it would have been too much, even hypocritical, maybe.

In time, I accepted this name and this position as a byproduct of my project. I did not fully embrace it, but I started to tolerate it as a fact.

BT: Some years ago, your handwriting tags started to be seen on abandoned buildings in Bucharest - calligraphic lettering contrasting to the decay of the ruins and shriveled painting of the houses. The messages however, strange, sad, haunting, were a sort of continuation of the feeling that the degradation of the buildings was inducing. When did you start “tagging” and what was your drive?

MN: Graffiti writers have a very strict terminology. Tagging refers to writing your own name on anything you can write on. What I was doing was different. I was writing messages. They were handpainted with a brush.

I started to do this in 2007. The drive behind my messages was an attempt to openly express whatever I felt at the time. I was trying to get rid of some of my emotions, which were overwhelming.

BT: Your project “100 interventions” also included different kind of works, from land art to installation and performance, in public space or private abandoned interiors (factories, hospitals etc.). How long did this project last and what did you achieve from the interaction with the city? Was it a sort of criticism of the general “emptiness” of the public space or an effort to be present outside your inner self, to exorcise some personal demons?

MN: The project lasted from 2007 to 2009. The result was felt on very many levels. I was accepted as an artist by the local community. I saved myself, to a certain extent, from psychological degradation. I also familiarized myself with the media of contemporary art, and in time, I became capable of using the medium with ease. In terms of content, the interventions were either about the state of the city, or the state of my mind at that time.

There is a constant connection between our thoughts and our environment. This can be a simple perception of the world, a sort of synergy between preoccupations and a given moment, or a greater, more profound communion, such as discovering in yourself or others, or in the signs of the landscape, some sort of cultural pattern that has wide implications, ranging from the banal to the most important aspects of your life.

I am not sure I was making a point about the emptiness of the city, mainly because I never thought about it at the moment. The most striking thing to me back then was the lifelessness of Bucharest, which I thought defied its own obvious vitality and resources. As a general issue, this de-vitalization was both personal and collective, and of course, this was felt as a great discomfort.

Through my interventions, I tried to show what didn’t work, or what I perceived as being endlessly beautiful. I was maybe naïve, but I thought that my gestures might help me and others get over a feeling of helplessness and denial, which was both personal and collective, and which blocked any realistic assessment of the problems we faced as dwellers in the city, as well as the possible solutions.

BT: Bucharest’s poorer neighbourhoods are a constant backdrop of your art projects. Grey blocks of  flats, city monsters built by the communists or later during Romania’s capitalism in parks, in the streets and almost everywhere, the aberrations of a public space reflecting the incapacity of the citizens to live “decent” lives, their poverty, their alienation and their hopelessness, to some extent. How are all these patterns inspiring your art series?

MN: I do not live in the center, and I do not belong to a particularly well-off family. My mother is an accountant, and I am a philologist by training. One could say we belong to the lower middle class. In Bucharest, this segment of the population lives in blocks of flats. Actually, 70% of the population of the city lives in collective housing units. Rich, not so rich, and poor, all share this type of housing.

So I would say that I tried to include, and to discuss about this sort of landscape, because this is what I know best, from my life and from my reading. Romania is still one of the poorer countries of the EU. With this come very specific problems, behaviours and urban landscapes. Because this is my everyday reality, and not only mine, I really tried to look at it both as a human being and as a more objective observer, in an attempt to understand what it was all about and what kind of existence it made possible.

I think this sort of reality is the central subject of my projects. I tried to work on other cities during certain residencies, but I came to the conclusion that the final products tended to be superficial and under-researched, due to the given conditions of my lack of knowledge and lack of existential involvement in the given site.

So it’s not necessarily an emotional choice. I am not really trying to target alienation, poverty, despair and underdevelopment. However, these matters are so pervasive in my given environment, that you cannot really ignore them, even on an aesthetic level, even if you do not propose to go after the full social, political and historical implications.

In my opinion, if an art project about the city of Bucharest is successful, it has to contain enough information about the place as a world. In it, you should be able to discover whatever you want to see. Of course this is a very general statement.

