Art in the Museum’s Underground
Alexandru Antik (born in 1950, Reghin; lives and works in Cluj) is an important figure of the generation of artists from the end of the 1970s, still living under Communism, which shifted towards a conceptual and procedural approach to art, and which broadly questioned the status of artworks and the concept of authorship.
Antik’s activity includes conceptual object “hypotheses” (made of porcelain), installations, body art exercises, actions, performances, intermedia and multimedia events. It is immediately obvious, reviewing almost half a century of the artist’s work that he has a fascination with experimenting in new media and tools.
The point of departure in his art is closely intertwined with the creative and conceptual evanescence which Ana Lupaș and Mircea Spătaru fostered in students only a few years younger than themselves at the Ceramics Department of the Ion Andreescu Art Institute in Cluj in the 1970s. That Department, and latter Atelier 35 – a group dedicated to young artists set up by the Romanian Artists Union and led by Ana Lupaș – nurtured the emergence of this second generation of Romanian artists with its focus on both neo-avantgarde and postmodernism.
The present exhibition makes use of the spectacular cellars of the Bánffy Palace, the site of the Cluj-Napoca Art Museum. Two important factors determined the selection of this space. First, Alexandru Antik often used cellars for his installations and actions. The atmosphere of these subterranean spaces, and the connotations they carry, resonated with the meaning of his works. Second, underground spaces such as cellars addressed the role which art and the artist could have in society in different historical periods. In 1986, during the last decade of the Ceaușescu era, Antik performed his action "The dream hasn’t died" in the cellar of the Pharmacy Museum in Sibiu; a dramatic and “bloody” action (involving the use of beef intestines) which was interrupted by an agent of the Securitate just as the artist intended to write on the wall with a gas torch the words: “The dream hasn’t died”. The action thwarted by censorship became a legendary moment of artistic courage in Romania, in a society frozen by ideology, dominated by fear and poverty.
After the fall of the regime in 1989 Antik continued to search for new forms of expression but in a radically changed context and for a very different audience. He became an important exponent of performance art and new media, participating in many prestigious events in Romania and internationally. Throughout this he maintained an alternative attitude, permanently questioning authority and demanding improvement in the relationship between art, society and education.
This exhibition is not a retrospective, even if older works are also on display. Instead, the concept of the exhibition is in accordance with the artist’s practice of recycling his own visions. The process of recycling is a way for the artist to intervene in his own oeuvre, to improve, develop or even radically change earlier projects, thus underlining the supremacy of ideas over form.
Thus, "Mock-up of a family discussion" is a total remake of an installation from 2001 which is here transformed into a negative image of itself. The "Zambacalamba Net" video installation is based on an animation he showed in 2001 at the Venice Biennale, but here it becomes a site specific installation gaining new meanings connected to the space. The "Requisite" is symbolically reminiscent of the artificial skin the artist abandoned during his performance "The Abandonment of the Skin" (1996).
The common denominator of the works exhibited here is the wish of the artist – unhappy with traditional aesthetics and classical forms of art production – to bring art back to a primordial, almost magical experience in accordance with the neo-avantgarde’s aspiration towards “life-like art”. He found in new genres and new media the potential for art to have a greater impact on the public, transforming the passive viewer into an emotionally and rationally active participant.
Under the surface of everyday images or non-figurative expressions, and behind the rigidity of concepts, the works reveal, mysteriously or in fragmented ways, the artist’s ceaseless pursuit of the questions of life and death.
The embryo-like forms in his work "Microevent" (1997) recall the animality and the unarticulated, unconscious experiences which accompany birth. The "Zambacalamba Net", on other hand – a work projected on the walls of the cavelike cellar – bring us closer, through technology, to the atmosphere of ritualic tribal dances which took place around bonfires.
A primitive force can be felt in the black works of the series "Canibalism" (1989-1990), in which the artist appropriates the techniques of street art.
The scene of “Resurrection of the Dead” from a medieval codex (seen by the artist in a soviet era scholarly magazine) inspired him to meditate on the contrast between everyday private intimacy and the universal nakedness of humans before death and resurrection, making a family performance which was later documented in the mentioned mock-up installation.
"Voyeur" (2016), a multimedia installation, uses everyday images to provide glimpses of some kind of promise of a world beyond our own. Altogether these images appear to be just “visions in the dark”.
The exhibition “Visions in the Dark” aims basically to resolve and conciliate the dilemmas faced when attempting to transform an important rebellious artist’s career into a form suitable for museum collections and institutional canonization while retaining the essence of his oeuvre. We took this challenge by metaphorically “exiling” the artist’s work to the “dark” cellar of an art museum.
This “exile” preserves and underlines the message of Antik: art must be thought-provoking, and should not necessarily be a source of comfort, neither to authority nor to the viewer, nor indeed to the artist himself. Putting ourselves “in exile” enables us to penetrate this darkness, an allegory of the unknown, thus revealing visions which might be glimpses of the true face of our own existence.