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MAPPING THE HISTORY OF THE PRESENT / VIVIAN REHBERG


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À l’occasion de la rencontre “Reconstruire le réel, en quête d’une nouvelle histoire” avec les artistes Deimantas Narkevičius et Pavel Braila et la critique d’art Vivian Rehberg, le magazine vous propose l’essai “Mapping the History of the Present”. Vivian Rehberg s’y interroge sur le regard que les artistes contemporains portent sur l’histoire des pays anciennement rattachés à l’URSS.

Ce texte a été publié pour la première fois au sein de la monographie Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, co-éditée par Cosmin Costinas et Jill Winder (Utrecht & Rotterdam: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst and post editions, 2009).


Mapping the History of the Present / in Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor


“Archival Impulses”, “Artists as Historians”, “Archeological Imaginaries”, and “Historiographic Turns”: historical narratives and representations of things past have become so commonplace in contemporary art practices and, by extension, in critical and curatorial analyses of the present, that a defining feature of artistic contemporaneity, or “actuality,” is a remarkably widespread concern for what has past [1]. Today’s international artists are not beholden to traditions of historical representation and show little apprehension about academic understandings of history, or art history, as disciplines. Archival research and documentation has entered the mainstream as a medium and a condition for the conception and production of works of art as the borders between ostensibly objective and empirically-based history and the more personal and interpersonal realms of memory, commemoration, and testimony have become increasingly fluid. As such, artistic visions of the past are strikingly heterogeneous, and the accumulation of vast and unmanageable stores of data to sift through, classify, and interpret makes the possibilities for aesthetically mining the past seem infinite [2]. Artists might focus on recuperating the truth, rectifying falsehoods, or revealing impartial fictions transmitted in and from the past. They might sift through the prosaic remnants of everyday lives for experiential diamonds-in-therough, sketch epic versions of events using broad brushstrokes, or fasten onto historical marginalia. Some artists speak for themselves; others prefer speaking for others.

The past displays no reciprocal interest in the present or in us; it has had its moment, it cannot mourn its own passing, even if it had inscribed itself, culturally, ideologically, or politically, into a projected future. Without recourse to a retrospective viewpoint, from a future hence, it seems difficult to make more than speculative historical sense of this current aesthetic, and potentially ethical or political, turn. Can its underlying cause be expediently diagnosed as a generic effect of globalization, as anxiety over theses on “the end of history” (from Alexander Kojève to Francis Fukuyama), or the failure of utopian paradigms and loss of faith in western notions of historical causality and progress? For art historians and critics, this is a deeply paradoxical state of affairs because the unraveling of historical paradigms, especially those beholden to a teleological, revolutionary temporal logic, suggests we should no longer put our faith in future retrospective viewpoints or judgments. However, we have yet to invent satisfying critical-historical alternatives to looking forward or looking back as we live in the present. A heightened historical, sense of self-reflexivity, in the spirit of the sort found in the work of Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, is indispensable.

Theodor Adorno claimed that modernity was “a qualitative, not a chronological, category” [3]. The same holds for contemporaneity. Qualitatively the temporal dynamic of modernity and the majority of its accompanying social and cultural forms were steadfastly geared toward the future and maintained a complex and problematical relationship to tradition in their quest for the “new.” The temporal dynamic of the present, of our contemporaneity, is bereft of modernity’s futurity and a significant mass of its cultural forms, especially those circulating in the art world, display a considerable propensity for the past. On the whole, as these recycle, revisit, revive, and re-enact, they appear to be rather untroubled by their own relationship to tradition, at least superficially [4].

Knowledge of the past, of what has been repressed or forgotten, is tethered to the formation and description of individual and collective identities. Is the present tendency therefore a symptom of an endemic identity crisis or a reaction to a similar crisis in the mode of history—related to the absence of clear historical markers, methods, and models (and a resulting historical relativism)? In their timely analyses of historiographical tendencies in contemporary art, Mark Godfrey and Dieter Roelstrate stake that the future still holds promise, based in their sentiment that the future-directed temporal dynamic of modernity has not irrevocably shifted. Godfrey thinks that “the artist is a historian who can open up new ways of thinking about the future” [5]. And Roelstrate lobbies for “recovering the future with a view to produce a theory of the present (and turning our backs on the past)” [6]. He critically proposes there is “a connection between, on the one hand, the reluctance to theorize the present moment in art (let alone its future), and, on the other, the massive amounts of art made today concerned with ‘yesterday’; our inability to either ‘think’ or simply imagine the future seems structurally linked with the enthusiasm shared by so many artists for digging up various obscure odds and ends dating from a more or less remote, unknowable past—and the more unknowable the past in question, the deeper the pathological dimension of this melancholic, retrospective gaze” [7]. Both Godfrey and Roelstrate seem to share the hope that things will happen in the future to redeem the present, and that artists will be agents in that deferred redemption, despite immediate economic, political, and ideological indications to the contrary.

