You grew up in Romania and graduated from the Cluj School of Art and Design. Can we go back over your training? Do you think it was different to the one given to a student in Western Europe?
I began my studies in 1995, in the School’s “Sculpture” department where the university course lasted for five years and for which the professors insisted that the students make a lot of studies from nature. We made a lot of drawings of live sculpture in a rather classical tradition, then some clay modelling. We were also initiated into monumental forms, as if we were being prepared for these types of sculptures. Teaching was based on technique rather than on the work’s content. Perhaps, this no longer corresponds to current methods, but this type of training wasn’t so bad after all. We are in a world where we observe that everything is changing, in politics, like in ideology, but for an artist it is always good to know the techniques for making sculptures as well as the materials. Because this mastery of technique can in fact be adapted to every regime from communism to modernism.
Is this the moment when you stated loud and clear your interest in art history?
At school, we had art history classes from every period up until the 20th century, without however benefiting from a precise approach to modern or contemporary art. I think that today this has changed. When I was in my fifth year, we stopped at German Expressionism without going on to discover anything that happened afterwards. However, don’t imagine that this was solely for ideological reasons but due to the fact that there was only one professor, and in addition really of retirement age! Therefore, when other teachers arrived, I think that the students had more time to develop the contemporary part. As for me, I studied sculpture a great deal with a professor who made me work with wood and stone.
Did you already know those who created with you what we might define as the Cluj school and who worked at the “Fabrica de Pensule”, the brush manufacture, that old factory where the studios of the artists Adrian Ghenie, Serban Savu or a gallery are located…?
Since the beginning of your career, you work together with various mediums. How do you decide to employ them?
Between the end of the 1990s and the year 2000, I began to do photography, as this represented for me a new kind of freedom, quite unlike the traditional mediums such as sculpture, painting or drawing… I was a bit carried away by this wave and started to make a lot of videos, furthermore a work I still continue today. So, at the very beginning of my career, I immersed myself in video and photography, then I realized that I had drawing in the blood. I had done so much of it at school that I couldn’t wipe out all that knowledge! So, I thought that it was better to use it and take advantage of it, because we can’t condemn one technique or another. It is the content of what we want to say which is important. In this way, when I nurture an idea, choosing the medium to realize it is very easy and, in turn, I can focus myself on the drawing, the sculpture or the video. I change constantly, for instance, responding to a question about the tension between the fragility of the drawing and the density of the sculpture. How to handle rawer materials like bronze or the necessity of protecting a drawing from the light? Again, I worked a lot on drawings in a series initiated by the Cluj Fine Arts Museum which invited me in 2012. There, I discovered a very fine collection of books and catalogues and chose to use their images like a raw material, which means that I don’t work directly with the works but start from reproductions. I didn’t carry out the work of an historian but that of a plastic artist.
What led you to make several pieces at the same time…
The first object I selected was mostly because of its weight as I was looking for something heavy in the Museum, in the beginning to press my engravings. That was my initial goal! Then I began to make copies in the manner of negatives of these originals, and then I developed a sculptural work. I conceived moulds for some pieces for which, finally, I only used the resins that I decided to assemble. A given shape always leads to another like a story and gives me the possibility of developing different perspectives within the works.
You mean to say that your work is not linked to History with a capital H?
Actually, my work is not connected to history in a classical way. I think a lot about how to negotiate history or deal with heritages and traces of the past. In the catalogues of the Museum’s collections, some periods have been as if purged, for example, Social Realism which disappeared from publications published after the 1990s… even though the works have not been thrown out and are conserved in the reserves. I also like the fact that this Museum possesses a lot of bronzes and sculptures in stone or wood, but also studies in plaster. Indeed, this is one of the first materials that attracted me.
Before, you made references to Yves Klein, and his leap into the void, but also Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevitch or Joseph Beuys… artists who thought a lot about the idea of utopia. Is this one of the subjects to be found at the core of your work?
They were very complex personalities, But I admit that I foster a sort of fascination for these artists to whom I pay tribute by wanting to establish a specific communication or connection with their works. Being an artist is already about the question of Utopia. Afterwards, that depends on the perspective you have chosen and its inscription in a classical reading of history or in a linearity. When I consult the catalogues of very famous artists, I rarely read the texts and begin rather by recopying the works. I can even reproduce them literally with a lighting table but also in a more detached way. My goal being to discover the various levels and sub-layers of art.
