subREAL: Serving Art 1 (1997-1999)

Curator: Horea Avram
September 12 – November 7, 2014

subREAL Group was established in 1990 by Călin Dan (art historian and artist) and Dan Mihălțianu (artist), shortly joined by Iosif Király (architect and photographer). Mihălțianu left the group in 1993. subREAL is considered one of the most important Romanian artistic groups with a significant international profile. In their work with photography, video, installation, and performance, subREAL explores the traumas, myths and clichés of the Romanian (recent) history and their impact in society and the art field. Their works, relying on a post-conceptual and neo avant-garde vocabulary, address in a highly critical and ironical way the political, social and cultural reality as a way to “exorcise the residue of the decades of communist oppression.”

subREAL participation in major exhibitions include: The Istanbul Biennale; Manifesta 1, Kunsthal Rotterdam (1996); The Berlin Biennale (1998); The Venice Biennale (1993, 1999); After The Wall, Moderna Museet in Stockholm (1999); L’Autre moitié de l’Europe, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and 2000+. Arteast Collection, Moderna Galerja in Ljubljana (2000); In Search of Balkania, Neue Galerie in Graz (2002); Blood and Honey, Sammlung Essl – Kunst der Gegenwart in Vienna (2003); subREAL Retrospect, National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Bucharest (2012).

Serving Art 1 (1997-1999) is a photo installation containing over 700 black and white prints (18 x 24 cm), mounted on the gallery’s white walls. The photographs are prints from the negatives selected from the archive of the Arta magazine, the official Romanian art publication of the influent Romanian Union of Artists, between 1953 and 1989. The images represent artworks (paintings, sculptures) photographed for print reproduction. The negatives include also the context of the artworks, with props, objects and people holding the art object or a background cloth, details that were supposed to be cropped out as to keep only the image of the art object for the print.

It is precisely this secondary universe that interests subREAL, or to be more precise, the relation established between the art object portrayed (now turned into a mere detail, albeit central), its context (seen as a valuable testimony about the respective epoch) and the contemporary spectator with all his/her expectations and knowledge. This collateral world—deemed irrelevant and trivial by the editors of the Arta magazine—reflects in fact the mechanisms of fabricating the official artistic discourse and thus it gives us a clue about the “bigger picture” of the society at that time.

In this sense, subREAL’s project makes a double statement: one aesthetic, the other politic. On the one hand, Serving Art 1 undermines everything that the original negatives were intended for: to present an apparent autonomous, a-temporal art object, for a viewing subject that remains impersonal and universal. Serving Art 1 changes the perspective, from the object to its context, from a description of the artwork to an understanding of the process behind it, therefore reclaiming something of the art object’s presumably lost “aura”. The latter is used in the sense Walter Benjamin gave it to the term, i.e., as the art object’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” and which lacks due to the process of mechanical reproduction. Recuperating this lost contextual aura, images from the series Serving Art 1 undermine the idea of art’s autonomy, while indicating that photography is not only a testimony but an instrument of signification and thus a way to problematize the relationship between art object, art history and cultural representation.

On the other hand, Serving Art 1 is a political statement. Photographs of the series unveil, behind the apparent innocence of the camera, a whole world of manipulation and propaganda. The contingent nature of the images—their capacity to illustrate a specific moment and place, what Roland Barthes calls “that-has-been”—point to a reality that was profoundly marked by political constraints. Moreover, the images call attention to the fact that many artworks prepared for reproduction in Arta magazine were not politically-neutral (despite their seeming aesthetic autonomy), but rather complicit instruments that served the official political discourse. But, subREAL’s subversive statement addresses also contemporary political issues such as those related to copyright and capitalist commodification of the art object, to which the artist is after all only a “servant”.

In this sense, Serving Art 1 series is an elaborate way to critically address equally aesthetic conventions, political paradigms, power relations and photograph’s capacity to be truthful to reality and, at the same time, to be an efficient means of manipulation and of discursive construction.

Horea Avram