Instead of resorting to historicizing aesthetic totalizations (Roelstrate’s provocative call for “the immodest proposals of true historical thinking on the grand scale of isms, movements, and schools”), or riding on the continuum of modernity’s faltering temporal logic, I wonder what might it mean, as we attempt to formulate a historically relevant picture of the present, to adopt philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s more nuanced notion that within contemporaneity “the meaning of history has been suspended, and this suspension is not provisional” [8]? How might this suspension of meaning, which is essentially a suspension of the teleological idea of history as progress, factor as a condition for the production and reception of art?

In a recent interview from which the above citation is taken, Nancy reflected on the legacy of the left after the political and ideological disenfranchisement of communism, the potential for a politics that goes beyond politics, and the possibility for community that integrates its un-working and its loss. There he also recalled Michel Foucault’s instrumental epistemological revision of history, which entailed seeing the twentieth century as one in which space has displaced history [9]. Foucault wrote:

“The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world… The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein. One could perhaps say that certain ideological conflicts animating present-day polemics oppose the pious descendents of time and the determined inhabitants of space” [10].

This citation is from Foucault’s lecture “Of Other Spaces,” delivered in 1967 to a group of architecture students (it is here that Foucault famously outlines the traits of heterotopias) and authorized for publication in 1984. It is impossible in the present essay to explore Foucault’s spatial deployment of time and history or to unpack the ramifications of Nancy’s suspension of the meaning of history and his counter-proposal to understand space as “simultaneity and distance between us” [11]. Yet these propositions provide me with a tentative theoretical point of entry into Vătămanu and Tudor’s film and installation work. Why risk such a long, circuitous, and potentially treacherous route? Primarily because it is a route designated by the artists’ focus on architecture and urban space, destruction and rebuilding, shifting sands and tracing lines, and the political implications of historical erasures and reconstructions in their native Romania pre- and post-1989. December of that year inaugurated the country’s transition from communist rule to democracy and the free market after the violent military suppression of anti-government protests in the city of Timisoara led to the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. But I also opt for this route because it complicates received notions that only time is of the essence in contemporary art and that temporal tropes—of history and memory, nostalgia, mourning, and melancholy—exclusively regulate post-communist experience and aesthetics [12]. While the temporal dimension undoubtedly plays a significant role in Vătămanu and Tudor’s work, this dimension is chiefly worked through, explored, and exposed in performative filmed navigations of spaces, territories, sites, and structures. This privileging of a spatialized articulation of historical consciousness over a temporal one is a distinctive feature of their treatment of a specific national past.

In Văcăreşti (2003–2006), Vătămanu and Tudor recorded the site of an eighteenth-century monastery in Bucharest, which was demolished in 1985. Their photographs bear few traces of the architecture or of the proposed development projects since the monastery’s destruction; the camera angle and depth of field create a disorienting compositional ambiguity in scale and spatial relations. Their dual channel film, composed of video and super-8 footage and shot from close and distant vantage points, shows Tudor trudging through the immense frozen lot which is vacant save for dead vegetation, vestiges of falling snow, and glacial puddles. As he moves across the land, Tudor maps out the imagined floor plan of the lost buildings, an architectural complex he and his companions had never seen, effectively constructing its contours anew with wooden posts and string. The terrain is arduous, the film is chilling in its pervasive grayness, and the gathering of the protagonists at the end is inconclusive.

Thematically similar, Praful [The Dust] (2006) shows Tudor, filmed by Vătămanu, gathering and transporting dust from the location of a chapel that had been moved several hundred meters from the Schitul Maicilor monastery, which was razed in 1982 to clear the site for the construction of a communist civic center. After filling his trouser pockets Tudor, bathed in the golden light of early morning (or late afternoon), walks along the roadside from the church to a grassy slope, the original location of the chapel, over which the impressive official architecture of Ceauşescu’s former House of the People, or People’s House, looms. He looks up toward the adjacent Romanian Academy building while emptying his pockets of their large quantity of conserved dust and the film ends. The tragicomic absurdity of these performances is metaphorical of the cruel folly behind the enforced upheaval entailed in replacing one ideological emblem of collective life with another.

