In a photograph from artist Laurențiu Ruță’s personal archive we can see a drawing board with several photograms placed on a wicker chair. According to the artist, the board in question had stood in the Cluj building of Uniunea Artiștilor Plastici [Fine Artists’ Union], more specifically of Atelier 35 [Studio 35], which at the time served as an ad-hoc space where the young artists promoted by Atelier 35, including him, could exhibit their work. It was on that board that the artist would exhibit his photograms between 1984 and 1985.
The photograms were exercises (term used by the artist) in rendering the movement of water on photosensitive paper: the spurt of water, the water set in motion by sound, the various configurations drawn by water on folded paper. The artist had arrived in Cluj to pursue his university education after having participated in the pedagogical experiment organised by the Timișoara Arts Lyceum under the direct guidance of the members of SIGMA group, teachers in that school. In his photographic experiments, he fused the study of nature with the study of forms and bionics.
Study has remained to this day a defining, primordial concern for the artist, who places the process of knowledge above artistic expression. His experiments are guided not so much by rigid, scientific assumptions, as by intuition; should he feel at some point that his research of the studied phenomenon tends to “divert” towards aesthetic intentions and auctorial decisions, he simply stops. Still, his studies undeniably evince an inherent, charming aesthetic quality: the beauty of the natural phenomena he captures. Thus, if we consider the aesthetic component and the visual expression manner, it is clear that they informed Ruță’s art ever since he selected the themes of his study: water, light and movement.
The results of the photographic experiments, laid out on the drawing board, were noticed by artist Ana Lupaș, the coordinator of Atelier 35, who selected a photogram by the artist to be included in the 1984 Alba Iulia Young Artists Biennial. The photogram was conceived like a small-scale installation. On a sheet of photographic paper, the artist had placed a cube covered in photosensitive paper and had released a spurt of water over it, capturing the flowing movement with a flash camera, while the light thereof helped to impress on paper the flowing of water over the increasingly flattened cube.
From photographic experiment to performance
Concerned with the promotion of actionism in Romania, Lupaș was aware of the potential presented by Ruță’s photograms and asked him to participate in the Young Artists and Critics Colloquium, held in Sibiu in 1986, and organised by Lupaș together with art critic Liviana Dan.
Ruță is firm about the important role played by Lupaș in the entire event and the help she gave him in preparing his performance. He stresses the importance of the preliminary consulting sessions and of his studio work, steps that slowly resulted in his Performance. “I was engulfed in that magnetic energy she [Ana Lupaș] exuded when she worked; the process, the processuality, agreed with me perfectly.” In the courtyard of the artist’s parental house there was a cellar, on whose access staircase the first format of the performance was tested one evening (approximately one month before the event). This action was attended by Ruță, Ana Lupaș and artist Miklós Onucsán (another participant in the Sibiu event, lodged by the artist throughout his stay in Cluj). In this version of the action, the stairs were to be inscribed with the lyrics to the song The Stony Bridge, which may seem like a playful touch at first glance (a bridge carried away by the water poured on the stairs covered in photosensitive paper), but there was also a concealed message in the expressive image of the crumbled bridge. But this version was abandoned, not least because the staircase needed to be used for other actions to be performed in the cellar.
In the preparatory notebook for the performance we can see a number of sketches of photograms: multiple streams, a water jet in the form of a spring. These pages also feature, according to the artist, the first sketches of the Sibiu project, of photograms extending across two planes: vertical, “spurting flow,” and horizontal, in the form of a number of springs that were to flow in circular trajectory over the photosensitive paper. The artist would subsequently abandon the second option.
As the main instrument of The Performance, Laurențiu Ruță chose water, whose motion and transparency are captured without a camera, directly onto the photographic paper. After months of preparation, The Performance was to take place in a room of the cellar of the Sibiu Pharmaceutical History Museum, on 24 July 1986, at 8 pm.
Description of the performance
In the third and final version of the action, the artist had at his disposal a room 6 metres long and 3 metres wide, with a vaulted ceiling and a maximum height of 2.9 metres. There were two entrances and a window. The two entrances were covered in transparent plastic foil throughout the duration of the performance. The signs put near the entrance prohibited the use of flash cameras and matches, which explains why we do not possess any photographs taken during the performance. A green laboratory light ensured visibility during the action, which started at 8 pm and lasted approximately one hour.
