Laughter and Forgetting
Curated by Olga Stefan
October 9-16, 2015
I recently saw a picture of my grandfather I had never seen before. It appeared in a newspaper article. It’s a grainy black and white photograph of him walking on the street – captured in motion. He is as I remember him: fit and handsome. On his shoulder hangs the same purse that I saw him wear throughout my childhood. He holds a (note)book to his chest with both hands and looks to his left somewhat bewildered. This photograph was taken by an agent of the Securitate in 1985, while my grandfather was under surveillance before his arrest and ultimate murder in prison for his anti-Ceausescu stance.
Seeing this photograph in the newspaper, in that context, shook me. It was indeed my grandfather, whom I had loved passionately, and yet it was also someone foreign…Seen through the eyes of someone who meant to harm him. The image proved that he had existed, but he remained in my memory as mere fragments, images and stills without continuity, and who with time became someone I didn’t know anymore. I was filled with enormous sadness, love and remorse. The photograph was an object that brought him back to me, while it also testified to his imminent demise. It also reminded me that I had in many ways forgotten him, the unfortunate condition that we will all be subject to with time.
The photograph, and its relationship to memory and nostalgia, and by extension time, is at the core of Laughter and Forgetting, as Milan Kundera, on whose 1979 novel the exhibition is based, analyses throughout his oeuvre. He was not the only one to be preoccupied by this relationship during this decade. Susan Sontag’s On Photography from 1973 described exactly how the photograph changed society, while in 1980 Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida meditated on the reasons for the pain that the photograph stirs. How the photograph serves as a medium for the construction and alteration of history, how it elicits affective responses, or how it functions as actual document of past experience are explored throughout the exhibition, a seven-day journey that takes us back in time and through the space of the city of Bucharest itself. Mirroring the construction of the book, Laugh ter andForgetting unfolds in seven autonomous presentations of photographic work, moving image, works on paper, and performance, each with its own protagonists and narratives, connected together much like a musical score by the repetition and variation of the themes established by Kundera, thus creating a kaleidoscopic composition from different perspectives. Through repetition, which functions also as a way to blur the lines between meaning and nonsense, – that which we remember or forget , – and variation, the exhibition develops incrementally attempting to “shed light on human existence” from multiple angles. “When things are repeated, they lose a fraction of their meaning. Or more exactly, they lose, drop by drop, the vital strength that gives them illusory meaning.”
The border, that fragile line between categories that threatens to throw our worldview into chaos if disturbed, totalitarianism, which manifested itself in the form of angels in this Kundera work, along with love, laughter, forgetting, and regret/humiliation (litost in Czech), features innate to human existence, are addressed in various modes by artists, filmmakers, historians and other researchers. “It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history.”
Some treat the themes of love and laughter as instruments of resistance in the face of oppression (“Love is a constant interrogation.” ), while others tie them to the act of forgetting: with time, memories even of those we once loved begin to fade, and laughter helps trauma wane – it is both a weapon and a medicine. “…in this ecstatic laughter he loses all memory, all desire, cries out to the immediate present of the world, and needs no other knowledge.” “
Political and historic forgetting are confronted by revealing or articulating past episodes inconvenient to our present national or personal image. One type of image is challenged by another, more physical one.
The struggle for power that fuels most human action plays out in the interpersonal, as well as on a political and global level. It is the thread that connects the exhibition together. We see it manifested in amorous relationships when we try to avenge our humiliation (“…When the illusion of absolute identity vanishes, love becomes a permanent source of the great torment we call litost.”) , or in totalitarian regimes that also use humiliation as a means of control, along with historic forgetting, and the prohibition of free thought. But it also exists in our refusal to conform or to accept given truths, thus reclaiming power from Power – it is present in our “NO”.
In the exhibition that follows, we try to reveal how “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.
* all quotes from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera
Point of Departure for the Exhibition
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting was written by Milan Kundera in 1978 and published in France in 1979. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1971 Prague, during the Normalization period, when steps were taken by Husak after the soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to restore the communist party’s firm rule.
As most of Kundera’s books, it is divided in seven sections, in this case in seven short stories connected together by the themes of the malleability of memory, pain of laughter, the interrelationship between public and private life, and the deception of human relationships. These themes are exposed in thetext through the repetition of the terms laughter, forgetting, the border, litost(a state of torment upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery),love and angels, which for Kundera represent the keepers of a truth not to be questioned, dictators of absolutes and protectors of official narratives.
The malleability of political memory is illustrated in the first short story, Lost Letters, by an important historical anecdote that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. A photograph from 1948 is described, with two members of the communist party standing side-by-side. One of them is condemned as a traitor two years later, in 1950, and executed, and the photograph is then altered, erasing him from history but somehow leaving his hat visible, absurd final traces of his existence. And yet the veracity of even this episode is to be questioned.
