The constraints of constant change and the need for stability.
Ștefan Rusu’s Flat Space
Text by Raluca Voinea for
the publication of the CHIOSC project
A few decades ago, at a time when official art had to infiltrate the minds of creators, instead of just guiding their hands, art critics were asked one question in order to judge the extent to which they were capable of promoting true socialist art. The question was: if the workers were to go to the museum, tired after a week of work, what would they prefer to see, an abstract work or a picture that shows them working? Useless to guess what the right answer was. However. At a time when art – including here public art as well – tends to isolate itself into aseptic self-reflection, how can a work of art get close to the audience without being redundant, how can it be a formal experiment and at the same time an echo of the everyday, recognisable by everyone and at the same time with enough strangeness in it so that it makes people pause and question it?
Also, what would be the sense in replicating a situation that belongs to private life and in transferring it to the public space?
Ștefan Rusu’s Apartament deschis (Flat Space) redesigns the form of a socialist housing unit, dislocates it from its natural environment as a unit in an ensemble, reduces it to the main elements that define it both physically and symbolically, and places it the middle of the city, on Bucureşti Street, where it won’t be perceived as an apartment but instead as an information point for cultural activities and as a platform for various activities in the public space. Thus, it becomes an interface between the private life between four walls and the public desire for transparent and flexible walls.
Flat Space/Apartamentul Deschis model, glasslike plastic, 2009-16
Both its architectural/sculptural structure and the idea of making an apartment available for cultural actions have their roots in the Soviet era; using this form today, and converting it into a public-use object, Ștefan Rusu places his work in a direct dialogue with the historical context of the region in which he lives and at the same time incorporates it into the city’s contemporary structure. His gesture can also be perceived as a deliberately nostalgic one – a socialist apartment, as rationed and precarious as it may have been, provided the guarantee of a roof over the citizens’ heads. In this sense, the open flat undoubtedly reminds the passers-by of the democratic space they should be claiming. Meanwhile, by using materials such as double glazing in white plastic frames – their application is a widespread practice among post-communist citizens, who use them copiously, from their homes to historical monuments and churches – the artist references, meticulously and ironically, the “improvements” made to the already existing architecture, thus turning the work also into a comment on its immediate vicinity.
Flat Space is not just an occurrence object in the city landscape, it is also the opportunity to bring cultural events into the public space, to place them on a different stage, albeit on a stage that remains institutional. Concerts, screenings, debates, flea markets, protests, exhibitions or mere postings of cultural information all take place in this open apartment space, turning it, since its inauguration in October 2009, into one of the most active “galleries” in Chişinău. Of course that this points to the lack of appropriate spaces for contemporary art in the city, but the more provocative question it raises is that of the participative and democratic model that the work proposes. Returning to the question asked at the beginning of this text, would a group of citizens or of mere passers-by be more inclined to become the audience of the actions happening in this place due to the fact that they are presented in a setting that is familiar to them, an extension of their own daily lives? Would they be more motivated to “participate” if they were facing a shining building of a shape never seen before? The questions related to the audience of public art often do not have simple answers, but in a city facing rapid privatisation, architectural and city planning deregulation and powerful economic clashes, the Flat suggests at least the possibility that art is a form of claiming free, open, democratic spaces in the city. It also manages to be a site-specific work that is however perfectly replicable in a similar city.
This is not surprising, given that it was commissioned to be the main platform of the interventions organised by the Oberliht Association in the project called Chioşc (Kiosk). Public space, apart from being a protean creature, requiring constant adaptation from its inhabitants, is also a meeting place for nomadic structures and passers-by, to whom the kiosk appears as one of the many signs of general instability and impermanence. The modular structures, easy to take apart, relocate and reinstall, become a parameter of an urban life characterised by flux, migration and rapid change. Ștefan Rusu’s work responds to these widespread realities, but at the same time does not stop at merely replicating them. Flat Space is a mobile gallery, but one that does not move; it hosts temporary events, but it is a fixed space of reference, where people can seek out information; it is a simple module, but one made of reinforced concrete; it is animated by being used, but remains in place as a permanent artefact. Due to these apparently contradicting features, it creates a space for a debate on the form and function of public art, both for the city dwellers and for those who encounter or use it only once.