Geta Brătescu’s current exhibition, The Leaps of Aesop, at Hauser & Wirth, is the first solo presentation in New York devoted to the Romanian artist. The show was conceived in collaboration with the Bucharest curator and art historian, Magdu Radu. Brătescu’s oeuvre is vast and includes drawing, collage, engravings, textile, photography, experimental film, video, and performances. The title of the exhibition, according to the gallery, “serves as a point of departure.” The Greek fabulist is known for the stories commonly referred to as “Aesop’s Fables,” in which animals and inanimate objects, often with human features, speak and solve problems. The concept of animals or inanimate objects speaking or solving problems suggests a kind of intervention on the part of the characters in the fables, perhaps on behalf of humans who are not otherwise able to solve them.
Radu writes in the gallery’s press release that Brătescu envisions Aesop as a metaphor for the artist — in particular, the artist under totalitarianism. Right after the fall of the Communist regime in Romania, Brătescu declared Aesop a symbol of “everything that stood against totalitarianism.” But Aesop, like Medea, is a sign of encompassing so many overlapping meanings that his literary embodiment is transcended and endlessly modulated in the artist’s practice. Aesop is, above all, an agent of freedom, the entity responsible for sparking the creative process in the studio.
Indeed, space and, in particular, the space of the artist’s studio, becomes incredibly pertinent in this regard: under a totalitarian regime, one must be cautious of what one says or does in public. An artist may in fact find him- or herself sequestered inside the space of their home or studio for fear of being seen out of doors. Here we can look to fellow Romanian artists such as Ion Grigorescu (with whom Brătescu collaborated) who filmed himself performing intimate experiments and actions in his home with the use of his body. Unsafe to perform outside the safety of his home, Grigorescu’s actions suggest that such seemingly quotidian acts as washing one’s body or attempting to sleep become for the artist acts of resistance, of not giving in to the system by taking care of one’s own body, and continuing to make art and perform acts of resistance, even if alone and in secret. As the art critic and cultural theorist Jan Verwoert writes: “The reality, which many his pieces articulate and grapple with, is politics is the condition under which they are produced: a situation in isolation generated by the politics of the Ceausescu regime.”
The Brătescu show takes up the entire second floor of the 22nd street gallery. Another compelling aspect of seeing so much of the artist’s work in one space is how apparent it becomes that she continues to challenge herself to make different work. For instance, enclosed in a vitrine is a notebook of drawings and collages with the word “Poem” on the cover. This word, written in pink, reminds the viewer of the artist’s dedication to the written word as well as to visual art. Indeed, Brătescu studied English literature and regularly utilized text, language, and references to literature in her work. This is made more evident by the inclusion of three object books in the show: “Cartea fragmentelor (The Book of Fragments), (2002), “Memory VI” (1990), and “Anti-Faustus,” (1993).
The collection on view is so disparate it is simply not possible to reduce or sum up the work. And this is most probably not coincidental: Brătescu, unlike her fellow artists, did not create paintings, for instance, of occurrences in Romania. As Catherine de Zegher writes in her introduction for Brătescu’s show Geta Brătescu: An Atelier of One’s Own (at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent through January 14, 2018): “Instead of responding with traditional models and reaffirming obsolete conventions of pictorial representation, she formulated an independent voice and addressed the in-between-space of life and art, the public and the private, the feminine and the corporeal, the abstract and the real, the subject and the object.”
This in-between-space might be also described as the day-to-day experience of living under authoritarian rule — an experience that, one might imagine, cannot be reduced to one succinct statement nor one precise painting. Indeed, with the idea that Brătescu is addressing the “in-between-space,” her wildly diverse oeuvre makes more sense. It is as if by making so many kinds of works — varied both in content and material — the artist was attempting to construct a language made of fragments, an embodied language that might speak to the effects of confinement.
Brătescu was born in 1926; she lived through the repressive Ceausescu regime. His secret police, the Securitate, conducted mass surveillance, wielded absolute control of the media and the press, and committed human rights violations against its own people. Like Grigorescu, Brătescu’s work can also be read as the work of an artist confined inside space. Her three films included in the exhibition parallel Grigorescu’s similarly filmed home actions. Like his, her films also focus on the body. And yet there is an important distinction: Brătescu’s work concentrates more on the body itself in space, as opposed to Grigorescu’s focus on what that body is doing.
In her film “Atelierul (The Studio)” (1978), an 8mm, silent, black and white film (filmed by Ion Grigorescu), Brătescu draws lines along the walls and the floor and appears to measure her body against these confinements. Without the use of words or text and using only her own body and the movement of her hands to draw the black lines along the walls and floors, Brătescu is able to convey something. What is being filmed is the artist, her body, moving within this space; what becomes evident as a result is the pressure of the confinement. Later in the film she unrolls seven slabs of stones from a rope, dropping them to the floor. After placing them in a circle, Brătescu steps carefully, one foot at a time, along what is now a kind of foot bridge. Again, she must measure her body against the allotted space. Brătescu has made what on first glance may appear to be a simple, minimalistic film but is in actuality a work of direct protest against her government.
Similarly, Brătescu’s film, “Les Mains. Pentru ochi, mãna trupului meu îmi reconstituie portretul (The Hands. For the eye, the hand of my body reconstitutes my portrait),” (1977), also black and white 8mm and also filmed by Grigorescu, is a film that focuses on the artist’s hands. Her hands are shown smoking a cigarette, performing the child’s game, cat’s cradle, and drawing, tattoo-like, thick black lines of ink down her fingers, across her hands and wrist. That the hands do things while being seemingly confined to one space (at a table, within the confines of the camera’s gaze), suggests agency: though the artist, the people, are confined within space, resistance is still possible. Moving one’s body, for example, or using one’s body to do things, as well as creating meaning onto or with one’s body (by drawing upon it, smoking a cigarette, and so on) are possibilities even when one is unable to leave the space they are confined inside. Furthermore, the film’s constant gaze on the hands as well as the hands being cut off from the artist’s body, create a sense of the hands as something Other — an animal or an entity all its own. In other words, the artist as Aesop, as fable-making troublemaker, is still possible, even when a government does all it can to keep the artist confined and afraid.