After a half hour discussion with Felix Vogel, curator of the 4th Bucharest Biennale Handlung: On Producing Possibilities, I quickly forget how old he is – probably a good thing considering he is only 23. Nevertheless, his curatorial theme and approach to the exhibition has been nothing short of impressive, and carries a weight of maturity lacking in curators who are much older. Rather than caging extremely well-chosen artist works in an overly-prescriptive theme that essentially directs the viewer, Vogel has taken the more flexible approach, hoping that the exhibition itself becomes a starting point that will independently evolve, rather than reach a conclusion.
Connecting completely to a city and a country with a history and population that is as diverse as its architecture, Vogel taps into the sense of grandeur and chaos in its capital, and along with the dedicated Biennale team, has managed to put together a thought-provoking exhibition that not only looks at Romania’s modern history and its ramifications in the present day, but also how the wider issues raised might be applied on a more global, or universal scale.
The 20th Century history of Romania reflects the history of Europe, and its modern face. During World War I, Romania’s neutral status cast the country as mediator, and a number of treaties were signed in the country. During the interwar years, known as Romania’s belle epoch, Bucharest saw itself rise up to become the metropolitan ‘Little Paris of the East’, a reflection on the renaissance in architectural styles that focused on neoclassical styles. Entering World War II as neutral, the country was obliged to side with the Soviets in 1940 until General Antonescu established his own dictatorship and sided with the Nazis in 1941. In 1944, King Michael I led a rebellion against Antonescu, and the country promptly sided with the allies. Bucharest was the hotbed for international espionage until the communists forced King Michael to abdicate in 1947.
Thus began a period of communist rule in the country that would last until the overthrow of despotic leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, making Romania the only Eastern Bloc country to violently overthrow its leader – on Christmas Day Ceausescu was tried and executed alongside his wife – footage was televised around the world, making this a bloody baptism for freedom. Romania has been building itself as a capitalist democracy ever since. This is what makes Bucharest a fascinating city weighted by its own history. This is a place where the German word handlung comes in handy; it relates actions to narratives and narratives to structures.
Arguably, the foundations of Romania post-communism were built on the grandiose building projects implemented by Ceausescu in the ‘70s, which effectively brought the country to financial ruin - something the 4th Bucharest Biennale takes as its starting point. As the world revisits the divisions of communism and capitalism, and the societal structure that accompanies each, as the economic crisis continues to affect countries around the world, and as Romania, along with Greece and Spain so far receive IMF bailouts, Handlung: On Producing Possibilities is trying to do just that, produce possibilities. By using a word with no English translation, and using it to put the spotlight on the narrative stories that define the human experience, where the city structures become the stage on which actions that drive national and international dramas are played out, the Bucharest Biennale wants change through active participation and it wants it now. That’s pretty much how everyone feels, isn’t it?
Q: How did you get involved with the Bucharest Biennale?
A: I’ve been going back and forth between Germany and Bucharest since 2006, and that’s how I got involved with the Biennale. I came here because I was interested in Romania and Bucharest. I came for the 2nd Biennale, got to know the directors, we kept in touch, I worked with them for the magazine as a writer, and did a few projects with them. So I knew Bucharest quite well I was coming a few times a year and I was always struck by the architecture of the city and this sense of structure it has.
Q: Was it the political connotations evident in the architectural styles of Bucharest that played a major role in the development of the theme?
A: Definitely. On the one hand there is this sense of late 19th century imperialist architecture, but then you have the modernist buildings, such as the period between the 60s and 70s where you got these socialist modernist architecture like those block of flats. Then you have the early eighties, and how Ceausescu imagined the city. There is this joke between Romanian architects that everything would have been much better if Ceausescu hadn’t gone to France, because he visited Paris, and after coming back he changed his idea of architecture – he developed an eclectic, rich, ornamented idea of architecture.
Q: With the People’s Palace being the second largest administrative building in the world, and the building projects Ceausescu implemented being grand in scale, can this kind of monumental architecture affect people who live in a city?
A: Yes, of course. The people’s palace is the most obvious example of this. The whole area around it was restructured, and an old part of the city was completely demolished. This project that was invited to take part in the Biennale, La Bomba - their neighbourhood is just behind the People’s Palace, and if you talk with the community there, they are always referring to the palace – I mean they look out of their windows and they see the palace. It is sort of blocking the entrance to the city. Then you have this huge park and green around it, which you are not allowed to enter; it’s not very inviting. It’s almost like a wasteland; monumentality gone crazy.
