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Representation of La situacione antispettiva, part from The Blind Pavilion, installation by Olafur Eliasson, Danish Pavillion, 50th International Art Exhibition: Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer, 2003. Photography Eduard Constantin. Courtesy from the artist
History like stretching body. A look back at An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale

In January 2013, Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmuș’ proposal for the Romanian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale was selected by an international jury following a public competition. In less than four months they had to prepare a project which was unique in the history of the Romanian participation at the biennale and quite unusual for a national pavilion at the biennale in general. With a background in choreography, the approaches of the two artists are not limited to the classical boundaries of the discipline. Alexandra Pirici has staged enduring performances in the public space in Bucharest, for example in her project “If You Don’t Want Us, We Want You” (2011) for which she, together with a few other performers, ‘doubled’ massive monuments from the city, countering their weight and their controversial political use with the temporary presence of live bodies. Manuel Pelmuș has been engaged for a while with the series of events “Romanian Dance History”, ironically challenging the idea of a mega-history and the peripheral or invisible positions from which this is never written. The two artists worked together for the first time for An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale. Every day during the opening hours of the biennale, from 1 June through 24 November 2013, 10 performers could be found in the Romanian Pavilion, enacting, re-enacting and quoting more than 100 works of art or situations which were present(ed) in the history of the Venice Biennale since its beginning.

Raluca Voinea: You conceptualised An Immaterial Retrospective of the Venice Biennale having in the background certain traits of your artistic practices—which are quite different from each other but at the same time similar in their irreverence: the relationship with history (and the vantage point from which this is narrated) and with the monumental (opposing the ephemeral, fragile, dispensable to the ever-present and confirmed). When the project appeared as a certainty rather than a possibility to play with, were you at any point reconsidering its initial ambition, wondering if maybe the enterprise was too vast and the territory to encompass too mined? I’m not asking if you had second thoughts, more I’m trying to find out how you treat these moments between a project proposal and its coming into being, how you fill the enormous voids of endless possibilities with choices and, given the short time you had for decisions to be taken, what were the main ideas you tried to keep within the final conceptual lines of the project.

Alexandra Pirici: Indeed, we had a lot to cover and we did think about how the choices we make would construct the final dramaturgy and body of the work. From my point of view I think we tried to have as complex a perspective as possible: not come with a pre-conceived something to prove, not try to make a single point. We did think about turning a critical eye on the biennale’s Eurocentrism, on the stiffness of the institution, the ‘commercialisation of art’, its initial aim—boosting the city economically—but we also acknowledged its good moments, its availability to transform itself—actually the possibility and will to bend and re-imagine a frame—the Chile situation, and other interesting events and artistic works and statements. The history of the Venice biennale was juicy and complex enough to provide very interesting material. Basically we just chose stuff we liked and we found interesting while keeping in mind, as I said, the idea of a certain balance and complexity of the final statement.

Manuel Pelmuș: I would say for myself that in a certain way it was comforting knowing that anyway it is impossible to cover it all. Once you understand that, then it is easier to be playful and to focus on the things you either find important or you would simply like to tell. We had a very clear concept mixed with how we wanted to go from the idea to actually staging the work. And we thought that this mixture already contains a certain complexity. So what we did was to try and have a wide range of material. And we established a few criteria in choosing the material: turning-point moments, celebrated works but also controversial or under-represented works: Supreme Meeting, the painting by Giacomo Grosso that stirred a scandal at the first edition of the biennale in 1895, Robert Rauschenberg’s collage in 1964 or Baluba, Goddess of Fertility, exhibited in 1922 in the colonial frame of the “Black Sculpture” exhibition. Events that drew attention and were strongly debated but also highlighting some that remained in the shade or were forgotten. And then simply works we found interesting or powerful for diverse reasons. We always had a constant open eye for the ‘larger’ implications of the biennale. Like events that pointed out certain political tensions or transformations: the protests in 1968, that also artists in the biennale sided with, or the 1974 edition, dedicated entirely to the Chilean people, at the time under the dictatorship of Pinochet. The fact that the territory was so ‘vast’ and that the idea of covering it seemed ‘bigger than life’ was for me part of the concept. Part of this idea of descaling or bringing things (the biennale) to a different scale. So it really did not scare me. It rather excited me. We were going to try and do it all!

R.V.: As we discussed a lot throughout this past year, when looking at the Venice Biennale one sees not only an art exhibition but so many exemplary cases of art history, rituals, power relations in the art world and in politics… Still, art is the main focus and reason for which hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see the biennale every two years. One either melts in some artistic form any kind of wisdom external to it, or one has to stay outside the frame of the biennale to formulate a valid critique of its protocols based mainly on a tradition of Western European values. I would say your project was a sophisticated form of institutional critique, one that doesn’t run the risk of being co-opted because it functions from the beginning within the discourse of the biennale and it disrupts it in such a way that it can’t be ignored, it simply takes this discourse a step further.

