What does an artistic director of an art gallery do? What are your duties and responsibilities?
I started working at Nicodim Gallery four months ago, when Mihai Nicodim proposed this collaboration having in mind to increase awareness of the gallery’s activities within the local and international art scene. It was already a known fact that Mihai has an eccentric taste and the irreverence to show artists and curatorial projects which exuberantly question the contemporary cultural and political status quo. Now we want to become even more uncomfortable and capture within the gallery space the complex dynamics of contemporary life. And that’s one of my duties: to seize new collaborations with artists of the younger generation, curators and galleries from Europe who would articulate our gallery’s discourse on contemporary art and its role today. At present, we are working on the publication of two exhibition books for The Basilisk and The Hierophant, curated by Aaron Moulton – a pseudo-scientific exercise in participative anthropology –, for which I contributed a text on self-fulfilling prophecies in our present landscape. For Ecaterina Vrana’ solo show, I wrote the exhibition text, installed the show and communicated the event. So, I ensure that our fantasies invade the reality and experiment with the challenges it brings along each day – I’ll come back with an experience journal on my first work anniversary.
What recommends you for this position? What qualities and skills are required? What is your academic background?
It wasn’t about the rich professional background in my case, this is obvious [laughs]. All my previous projects were in art research and criticism, and exhibition design in non-commercial spaces. In fact, during our first meeting, Mihai [n.b. Nicodim] told me that, had he known what opening and owning a gallery implied, he might not have gone ahead with it.
The reasons I am here have everything to do with having the right attitude – that everything is possible -, and the capacity to learn as you go, which for me was all about having real, meaningful dialogues with the people whose work I resonate with. I became aware of the questions that bind human beings together, socially and culturally and I get particular pleasure from understanding how they emerged. I mean, questions make invisible things become reality, the outcome is only historical evidence. This may come across as a little defiant, but it is caused by an insatiable curiosity and my desire to know the textures of the time I live in.
I grew conscious about this during my residency in France – part of an interdisciplinary research program in Cultural and Visual Studies at the University of Lyon. I was there with a scholarship from the National University of Art in Bucharest, department of History and Theory of Art and I participated in a series of theoretical and practical workshops on the concept of territory in art. It was during this time that I learned about the case – which continues to fascinate me-, of the conceptual artist Raivo Puusemp (a good friend of Paul McCarthy) who ran for the mayor of Rosendale, New York, and changed the course of its history through a referendum in which the community voted for the dissolution of the village government. Behind it was his experiment in group dynamics and socio-political processes. It is a less known episode and, as you can imagine, rather controversial. What moved me was this idea of an artistic project at 1:1 scale with reality and the image of a social space as a mysterious territory where some ideas develop, while others don’t. Somewhere in here is my mantra.
When did you discover your passion for art? Do you prefer an artistic medium in particular?
There were two important moments. The first one: I barely turned 16 and was living in Mizil, a ghost-town, when – thanks to a fortunate series of events -, I became part of the production team of „Adalbert’s Dream”, the cinematic debut of Gabriel Achim. The trigger happened when I was assisting the shooting process and I had this image of being part in the fabrication of a collective dream, basically. Looking back I view the context as being meta-symbolic: the narrative plot was built around the relationship between fiction and reality, revealing the force of fantasy to pierce everyday life through image-making techniques.
The second one: I was touring the National University of Art when I saw that smoking was allowed during classes. The magic only lasted one more year and a half after I started my studies there. This may also have highlighted what my preferred artistic medium is: life!
Are exhibition openings stressful? What makes an art show great?
The process of conceiving and installing an exhibition is more stressful. That’s when I also work closely with Mihai. It’s a mix of adrenaline and rational analysis of arguments, which is both a learning experience and a confirmation of the trust he grants me.
The gallery’s forte has always been that we don’t hunt the “cool gallery” label and that we don’t get any satisfaction by clichés. We are not afraid to experiment and we know how to do it right: from a black metal concert in the backyard of a baroque palace (The Boogeyman, 2016), to a ceremonial ritual inside a post-industrial enormous site (The Hierophant, 2017) and the construction of an ice rink especially designed to encourage accidents (Daniela Palimariu’s upcoming solo show in January, 2018). These types of exercises combine cultural habits and artistic practices, and also challenge our understanding of the artist’s role in society.
