Introduced beforehand at the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest1 as a three-channel slide projection, Series. Multiples. Realisms. constitutes an ongoing photographic series carried out by the artist Nicu Ilfoveanu since 2010. Series. Multiples. Realisms. is one of the few long-term projects that engage in the most direct way in the exploration of the rural environment in Romania, a space allegedly idealized and romanticized, on which the national(ist) imaginary draws upon. Underscoring the close connections between the realm of the visual and that of archaeology, this cycle operates in a rather disturbing way: both as subjective commentary and as visual evidence.
Ilfoveanu uses photography to question a silent unitary representation of the nation, documenting everyday realities and the forms of attachment and engagement of communities with their history, through the gaze of the monuments dedicated to the end of the First World War, a foundational narrative of Romanian modern national identity. What this series succeeds in establishing is a panoramic view on the current determinant framework of social existence, where each photograph is not to be read in isolation. Each photograph becomes an essentially structural element of a larger visual assembly, which offers to the viewer a sensory and poetical experience upon the rhetorics and disillusionments of the present. Nicu Ilfoveanu, born in 1975 in Pitești, has a photography-based practice, his recent projects are largely slide projections and photo publications.
The common denominator of all the frames of the open-ended photographic cycle is the iconic presence2 of the erected monuments. As Ilfoveanu himself suggests, he is not interested in “what is called ‘the collective consciousness’ or rather the ‘local consciousness’ in relation to these monuments, because unfortunately . . . it no longer exists. Or if it exists or awakens, it easily succumbs to artificial and therefore to damaging nationalism.”3 What Nicu Ilfoveanu is deliberately attempting in Series. Multiples. Realisms. is to destabilize the traditional rhetoric accompanying the narration of these monuments by extracting from the familiarity of everyday sequences fragments and details which, only when placed together, form the corpus of a transparent, unembellished representation of the communal space.
In what way do these monuments, scattered throughout Romania’s smallest villages and hamlets, resituated at the edge of the community’s self-awareness and activated only on Nation Day, become the epitome of a representation of the disharmonic cocktail of the post-1990 Romanian landscape? If, according to the artist, the encounter with these silent presences came about by chance, when he was drawn “a few years ago . . . to a monument that represented a soldier with a broken rifle standing on a freshly whitewashed plinth,”4 we cannot say the same thing about the meticulousness with which Ilfoveanu explores the everyday actions of passers-by, the living anachronisms of villages. He follows closely their decline and the chaotic process of adaptation to aggressive neo-liberalism, to the new constraints that govern the country’s social and economic realities. The artist photographs and sometimes returns to re-photograph at different moments the same monuments, seeking to provoke a dislocation of the object’s image from its status as a public prop and to “observe their proximity, what happens around them to the point of merging together . . . to reduce by means of framing the scale of the statues, often captured in contre-jour,” in order to produce “silhouettes similar to the silhouettes of passers-by.”5 To judge from the unspectacular state in which we find them today—surrounded by a small fence, “taken over” by the courtyards of institutions such as a village school, or integrated ad locum into public squares—these monuments are more than just agents of a ritual of commemoration, more than witnesses to times impossible to revisit, more than objects with a separate life. For, what unfolds beneath the artist’s gaze is not a narrative of solitary figures, it is a narrative about the various textures of the present that challenges us to understand its mechanism of change.
The artist’s repeated attempts to crystalize a new type of dialogue between the solitude of these figures and local communities is materialized in the weaving of a “new sensory fabric by tearing percepts and affects out of the perceptions and affections that constitute the fabric of ordinary experience,”6 which, according to Jacques Rancière, creates “a form of common expression or a form of expression of the community.”7 For, although it might seem incomprehensible at first sight, it is not the monuments and their specific history that are the central subject of the photographic epic that Ilfoveanu presents to us, but rather the possibilities arising from the encounter with the disputed and oscillating rituals of daily life. What puts together this photographic series is a group portrait, in which each of us is enabled to recognize ourselves either in the position of a “he” looking from the outside impartially, or in that of an “I” that rediscovers its affinities to a reality, to a history, to a community.
Recording what is already known, Ilfoveanu paradoxically applies a strategy whereby what the viewer knows in a natural way is de-familiarized in order to attain the imperceptible via photography, the lines of fracture between what has been pushed aside (at the real or symbolic margin of a society) and what has become visible as a result of the slow post-1990 process of rewriting public discourse. Series. Multiples. Realisms. shifts the centre of interest away from a formal zone in regard to photography’s contribution towards an examination of its role as a mediator which performs a diagnosis of on-going mutations in the Romanian public space.
* This text is based on the paper presented at the conference Visualizing the Nation: Post-Socialist ImagiNations (Budapest November 27‒28, 2015).
(Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth)
About the author
Alina Șerban is an art historian, currently a PhD candidate at the National University of Arts, Bucharest. Her research addresses issues of horizontality in post-war Eastern European art and architecture, the different regional constructions of Conceptualism and the exhibition practices of 1970s–1980s. She recently curated the two-side exhibition The Factory of Facts and Other (Unspoken) Stories at Salonul de proiecte, Bucharest and at Domino art space, Paintbrush Factory, Cluj (2016) and Series. Multiples. Realisms., Uqbar Project Space, Berlin (2014), editing its respective publication. As editor, she runs a self-publishing platform dedicated to Romanian contemporary art P+4 Publications, where she recently edited the publication Ciprian Mureșan. Of Puppets and Humans (2016).
- During my close collaboration with Nicu Ilfoveanu since 2012, the work Series. Multiples. Realisms. was presented in various formats: a series of site-specific installations presented in the framework of solo exhibitions at the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest (2012) and Uqbar Project Space, Berlin (2014), and as part of the group exhibition Vision of a Nation at Fotogalleriet Oslo (2014), as well as an artist book entitled Series. Multiples. Realisms., ed. Alina Șerban (Bucharest: Asociația pentru Artă Ilfoveanu, 2013). ↩
- Hans Belting, “Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to Iconology,” Critical Inquiry, no. 31(Winter 2005): 312. ↩
- Alina Șerban, “A Cinematic Representation of History. A Dialogue Between Alina Șerban and Nicu Ilfoveanu,” in Series. Multiples. Realisms., ed. Alina Șerban (Bucharest: Asociația pentru Artă Ilfoveanu, 2013), 10. ↩
- Ibid., 9 ↩
- Ibid., 10-12. ↩
- Jacques Rancière, “Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art,” in Art and Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, no. 1 (Summer 2008), http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/ranciere.html, last accessed in January 21, 2017. ↩
- Ibid. ↩