God created the world as the sea created the shores: by receding. André Scrima

Whenever I enter Ana Lupaş’s universe,[1] I feel like returning to that primordial artistic language which gets reinforced in privileged, ceremonial spaces, becoming increasingly perceptible as the host withdraws to ever quieter rooms. I have recently been able to spend with the artist an exceptional moment characterised by a twofold opening: towards the world shaped and controlled by her own creative personality, with her thematic cycles, with her returns, illuminations and unique interventions in the social environment, aimed at “re-naturalising” and “re-symbolising” the latter,[2] and towards the world of the international avant-garde experiments.[3]

Ana Lupaş was 22 years old when she graduated in 1962 from the “Ion Andreescu” Arts Institute in Cluj. Descendant of a distinguished family of intellectuals,[4] she went through the first years of the seventh decade caught in the artistic whirlwind at the Belle-Arte studio. Showing from the very beginning an ability to freely communicate, born naturally out of the clear awareness of her talent, she was also encouraged by her professors, especially by Maria Ciupe from the Textile Arts Department, but also by painter Anastase (Tasi) Demian. Together with the latter, during the summer holidays from high school, she learned the canons of monumental art, working as painter apprentice at the Jesus Christ Pantocrator fresco in the dome of the Cluj Cathedral. Her artistic confidence also sprang from her excellent mastery of classical monumental forms and academic drawing, specific requirements in Professor Kós András’s class, as well as from the careful attention she paid to the breeze of freedom wafting gently through a Romania which just escaped the terror of the 1950s.

Read à rebours, starting from the most recent international exhibition in which she was invited to participate, i.e. that in Dunkirk,[5] and going back in time to 1964, at Sălişte, the moment of ‘embodiment’ of The Solemn Process,[6] the vast action asserting her artistic personality, the path taken by Ana Lupaş is full of meaning, each artistic event bringing it one step closer to its core. In Dunkirk, facing the ocean, the pieces of her aluminium installation created in 1990 are lined up today in the same ceremonial cadence as in the case of the peasant cloths in Mărgău in 1970, the bituminous draping in front of the National Theatre in Bucharest in 1991 or in the case of the metaphorically ‘bloody’ ones from Bonn in 1994 and the blackened ones from Székesfehérvár in 1998. All of them represent recurrent themes of the same artistic motif of the anti-gravity modular form, transient and reversible, whether it was called “flying carpet,” “humid installation,” “monument to the cloth,” “identity clothes” or “borrowed clothes.” All these, just like Magdalena Abakanowicz’s forms, organise the space with an irrepressible authority, lend it a certain cadence which naturally evolves from solemn to tragic.

From the start, she asserted clearly and coherently her power to embody clear concepts in rough, primordial materials such as ears of wheat or threads of hemp. She took on the challenge of these slender, but rough and hard to tame, materials, in full freedom, because, by releasing them from the grasp of opacity and rigidity, she was releasing herself from the commonplaces of artistic academic education. Maria Ciupe, herself a remarkable artist with a modern vision, has always encouraged her to work with materials which are unconventional for textile art: mosaic, ceramic, vegetal elements. It is to be noted that, while being a consummate master of classical forms, as proven by the presence, in her studio, of four excellently drawn monumental nudes, which had been miraculously recovered from her student years thanks to several photographs, Ana Lupaş has opted, from the early 1960s, for an artistic language utterly opposed to the figurative one. She embraced the more perishable, unconventional materials, which she shaped by means of rigorously conceived and precisely drawn actions. She has constantly said that her greatest teacher has been the Romanian village, where she used to go on holiday as a child. In Săliştea Sibiului, where her grandfather, a historian, politician and archbishop, enjoyed great respect, she used to listen, utterly enchanted, to the stories told by her father, Semproniu Lupaş, another great lover of the Romanian village and a good friend of Ernest Bernea, a renowned sociologist, ethnographer and philosopher, the father of painter Horia Bernea. It was there that she grasped the meaning and beauty of all things moving freely through space, the beauty of games, that she felt the beneficial energy which radiates from the elementary matters of life, captured by the agricultural rituals fulfilling precise functions. This profound understanding of the natural rhythms of life has helped her take a distance from both the obsolete realistic mimesis and the modern aseptic conceptualism, by resorting to the object which is conceptually hermetic, but tangible, and susceptible to be revealed solely in the course of an interactive process, either ludic or laden with solemnity. Her installations are made of modular pieces with ambient value; they are tactile par excellence and move freely in space. Obviously, in the ambiance of experimental art, practised at the end of the 1960s in Romania as well,[7] the new techniques of neo-avant-garde artists primarily targeted the border areas of the artistic language, those infused with an equivocal, reversible, transitory spatiality. The form was perceived rather like a fluid materialisation of a perpetual and virtual creative process.

