Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, Surplus Value

Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor have been working together since 2000. In a practice that spans a variety of media—from installation to painting to photography to film—their work is dedicated to an exploration of the formal manifestations of and shifts in ideologies (be they communist or capitalist). The artists engage with the politics of memory in their examination of the material and symbolic remains of ideologies. Their work does not shy away from addressing the inherent violence of historical transformations, to paraphrase Marx, neither the possibilities for individual political action under these conditions.

Vatamanu and Tudor belong to a specific generation in Romania: a generation born during the baby boom, which began in the late sixties (and was to a large degree influenced by the biopolitical measures of the Ceausescu regime), who came of age on the barricades of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989 and during the spring and summer protests of 1990. After the enthusiasm and solidarity forged during the Revolution, and the subsequent profound disillusionment caused by the violent repression of the 1990 protests by fellow citizens who were instrumentalized by the new regime, this generation played a key role in establishing the dominant ideological framework in Romania over the last twenty years. The resulting hegemonic culture is fundamentally rooted in anticommunism—a stance that has come to reject any strains of progressive thinking implying models of social solidarity or collective action, as well as any attempts to critically negotiate the memory of the communist past together with its preceding history and subsequent transition. In this parochial environment of constant historical self-victimization, Vatamanu and Tudor’s voices are exceptional, defined by their engagement in revisiting this history—its forms of representations and its narratives of memory—but also through their bold sense of universalism, seeing their position and responsibility in a public arena that goes beyond the confines of Romanian culture.

The exhibition Surplus Value at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst is the most comprehensive presentation of the artists’ work to date. But rather than as a premature retrospective, this exhibition—the result of a long-term dialogue between the artists and the institution—should be seen as an attempt at structurally analyzing Vatamanu and Tudor’s field of engagement and strategies. It is as well an unabated continuation of their observations of and actions toward the realities of today’s world.

Calea The Path, a major new installation produced for the exhibition at BAK, is a subtle but nonetheless complex commentary, whose implications touch many of the subjects the artists have been working with previously. Here visitors enter a large room by means of a wooden pathway, erected over a mass of rust that covers the entire floor. On one of the walls, a vault-like opening is filled with ingots entirely made out of rust. _Calea _is a multiple signifier, and if we were to add to this hermeneutical exercise an economic reading, the story would get even more complicated. Simultaneously a byproduct of heavy industry-oriented, Fordist societies and a symbol (albeit a solid and real one) of their decline, rust enters the realm of post Fordist, neoliberal, and post-communist logics both as a loss and as an infinite source of capital accumulation. The neoliberal bubble, whose bursting we are in fact now experiencing, was to a large extent the result of the proliferation of profit based on losses, on sub-prime mortgages, unpayable debts, and negative balance sheets, infinitely multiplied to produce profit out of the heat of multiplying. One could say this was all “built” on the rust of our old industrial society, pregnant with the new society of immaterial capital.

Plus valoarea Surplus Value, Vatamanu and Tudor’s latest film, also realized on the occasion of this exhibition, underlines the inherent contradictions of the system of accumulation and loss, but produces this universal observation through an autobiographical reference specific to the Romanian context. Before 1989, students were required to take manual labor classes, involving mainly knitting for girls and wood and metal carvings for boys. The trick came, however, at the end of the year when students were required to buy back their own manufactured objects, the price rising proportionately with the complexity of the carving or piece of knitwork. In Plus valoarea, the artists reproduce one of the first lessons in these classes, the manual whittling down of a small piece of metal into nothing. The retrieval of the memory of this pedagogical task goes beyond the absurdity of the economic measures of socialist economies—planned as well as state-run capitalist ones and interrogates the meaning of labor, profit, and materiality.

Intalnire cu Istoria Appointment with History is a series of small paintings, reproducing nineteenth-century realist techniques and representing a wide range of scenes, from a recent anti-capitalist demonstration in Basel to a queue of people standing outside a department store under communism, to crowds on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in 1989, to a scene from the film Imposibila iubire Impossible Love, where a worker in the 1950s contemplates the world that is being constructed. The series revisits the history of a realist language for social thinking in art and makes an urgent claim for the current agency of realism, one that is fully aware of its complicated past instrumentalizations.

