Interview with Alina Şerban on her research in Romania
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity or by the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The reestablishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with the return to conservative agendas. How do the artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
Political socialist practice and the introduction into the public sphere of standards of “new life” by the communist administration caused an eradication of traditional structures and values that had existed in pre-World War II Romanian society. Changes in juridical and social practices during the socialist period turned the traditional role of gender into a kind of social “acrobatics” characterized by modifications in the role of family in society, in the position of woman in the community, and in private and religious life.
Abolishing social classes and the emancipation of women made way for a new perception of the gender condition, which affected social imagery, as seen, for example, in the image of the “new” woman. In an analysis of the relationship between the problematic of gender and politics in “Socialism and Gender Camouflage” (2003), researcher Ştefania Mihalache underscores the fact that there was a kind of vagueness about gender policies and argues that “gender blindness” significantly impacted society. The author also establishes an explicit connection between feminist discourses (from Kollontai to Beauvoir) and the Romanian nationalist discourse.
According to the socialist political agenda, the emancipation of women meant the deconstruction of the traditionally posited man/woman binary, which was in fact the beginning of control over private life. While political space was dominated by egalitarian rhetoric, which resulted in a socialization based on imposed new behavior and a new vocabulary, the private sphere was transformed into a place of withdrawal where family life continued, albeit under the imprint of the still prevailing traditional male/female power relationship. At the cultural level, this “double-life” in socialism also left its mark on artistic practices, which is obvious when we investigate how gender was highlighted in the visual arts. There, man and woman became symbols of a changing nation and of society’s newly instated gender values, which subsequently also found entry into the public/social imagery. Many of these visual representations rephrased the modernist ideals in Romanian art that had persisted through such themes as motherhood and personifications of the nation.
After 1989, the human body in the work of artists signified a reaction against its appropriation by an ideology that upheld the “idealized,” asexual, politicized body. At the same time, post-1990 performance and experiments in video art aimed at reclaiming the new condition in which the cultural and social construction of femininity and masculinity took place in Romanian public space alongside liberation from conservative traditional structures.
In recent years artists have concentrated on creating discursive platforms for aspects specific to the newly structured local (political, cultural, ethnic etc.) contexts, repositioning the body in their projects and using it to reconfigure individual identity, which had been reduced to the minimum in the fifty years of communist regime and its continual attempts at imposing uniformity.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
On the whole, visual representations that fall within the research area put forward by Gender Check, such as those in the field of art and film, or representations in literature, point to changing political, social and aesthetic behaviors. As such, they have opened possibilities for establishing new methodologies and interpretations and have brought forth an interpretation of art history from the perspective of gender. Along these lines, the presence of paradigmatic themes and motifs in the artistic praxis of the 1970s and 1980s- some of them diverge conceptually from the culturally repressive and retrograde official model-highlights a local artistic specificity and, at the same time, underscores artistic manifestations as part of national social history, as they both imply and ricochet off aspects related to private life, the lives of couples, and the traditional role of the sexes in Romanian society.
You emphasized that both in the socialist era and in the early 1990s, representations of the body and self-representation became political acts in Romanian art. You mention 1989 as a time in which the liberation of the body became the focus of a number of performance festivals. Could you elaborate on how performance and corporeality became political statements in the work of artists from different generations?
The fever of the 1990s brought the body into a relationship with aspects deriving from the recently gained individual condition, the microcosm/macrocosm relation, contemporary spirituality, ritualism, and social and religious engagement. The political component became a recurrent element in the artistic praxis of those years, and the political stance in fact constituted a model for the artists’ engagement in the process of change in and regeneration of an ailing society. Self-referentiality and processuality have become key processes for artists working with corporeality. It is interesting to revisit a questionnaire from 1999 drawn up from this perspective by critic Ileana Pintilie, the initiator of the Zona Festival in Timişoara. The answers to her questions “What does performance art mean to you?” and “What is the importance of performance in your artistic activity?” gave an insight into a variety of individual artistic practices, intentions and motivations-ranging from the use of the body as a medium of self-inspection to the use of corporeality in the articulations about the current political habitus and social conventions.
Alina Şerban, Research Romania
Alina Şerban (born 1978) is an art historian and curator. She lives and works in Bucharest, Romania. She has a Degree in the History and Theory of Art and a Master’s Degree in Visual Arts (2005), both from the National University of the Arts, Bucharest. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Art History at Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK.
She is the co-founder and co-director of the Centre for Visual Introspection, Bucharest (www.pplus4.ro). She curated The Seductiveness of the Interval-Romanian Pavilion at the 53. Biennale di Venezia in 2009, and was co-curator of the public art project Ars Telefonica, Bucharest, and of the exhibitions Geta Brătescu and Ana Lupaş both at Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck (all 2008). In 2006, she took part in the Kuratorenwerkstatt program at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, where she curated Indirect Speech. She is involved in research projects, and has given presentations and lectures at various international conferences, most recently: “New Audiences / New Institution,” (2009, seminar Who is the audience today? at Centro Cultural Montehermoso, Vitoria, Spain,), “Metamorphoses of the Self-portrait. On Theatricality and Self-representation in Geta Brătescu’s work,” (2009, Fragments of the East: Geta Brătescu, Sanja Ivekovic and Ewa Partum at Reina Sofia, Madrid,).