Communism fell in Romania in 1989, and president Nicolae Ceausescu fled amid rioting in the capital city of Bucharest and around the country.
Two years later, when Kristine Stiles, an art-history professor at Duke, visited the country, it was still in turmoil. She was drawn by the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina, in northeast Romania. But while she was there, someone taped a small, plastic explosive device to her car, and detonated it, blowing up a large section of the back of the car.
"I got out of there quickly," she remembers, making her way to Hungary. Many people would have turned their backs on the country under similar circumstances, but Stiles, a scholar of destruction, violence, and trauma in art, was intrigued.
Over the next several years, she visited Romania many times, seeking artists creating new and interesting works. On her second trip, in 1992, she was introduced to Dan and Lia Perjovschi. Dan was known for his drawings—many of them political-cartoon-like critiques of government and society—and Lia for performance art dealing with identity and social issues. Dan was active in the Group for Social Dialogue, which aimed to spread democratic thinking throughout the country.
Stiles was hooked. In 1993 in a French journal, she published an article called "Shaved Heads and Marked Bodies: Representations from Cultures of Trauma" that focused in part on the Perjovschis and Romanian avant-garde art. Over the years, her respect for them grew, along with a friendship.
This fall, the Nasher Museum of Art is presenting "States of Mind: Dan and Lia Perjovschi," a midcareer retrospective of the couple's work curated by Stiles.
The exhibition, which runs through January 6, 2008, includes large drawing installations, paintings, objects, and photographs and videos of the couple's performance art. Much of Dan Perjovschi's early work was published in the form of illustrations in Revista 22, a post-revolution intellectual magazine sharing ideas on democracy. The drawings are often biting social critiques, Stiles says. One depicts a man at an ATM machine. He faces the surveillance camera, and asks, "Do you remember my PIN?" Another depicts two women wearing burqas. The first woman wears a traditional burqa, with only her eyes showing. The second wears what looks the same from the waist up; however, she is naked from the waist down. The caption reads, "Bringing Western Values."
Lia Perjovschi's work has been similarly political. Even before the revolution in Romania, she gained an underground following for revolutionary performance pieces. In one, she seated colleagues at the Bucharest Academy of Art in chairs placed in a circle and tied them together. They broke free only by working together.
In recent years, Dan Perjovschi has headlined shows at major European museums and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He's made a transition, too, from complex, multilayered paper drawings, sometimes including as many as 5,000 images, to "ephemeral" works consisting of hundreds or thousands of small drawings executed directly on the museum walls during exhibition hours. At the Nasher, Stiles says, he will decorate all of the windows in the central atrium.
"Dan is very direct, very warm, he likes interaction," says Roxana Markoci, who curated Perjovschi's recent exhibition at MoMA. "He's performing in a way. For Dan, the audience's reaction is very important as well. He can feel that presence at his back. He is taking cues from them—when somebody laughed, when there was silence."
The Perjovschis' success has, in turn, brought more attention back to other artists working in Romania, says Corina Suteu, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. This has helped to extend a legacy that began nearly twenty years ago, when the Perjovschis were first beginning to organize for social progress and, through their travels, she says "created this kind of missing link between the contemporary world outside Romania and what was happening inside."
"In the Communist era, the type of visual arts that were encouraged were extremely conservative and very dogmatic. Romania really needed this kind of strong assessment about a new aesthetics," Suteu says. The Perjovschis "had this idea that art can modify societies."
October 1, 2007