09 June - 29 July 2023




or A Portrait of the Artist as an Open Book

A web of associations connects the works presented here, in Raluca Popa’s second solo exhibition at the gallery, which brings together new and older works. Some of them, in spite of having been made a few years ago, have not been shown before, but they have latently informed or spilled into some of the newer works. Popa collects materials – images, ideas, texts, her own or from others – and weaves them into new shapes and configurations. Her own works can be such materials, until she decides how to reuse, reread, rewrite them.

It is fitting that Raluca Popa considers her works “a collection of sentences and short stories”, although there are neither characters nor narratives in a conventional sense to support this description which goes back to a statement made by the artist a few years ago. As such, this phrase could easily be overlooked or dismissed. To the attentive interpreter, however, it will reveal the thread that runs through Popa’s works, or rather the network of threads connecting them. I came across this curious, almost casually sounding sentence during our previous collaboration, and attached little importance to it at first. What I now believe she means by it is that her works are, in other words, text.

In his extensive study Rereading, literary theorist Matei Călinescu explores a host of concepts, both historical, as well as his own, related to the act of reading – and rereading. Contrary to “classical” literary paradigms, the latter is understood as a process which already occurs during the first encounter with a text. Drawing on Roland Barthes’ theories on authorship, among others, Călinescu describes the first reading of a text as being not only inextricably linked to previous readings from the same category, but also to its successors: the (re)reading of a text (re)activates past and future readings. Or, as Barthes himself put it in his essay The Death of the Author,the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” (1)

Another type of double reading is identified by Călinescu in the way one reads. The “temporal movement of the reader’s mind (attention, recollection, hypothetical anticipation, curiosity, emotional engagement) along the horizontal, syntagmatic axis of the work” can be augmented by the “attempt to ‘construct’ (note the spatial metaphor of the construction site) the text while reading it, or to understand it expressly as a ‘construction’ with clearly determinable structural properties.” (2) Both these modes of rereading imply an active reader: a reader who, as another French author, Michel Butor, observed, will proceed with mentally rewriting the text they are reading by incorporating its world into their own through processes of association, adaptation, imagination. (3)

There are several keywords I mentioned above that have triggered my own reinterpretation of Raluca Popa’s works, and among them are: (re)reading, text as weaving, text as a construction. I find these concepts particularly useful in thinking about Popa’s drawings, videos, photographs, constructed objects, various translations from one medium into another, which are fed by a variety of sources, whether visual, literary, or musical. In this sense, to return to the artist’s statement mentioned in the beginning, text is more than a linguistic body, here, it’s a metaphor for (re)reading. This brings me to another part of Raluca Popa’s artist statement, in which she acknowledges her use of existing (found, appropriated) material. In the visual arts, appropriation of existing material is the work of rereading and rewriting. Popa makes use of this device. 

Works (Scale 1:2) is a box set containing thirteen pocket-sized books of various thicknesses in which the artist reproduced 197 of her own school papers at half their original size in laboriously pantographed handwriting. Although the subtext might convey, to those in the know, certain allusions to the educational system, there is an absurdist, fanciful drift in the serene reenactment of these works whose text becomes the site of a (re)construction. The books, arranged by subjects such as Romanian, Mathematics, French, English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History etc., are opaque, kept, as they are, in their slipcase. The invested labour appears hypothetical, the writing is invisible to the viewer. However, her more recent Perspective, a book she also produced with a pantograph but this time enlarged to defy human scale and give the work a comedic edge, is presented open on a table. This book reproduces Popa’s old school papers on the subject of perspective. Although paradoxically distanced from her past authorship, Popa’s reenactment of her own labour and writing, of, more or less, her past postures and gestures, renders these two works, from my point of view, a peculiar yet apt self-portrait of the artist. Akin to it is another work presented here, Signature, a video which itself adds nuance to the genre of self-portraiture by sequencing the artist’s signature from her school papers to reveal its (her?) transformation in time.

Poem further speculates on notions of legibility and visibility, and engages in an intertextual play with Binocular Drawings and Perspective by requiring the viewer to adopt a particular point of view in space in order for it to “function”. Built after the model used in the Rochester Cloak experiment, a long and slim wooden base holds up four lenses of two different sizes. An object held at a specific point located between the smaller middle lenses “magically” disappears when the correct position is taken up by the viewer relative to the front lens. In Popa’s rereading of this optical experiment, the disappearing object is text, and the text is a poem, or rather a fragment from Berlin-based Turkish poet Seda Mimaroğlu’s volume Love Songs:

A museum exhibit, surrounded by notes, explanations. Gathering dust,
touched only barely.

A rare and precious stroke of hands is reserved for a few.

Why keep coming back to this imaginary place.

Keep coming. To gawk at something that is dead?

Inanimate and reduced to a curiosity.

A metaphor for something overwhelming.

White trees in the blaring sun, eyes hurting, vision blurred.

Why the need to reconstruct a moment

That was catastrophe. (4)

Dismantled into strips of sentences and fed into the magical device, the fragment echoes its conflict in the brief moment of its disappearance. 

The mediated vision has been a subject of Raluca Popa’s works in the past. Another take on it can be found in Binocular Drawings, a series of playful charcoal landscapes drawn, perhaps surprisingly, en plein air. Viewed (appropriated, approximated) through binoculars, the natural landscape is epitomized in five variations of vertical and horizontal shapes resulting from the interplay between eye, mind, and hand. 

This brings me to History. A slide show of 80 photographs of a Berlin landscape (the history-laden artificial hill Teufelsberg) taken from roughly the same panoramic point of view, documents seasonal and atmospheric changes over the course of four years. While Popa’s edit of the slide show sequences the years as a subcategory of the months (first all “Januaries” are shown, then all “Februaries”, etc.), on a number of photographs she intervened with hand-painted trees. These botanical inventions are art historical artifacts, copied – appropriated, approximated – from Cézanne. The painted trees reframe the photographic image emotionally and formally, as if reenacting Cézanne’s pictorial intention. In fact, they become Raluca Popa’s own expression (what does copying mean? mimetic exercises for the incorporation of practical schemata, from which you can recreate but also invent everything you have imitated). (5)

Here I am, surrounding the exhibit with notes, explanations… Since weaving is another topos in Raluca Popa’s work, I will conclude with typographer and poet Robert Bringhurst: “An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns – but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.” (6) This tactile aspect of the text is surprising, or perhaps it has just been forgotten.

(1) Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, in: Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 146. 

(2) My own translation into English from: Matei Călinescu, A citi, a reciti. Către o poetică a (re)lecturii, Humanitas, 2017, p. 38.

(3) See Butor’s collection of essays Répertoire I (1960), Répertoire II (1964), Répertoire III (1968), translated into Romanian in: Michel Butor, Repertoriu, Editura Univers, 1979.

(4) Seda Mimaroğlu, Love Songs, Blue Figure Press, 2021, pp. 4-5.

(5) Paraphrased from: Pierre Bourdieu, Manet: Eine symbolische Revolution, Suhrkamp, 2015, p. 138. 

(6) Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style. Version 3.0, Hartley & Marks, 2004, p. 25. 

Text by Mihaela Chiriac, curator

With the support of

Media partners