These material ruins of Romanian communism—its projects of massive systematic demolition, resettlement, and reconstruction of the landscape, many of which were conceived and undertaken in the 1980s—are not the sole physical markers of past social, cultural, and political oppression. Vătămanu and Tudor’s works make clear that no toppling of individual monuments to its ideological figureheads, no renaming of its buildings and public squares, can efface the overwhelming, lingering presence of its master architect, Ceauşescu himself. Weighty reminders of Ceauşescu’s legacy are palpable in two works in particular: the film Procesul [The Trial] (2004–2005) and the two-part Palatul [The Palace] (2003–2004). Procesul is a circular filmic journey by car through the streets of Bucharest lined with ubiquitous modernist tower blocks, a potent symbol of the communist refutation of private property. The indistinct buildings repetitively stream by, accompanied by a breathless and toneless reading of the hallucinatory transcript of the Ceauşescus’ trial, which resulted in the couple’s indictment for genocide, crimes against the state, and undermining the national economy, followed by their execution on Christmas Day. Urban monotony is highlighted by the looping effect, and the sense one has that the speaker is rushing to finish, racing against an imaginary stopwatch whose second hand ticks the kilometers clocked in each circuit around the city.

By contrast, Palatul shows the magnitude of the monstrously opulent side of Ceauşescu’s totalitarian imagination, which married an ideological and political distance from the Soviet regime and its de-Stalinization with a formidable cult of personality and political ambitions. Palatul records the transmission, in two guided tours, of the current “official” history of the People’s House, the world’s second largest building (after the United States Pentagon in Washington D.C.), which now houses the Parliament and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. By following along, we learn that construction of the still-incomplete palace, which is stylistically eclectic to the point of incoherence, began in 1984 and that it was forged out of hundreds of thousands of tons of architectural and decorative materials entirely sourced from Romania, and built by tens of thousands of Romanian laborers. In one version of the tour, an officious English-speaking male tour guide, visibly discomfited by the presence of the camera and increasingly exasperated by the tourists, neatly encapsulates Ceauşescu’s ideal as “thinking big.” Void of any overtly critical commentary, his narrative is interspersed with barked commands at the visitors (“You break you pay, you touch you wash”; “I suggest you use the toilets now because I won’t stop later”; “Touch that again and I will throw you out”) or questions to the filmmakers (“Is that what you are going to do with the camera until the end?”; “You don’t have to shoot the guide, you know, really”; “Do you really have to shoot the stairs?”), which we can read as subtitles that run like news teletext below. Toward the end of the tour, the guide’s statements veer dangerously into the realm of propaganda: “In order to complete the project in five years time, Ceauşescu had destroyed the old city of Bucharest, demolished houses, palaces, three churches, a hospital, around five square miles to build one project for him and the communist members and also he had relocated around four thousand people, a small price to pay to build the House of the People.” The power of this statement, the sincerity of which is questionable, is ironically undercut by his recounting of the following anecdote shortly after. It seems the only person to address the people from the large balcony after 1989 was pop star Michael Jackson, who mistakenly declared “Hello Budapest!” instead of “Hello Bucharest!” Single-handedly this pathetic anecdote updates and turns the, guide’s prolonged narrative of the building’s history into a travesty.

Boris Groys has argued that, “…the only real heritage of today’s post-communist subject—its real place of origin—is the complete destruction of every kind of heritage, a radical, absolute break with the historical past and with any kind of distinct cultural identity” [13]. Groys is referring here to the pre-capitalist past—and this past is lost to a familiar revolutionary logic of destruction and renewal that leaves tabulae rasae in its wake. For Groys, the demise of communist civilization has led to a condition whereby: “Finding a trace of one’s own heritage in this undifferentiated mass of collective property has become as impossible as tracing the individual incinerated objects in the collective mass of ashes” [14]. All that is left is an utter incommensurability between this historical experience and the possibility of expressing something of it [15].

