Listen, who is who and what is what in this life
Text by Achim Wamsler
“Our question centres are sick nowadays. They can’t ask proper questions any more. So they have erupted in our heads as the agony of talking. Which stifles any question.” The Game of Asking, Peter Handke
Those who want to understand Mircea Roman’s works could stop for a moment: stop watching what they see; stop talking about what they think they know, stop looking for what they are looking for and do something so rarely seen in visual arts – stop in order to listen.
Listening when there is so much to see can have an effect of estrangement. Yet how often in this life proper understanding is somewhere else and somewhat different. With Mircea Roman we are getting close to this different when we get our ear close to the exterior of his works and listen to the inner quiver that hides itself from the inquisitive eye. Those who manage to give up fear are absorbed by the quiver of things and are given not just a new achievement or experience but the discovery of an entirely new world. Thus, Mircea Roman’s work gets into the shadow of the listeners and goes inside that place where we become humans.
We can best understand this in the space that Mircea Roman calls “the storeroom”, a place used for storing and exhibiting works and where, just a few steps from his studio, the whole universe of his works is displayed.
It is a large and tall room whose brick walls match the objects made of semi-manufactured wood that are stored there. Two of the walls and the flat roof tapering towards the middle are just plastered and whitewashed. The way in which the layers of stone emerge from plaster makes one think of manual labour, which is so important in Mircea Roman’s works. The room is well-ventilated; however, it isn’t heightened too much by the four stone pillars.
Translated by Aurora Gal
Despite the purposely functional architecture of the storeroom, it has something special, something natural, impression given by the trunk of a locust tree symbiotically inserted in one of the exterior walls. It is a nearly dead trunk, trimmed at a height of 10 metres, which shows its stubbornness every spring, managing to grow a little. From the outside we can see how the roof pushes into the bark. The tree supports the structure of this temporary home of art works. Inside, its wide base rejuvenates bending up a little, and rises, half art half object, framed in a small whitewashed recess formed by the wall. The niche in the wall reminds of the shape and size of a door. The locust tree doesn’t dislocate the wall, it is the link between inside and outside, between organic and art, between function and an end in itself. This “in-between object” that underlines the passage in so many ways, reveals an essential feature of Mircea Roman’s art: like the storeroom, it is never just a mimetic representation (nor are his graphics), it is also deliberate depth; his art is never just sound and quiver, but something experienced with all our senses; this storeroom isn’t fully used for its purpose, and the art it houses is never an end in itself, but also function – art, especially that of Mircea Roman, is a space of possibilities to (re)define meanings, create and push boundaries, and this is also due to the way in which we address it, experience it and handle it.
The works seem to have been randomly placed in the storehouse, which completes the image of a cave with a second nature: on the one hand the raw materials and the organic aspect of the tree, and on the other hand the sharp angles and the rigid edges of functionality, fed with a strip of light coming from a row of windows above the door and stretching the entire length of the room. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the clarity of light, which disperses among works as a mixture of natural and artificial light.
The near strangers
The storeroom isnt’t a free zone, it isn’t a space where one can freely meet art. It is a space of necessity. Because Mircea Roman’s works don’t create an actual space where the viewer and the work meet, they don’t reveal something definite, as it happens with Brâncuși. Here we are more listeners rather than viewers. There is no distance or empthy space between the sculptures and us, so that they could be different from us and we could begin a dialogue with this otherness. The small and large paths among and around them, the high emptiness of the storeroom, the physical and physically existing space – all these are not simply shown, at our disposal. We are rather drawn into the room and harassed. The works fill the room, close and obstruct it, like the trees in a forest that grows left to itself. There seems to be an aleatory relationship between them and they grab the space they can get. Some of the objects turn their back on each other and stare into an indefinite point, or at the ceiling, remaining cold and blind. Others tolerate each other standing side by side, meeting on the edge of perception. And others ignore each other, without contempt or dislike, they are simply indifferent.
The more motionless the objects are, the more they approach the listener among them. From everywhere we are stared at by abysses (far from being just openings), limbless bodies lean forward. From all directions come smooth surfaces of all sizes, without confronting the listener. Not that all of this becomes clear to us, but as we enter we feel from all sides the empty looks, the surfaces and bodies, we feel like being thrown inside this polyphonic space of a strange movement, where nothing confronts us directly, where every attempt to focus on a work, a glance, a body or into an abyss dissolves immediately, and only the world as a whole remains peripherally behind. We perceive everything with all senses simultaneously, indirectly and unawarely – smelling and somehow groping with the eyes and ears and fingers. The part separates itself from the whole for just one moment; then it gets back again and becomes itself a world, without being reduced to part. The experience in the storeroom is not a state of incorporation in the proper sense of the word. Because a feeling of discomfort is omnipresent among all these works that are at the same time finished and not yet finished. The world that is there is beyond us. The works surround us like a forest where we are intruders, and that is the reason why we listen a lot more carefully in order to understand them.
