8. Memento / milieu / mileu
On memories embedded in objects
“So do you know about The Fish ?”, he asked inquisitively.
She nodded : “Yeah, for sure. My mum must have gotten rid of theirs though. I never saw it in the house growing up.”
I was having lunch in a cafe on Strada Inocențiu Micu Klein in Cluj-Napoca (Romania), and overheard the conversation of a couple sitting at the table across from me. The man who asked the question had been sitting in silence for a while, listening to the woman enthusiastically talk about her research. From my understanding, she was a historian based in England working on a topic related to Romania, hence her presence in Cluj. Her interest for this country seemed to stem from her personal heritage - her mother or her grandmother was from the region. They must have been having lunch together in some kind of professional capacity, as they were discussing places to go to, possible leads for interviews, and Romanian history. After a while, he seemed to be itching to bring the conversation to a close - after several side glances to the waitress, he managed to catch her eye and ask for the bill, of which they each settled their half. They were off, and I was left alone with my meal, puzzling over what Fish they could possibly be referring to.
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I got an answer a few hours later. I had met up with Malina Cipleu, a Romanian artist based in the US, and Helga Thies, an art mediator from Cluj, who took the both of us on one of her “ArtCrawls” around the town, visiting local art galleries. The first stop was at the White Cuib gallery, where we discussed Mihaela Moldovan’s Amintiri din sufragerie (Memories from a living room) with Alina Andrei. The artwork took up the back wall of the gallery, and consisted of interwoven string and cables evoking the hand-crocheted doilies - or mileus (from the French “milieu de table”, shortened and transformed into “mileu”), common to every Romanian household during the 1980s. The artist writes :
"Nostalgia for the domestic decor typical of 1980s Romania is the starting point for these works. As a child I was fascinated by the multitude of hand-crocheted doilies and knick-knacks displayed everywhere in the family living room, arranged to hide the poverty of the times. The dust marks left by the lash patterns on the furniture both fascinated and annoyed me. For a long time I could no longer interact with such interiors, working with purged spaces, devoid of any excess.
However, the need to revisit the past, to understand it and to reacquaint myself with its traces, brought this hazy background of memories from the family living room back to the fore. Childhood experiences have thus become my working tools, which I now use for a completely different purpose. I have thus oversized a number of doilies and replaced the fragility of handmade string with the toughness of string or cable used in construction. The dust deposited on the gallery floor (by printing the pattern of the doily) invites the public to participate in its removal, thus recalling my own gesture of wiping the traces in the family living room."
Mihaela Moldovan, Amintiri din sufragerie, 2022.
The artwork jolted Helga, Malina and Alina’s memory alike, each enthusiastically evoking their personal childhood memories linked to these mileus - although none of them were particularly positive. Just like for Moldovan, they generally involved a lot of dust and a sense of mustiness and clutter. The three of them wholeheartedly related to the artist’s scattering of flour across the gallery floor. Doilies and dust were for them intimately linked. They were also linked to a particular piece of decoration, generally proudly displayed on a milieu placed on top of an old black-and-white TV : a colourful glass fish. (There I had it : The Fish. It all made sense.)
Beyond its simple materiality - the appreciation of which I would have been limited to had I not been with Helga, Malina and Alina - Moldovan’s work was embedded with a specific snippet of cultural memory, which in that instance extended to the personal memories - amintiri - of the viewers. It acted as a memento, “something that serves to warn or remind” (Merriam-Webster). It brought back everyone in the room - except for myself - to their childhood.
After the White Cuib, we moved on to the History Museum, where a work by the Romanian artist Ciprian Mureşan was on display. It was - initially - a stack of 32,000 posters of a drawing of a plastic bag. There must be fewer now, since visitors are invited to take one with them. Mureşan was inspired by Félix González-Torres (1957-1996), a Cuban-born American visual artist who likewise created stacks of posters which slowly eroded with the passage of visitors. Ironically titled Monument, these stacks were anything but monuments, constantly varying in shape and diminishing in size. González-Torres’ work had been exhibited in 2019 at the MO.CO., the centre for contemporary art in Montpellier (France), where I had seen it for the first time. I had found an echo of it in Cluj-Napoca.
Malina Cipleu (right) and myself (left) next to Ciprian Mureşan’s Untitled, 2013-2014, at the History Museum of Cluj-Napoca. Photo credit : Helga Thies.
For Helga and Malina, the drawing of the plastic bag jolted childhood memories. They remembered, growing up, the fetichisation of The Plastic Bag, a rarity in communist Romania (rather ironic considering the current demonisation of an object presented - rightly so - as an ecological aberration). Plastic bags were kept, sometimes even washed, treasured, and stored in another bag (The Bag of Bags) like a Russian doll. The abundance of Mureşan’s drawings is an ironic counterpoint to the depicted object’s former scarcity. Once again, the work of art is embedded with cultural meaning, the reading of which only becomes accessible to those with the appropriate keys - or memories. (Although I suspect the phenomenon of fetichising plastic bags is not specific to former communist countries.)
