States of Mind: Dan and Lia Perjovschi
Nasher Museum of Art
Duke University
Through Jan. 6, 2008

“The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge, a token of the future.” Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

Dan and Lia Perjovschi grew up in Romania during a dark historical moment of repression and scarcity, the resultant devolution of Nicolae Ceausescu’s autocratic paranoid regime, a context that ultimately fostered a collective jones for access to knowledge, freedom of expression and open communication.

Dan and Lia married in 1983. Six years later, in 1989, a popular uprising resulted in the execution of Ceausescu and signaled big changes for Romania. However, many who lived through those chilling times continue to grapple with a series of ongoing repercussions and complexities, the result of having inhabited a traumatic and oppressive culture that endured for decades. This is the back-story for States of Mind: Dan and Lia Perjovschi, a comprehensive and significant mid-career survey currently on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. For many of us, States of Mind is an introduction to two important contemporary artists. It is also a tribute to the essential nature of art as archive, as evidence, as manifestation of the will to defy arbitrary claims to power.

Upon entering the exhibition space for States of Mind, one encounters “Anthropoteque” (1990-1992), a monolithic, wall-sized assemblage of flip books that contain roughly 5,000 drawings by Dan. At first, the piece projects a feeling of exuberance in its sheer volume, an energized expression of creative output. Glanced briefly, the illustrations could be construed as fun, or even funny. Upon inspection, however, one begins to understand that “Anthropoteque” is a grim monument to the experience of surveillance in a culture where one is watched and reported on by one’s own friends and neighbors. In these densely arranged, raw drawings, one encounters the pervasive image of the pointing finger, which seems to double as a gun, thus framing surveillance as a violent act. Ultimately the piece asserts itself as no less than nightmarish, replete with anxiety in its nervous, manic drawings that depict faces filled with fear and acts of looking, seeing, hiding, reporting and indicting. “Anthropoteque” emerges as a major work, a museum unto itself in its depth, scope and impact.

The notion of artwork as museum or archive is present in much of the Perjovschis’ work. Lia’s “Mind Maps (Diagrams)” (1999-2006) are drawings that consist entirely of handwritten words, the result of Lia’s reading and research, a process of uncovering interconnections and confluences in her studies. The diagrams begin with a “seed” concept that occupies the center of the composition. Lia then builds her diagrams by setting forth associations and comments that culminate in starburst trajectories. Much of the “Mind Maps” are illegible, as if the notations were executed primarily as shorthand memoranda for the artist herself. For the viewer they function as evidentiary documentation of Lia’s in-depth reading and intellectual exploration (a print version would be welcome). They also work as abstract drawings reminiscent of the vitally scrawled tracts and scribbled treatises of Joseph Beuys.

States of Mind features many such research projects by Lia, including “Research File. My Subjective Art History” (1997-2004) and “Research File. General Timeline: From Dinosaurs to Google Going China” (1997-2006). These works reflect a herculian intellectual effort. They serve as compensatory acts of information-gathering, performed with the tenacity and vigor of one whose access to a world knowledge base had at one time been denied. These and many other works exist as part of an ongoing project called “Contemporary Art Archive Center for Art Analysis” (CAA/CAA) that Lia began in 1997.

Both Dan’s and Lia’s work is deeply rooted in performance. By 2005, Dan and Lia had stopped presenting public performance works, but the performative impulse is reflected in much of what they do. A 60-minute compilation video that spans their entire performance output illuminates the exhibition. Included are seminal works such as Lia’s “I Want the World to Know I’m Different,” in which she interacts with a lifesized doll, manipulating this shadow-self to mirror her own body language. The performance culminates with the doll being drenched in black paint and hurled around the performance space, (messily) invading the audience. This work echoes themes that appear in Lia’s work again and again: the use of a doll or shadow figure; the incorporation of painting as an interactive, interventional medium; the penetration of the boundary between artist/performer and audience.

Dan’s performances documented here are equally resonant and also foreshadow his later work. One piece involves a large-scale series of pencil drawings on a wall, his recurring grid of character drawings. Audience members take turns erasing sections of the grid, while Dan attempts to reinstate the “disappeared” figures by re-drawing them. Another deeply moving and poetic piece finds Dan on a city street, lying face-down on the sidewalk as he drags himself forward. His voice is projected through a P.A. system as he pleads with the ground, “Center, can you hear me?”

A signature feature of States of Mind is Dan’s on-site drawings that he executed publicly on the windows of the Nasher. These ostensibly simple freehand drawings function simultaneously as comic and commentary. Dan consciously deploys humor to deliver his multilayered messages. The images feel like the result of the synthesis of voluminous social, political and cultural information. In the tradition of artists like Saul Steinberg, Dan seeks to distill what he calls the “logo of the topic,” highly condensed visual puns that are both comic and penetrating. They can be as simple as a list of three names: “Marilyn, Madonna, Katrina.” Or they can take the form of traditional cartoon: One figure watches as another figure drowns in a tall glass of water. The observer advises, “You have to see the half-full part.” The drawings address a range of topics: war, oil, money, greed, debt, globalization, guns, sports, cars, capitalism, entertainment, sex. And a lot about art institutions: A figure exits a museum. Another figure asks, “How was it?” The answer: “Salad was great!”

Dan and Lia are citizens of Romania, but their work also situates them as citizens of another “place,” the art world. This is self-consciously reflected in much of their work, such as Lia’s “Subjective Art History,” which places her within a historical lineage of art producers. This notion is also embodied in Lia’s piece “The Globe Collection” (1990-2007), a massive accumulation of globes and globe-related items, purchased in museums and gift stores all over the world after the Perjovschis had the opportunity to travel.

“The Globe Collection” works on multiple levels and plays with the idea of globes as souvenirs, kitsch reminders of vacations one took. There is the subtle implication that to leave Romania is to visit another planet (Earth). The work has a painterly aspect to it as well, a kind of study in planetary pre-packaged blues.

“The Globe Collection” can also be seen as an installation of abstract spheres. It sustains a dynamic relationship with the other spherical objects presented by Lia in States of Mind, a kind of interplay between abstract and figurative forms (globes can be spheres and spheres can be read as globes). The overkill abundance of the collection underscores the absurdity of “the world” as consumable object. Perhaps it is also a way of literally collecting and owning the world, an ironic, impossible gesture, to be sure, but also a natural response to having access to the world denied for so many years.