The action itself consisted of the following moments:
1. The artist shuts himself inside a paper cylinder in the centre of the room and impresses the paper inside such “uterus” (the very name he used) with water and light. Subsequently the tube is opened, covering the room floor. The traces of the action are developed and fixed.
2. The artist gradually applies a water spurt, flash camera and flashlight onto the surface of the wall covered in photosensitive paper. He is assisted by his friend and colleague, Radu Igazság, who uses the flash camera whenever the artist requests him to do so. In a manner similar to fresco painting, only a number of delineated zones are treated at the same time, so that the light of the flash camera will not impress the other surfaces. The wall is sprinkled with water from a water hose, the artist setting out to render the movement of the water film on paper without a camera. The other expressive element used is the drawing made with the flashlight. It is not excessively used; the lines are long and sparse, traced as if to establish a set of coordinates, the relationship between space and the human body. [The artist recalls that he also had the intention to write something with the flashlight, but gave up this idea.] Then follows the development—when the artist looks for the traces of his action on the photographic paper and then fixes them. Both operations are executed with swiftness, with pieces of cloth soaked in developing and fixing solutions. The swiftness of the operation does not allow for the observance of laboratory conditions; the solutions tend to mix, while some surfaces are not developed. Certain areas are overexposed, others, underexposed. The vault remains largely unimpressed by light; only the droplets of chemicals leave marks in that area.
These stages were meticulously written down by the artist in his Notebook ’86:
– Switch on red
– Look at R.
– blotch A as large as R reduced to a dot—path—impression of bag—corner—drawing (REPEATED) standing up 2, on knees 3, on my back 4,
– follow the path lying down, tactile
– tear paper off basin
– can hear the water…
– trace the frame of the tube
– staple the tube.
– anchor in the background.
– anchor in the foreground (Radu comes +)
– take the wet tube… light!
– throw tube into the basin.
– cut off the water.
– start applying strip
– switch off l. red take l. green and revelator + bottles. Develop
– reach the end
– anchor the green light
– undo tube 2 min
– undo threads, strings
– take the fixing solution, fix and spread it
– cut the strip, WATER
– WATER spouts out.
–> Path to be repeated.
– I enter with my back towards the corner
– on my knees
Modify the slot
2. Take the hose and sprinkle upwards.
– Radu position 1—I sprinkle
– Radu position 2—turned around, flash
– Radu position 3—frontal jet, flash
– R. position 4—flash, throw the tube away.
– Revelator STRIP WATER
– Develop 1, 2, 3, 4.
– Fix 1, 2, 3, 4. Light
– I go on fixing
– Take my shirt off.
– Put on shirt
– Take my trousers off
– Put on trousers
– Open window I
3. Once this stage is over, the artist puts on dry clothes [white shirt and white trousers, according to the indications given by Ana Lupaș], opens the window and lets the fresh evening air and light pervade the stuffy room, charged with the tension of the action. The only light bulb in the room is switched on. The developing process is completed by the light bulb, without the artist’s participation; he is now standing in the audience, watching the image emerge. The performance therefore ends “authorless.”
After the conclusion of the performance, someone carefully collected the ‘shell’ of the performance, as well as the small pieces of paper and the nails used to fasten the long photogram strips to the walls. The traces of the nails, and the shapes continuing one another on the sheets of paper enable us to reconstitute the paper-covered room with some accuracy. Approximately 80 per cent of the work has been preserved; the sheets are 104 centimetres wide and up to 6 metres long, some of them. Due to the chemicals’ getting mixed, the surface has become coloured. Apart from a few areas where the photographic shades of grey were fixed, the rest was covered in brown, pinkish and bluish nuances. The artist’s intention, to fix in a photogram the movement of water, the light and the transparent materiality of water, as he had managed to do in his small-scale exercises, came through only to a very small extent. He came closest to achieving his goal on the horizontal surfaces, the long strips placed on the floor, most of which was, unfortunately, lost.
Physical weakness turning into chemical images
“The event was quite tough,” Ana Lupaș recalls, mainly because Ruță was literally struggling in the dark room, while outside no one could grasp what he was actually doing. “The audience could only glimpse anything when the [light] went on. The image was not important.” The emergence of the image after the artist has exited the stage, the birth of the artwork in the absence of the artist’s hand are the elements emphasised by Ana Lupaș, a close witness to the birth of the Performance.
In one of the telephone conversations with the artist, which, in conjunction with our meetings, have managed to “reveal” this performance after more than 30 years, the artist also emphasised its dramatic nature: “It was a sheer physical struggle carried on in the dark. No one knew what I was doing. […] Physical weakness turned into chemical images.”
