The Way We Are

Laura Ķeniņš

Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi’s drawing installations date back to his apartment in the 1980s in Ceauşescu-ruled Romania, where he took to covering the apartment in paper and drawing on his own walls in frustration with the lack of possibilities and censorship artists faced. Today, Perjovschi’s installations have graced walls in galleries and spaces around the world, from Paris to New York to Hong Kong to Reykjavik, including a permanent installation at Prague’s National Technical Library. Currently, his work is on view at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, in a solo exhibition, Unframed

Perjovschi uses simple line drawings and text to depict contemporary life with humour in a way that’s easy to relate to, but it also represents his political views on oppression and contemporary issues. Perjovschi’s works are primarily temporal installations, improvised in the installation period and disappearing when the hall is repainted following the exhibition. Participating in the 1989 revolution in Romania and joining the country’s first independent political magazine in 1991, political content has long been a part of his work, and Perjovschi, now in his 50s, remains active as a political artist. Currently, as Romanian students protest against the lack of openness in universities through sit-ins at the University of Bucharest and Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj (ongoing since March 26), Perjovschi has been assisting the movement through providing drawings and workshops to student protestors.

Kiasma describes your work as “observations of contemporary Europe.” Is this your view of the show as well? What have you observed recently?

Europe is one of my subjects. Everything else is the other. I look, understand, and visually translate local and global issues. When I was drawing, one important issue was the moving of Kiasma’s funding from the state budget to the lottery – sort of a smooth neoliberalism. Other subjects were the UK’s nasty tabloid campaign against an invasion of Romanian and Bulgarian workers, the decline of Finnish sperm quality, the French troops in Mali... I am more time-specific than site-specific.

What happened with Finnish sperm quality? Are Finns really worried?

There was a huge article in the main daily magazine. I have no experience with the Finns, but it seems that they are worrying...

How do you prepare for a drawing installation like the Kiasma show? Do you know what you’ll draw before you arrive? 

I have no idea how the general ensemble will look and what drawings I will discover on the spot. Funny thing is, the curators also don’t know. It’s a bit of a gamble for the institution and for myself. But I have a repertoire of drawings at hand that give me a sort of tranquillity – general stories about the Occupy movement, about identity, about rich-poor – which fit any project of mine. I am very nervous in the first days until the walls start to be populated with drawings.

Kiasma was a particular case because for the first time I had a collection of my work (350 drawings from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, NL) with wall drawings. Framed drawings together with freestyle drawings. It came out pretty well.

I do not do specific research of the place and the institution I will go to draw. I treat all the spaces and all the projects equally. But during the project I keep myself open 24/7 to see and discover images and situations to draw. On the street, in discussion, drinking coffee, reading newspapers...

How old are the framed drawings from the Van Abbemuseum? Did you find any kind of division between the framed drawings and the wall drawings – current events and what might now be 'old news'?

The Van Abbemuseum project was titled “Repertoire – Five-Year Plan 2006-2010.” Each frame represents a city and a time, the cities repeat – for example, in five years, I was in Berlin four times. It is like an archive. You revisit places and times. You recognize some stuff, and lose the meaning of other things. Some of my drawings start with a particular event but aim for a general understanding of the situation; therefore they are still accurate today even if they were first made ten years ago. My projects are not about the news. One of my sources is the news. But I try to extract something from everyday life that is generally valid. The contrast between the framed drawings and the wall drawings is not coming from the content but from the frame.

Old and new, they depict the way we are.

Exhibitiom View. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Petri Virtanen

What’s the best material for drawing on walls for you? Do you have a preferred type of pen?

For white and grey walls I work with big Edding markers and for deep black I use Molotow markers. For glass I use Posca. For a room I need about 5-7 markers, the same for windows. When I draw on black walls I use normal school chalk.

Do you repeat images in different installations?

Yes, I have a mental repertoire of about 200 drawings. Some I keep repeating, like bands play old tunes, because people in the audience know and love them. Sometimes I repeat a drawing 5-6 times in different projects until I see a better version. Repeating is a form of learning. In a standard project I have 50/50 old and new drawings. But they are never the same because the dimensions and technique may vary and the other drawings around them may be different.

You mentioned the UK's discussion of ways to keep out Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants after the EU migration restrictions change next year. Is it important to you to illustrate Romanian issues to non-Romanian audiences? 

It is not, but they come as a subject. I am not a Romanian advocate when I draw. I am a humanistic advocate. A subject like this one represents the immigration and labour migration issues in general. Some years ago it was the “Polish plumber,” now it’s the “Romanian invasion”: the politics of fear, selling tabloids and bringing votes... 

You have some new drawings on your Facebook page about the Occupy university movement in Romania. What’s happening there now? Are you involved with the movement?

I just assist. My drawings have an activist character... I am talented in condensing a complicated issue into one image, so my drawings can help. I am in favour of open spaces for debates in universities, a more open educational system and more adaptation to today’s issues. That’s why I gave my drawings to the students. If they recognize themselves in them, they should use them. And they do. They downloaded the drawings from Facebook and hung them in the Occupy amphitheatre. I am having a show in the middle of the sit-in. I did not plan this. They did. Amazing. 

How did the current student sit-in begin?

