Interview with Dragos Burlacu
Hi Dragos, debates concerning the recent Romanian past are still quite popular and emotionally charged. What is your view in this respect and how has the Romanian art scene responded to the transitional challenges?
Romania’s recent history is marked by major changes, dominated by transitional and geopolitical turbulences. Thinking of a wider context (including the Balkans), this is not an isolated phenomenon. Since the 19th century, Romania has experienced monarchy, communism, and then from 1989 onwards, a new democratic period and capitalist economy. During communism, a number of artists and even artistic groups sought to respond to the totalitarian regime; back then, there were two categories of artists: the ones who glorified the regime and therefore enjoyed various advantages, and the dissidents. Unfortunately, there was also a grey area of those with dual roles. After the revolution, the Romanian society entered a period of transition and redefinition, and so did the Romanian art scene. The transition, in its entirety, has been slow. Still, contemporary Romanian art has redefined itself; it became free in expression, while corresponding to the high academic standards of art schools. Both the Romanian visual art and cinematography after 2000 – largely inspired by realism of the Romanian society – have become very successful internationally (I primarily refer to the Cluj School of Art and the new wave of Romanian cinematography). So overall, the 2000s generation as well as the younger artists have benefited from the opening of the Romanian society and the academic training provided by national art schools.
Your work is dominated by the notion of identity. Why is this so?
So far, the main notion of my artistic path has been introspection, which forms the basis of research and projects I have developed. In terms of directions, there are two areas of research: a socio-political one and a poetic one, which sometimes overlap. I have produced artwork with a historical and socio-political theme, as in the series Understanding History and Traffic, but also with a poetic and philosophical theme, as in the series State of Mind, Moments and Back to the Roots. The notion of identity is important, being a form of self-awareness, spanning from past to present. An artist must understand the different aspects that define him, such as the roots, space particularities and historical context; this is important, so the artist can be authentic and free.
Since the very beginning, your work has contained elements of German neo-expressionism. How shall we understand its strong presence in the Romanian art scene?
In Romanian art, there has been a permanent expressionist element; for example, take a look at the artists Ion Tuculescu, Corneliu Baba, etc. The neo-expressionist movement influenced the 1990s and 2000s generations of Romanian artists due to the international interaction. In the 2000s, students expressed interest in acquiring knowledge from the Western world, as for many years information here was filtered and censored by the former communist system. We kept art albums, shared magazines amongst ourselves and kept taking notes, as every bit of information was truly precious. In Bucharest, individual and group expressionist manifestations have increased around the 2000s, and they were based on a spirit of regeneration and denial of the academic trend and institutionalized system. Later on, the Cluj Art Academy regularly hosted Marcus Lupertz, a remarkable name of German expressionism. In what concerns my own work, German expressionism, pop art and hyper-realism have been great sources of inspiration. The reason is simple: during my studies, the only libraries providing up-to-date information about visual arts were located in Bucharest, at the German Institute, British Council and French Council. I used to go to these libraries whenever possible and here we inevitably come back to the question of education and resources. Powerful countries have budgets and strategies to promote their own culture on a global level. Still, from the information I had access to, only a small part of it influenced my own work.
It seems that your current work is a logical continuation of the earlier phases, which altogether reveals your commitment to painting. Have you (and to what extent) considered other mediums?
In my first series of paintings, I dealt with the idea of recycling art history, thus with introspection, beauty and attractiveness. Painting is not the only medium to which I am attracted. Back in the 2000s, I did performance and installations as a member of the group Ecco – something that went on for 5 years, with projects generally related to social and artistic context of that period. Personally, I use photography as a starting point for many works, I have a large archive of personal images, I like taking pictures. Moreover, I am also experienced in video art, collage and drawing, so all this has contributed to where I am now. Most of the time, the subject is approached from several medium ideas and sometimes the idea of the work defines what should be achieved. With all this in mind, I can say that painting has become the most inspiring and rewarding medium for me, allowing me to fully express myself.
In quite some of your works, there is an obvious balancing between photography and painting, so we identify realist as well as conceptual aspects. What photographic material do you use as a point of reference?
I would not call this a balancing between photography and painting, but rather a mix of the two. As I mentioned before, I use photography as a starting point for some of my works. Nowadays, any artist can take pictures as a part of research and then interpret, clean and reinvent them, at some point. For example, I used photos for two of my recent projects, I’m Fine, only Missing and Back to the Roots. In the former, I combined images I had taken in rural areas of Moldova with images taken from an archive in Moinesti, where in early 19th century, an exodus of the Jewish population occurred. In the second project, photography was of a lesser importance for the end result. It only served as a starting point but during the actual process, it became less visible.
By the way, what can we expect the future of painting will be like?
Well, technology will play an even more significant role in our lifetime. In the next few years, we will be witnesses to development and implementation of artificial intelligence on a wide scale, including self-driving cars and devices knowing our needs and preferences. We are aware of the debate relating to future and possible scenarios, positive or not. In some spheres, the world is evolving at a spectacular speed. Thinking in the context of technology, painting has not changed much from the very introduction of oil painting and discovery of perspective. Painters use the same tools, but the world around them is different. Therefore, I would expect the field of painting to stay in line with the present time and artists be people of their time. I also believe in humanism and emotion of art, which are becoming rarer as the technology develops.
How is your work received by national and international institutions?
I think this question is more for the institutions and people I have worked with, than for me to answer.