A.P.: Yes. I think the only way to produce any kind of shift and to disrupt anything in the present is from within. Meaning there is a certain position you need to be in for anything to matter: a boycott, a statement, anything. The first condition is to be visible. If you’re not visible, you don’t exist, so it really doesn’t matter what your position is. I think what one can do is try to navigate the dark waters, while compromising as little as possible, keeping a clear head and not forgetting what actually matters in the end. So let’s face it: I would have loved to discover this one event in the history of the Venice Biennale—an artist who refused to participate (as a statement of a critique towards the biennale). But we haven’t heard of any. I would therefore say get in, if you can, and do your thing. There was this marketing strategy that Microsoft pioneered but then everybody used: embrace, extend, extinguish. Embrace: to produce a software for a program everybody used; extend: adding a feature only you produced; extinguish: taking the initial product out of the market because only you produce the updated version.
One had to see the immaterial retrospective in the context of the biennale, to go through almost all the national pavilions and the international one which hosted mostly big, object-oriented exhibitions, and to come at the end of the Giardini, in the Romanian Pavilion, to find an empty space and five people actualising and embodying the biennale’s history. So the work could have only existed inside the context; it functioned at its best in relation to the context and to the physical reality of the Giardini and its geopolitical mirroring of the real world. In that sense, I think the work embraced the context only to take it further and maybe to propose a different approach to history, archive and the artwork in general.

M.P.: Well, if I was to be pompous I would say that if Hans Haacke took the German Pavilion itself as a subject of inquiry then us taking the biennale itself as a starting point for our pavilion proposes some kind of scrutiny placed on the biennale itself. In that sense, yes, for me it was important to be there. Or to perform this scrutiny in relationship with the biennale and being inside of the biennale offered the best view. It is hard to propose a general rule of whether one should be outside or inside. One has to be attentive to each context. But I do think that these sorts of institutions or institutionalised contexts also offer a place for long-term politics. So if you want to produce a shift you need to mingle and to be prepared to get close to things you might not be so fond of.

R.V.: Each of the works performed during the retrospective recreated a work or situation from the history of the biennale. However, as distanced as that work was, it was far from offering itself to you as an objective ground which you only had to transpose into another language. On the one hand, your access to those works was mediated by their documentation, in many cases the photographic material in the archives of the biennale offering more understanding of the political personalities who had visited the exhibition than of the works themselves and the way they were exhibited. On the other hand, in many cases it was interesting that by choosing a work, you realised this was a reflection of an entire epoch or attitude, so that by bringing it up again to the memory you were to reframe that context as well. Your retrospective had the appearance of a playful process of anamnesis. At the same time, however, it reconstructed the object of memory; it countered the apparent neutrality of art history with the fluidity and subjectivity of this history’s actualisation. I see this project in a line of artistic re-readings and de-museifications of art history, such as, to name just a few from our immediate context, Lia Perjovschi’s Subjective Art History  [1]or Ciprian Muresan’s copies or replicas. [2] Coming from the field of performing arts, I know you have other references as well. Could you name a few?

A.P.: I would mention, from contemporary dance, Jerome Bel’s Veronique Doisneau. Here again, the act of re-enacting something totally transforms and brings different connotations and extensions to the ‘object’ and its very ‘de-museificating’, even if not in the museum but in the opera house, and The Last Performance by the same artist, where certain sequences of famous contemporary dance works are quoted and enacted.

M.P. : As I mentioned earlier, the work in Venice has a certain ‘site-specific’ dimension inasmuch as we place the memory and enactment of the biennale at the biennale. Sure, I am familiar with several works from the dance field which worked with re-enactment but I think it’s mostly about re-enacting dance pieces as dance pieces, even when they are in museum contexts, such as Xavier LeRoy does in his work Retrospective, while we mostly transform the medium. We ‘perform’ video work, installations and so on. Of course the examples that Alexandra already mentioned from Jerome Bel are references for us as he is approaching dance material like a readymade sort of thing.

