Dan Perjovschi presents his satirical cartoons on the walls of the world’s museums
It was 2007 and Dan Perjovschi had just finished drawing on a wall in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York when a security guard approached him.
Dan, I was just about to lose my job because of you, she said.
He asked what he had done.
I was watching you draw and I was laughing, she explained. My supervisor came and said ‘You’re here to protect the art, not laugh.’
Dan laughs as he tells me the story days before opening his new exhibit. It’s five years later and he’s in Reykjavík, drawing on the walls of the D Gallery on the second floor of Reykjavík Art Museum’s Hafnarhús building. The walls are a pristine white, save for the drawings he’s already completed spread out across the room. On the table he has a few possessions—a black leather notebook full of sketch ideas, several black markers as thick as broom handles, his jacket, other supplies and a cup of coffee, no cream, no sugar.
For over a decade the Romanian born artist has been travelling the world drawing his simple, yet thematically complex cartoons on the walls of museums. While visiting a gallery in Germany, Dan says a Reykjavík Art Museum curator saw his and instantly thought of the room on the second floor of Hafnarhús. After completing this exhibition “News From The Island,” he will head off to Milan, where he’ll have another week or so to turn four white walls into an art exhibit.
A TEN-YEAR WORLD TOUR
The thing about painting on the walls is that, at some point, someone from the museum is going to come in and paint over everything. With a few exceptions—the walls of the National Technology Library in Prague, his published books and digital images of his work—all of Dan’s works are short lived.
For Dan this has slowly become part of his practice. He likens the experience to a musician playing a concert. “When the concert is over you go and play in the next one. So I’m on a world tour, it’s just taking 10 years,” he says.
There is also freedom to his short-lived works. Dan has a number of drawings he recycles, changes and adapts to another era. If he doesn’t like the version he drew in 2009, he can try it again in another museum in another country. If the politics surrounding a certain drawing change, he feels free to address those changes.
“When I know that these are not meant to stay forever then I’m more free to draw. I’m not scared that maybe ten years from now people will not understand this statement,” he says. “I’m very free to express myself and maybe next time when I’m drawing the same drawing in another city on another wall maybe I can do it better.”
UNREST IN BUCHAREST
Dan was born in Romania in 1961, twenty-eight years before Romania’s communist regime was overthrown. Under the regime, Dan was put through a series of art schools for talented children, from the age of 10 until he graduated from the George Enescu University of Arts of Iasi in 1985. After four years of working in Romania’s underground art scene and avoiding censorship, Dan and the rest of the world watched Nicolae Ceauescu’s regime fall on December 22, 1989.
For Dan, this was an “essential change” to his development as an artist.
“I’d been studying oil painting in a communist regime and I switched to graphic art because I thought painting was too slow. And then this revolution came and for the first time in the recent history of my country they could print what they thought. There was no censorship.”
This new freedom, to print without censorship and travel without restrictions, led to Dan’s transition from an artist concerned with purely visceral art to an artist drawing with a political message in mind. He began drawing political cartoons for 22 Magazine, a Romanian publication named for the day the regime fell.
“Because it was a political and social magazine I had to deal with real life,” he says. “Not my idea of beauty or whatever—not the contemplative society but being in the society.”
NEWS FROM THE ISLAND
All that’s not to say that Dan’s drawings aren’t funny. You can laugh. He expects you to. He might even be a little upset if you don’t. But when you laugh, he wants you to “get it”—he wants you to understand both the joke and its bigger political and social context.
“You can laugh, it’s okay, but if that kind of laugh can make you think, that’s even better,” he says. “These here are very simple drawings that are meant to make people laugh, but laugh intelligently.”
With three days until the exhibit opens to the public, he gives me a tour of his work so far. So far each wall seems to have a unifying theme: society’s addiction to technology, the economy or recent global events. He has a wall devoted to Iceland—the exhibit is called “News From The Island,” after all. There’s a cartoon about the debate over joining the European Union and one on the bank bailouts. Higher on the wall he’s drawn a volcano (labelled tragedy) erupting lava (souvenirs). And there’s the mandatory comment on Icelandic weather, a drawing about the intense winds the week of Dan’s arrival.
“It’s always first about the politics of the moment, both globally and locally, then it’s about the society, how it looks, how it behaves,” Dan says of his themes. “Then it’s about the cultural aspect.”
There is also a good amount of wordplay on the walls. For Dan, who says he considers himself to be a part of the Dadaist tradition of destroying order in literature and art, images and texts are the same thing. Breaking apart the English language, then, is just as much of a drawing as a picture.
Not being a native English speaker, he says, also gives him a more distant and less reverent view of the language.
“English is not my native language, so I can maybe break it in way that maybe a native speaker wouldn’t. I don’t have this attachment. I can look at it from afar and play,” he says.
CONTEMPORARY ART FOR EVERYONE
Perhaps one of the subtler goals of Dan’s work, however, is to create a type of contemporary art that’s accessible to everyone, which leads us back to MoMA.
The MoMA exhibit began while the walls were still empty. Museum goers could walk through the lobby where Dan worked, and talk to him, watch him work and see how the art came together. His conversations could contribute to his work, or give him a sense of who his audience was. When a group of eight-year-olds walked by, he was able to ask them which drawing they thought was most interesting. They chose one on immigration.
There are benefits to being on display, Dan says, but still, it was weird, and not something he’d prefer to do again.
“I had to be the monkey on the wall, but I did it with pleasure because I think it’s fantastic when people see how the work is done,” he says. “Contemporary art sometimes is very scary for normal people because they don’t understand it. But a bond is created when they see it, how it’s made. For a lot of people there it was probably a very interesting experience.”
Even if Reykjavík won’t get to see the pictures drawn, the hope is that the mutual understanding between the artist and the audience will still be there.