war on the rocks

Waiting for Better Times in Moldova

May 21, 2015

If limbo is defined as “an imaginary place for lost, forgotten, or unwanted persons and things,” then Moldova is definitely in limbo. At any instant, violent conflict may erupt in this small state at the edge of Europe and Russia. But in the meantime, the country and its people wait for better times. This feeling of uncertainty and neglect has been presented in a collection of works by Moldovan artists in the exhibition “Waiting for Better Times” at the Zachęta gallery in Warsaw. This exhibition presents the work of major Moldovan contemporary artists who show the contradictions of their society through their art. But why do we need to care about these contradictions? Why do we need to care about Moldova, in general?

Moldova is a country situated at the borders of the European Union, landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, and which was part of the Soviet Union until declaring its independence in 1991. Today, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and is also famous for its frozen conflict, the Transnistrian conflict. Transnistria is a separatist region in Moldova, situated between the Nistru River and Ukraine. In 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before Moldova’s declaration of independence, Transnistria declared its independence. A war between Moldova and Transnistria broke out. When Moldovan troops started to advance on the city of Bender, which is on the border between Moldova and Transnistria, Russian troops intervened and they imposed a ceasefire, signed by Moldovan President Mircea Snegur and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The Russian government has never officially recognized the Transnistrian independence. It is not clear why, but it seems that in the first decade of the frozen conflict Russia was trying to negotiate a one-state settlement between the two parties. It is obvious that Russia wants to maintain influence in its “near abroad,” but it also wants to defend a version of international law that protects territorial integrity. What is clear is that until the conflict is resolved, Moldova will remain politically unstable and have very little chance of becoming a candidate for membership in the European Union. Since its independence, Moldovan foreign policy has oscillated between pro-European and pro-Russian orientations. Because of this incongruous attitude, the country’s political transition has often been defined as “ambiguous.”

In June 2014 Moldova signed an association agreement with the EU. This agreement aimed to strengthen economic ties, and installed a visa-free regime of up to three months for Moldovans travelling in Europe. Full membership in the EU, however, is very unlikely. This is, in large put, due to the country’s frozen conflict. A period of uncertainty preceded the signature of the association agreement because EU and Moldovan authorities feared a heating up of the conflict because of the Ukrainian crisis. Even though no violent clashes followed the signature of the agreement, the situation in the region remains tense.

“Waiting for Better Times” is an exhibition which explores socio-political issues characterizing contemporary Moldova. Most of the Moldovan artists who exhibit their work there have a common characteristic: They were born before the collapse of the Soviet Union and witnessed Moldova’s socio-economic transition. The exhibition displays videos, performances, photographs, and paintings. These works of art contain recurrent themes, such as the problem of migration, new borders created by the EU, identity issues concerning the creation of the Moldovan state, and a rampant wave of consumerism which is spreading across the country.

The work of Tatiana Fiodorova, for example, shows the difficulty of a Moldovan transition into the capitalist system and the identity problems arising from this situation. The video “European Clothing” shows the artist going to a market in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, to buy clothes that can help her to look more “European.” In this market, one can find imitations of famous brands at a reduced price. The artist tries on different clothes, but underneath her clothing she continues to wear Soviet unisex underwear. In this performance, the meaning of “being European” is questioned and the struggle between two identities, one Soviet and one European, is revealed. This struggle mirrors the difficulties of the Moldovan transition, suspended between past and future.

