From socialist realism to proletarian surrealism. About kitsch and utopias after the digital revolution in the artistic vision of Laura Covaci.

Interview by Carmen CASIUC

In the context of the contemporary art scene in Romania, Laura Covaci stands out by combining the specific technologies of print and 3D modeling in digital art with the techniques of working in traditional media, such as drawing and painting. Through this creative endeavor, she explores the fascinating connections between political science, new technologies and aesthetics. His works seek to recover artefacts from recent history and reconstruct sensory experiences through which ideological conceptions and discourses infiltrate the individual’s private life. As a representative of a generation that crossed two opposing worldview systems, Covaci conveys a message about man’s struggle for freedom of thought and conscience despite a tumultuous history.

Carmen Casiuc: I would like to begin our interview by acknowledging that your presence in the Romanian cultural landscape has remained discreet despite your artistic reputation receiving validation on the international scene through collaborations with renowned galleries and artists in Europe and America. You emigrated to the United States of America shortly after graduating from the Restoration Department of the University of Arts in Bucharest in 1997. From there, you embarked on a professional journey through Atlanta and New York, and four years later, you returned to Europe, settling in Paris for almost a decade. Since your return to Bucharest in 2015, you have adopted a distinct approach to the social dimension of contemporary art, devoting yourself entirely to your studio practice. What were your main concerns and explorations during this extensive journey?

Laura Covaci: I landed in America instead, compelled by the circumstances of a pivotal moment. There, I collaborated with two prominent galleries in Atlanta and New York, Trinity Gallery and Fay Gold Gallery. Yet, this continent didn’t align with my nature, and I “abandoned” it for Europe, specifically for Paris—despite obtaining what they call an “outstanding visa for artists,” which is certainly not negligible.

While in Atlanta, I finalized “Proletarian Surrealism” (there’s even a work titled “Proletarians in New York”). During my time in Paris, my focus shifted towards the realm of post-humanity under the influence of some remarkable encounters:

2005 / “Transiting” – Paris, Galerie GNG
2008 / “Multiverse” – Paris, Galerie 208 – with Catherine Ikam
2009 / “Bugs’ Season” – Paris, Galerie 208
2011 / “Orphanage / Mutants” – Paris, Galerie 208.

Laura Covaci, “Mutation in Transiting“, gouache on canvas, GNG Gallery, 2005. Copyright belongs to the artist Laura Covaci. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.

I returned to my home country after almost 20 years, and here, over time, the heavy load of my pilgrimage merged with the new registers of my next series:

2015-2022 / “Detachment” – ICR Lisbon / Accademia di Romania – Rome / Victoria Center – Bucharest
2022 / “Mutations” – Victoria Center, Bucharest
2015-2023 / “ITunnel Syndrome”
2016-2023 / “Fog Island”.

Here, I need to clarify something: although the techniques and “style” are often different, and the initial impression may be that of a constant indecisiveness at the level of form, the background is consistently the same from one series to another; the common denominator is this space of concentration and experimentation. Everything that unfolds within my realm is compelled to develop within this topos. During the creative process, it possesses the quality of a minefield. An exit from it can only be envisaged, and it can only be exercised conditionally.

C.C.: How do you define the relationship between the artist and the present society from the solitary standpoint you’ve developed?

L.C.: My comeback to Bucharest has aligned, among other things, with my gradual withdrawal from the world. I quickly sensed that this century’s commotion characteristics would be extreme and ruthlessly dismantle the little that remained from the aura that Walter Benjamin so thoroughly discussed in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There was nothing premeditated; it was a step that presented itself naturally. At an embryonic level, the new spaces needed to expand in tranquility. As someone has rightly pointed out, great things are accomplished under closed doors.

C.C.: Your interest in the human psyche and your ongoing effort to shape “stimuli,” “codes,” and “programs” of control and discipline are visible both in the subject matter of your works and in your artistic techniques. You’ve transformed your studio work schedule into a mechanism for activating the psyche, a personalized program from “9 AM to 5 PM”, around which you’ve restructured your private and social life. When did this self-discipline start? Were there multiple stages before arriving at your current work routine?