The Colloquium held in Sibiu in 1986, attended by numerous critics, was only modestly covered in the printed press. While it became a legend of the 1980s generation, marked by the authorities’ brutally putting an end to Alexandru Antik’s action, The Dream Has Not Died, the event still awaits to be reconstructed and understood in terms of organisation, concept and curatorial intention. We are in possession of a brief anthology of texts published in the Arta magazine, accompanied by a montage of stamp-size, barely legible, photographs, showing the room covered in photograms after the conclusion of the Performance, and photographs taken of the actions and installations of the other participants. In this anthology, Anca Vasiliu briefly analysed the Performance, describing the stages of the action and providing four possible interpretive “theses”: 1. “The work” is the trace left by “the creative act passing into spiritual significance.” 2. “The dark room metaphorically stands for the labour of creation and the exhibition of the ego.” 3. The continuous revelation of the work, whose history begins after its creator has abandoned it. 4. “The fourth, defining interpretive thesis”: light is the instrument by means of which creation comes into being. The gestures made during the action are characterised as follows: “A kind of action-painting in the dark, with the cloths soaked in revealing solution. The artist finally emerges from the ‘digestive tube’ of creation.” “Stellar rays are quietly filling the room as the work begins to reveal itself, ‘ascending towards the light”’—taking on a “cave-like appearance.” “The work is trampled on, torn, taken apart, while it keeps on revealing itself. Over time, it becomes independent from its artist, as well as from us.”
Thus, the birth of the image “by itself” happens not when it is revealed (an operation performed by the artist with the help of chemical substances), but actually before that: the movement of water gets impressed on the photosensitive paper directly by the light, with no intermediary agents. Naturally, the Performance was conceived from the start to metaphorically highlight how image emerges by itself. When the artist exits the stage and joins the audience, the insufficiently fixed paper continues, indeed, to fix the image. The artist recalls: “The open window was a mere opening towards the world, fresh air in the stuffy room. There was no more light to impress the walls. I was indeed experiencing a mystical state, but physically, [the light] worn out. Stellar light, night light. Night was coming in. And night is also light.”
We emphasise those moments because, in our opinion, the force of the Performance resided precisely in the extent to which it relied on the photogram process, on the image’s coming into being with no interference. It was this ability of the photogram, of recording in real time and with no auctorial interference on the events that Ruță capitalised on in all of his photographic experiments carried out in the 1980s (and continued starting from 2015).
“Before the performance” by Mircea Ivănescu
On 22 July 1986, two days before the Performance, Laurențiu Ruță paid a visit to poet Mircea Ivănescu. On the morning of the event, Ivănescu arrived at the space where the action was to take place and handed him a text, entitled “Before the Performance.” Let us quote below in its entirety this so far unpublished text:
With the eyes of your mind you can contemplate a myriad of things—even real things—you can see the walls cry—and light, tears sliding down its face, composes a wise face for them, looking towards that inner space they enclose (life, no matter what you might do, takes place in rooms—some rooms have books in their walls, others have the sky above them but are shut in by the fence rising at the dead end of the garden—in which you haven’t even stepped out lately) and there the face of wisdom, presenting an answer, perhaps, to the eyes of your mind—you should probably sit down in the doorframe of this room and just look— and thus you might finally grasp everything you think you need to grasp.
As you were telling her one night, in masterly words, watching her blank face turned towards you—with the mind’s eye she was then thinking of something other than your words—the spirit, as the wise man said, is but a trifle and much less significant than the body—naturally, the soul is more cunning in its great wisdom, but it is the essence—the body is but a trifle, but, you see, it gives rise to meanings wherever it might be going, even if it were only to stretch out its hand or to move its spider-like legs up a staircase—and if it is fat and short of breath, as the queen noticed, it must imagine a dance on these narrow stairs, because they do not open the other side of the trap door. With the eyes of your body you will see in that room the light crying differently, shattered at first, then, as she was telling you without actually looking at you, depositing some sort of film and placing its world beneath it, no longer made of tears, but of significances—and there, for you to see it, your body, next to other bodies, because many come here to watch, is closed off as if in a wineskin from Spanish fairy-tales—(and if the spirit inside you is good, it will not go sour there, in the wineskin) —and just when you feel as if you have understood—you come out of that translucent shell and tell yourself, now I shall climb—(to be able to grasp it all, the deal naturally was that you should descend into the depths—while you were also told that the soul of that place, a descent like this was in fact an ascension towards the stars shining above, in the distorted world of bodies) and before reaching the steps shaded by the still unopened side, you hit your head against the vault at the top of the stairs—(just as the Agathyrsi in their time, and she was laughing hard while she was telling you this, had bevelled heads for they had never learned how close to their heads was the ceiling of the cave, their world, on whose walls they used to draw their bisons and other details of their life—and in that momentary light sparked by that forceful hit, you can see, without turning your head, the walls weeping softly, wisely, behind you.