In the textile arts, the liberation from parietal support was clearly expressed in the act of configurating the spatial, sculptural, three-dimensional object. In this respect, the most spectacular creations were signed by Ana Lupaş, Ritzi Jacobi, Şerbana Drăgoescu, Ariana Nicodim, Anna Tamás,[8] by the Sigma Group,[9] by Pavel Ilie, Geta Brătescu,[10] Paul Neagu.[11] Their type of artistic approach radically challenged the status of textile arts, re-assigning to the act of weaving an existential status and thus extracting it from the sphere of decorative arts. Amid this experimental environment, which transgressed the established genres and techniques of artistic language, moving towards interdisciplinary areas,[12] Ana Lupaş stood out through the recurrence of plastic motifs evincing what Anca Arghir called “thaumaturgic qualities,”[13] in the sense in which gesture endows matter, progressively, with a genuine vital power. By means of its increasing intensity, the visual form reaches a climax in a tragic register, so as to fulfil itself, according to its own law and in its own cadence, in a completely transfigured form.

The same cadence, characteristic of archaic rituals, I have discovered during my recent visit to Ana Lupaș’s studio, in a series of monumental pieces, differing in terms of dimension, colour and texture, made of rough hemp threads, woven by hand and painted, most of them, in black linoxyn. They were created between 1961 and 1965 as prapori[14], mobile liturgical pieces inspired by the photography of a procession during which Ana’s grandfather, historian Ioan Lupaş, consecrated a church in Săliştea Sibiului. While still a student, she noticed the monumental potentiality of textile fields of moving freely in space with the amplitude generated by the sacred rhythms, and, concurrently, by the dynamics of the human body. This concern with creating meeting places in the artistic field between the altitude of the language of ancestral forms and the accessibility thereof, within the reach of any mortal being, pervades all of her works. To achieve this goal, she has embraced whole-heartedly and from the very beginning the sphere of experimental art, leaving behind the comfort zone of classical language to enter the more dangerous, but also more spectacular and adventurous sphere, of outposts and border zones between various artistic materials and techniques. These prapori have an extremely powerful presence. They have the appearance of archaic liturgical pieces, flexibly articulated, liberated from their connection with the wall, against which they lean only for a short while. Rather modelled than classically woven, their sculptural quality resembles that of a totem. It is precisely the coarse expressivity of the primordial forms that grants them an exceptionally modern character. This slow, dark mobility, this spatial independence which gives them the status of objects, related them, at the time, to the congeneric family of the Abakans and naturally paved the way towards the objects which were to configure “the paradise” game and “the flying carpet” game, in the early 1960s. The first Flying Carpet was created in 1966, and between 1968 and 1969, Ana Lupaş created Bridge, Shelter for the Flying Machine, the Flying Machines: “The flying machine takes off on Sunday and lands on another day,” “The flying machine on a holiday,” “The machine for flying through the woods.” They are all completely freestanding, mobile artistic objects, sculptures made of soft materials and ambient installations with a pointedly ludic nature. Their flight is ensured by huge horns, measuring about five metres. For instance, one of these “machines,” which has endured over time, has stainless steel wings which shine spectacularly, like a fantastical apparatus for escaping into space, and is balanced at both ends by two large, soft woolen ends, friendly looking and red as fire. Another machine had five-metre horns covered in calfskin, ready to take off towards unpredictable destinations. These joyful, dynamic “machines,” intended to fight gravity, welcomed in their gallery of ludic interactive objects the Shapeless Object, the Promethean Game (a “menagerie” of zoomorphic objects made of soft materials, created together with Mircea Spătaru), the Flying Carpet with a Red Egg in the Nest,[15] all, objects[16] for kindergarten kids. The kindergarten was the place where the objects, as a result of interacting with children, exercised their usefulness uncensored. There, according to Ana Lupaş, they were “in their place.”

