After 18 months of planning, the 2021 Art Encounters Biennial in Timișoara, Romania launched its fourth edition, including works by 134 local and international artists, on view across nine venues. "Our Other Us" brings attention to the fundamental interconnectedness of the human experience; in probing arbitrary lines that bind and unwind us, the works in the biennial reinforce the tension between proximity and distance that has only been heightened by the current period of global disruption. For those of us enabled by novel authorities that track, trace and tame us, the biennial's proposal of togetherness is well suited for a cross-cultural city making strides that outpace its communist-controlled past. Being declared the first Romanian town free of Ceaușescu’s oppressive rule, it will be given the title of "European Capital of Culture" in 2023, nearly three decades after its violent uprisings.
One of the most noteworthy traits that sets this edition apart from the three preceding is the fact that Melbourne-based Romanian curator Mihnea Mircan and Liverpool-based Polish curator Kasia Redzisz each worked individually on independent pavilions, and yet were able to respond to the overarching theme as a cohesive unit. Diana Marincu, Artistic Director of the Art Encounters Foundation in Timișoara described it as a vital step to “avoid an artificial, forced union,” a rather fitting alteration for a foundation whose name ––“encounters”–– is denoted as “a match between two opposing sides.” Unlocking new ways of operating, the biennial exposes the narrowing or widening of the narratives in place, switching lenses and trailing the links between both practices.
Personal relations and natural rhythms are explored by Kasia Redzisz’s multimedia exhibition "How To Be Together?" at the Corneliu Miklosi Museum of Public Transportation, which includes 28 emerging and established artists. In the exterior arena, the scrambled setup of artistic duo Monotremu gives voice to the young Central and Eastern European students of their nomadic Minitremu Art Camp. Formed in Timișoara by Laura Borotea and Gabriel Boldis together with Krisztian Torok, the decade-old annual project invites artists to present practical workshops that prioritize affective and communal experiences relating to the students’ feelings, motivations and values. At the core of this haven for alternative learning, emphasis is placed on synergizing with bureaucratic systems so as to rewire them. Forming a new context by coupling non-conventional pedagogy with bureaucracy is what Boldis recounts as a strategy that can only be choreographed from inside a system that needs fixing.
In the adjacent space, formerly serving as a tram depot, the newly commissioned "Snow Ball" by Berlin-based Romanian artist Flaviu Cacoveanu uncovers the micro and the macro. Showcasing a large-scale print of a snowball being grasped – as if in its keeping, it’ll be safe from dissolving – the result is a magnification of a moment of care and nurturing, whose relevance is made highly apparent through the work’s sheer size. An ephemeral and spontaneous environmental action suspended mid-air, the piece communicates a commonplace gesture, what Cacoveanu defines in his mission statement as “a protest, a visual manifesto, a point, an instruction.” Bridging personal life and professional practice, the close-up shot taken by the artist in Reykjavik, Iceland looks into the ingredients of daily life to subvert our understanding of the world. From afar, it’s crude and blocky white mass appears firmly compressed, but on closer inspection, you can almost hear the ice cracking and disintegrating within. Through the extension of the artist’s sustained inquiry into the impact of linguistics, his works function autonomously as “words” which in relation to each other can be read as a “sentence.” Transcending language, the power of this image, placed slap-bang in the entrance and exit of the site, hits hard and direct.
Curated by Mihnea Mircan with an emphasis on artists that are showing for the first time in the biennial, the mixed media exhibition "Landscape in a Convex Mirror" at the large-scale ISHO Offices introduces 39 emerging and established artists. An exploration of vertigo, viewpoints and vanishing points, the exhibition is rooted in the 1524 "Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror" by the Italian late Renaissance artist Parmigianino, which depicts himself distorted by way of a rounded mirror. The press release states that the diverse standpoints of each artist “delineate the trajectory of a figure that falls or drifts in a perpetually disoriented relationship to its ground, or a self always seeking and narrating its lost place.” In line with the biennial’s underlying theme, the focus here is set on the possibility of self-expression and discovery in relation to unclear surroundings.
Replicating a singular domestic scene in varying scales, Cluj-Napoca-based Romanian artist Adela Giurgiu’s series of "Interior Landscape" paintings bounce from one wall to the next in a performative adaptation. Within these, the morning converts to evening, the inside moves outside, and the real goes fictional. Influenced by the 1913 "The Dining Room in the Country", a post-impressionist painting by French artist Pierre Bonnard, the arrangement offers a critical thread that switches across a continuum of perspectives to look within and beyond self-examination.
Perth and Melbourne-based Australian artist Benjamin Bannan’s video "Untitled (Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata)" is similarly based on an art historical reference, specifically the 1295–1300 "Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata'' by Giotto di Bondone, reperforming the transmission of stigmata amid the now absent bodies of Christ and Saint Francis. With a sonic framework of Georgian Chill-wave and a chromatic influx of cardinal shades, onlookers end up floating among the mystical set in what the artist characterizes as “a perverse spectacle.” In Christianity, bodily wounds that corresponded to those of the crucified Christ were considered to be a miraculous blessing. Building on the artist’s investigation into persecution, shame, and transformation, the work interrogates not only notions of purity or holiness, but also the strength of his current life in the unceded lands of the peoples of the Kulin Nation. Bannan reperforms the trauma from a queer position, through the camera’s spiraling viewpoint that becomes more and more disembodied with each cyclical loop.
Targeting the drifts and transformations that influence the act of self-perception, each of the works encompasses a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. As writer and cultural theorist Astrida Neimanis mentions in her 2017 book "Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology": The space between ourselves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin.
The Art Encounters Biennial: "Our Other Us" was open from 1 October – 7 November 2021.