Most of my projects are very closely targeted at specific subjects that deal with small, but important chapters connected to the urban changes that take place in the city. As an overall intention, I aim to construct a sort of detailed anthropological observation about the people, the architecture and the city, from the position and the point of view of a contemporary artist. This means, very often, that critical subjects are infused with an aura of visual beauty, which makes the problems visible, bearable for a moment, and temporarily accessible for an instant of reflection, which is denied to us most of the time because of overwhelming circumstances.

BT: What do you think about the current socio-political problems of Bucharest? The protests, the abusive demolitions, the corruption? Is this reflected in your art themes?

MN: I would have to say yes and no. If you refer to the abusive demolitions in general, I could say that this was always a subject I tried to cover. The most recent large scale demolition is that of the Buzesti Boulevard, carried out illegally by the City Hall in a historic area of Bucharest. There, I did a performance where I threw money on the street, in an attempt to illustrate the waste of public money which is done by the local administration.

I have not yet done a project about the recent protests. I took part as one of the many people who were there, in the street. I have to say that the whole thing took me by surprise. I was not one of the organizers, so it took a long time to understand, to accept, and to try to support what was happening. The myriad political ideologies present were a bit baffling for me, not in the least the Iron Guard people.

At the same time, I really thought that it was not the proper time for art, but a time for the public presence of citizens who demanded a change.

In that environment art would have been an ornament, or so I thought.

BT: The common gestures, the familiar objects, the informal of the day-to-day life are signified in most of your projects. The artistic process starts somehow from a sentence and ends in a statement. Are you particularly concerned with this process rather than with the art “object” itself?

MN: I am a graduate of the Faculty of Letters from the University of Bucharest. My first love was the written word, and all that came with it. One of the most powerful experiences I have gone through is the moment when, stepping out of the library after finishing a book, there is a certain inertia, and fiction, poetry and reality blend together into a very potent altered perception.

This inertia of reading, extending into the daily life, was the cornerstone of my aesthetic experience. The same went with painting. You do have certain reflexes when, after gazing for a long time at a painting, you go outside and see the colors of the flowers, or the textures of the pavement.

In time, I learnt to find the connections between words, images and perceptions.

This is why I was really enthusiastic about Sophie Calle. There, I saw, for the first time, an intermedia project which was flawlessly articulated on the literary and on the visual level at the same time. The fact that it ended up as a book with pictures was even more powerful, because I loved books and I loved pictures, and there they came together in that wonderful way.

So what happened to me, and what I really enjoyed to explore as a producer of art projects, and maybe what kept me going and kept me interested, was this possibility of articulating a thought, which can become an action or an image. There are a number of infinite alternatives, that come with very particular implications on the conceptual and semantic levels, and this is maybe the most fascinating part.

It does feel like a puzzle you put together, and the field is wide, going from whatever you think, to whatever you do, to whatever you see. To be able to articulate the different levels, media, directions, implications, this is what it is all about, I believe.

In a way this sort of perception was always there, from the beginning of art history. Painting, as well as dance and literature, not to mention theatre, have always been very complicated meeting processes between an image and a thought. What we have today, and what we can enjoy maybe to a larger extent, is this realization that the producer of the project maybe goes through an even deeper and more complex experience when the project is being made.

Usually, with traditional art, let’s say painting, some of this hidden process is replicated by the viewer, to the extent of his knowledge of the medium. The extent of his ability to decypher the final product, as well as the production process, also conditions the extent of his aesthetic pleasure.

With contemporary art this is true as well, but there is maybe more credibility and visibility given to the production stage, which can become at the same time a pedagogical presentation as well as a work in itself.

What this means, today, is that you can really enjoy more of the art object in the process, and more of the process in the art object, and more of everything in the destruction and temporary nature of both.

BT: Do you think this conceptual approach to art gives the artist less “power”, less financial outcomes (in Romania nowadays)?

MN: It is very hard to answer this question, because things are not very clear. On the one hand, the international mainstream of art is now under the domination of the new academy of conceptualism and minimalism. To these, a socially-conscious art is added. So, from a cultural point of view, conceptual approaches are powerful promoters, or let’s say, they are professional choices with a high probability of success.