In this strain of thinking we can also read Dust, Grzybowska 51 (2008), a series of photographs documenting an action carried out by the artists on an empty lot in Warsaw. Sites such as this have become almost emblematic for the cities of Eastern Europe, simultaneously standing for the destructions and traumas of the past, the unaccomplished promises of a new society, and the post-communist frenzy of the neoliberal construction boom. The particular landscape in Warsaw plays perfectly in this image, with the lot being surrounded by a mix of old derelict buildings, equally derelict socialist blocks, and, further on the horizon, new glass and steel high rises, cranes, and containers with real estate developers’ logos. Somewhere in the middle of this empty lot, the artists dig a square-shaped hole and fill it with concrete. This square can be seen as a formal descendant of modernist and minimalist constructions, familiar from the history of art. But by introducing this reference into an action whose meaning goes beyond its formal aspects, the artists provide an obvious commentary on the tension between the “autonomy of art” and its political responsibilities. Here, as in the artists’ other works, they choose to align themselves with a particular tradition of modernism, one that saw its meaning as a primarily political one.

A similar ethics of positioning artistic subjectivity as the source of modest but idealistic gestures against dominant narratives can be found in two short videos:Manifestul _The Manifesto and _Praful _The Dust. _Manifestulshows the artists launching clean white sheets of paper into the evening sky from the top of a high-rise building in a modernist workers’ quarter in Vienna, a reference to the clandestine gesture of scattering copies of political manifestos in public space. And in Praful, the artists fill their pockets with dust from the current location of one of the churches (Schitul Maicilor) relocated by Ceausescu in the 1980s during his “systematization” of Bucharest, and take the dust back to the church’s original location. They thus perform an act of historical remembrance, but one that is almost intimate and stands in strong contrast to the usual state-sponsored ceremonies where soil is symbolically moved from whatever sacrosanct place to another.

The politics of memory is also the catalyst of another film, _Procesul _The Trial, but in a more confrontational manner. What we see is a mesmerizing succession of serial socialist buildings in Bucharest, filmed from a moving car. The soundtrack accompanying these views is a monotonous reading of the transcript of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu’s kangaroo trial in December 1989, which took place during the Romanian Revolution. The socialist housing blocks that radically changed the face of Bucharest and many other Romanian cities have become after 1989, due to their ubiquity and visibility, one of the main symbols of communist heritage. The abruptness of the 1989 change, accomplished through violence and juridical nullification of the regime in a matter of days, was consecrated by the founding slaughter of the dictatorial couple. These facts have transformed the whole of the old communist regime into a historical parenthesis within the dominant discourse. They have morphed into non-history. Hence any reality coming from or attached to those times can only be suppressed and eliminated, like an alien body, with the possibility of nuances and of partial recuperations being apriorically impossible. The serial buildings—blocurile—whose aesthetic and functional failures cannot be denied, are thus addressed in quasi biological terms, as a “cancer” that has tainted the face of an authentic Romania, the one with bucolic peasant dwellings or high bourgeois European architecture. This traumatic positioning towards the past is awoken by the rouged up trial of the dictators, a brutal and yet easily justifiable killing masked under the ritualistic performance of a yet-to-come legality. But the really meaningful association between the story of the images and the story of the soundtrack in _Procesul _can be found at the level of failures: the failure of a modernist ideal, the failure of reconciling with that failure, and today’s failure of renegotiating a way of living in the material as well as mental landscape shaped by our history.

This failure in approaching Romania’s past with a constructive distance is masterfully, yet so simply, pointed out in Palatul The Palace, a two-channel video installation showing two different guided tours through the House of the People, Ceausescu’s megalomaniacal construction in Bucharest, for whose construction during the 1980s a third of the old city was razed. The clandestinely filmed guides, a man and a woman, show different attitudes towards the building and the regime that made it possible, however the lines of contradiction run many times through each of the guides’ discourses rather than between each other. We thus have an image of two (young) Romanians, confusingly shifting between insecure nationalism, pride and awe towards the massive construction, awareness of the dramatic human sacrifices behind the Palace’s erection, and ambiguous positioning towards its current function, as the seat of Parliament of the new regime. We can argue that this inability to come to terms with one’s history and of formulating a responsible position for the present—albeit circumscribed in this video to a specific situation in Romania—speaks volumes about a certain ideological moment we find ourselves in today, which goes well beyond the case of one particular country.

A text authored by Cosmin Costinas, the curator of Surplus Value, an exhibition by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, on view at BAK from 6 September till 9 November 2009. For more information regarding Surplus Value, the first research exhibition within the long-term project FORMER WEST (2008–2016), please see here.