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Interviews / March 4, 2010

Dan Perjovschi: Drawing Criticism

Dan Perjovschi at work on Late News at the Royal Ontario Museum's Institute for Contemporary Culture, February 2010 © Royal Ontario Museum 2010 All Rights Reserved / photo Brian Boyle

Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi is no stranger to the turbulent ebb and flow of modern history. Schooled in the era of hardcore communism and underground revolution, Perjovschi emerged in the late 1990s as a linchpin connection to the unmapped terrain of contemporary art in post–Cold War Europe. His large-scale installations of critically edged drawings applied directly to the walls of galleries and other institutional spaces have been featured at the Venice Biennale, the Museum of Modern Art and Tate Modern, among other notable international venues, delivering an informed perspective on the great optimism and paradoxical failure of the global era. In February, Perjovschi was in Toronto to install his latest project, Late News, at the Royal Ontario Museum. Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin caught up with him there to discuss the specifics of his practice and the challenging histories that inform his unique worldview.


Bryne McLaughlin: Let’s begin by talking about process. Your work has been shown at venues all over the world. Each installation is devised as a site-specific response that merges issues ranging from international politics to local gossip. You begin with sketches that you accumulate in notebooks and then draw on the walls and sometimes windows of the spaces you’re working with. How do you choose which subjects you’re going to work with?

Dan Perjovschi: You can imagine me as a rock band. I’ve been in a world tour since 2000. So I play favourite tunes. I have a mental repertoire of drawings and if they fit here I will do them. This is the first stage because then I control the space a little bit and I’m more familiar with the white territory [of the gallery walls]. Then I start to hunt around for subjects as much as I can—in the city, in the newspaper and in discussions. It is a process of selection and transference. I do about 200 drawings in a notebook and maybe 20 or 30 will go to the wall.


BM: So the drawings that pick up on local histories or issues act as an entry point for viewers to engage with images that tackle the big global themes you’ve observed?

DP: If I draw a local hint, then people can understand how I think. If I refer to something that they are very familiar with, then they understand the other subjects that they are not so connected to. Let me give you an example here in the drawing Flower Power. The first time I did this was in 2008 because it celebrated the revolutionary year of 1968. I carry it with me because it can stand. Even if you have no idea about 1968’s movements or whatever, just the relationship between these two words can mean something. Another one called Bringing Western Democracy was made in 2003 when the Americans were invading Iraq. So it’s connected to the beginning of that war, but it still stands up critically.

You could say that these drawings criticize the powder versus the wick. I don’t have necessarily a moral stance, but I don’t shy away from ideas of bad and good. I can also change my mind. I have drawings that are 15 or 20 years old that I disagree with now. My practice is temporary, which allows me to change my mind. Maybe my next project will be different.


BM: Is there any difference in your approach to the sites you work in, specifically with this installation at the ROM?

DP: The drawings are partly from my repertoire and partly from the images I can discover on the spot. I’ve never had this kind of architecture to work with. So I was thinking for the first time about how people will look at the work as they are travelling though the space. I had to compose the drawings, which for me is important. I can imagine a time in the future even constructing an architecture to draw on.

Everywhere I am I try to find something specific for the place besides the story. After all, the stories of 2005 are sometimes different than the stories of 2010. But there is something that unites all of my projects. They are always unique because even if I work with the same drawings I will never work with the same combinations. On the other hand, these installations are like a retrospective. It’s more or less the “best of” drawings. In some cases I use different types of markers so I have different lines, here it is thick because this is a very brutal sculptural object that I have to cut up. I don’t plan in advance. I come to the place, I live here for a while and then I decide what kind of technology and subjects I will work with.


BM: You’ve spoken in other interviews about how you were trained academically as a painter…

DP: In communist Romania! It was a really bad school that was not academic enough. It was based on some kind of post-impressionist thinking, more craft oriented. But it was a chance in the communist time because they didn’t plant too strongly in my head the rules of what they thought was right. This work is a rebellion against that.

