Muzeul National De Arta Contemporana

With yesterdays snow still on the ground, in the freezing air I took a long walk around the back of the Bucharest’s ‘Peoples’ Palace’. The ‘Peoples’ Palace’ (which is almost as big as the Pentagon) was built with almost entirely Romania materials with huge financial costs to the nation. It was the monstrous brainchild of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The ‘Peoples’ Palace’ was just part of his grand scheme for Bucharest, he also knocked down a large percentage of the city and built an avenue longer than Paris’s Champs-Elysees. Since Ceausescu’s fall, in 1989, only part of this decadent buidling is in use, part of it for the Muzel National De Arta Contemporana which opened in 2004. I was curious to see what they were exhibiting there.

On entering the grand glass fronted Muzel National De Arta Contemporana the security guards got up promptly from their communual TV watching, turned on the X-ray machine and asked me to put all my belongings on the conveyor belt. I was their first visitor of the day and I wasn’t even there that early – A real contrast to going to the Tate Modern on a Sunday. I wandered around the MNAC self-consciously. The invigilators followed me and kindly indicated labels and gestured to the way to next part of the exhibition. In the three hours it took me to look round I only saw four other visitors.

The ground floor and the first floor were dedicated to the exhibition Animations / Fictions, curated by Ruxandra Balaci and co-organised by Claude Allerman-Cosneau, the director of the Fond National d’Art Contemporain, Paris. On the second floor CO2 had just opened, an exhibition of photographic responses to the city of Brussels. The third floor contained works from the MNAC collection, predominantly Romania artists, and a fourth floor, the works of Alexandra Gaita. In this review I am focusing on Animations / Fictions.

The ground floor consisted of two contrasting spaces, a large conventional contemporary space, containing Wang Du, impressive cartoon sculpture of Chinese military Dé Filé, and the other in keeping with the interior of the rest of the People’s Palace, a sumptuous marbled floor, carved floral motifs on the wall now painted white. It felt a bit like being inside a wedding cake with copious neo-classical fondant icing embellishments. The curation of this space was obviously tricky, but the works conformed to the geometric and symmetrical layout of the room, causing the architecture to dominate the works. I wanted the black squirrels in Sandy Skoglund’s Gathering Paradise, (1991) to escape their two dimensions and run wild all over the space. Bernard Joisten’s Grille, (2007) did venture off the wall but not enough to have any impact on the imposing space. My favourite piece in the room was Francois Le Taillieur’s ‘Balle Decoinceede sa Bande’ 1980, a giant speech mark made up of comic sexy blonds, monsters, faces full of terror and various onomatopoeia all collaged together into a speech bubble encompassing an array of emotions and untold stories. It made me think of all the untold stories that were buried and suppressed within the building of this emotively complex building. On the mezzanine floor there were several Raymond Pettibon’s with sharp cynical disrespect for American authority. In one piece Pettibon scrawled “the town is ours […] having voted out the communists.” The Romania people revolted in 1989 and executed their Communist leader Ceausescu. It was impossible to read any of the works in this megalomaniac monolith, without feeling the potent history of the place pouring through the works. Upstairs was one of my favourite pieces Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Blanche-Nige Lucie’ 1997, where the voice of Snow White, who lost ownership of voice, tells her story. Koop Jung-a ‘Maison de Petitpois’ 1995 was in a room on its own, such a simple piece, tiny house just made of peas, xxhibited in a building, which caused such financial hardship to the people of this country, that they probably had to queue for peas, not to mention bread.

As a first time tourist to Bucharest and Romania I was struck by large adverts for western products such as Coke Cola and Vodafone. Mass media and the countries complex political history was brought together (intentional or not I don’t know) in Animations / Fictions. This conjunction of mass culture dominated by Americanism, commercialism, Hollywood, comics and cartoons, with its placing in a building that signifies Romania’s Communist past, was fascinating.

It was amazing and inspirational to see works in such a large and stunning space. I enjoyed the additional level of reading that was generated through exhibiting these works within such a politically potent building, it brought something fresh to these works. On the third floor I did see two Romanian artists films, which were in response to the dictator’s construction. I was desperate to get inside what Romania artists thought about what had happened but unfortunately the films were only in Romania so I could only guess at what their responses were. There was definitely something exciting about Bucharest and a real spirit of optimism but I wanted to see more emerging art works evolving from the city. There did appear to be more smaller spaces where things were happening, but that will have to wait for another trip.