The universities in Romania have to be reformed. The system is stuck and everybody only talks about teachers’ salaries and not the content of the education. There is a huge gap between school and what comes after. The system is based on the authority of the teacher and a one-way direction, from the teacher to the student. Not much discussion. There is no space for intellectual confrontation and political or social issues are kept at bay. But the new generation is much more politically aware. They need different models and platforms. Therefore, they are occupying some of the main rooms in the two main universities in Romania [University of Bucharest and Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca] in order to create these spaces and discussions.

Have you worked with these student groups at other times – how do you know each other? Do you teach as well?

I do not teach. I do not have the time and they never invited me. In Romania, at least in the artistic education, I am perceived as a threat. But I have been invited directly by students to do workshops and seminars, mostly by architecture of political science students.

For this Occupy movement, I have just sent them some drawings to expand the topic. The Bucharest branch of the Occupy movement invited me to come in. I did and we had an informal discussion and a short workshop about slogans, how to create images for protests and how to visualize some of their demands. It came out all right and they are using them on the walls of the university now. I also know some of the activists who support the movement.

The students in Cluj printed the drawings out and hung them in the school. I am having the best solo show in Romania ever.

Detail. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Petri Virtanen

This is a great exhibition opportunity at the university, then, if the fine arts departments don't approve of your work! But why do they feel threatened?

The university does not have an art department. In Bucharest the art school is separate and called the National University of Arts. My drawings are showing in the history department of the University of Bucharest. The students from history, social sciences and philosophy were the occupiers; the students from the art university did nothing. 

The University of Arts feels threatened because our style of talking, discussing and sharing with students is directly opposed to their style based on “maestros” and authority. We make and believe in contemporary art, and they teach something more modern and conservative.

In other interviews, you’ve mentioned a small newspaper you publish. Is that still a project you’re doing? What does it consist of and how often do you publish it? How is it distributed? 

Sometimes I do an eight-page black-and-white free newspaper. Sometimes it’s with another project, sometimes it’s the project itself. I publish at random.

But I work with an independent weekly magazine titled 22 (Revista 22). This is edited by a think tank of intellectuals and former dissidents and is a centre-right political, social and cultural weekly. I’ve published drawings since 1990. In this moment I am its oldest member – the other journalists retired – and being a centre-left thinker, I balance the outcome. Working with this weekly publication gave me the idea that newspapers are “public spaces” or eight-page galleries. 

What I edit and publish are newspapers with drawings, referring to a certain place and time. 

Many of your drawings refer to technology and our relationship to it. How do you feel about technology and our increasing reliance on the internet and other digital technologies.

I find it paradoxical and laughable on one hand, and extraordinary on the other hand. We can educate anybody anywhere on the planet. We can now literally be together. Amazing. When I grew up there were no books, due to censorship, and no news, about contemporary art. Now we are at a click’s distance to the largest databases, museum digital archives and libraries in the world.

I particularly like the “wireless being” drawing at Kiasma, where does this character come from?

I try to put myself in a situation or somehow visualise dangers and dependences. You see people today, they do not look straight, they look down to their iPhones. We are looking down.

Exhibitiom View. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Petri Virtanen

You have done a lot of work in collaboration with your wife Lia [Perjovschi]. Can you talk a bit about that? Does she do installation work as well?

We show in parallel, meaning there are two proposals and concepts in one room. Sometimes the two concepts get along and mix, sometimes they are distanced. Lia is showing a total installation called Knowledge Museum, dealing with history, theory, art and science, in the form of a temporary institution with several departments. The installation reunites Lia’s older projects – mind maps, timelines, archives of art – and collections – globes, museum items. I deal with the present and the flow of news – sometimes my drawings fit with Lia’s departments, sometimes they constitute a political noise in the background.

Besides art collaborations, we are doing workshops, lectures and are teaching together. 

Lia’s project Archive of Contemporary Art/Centre for Art Analysis was a platform for debate and discussions for more than a decade – we received the European Cultural Foundation Princess Margriet award for this.

You were in Riga as well for the Survival Kit festival in 2011, an event that’s entirely based on the idea of having large old empty spaces around to work in. Do you notice a difference between working in eastern Europe and somewhere like New York or Helsinki, let’s say somewhere a bit glossier, a bit richer – or a difference in how your work is received in those places? Do people react differently to drawings on the walls when those walls are new, clean white ones and when they’re old factory buildings with the paint peeling off?

There are differences, of course. I do not refer to the quality of the works or atmosphere, but in the condition and context of the work. The majority of projects in the east look alternative, almost run-down spaces, tiny budgets. Sometimes due to this unfriendly context, the projects seem more real and more true. On the other hand, after a while you get tired of improvisation. When you work in a big museum in the west you encounter restrictions and regulations. It is true they want you at your best, and more or less anything you want can happen and will be done. But museums have rules. And sometimes it is difficult to accept and adapt. This is why the best institutions are the German models of Kunstverein and Kunsthalle. They are public-private spaces where you can do whatever you like, cut the roof, move the walls, paint everything in pink. If one is able to adjust or tackle situations, one can find spaces for free expression everywhere.

The public is very diverse, but in general those who come to experience contemporary art are more tolerant and more open towards a complex world. Due to the nature of my projects, I’m very popular for both the director and the guards of the museum. They see how the art is done and because the drawings refer to their problems they love them.

I show in major art museums but I am given weird spaces – lobbies, windows, staircases. I am marginal in the mainstream. My art can function both in the white cube and in the run-down factory. I take advantage of this situation and I move comfortably between a very poor artist-run space in a suburb of Chisinau, Moldova, and the Pompidou Centre in the centre of Paris. It is not about where, it’s about what.