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Interview with Olga Ștefan

Interview with Olga Ștefan

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Art Guide East, 5 February 2015
Tina Kaplár

Olga Ștefan is a freelance curator, writer, and lecturer originally from Chicago. Since 2009 she has been living in Zurich, Switzerland. She has curated several exhibitions, including one shown in Zurich with artists from the CEE region, but also from other countries. We had a talk about her curatorial practice on the occasion of the upcoming group show Few Were Happy with their Condition: Video, Photography and Film in Romania, in Kunsthalle Winterthur.

Tina Kaplár: You have curated or written several times about exhibitions focusing on Eastern European art, more precisely on Romanian. Where does your interest come from? 

Olga Ștefan:  I was born in Romania and have a rather unresolved relationship with my country of origin. I am particularly interested in understanding what role art can play in developing and shaping the civil society and how artists of my generation, or maybe just those that would be called "contemporary", who use a certain language and conceptual approach, deal with the heavy burden of the history that they inherited or sometimes even experienced. I am interested in how this history, even if not overtly the topic of the work, is somehow always lurking in the background, as a subtext.

TK: What is your curatorial practice like? What do you mean by the nomadic and roving curatorial model you use in your platform Itinerant Projects?

OS: My curatorial projects are always somehow an extension of myself and my personal, not only intellectual, preoccupations. I try to make sense of my condition, my environment, my reality through exhibitions. I look to the artists I work with to somehow offer me solutions, perspectives, knowledge on those questions that obsess me. My curatorial model also reflects my situation - I too am somewhat of a nomad, having emigrated from Romania to Chicago, then having been educated in France where I lived for a brief period of time, then moving back to Chicago, then to Zurich. This roving model permits me a certain level of flexibility but it is also reflective of the unstable and precarious condition of the freelance curator who is constantly moving from project to project to survive, and ultimately becomes a sort of dependent despite their best intentions.

TK:: What are the issues that are in your focus nowadays? What are your plans for the near future? 

OS:  I have always been, and probably always will be, interested in artists that tackle the issues of contemporary society. Formal exercises and work that is not clearly linked to the issues of existence in the world is not within my purview. Film has always played an important part of my cultural education, and now I'm interested in looking at it from a political perspective. How can film production in itself be a political act, beyond the narrative. In March I will be curating an exhibition at Kunstkrafteerk, Leipzig with Ștefan Constantinescu, and in October I'm curating Bucharest Art Week for which I have selected the theme "Laughter and Forgetting" after Kundera's 1979 novel.

TK: Three years ago as you wrote the catalogue of the group show Just Another Brick in the Wall: Models for Artistic Production in Romania “In the last few years, Romanian artists like Dan Perjovschi, Adrian Ghenie, Ion Grigorescu, Mircea Cantor, Ciprian Mureșan and a few others, have been received enthusiastically on the international art scene, with major exhibitions in important museums and art centers, and/or commercial success in galleries. International interest in the Romanian art scene, which for most western curators and art professionals who visit the country only entails appointments with individual artists or speaking to particular gallerists, has increased exponentially too. But a survey of the activity on the local level, or an analysis of the strategies used to develop the local context, has not yet been made outside the country.” Through the exhibition itself we could gain insight into the current state of the two-folded  Romanian art scene. Could you just summarise your findings made outside the country?

OS: The Romanian art scene is still nascent, it is in formation.  But there is a lot of dynamism, enthusiasm, and initiative which makes it interesting in comparison to scenes elsewhere that have become too comfortable to be exciting and flexible. And it is not yet stifled by standards and rules so people are still functioning in a certain grey zone that keeps things moving. Of course this is a double edged sword since there is also a lot of corruption, but having lived in Switzerland for five years, I realize that no place is immune from that disease.

TK: What is it composed of ? How does it work?

OS: There are of course several scenes and sometimes they are in conversation, but more often than not they function completely autonomously. Cluj of course is a main player due to the centralized artistic activity at the Paintbrush Factory, which makes it easy for curators, gallerists, etc. to just drop in and "check-off" what they think, or what they have been told, they should see. It's become a destination without much context. And of course it will now probably become even more so as the reputation of the constructed image of the Cluj Painting School continues to grow. There is Iași, in eastern Romania, that has a small but interesting art scene with the majority of the actors associated with the art university. In Iași the international festival Periferic took place for many years, which was a significant event in Romania before all the others. Timișoara of course has an important and historically active scene, also having had an influential performance art festival, but there are also Târgu Mureș, Sibiu, St. George, smaller towns where people are trying to do stuff.  Bucharest, though, does kind of overshadow the other cities - it is the political and financial center after all. But frankly this also has its down sides as competition for very limited resources is  fierce and things get kind of ugly. Sometimes it's actually beneficial to function outside this context - there's more freedom of movement and less conflict.

