June 18, 2020


Transgression as Instrument for Capitalist Power Play (Queer Culture in Romania III)

“during the opening of the event is was presented an musical sodomized abjection, promoted from public governmental money (meaning from our money) witch in fact, was promoting a tribute to LGBT trans activists” was writing few days ago in romanian conservative media, being disturbed by the presence of FLUID – Paul Dunca/Paula Dunker și Alex Bălă at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. The online attack shows how the presence of queer bodies on the romanian cultural scene continues to be an act of resistance. 

The representation of queer bodies in Romanian art was introduced by a generation of artists grown with a desire to celebrate “freedom of speech” and destroy the conservative shift recently affirmed in local culture immediately after 1990. In the state of confusion that dominated the reshaping of cultural institutions and artistic practices during the first decades after the violent end of the communist regime: the desire for freedom was the common sense of most so-called neo-avant-garde cultural makers. A dialectical tension between those reconnecting with experimental avant-garde practices versus the dominant voices of neo-traditionalist creators, the defenders of the Christian-Orthodox national values, was the subject of strong debates, scandals shaped in writing, simulating an atmosphere of an intellectual war in culture, akin to the passionate pages of debates during the interwar period. This flash-back to the twenties was how several generations of artists educated during the communist times were celebrating freedom of speech, while making efforts to understand the artist’s place along the new possibilities to travel and connect in a global art system. In a sense, everyone was disoriented, all the groups had their conservative limits. The lack of instruments to reflect upon the trauma of living half of a century under different totalitarian regimes that flattened racial and gender differences into state production machines and normalized all sexualities in state-reproduction cells, though violent repressive means (the legal punishment for homosexuality and abortion) made the queer body an easy subject to be capitalized on the new rising local cultural politics of scandal.

At the beginning of the nineties a strong and understandable desire to escape communism made Romanian society an easy place for religious propaganda. The political incoherence of the state made way for a rise in power of the Orthodox Church, strongly re-affirming in society the nationalistic core of the identity politics. “One of the few Romanian institutions untainted by communism was the Orthodox Church, which, after 1989, strongly emerged in the public sphere, with the presence of several priests becoming de rigueur at all public events.  The Orthodox Church became very active in politics too, and it also managed to partly appropriate the discourse on Romanian values.”[1] Orthodox values immediately occupied the production of culture in most local institution, by then in the process of reconfiguration. The context was favorable for mainstreaming in culture a generation of abstract mystics, supporters of strong conservative values, in line with the Christian ideology. Their presence in culture was based on a rising myth: the inner resistance against communism through cultural means. But the church-culture love affairs were interrupted by new generations of “capitalist artists” at the end of the first decade of the nineties. The artworks that started provoking the religious triviality of Romanian art easily turned out to be scandalous.

The “Rostopasca” group improvised a politics of scandal in culture with the declared purpose to challenge the respectability of conventional visual paradigms.  They successfully disturbed the art world in Bucharest between 1997 and 2000, being considered the first representatives of the turn to capitalism in Romanian art. The young Angela Botnaş, Nicolae Comanescu, Dumitru Gorzo, Alina Penţac, Alina Buga, Mona Vătămanu and Florin Tudor returned to the historical avant-garde vocation of scandalizing while criticizing the “aging” and “retardation” directions that were dominating the Romanian contemporary art scene. Susan Sontag remarked that “modern art’s chronic habit of displeasing, provoking, or frustrating its audience can be regarded as a limited, participation (…)”[2] that can prompt to question the ecstasy of consuming “degenerate art”. Rostopasca opened the path for playing with transgressive images in the national artistic space. Out of the whole group the most vocal, scandalously speaking, was Dumitru Gorzo: he was jumping from breaking one taboo to another, seducing his audience to “accept the unacceptable.” Gorzo’s last century male gaze chasing subjects to obsessively situate himself as the scandalous “enfant terrible” of Romnanian contemporary art was proven to be a successful choice, in certain groups. After this short age of scandals, an empty transgressive aesthetics was normalized in culture.  

As defined by Michael Foucault “transgression” is a concept that refers to the exploration of sexuality outside the normative religious constructs of sin: “profanation in a world that no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred is this not more or less what we might call transgression?”[3]Its revolutionary potential that resists in the assumption that a potential transgressive image “serves as a glorification of what it excludes: the limit violently opens into the limitless, finds itself suddenly carried away by the content it had rejected and fulfilled by this alien plenitude that invades it to the core of its being.”[4] It is meaningful also to keep an eye on Sontag’s observation: “the history of art is a sequence of successful transgressions.”[5]


Gorzo included the representation of queer bodies on his scandalous agenda introducing a series of “nightmares” in his personal exhibition “GORZO/SALVE FIAT ROMULI NEPOS” opened at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest (October 5 – December 15, 2006) and The Brukenthal Museum (January, 1 – 15, 2007). The expected scandal did not come. Gorzo was awarded for his successful machismo promoted through little scandals with a personal exhibition curated/supported by two of the most trusted women curators at the moment: Ruxandra Balaci and Liviana Dan. The artist reductionist statement: “the exhibition is not about something. I didn’t mean anything, just to paint”[6] is the ultimate artistic weapon used in defense to any critical interpretation. Placing the subject outside intentional meaning is rooted in the myth of the artist as an ascetic innocent being, streaming a pure consciousness, un-affected by the real. The exhibition is an exhibitionist inventory of Romanian peasants, painted in a realist register, represented with decency, dignity and why not, national pride. To these “normal” figures Gorzon opposes some “monsters from his dreams” that he easily dismisses as the “kitsch of the contemporary”. I won’t question Dumitru’s dreams in Freudian terms even if the artist places the narrative into the personal sphere: “this is a story about Maramureș and about myself built like a book.”[7] Dumitru Gorzo has sweet dreams with Romanian peasants and nightmares with soldiers, witches, queer bodies (ostentatiously named “chicks with dicks” and “hermaphrodites” in the exhibition).  