Ana Lupaș, Humid Installation, 1994–2008, paper, metal and plastic recipients, dimensions variable. Installation view Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck (22.06–24.08.2008), curator Alina Șerban in collaboration with Silvia Eiblmayr. Photograph by Rainer Iglar. Courtesy Ana Lupaș

The monumental Humid Installation (or The Flying Carpet) enacted in Mărgău, in 1970, was a decisive moment in Ana Lupaş’s work. It played a special part in European actionism, according to Ryszard Stanislawski, the curator of Europe, Europe. The Century of the Avant-garde in Central and Eastern Europe exhibition organised in Bonn in 1994. Seen from above, the hillside towering above the Transylvanian village appeared, due to the succession of parallel lines of cloths flapping in the wind, like the back of a huge amphibian breathing through humid gills, in plein-air. The installation had experimental precedents dating back to 1964,[17] more precisely drawings and modules which preceded the maximized design of the theme of the Humid Installation in 1970. The modular exercises on this theme received at Mărgău the amplitude of a potentially infinite spatial unfolding, unprecedented in Romanian art. The installation made use, with exceptional plasticity, of the force of expansion of the module, transgressing the conventional borders of textile art. The entire environmental complex covered a 3,000 sqm area, and was structured by the relationship between the rigid geometry of the horizontal supports and the feminine organicity, evolving freely in space, of the folds of coarse cloth, woven on a traditional loom. The installation also included a barely noticed element, with a discrete visual role, which acquired a significant importance precisely due to its absence. I am referring to the ineffable spatial drawing made by the narrow grooves dug in the ground to channel the water draining from the cloths. This visually potential “drainage system” underlined the organic link between the sky and the earth, a link having water as its vital vehicle. The earth could be fertilized, and this open potentiality of bearing fruit was projected in a “land art” kind of drawing. The Mărgău event made the most of the force of this “social therapeutics”[18] which Ana Lupaş wanted to fulfil and perpetuate, and which she continued to express, even more powerfully, in her successive actions from The Solemn Process (stages between 1964 and 2008). Water, this primordial element of life, the fluid, limpid water that unifies and heals everything, will gradually disappear from the “Humid Installations” of the 1990s and from the “Monuments of Cloth,” in the same way in which the partners in the social practices, in the villages chosen for the artistic experiment, will disappear. The collective action will gradually assume, in an increasingly sensitive, retractile fashion, the form of soliloquies, and then of the author’s total absence from the visible metabolism of her work, which will cease to be an interactive field of action. Water metaphorically turned into “blood,” possibly the most dramatic of the images capable of rendering the human condition, and this took place at the iconic exhibition in Bonn, in 1994. At that major European event, Ana Lupaş constructed a model of the Mărgău installation, which, by its sheer dramatic force, was in fact a spectral projection of the 1970 ambient and processual installation. Thus, in 1994, the objects were still there, even though devitalised, bloodless, apterous, as “shrouds,” but they were still there and could be touched. The author, even though absent, was somewhere close by; the poverist metal vessels were also there, mobile, stained and with a raucous sound, but still tangible. This objectual proximity was to be completely annihilated at the 2015 Art Encounters Biennale in Timișoara. Ana Lupaş chose to exhibit her pieces at the Lilliputian gallery GeamMAT, a glass capsule of the Art Museum, an unconventional exhibition space endowed with a voyeuristic elegance.