More generally, Mureşan’s work speaks to the question of the memory of communism - and its corollary : the amnesia surrounding it. I had first come across his work at the Ludwig Múzeum in Budapest (which thus offered a wormhole I followed all the way to Cluj). It was a drawing depicting a fallen statue of Lenin, crushing people who were trying to crawl out from under it. It evokes the - in this case, quite literal - weight of the past, and the struggle to move beyond events without forgetting them. Kürti Emese suggests that : "
“The position of his toppled - but not clearly reclining - statue of Lenin is not only contradictory, but the title [Cím nélkül, Untitled] does not accurately capture its content. The small figures of men, scattered about, modelled on his own friends, seem weightless beneath the large sculptural body - history - yet seem to be trying to break free. For the feeble little figures of the present, without charisma, the failed, contradictory, but great experiments of modernism are serious, present examples that still cause conflict in the cultural consciousness.”
Kürti Emese, from the Ludwig Múzeum website
As Maja and Reuben Fowkes write in Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 (2020), commenting on his work Communism never happened (2006), he addresses “the historical amnesia brought on by the headlong rush to neoliberalism that erased memories of life under socialism.” Memories which, on the ArtCrawl, were constantly being brought up - art acting as mementos.
Ciprian Mureşan, Untitled, 2009, Ludwig Múzeum, Budapest.
The tour finished at the MATCA Artspace, where we visited the group show Current Alternatives to Something That Is Missing. We discussed Mihai Pop’s contribution : a pair of shoes restored between Cluj and Berlin. Pop is an artist and the coordinator of Galeria Plan B, a production and exhibition space for contemporary art located in Cluj, and since 2008, also in Berlin. He is actively involved in the contemporary Romanian art scene, acting as commissioner for the Romanian Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, and curating the exhibition “Darwin’s Room” by Adrian Ghenie at the Biennale in 2015. He also was, in 2009, one of the initiators of the project Fabrica de Pensule (The Paintbrush Factory), a centre which for over ten years concentrated contemporary art spaces, artists’ workshops, galleries and organisations active in the fields of visual arts, contemporary dance and theatre.
Our shoes around Mihai Pop’s ones. Photo credit : Helga Thies.
His work was also a memento - a memento of travel embedded with cultural narratives. The shoes on display were gifted to him by the artist Victor Man, and he wore them for years, travelling between Cluj and Berlin. For the show, he transformed them into works of art, asking a Romanian and a German shoemaker to each repair one shoe of the pair. The German, understanding this to be for an art exhibition, focused on the aesthetic aspect, rendering the shoe actually unwearable. On the other hand, the Romanian understood this to be a competition with his German counterpart : he focused solely on repairing the shoe in the best possible manner. The pair of shoes is now a trace of travel, a trace of cultural dialogue, and a strong sign calling The Peripatetic Museum back to Western Europe.
But not quite yet. The following day, I visited the Art Museum of Cluj - a bit of a derelict building in desperate need of material and curatorial care. I was slightly lost amongst the works on display, without any information, neither in Romanian or in English. I kind of found my way with Elena Popea (1879-1941). Born in Brașov, she studied philology in Leipzig, and later painting in Berlin and Paris. She generally spent her summers painting in the vicinity of Brașov or Cluj, and the rest of the year travelling around Europe. The collection of her paintings in the museum was a testimony to this, as they depicted an interior of the Bran Castle (near Brașov), a marketplace at Bran, a group of Breton workers, a landscape from the Netherlands, and a group of Dutch children.
Elena Popea, Fair at Bran, oil on carboard, Art Museum of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
After all her travels, this is what remains : mementos. The paintings are material testimonies of travels which otherwise would have remained in her mind, just like these weekly articles are a glimpse of what this Interrail trip is about - they cannot capture everything, that would be tedious. After all, choices always have to be made.
But there is still time to stretch the artistic ties a little further from home : I will be leaving tomorrow for Brașov, in Popea’s footsteps. Hopefully, I will visit the Bran Castle itself - currently marketed as Dracula’s castle. (And yes, I will watch out for wolves and bats.)
Art Crawl Cluj - A customised walking tour of independent contemporary art spaces in Cluj.
ArtCrawls are like having that artsy friend that takes you to surprising places you wouldn’t have found on your own: alternative exhibition spaces, performances, artist and designer studios, local cafes, shops and events.
The guide is Helga Thies, a passionate and knowledgeable art mediator and art lover, with a background in art history and cultural management. The tours are tailored to your interests, and Helga passionately shares her vast knowledge of the local art scene as well as encourages interesting discussions around the artwork. So if you are ever in Cluj - this is definitely the best way to get to know its art scene !
Malina Cipleu : Website / Instagram
Mihaela Moldovan : Instagram
Alina Andrei : Instagram
Ciprian Mureşan : Instagram
Mihai Pop : see Galeria Plan B
Art galleries :
White Cuib : Instagram / Mihaela Moldovan’s exhibtion
MATCA Art Space : Instagram