Fillip 5 — Spring 2007

Welcome to the Wild East
Kathleen Ritter

Romania’s National Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in the infamous Casa Poporului in Bucharest. A conference took place in the museum a week after the country’s accession to the European Union on January 1, 2007.1 The subject of the conference was the building itself.

The Casa Poporului, or “House of the People,” is a monolith. Second only to the Pentagon, it stands as one of the largest buildings in the world; it is a veritable monument to the terror and excess of the communist regime in Romania. Nicolae Ceausescu ordered its construction in 1984, razing one fifth of old Bucharest to make room for it. All the resources of the country were mobilized towards the palace’s lavish construction, bankrupting the country and leaving the people of Romania starving in its wake. In a terminal delusion of totalitarian megalomania, Ceausescu envisioned the palace as the glorified headquarters of the Communist Party, himself at the centre, garnering international esteem. But Ceausescu never saw his dream realized. Some cite the building itself as the final cause of his downfall in 1989, when he was overthrown and executed. Not without irony, the palace later became the official seat of the Romanian government in 1994, renamed the Palatul Parlamentului, or “Palace of Parliament.”

The tragic history of the palace weighs heavily on the popular imagination to this day. Opinion oscillates in equal measure between abhorrence for the structure’s megalithic excess and due reverence for sacrifices made in order to erect it. To add to the conflict, the building has been re-branded into an icon for the city itself, featured in every guide as the main tourist attraction. Ami Barak, critic and curator, aptly characterizes the site as a “pornographie architecturale [...] montr(ant) les organes du pouvoir dans une colossale érection.”2 The fight, it seems, is not over the building, its value, or the land it occupies, but rather what it has come to represent, and how it operates as a signifier.

Since October 2004, the National Museum of Contemporary Art has been housed in the east wing of the palace. The museum is large. It spans 16,000 square metres (which, incidentally, amounts to only 4% of the entire palace) making it competitive with other international museums, if only in scale. The renovations made to install the gallery break all architectural conventions governing the rest of the palace: two glass elevators erected on the exterior span four stories and frame a formidable entrance while the interior is standard issue museum design, conventionally square and minimal. One could say that a white cube has been inserted into the backside of the palace and sits in opposition, like an unwelcome suppository, in the cavity of the east wing. The parasitical inset ignores the rest of the building, seemingly in an effort to erase, or perhaps contaminate, its connection to the host. Yet this relationship is conceived by MNAC’s artistic director, Ruxandra Balaci, as an opportunity to transform the site from a symbol of totalitarianism to a space of “openness” and “reflection.” Whether or not this is possible, is the subject of heated debate.

The controversy surrounding the location of the MNAC is hardly new. Most Romanians say they are tired of it. But curiosity about the building from elsewhere continues the debate with a certain fervor that speaks as much to the issue itself as it does to a fractious relationship between the East and West. It is here that the conference, “Regimes of Representation,” took place. Borrowing a line from Nicolas Bourriaud’s comments in MNAC’s inaugural exhibition catalogue, the question on the table was: “Can art take over the location of power, being a symbol of openness and democracy”3 The question is an obvious provocation for debate. It assumes that art is already a symbol of openness and democracy. But open to what and for whom It assumes that art wants to, or should, take over. It assumes that art is capable of seizing political power at the centre, rather than working effectively from a position on the margins.

When the MNAC opened it doors, it did so amid much controversy. Dissidents, like Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, who has sworn never to set foot inside, are vocal in their opposition to the MNAC on the grounds that Romania’s national contemporary art centre is housed in the same building as the government of the country, a move that arguably compromises the autonomy of the museum as well as how autonomous it is perceived.

In response, MNAC’s programming has been provocative from the start. Balaci convened an advisory board composed of Western Europe’s curatorial heavy-hitters, including Ami Barak, René Block, and Nicolas Bourriaud. The inaugural exhibition was irreverently entitled: Romanian artists (and not only) love the Palace! Weekly media events featuring DJs and VJs, dubbed Happy Sundays @ the Museum, welcome hipster crowds, and international artists have been invited to make site-specific interventions that “polemically engage the political significance of the new location.”4 Indeed, in 2005, Santiago Sierra hired 396 female actors to beg for money in the corridors of the museum for two hours one rainy midnight, multiplying a Romanian stereotype to a horrifying extreme. This project in particular, and the debate that it provoked, put MNAC on the map for risk-taking programming and demonstrated that the relevance of the fight over the meaning of the building was hardly confined to local politics, but resonated in the larger discourses of power and its representation in contemporary art. Alternately, critics of Sierra’s project saw it as an example of artists capitalizing on controversies in the East in ways that simplify the debate and treat such power struggles as “foreign.”