TK: Who are the main players?  How are they connected?

OS:  There aren't that many institutions, especially those that are willing and able to offer production budgets, and those that do exist of course yield quite a bit of influence and hold a lot of power. And as there are not so many people on the scene, most know each other and there are a lot of mixed interests. I suppose that is characteristic of a small, newly forming scene - but now that I think about it, it might not only symptomatic of its state of formation, but of its size...I've found this to be the case in Zurich too, in a different way and on a different scale.

TK: What are the power structures and how do alternatives form?

OS:  As I mentioned, there are only a few institutions, some of which are funded through the same budget, others which are non-profits with funding from bank foundations or other corporations. Alternatives are very difficult to sustain because there aren't means to do so.  Independently funded art spaces are extraordinary efforts for people in Romania due to low salaries and lack of funding sources. But attempts have been made and some initiatives have lasted longer than others. But it's a huge battle - with raising funds, managing the projects, etc.  Now quite a few galleries have sprung up that operate at the border between commercial and non-profit enterprise and this permits them quite a bit of movement to both raise funds from international cultural centers and to sell at art fairs. It's still not easy but it's somewhat easier. But real alternatives can exist when local foundations and sources of funding are established. Currently there is only one entity that funds organizations in the country and one that the funds the participation of Romanian art abroad. Therefore it is also necessary that the public pitch in either through ticket sales, donations, membership dues, or business support (as opposed to corporate), and preferably a mixture of all.

TK: What are the currently existing models?

OS: Well, they are like elsewhere but just a lot fewer. There are a few organizations that are funded by the state but mostly that rely on other sources of funding, including private funds, some corporate support, and some that are also able to access funds from international cultural centers. Now European funds are more accessible so some also apply for those. There are all sorts of hybrid models - people do what they can to survive and remain active. But it's maintaining these initiatives for the long-haul that's the challenge when there's no serious and consistent support.

TK: What needs to be done for the system to be improved and made functional?  

OS: Romania needs foundations, more state support for the arts, and of course an engaged public that's willing and able to financially support contemporary art. There is a public that supports theater and cinema. But contemporary art is still viewed with extreme suspicion. And in addition it would be good if there were more checks and balances, so conflicts of interest would no longer be seen as the norm with everyone a more or less willing participant. As an arts journalist, I feel compelled, even though most others don't do it and to some extent it's not even requested anymore, to inform my editors about my curatorial relationship with an artist if I am to write about them. I have turned down assignments due to this conflict of interest. I believe it's still important to maintain a certain separation and to be able to rescue yourself when you realize you have a financial or personal motivation, for example, in writing about  or curating with someone. It's not always clear, of course - that is the art world, where the personal and professional are so intertwined. But there are limits, and we all know that often times those limits are blatantly ignored.

TK: What do you think were the elements of success in the reception of Romanian art at international level compared to that of other CEE countries?

OS:  Well, I think other central and eastern european countries have also had success on the international level, especially Poland, the Czech Republic. And I don't think that it's all types of Romanian art that have had much success on the European level - I would say it's mostly the Cluj painters and few other Cluj artists that enjoy more success at the level that you suggest because those media are just more commodifiable, more accessible.

TK: In a couple of weeks’ time the group show titled Few Were Happy with their Condition: Video, Photography and Film in Romania will open in Kunsthalle Winterthur with Ciprian Mureșan, Dan Acosteoaei, Alexandra Croitoru, Cristina David, Monotremu, Claudiu Cobilanschi, Vlad Nancă, Bogdan Girbovan, Ștefan Sava, Ștefan Constantinescu, Cristi Pogăcean, Jozsef Bartha, and Alex Mirutziu with a Parallel Show of  Dan Perjovschi. What was your curatorial concept for this exhibition? 

OS: I wanted to explore how artists use contemporary technology to analyse contemporary issues including an economy of modest means imposed by their precarious situation.  I'll quote from the statement of the show, "Through video, film and photography, inherently modern media, the show focuses on feelings of discontentment within the context of contemporary society, vis-a-vis Romania’s current political and social climate, its dark past, but also personal narratives and meditations on life and the human condition."  Dan Perjovschi's practice is also a reflection of this modest economic condition through the medium that he uses:  a black marker - he needs nothing else to make powerful statements and striking installations.  Yes, to some extent the medium is the message.

TK: This show will travel to Chicago later this year, how do think its reception will differ overseas?

OS: The show will first stop in Dresden and then in Chicago in January 2016.  Chicago has a large Romanian community so of course I think many will be curious to see the show, but I also think that the general public in Chicago is very receptive to work addressing social issues and the show will definitely resonate there. I'm also pleased that there will be a convergence of the different episodes of my biography.

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