The missing imperative
The ambivalence of this half natural, half disturbing world is similar to that which doesn’t allow the word or criticism, be it theory or praize, to intervene. Mircea Roman’s bodies act, but they refuse to share with us the experience lived in their world. To them the storeroom is a “temporary home”, yet their world is unwelcoming to us, it is a non-home, a utopia. They are there, but without casting shadows, without any perceptible echo to guide us to them. Thus, our relationship with them becomes a one-sided request – to something that wants us to live in a certain way.
Yet how could a one-sided address not be perceived as a command, to which the only position is either resistance or submission? In the age of the imperative it is not just advertising that commands us. By the factuality of the art object, from the moment it has left the artist’s hands, art carries, like any other thing, the possibility of submission or resistance. Real understanding opposes this submission, and doesn’t consist in the ability to hear what the work of art has to say or not. Real comprehension rather consists in the question whether we can start a dialogue with the works by listening. But Mircea Roman’s beings and figures refuse this dialogue. Why don’t they command then?
The paradox stems from the impact the physicality of the works crammed in the storehouse has: the essence of the sculptures is not in themselves. The dialogue they initiate is in us. Through our presence we become the place and means of the dialogue. But with the massive physicality of the works amazement and discomfort begin as well, whose causes are forgotten: the works tend to hide their presence. They are more resonance surfaces than art objects. Like the polished and shiny objects, their aim is to hide from view and become invisible.
The funnel beings; those carrying the weight of their inner emptiness; the ears of grain buckled by the storm; the limbless bodies; those bent in their own depth; those turned inside out and yet standing on their own feet – none of them shows off, poses or exposes, occupies space or flirts with it. There is no drama, no gesture and no pathos. They don’t play a role, but are in themselves.
Scară II (Stairs II)
It is there as soon as we step into the storeroom. Somehow. While the impressions produced by intent yet absent looks, absorbed emptiness and bent bodies overlay, this work gets deep into the corner of our consciousness (it is actually in a corner of the storehouse) – this yellow being hangs on the back of the knees like an athelete on the horizontal bar, maybe like a tortured person on a tree, a bat on the ceiling: the calves and feet are folded completely around a piece of wood. But from a distance, busy with so many other things, all we see is an organically distorted mass, a kind of amorphous funnel with its throat turned towards the ground. This peripheral impression vanishes quickly among the bodies and faces of so many silent monologues that surprise us when entering and in which we then grope our way in, slowly and uncertainly. After a few other works we suddenly step in the proximity of this deformed hanging body. Only now we become aware of the heaviness so feebly pulling itself down on its thin or broken legs and growing greedily into an emerging body. But it doesn’t stop here. It pulls us breathlessly inside, deeper and deeper into the darkness, into the vortex with which the wooden creature opens to earth; but at a more careful look, it closes within itself because it absorbs everything around – space, sound, structure, significance, meaning. The opening struggling upwards is at our level, the viewers. The beginning of the hollow where everything disappears can be seen only to some extent. And in this transition from external sculpture to internalization there is a breath of willpower. A will that comes from this room and allures us to bend over to follow this suction. And so drawn inside, in this decisive moment the whole weight of the work falls into our own inner being. Because there, at the end of the road we are following towards our inner selves, all we find is the emptiness of our own shell of thoughts. The rest is our fate: we have to fill this shell with answers, although this duty is beyond our ability.
Coajă de om (Man Shell)
In “Coajă de om” the vacuum is different, even if the dark emptiness remains mute, opening in front of us like in “Scară”. But it is a different void – obviously less visible, and human. The huge square darkness with thickened egdes is the first thing the viewers can hear when entering the storeroom. When getting in front of the work, the closed space opens and for a few moments it is road and sphere, and offers hope for opening a hall and a sonorous vault: whoever is there may find the hermitage and meditation, and becomes a person who suffers and keeps quiet, a kind of Buddha who doesn’t materialize, not out of hatred or dislike, but because of the shyness that in the dazzling light of the exterior he might lose the significance he has just found, whose weight he can barely carry. This hope is immediately swallowed by darkness and now it can be heard again, like before the meeting, but this time with concentration and gradual comprehension: it is an invocation accompanied by one of those loads we gladly burden ourselves with because it makes us feel our own body, because it promises a foundation and a home, after everything had previously consisted of mere possibility – possible, from nowhere and nowhere to. This is what we hope to hear when walking towards and listening to this “Om”.
Only now, maybe through the amorphous and the impalpable resounding in this depth, we wish more and hastily take a step backwards to find out which way and whither to go. The skirted lower part of the body is solid and vertical, its depth being double the width of the abdomen. It stands upright, its height elongated, being separated from the opened head and permanently assimilating everything around; the head isn’t on the body but detached from it, to show us its face. From the front it seems that the body and inner state separate here, as though there was some duality between body and spirit: the call of “Coajă de om”, which superhumanizes us, doesn’t seem based on materiality, it rather breaks away from it. But it is enough to take a step to one side and our perspective changes. We learn that it is not about a head standing on a body, but they combine organically through their attitude. The coal-black throat becomes the means, the ear trumpet of a soul that is inside this body, almost only abdomen, like a seed, in which the whole outside world is absorbed, transforming slowly and becoming. What we can understand here: our outside is not simply what surrounds us. It is the attitude, different for each of us, but always determining the angle of perception, the specific depth and the type of resonance with which everything resounds and reverberates within us, without getting outside, and two wide, finely executed feet that support everything and give this inner dimension that is growing its balance.
