In the first of seven films in a series dealing with love between men and women (started in 2009 and proposed to end in 2019), a man sits down on a bus in Bucharest, Romania and telephones his wife or girlfriend. He becomes increasingly threatening and verbally violent, compulsively repeating the same questions and accusations over and over in a sort of trance-like loop. Troleibuzul 92 (Bus number 92) (2009) depicts a very private and intimate conversation that is played out in the public space, turning the audience, like the other passengers on the bus, into unwilling participants in a potentially explosive scenario, leaving us to wonder where voyeurism ends and personal responsibility begins. But the film doesn’t offer any conclusions, ending as it began, with one person getting off and another getting on, transforming this otherwise exceptional scene into another part of everyday occurrence.
Love, intimacy, routine, repetition, identity, the normalcy of aberration in daily life, and the conflict between private and public are all themes that Romanian-Swedish artist and filmmaker Stefan Constantinescu explores in the three films that he has finished so far and which are currently on view at the Kalmar Art Museum in Sweden. His work also explores new ways of understanding the exhibitional possibilities of cinema within the museum context as well as viewer perception within the contemporary art institution. In this solo show, a black box was constructed in which the films are screened at specific times designated at the entrance, allowing visitors to manage their viewing experience. In contrast to video art, which the museum has turned into art object, in and out of which visitors wander uncommittedly while consuming mere snippets of the work, narrative films like Constantinescu’s must be experienced linearly from beginning to end. Therefore offering a structure for viewing the films as films, not as objects, to which the audience must dedicate itself for a set period of time, becomes the challenge of curators working in this field. And it’s not always easy to find a solution, but recreating the cinema within the museum is a safe bet, merging two institutions in crisis and stretching the reach of each one into the other’s terrain thus expanding the audience of both.
Stefan Constantinescu, Still from "Family Dinner", 2012; © Ştefan Constantinescu
In Family Dinner (2012), the mask of the model Swedish family is removed revealing a true picture of the complexity of contemporary relationships. While husband and daughter prepare dinner, the mother takes a bath and engages in cell phone sex with a co-worker, her dream being interrupted repeatedly by several humorous events rooted in her reality. At one moment, while she is texting a sexy note, her husband calls her from the kitchen disrupting her mood. Or some moments later, while she tries to pleasure herself and text with the other hand, her phone battery suddenly runs out. Her attempts to regain those moments of transgressive gratification and fantasy are constantly frustrated by real life, so she returns to the routine of her normal role within the household and joins the others for the meal they had prepared. We are left to wonder how this situation will play out, but the everyday seems to take control once again.
The last film from the series that has been produced thus far is Six Big Fish (2013). Here, two Swedish artists, Ann Sofi and Andreas, are staying in an apartment in Bucharest on a residency and suddenly find themselves responsible for six large live fish when the next door neighbor intrusively drops them off for their landlord. The film is shot as Ann Sofi’s video diary, a film within a film, from her point of view. The couple’s different perspectives on life and art inform their approach as to what to do with the fish, and ultimately test their relationship. Ann Sofi believes that art triumphs over life and therefore she has the right to record the fish dying, while Andreas chooses to offer the fish life by trying, despite several unfortunate adventures, to find a spot to set them free. The power of the everyday wins in the end once again as the couple, frazzled and strained by the day’s events, returns to normalcy after the fish swim away.
Stefan Constantinescu, Still from "Six Big Fish", 2013; © Ştefan Constantinescu
Filmed in an austere and restrained aesthetic, the films reflect the Romanian New Wave and fall within the film d’auteur tradition. The image is heavily controlled and the films seem almost documentarian, but the narrative is disturbing and subversive, creating a tension between what we see and what we perceive. The ten-year project undertaken by Constantinescu is ambitious and stirring. By focusing on love, what might otherwise seem in these times of conflict as too light of a theme, Constantinescu actually reveals the elements underlying contemporary society, from cynicism and selfishness, banality of transgression, hypocrisy and morality, to ultimately the condition of humanity itself torn between caring and indifference, love and violence.
(Image on top: Stefan Constantinescu, Installation view at the Kalmar Art Museum, 2014.)