Ana Lupaș, Humid Installation, Witnesses. View from the 1st Art Encounters Biennale (2015), GeamMAT Gallery, Museum of Art. Courtesy Art Encounters

There, everything was constricted, frozen and conserved in a display window arranged like an aseptic diorama, under the sign of Noli me tangere. In this transparent “tin can,” the Author reappears, but only to underline the impassable distance between him and the viewer. Thus, communication is suspended totally, irreversibly and irrevocably. The display window brings together a minimalist mix of several key witnesses to an artistic trajectory spanning forty-five years: three of the metal vessels marked by the tragedy of the Bonn installation, a display, whose glass allows us to gaze solely at the author’s profile in a vulnerable posture, with the medical collar supporting her neck, and fragments from the setting-up of the work in the space of the Bonn Gallery. The composition also includes four tight cloth rolls, bearing brief, military-like inscriptions with Ana Lupaş’s name, and an identification number printed in a dull, industrial, inventory-like font. In the background, a label provides explanations: where the witnesses are from and what the source is. Thus, we find out that the cloth rolls come from the Mărgău installation in 1970 and that the vessels come from the Bonn set-up. Laden with all the metonymic force of the whole, decades and experiments have been firmly and strongly squeezed in the straps of a concept. But this concept—and this is specific to Ana Lupaş’s artistic practices—becomes corporeal through the essential presence of “genuine” objects which testify to, reconstruct and reactivate the context to which they belonged.

Another performative installation of Ana Lupaş, The Solemn Process (begun in 1964), boasted an exceptional destiny. The wheat wreaths constructed experimentally in Mărgău evolved in space like monumental mobile sculptures. Their plastic shapes were the result of collective actions coordinated according to the conceptual programme of the artist, which aimed to re-assign meaning to ancestral practices.[19] The entire action was minutely prepared with the help of detailed drawings whose purpose went beyond the didactic one of “good practice manual.” By means of such drawings, Ana Lupaş explained in detail to the peasants how to construct, but especially how to perpetuate the wheat wreaths and pilasters through actions aimed at their perennial regeneration. It was the very utopian dimension of this biomorphic programme[20] that led to the rethinking of what seemed like a failure: perishable and devoid of the energy of a community which was growing increasingly inconsistent through the migration of its members—“performers” towards the city, the works and the meaning which had originated them no longer occurred, just like ancestral beings and vibrations, among the younger generations. One essential dimension of The Solemn Process, namely that of “perpetuating forever and everywhere” (Ana Lupaş) was indeed lost, but, on the other hand, another dimension was gained: the safeguarding through a funereal ceremony. The wreaths, as preserved in sheds and haylofts, were retrieved and encased in zinc sheet “coffins,” hermetically closed and sealed by means of stitches which endow them with a powerful plasticity. This ritualistic process turned them into relics with a completely unusual relief. One related to them, this time, only through the mere fact of believing that they were there, with their message also encapsulated inside that symbolic grave—therefore everything was overturned within an action reconfigured according to new spiritual axes. The change in meaning occurring inside the forms through a radical reshaping of the plastic language, in fact through a genuine semantic mutation, naturally brought international recognition to Ana Lupaș and her artwork. An important part of the hermetically preserved pieces, and I mean that in the proper, not just the symbolical, sense, of The Solemn Process, were exhibited for the first time in 2008 at Galerie im Taxispalais in Innsbruck in the form of a vast installation, coupled with a photomontage of the actions which had generated in their time, on the one hand, the exhibited objects, and on the other hand, which had established Ana Lupaş as one of the foremost artists of European neo-avant-garde.[21]

Ana Lupaș, The Solemn Process, 1964–2008 (1964–74/76; 1980–5; 1985–2008), Steel, straw, wire mesh and 2 digital prints on vinyl, dimensions variable. View from the exhibition at Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck (22.06–24.08.2008), curator Alina Șerban in collaboration with Silvia Eiblmayr. Photograph by Rainer Iglar. Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee and Tate Members 2016 [T14526]. Courtesy Tate Collection

