Implicit in the title of curator Olga Stefan’s exhibition of post ’89 art from Romania Few Were Happy with Their Condition is a familiar yet provocative claim. The title—borrowed from Cristina David’s A Voice on display in the exhibition—implies that the condition artists were unhappy with was not the crumbling communist state, with its cantankerous bureaucrats and secret police, but rather the period of so-called transition that sought to rectify the ills of communism. It suggests that unhappiness has been an unshakeable outcome of Romania’s transition to democracy and to a capitalist economy. And with good reason, as the decades after 1989 in Eastern Europe proved considerably more turbulent and devastating than expected—from the wars in Yugoslavia, to skyrocketing inflation, unemployment, and homelessness.
Claudiu Cobilanschi, Microclimates, 2015, black and white photograph, 31 x 39 in., courtesy of Kunsthalle Krems.
What sets apart Few Were Happy from recent exhibitions of East European art, however, is not simply the ways in which it attests to a prevailing sense of dissatisfaction—doing so has become a common trope in post-socialist discourse. The exhibition instead takes this unhappiness as a point of critical concern, and as one that prompts careful investigation. Or to put this somewhat differently, the artwork in the exhibition doesn’t simply demonstrate the fact that “few were happy in their condition,” it instead embarks upon an examination as to why this might be so. As Stefan explains, “In analyzing the complexities of the present, the majority of the artists in Few Were Happy… try to make sense of it through various forms of investigation.”
To make sense of, or to investigate unhappiness is of course considerably different, and arguably more complex, than investigating the ills of communism, say, or the shortcomings of democracy. Where the latter examines facts and statistics, politicians and failed policies, the former sifts through, seeks out, and makes visible points of tension between the social and the psychological, the political and the personal.
Microclimates by Claudiu Cobilanschi is perhaps the most explicit example of artwork that struggles to examine the discrepancies between the personal and the political, or between one’s body and its surroundings. The series of four photographs depicts the artist pressing his body against city walls as if trying, unsuccessfully, to integrate one with the other; obscuring his face and by extension his identity with abstract shapes suggestive of Suprematist forms; and engaging in the work of investigation by measuring and thus examining the angles of his body.
Similarly, 10/1 by Bogdan Girbovan engages in an investigative labor as the artwork captures the interiors of single room apartments in a high-rise communist era building. The layout of each apartment is identical but the interiors reflect both diversity and poverty as people young and old are forced to live in cramped, crumbling spaces.
Bogdan Gîrbovan, 10/1, 2008, 25x34 in. (framed), enhanced adhesive synthetic photo paper - matte (inkjet print), fixed on dibond.
Where Girbovan and Cobilanschi’s artwork examines the points of tension between individuals and their post-socialist surroundings, Stefan Constantinescu’s On the Other Side and Impulse by Razan Botis demonstrate less the work of investigation than a kind of futile labor where one cries out to a lover incessantly and in vain, or where graffiti artists attempt to make their mark with aerosol spray that quickly evaporates and disappears.
Ștefan Constantinescu, On the Other Side, 2015. Video, 9 min. Courtesy of the artist.
This futile labor, together with the tension between individuals and the built environment, alludes to different modes of dissatisfaction or to different reasons for unhappiness: unrequited love, for instance, poor housing, or the feeling of not fitting in and existing in excess of political or social mores. And yet, while Few Were Happy examines different types of unhappiness, the feelings of dissatisfaction the artwork points to are not inflected with resignation or apathy. Instead, each work seems to emphasize a kind of determination, an incessant labor that no matter now ridiculous, futile, or painful nevertheless persists. And perhaps, like Impulse or On the Other Side this resolve will continue in vain. But maybe not. Perhaps—and this is what makes the exhibition seem so important—framing unhappiness as a site of investigation and critical inquiry creates the potential for a solution to emerge; a solution that allows bodies to exist comfortably and harmoniously within their surrounding spaces, that enables a plea to be acknowledged and returned, and that makes artistic labor no longer seem futile.