Dan Perjovschi’s Erasable World

“All art was once contemporary,” reads a scrawl above the entrance to the Harn Museum’s ongoing “Highlights of the African Collection” exhibit.  It’s a reminder of the temporal and ever-evolving nature of art, and, by extension, of life itself.  The scrawl was made by the Romanian visual artist Dan Perjovschi, who has contributed what he calls a “performance” to the Harn’s Project Europa:  Imagining the (Im)Possible, running through May 9, 2010 at the Gainesville, Florida museum.

Mr. Perjovschi has been on an extended tour since he first came to international attention at the 1996 Venice Bienalle.  Part picaresque political bad boy, part rock star, part Everyman, the artist roams the art world with a mental portfolio, a tiny notebook, and a handful of black Edding permanent markers.

When the Project Europa exhibit closes, Mr. Perjovschi’s work will be erased and left to the memory of the viewer, who can only take the visual experience home in his mind’s eye.  If memory is fleeting, so are many of the events that drive Mr. Perjovschi to cartoon them.  Other events are continuous cultural touchstones.  Whether painful, joyful, idiotic, or ironic, the cartoons are instantly recognizable (and often embarrassing) reminders of the human condition.

That the condition is both widely universal and is also emblematic of a rapidly shrinking world is clear from Mr. Perjovschi’s ability to take site-specific referents and temporarily incorporate them into his “greatest hits” album without slowing or interrupting the flow of the recurrent work.  A drawing of the artist with an alligator’s tail (a reference to the University of Florida football team) shares space with the revivalist “Say cheese…Camembert” drawing that has made the rounds of similar performances.

Mr. Perjovschi’s repetition and reuse of image mirrors our own tendency as a global society to repeat ourselves, sometimes disastrously.  The artist has flexibility and adaptability, adding or subtracting with ease, in a way that makes the global difficulty of adaptation seem to be a factor of a fear and rigidity absent from Mr. Perjovschi as he “rolls” images from one show to another, making changes “according to the new topics.”

The transient nature of Mr. Perjovschi’s work defies commodifying while turning the quotidian event or exercise into a commodity for our pleasure or chagrin.  It might be argued that the artist himself is the commodity, in the sense of his perfomative value and in his roaming from site to site on a far wider and faster scale than the traditional touring exhibit.  The frequent exposure also means that the work can be continuously affected by the immediate in a way the news is and an oil painting is not; the world is mutable, its boundaries and rules changing in the instant that it takes us to turn on the TV or to log on to the Internet.

In Gainesville, Mr. Perjovschi works in the Harn’s rotunda, which gives the sense of a theatre-in-the-round, and yet, according to the artist, without having narrative circularity.  A strong comment about America appears in “An American Story,” which Mr. Perjovschi presents as Michael Jackson, saying that he likes the story of the late musician because it is full of metaphors.  “Non-man, not kid…very strange.”  Jackson’s face is first scribbled in with the black marker, and then it is colorless and obscured by sunglasses and a handkerchief.  “We eat him, we cannibalize him,” Mr. Perjovschi said.  Jackson made a major impact on Romanian culture when he performed there in 1992, in the type of foreign artistic exhibition that Mr. Perjovschi notes was exactly what the totalitarian Ceasescu regime had prohibited Romanians from seeing.

Jackson’s premature death was the end act of a long and bizarre trajectory from a false appearance of normality to a fake appearance of race: Is this really America?  How must our mawkish fascination with Jackson’s demise, the ongoing and intense media scrutiny, and the pathetic funhouse nature of the life and death of the singer look to the world?  Is his the true American story, and is he the great fictional representative of the Boomer Generation, a color-coded character exposing the American Dream as a quick-change Manichean nightmare?

At the time of Jackson’s death, it seemed that way.

