Someone has drawn all over the windows of the Nasher. One cartoon taunts incoming Duke freshman with the neologism "Edukeation"; another depicts a parking lot filled with cars outside a building labeled "ecology class."
A third speaks to the changing nature of Durham itself: the word "tabaco" [sic] with the "taba" x-ed out and the letters "ndominium" appended to the end. The most pointed, perhaps, is simply a square labeled "THE SYSTEM," with one corner, folded over, labeled "CRITIQUE OF THE SYSTEM."
It's that corner where Dan and Lia Perjovschi live.
The Perjovschis are visiting Durham this week for the opening of States of Mind, a retrospective on their artistic careers. While Dan has been drawing his trademark cartoons all over the building's windows, Lia has been in a back room, clipping images from a huge stack of magazines for later assemblage. They're a long way from where they started in revolutionary Romania in the late '80s, but in other ways they haven't changed at all.
"There was this decision that every resource we have, material or intellectual, we put into this artistic endeavor," Dan says. "We don't have a Plan B."
"I have a Plan B," Lia interrupts. "If something doesn't work how it is, then I create it my way. This is a little bit of a Plan B."
Lia's work has always focused on this refusal to, as she puts it, "let anybody create my life." An early performance, "Don't See, Don't Hear, Don't Speak" (1987), criticized the culture of silence and surveillance that characterized communist Romania; another, "Test of Sleep" (1988), translated this culture of restrained suspicion to the artist's own body.
"The situation in Romania at that time was that one in six people was an informer—so you never knew who was talking to whom," says Kristine Stiles, curator of the exhibit, while taking me on a brief tour of States of Mind. We see the end result of such an environment in "I'm Fighting for My Right to be Different," a performance piece in which a dummy of Lia's size is brutally beaten by Dan in a darkened basement, with Lia—who had been blacklisted from attending an art academy for years because of her vocal politics—assuming whatever position the dummy lands in.
Dan similarly engaged Romania's troubled past in two huge montages: "Anthropoteque" (1990-1992), a layered collage of more than 5,000 drawings, most of them tiny cartoon people, and "Scan 1993," an even larger canvas with an incredible 50,000 miniscule illustrations. The latter work is hooked up to a slowly moving television camera, perpetually transmitting a blown-up image of a single person to a nearby television screen.
But despite the political nature of their art, Dan is consistently very careful to minimize the role of the artist in the Romanian revolution. "In a way, we and our whole generation of artists, during the dictatorship, we were silent," he says. "There were no dissidents from our sector of society. We were silent then and we became vocal after."
Lia, for her part, is less coy about the artist's role in politics. "If someone is contemplative and poetic in a society in transition, I don't know that this art will help so much. I didn't have the comfort to be poetic. We were having meetings all the time, protests on the street ... so my art started to be more engaged," she says.
Stiles, who has been friends with the Perjovschis since she met them in 1992, says that the Perjovschis' work began to change as Romania opened its borders and they became exposed to the international world at large. In 1993, Dan had the word "Romania" tattooed on his body; 10 years later, he had the tattoo removed, "symbolizing that he now belonged not to one country but the entire world," Stiles says.
Dan and Lia agree with Stiles' characterization of the way their work has changed since the 1989 revolution. "A lot of the issues changed after we started to travel, of course," Lia says. "During the Communist time we didn't talk too much. In between us, or with friends, we would analyze films or books, sure, we were communicating—but all the time it was hard, because we were afraid to touch difficult issues. We were afraid of trouble, let's say. After we started to travel ... I was obliged to explain what I do. So the communication was a little bit more the major thing. And I started to talk."
"I can also define these two periods: in the first period trying to do art objects and the second trying to do projects," Dan adds. "In the first I was trying to create 'works' and in the second, I cannot show them anymore, because they are gone." He is referring here to the ephemeral nature of his most recent exhibitions, such as the massive installation of his cartoons on a wall at New York's Museum of Modern Art, painted over last Monday, or another exhibition in Germany, in which he drew his cartoons on the floor of the museum to be slowly worn away by the shoes of the visitors who looked at them. In Durham, too, the story will be no different—when the exhibition is over, the graffiti-ed windows of the Nasher will be washed.
Lia's work has moved in almost the exact opposite direction, toward a near mania for collection that has included, among other things, timelines, maps and, perhaps most strikingly, a collection of thousands of globes, a portion of which is arranged in the Nasher as part of the exhibit. Another is a collection of tiny paper dolls, each colored uniquely to represent the different sorts of pain Lia has felt in her life, including a bright red doll for the one and only time she ever tried marijuana.
Despite their aesthetic variation, on the level of politics the work of both Perjovschis always remains an outsider's stern critique of power. What has changed is their recognition of power's many insidious forms. "I will, all the time, be on the side of the weak one," Lia says. "Before the revolution, when I was thinking of the dictator [Nicolae Ceausescu], who was really stupid, I hated him. I wanted to kill him, and symbolically I think I killed him each day. But I learned something that's a little bit more complex: We cannot accuse only the guy on top. We all have a part."
"And also not the system in general, so nobody's guilty," Dan quickly interjects.
Lia goes on: "I don't believe that it's the time, in this moment, the time to be on a list or to make noise or yelling at people to wake up. [We need] to build, no matter how small, not only make scandal or destroy. It's too general—destruction is too general. If we don't want to be part of something, then somebody on top will take advantage of this.... On the whole planet, it is always the same story: We are part of something."
States of Mind: Dan and Lia Perjovschi runs through Jan. 6 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The artists will be present, along with writer and NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu, at an opening lecture and reception at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29. The following night, at 5:30 p.m., curator Kristine Stiles will moderate "Perspectives on Romanian Culture: Then and Now," an informal discussion with the artists, Codrescu and other experts in Romanian culture. Both events are free with museum admission. For more information, visit www.nasher.duke.edu.