R.V. : I was thinking more of the practice of re-framing an already existing object/situation from art history (readymade, as you call it, but I would say readily-delivered, as most art history is quite firm in its establishment, rarely contested) which mainly changes our perspective on the objects under scrutiny but also sheds a new light on them. I don’t see your work as appropriation and it would also be too simplistic to situate it only in the genealogy of re-enactments. The examples I was mentioning to you inspired my analogy with your work because they also maintain a relationship with the art object/history that both loves it and de-fetishises it. At the same time you are transgressing a mere play with the objects of art history when you turn one medium into another, however, not the drawing depicting the sculpture, not the painting bursting into three-dimensionality, nor the camera recording and collecting any other media and the sound between them. You bring in the medium of the body and use it not as it has been regularly used in the field of visual art, where it also acquired for performance art the status of a genre in itself, but as something more (and less at the same time), as an equalising measure (democratising some would say), one that is challenging memory and disturbing it, that is forming and transforming. While it dispenses with objects, The Immaterial Retrospective is far from being pure performance, maybe this is what puzzled and enchanted most of the visitors, the fact that they attended an exhibition despite the invisibility of the artworks. The exhibition itself resembled in many ways a work of minimal art, with its traits described (and criticised at the time) by Michael Fried in 1967 in his “Art and Objecthood” essay: its shape and presence as a whole, its relativeness to human size, its creating a space that includes the beholder, repetition of identical units, durational aspect, all of which give it a theatrical quality. Of course, since Fried was writing the theatrical has permeated visual arts and the museum but, I think, to look at a performative work through the lenses we use to interpret primarily objects can be useful in making disciplinary borders obsolete when judging exhibitions of art.

A.P. : I think it is, indeed, more interesting to think of a different way in which a performative work could function in a museum or a gallery space, beside the usual event-like approach. I think the format of ‘ongoing action’ might be the best way to frame the retrospective: indeed we were interested in setting a different convention—we didn’t want people to come and look at the work as if it were a spectacle but an exhibition. Our use of space, for example, was an attempt to break the theatrical convention of a ‘front’ of ‘stage’ where the audience sits and experiences the performance. The performers addressed the texts to different points in space, always changing the ‘front’ so that the audience would be invited to move around and look at the works that were enacted, as you would look at art objects in a gallery space. But even though I understand the need to call for looking at the works enacted as ‘objects’ rather than performance, I still think this might also lead to a trap of reading the intention in a reification key and to some further confusion, maybe. And I think one strong part of the intention was actually the ‘live’ quality—the fact that the performers claimed their reality over the objects and the history and ‘image’ of the objects enacted. That’s why I still believe ‘ongoing action’ to be the most accurate and neutral frame. And I also like that it echoes and maybe resurrects, in a different way, the political potential of artistic actions from the 1960s, their somewhat dated and beautiful utopia.

M.P. : We enacted over one hundred works and events that basically took almost eight hours in order to present. It was important to see the work as a whole and not as one hundred separate short works/performances. It had something to do with duration but not the kind of durational performance type that is about this one ‘authentic’ moment and that has roots in the performance art of the 1960s and 70s. We did think in terms of time and space as a whole but then again we knew that we don’t aim at certain theatrics that come from performance as in theatre. We wanted to work with the type of spectatorship that exists in museums and visual art contexts and not for people to come and see at a certain hour, let’s say, our enactment of Guernica. You could see ‘live’ this whole history that we enacted and it had to be present and alive during the whole exhibition. So in that sense, yes, it was important to construct this exhibition-like display.

R.V. : While the retrospective lasted for eight hours every day, being, as you say, a continuous action, indeed one could come in and out as in an exhibition. It called for the spectators’ time and many actually spent hours in the Pavilion, contradicting the common belief that durational projects (long videos or performances) are suicidal in large-scale exhibitions such as the biennale. As such, it made a powerful statement on the relativity of time (as well as of memory and history) in relation to exhibitions. At the same time, it really made one aware of spectatorship. It gave it substance beyond spectacle. One year after the process of this project started, reflecting on it, I would like to say that for me it was one of the most rewarding experiences—and not only, as you would expect, from the perspective of a curator and art historian—but mostly because of those rare moments in our commodified profession when an artwork really meets its public in the most direct and sincere way. Thank you, for the project and for this conversation.

[1Lia Perjovschi started assembling her “Contemporary Art Archive” in the 1990s, later renaming it “Center for Art Analysis” and more recently including it in a wider project, the “Knowledge Museum”. Her Subjective Art History was one of the many formats through which she read through this archive; a timeline of selected moments from the history of 20th and 21st century art, a personal chronology with surprising juxtapositions, always presented minimally, with small black and white pictures and designed by the artist herself.

[2Cluj-based artist Ciprian Mureșan has had a long-standing relationship with art history, humorously referencing its canons or commenting on the elaborated skills behind traditional media such as drawing or sculpture. A few of his works in this line are: Leap into the Void. After 3 Seconds, for which he remakes the staged photograph of Yves Klein, imagining the moment after the jump which never took place; The End of Five-Year Plan, in which he replaces Cattelan’s Pope hit by a meteor with the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church; Piero della Francesca, Meridiane Publisher, 1981, which is a hand-drawn copy, page by page, of an entire monograph (text and illustrations) of the Renaissance artist.


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