Yet, these three films by Vătămanu and Tudor, which admittedly represent only a portion of their work, simultaneously recognize and refute that logic. They force the spectator to reflect about the scale of what has been lost in communism as well as in the transition from communism to capitalist democracy. They show us what risks being further lost as new narratives and representations start to encroach. And they do so by directing our gaze toward the remains and remnants of things still standing, the significance of which may lapse into an amnesiac state of oblivion. The films mentioned here do not look back with nostalgia or melancholy; they do not make claims for the future. They do, however, help us to begin to measure losses both personal and collective.

Vătămanu and Tudor conceive of the spatial and temporal dimensions of history as dialectically interrelated in their work; they are not recycling, revisiting, reviving, or re-enacting. By critically diverting their attention away from the merely temporal and by mapping this metaphorically overburdened and historically scarred terrain, they are starting to measure, to return once more to Nancy, “the simultaneity and distance between us.” In this way, they can be said to productively interfere with standard historical paradigms and conceived notions of historical experience. As such, Vătămanu and Tudor are valuable escorts for those who wish to write the history of the present.

[1] Within the ever-expanding literature on this topic see Okwui Enwezor, Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New York and Göttingen: International Center for Photography and Steidl, 2008); Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October, no. 110 (Fall 2004), pp. 3–22; Mark Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” October, no. 120 (Spring 2007), pp. 140–172; and Dieter Roelstrate, “The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art,” e-flux journal, no. 4 (March 2009), www.e-flux.com/journal/view/51, and “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings,” e-flux journal, no. 6 (May 2009), www.e-flux.com/journal/view/60.

[2] Foster, Godfrey, and Roelstrate all propose useful typologies of such practices.

[3] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (1951), trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), p. 218.

[4] How the formal revival of modernist and conceptual art in contemporary art practice is contributing to the consolidation of these as traditions remains to be fully explored.

[5] Godfrey, “The Artist as Historian,” p. 171.

[6] Roelstrate, “After the Historiographic Turn,” p. 7.

[7] Ibid., p. 6.

[8] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Le sens de l’histoire a été suspendu,” posted 4 June 2009, online at: http://www.liberation.fr/livres/0101571243-le-sens-de-l-histoire-a-ete-suspendu. This question, freshly articulated by Nancy and integrated as I was finishing this text, happens to coincide with my larger ongoing project on historical and political consciousness in contemporary art post-1989, which departs from my doctoral dissertation, The Rhetoric of Realism: Painting, Politics and Commitment in France, 1940–56 (2000). Nancy’s thinking about community and communism was conceptually important to that study. The significant implications of such a question for art historical and art critical writing—and for formulating a political art history of the present, when democracy appears as the sole political alternative—figure in the current project.

[9] Ibid. On community and communism, see also Nancy, La communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1986); Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983), which responds to Nancy’s “La communauté désoeuvrée,” Aléa 4 (1983); and Nancy, La Communauté affrontée (Paris: Galilée, 2001).

[10] Michel Foucault, “Des espaces autres,” in Dits et écrits (Paris: Gallimard 2001), pp. 1571–1581. The lecture was first delivered to students at the Cercle d’études architecturales on 14 March 1967 and published in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, n°5, octobre 1984, pp. 46–49. The present translation by Jay Miscowiec is online at: http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html.

[11] Nancy, “Le sens de l’histoire a été suspendu,” unpaginated.

[12] I’m not claiming these aren’t crucial components in representations of historical experience, simply that they may be outwearing their critical utility. For approaches to postcommunist culture that link the spatial and the temporal, see for example Charity Scribner, Requiem for Communism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003) and Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[13] Boris Groys, “Beyond Diversity: Cultural Studies and Its Post-Communist Other,” in Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), p. 155.

[14] Ibid., p. 153.

[15] This incommensurability will be recognized as akin to the structure of trauma, which I cannot consider here but which plays a key role of Vătămanu and Tudor’s work.

> Vivian Rehberg est Docteur en histoire de l’art et critique d’art.Depuis 2007 elle dirige le cursus Critical Studies à la Parsons Paris School of Art + Design. En 2010 elle était associée au projet de recherche FORMER WEST. En relation avec son projet de recherche “History Decays into Images, not into Stories,” elle a publié les articles suivants : “Shock of the Old,” in : Frieze, October 2010; “Mapping the History of the Present,” in : Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor, Rotterdam 2009 ; “Roman Ondák Subterfuge”, in : Artpress, Décembre 2009 ; “Deimantas Narkevičius: The Ambivalence of Images”, in : Artpress, April 2009.