How do we look at these images? What was the context that facilitated the production of Gorzo’s exhibition? Where are the taboos? How can a taboo be crossed in an acceptable way? What meaning do they have in relationship with the time in which they were produced? Is there anything acceptable about the unacceptable? Before continuing to look specifically art Gorzo’s work: let’s localize the transgender body in Romanian culture at the moment of the exhibition. Homosexuality has been legal only since 2001, but without it becoming a topic in culture. The place of queer bodies in the public space was rejected with violence, attacks, insults, symbolic erasures. 

“The GayFest has been assigned to a route in the new part of Bucharest since it began in 2005, a space that primarily signifies the erasure of pre-socialist society under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The anti-gay fest march, which named itself the March of Normality, parades on the route that the fascist Iron Guard movement used for popular public rallies in the 1930s. Departing and returning to the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church for sermons on the threat of homosexuality to the Romanian family, the Normality March route traced Calea Victoriei , passing the major sites of the 1989 anti-communist revolution. Compared with the GayFest route through communist apartment blocks of the 1980s, the Normality March route through historic Bucharest inscribed the claims of the participants within the public space: that Romanian heritage is threatened by new external ideologies and values. In the rhetoric of the Normality March, the European Union, representing neoliberalism from the West, replaced the godless Communism of the East as a threat to Romanian values.”[8]

Mass media was doing its best to demonize the parade, pointing to the “abnormality” of the few trans women sex workers who were out, building space with their bodies, under the death threats of the anti-gay protesters. The journalists’ interest for sensationalizing the subject made the queer body an immediate victim of sinful shame. There was no difference between the LGBTQAI letters, no shape of identity politics. All in all, the pride protesters were just one demonic body of lust threatening the social Christian order. In this context is important to pay a tribute to Naomi: a transgender woman determined to succeed as a pop singer. Her presence in show biz was actively challenging the normative gaze. Her failure is iconic. She abandoned her fight after some years of fearlessly challenging normative politics of exclusions standing in the way of a so called successful musical career. She was literally ridiculed, attacked, dismissed, ashamed, beaten, trimmed and thrown in the garbage bin. Naomi’s presence in show biz was a brave act of resistance. Her fragile feminine body carrying in the world a story of abuse could have been transformed by this desire to make music into a story of revolutionary self-healing generating social change. It could have been the rise of a beautiful queer movement Her strong voice was silenced by the power of transphobia, which was just then being articulated between the local hate speeches. Naomi left Romania to survive. The real body doesn’t have space in life. 

The monstrous body as an aesthetic practice was tempting. It was radically new, its visibility is part of the achievements of the neoliberal “freedom of speech” Eurocentric directions in culture. Sexuality is becoming a subject in a queer way. Exposing the shameful other was an yet another enclosure in the repetition of the limit, specific to any transgressive act: an affirmative contemplation will always fail in reinforcing the specific norm that it is hoping to dismantle. Perhaps transgression is not enough, it is just a reductionist scenario in the capitalist power play that emphasizes fetishization over representation. When I was younger, with fewer instruments to question and more enthusiasm to dream about the possibilities of transgression, I paid the wrong tribute to normative culture in creating some meaning within the scandal ignited by transgressive gestures of contemporary art. My scholarly essay written during a MA exercise to understand Foucault introduces more local artistic productions labeled as “degenerate” for their transgressive aesthetics: Transgression – a discourse of actuality in Romanian contemporary art?. While disagreeing with my previous opinions, I find it important to look back and place the roots of the current normative culture: the silent aestheticization of anything is possible. Scandalous art is the new good art, while the bad art is political, critical, vocal. The representation of queer bodies is allowed as long as the “freak show” remains a subject of fetishization (and consumption) that puts on display the degeneration of the contemporary sexualized human while mourning the loss of “true (Christian) values”. 


notes from the most recent history (romanian language only): 

Paul Dunca/Paula Dunker – Arta queer în România există și trebuie să ocupe spațiu în cât mai multe muzee și instituții de stat. Punct! 




[1] Gabriel Andreescu – The Emergence of a New Radical right power: the Romanian Orthodox Church.

[2] Susan Sontag  – “The Aesthetics of Silence” in Styles of Radical Will, Penguin Classics 2009, p. 6.

[3] Michael Foucault – “A preface to Transgression” in  Aesthetics, method and epistemology, Penguin Books 2000, p. 70

[4] Ibidem p. 73

[5] Susan Sontag Op. Cit. p. 8

[6] Dumitriu Gorzo “Expozitia nu graviteaza in jurul a ceva. Nu mi-am propus altceva decat sa pictez” in Business24, Friday, 06 October 2006

[7] Ibidem

[8]  Shannon Woodcock “Gay Pride as Violent Containment in Romania: a Brave New Europe” in Sextures 1(1): 1-17


Valentina Iancu

Valentina Iancu (b. 1985) is a writer with studies in art history and image theory. Her practice is hybrid, research-based, divided between editorial, educational, curatorial or management activities ...

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