On the other hand, the commercial art mainstream is culturally retarded on an international level. This means, of course, that superstar artists are being bought no matter what they produce, conceptual, minimal, social or otherwise. This is the case also for the historical figures that the art market cannot deny cultural importance to.

However, the art market itself does have a preference for something you can put your hand on. Beyond the higher levels of the market, where you can have very sophisticated work on display, but very low levels of access as an artist, there is a dominance of painting and sculpture, and not seldom of the creepiest kind.

The market obeys cultural selection in the upper tiers, and floods the levels below with work that it sponsors directly. In this context, making work with a ‘slighter materiality’ can be difficult financially, because you do not get any income from what you produce.

However, internationally, there is a considerable amount of support for conceptual practices.

The thing is, mainly, that is not easy to make money out of art projects in general, and when you are lacking institutional and gallery support, you are more exposed than others to a professional field where things are very arbitrary anyway.

People with no cultural content can have very comfortable lives, while people who have an oeuvre already, who are maybe even old and are completely admirable professionally, may have next to nothing in terms of revenue from their activity. There is no explanation here to be given, things are just the way they are. The only hope, which I think is quite real, is that artists who produce cultural content that is sound may not have economic success, but usually, they do not get left out by the cultural establishment if their contribution is of value. In the end, they receive recognition, even if they might remain poor.

If we were to talk about what happens with all this in Romania, there is little to be said. Contemporary art in general, be it object, performance or even painting, does not really have a market, so this is not where to look if you want an income.

BT: How important is the “text” behind an artwork? Is the “literature” always present behind the artwork?

MN: I think literature is present as a part of my education and a part of my tastes and prejudices. It was, undeniably, one of the fundamental experiences on which my whole understanding of art is based.

However, in time I found a distance from it, at least from literature as a separate medium, that you confront and consume unilaterally.

To be very vague, and very exact at the same time, literature is behind the artwork more as a state of mind, rather than as a series of bibliographic references.

The poetic experience of the world must be something very common to all art forms. It goes beyond formal concerns, and I believe this is the literary content I try to perceive in reality and then integrate, to the best of my abilities, in an art project.

BT: You also acted as a curator, starting with Galeria 29, a project were you actually turned the living room in your own Bucharest flat into a gallery where have invited young artists to show and people came over for openings. What are your conclusions after this “experiment”? How did the artists’ community receive it? What about the visitors? What about your neighbours?

MN: Well, the first conclusion is that you have the resources to do whatever you want if you really want to do it. The second is that resources are limited and it is hard to continue indefinitely. Sustainable planning, as stupid as it sounds is quite necessary if you intend to do something like this for a longer period of time. I am not entirely sure, but I guess the artist’ community received the home gallery well, not in the least because they were the main actors, and sometimes, an important part of the public.

The visitors were quite thrilled to be able to take the works away at the end of the show. In fact, when I planned the whole thing, I really thought about what a visitor’s experience might be like, and tailored it around that. I had a perception that show openings were always about the social interaction of people who already know each other, and that it was never about the work, nor about the artist.

This is why I gathered people in my apartment, which is a more intimate space. This is why I presented the work to the public, who were usually no more than the 20 people my living room could accommodate. And last but not least, this is why I gave all the exhibits away after the presentation via a tombola process. I was hoping that touching and possessing the objects that are usually out of reach would increase the interest and the understanding of the given project. And I was not wrong.

My home gallery was not conceived as a community project. My neighbors had no idea for a long time. Maybe some of the younger guys who always stood at the entrance of the building figured something out.

At the time I was trying to make a statement about overcoming low resources in a difficult context lacking institutional support. However, the inhabitants of my block of flats benefited from other projects that I made. A large number of interventions were carried out in my building, and they stumbled upon them frequently.

BT: “Young Romanian Art” was one of the first important projects where you acted as a curator for other artists. This project took place in 2009 in Venice, during the Art Biennale. How do you think this experience influenced your curatorial activities?