When I graduated I ceased to paint immediately. I tried installation art, but at the time I didn’t even know it was called installation art, or performance art or happenings or whatever. We didn’t know the history. We’d been totally cut out of the circuit of ideas. We had missed about 50 years of universal culture. We experimented with the situation in our flats because it was out of the control of the ideological censorship. Visual art was never very important: the dictatorship was afraid of the written word. They could control visual imagery but the power of the word made them really afraid. So they let us play.

Then the world changed with the fall of communism. Everything was suddenly open. The printed media helped me to find a language to express. For one year I had done nothing but fighting for democracy in the streets. I had no shows in 1990, I just did revolution. Then because of this newly independent media and the freedom of expression—it was extraordinary—my language, my drawings became more and more graphic. I had a moment somewhere in 1997 when what I did in the newspaper and what I did in the galleries or the art system merged. But it was a long process. Along the way I tried all kinds of stuff that went nowhere; with photography and with video, which was a very popular medium because video meant “western” world, it meant “international” level. We were a very low-tech country so with high-tech stuff you became somebody. But that didn’t go well with me. I can’t edit, I can’t choose. I have to work in this very direct fashion that suits me much more.


BM: This idea of a cultural vacuum that existed in Eastern Europe at that time, this notion of a history that had been filtered and controlled…

DP: It was totally manipulated…


BM: But in the late 1980s and early 1990s it must have seemed like starting from scratch, and it’s interesting to see that despite the quick influx of western values—from the art world and otherwise—there is still a lot of discomfort or uncertainty.

DP: I think there is a difference. There are some countries in Eastern Europe that are proud of their past. They can rediscover some artists who did work in an experimental field. In Romania that was really suppressed, and we don’t really have a history to be proud of. That’s why we just threw it out. When they tried to do the local version, they went into the orthodoxy—from communism to extreme religiousness.

This was unbelievable. In Czechoslovakia and especially in the former Yugoslavia they had had a liberal kind of communism with a lot of activity. In Romania we didn’t. I didn’t know the Dada movement had some Romanian ancestors; Tristan Tzara was a Romanian, I had no idea about that. I had no idea about a lot of things. And when this opened it just hit us all at once, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s—pow! We tried somehow to face this enormity.

I realized in the process that I could not win my place by imitating or taking western models, even if the institutional models are better. We didn’t have to invent anything. I had to discover a language that would preserve my nature coming from a low-tech country but still find me a place in here. Why should you invite a video maker or a photographer if you already have Jeff Wall?

Now it’s easy to talk about, but for years I had to decide to go or not to go in exhibitions of Eastern European artists. I’ve been in some and I’ve stayed out of some because I never want to be arrested in this sort of discourse. My work is not about East Europe or Romania but about the world in general.


BM: Your practice is now very much an international one. In fact you have an exhibition titled “International Artist” on view right now at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia. I imagine that despite the history you describe, and despite the obvious irony of the exhibition title, that coming from that part of the world you still can’t quite escape this general desire to be “international”?

DP: If I want to be very brutal, you know the definition of dissident is that you are opposing a regime, but you have to be known in the west or outside your country in order to stay alive.

It’s the same with that, the minute you reach an international level, they don’t kill you at home. They respect you somehow. So that’s a struggle because otherwise, honestly, they don’t care about you. A part of the society I come from considers what I do and where I am as something valuable. But a big part of it would consider this like a shame. They say, “What is this? This is not Romanian art,” or whatever. And another part will just never understand it. So I have to be international.


BM: But you stay in Bucharest.

DP: Yes, because my wife, Lia, and I are part of that system, we can influence things. We have been put in the place of a missing institution. We’ve been lucky to travel and return with information and networks. That’s very relevant and important there. You have it already here. You don’t need me here to start that dialogue. Maybe you need me for a more critical view or for more political insight but I’m very effective in Romania as an artist.


BM: After the fall of the Berlin Wall in certain Eastern European countries, the poets, artists and cultural thinkers who led the dissident movement suddenly assumed power and attempted to drive society forward both politically and culturally. By the mid-1990s, that great promise had, in many respects, evaporated. Then there was a shift back, politically at least, toward the harder values of the communist era. From your perspective is that cultural, social and political letdown still being felt?