“Coajă de om” is an example of what applies to Mircea Roman’s entire work: passivity of the works and their unwillingness to enter into dialogue are not caused by our interpretation, it just bounces off their silence. We go deep into works, but we can’t find the way out of the labyrinth of our own memory. It is enveloped more and more in its own essentiality, like a grain of sand in a shell. What remains is the language, veiled and slurred, which requests us, the listeners, to change our life.
Perhaps now we realize the danger of just looking at Mircea Roman’s works: viewing doesn’t mean understanding. It is the same with listening: what the works tell us, the spoken word and the breath of the filled emptiness, do not want to be heard, but understood. And this doesn’t happen by standing next to works, but through the dialogue within us.
We could call Mircea Roman’s works anti-boxes or anti-chests (to refer to Erwin Kessler). Because they don’t host anything. They don’t create an ‘at home’ and don’t make it possible either. They are quite the opposite: a space impossible to fill.
It isn’t a big secret and some people have already pointed out that works give us such a difficult task to fulfil that we forget about their presence, that they ask us to do something without speaking to us. In their abyss the will of asking is waiting for us.
They aren’t direct, intentional questions; they don’t open a space of questioning that we can measure.
They are preliminary questions that have no form yet, but have content – interrogative energy (one of those contradictions through which Mircea Roman’s art becomes action). They are questions neither to nor against and also not for us. This kind of questions materialize differently in each of us and work with us. It is a way of asking questions to which answers are less relevant. Mircea Roman’s anti-chests are there not to answer the questions, but so that we can find out what questions each of us has. They want us to become questioners, as they themselves are, to become materialized questions, to become many questions that together form a single answer – both ambivalent and true. Because they open up permissive question horizons and define the world of possibilities in which we live. So, the anti-chests involve question attitudes with which we are addressed, attitudes that don’t ask us questions directly but throw them into space, and we are fated not to be able to avoid them.
Premiantul (The Award-winner)
Thus, the figure of “Premiantul” is a questioner whose emptiness pulls it down. It is not an external human burden that he has to bear. The cross he carries is inside: a negative pressure, which is not longing. The figure is pulled down in a symmetrical aesthetic to the horizontal axis, to its own centre. Like hands that aren’t naturally stretched when resting, but bent into a weak fist, like the hump that old people sometimes have not from carrying too much but because of a wrong inner attitude they have had towards themselves and towards the world over time – so is “Premiantul” drawn towards the emptiness continuously growing inside. And it stands like a question in space, the same space where we are, full of even more questions.
The deviation of the question
Mircea Roman’s works blindly throw their questions in space in other ways as well. As they are works of art, palpable and perceptible, they should not betray their essential state, which doesn’t only refuse to show up, but hides from us. The works have a certain form, but in the essential places they deviate and offer nothing, no limit or determination, only voids, hollows and holes. Or their shapes are asymmetrical, distorted by the questioning inside them: displaced heads, missing limbs on one side, disproportions.
Here we could talk again about Stairs II and other works. Deviation is indeed essential in Mircea Roman’s works. It begins in the rough surfaces of the wood, in the impurity and randomness of the cuts highlighted by the red colour that so often comes out through all pores of these anti-chests; from the partially or totally limbless busts and statues (like The Big Doll, Stairs to Soul, or Pietà), the bodies asymmetrically placed over tree trunks (The Innocent), to the geometrically distorted shapes of the torsos (Sacrifice, Stairs), it begins in the precisely carved faces, all having their imbalances that life has taught them (A whole man).
By asking, the works get close to what is ethical in us. Yet what can we hear? What are they telling us? What do they want to teach us? What can be learned in their presence? The answers can each of us find only for oneself. Those who get close to Mircea Roman’s art, listening and feeling through their inner senses, return to their inner selves. And it is only then that the work and art stemming from these sculptures start: it means working with amazement and uneasiness, with incomprehension and, moreover, working with the fact that, again and again, the moment we think we have grabbed them, the works slip from our hands.
“We all are prisoners of our own construction,” says Mircea Roman. That history can command us to be in a certain way, not different, is true only because we forget to be open to questions. But as long as we listen to other people’s questions, as long as we listen to what springs from Mircea Roman’s works, so shapeless yet so full of content, and as long as due to listening we start a dialogue within and with ourselves, and this grows inside us like a pearl fed on the impressions that find their way towards us, only then we will have the possibility to listen to the meaning of what we are in this life, what we should be and where we can look for ourselves in a different way and a different place.