Do Something, Be Somebody

The experimental artist Grigorescu Ion has forged himself some time ago out of the painter Ion Grigorescu. Indeed, in Romanian it is rather unusual for an adult to put his family name before the forename. Customarily, this happens in official documents or in school registers, where the pupils are ranged following their family names: Grigorescu, Ionescu, Popescu, etcescu, young anonyms existing as offsprings of a certain clan or branch. When they grow up, they gain the right of calling themselves by their forename, of being autonomous individuals. By refusing this right, and choosing instead to regress and call himself Grigorescu Ion, the artist aimed at a level of anonymity, of namelessness and amorphous identity specific to the faceless mass, the people, produced by the communist regime. His choice of name is therefore political. The implicit claim in it is that Grigorescu Ion is not a name, the distinct name of an art star, but merely a part of the mass, one of the numberless people named Grigorescu. Behind the political stakes of this withdrawal from the name, the artist's option for a switched name is also a mark of his willingness to exit the issues of authorship, the dramatic competition of names so characteristic for the art scene. Instead of producing and proclaiming his own self, his name/image as a powerful brand, the artist preferred to recess into the protective envelope of an effacing name that still doesn't need to prove anything, like the name of an elusive schoolboy hiding in a catalogue amid similar anonymous names. This phantasm of receding to a primary state, to childhood, when contest was just a game and self advancement was not a headline, was probably enhanced by another significant fact: the artist's own elder brother was a renowned painter, Octav Grigorescu. Just as in the case of Marcel Duchamp's family, where three brothers were artists and they switched around their names in such a way that three different names emerged (Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Duchamp Villon and Jacques Villon), in the Grigorescu house the younger brother has chosen to deflect from his own name, putting it forward, as if a stranger's name. Grigorescu Ion is thus a psychoanalytical choice of a name, combining love/hatred, mixed feelings and a paradoxical, appropriative distancing. Moreover, for every educated Romanian, the Grigorescu label largely means "art" and "artist", in the culturally broader, popular sense, for Nicolae Grigorescu is the best-known painter nationwide, the first modern artist in Romanian culture. Besides, other remarkable, later painters such as Lucian Grigorescu had the same, almost predestined, name. In such a context, the identity problem of Grigorescu Ion seems both complex and ironical, intertwining predestination and inflation, a major signification and sheer senselessness. This is why his chosen name is also a matter of conceptual art, as it implies that, amongst so many Grigorescu artists, he is the only Ion that has chosen it already like a label/name first and foremost, the way Picasso is firstly known as Picasso and only then as Pablo Ruiz etc. Political, art historical, conceptual and psychoanalytical as it might be, the name Grigorescu Ion is a piece of art in itself, and it accurately portrays the man himself: the self-effacing, low-profile, though multifarious personality who is both a social and political critic, and an unapparent spiritual model. Grigorescu Ion is the label of a hybrid poetics of self exposure and clandestinity or marginality that stretches over a few decades already, from the heydays of Proletkult to the recent era of consumerism. Significantly, his poetics of elusive identity, and recurrent clandestinity, was not one of direct subversion, because subversion is based on a known something, while Grigorescu Ion is practicing a "docta ignorantia" kind of art. It is about one that does not address formal or content issues from the meliorist standpoint of an illuminating mind, busy to provide his fellows with a certain truth found by way of "artistic research", in order to improve their consciousness. Contrariwise, the artist operates obscure actions and doubtful processes, producing some poor, barely distinguishable objects that appear rather as interrogations on the status of being of the work of art than the current, bombastic, self-proclaiming feature of the would-be masterpieces. Basically, his works are slack, remote and irresolute. Clandestinity means anonymity, uncertainty and anxiety, the lack of a fixed position, perpetual movement, the exposure to violence and a subsequent flight from it. This is why Grigorescu Ion`s typical work, ranging from body art to photo and video actions and installations is both exhibitionist and veiled, exposing the body but obscuring the self, which seems suspended, rubbed off, not being there, where the being apparently