DP: Romania is a particular case because we had a brutal communist system. The most progressive part of Romanian society turned to the right to compensate for years of brutal communist thinking. It was very difficult to find a place for left theory, even critical thinking. Now it’s much more balanced, I think, even in the intellectual world.

Dissidents in Romania are another very tragic story. They were hated while they were dissidents because they stood in opposition. Many people were too afraid to do this. And then they’ve been hated afterwards for the same reason. Some of them have become caricatures of themselves because of capitalist society. They’ve branded themselves, they’ve become like jokes. They made money out of their dissidence. Some still respect their status, but it’s very hard to live up to your own historical height. These people are still extraordinary but the majority were either eaten by the change, or they went wrong with their reading of history and frankly, in 20 years they’ve become a kind of counter-dissident, not progressive, but conservative. Which is shocking to see.

But this struggle is part of our identity. We never fully acknowledge our past, and our recent past. Old communist leaders are still in power, there are people from the Romanian KGB who were brutal and they still get huge state pensions! I pay for that? You cannot cut their money because under European laws you cannot discriminate against a category of people, so you have to sue them one by one. It’s very messed up. But we have this heritage, it’s like baggage you carry with you. It’s ironic, people fight even today against communism even though there is a very savage capitalism there. In 20 years in Romania we’ve built only supermarkets. We’ve never built a library…20 years of supermarkets! The country’s full of them now. We never pay any attention to any culture. In Toronto, criticize it or not, at least there is a cultural policy to invest in creativity. In general Romanian society is very conservative. It’s an agrarian country. It’s countryside. It’s complicated.

Twenty years is short. When I hear all these stories about democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq… Romania had a democratic base, it’s a Latin culture. The institutional models even in the communist era were western. They resisted the Soviets and embraced the western model. Still, even after 20 years there’s a lot to be done. How can people here imagine that in Afghanistan you just build a society there? It’s not like that. You need time, lots of time.

BM: That perspective can be fleeting in the western mindset.

DP: True. You see I can criticize the capitalist society but sometimes I have to have a more radical view. I think there is a different definition of art in my case. My practice was made in a political newspaper, not in a gallery. That’s a big difference. I’ve been involved in building an absent art scene. I’ve been part of the construction of it, with all of the criticism and ambivalence and polemics and fighting—and I lost a lot of fights, but that somehow has sharpened my language.

You know, we are living in this culture that constantly asks you and me to provide new things. Sometimes I think I just have to deliver the same standard project, like a professional routine. And it’s enough because everywhere I’ve been people need humour and a more simple and intelligent approach to things. I can deliver that and with much pleasure.

BM: One last question: Considering your work in newspapers as a political cartoonist and your approach to art in general, what’s your take on the controversy surrounding Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and his editorial cartoons of Mohammad which were first published in 2005? There have been death threats, international boycotts, calls for the freedom of expression, censorship and even this January he was attacked at his home.

DP: I have my opinion. First of all those cartoons were not very good. Both sides used them as a propaganda machine and a cartoon is not meant like that. A real cartoon penetrates propaganda and ideology.

An intelligent nation like Denmark could have behaved much better. The Danish backed off when their products were boycotted. At the same time, everybody in Europe, including my newspaper in Bucharest, printed a freedom of expression against this kind of treatment. In the same month there was an exhibition in Vienna curated on billboards analyzing the European Union. Some of the posters were considered too offensive so they pulled them down. Exactly at the moment when every political opinion in Western Europe was advocating for the freedom of speech this exhibition was censored.

If I know that some of my drawings will really offend some minority I will try the same idea but with a different approach. My intention as an artist is not to create scandal; scandal is not good for anybody. My interest is to be able to use this language to enlarge the territory of these expressions. I play with the so-called fracture lines of these cultures because I think we are able to find a more intelligent approach to them. If somebody is offended because in their culture they don’t permit cartoons of their god, then why do it? What did we gain as western culture? In my opinion, this kind of language, like graffiti, should not necessarily start protest and scandal and fights in the street, but it can carry a vision of the world and make for better understanding. Freedom of expression is essential, but it’s a responsibility too.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.