October 8, 2021
THE AUTUMN BREEZE hit in the last days of September, filling Timișoara with a chill blowing in from its eastern European neighbors. I walked by the flaking ornate façades lining the serpentine streets of Romania’s third-largest city. A particular kick about biennials in smaller cities, besides getting to drink hot chocolate with the mayor (in this case, the newly elected, thirty-seven-year-old Dominic Samuel Fritz), is the invitation to creep into nooks and crannies that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Luckily, the malleable premise of the fourth Art Encounters biennial—an exploration of “the act of self-perception, be it individual or collective”—could well accommodate this wistful meandering. Titled “Our Other Us” and on view through November 7th, the show scattered its offerings, many of them coy and cryptic, across two main venues and various sideshows through the city. More than three decades after Romania’s emancipation from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, Timișoara will become the European Capital of Culture in 2023 (the initial plan, pre-pandemic, was to crown the city this year). At the biennial breakfast, Mayor Fritz said that international endeavors like a biennial “redefine culture for social awareness, urban development, and even transportation where art is a part of this ecosystem.” A loosely enforced lockdown as the Covid cases escalated across the city hardly clouded the vernissage ambiance, which was mainly shared by the local scene due to restricted airfare.
Tate Liverpool’s Kasia Redzisz (soon to be Artistic Director of KANAL-Centre Pompidou in Brussels) and Melbourne-based independent curator Mihnea Mircan each organized their own shows: respectively, “How To Be Together” at the Corneliu Mikloși Public Transport Museum and “Landscape in a Convex Mirror” on the ground floor of the brand new real estate development ISHO, which happens to be owned by biennial president Ovidiu Șandor. Though the venues are just a five-minute walk from one other, the atmospheric gap between two is striking and appropriate, given the shows’ opposing temperaments.
Redzisz, who organized her section in person, installed large, almost architectural undertakings over the defunct tram rails and under the soaring ceilings of the Communist-era tram depot. Vlad Nancă’s Forum, 2021, a seating arrangement made of fluted columns and chipped OSB boards from the 2017 edition’s walls at the same venue offered a moment of repose steps away from Nona Inescu’s installation, Sphagnum, 2021, which concealed a glass replica of a local carnivorous sundew behind a pink curtain—a mysterious invitation to discover the dangerously charming spiky plant. As I walked over the dented wooden floors, I felt as though I were on a haunted stage, and that Anna Hulačová’s concrete sculptures of ghostly female laborers might jump into life in the blink of an eye.
In Mircan’s presentation, the curator’s physical absence (he organized the show remotely from Melbourne) seemed to permeate the sleek, somewhat sterile venue. “I grappled with the distance,” Mihcan told me later via WhatsApp. “This disorienting situation made polarizing perception possible.” As its title suggests, mirroring was key to Mircan’s endeavor, filled with works that encourage viewers to look twice, take another step, and look again. Don’t be fooled by the cozy title of Jonathan van Doornum’s Tea towel rack, 2018. The ambiguous aluminum, rubber, fabric, zipper, and metal thing is downright bizarre, with its curious juxtaposition of a bloodred thread attached to a thin metal rod. Approach with caution. Same goes for Zsófia Keresztes’s tentacular, double-headed sculpture, The Last Bite, 2019. It’s voluptuous and mercurial, sheen of its surface yielding different surprises up-close and from afar.
At local cultural center Casa Artelor Later, I took in forty minutes of Catinca Malaimare’s three-hour performance Medium Bastard Amber, a techno-sensual affair involving moving screens, LED lights, and suspended chains. Dressed in a yellow onesie, Malaimare rolled, tossed, and turned while cuddling with neon cords, as we in the audience adjusted to being together again. Later, by myself, I walked down to the Bega River, bordered by trees bearing Mirabelle plums and people sitting on wooden benches. I had to get closer to the green bits to gauge their nature: still unripe. I walked by the placid waterway in search for a bridge to cross over to the Regina Maria Park. The river snaked along, with no connection in sight to the other side—I gave up and opened Google Maps.
— Osman Can Yerebakan