L.C.: I’ve always been a “hard worker.” From the day I started painting using one of the kitchen chairs as a makeshift table (when I was ten years old), I decided that the visual arts were the only viable path for me. However, my family gently tried to steer me toward studying Literature, a field that seemed more accessible to me.

My intense work schedule has changed over the years, so I can no longer call it that. Now, it’s about a universe that dictates my relationship to time and is bound to its rhythm. So, I make my presence known during possible or seemingly impossible hours, wherever it opens a breach.

An example of the current breach through which information flows and the construction of the image begins from 2 AM to 9 AM, with constant returns throughout the day.

C.C.: How did you discover your attraction to the digital medium? When did your interest in the forces that the virtual space exerts on the physical plane of reality become defined?

L.C.: The digital “chakra” has been activated in Paris, inspired by conversations with gallery owners, artists, and theorists of the new media phenomenon. For instance, Catherine Ikam and Louis Fleri, with whom I collaborated for the “Multiverse” exhibition at Galerie 208, are among those creators interested in new media approaches. In the 1980s, they had the first digital art exhibition of that period at the Centre Pompidou.

Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, during the communist era, I saw how surrealism-related imagery increasingly descended into the streets – it became embodied, thus becoming part of my everyday universe. These were real situations for me, not just fantasies. The “ITunnel Syndrome” journey has been active for seven years and is a collaborative imaginary endeavor with the ethereal presence of the Belgian surrealist artist Paul Delvaux. I have placed another layer, my universe, over Delvaux’s. Through the transparency of these layers, one can glimpse a two-way path between two worlds. His characters meet mine, and my hybrid characters pave the way to the future for him.

Laura Covaci, “ITunnel Syndrome no.7”, 3D modeling & digital painting, 2015-2020, alongside the work of Paul Delvaux: The Joy of Living. Copyright belongs to the artist Laura Covaci. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.

The second series, which I initiated almost concurrently with “ITunnel Syndrome,” is ” Fog Island” (“Nebula Insula”); it is based on an invention from the 1980s by the scientist John Storrs Hall called “Utility Fog.” This utility fog, which could “populate” a planet, is a hypothetical collection of tiny robots (referred to as “foglets” by the author) capable of replicating a physical structure due to their ability to reproduce any physical instrument necessary for human life. In my case, “The Fog Island” is a utopian place derived from this theory – an embryonic world born, like Aphrodite, from the foam of the “utility fog.” The artworks are populated by beings reminiscent of genetic engineering, who, in their relationship with this alternative reality, USE an array of tools seemingly generated by their imagination.

While these two series might seem profoundly distinct, in reality, “ITunnel Syndrome” harbors within it the galaxy of “Fog Island”.

C.C.: Motifs such as flea markets and kitsch objects are recurrent in the iconography of your creations and blend with futuristic signs and symbols. How do you view the relationship between the history of communism and the posthuman imagination? Was there a conscious effort in merging these two narrative threads in your artistic practice – the first, where you recover the materiality of a historical period from an affective perspective, and the second, where you reconstruct a collective reality in a meta-historical dimension?

L.C.: There was, more or less, an intention, primarily emerging unconsciously at the beginning. For instance, the series “Proletarian Surrealism” only gained its identity much later. I believe that you cannot judge a phenomenon clearly when you are immersed IN it – distance is needed. In the past new yearS, through the tunnel of proletarian surrealism, fragments of my mythology flowed and settled over time, and I found a new realm of expression. The computer screen has become a virtual womb or cocoon for my creations. Within this cocoon, images have settled in an infinite kaleidoscope. It’s a daily effort to organize, discard, and develop them until theIR final version.