As an important biographical note that highlights not only the complexity of human existence, but also the construction of personal narratives, the malleability of memory, and the relativity of historical truth, in 2008 Kundera was accused by Respekt, a Czech magazine that based its report on an investigation carried out by the Institute for Studies of Totalitarian Regimes, of having denounced Miroslav Dvoracek, a dissident who had fled Czechoslovakia but secretly returned to the country after being recruited by US intelligence agents. Dvoracek was later apprehended and served 14 years of hard labor. However, this account is refuted by many who point out that the police report does not contain Kundera’s signature or ID information, and there have been conflicting testimonies from the survivors who knew about the incident at that time.
- texts by Olga Stefan
October 9, 2015 – Hanul Gabroveni, 6-10pm
group show with Esther Shalev-Gerz (FR), Dor Guez (IS), Clemens Von Wedemeyer (G), Stefan Sava (RO), Dan Acostioaei (RO), Irina Botea (RO), Agnieszka Polska (PO), Sarah Sweeney (USA), Nedko Solakov (BU), Himali Singh Soin (IN), Sophie Calle (FR), Katerina Seda (CZ), Hito Steyerl (G), Dorothy Iannone (USA), Dread Scott (USA), Adam Vackar (CZ)
October 10- Political Science Department, University of Bucharest, October 10-16, opens 6pm
Dan Perjovschi solo exhibition – opening at 6pm – remains open October 10-16
“Drawing Criticism: The Limits of Freedom of Speech”
Discussion between Dan Perjovschi and Nedko Solakov at 7pm
October 11 – Cinema Studio si Cinema Corso
Screenings Part 1 (Part 2 is scheduled for October 15)
Cinema Studio – 12:00pm-1:30pm
An hour and a half-long program of short documentaries from the Sahia Studio – selected by Tereza Barta (CA/RO)
Cinema Studio – 1:40pm – 3:20pm
Cinema Komunisto, dir. Mila Turajlic, 101min, documentary, 2012
Cinema Studio – 3:30pm – 5:01pm
Cinema Corso – Panel Discussion: The Image of Jews in Romania, and why we are afraid of the anti-legionar law?– 4pm- 5:30pm, with Adrian Cioflanca, Oana Giurgiu, Dan Acostioaei, Alexandru Florian
Moderated by Andrei Cornea
Cinema Corso – 5:40pm – 7:40pm
Aliyah Dada, dir. Oana Giurgiu, 120 min, Documentar, 2014
Cinema Corso – 7:50 – 9:13pm
Women Art Revolution, dir. Lynn Hershman-Leeson, 83min, Documentary, 2010
October 12 – Galeria Orizont/Atelier 35 basement – October 12-16 – 6pm-10pm
Atelier 35 Oradea- curated by Laszlo Ujvarossy and Olga Stefan – remains open October 12-16
“The grey zones of experimental artistic production before 1989″,
Panel discussion with Adrian Guta, Caterina Preda, Copel Moscu
October 13 – Performance in various locations of the city, starting 4pm
Mihaela Dragan/Mihai Lucaks, Alex Fifea/David Schwartz, Xandra Popescu/Larisa Crunteanu/Irina Gheorghe/Alina Popa/Florin Flueraș/Veda Popovici/Richard Pettifer
October 14 – National Library, October 14-16, 6-10pm
Claudiu Cobilanschi on DIASAHIA and preserving the past: themes explored by the films: forgetting, laughter, love – 6pm…
Kinema Ikon –curated by Calin Man and Olga Stefan
October 15 – Museum of the Romanian Peasant
Valley of Sighs, dir. Mihai Andrei Leaha, Andrei Crisan, Iulia Hossu, 57 min, documentary, 2013
4:10pm – 5:55pm
A Song for Argyrys, dir. Stefan Haupt, 105 min, documentary, 2006 –ROMANIAN PREMIERE!
6:05pm – 7:30pm
Panel discussion: “Reconstructing History: What the Securitate Files Tell Us About the System of Surveillance before 1989″
With: Germina Nagat, Andrei Ursu, Andrei Muraru
7 :40pm – 10 :20pm
Iraqi Odyssey, dir. SAMIR, 163 min, Documentary, 2014 – ROMANIAN PREMIERE !
October 16 – Presentations at the National Library and Odeon
3:00pm-4:00pm – Adam Vackar on family archives and art
4:10pm-5:10pm – Sarah Sweeney lecture on Digital Forgetting
Teatru Odeon, 6:30pm-8:00pm
Tipograful Majuscul – Gianina Carbunariu, 2014