The following article was published in N-SPHERE June 2010 issue.


Jung, Lacan, Dada and Eastern Christianity – all meet up in Ion Grigorescu’s work, that spans for more than four decades. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the manifold manifestations of Grigorescu’s artistic practice are intimidating, broaching almost any known media, from video, performance and photography to lithography, fresco or oil painting. Probably as a consequence, most of the works selected for exhibitions from the artist’s modest studio consist of iconic images of his early performances, now imbued with an aura of legend and subversiveness. Associated with body art and the ’70s neo–avantgarde, his works are highly regarded in the art world, being currently exhibited in both the Berlin and Bucharest Biennale. But how can one contextualize the religious paintings or digital collages recently finished? In his cluttered and dusty studio, the Romanian artist remains silent, moving slowly between piles of photographs, paintings and sculptures. Amidst the towering works, a question arises: how can one trace the fine lines that connect art, politics and religion in this conceptual arabesque?

Reality in its different forms appears to us as a key to decipher this issue. The immediate, unstaged reality – that of the body, the studio and quotidian existence – functions in parallel with the simulated, artificial reality of communist Romania, that of cultural schizophrenia, of hidden meanings and propaganda. Due to the difficult socio–political climate in ’70s Romania, the simple, everyday gestures become courageous acts of ego assertion in a world where collectivity is constantly reinforced. The symbolic had been corrupted and irrevocably assigned to the field of propaganda. It has become a farce that needs to be exposed. “Politics is sharp and cuts the hands which hold it” notes Ion Grigorescu in his diary. His solitary actions, performed in the intimacy of his own apartment, under the close scrutiny of the camera lens, enacted this inherent trauma of political activity. As the body – the ultimate limit of the private sphere – became the locus of a radical reality assessment, the oppressive state apparatus was translated in his actions into a meticulously masochistic drive. By mirroring the political organization of life, the self–imposed violence rearticulated and annulled at the same time the power structure. Like reflected light on a glass surface, terror turned in on itself.

Simultaneously, the invalidation of authority set the stage for another major focus of Grigorescu’s practice, the concern with transcendent reality, that of mystical explorations, through yoga or Orthodox spirituality. Since the communist regime viewed religion as a superstitious manifestation, a necessary step in this investigation was the delegitimizing of the establishment. The totalitarian government was seen as a breach of the deeply ingrained byzantine tradition, characteristic for this area of Eastern Europe.

Continuing to underline the schizophrenic character of authority, the self is doubled in works such as Dialogue with Ceausescu in 1978, during which Grigorescu acts as both dictator and common citizen. A recurrent theme in his practice – ambivalence – is linked with gender identity, as noticeable in his 1976 video

“Masculine/ Feminine” that attempts a destabilization of fixed roles through the use of camera movement and mirrors. In the context of a conservative society, the mere gesture of exhibiting the naked male body constitutes a political action. Piotr Piotrowski, in his essay “Male Artist’s Body: National Identity vs. Identity Politics”, claims that in a conservative society such as the Romanian one, the simple exposure of the naked male body becomes, through undermining the subject– object gender roles, a politically subversive practice. By revealing the conventional character of gender, Grigorescu addresses the conventional quality of authority itself.

Naturally, the political police, called Securitate, was not keen on these experimental endeavors. This, along with other problems, determined Grigorescu to abandon his artistic practice during the troubled decade of the ’80s. Despite being commissioned to paint socialist realist portraits of the “beloved leader” Nicolae Ceausescu, his works were refused on the basis that they were “too realistic”. In the meantime, he dedicated himself to the restoration of religious mural paintings, which he considers of utmost importance, since these images can reach simple people, in contrast to the elitist audience of Romanian galleries. After the fall of the communist regime, in 1989, the interest in Orthodox spirituality became a strong commitment of his work. Member of the Prolog group, that created the basis for the neo–orthodox tendency in Romanian contemporary art, and one of the founders of the now defunct Catacomba Gallery, inaugurated in the ’90s, Grigorescu demonstrated an unyielding concern with spirituality.

Unmistakably, the inquiry initially posed still remains valid. This immensely rich body of work cannot be described in a few laconic sentences, but this article may attempt at inviting the reader to ponder and wander through the layers of meaning in this labyrinthine structure which constantly surprises the viewer.

Artwork: Ion Grigorescu, Dialogue with Ceausescu, 1978, videostill. Courtesy of the artist.

by Simina Neagu

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