There is a European Union story as well, or a European Union-American story.  This story, given with words unaided by cartoon, simply says:  “A US-EU Story:  Polanski.”  Above “Polanski,’ Mr. Perjovschi has written and scratched out “Relation.” “You have the unbelievable story of Polanski,” Mr. Perjovschi says.  “He won an Oscar but still raped.” One way to illustrate attitudinal differences is to reduce them by legal attitude, using Polanski as a symbol.  There are “two ways of thinking; they are contradictory.  How (do) you deal with this?  Across the ocean, you deal (with) it different.” Polanski is internationally polarizing; his long self-exile in Europe and subsequent arrest has acted as a yardstick by which to gauge cultural, legal, and philosophical separation.  In America, Polanski is a child rapist.  This felonious act has diminished the director’s familial tragedy and the validity and historical value of his contributions to film.  Of France, where Polanski lived for over 30 years without fear of extradition, Mr. Perjovschi comments, “This is an enormous artist; (do) we have to “ban” the law because of him?”  Referring to America, “These guys here, they say “No way!”  Mr. Perjovschi’s selection of Mr. Polanski as a representative of the gulf in attitude is quirky, amusing, and a bit alarming:  Our differences may be pinched into the judicial fate of a movie director.

Reflection on the middling dreams of the middle class is also presented without cartoon but with interrogative (“Middle class have middle dreams?”).  Another recurring piece, it’s a mild skewering of the American status quo, and yet one that delivers the ultimate knockout punch:  Somehow, we’ve lost our desire to transcend the mall, the skim-milk latte, the McMansion, and the Wal-Mart.  It’s the ubiquity of the strip-mall culture that Mr. Perjovschi has noticed, and how it is expressed through the acceptance and perhaps glorification of the comforts of sameness.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a parallel universe likewise encroaches upon—and is welcomed by—the European Union.

In some drawings, the familiar becomes the friable.  “Choices:  Ultra Hot or Bloody Cold” appears with a rendering of Styrofoam cups, one holding a boiling liquid and the other an overly iced one.  In a time when there is more choice than ever, we strangely seem to suffer a lack of it.  There is no middle ground, and this drawing perhaps more than any other encapsulates the exhilarating quality of Mr. Perjovschi’s work; this simple sketch is both a comment on polarization and of our strange impulse not to demand balance.  It is instantly recognizable as a comment on lawsuit-happy America, while also becoming an international meme.   If we cannot regulate the temperature of our beverages, how can we regulate ourselves?

At the same time, Mr. Perjovschi’s work takes into account shifting perspectives.  A forearm thrusting a Molotov cocktail during the race riots of 1968 now holds a “Cola Zero,” making the soft drink into a powerful contemporary political statement:  Marketing now usurps revolution.

A lonely remark about the isolation of the road occurs in a simple illustration of Perjovschi’s local tenure as artist-in-residence.  Using directional arrows, he moves only between hotel and museum (across the street from one another); this theme is familiar to the touring performer, whether actor, musician, businessman, or artist.  Regardless of occupation, the individual becomes lost in the closed-off anonymity of the migratory worker, the “common foot soldier” of The Rolling Stones’ cynical  “Salt of the Earth”; the drawing is of the process of repetition without the promise of release.

Mr. Perjovschi’s playful sensibility resonates throughout the Harn rotunda; while his work is serious, it is not pedantic.  On a lower corner of the rotunda’s entrance he has drawn a man on a ladder, an artist who is scribbling on a wall.  It is one of a few self-referential works in the exhibit.  At the base of the ladder stand what appears to be tourists, both dressed in that type of oversized, shapeless shorts that, if rendered in color, would be khaki.  The figure closest to the ladder seems indignant at the apparently facile artistic output.  Its mouth wide, evoking cartoonist Charles Schulz’s eternally disgruntled Lucy, the figure protests:  “I can do this,” as if “this” is the simplest thing in the world.

“Yes, you can,” the figure on the ladder responds.

The meaning is clear. In Mr. Perjovschi’s erasable world, anyone can. The question he seems to be asking is whether we can trump quietism and try.