Such a fantastic body of work to share today by Wroclaw, Poland-based artist Andreea Anghel, whose ongoing project Certej (is) Mine explores the history and implications of a politically and culturally charged environmental disaster that occurred in the Apuseni Mountains of western Romania in 1971 when a dam failed, causing a flood, which led to numerous deaths -- and largely ignored. I'm fortunate to be able to share this wonderful interview, and you can find more information at the bottom of the page!
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Hello Andreea! I would love to know more about you. Are you currently based in Romania?
I've been living and working in Wroclaw, Poland for the past five years and plan on staying here for quite some time. There are two reasons for this: the most obvious one is the fact that, ironically, the costs of living in Romania are and have been higher than in Poland for quite some time now, which means that I can afford to rent a reasonably spacious studio here and still manage to eat and buy art supplies from time to time. The underlying one, however, is that I feared that by staying in Romania I would be perceived simply as I had been during my academic studies, which was 'the chick that draws like a boy' (yes, blame the patriarchy for that quirky remark!). I considered that as long as I stayed in Romania the only opportunities I would have would be figurative-drawing-and-painting-related and I wanted more from myself and especially from my art.
What first interested you in making art?
Well, I've been drawing since before I could read and write, which got me into a lot of trouble because choosing a career in the arts is the same thing as having to bow down to a life of poverty. Things are slowly picking up pace now in Eastern Europe since the art world's focus has (temporarily) shifted on us, which gave me and a lot of my fellow artists a bit of courage.
How or when did you first hear about, or become interested in addressing the Certej mining disaster in your work?
I actually came in contact with Certej by what I consider to be sheer chance. An archive image showing a handful of dead bodies lying on the floor naked side by side popped up in my Facebook feed. Since the image can have a rather repugnant effect on most people, it sparked an interest (kudos to my many activist friends for spreading the word) and got me to do a bit of surface digging on the subject. The context in which the image had been circulating online was the fact that at the end of 2013, there were massive protest in the streets of Romanian cities against a planned gold mining project that would have wiped out an entire mountain in the process, and most probably would have introduced a massive quantity of cyanide in surrounding ecosystems.
What was interesting was the fact that the movement against the mine at Rosia Montana grew into the biggest protests Romania had seen after the bloody Revolution of 1989, which triggered Romania's transition from Communism to Capitalism. What was more interesting to me, however, was the fact that this long-forgotten event from 1971 was Romania's biggest environmental catastrophe, and barely anyone knew about it.
Your underlining reason for creating this body of work is that, through your artistic approach, you've created something of an homage to the victims of the tragedy, because officials have refused to acknowledge, let alone construct any monument, to the dead. Can you tell me more about this?
Yes, what I considered as both hurtful, and, well, to be expected, was that the Communist regime censored the news of the event statewide so that a day of mourning would not have been declared, as this would have resulted in production having to stop in the industry department. So the fact that, to this day, there is no monument, only adds insult to injury. Listening to survivors' recollections of the evens of that night in October 1971 is both harrowing and bitter, but strangely enough, what surfaces is a sense of collective unity in helping each other.
While there are already a few documentaries and lengthy articles about the disaster, when watching them on YouTube you'll notice that most don't have more than 300-400 views, so they are, yet again, virtually buried in the past. So since my initial drive was simply to find out more, I began to sense a different way of perceiving all of this information: by seeing everything from the perspective of belonging, of ownership in relation to our environment, I began to develop parallels and timelines that stretch through time and can be applied in a conceptual way.
Coming back to the planned Rosia Montana mine, at some point the media uncovered the fact that the land on which the mine was projected to be implemented was obtained abusively through real-estate tactics aimed at tricking the landowners (villagers whose main source of income is/was said land) into selling the land fast and cheap or simply wearing them down until they conceded and sold their properties. This resulted in entire villages being virtually sold to the gold corporations (surrounding townships call them 'golden villages') and entire communities having to relocate. Travel back in time and you'll see that after the entire village of Certej was wiped out when a tailings dam full of cyanide gave in after years of neglect by the Communists, it was not rebuilt, as the surviving community of mine workers were simply moved a bit down the hill and the remaining traces of the village were bulldozed.
Can you tell me a bit about your process? Where have you gathered your images from?
While researching, I had a random idea to simply check if I could find the place on Google Maps. Well, to put it simply, the entire flood site can be seen from space, clear as day, almost perfectly intact. To this day, I've been to Certej two times. The first time was simply unbelievable. You're driving through lush fields and forests in the middle of a summer day, and then suddenly you see a gash in the middle of the hill that's flat and grey. As you get closer to it (while, of course, passing houses and farms with people in them...) you start to feel the smell. Cyanide has a rather pestilential smell, and here, over 40 years after the tailings dam ruptured and flooded everything, you can feel it in the air and your eyes get watery. If you simply touch the soil (which looks like the surface of Mars), your skin turns red.