Perhaps all the pain that followed through the communist era can be better expressed in such dry, digital formulas, where the only vibration is that of the imperiled subject. One such topic I have named “Operete Macabre,” which unfurls tentacularly in the series “ITunnel Syndrome,” is kitsch. Here, we’re discussing an oversaturation of reality with kitsch elements, particularly the reality of socialist realism (hence, proletarian surrealism), red terrorism, the grotesque idyll of paternalistic kitsch (the parental care of the party), and the heroic kitsch mentioned by Matei Călinescu in his dialogues with Ion Vianu. “ITunnel Syndrome ” takes up this theme and updates it. Beneath the paradisiacal “bad taste” sweetness lurks a sanitary-experimental nightmare that will fully encompass the next series, “Fog Island”.

C.C.: Regarding your visual works, you also maintain a journal of thoughts, reflections, and personal memories. How do you view this instrument in your artwork? Can you identify some key moments that led you to construct your hybrid characters between humans and other forms of intelligence?

L.C.: Alongside my recent series, I’ve also created “Clinical Sheets” for the artworks. They originate from the graphic surface of Photoshop – the battlefield – where flashes of my inner discourse during the work process are recorded. Currently, these “Clinical Sheets” are only concealed creative writing.
I can provide a few examples.

ITunnel Syndrome:
Umbrella dress/mourning / plastic circles/bio
Mutant era/drone butterflies
Creator/devourer of worlds
Sleepwalking flower/microbe – bovine/seeds of the world
Magic lantern/ammunition
Greenpeace / terror
iPad / autism/hypnosis
Antipa / worlds – exhibit/birthmark

Clinical File “ITunnel Syndrome No. 3”. Copyright belongs to the artist Laura Covaci. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.

The Fog Island:
Radiogram ladder / Ioan Scărarul – the symbolism of the dancing step / coercive choreographies
Lamella – window/experiment/confinement
Totem syringe / distant syringe/drop of serum fertilizing worlds
Garou / stem/microbe flower
File man / indexed / number man/object man
Neonic blood / neonic fog
Fog generator / grand coordinator /
Pandemic fairy / induced hypnosis/alignment/integration

Clinical File “Fog Island”. Copyright belongs to the artist Laura Covaci. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.

As for the key moments, I can say that the initial posthuman insertions that triggered hybrid appearances occurred with the “Transiting” series in 2005 and developed further through the digital programs I have been working with. I extract only what corresponds to my current approach from this Pandora’s box represented by artificial intelligence (AI). There’s a virtual common pit where I throw thousands of layers until I decide to bring forth something for the final artwork. Grafting the living onto the virtual and vice versa is highly challenging, as they tend to repel each other.

C.C.: Has your creative process been impacted by adopting intelligent programs and digital interfaces within your artistic practice?

L.C.: The virtual realm often facilitates representations inaccessible to me via traditional approaches, such as explosive openings toward unearthly materials and colors. Moreover, the digital space can refine the trajectory of embodying an idea in an image down to microscopic details. Over time, my visual memory has absorbed this characteristic of the medium and has become visible even in some standard undertakings.

My eye has transformed due to the “digital magnifying glass” we call a screen. Through practicing in the virtual microcosm, it can now recognize imperceptible information beforehand. These changes are reflected in my more recent paintings and drawings. For example, the manuscripts of “Nebula Insula,” which I’m currently working on, are a perfect example of what I have mentioned above.

Photo of the “digital magnifying glass” screen in which the image was built
Laura Covaci, “Fog Island”, pencil drawing. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.

We are experiencing a tremendous leap from the totalitarianism of a Bolshevik nature to a digital one. I’m trying to float in a lucid delirium above these tectonic moveS making history these days. Looking at past, present, and future all at once, like the three-headed oracle in “ITunnel Syndrome,” I repeat what Cioran predicted long before me: humanity will endure, and I sign/date all the works based on a calculation by Vintilă Horia: MMLI, initials of the four evangelists – 2051 – the end of a cycle / the end of this world.

Laura Covaci, “ITunnel Syndrome no.3” (in the background the Fortune teller with 3 heads), 3D modeling and digital painting. Copyright belongs to the artist Laura Covaci. Reproduction courtesy of the artist.
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