Does this also enable you to connect with present time and do you make a criticism of the era in which you are living? In particular, I am thinking about the video Choose from 2005, in which your son is hesitating between a can of Pepsi and Coca Cola. Is this an attack on consumerism?
Yes, of course, I am making a criticism about the present, without actually idealizing the past that I judge too. If once again I take the example of the catalogue of the Cluj Museum’s collection, I noticed that a lot of people have appropriated it and this allows me to evoke the question of selection and taste. Like in the video where I show my son who finally mixes the two drinks that have the same consistency, colour and practically the same taste. I highlight the invention of the nonsensical in consumer society, while questioning subjects like identity.
You have also made a series of 120 drawings, paying tribute to Martin Kippenberger and his emblematic installation The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”, also tackling questions of manipulation. There again, was this a subtle way of talking about geopolitics and current regimes?
This work dates from a few years ago, and I had started from Kafka, an author I admire very much, before discovering that many other people had worked on him like Kippenberger. So, I tried to create a link and made various versions of the work, in particular by starting from a film shown during an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1994, from which I copied the storyboard image by image. This work was almost about a religious act, with a notion of time drawing out and becoming very slow. Although sometimes I can collaborate with assistants on some projects, for this one the time spent seems to me to be astute in terms of its construction and is in keeping with the realm of the ritual. But I can be assisted for other drawings which are monumental.
You were a teenager when the Romanian Revolution took place in 1989. Do you think that this conditioned the necessity you have of making temporal comings and goings?
Naturally, that was a crucial moment in my life and we can see societies changing during many genocides. That was a great moment but I realize it especially when observing my son’s generation, born nine years after the Revolution. He knows about that part of history but only seen through books and without really being aware of the scope of it. This helps me to understand and grasp how much the change was radical in each person’s life, at every level… Art was transformed, but also the art market which was able to develop while before only institutions existed. Terrific scenes were able to develop in cities other than the capital and in particular in Cluj-Napoca. Perhaps, we had been a bit uptight in the past but my generation is also the one which strongly protested against growing capitalism, even though we have adapted to it well.
You have made a project starting from the book The Doom City by Arkadi et Boris Strougatski. Were you interested in this science fiction book also as an analysis of architecture and urbanism as objects of reflection on history?
I even made several works with models of apartments in Bucharest with the idea that in order to integrate these spaces, you had to go through them but also destroy them little by little in order to enter into another place. This wasn’t only about architecture but about the way the artwork can rearrange this and provide parameters leading to less fixed and less static situations. The book, The Doom City, is a critique of the Russian government but I interpreted it by injecting energy into the action. Because we can’t fix everything and times change. But you know that in the 1980s, the city of Bucharest was destroyed because the government wanted to build big boulevards and drove out the people living in small houses. My work goes back over that destruction in a symbolic way.
Do you agree with the fact that your work also seems ironic or at least sarcastic?
It may well do! But I wouldn’t be able to say whether this is linked to my generation or my country because I have already been asked the question of knowing whether it was, according to me, a kind of irony specific to Eastern Europe… My reply was “Perhaps”, but many artists from the West also employ humour in their work and surely even more so. I cultivate a distance when faced with the subject, naturally, but I am not as serious as I look and life isn’t either… My idea being more to combat a certain subjectivity in order to allow myself to remain more neutral.
Today, you seem to work on different levels on your own work. You redo some drawings of your work or make hidden drawings or with white ink…
I question myself about the frustration that the public can sometimes feel when faced with an artwork. This is why I have conceived a series of hidden works, for example, with a table presenting a concealed drawing. I wanted to block the access, even though the work is present and we can sense it. The paradox is this drawing in white ink on a white sheet of paper. One day, I also made a drawing which was printed in poster format in 30 000 copies. Then I arranged them upright to such an extent that you could not see them. You had to jump up to manage to get one, but it was very high and not everyone could do it! This absurd situation comes back to the question of the approach to an artwork. Today, it is true that, in a way, I reread my own work with the idea of a continuity in all the research I carry out. The work is never finished and, furthermore, this is one of the major problems in art. Where to stop? When to finish at one moment in time? Many artists are confronted with this…