Doryun Chong, assistant curator of Visual Arts and co-curator of the exhibition Brave New Worlds wrote this reflection for the September/October issue of WALKER magazine. Brave New Worlds opens October 4.
Curatorial research trips can be grueling. When traveling, we curators tend to city-hop, going from one artist’s studio to another, with meetings often extending through dinners and into the wee hours. I’m certainly not complaining — to be able to meet new artists and learn their ways of thinking and seeing the world is not only a job but a privilege. But I often wish there was more time to learn the larger context in which these artists work.
Last September, my Walker colleague Yasmil Raymond and I got that rare chance. We found ourselves in the city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania as part of a two-week, four-country, five-city research trip for the exhibition Brave New Worlds, which opens on October 4. Located in north-central Transylvania, bordering Hungary, Cluj-Napoca is the third largest city in the country but wasn’t even part of it until the end of World War I. During World War II, the region was repatriated to Hungary, only to be restored again to Romania in 1947. The long history of tussles between the neighbors is still visible in the city, where nearly 20 percent of its population identify as Hungarian.
We first got interested in the city through the remarkable journal IDEA: arts + society and we wondered how this city, far off the beaten path of the contemporary art scene, could produce such a rigorous, well-informed publication. I realized that this is a rather Western-centric view, and the purpose of such travels is to challenge preconceived notions about what constitutes and who contributes to contemporary art.
lives and works nearby part of the time. We headed to an open-air market to buy fresh produce to make brunch. Mircea guided us through rows of vendors, joking and bargaining with women who hawked everything from juicy grapes to bags of brilliantly scarlet paprika, while Roma women in elaborately patterned pleated skirts wove through the crowd. We bought cheese from a young shepherd and his father, who both wore small conical top hats, typical apparel for Transylvanian goatherds, I was told.
After a huge meal, our guide took us to the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania on the edge of the city. Founded in 1922, the museum is an outdoor park dotted with transplanted and reconstituted buildings — shingle-topped houses, thatched roofed barns, and mills (sometimes all of those in one structure!), and churches with incredibly steep steeples. While rustic, theseb uildings were complex and surprisingly ingenious. The wood carvings adorning them, both rough-hewn and delicate, were exotic to my eyes and also had universal resonances. After all, isn’t Romania the land of Constantin Brancusi, that peasant turned arch-modernist sculptor, and Mircea Eliade, the religious scholar who interpreted diverse world traditions through the shared cultural experience of “sacred and profane”?
It’s easy to romanticize a context one doesn’t fully comprehend, and that’s a risk inherent in such short excursions into the unknown. Miscomprehension, in a sense, is an inevitable condition we always work within, but it could generate illuminating conversations, as long as one approached it with a willingness to understand other cultural heritages, historical experiences, and political spheres. Mircea may very well be sick of hearing foreign curators like me asking him about Brancusi and deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But he patiently responded to our questions, and we came away with a renewed understanding, if only partial, of where he comes from.
Should you meet Mircea when he’s in Minneapolis in October, there’s one question you won’t need answered: Vlad the Impaler — the historical basis for Bram Stoker’s Dracula — is not from Transylvania, but Wallachia, a neighboring region to the south.
Photos (top to bottom):
1. Doryun Chong and Yasmil Raymond at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Photo: Mircea Cantor
2. Mircea Cantor explaining the totem pole made by Hungarian peasants in Transylvania. Photo: Yasmil Raymond
3. Doryun, artist Adrian Ghenie, and Mircea Cantor. Photo: Yasmil Raymond
4. Doryun and Yasmil enjoying the fresh air and meadows in the museum ground. Photo: Mircea Cantor