An investigation of the concept of being European with a Soviet past is also present in another of Fiodorova’s videos. This performance was inspired by the refusal, without any explanation from the UK authorities, to grant her a visa to visit London. Shocked, Fiodorova decided to express her disappointment through a performance. In this video, the artist is in a big plastic tartan bag (a symbol of Eastern European migrants) with the stars of the EU flag on it. She emerges from the bag, grovelling. Through this performance, Fiodorova questions the perception that Europe has of her as a Moldovan: a migrant coming from a poor country and trying to take advantage of the European system. The Western perception of Moldova is also present in the work of Pavel Brăila and Manuel Raeder. The two artists created a poster in response to a poster for Manifesta4, an event celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. This poster showed a map of Europe with a border dividing Romania and Ukraine, but Moldova was absent. The artists then put a piece of paper on the poster stating: “Probably Moldova Doesn’t Exist.” The message was provocative and humorous, and underlined European indifference towards this country. Europeans sometimes do not even know where Moldova is situated: The country is often confused with Moldavia, a region located in Romania, and some even think that Moldova is part of Romania, as was the case during the Second World War.

The evanescence of Moldovan borders is the subject of “Rothko Politicus –The Joy of Colours. Me and my Girlfriend” by Dumitru Oboroc. Oboroc’s poignant artwork, which was created in 2007 after Romania’s accession to the EU, consists of a painting of a Romanian and a Moldovan passport. Before 2007, he was living in Moldova and had a girlfriend in Romania he would cross the border to meet. But in 2007, he could not cross anymore because Romania had become an EU member and he needed a visa or a Romanian passport if he wanted to see her. This sudden change pushed him to think that a “political situation can affect human beings and their ability to see each other over geopolitically constructed borders.” The painting shows the cruelty of borders that are able to alter “normality.” What before was easy for Oboroc (seeing his girlfriend) was no longer possible. Romanian and EU authorities considered the membership a great achievement to be celebrated, but this decision was not welcomed with the same enthusiasm by Moldovan citizens. These people could not do much to protest this decision. They could only accept it. In his work, Oboroc tries to understand the meaning that borders can have in a war situation. He thinks that borders are only bureaucratic instruments, which would have no meaning if a war broke out. In fact, on one side a border was abolished (with the EU), but a new one was built (with Moldova). This can only provoke increasing tensions in the region.

Oboroc’s painting made me think of Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) by Christa Wolf. This book talks about the psychological division of the two protagonists after the building of the Berlin Wall. The material fence contributes to the construction of the psychological fence, making individuals powerless.

Similarly, Dorin Goian’s photographs of the removal of the barbed wire between Moldova and Romania in the village of Cotrul-Morii foster a reflection about the meaning of borders. In these pictures, Goian captures the moment when the barbed wire was removed thanks to an improvement in the relations between Romania and Moldova. In 2010, the pro-European coalition won the elections in Moldova and the two countries signed an agreement to remove the fence. In my opinion, these pictures do not seem to have a celebrative meaning. On the contrary, I think that they underline a controversial meaning of the border’s abolition. The barbed wire was, in fact, abolished because Moldova was getting closer the EU. As Moldovan authorities decided to be on the “right side,” the wire was removed. Thus, the border can represent a reward and an identity demarcation.

The exhibition made me realise why political art can be disturbing and upset people. While I was visiting the exhibition, I heard, allegedly, that the Moldovan Ambassador in Warsaw had refused to go to the opening. But a few days before I was there, he had visited the exhibition without notifying the gallery. Once there, he said that the artworks were very sad and that these artists should have exalted, not criticised their country. “But in the end,” he said, “this is the way of thinking of artists, not politicians.” He also suggested that the gallery should have put Goian’s photographs at the first floor so that visitors could have seen a great moment in the relations between Moldova and Romania.

The reaction of the ambassador is not surprising. Ambassadors have the duty to promote the image of their country, whereas these artists show the problems which affect it. I think that even though this exhibition harshly portraits Moldovan society, it opens up a space of reflection on politics and society in Moldova. This kind of exhibition needs to be promoted because it informs the public at large about the transitional status of Eastern European societies. As Marina Abramović once said: “Art has to be disturbing, art has to have a prediction of the future, art has to ask questions, and art has to be many things…but beautiful or not beautiful is not the point: it has to be true.”

 

Giovanna Di Mauro is currently working towards a Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the political engagement of artists in Moldova.

 

Photo credit: Aurelian Sandulescu