Reviews Tom Jeffreys

Art Encounters biennial, Timişoara

February 6, 2019

This piece was originally commissioned in 2019 but never published.

Pigeons proliferate in the Romanian city of Timişoara: in parks and public squares and on the sky-skewering spires of Orthodox churches. The region is well-known among pigeon breeders and the city even has its own eponymous breed: the Timişoara Tumbler. Now, thanks to the third edition of the Art Encounters biennial, pigeons are the subject of attention not simply as pest or prize but as something altogether more complicated.

Across stickers and billboards, postcards, social media, and a large banner hanging in the Corneliu Milosi Public Transport Museum (a huge former tram shed built in 1927) is a picture of a pigeon, shown in profile, by artist Agnieszka Polska. Commissioned by the biennial and adopted as a mascot, The Wayward Pigeon (2019) is a composite image made from digitally manipulated found photographs. The result is as strikingly handsome as a Velazquez portrait. According to one of the accompanying texts, Polska’s bird is a messenger pigeon that “chooses which ideas to deliver”. Despite the acute – and little understood – ability of pigeons to navigate using the earth’s magnetic field, this pigeon is “an individual who acts contrary to what is desired or expected”: an emblem perhaps of the unpredictability of freedom.

Like Polska’s pigeon, Art Encounters ranges across multiple venues and unexpected locations. Paying close attention to the possibilities of the “encounter”, curators Maria Lind and Anca Rujoiu have not only worked with museums and galleries but also installed pieces for alleyways and pavements, bookshops and botanical gardens. There are 20 new commissions, several of which have involved long-term collaboration with local institutions. The stated aim is to highlight gems such as the Press Museum in the nearby town Jimbolia, the Museum of Communist Culture, and the incredible Youth House, a slice of visionary 1970s modernism that remains open to the city’s young people 24 hours a day. At the same time, the biennial does not fail to draw attention to ISHO, a vast new mixed-use development currently being constructed around the site of the Art Encounters Foundation by its founder, real-estate mogul and art collector Ovidiu Şandor.

A number of the curatorial threads through Art Encounters – such as borders, migration, and the uncovering of hidden histories – are standard biennial fare. But they have also been informed by Timişoara’s own complex history. Located in the west of Romania, close to the borders with Serbia and Hungary, Timişoara was ruled by Hungary in the Middle Ages, then the Ottomans, then the Habsburgs. World War I saw the city occupied by the Serbian army before becoming part of Romania in 1919. It was in Timişoara that the revolution against communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu began in 1989.

Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan’s The Equitable Principle (2012-ongoing), an installation combining wall map with a filmed performance, takes a specific national border dispute – that between Romania and Ukraine over Snake Island in the Black Sea – in order to make a broader point about how little ordinary citizens stand to gain from such squabbles. Pınar Öğrenci’s short film, A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us (2017), tells of a young Arab musician forced to throw his oud – a lute-like string instrument – into the sea in order to escape to Europe from a war-torn homeland. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Walled/Unwalled (2018) links radio propaganda with domestic violence and the architecture of prisons via aural analyses of walls as physical borders that can always be breached – especially by sound. Dan Acostioaei’s new permanent commission for Timişoara’s Northern Railway Station takes words and images from a postcard sent home to Romania by the artist’s father while he was working in Syria. “Souvenir de Syrie,” reads the blurrily beautiful mosaic mural.

In a world of journeys, attachment to place is both archaeological (to be uncovered) and architectural (to be constructed). Peles Empire and Ahmet Ögüt are among those digging up histories that some may wish to leave concealed (Ögüt’s pavement image of an Ottoman socialist and women’s rights campaigner is vandalised with white crosses in the biennial’s opening week). Anne Low, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas. Iulia Toma and several others articulate questions of heritage through the labour of making fabrics. Combining creation and inheritance, traditional music rings out as a historic legacy that must be recreated each time anew. Moldovan folk songs echo through the tram shed courtesy of Ghenadie Popescu’s magic carpet animation, The Racovăt River (2013). Alicja Rogalska’s Broniów Song (2012) sees six Polish villagers, clad in an ethnographic stereotype of traditional folk costume, singing about EU subsidies, youth emigration and mass unemployment – “Today the factories are nailed shut” – to the tune of a local love song. It is a simple work and it hits you in the heart.

This is not a biennial of sweeping statements; rather, Lind and Rujoiu have excelled in sensitive explorations of the relationships between individual works, and between work and place. In their hands, familiar pieces feel fresh. One example: at Trondheim Art Museum, Norway, Ane Hjort Guttu’s Time Passes (2015), a documentary-style film about a fictional art student whose work involves begging on the streets alongside a Romá woman, seemed intelligently self-reflexive. In Timişoara, in an intimate side room of the Youth House, there is a powerful emotional intensity that I had not felt before.

Exemplifying Lind and Rujoui’s approach is an unexpected meeting between three very different artists within a single gallery of the Art Encounters Foundation. Trevor Paglen’s 2014 landscape photographs of NSA-tapped fibre-optic cable landing sites have been shown many times. But here they are paired with a mixed media installation by Alma Heikkilä that includes sculptures of pollen, fungal spores and bits of insect playfully made out of plaster and paper and scattered on the floor around a tall orange screen covered with trail-like markings. Around the walls are minimalist little line drawings on paper by Liliana Mercioiu Popa: Variables (2013). It’s hard at first to see the link between Paglen’s techno-uncanny, Heikkilä exuberant interspecies entanglements and Popa’s quietly formal experimentation. But that difficulty in seeing the link is precisely the link: trompe l’oeil is a recurring ploy throughout the biennial, and here again all three artists question the limits of the visible. Geometry, technology, the nonhuman – each work brings something new to the other. This is exactly the kind of subtly considered surprise that makes Art Encounters so repeatedly rewarding.

Image credits (from top):
1. Exhibition view at the Corneliu Miklosi Public Transport Museum, Art Encounters Biennial. Front: Bella Rune, on the right Agnieszka Polska, The Wayward Pigeon, 2019, photo: Adrian Câtu
2. Alma Heikkilä, pollen grains, fungal spores, bacteria, mycelium, cysts, algal filaments and spores, lichens, insects and their parts, plants and animal tissues and several other microorganisms, 2017, ink and acrylic on polyester, cotton, oak, iron, plaster, polyethylene, paper, cardboard, installation view from Art Encounters Biennial, photo: Adrian Câtu
3. Alicja Rogalska’s Broniów Song (2012) video still

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