I think in the early ‘90s there was a lot of discussion as to what to do with it, because it is still unfinished – they are still building it. A lot of rooms have just the structure. There was once this idea of blowing up, but it would probably cause an earthquake, it is such a huge structure. At the same time, I don’t believe in blowing these buildings up. These structures should be appreciated; blowing such buildings up is like erasing history. If you erase something and start something new, there is no trace of the past. In Germany there was discussion when they destroyed the Palace of the Republic pretty much erasing all traces of the German Democratic Republic in Germany.
Q: Do you think that the problem is the fact that we live in a society that has changed so much in the last 100 years, and as such the structures that remain contribute to a post-political society where apathy is becoming commonplace? As Walter Benjamin said, Architecture is the prototype of a work of art that is received in a state of distraction by the collective – does architecture of the past, if not contemplated, block any sense of progress in a society?
A: Absolutely. I definitely think so, and from what I see is there is not much happening to actually fight against this, I mean preserving or using something it in an appropriate way, or putting it up for discussion besides having concerts there or having a rather silly museum of contemporary art in the case of the People’s Palace, which has pretty much missed every chance to elaborate on the history of the building, or criticize it, or to invite artists or commission work specifically based on that. I think that it is what contemporary art could actually do; it could actually move in it and criticize it from inside, which would make it grow. But I have never seen it happening, they just use it as an empty shelter.
Q: With some buildings being restored, such as the Hotel Grand Continental, would you say it is important to recognise Romania’s past through the restoration of such buildings?
A: In the particular case of the hotel I am not so sure because above all it has been converted for commercial needs. Now they can raise prices on the basis that it is a completely restored historic building. There is also this past that is referred to in a nostalgic way. You cannot really force something like this, it has to crawl organically. If buildings collapse, they should not be put up again. You should preserve buildings always but I don’t know, if it is collapsing…for example here, the old building of the national theatre was demolished, then they built this new one in the 30s, then a few years back they rebuilt an imitation façade of the theatre which now serves as the entrance to Novotel, which is ridiculous, it’s very post-modern.
Q: Someone once noted that capitalism is a political structure we constantly try to revive, does our treatment of architecture reflect this?
A: Exactly, yes,
Q: On subjective history, is history as a narrative a dangerous thing?
A: It is dangerous because it often gets eclectic and nostalgic in the sense of refiguring history. But at the same time it has its qualities. History is not just based on facts; it also has its narrative structure.
Q: What are you hoping the people of Bucharest or the viewer will get from this Biennale?
A: I cannot really say what goal I have for a specific public, I guess because there are too many publics to talk about and not everyone will get the same thing. But I guess the plurality of the audience; everyone should have their own approach to the exhibition.
Q: So when you talk about defending the public realm, you’re talking about creating a conceptual oasis for thought?
A: Exactly, and also for counter-ideas – looking at those structures from the ‘70s in order to see how they can be actively changed. I mean with LaBomba, they are changing this house they are in for something completely different.
Q: Should art be political and does it have the capacity to change the way people think?
A: Yes. That’s why I’m doing it. I mean, I have the belief that art must be political or is per se political, but I don’t know yet how I would define politics in art. This all depends on specific circumstances, specific contexts, specific art works, and specific cities and so on. The reason for me to keep on doing this, and the reason for me to curate is in order to figure out how art can act as a form of politics. I mean, I also believe that it shouldn’t be political in the sense that it claims certain purposes or say, ok, that’s my artwork and I want to change that, or reach this – that is what governmental politics is like. But I think art has the potential to change things on a micro-political scale. It might be more abstract or something that you can’t really point out.
Q: How does this standpoint exist alongside art’s commercial side?
I‘m not really interested in the commercial aspect of art. I know its necessary, and that artists have to survive, but sometimes it goes in the wrong direction because it limits art for a specific value or sake and doesn’t offer a diversity of qualities.
Q: You are the youngest curator to have ever curated a Biennale – how does it feel?
A: I’ve learned a lot of course, but I am flattered. At the first moment it felt crazy that they asked me and I wondered why they were doing that. We discussed how we would communicate, and decided that it would be stupid for all of us if we mentioned our age, it is a marketing move, but the age doesn’t say that much – it’s just a number.
Q: How would you react to those who believe that this is just a marketing move very much in the tradition of Warhol’s factory and the creation of a young ‘superstar’ ?
A: I wouldn’t consider myself a superstar. I am trying to be as humble as possible, but also I don’t want to claim that I am the curator or author of this exhibition, there were so many other people involved–, in the organization of it and in the development of its theme. Rather than having this idea of the youngest curator being the central theme, I would rather the exhibition speak for itself.