MN: This was the last time I acted as a curator. It was a big show, 14 exhibitions over six months, changing each week. This was a way of materializing one of my convictions – namely that it was a duty to act as a colleague, and to share as much as you can with your peers.

I had been invited to show my work in Venice for six months, in a small gallery. I chose to show 33 other artists instead. I think it had more impact on me as an artist, because I had a lot of fun arranging the objects in the space. What I was left with was a good knowledge of composition solutions and conceptual arrangements of conflicting messages. This sort of formal ability was very useful later on.

BT: This year you moved forward by opening a series of shows directly on Facebook, which now acts for you as a “virtual gallery”. How did you end up doing “The Facebook Show”?

MN: When I started my home gallery I had very low hopes that I would be invited to show within any of the given exhibition spaces in the city. At the same time, I had a lot of ideas and I wanted to work.

I am now in a very similar situation. I have no place to show my work on a regular basis, and there is also a lot of fatigue that I have accumulated while trying to work with galleries, art spaces and so on.

Facebook is now what blogs used to be in 2007, namely the most used medium for communication. After I took some time off this sort of direct communication with the public, while at the same time trying to find some sort of position in the institutional area of work, I started to realize I missed the freedom and I missed the greater level of concentration and the inner peace that direct communication brings along.

BT: Is this somehow an actual sequel of Galeria 29, as your necessity to bypass traditional institutions involved in the promotion of the cultural product? What is in your opinion the relationship between the artist and those institutions nowadays in Romania? 

MN: Yes, of course that’s what it is. The statement reads – “I intend to eliminate the gallery as an intermediary between the work and the public".

Generally speaking, the problem is that you have to have any sort of relationship with a given institution, or some other kind of supporter. We do not live in the ideal world where support is offered freely and generously, so you have to constantly put in a lot of work into finding this sort of opportunity.

I am not sure it is very different internationally at the time being. Everyone is looking for resources.

However, after a while you get so entrenched into it, that you completely forget that ideas can be expressed more freely, and that you don’t need so much for everything you do. There is also a point I have reached quite often, when there is no support, and consequently, the project seems impossible to do, and you stop.

This is an extreme position to be in. If you stop, you will never get any support, because you’re doing nothing to attract any attention, or interest.

So you always have to have something to rely on, which is yourself. If you manage to re-think whatever you’re doing, and to adapt it to existing conditions in a way that allows for the project to be materialized, and for you to continue, maybe that’s the solution you were looking for.

This is because the relationship with the institutions is difficult in Romania, and internationally as well. Art is not seen as work, so it is not remunerated as a matter of course. Cultural institutions are not always receiving the funding they need. Out of what they get, they cannot give so much as to secure an artist’s living. It often happens that institutions act unprofessionally, because of lack of funding, or other reasons. Also, they are part of the power structure that brings together the specialists (curators and historians) and managers. This structure has interests of its own, namely preserving its power (through selection and scarcity of job offers), its prestige (they only associate with people who can increase their prestige), etc.

Caught in a web of politics, artists and art projects often become casualties, or neglected quantities that get lost in the process.

BT: Romanian Kiosk Company, including installation and video, mixing your personal history with the “official” history, is one of your most successful art projects, with important echoes on the international art scene.  The identity of an artist in relation to his/her country is inherently essential for his/her art or it is more like a specific detail of the Eastern European art and of the art in emerging economies in general?

MN: This is quite hard to answer. On the one hand, there is this genuine interest of someone trying to figure out, through observation and analysis, what the world and the place one lives in is all about. On the other, there is this game of mirrors which is representation, where notions such as ‘identity’ become very relative, and sometimes turn against any sort of ‘objective’ position of observation, making it even impossible to exist as such.

An artist from Eastern Europe can be said to be portraying ‘a post-socialist state going through the transition period from Communism to Capitalism’.

Placed in this frame, any work of any content becomes an argument for the economic and military power of the West, mainly of the US. Its discourse on democracy, that is usually enforced by a colonizing army, as seen in the Irak War, is cleansed of its black holes, and it is presented as a success case study of Western democracy in foreign lands.