On my first visit, we barely managed to get close to the site as there was security everywhere (there were ongoing rumours that a new mine was to be built nearby...) and we did not want to risk it. So for my second visit I decided to pin it on such a day when I knew most of the guards would have a day off: the first of May, Eastern Europe's Labor Day. The day before we arrived at the site it had rained. This resulted in cyanide puddles forming on the lunar surface (the ones that look like omelettes in the digital prints on concrete) and streams of bloody red water forming through patches of grass and weeds. So all of the imagery used is of the soil itself, taken with a mobile phone. We also took around 50-60 kilos of contaminated soil in bags (all you need are two people and a shovel...) before leaving the site in a hurry, because a security guard had spotted us in the end. We then went to the processing plants, which were in a state of ruin, and while trying to extract a few files from a surviving archive we did get apprehended by a guard, threatened to be handed over to the police for being nosy eco-activists, while trying to slide my phone in my underwear to not be forced to delete what I had already captured.
The neon drawing is of that first archive image I've seen in my Facebook feed. As for the 'Infant' video, I made a small, filmed performance and used it as a backdrop for the testimony of one of the survivors, performed by one of my dear friends Magda whom I considered to have the perfect voice for it (she had no idea I was going to record her in order to get a raw reading out of it).
The footage from the video-mapping are both filmed by me or gathered from different sources such as stock footage or the Fukushima tsunami filmed by witnesses with phones.
The stones and minerals used for the glitchy process prints are all sourced from Romanian mines. The soil collected from the site was used in a variety of ways throughout the project, although probably the most affecting was placing it on the ground in a small, pitch-black, phonically isolated room built by me that had a high frequency tone screeching in your ears in order to try and reproduce what one might have experienced that night (as one can imagine, the smell was what made people cringe).
This series of works has been a couple years in the making; did you have an idea what it would look like when you set out to start making pieces related to Certej, or has it developed as you go?
That was the easiest part, as my modus operandi usually implies that I already have a finished piece in my head and the entire process is oriented towards achieving something that resembles said image as best as it can. It started out as a couple of flashing images in my mind which soon sprawled into an entire system which I then had to organize in a way that would work for the viewer, which means around half of the initial ideas got sacked before I even lifted a finger.
How important do you believe art to be in addressing political or historical issues?
I find it very important, especially when most perceive our current times as 'the end times'. Of course, more important, is not the fact the it is political or historical, but wether it is capable of transcending this. Eastern Europe in particular has seen a recent wave of historically-oriented/sourced contemporary art and not all of it has proven to be positive, as most artists and viewers perceive it as a bit of a saturated subject. Then again, most of my favourite artworks are political and historical, and I find them to be the most engaging.
What has been the most difficult or challenging aspect of pursuing your work, or this series?
To be honest, the most difficult part was trying to be objective enough to be able to grasp how it might be understood by others. Since this has been my first attempt at leaving my comfort zone (drawing and painting), I've had a lot of reticence regarding how others might react. Of course, I've had fellow artists accuse me of exploitation, but then again they themselves admitted to not even bothering to read the artists' statement. I've also had a number of persons who, days after visiting the show, admitted to constantly thinking about it and being marked by it enough to start digging themselves on the subject, which to me is a genuinely uplifting thing. Generally speaking I'm very preoccupied by how my works are perceived and because of this, I delay showing new works for months/years at a time for fear of realising that the work does not say what I feel it should. It's a struggle, but it's beginning to look like it might be a fruitful one.
What is your studio space like?
My studio space is big enough to accommodate both small and large-sized works. It's made out of two, 5-meter tall rooms, one used for storage and one for working. I've been here for one year now and realise how lucky I was finding it, as the rent is lower than average. One might say it looks a bit lofty and posh with one wall made almost entirely out of windows and carpets on the floor and plants everywhere (air purifiers), but my main requirements is to have natural light and be able to walk barefoot. The only downside is that during winter the temperature can drop to around 6 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) but I don't mind that much as long as I'm able to work.
Is there any advice you've received over time that you would share with other artists?
My main advice would be to not follow trends, even if that seems like suicide, especially when it comes to people finding out about you. Probably the best advice I got was from one of my former professors who asked me to try and think about how a work that I made would be perceived in 50-years time, whether it would be still relevant or if it was relevant to begin with. I tend to think like that even when going to exhibitions and coming in contact with other people's work.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, or additional projects you're currently developing?
I've got a small duo-show coming up at the beginning of 2017 with my very good friend and fellow artist Ada Muntean, but I'm not allowed to say where it is yet :) But I'll be showing lenticular prints and I've been working on them for, again, a few years, so I'm very excited to finally be able to show them. I'm also starting to organize a bunch of new media works for a solo show, but of course, some might work out and some might not, and since I tend to work in a site-specific manner it might take a bit to find all of the ingredients for it. Will keep you posted though!
Anything else you would like to add?
I'd just like to thank you for your time and the opportunity to talk about my work. It means a lot to this hermit :)
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