The artist recalls feeling lonely while preparing his action, feeling the tension, the stakes before the event. Receiving this text on the morning of the performance was like a message for him, a genuine encouragement. The text reveals that Mircea Ivănescu knew the entire scenario of the performance in great detail, as well as the symbolic meaning of the technical processes involved by the artistic effort. Ruță considers this text as meaningful and revealing for his endeavour, and susceptible to being read like a genuine statement of the Performance, as the only written document that still retains—albeit filtered through the poet’s specific interpretation—the creative turmoil felt by the artist during the preparatory moments before the event.
On the title: Vibration vs. Performance
The title Performanța [Performance] was used during the event itself by the artist, and in the texts drafted by Mircea Ivănescu and Anca Vasiliu. In the preparatory notebook for the performance, the artist also used the title Vibrația [Vibration]. This version emphasised the phenomenon studied, in accordance with the artistic vision entertained by Ruță, for whom what mattered was not the performing individual’s need to express himself, but the need to observe the natural phenomena.
However, considering its title, scale, progress, and meanings, the Sibiu Performance might appear like a spectacular abandonment of this artistic vision. We shall see, however, that this is not the case. The final title, simple and straightforward, places the emphasis on the genre, in accordance with the Colloquium’s intention to impose actionism in Romania. The artist considered himself to be: “An actant in a broader phenomenon. I have entered the bigger stage. The Colloquium was opened with the Performance.”
A powerful metaphor for the art
No photographs exist to document the progress of the Performance, because light was exclusively an instrument of creation in the dark room. But the resulting photogram is also itself a recording of that performance. Here is what Ruță wrote in Notebook ’86, next to the sketches preceding the Sibiu event: “The breadth, duration or other aspects of the engrams or of the traces left behind by our experiences… mnemometre…”
The residual “shell” of the Performance is a mnemometre. The resemblance it bears to action painting should not mislead us: this is the effect, and not the purpose, of the performance. It is sufficient to imagine the performance being achieved by means of canvas and paints: the image would have emerged as a direct result of the artist’s gestural movements on the canvas. Likewise, the visual resemblance to Viennese actionism is irrelevant for grasping Ruță’s performance; its dramatic nature, on the other hand, might facilitate such an association.
Throughout the performance, it wasn’t only the audience that was unaware of the meaning of the movements and gestures made by the artist in the dark room; the artist himself would be unable, until the revealing moment, to see anything but the white photosensitive paper covering the entire room. Naturally, he was familiar with the process, knew that the initially scattered light would form a film on the surface of the paper, and would ‘place its world beneath it’, to use Mircea Ivănescu’s highly expressive words. But he himself was not aware of the appearance that world would take, and, from the point of view of the performance, that issue was of slight importance anyway.
The Performance had been constructed on a rich and complex scaffolding, which consisted of multiple layers of meaning and resorted to a number of metaphors such as birth (the coming out of the tube), the uterus, the cave (the flashlight drawing), purity (the artist’s white clothes, the white paper, the sheets covering the doors). Furthermore, the action, lasting approximately one hour in that small room, suggested the artist’s tense, tortured presence. While all these factors contributed to the success of the Performance, its force, however, resided in more than just that.
The defining feature of the Performance was the revealing of the interaction between man, water and light, and its transposition on a plane. The magic of direct photography, the miracle of the image coming into being ‘authorless’, as a mark of the action, endowed the Performance with force and purity. The ritual was a technical one, simple in itself, transposing the events of a life segment, in which the artist was no longer an observer, but an actant who was also observed in his turn. The world emerging from under the film of light on paper, thanks to the simple technical procedure which engendered it, recalled the mystical birth of art. In its significance, we can liken the Performance to the impact the emergence of the image might have had on the man who drew for the first time on the walls of a cave.
Sebestyén Székely is an art historian and director of Quadro and Quadro 21 galleries in Cluj.