We also focus on encouraging dialogues and collaborations between Romanian artists and international artists, which we achieve through our group shows. This summer alone, the Hierophant exhibition brought Daniel Keller, Mike Bouchet, Franco and Eva Mattes, and Kris Lemsalu, who will be part of Performa, New York, this year. Max Hooper Schneider, who recently received a commission for The High Line curated by Cecilia Alemani, came to Bucharest last year. It just goes to show Mihai’s mercurial eye for anticipating trends in the contemporary art scene.
What are the biggest challenges you confront in this profession?
The preconceived ideas about being a young woman in this business. But I (try to) play it to my advantage.
What brings you most joy and satisfaction in this activity?
Meeting the artists with whom we collaborate and who I used to read about during my studies or see their work only in museums or other galleries; making studio visits while we stir ideas and stories about what each sees in the world are some of the most simple and honest satisfactions that this job offers me. For example, last month I visited the studio Oscar Murillo and Mandy El-Sayegh are sharing in London, where I spent a whole day discovering two very strong characters who are also surprisingly straightforward – no time to beat around the bush. During our conversations, we shared some stories about Daniela [n.b. Palimariu], Alex [n.b. Niculescu] and Cristi [n.b. Raduta] of Sandwich, Bucharest back to when they met at Mandy’s solo show here (Taking Part), and their project Process Terminus [n.b. part of ArtEncounters, Timisoara, 2017]. It was then that she decided to contribute one of her drawings to their project; in a way, I mediated this transfer. So, this is another huge satisfaction: to be able to bring people together in an orgy of ideas and exchange of dreams.
How do you keep pace with everything that goes on in the art world? Do you take a lot of work-related trips? On the other hand, do you take a break from art when you go on holiday travels?
Keeping pace with what’s going on in the art world has become very easy today; it’s selecting the information that’s trickier. Some of it comes from social media with all its live updates from around the world. Last year, when I was living in London, I was part of a lecture group of young curators (from Goldsmith and the Royal College of Art – and that’s how I ended up being part of a project done for Victoria and Albert Museum) and I always try to be present at lectures and artist talks, or I search the online recordings. This year I started to take more trips throughout Europe to learn what happens on the smaller art scenes and I was so pleasantly surprised by Rotterdam and Eindhoven (The Netherlands). Then I visited Frieze in London and FIAC in Paris. Now our own exhibition program puts me in contact with iconic figures of the contemporary art scene, like Jeremy Shaw, John Duncan and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. And I am in a constant dialogue with most of our artists, which allows me to take the pulse of the art scene in a direct way.
I always try to travel as much as I can, even hitch-hiking, out of personal curiosity and for cultural experience. Now I am planning on making more studio-visits, as part of my research for a curatorial project next year. But I don’t necessarily see a distinction between work and leisure travels, as I take my inspiration from observing human behaviour and desires, even outside galleries and museums.
What are your plans for the future? Would you like to have your own gallery?
For now, I am focusing on personal development within this new role.
How would you describe the art scene in Bucharest? And more broadly, the Romanian one? Where is it headed, according to you?
There are some initiatives I follow with increased interest, such as the ODD Night events – a program curated by Cristina Bogdan, who experiments more with the format of exhibitions -, or Sandwich – a platform questioning the frontiers of contemporary art. I also like what the National Center of Contemporary Dance is doing for the local art scene. In parallel, ARCBucharest started a program for curatorial residences, and Revista Arta had this year East Art Mags – a program dedicated to art critics from Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.
But in Bucharest and, extendedly in Romania, it’s difficult to build the infrastructure for contemporary art. There is a real scarcity of financial resources and art space; and very few art specialists and programs to encourage and adequately prepare younger ones. Somehow this has contributed towards the development of a toxic environment of unproductive competition. I think the local scene may have gotten a bit too close to the academic world, self-referential and self-reverential, with strong didactic ideals. The “reactionary” apartment parties or the punk-fatalist artistic groups are gone.
I hope the recent dynamism and the collective effort to ignite the appetite and the curiosity will impel the younger generations to reimagine how „contemporary” looks like, what organizations they needs and what institutions they serve.
Name five art galleries you like – given criteria such as space, curatorial programme, artists portfolio, etc. – anywhere in the world!
Köning Gallery (Berlin)
Yvone Lambert (Paris)
Petzel Gallery (NY)
David Zwirner (London and NY)
Hauser & Wirth (London, NY, LA, Zurich)
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Interview ✒ ADINA SHOLLENBARGER
Photos © HORAȚIU SOVĂIALĂ