Another serial action, equally worded in a shaman-like postmodern language, was the one entitled Preliminary for a Round Grave. The opening action took place in Hungary, at Badacsonytomaj, near Balaton Lake, in 1978. The conceptual nature of the work is proven, once more, by the fact that, invited to attend several exhibitions, Ana Lupaş does not carry the actual works with her, but only the project, either firmly rooted in her mind or drawn on paper.[22] Once arrived at her place of destination, she works with the materials made available by that place. The fact that she works with the materials available in a place and together with the people of a place lends the concept vitality, which continues to survive after the objects and the people in question have disappeared, and this happens due to the fact that, through her specific way of thinking and acting, Lupaș activates the spirit of a place in an authentic, unrepeatable manner. In the case of the Preliminary for a Round Grave, the main idea started from the image of the surface of the Earth, which is usually regarded only as a surface area, i.e. opaque and unidimensional. Ana Lupaş recalls us that the universal, round grave is the earth itself. However, in alchemic key, the signs of life are everywhere; only a visionary could discover them and to articulate them. The vital signs of an inhabited place have always been, for any human in the world, light and smoke coming out of the house chimney. And then, with the bricks of the place, the artist built smoky chimneys on the symbolical roof of the world, revealing, by a minimal gesture, the unknown inhabited dwellings from the deep. In order for the scenario to be complete, small luminous flashes of lightning reflected in the mirror shards thrust in chimneys at various angles. After all, Ana Lupaş seems to say, it takes very little to signal that we are alive, we only need to give and to receive light and heat. These works are not only about artistic forms, but also about the energy they transmit. This series overturns in its opposite, through a minimal gesture built “in the negative,” the classical effect of “smoke and mirrors” on which the effects of illusionism are based. Ana Lupaş’s metaphor restores those hierarchies which annihilate confusion, phantasmagoric nonsense and the hotch-potch of values. The tautological component was redemptive here, as it was in the wreath-preservation action, i.e. that of literally placing them in a can. This time, smoke and mirrors do not generate illusions, but assert and restore a truth, reminding of the vitality of elementary connections between people and the earth which, one way or another, inexorably contains them. The Preliminary for a Round Grave were reiterated in Budapest in 1991, and then in Bucharest, at the Lacul Morii landfill in 1996. Here, at sunset, in the company of several critics and artists, Ana Lupaş used formworks to shape adobe chimneys in which she thrust the mirror shards in charge of reflecting the light, and filled the air with the smoke of underground ‘“houses.” That primordial material, made of clay and straw, returned the following day to the earth from which it had been taken, but left a strong “carbon footprint” on the spirit of the place and on those who took part in the action for its activation.[23]

This process of internalisation, of “returning home,” accompanied by a renewed valorisation of the body and its outer garments is also expressed by Ana Lupaş in the Identity Shirts series, begun in 1969. Genuine écorchés, themselves taken way beyond the frontiers of the classical language of textile arts, in the manner of the “borrowed clothes” conceived as political vectors towards the end of the 1980s, they become sometimes tragic, emaciated, nomadic apparitions, at other times objects of social camouflage, transitive and derisory, which may be abandoned, borrowed or transformed in ideological vehicles. The “borrowed clothes” series from 1989, which travelled to Sibiu, Cluj, Zalău, Alba Iulia, Oradea, Timişoara, Bistriţa, Suceava, Vaslui, Botoşani, Târgu Mureş, culminated with the Monument of Cloth, exhibited in 1991 in Bucharest in Piaţa Universităţii on the esplanade in front of the National Theatre. The eight wooden supports, the metal scaffold and the one thousand square metres of textiles impregnated with bitumen compose one of the most disturbing installations of the 1990s.[24] My recent visit to Ana Lupaş’s studio assured me that, broadly speaking, “the solemn process” has not ended, on the contrary, it is very much alive and is continuing its progress, in full possession of its long exercised capacity to suffuse with light and warmth even the most impenetrable spaces and interstices of the artistic universe.

Ramona Novicov is a museographer and art critic, Professor at the University of Oradea.