Postcard from... Archive 2016

Postcard from Bucharest

Bucharest International Biennale for Contemporary Art
Rosie King

'A curatorially incorrect project'

And so Niels Van Tomme, curator of the seventh Bucharest Biennale, summed up this city wide event. This is an exhibition that breaks nearly all the expectations of a biennale as it resides only on billboards situated outdoors in the streets of sprawling Bucharest. The constraints of this could produce questionable work but, instead, twenty international artists shown though a single medium have produced a confident biennale that is thought provoking and statement making.
If context is important to a biennale, then it is paramount in understanding the curatorial approach to BB7. Since the collapse of the Ceausescu’s communist state in 1989, capitalism has been making up for lost time in Bucharest with some of the most aggressive advertising to be found in Europe. This advertising sits within the very fabric of the city with giant Pepsi cans lighting up the night sky and shiny posters displaying beautiful flesh plastered across crumbling buildings. Within this context a biennale on billboards becomes a strong statement. However, BB7 never manifests as an outright critique of capitalism but, instead, through appropriating the advertorial aesthetics of capitalism by exhibiting on billboards, it acts as a parasitical unsettling of the norm.


The Lehman Brothers, a Danish collective, explicitly comment on the steep fall of the financial sector from the sublime to the sordid through their billboard, Lehman Bros- Surfin the Bucharest Billboards, where they depict a line of cocaine on a torn and battered Romanian 1 lei note (18p). A questioning of the capitalist status quo continues throughout the billboards with Andrew Norman Wilson’s cracked and repaired Humpty Dumpty sitting there as an allegory for consumption and collapse. Far from any power houses in the sleepy forgotten outskirts of the city, Adelita Husni-Bey’s The Sleepers seems rightly placed in order to highlight the lack of will for political change in boardrooms. Metahaven’s aesthetically arresting billboard Checkpoint Truth sits easily amongst the numerous billboards all vying for attention in the central Piata Unirii. With a nod to the media outlet, Russia Today, their billboard marks a point when information overload has overtaken content as a propaganda tool.

Harnessing the symbolism of movement Brendan Fernandes’s billboard, Still Life, simply reads ‘stop stand and be still’. A powerful ask in a city moving through rapid change. It was perhaps inevitable that in a biennale of billboards text would be heavily used, however, the powerful use of language in Fernandes’s Still Life was not found in all such pieces.

In distinction to some of the weaknesses of the textual work, the difficulties of portraying video in a billboard were smoothly navigated by the moving image artists  as they used the billboard format as entrances into their work. When viewed through a smartphone app a grainy body scan in Finnish artist Tuomas A. Laitinen’s billboard Probes, chillingly comes to life. Whilst nightmarishly probing the billboard the scan speaks to us of penetration as it moves round the screen, stopping only when all is uncovered.

Through a beautifully shot 16mm film, Nanna Debois-Buhl quietly reflects on how political decisions have altered daily life in Bucharest. At first the film appears to focus on one of the well known images of Romania, stray dogs, but, with their recent controversial extermination in Bucharest, her film instead portrays the dogs that have been saved through rehoming by communities and individuals. Through walks with the dogs and their unfilmed owners Debois-Buhl captures a city that once again is changing through political decisions.

BB7 is not produced to be easy for an art going audience. It forces the viewer to confront the city they are in through long navigations down back streets and mad dashes with enthusiastic taxi drivers. Rather than going from white space to white space the viewer is put into contact with Bucharest, all of it, not just the pretty bits. But searching for billboards meant that I not only got to know the city from an unusual angle (billboard spotting could definitely become a thing), but I also saw the mostly spectacular results from a diverse range of artists, who had risen to the challenge of communicating their practise through a billboard.

*BB7 Curator Niels Van Tomme, ‘What are we building down there?’ Bucharest Biennale Debate, University of Arts, Bucharest, 27/05/2016


What's On

The Artizan Garden Salon Open Show

7 Lucius Street

Friday 02 February 2018 – Sunday 23 December 2018

Portrait Art Sessions

The Old School, Newent Road, Highnam, Gloucester, GL2 8DG

Wednesday 25 April 2018 – Wednesday 19 December 2018

Workshops at The Guild at 51

The Guild at 51, 51 Clarence Street, Cheltenham, GL50 3JT

Thursday 03 May 2018 – Monday 31 December 2018

Visual Arts South West

Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.

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