On the other hand, there is the self-colonizing behaviour of Romanian artists who place themselves within international contexts, where they try to present what they do within a language that they come to master in time, but that could be said not to be their own.

Pragmatically, the situation is this – Romanian artists work on local subjects and then exhibit the products abroad. The public for this kind of work is outside of Romania.

How can one really avoid the pitfalls of such a position is not very obvious.

One could say that the artist presents his own identity, so in a way, he might be thought to be a nationalist, because he spends so much time on this very question – who am I, compared to others?

On the other hand, the artist could be thought to be a ‘foreign agent’, because he is exposing local problems internationally, against the local Romanian status quo. Maybe the artist even violates conventions of language, maybe the artist presents things that are never said at home, maybe the artist even brings up the unmentionable and the horrific about ‘his own kind’.

This sort of ‘identity analysis’ can then be considered to also be aggressively anti-national, embedded in ‘international interests against the Home Nation’.

It is this very idea of identity which brings all of these violent issues into direct collision.

At the core, the Romanian artist is neither a nationalist, not an internationalist. Most of the time he or she feels foreign at the same time at home and abroad. Both power discourses ‘here’ and ‘there’ want to use his work as arguments against each other, or for other partisan interests.

In my case, the problem was the following. ‘How can you present a very local subject, namely the particularly personal, social, architectural and historical changes that took place in Bucharest in the last 50 years to a Western audience, who knows nothing even about the most important local events?’

My solution to this was to use the structure of the chronological display, to use years as chapters, and to throw into these chapters everything I wanted to say about family, architecture and state.

Of course this formula has its limitations, but this is what I thought would work best in that situation. Beyond the problems of representation it raised, this sort of anthropologic observation is something that I am deeply interested in, regardless of circumstances.

On the other hand, it is obvious that there is a cultural pattern of ‘identity observers’ in the ‘emerging markets’. This is what the international cultural establishment requires of them. To show their difference, to monumentalize the Western model, and to cover for the social and political discomfort ‘in the developed nations’.

However, the fact that the artist is foreign both to the mainstream and to the homeland is always forgotten, because both the international scene, as well as ‘the nation’ want to deny any alternative voice to what they are already saying out loud.

In the small space between the national and the international, if such a space exists at all, the artist is confronted with all these problems, ranging from over-identification with the homeland to over-identification with the West. The task is to find a theoretical and pragmatic position where one can be free from attachment, observe reality objectively, and find an area of freedom from which one can criticize the local and the international, as well as the self.

Personally, I can see the problem which lies in the automatic response of showing yourself as too Romanian to yourself, or too exotic to others. However, I think that only by accepting the challenge as such and insisting in this area can a solution be found.

One cannot deny the dangers brought by the anthropological self-representation in front of others. At the same time, one does not have to become paralyzed because of it, and refuse to say anything. It is a given limitation that has to be dealt with to the best of one’s abilities.


romanian kiosk company (excerpt) de mirceanicolae

BT: How do you feel as an artist in Bucharest?

MN: I feel at home.

BT: How would you describe the artists’ community in Bucharest?

MN: What I am interested in is the cultural products that Romanian artistic community puts forth. Socially speaking, I am not as interested, because I am not very social myself.

BT: What is your opinion on the Romanian contemporary art? Do you particularly appreciate the works of certain Romanian artists?

MN: Romanian contemporary art is as good as any other, internationally. There is enough for everyone to see, and there is enough work to choose from and appreciate. I do appreciate certain Romanian artists. Some are admirable for their professional success. Others for their cultural achievement. Also, one tends to like something for a time and then move on, so this is not settled once and for all.

BT: What is in your opinion the specific of Bucharest as a city?

MN: This is too big to really answer. On a very general note, maybe what is very particular to this place is the overwhelming sensorial effect of its mix of fragments, its cacophony of sound, life and image, which at times creates a fascinating and enormously frivolous spectacle, under which the incredible depth of its problems, of its history and of its beauty can be glimpsed for a moment, at the same time.

Visit Mircea Nicolae's website.


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