is. The body appears as almost abandoned in action by the mind (if not the spirit) which is on vacation, floating aloof just beside it, dumb, secret and untouchable, relegated to a space where matter, bodiliness, identity, art or sense make no sense at all. His paradoxical exhibitionism is thus not erected on a hypertrophy of the ego, but on its opposite, on a diminution or tuning down of it. In his famous video Talking to Nicolae Ceausescu (1979), Grigorescu Ion is alternatively masking and unmasking himself as the authoritarian leader, also playing his own role as if a common, moderate citizen talking to his supreme governing figure (an act that was in reality completely impossible). He is neither protesting, nor violent, nor scorning. He is calm, apparently reading a text containing a series of important questions (although there is no sound at all, and the text on the screen is undecipherable), to which the leader is answering, employing his common rhetoric gestures and grimaces. One would say that a moment of normality was enacted. Yet, the fact that both characters are mimicked by the artist is less anomalous than the outrageous and incredible idea that a nobody, a Grigorescu, be it Ion, would be able to pose his questions to Nicolae Ceausescu, and have them answered in front of the camera. The leader was untouchable and severed from the "people" he had created. Playing both roles in a very balanced way, the artist masks and unmasks himself as the leader, as if there is no secret and no trick at all. He blurs the borders, making the self-being anonymous and the myth (because the leader was a kind of myth or icon) being instilled into the self, and then unmasking it, in an undecided movement of assimilation and exorcism. The film is no amusement piece, but neither a revolutionary, protesting device. Its elusive sense is rather psychoanalytical, and it has to do more with the intimacy of a clandestine identity than with the overt challenging of the current power system. The same track is recognizable in his older photo/action self-portrait at Traisteni, where Grigorescu Ion is not directly masked as, but largely looks like, the national poet Mihai Eminescu, in his most common photographic image, known to every Romanian. Like the poet, the artist's Romantic gaze is scrutinizing the infinite nowhere, while his mysterious figure is silently exalted, prone to secret future realizations kept still inside the auratic head. But there is a slight though decisive difference between the two figures. Notwithstanding the Romantic stance of the (self)portrait, Grigorescu Ion has an iron wire torn around his neck, as if a counterpoint to the enacted genius aura, as a mark of dependency, of subordinate personality. But at the same time the wire (that is the ancillary condition) is the major point that makes a difference between the Romantic cliché of the creative genius, and the reflexive work of the ironic mind of Grigorescu Ion. But still, all these maximal identities are assumed and changed with both ingenuity and placidity, in an undecided movement of implication and distance. Grigorescu Ion is a silent artist. In a world of flat certainties (official or anti-official art, Proletcult or consumerist cultural production), he practices a kind of art of doing as a distancing from the making, proposing a kind of being as a hiatus between the presence and the projection. Unsurprisingly, his work has consistently attained the boundaries of transcendence, and he ranges among the prominent figures of the (neo)Orthodox movement in recent Romanian art. His art is essentially anti-naive, countering the specific nonchalance of the "fine arts" (that care but for the esthetic), but also the more subtle naiveté (that frequently borders on cynicism) of the "critical arts" (the alternative, political art that capitalizes on some "truths" it claims to cultivate inside the viewer, thus offering the access to a better, if not plainly good, consciousness). Like the Hunter Gracchus from Kafka's story, Grigorescu Ion is suspended, strayed somewhere between the worlds, afloat into a no man's land of the being, proposing a self, a somebody who is rather a no body, a perpetual anonymous, who is doing a something which is frequently deprived of the certainty of the thing, that turns into a series of irresolute acts and appearances. Grigorescu Ion is the most powerful absence acting on the Romanian art scene. Grigorescu Ion (born in Bucharest, in 1945) participated with painting, photography, performance, film, installations in exhibitions around the world: 1979 – Bradford, 1981 – Sao Paolo, 1990 – Glasgow, 1991 – Vienna, 1993 – Osnabrueck, 1994 – Budapest, Sao Paolo, 1995 – Bratislava, 1996 – Alsace, 1997 – Venice, 1998 – Bucharest, Budapest, Los Angeles, Vienna, Tokyo, Barcelona, Ljubljana, 2000 – Ljubljana, 2001 – Vienna, Stockholm, 2002 – Graz, Bucharest, 2003 – Jassy, Kassel.

by Erwin Kessler