As capital moves further east, the contemporary art world is quick to follow on its heels. And art often inhabits the loci of new “frontiers.” Consider the recent opening of several major contemporary art venues in Eastern Europe as examples, such as the Pinchuk Foundation for Contemporary Art in Kiev, of which Bourriaud, incidentally, is also a trustee. The Lonely Planet guide to Europe opens its description of Romania with: “This is the wild east of Europe.” Such statements are fraught with promise, fear, and a tone of overwhelming condescension, in a familiar tag that harkens back to the early days of the American West. Sure enough, there are telltale signs of imminent and radical change in Bucharest with what is left of the city’s old Parisian-styled boulevards and façades butted up against the foothold offices of multi-national corporations awaiting the country’s economic revitalization.

A frontier is a border between two countries. But it is also a new field for exploitative or developmental activity. The term was transformed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 from the European definition of the border between two states, to the American conception describing the disputed boundary between the “settled” and the “unsettled.” Along with the (erroneous) conception of the land as uninhabited wilderness free for the taking, came the psychological sense of unlimited opportunity and opportunism, hope paired equally with anxiety, wastefulness of natural resources, and disregard for established institutions of power. Today, one understands frontiers as not only limited to the colonization of land, peoples, and resources, but also in terms of radical political or economic change, the movement of global capital, and shifting socio-cultural patterns. Can one then speak of a new frontier, one specific to Eastern Europe, with the struggle over representation as a visible manifestation of power reorganizing itself

The debate over the signification of the Casa Poporului and the role of the MNAC in its transformation bears striking similarity to a frontier clash. The conference convened a crowd from the elsewheres of Europe to fly in and theorize the building from the inside. It was funded through the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht and smartly curated by Meta Haven, a collective of conceptual designers based in Amsterdam, who brought together a number of speakers, including Chantal Mouffe and Nicolas Bourriaud. This choice was deliberately contentious, considering that Mouffe’s arguments for the necessity of antagonism to liberal democracy have been used to counter Bourriaud’s conception of “Relational Aesthetics.” The results of the conference were as surprising as the final showdown in a spaghetti western. Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield’s arguments against Bourriaud fell into their own metaphysical trappings. Marcus Steinweg listed the entire history of Continental philosophy in point form. And the most interesting insights into the history of the building came from Ciprian Mihali, a member of the local collective 4Space. By the end of the day, Mouffe and Bourriaud became unexpected allies, taking the other speakers to task.

The question of whether art can occupy the place of power was put aside for the moment at the conference. The debate, by virtue of the international presence, was of another order. How will the site be redefined, or resist a definition, with the MNAC at the helm What role does it play in the politics and the economy of a post-communist state If art tracks the position of the frontier and its movement, as a symptom of “frontierism” in every conflicted and unresolved sense of the word, then MNAC is a new homestead. What they decide to do with it, or whether they decide, will be news to follow.

  1. “Regimes of Representation: Art and Politics beyond The House of People,” conference at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Bucharest, January 11, 2007. For more information see:
  2. Ami Barak, “Sex, Lies and Architecture,” MNAC (Bucharest: MNAC, 2004), 46.
  3. Nicolas Bourriaud, “Untitled,” MNAC (Bucharest: MNAC, 2004), 56.
  4. Mihnea Mircan, “MNAC Previous Events 2005,” (accessed February 10, 2007).
About the Author

Kathleen Ritter is a Canadian artist based in Paris. Her works takes an investigative approach to specific histories, institutions, and constructs of power, gender, language, and technology. By recontextualizing archival images, recorded media, and text, she draws connections between disparate fields, uncovering material from the past as a potential cipher for the present. Ritter was a resident at La Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, in 2014. Recent exhibitions have taken place at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; Open Studio and G Gallery, Toronto; and Battat Contemporary, Montréal. Her writing on contemporary art has appeared in ESSE, Prefix Photo, Fillip and The Brooklyn Rail as well as in numerous catalogues.

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