The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley will present the symposium Location/Translation: Art and Engagement from the Local to the Global on September 19, 2012. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, the speakers have been invited to respond to the questions “What does ‘local’ mean to you? How does it get utilized in your work, if at all?” This posting is by Mihnea Mircan, Artistic Director of Extra City Kunsthal, Antwerp.
Mihnea Mircan; photo by Raimar Lutz

In 2004, a small wing of the House of the People in Bucharest was rudimentarily converted into a National Museum of Contemporary Art, and I began work as a curator under circumstances that were an apotheosis of the local. Built during the ‘80s, the edifice was to converge the archaic strata of the collective psyche and the political destiny of the Romanian nation, in other words to bring a propagandistically deformed past into an unlikely future of anonymous collectivism and amputated souls. The House of the People was (is? – unless another, dictatorial or neo-liberal or mixed folly has demoted it) the second largest building in the world, erected with costs so colossal that it was less a political metaphor for a depleted future, but rather its oversized metonym. As it was – and is – perpetually undecided whether it wished to be a citadel to daunt absent adversaries, the product of the ‘constructive genius of the Romanian people’, or an impossibly onerous mausoleum for both. When, after the nebulous and brutal events of 1989, the edifice lost its commissioner and prospective occupant, a symbolic rebranding was effected, instead of the work of mending, interrogative suspension and expiation that could have been expected. Renamed Palace of the Parliament, the House was recuperated from that uncomfortable terrain where built megalomania defies understanding, and simply exists with a kind of geological indifference, and transformed into the bastion of Romania’s democratic powers, entitled to it by the very democratic transubstantiation that had them elected. A formidably large and ugly building became the site where the national variant of post-communism would be rehearsed, where Romanian post-communism’s anti-communism could evince all the symptoms of its ambivalence. My understanding of the museum located there as a window to engage, from the center of the margin, what was amiss in the country’s transition to democracy and to polemicize, from within, with an architectural Gordian knot of confusion, anxiety and primitive political reflexes, merits only irony. The first manifestation of that irony was that each exhibition or intervention made there became awkwardly site-specific, and finally fueled the same spirit, sacrificial and operatic, that continued to govern the building. 

Rather than via programmatic oblivion, I extracted myself from this scenario and its toxic levels of localism via a study of the totalitarian logic of monuments in general, or by mistaking the size and frenzied symbolic gesticulation of the House of the People as a belated manifestation of the sublime. A sublime object, grotesquely defiant, but partially comprehensible as an endgame in a longer story – a local climax in the ideological cooptation of the sublime. A monument, perhaps, embodying the same collective Freudian slips that monuments always materialize, on the scale of a tectonic event. The comparison between local idiosyncrasies and the histories they derive from or contort, and whose atavistic strength they testify to, has been one model for my practice so far. A monster, I learned rather late, is nothing more than a presence for whose description we lack the words, words to be either painfully remembered or speculatively articulated.
As a recent immigrant to Belgium (another place of quirky exoticism, where the fundamentals of both country and the European Union, on whose institution this country has had a decisive impact, are continuously subjected to the bipolar disorders of two nationalisms), I have neither a home (although I crave for one), nor a cosmopolitan perspective (although my profession presupposes one). I suspect I belong to a generation that does not belong – one of existential freelancers –, and that has not yet devised the instruments that would allow it to imagine and carve out a collective destination, to cut between belonging and potential futures. ‘Local’ and ‘international’ figure among the tropes used to make sense of this tempest-tossed condition, but with the same precautions required by speaking of a ‘here’ or a ‘now’. Parts of a set of mutable definitions, these sonar signals of a temporary position sometimes encounter hard surfaces and register. A large part of today’s art elaborates the Zenon paradox of a progressively globalized world and its vertiginously localized places, while a smaller number of artists create life-size versions of this entanglement. Works that reconcile ‘here’ and ‘there’, so that, bound with each other, they indicate a shadowy antonym beyond them: a sudden sense of orientation, slightly outside the GPS grid, where elucidation is always accompanied by anxiety.

One thought on “LOCATION/TRANSLATION: Mihnea Mircan

  • Julia Bryan-Wilson

    Thanks for these thoughts, Mihnea. In a time when “the local” is often heralded as a corrective salve to the evils of globalization, your post reminds us that an emphasis on regionalism can also mean narrow provincialism, extreme nationalism, and what you refer to as “toxic levels of localism.”

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