by Madeleine Tranter

The Landscape is Changing, 2003

Cultural identity is recognized in many ways, whether it be a prominent relationship with a history or simply the recognition of and sense of belonging to a nation, religion or community. It could be the labelling of a generation as ‘Baby Boomers’, or simply the sense of pride felt when your country wins an Olympic medal, and any variation of such identification in between. We all encounter aspects of our cultural identity on a daily basis which manifests through the actions of dialogue, creation, and intellectual activity. What is important is that each of us develops relationships with the external factors in our physical environment, because these factors help to shape who we become and connect us to those with mutual feelings of cultural understanding.

Double Heads Matches (detail), 2002-2003

As positive as the above examples are, cultural identity can also have a negative impact. For Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, many of his works often leave an impression of anxiety or discontent with viewers. Most discernible would be Double Heads Matches (2002-2003) wherein the artist halted the routine production of a Romanian match factory in order to create an illegal product: a match with the ability to be lit on both sides. This adjustment renders the product possibly more efficient as well as undeniably more dangerous. By adjusting and documenting the process of Romanian factory production, the artist inserts both his creativity and a sense of potential destruction into the otherwise well-oiled, factory machine. By doing so in his home country, Mircea accesses memories of growing up in Romania during a transitional and very tumultuous period from state socialism to liberal democracy. It is a visual rendering of the emotions connected to a national identity. Additionally, the artist is showcasing his need to “remake” rather than “create the new”. This idea is shown through the manipulation of the mechanic process to alter the matches rather than inventing an entirely new product. Moreover, it is an evolving practice Mircea has stated is crucial in his role as an artist and can be seen in many of his other exhibiting works.

Another piece which touches on the notion of a prominent cultural identity is titled The Landscape is Changing (2003). In this documentary-like film, Mircea Cantor has composed a pseudo-demonstration resembling the various protests he encountered in Tirana, Albania. As opposed to providing any form of social or political demand, the artist constructed a neutral protest by replacing the protestor’s placards with mirrors. This manipulation allowed the demonstrators to march through the city reflecting only the landscape, an undeniable and unbiased truth. As a cultural critique it pokes fun at protests but also, and more seriously, questions their validity within a political climate such as Albania or Romania. Will public demands ever be taken seriously enough to create change?

Deeparture, 2005

Romanian critic and curator Mihnea Mircan has summarized the generation of artists that Cantor is associated with as “allergic to utopia”. That being said, we often see a sense of optimism resulting from the ever-present suspense and danger within Cantor’s works. For example in his video Deeparture (2005), which exposes the vulnerability of a deer and wolf as they acclimate to each other’s presence within an unnatural gallery environment, we feel a sense of lurking risk and instability. The anxiety that the animals impose on the viewer is balanced with the eventual dissatisfying contentment we feel as the seemingly imminent danger never materializes. In Rosace (2007) on the other hand, Cantor’s optimism is more explicit. The materials used in this mandala-like window were gathered in a way wherein mutual trust and universal understanding outweighed regulated norms such as currency and law.

Mircea Cantor is an idealist for both his art and his national identity; not nearly as cynical as Mihnea Mircan previously suggested. While the artist plays with a sense of identity through his use of fingerprints, DNA strands, and themes of reinvention, he is not attempting to “export pain, but to stress the fact that what happened [in Romania] and still happens elsewhere, can be described as part of a universal language”. He is creating material culture based on cultural identity in order to connect with those who feel a similar relationship to their culture and also to propose a plan for moving forward. This sometimes specific but often ambiguous cultural identity is extended when Cantor is asked where he currently resides. His response? Earth; a cultural identity we all embody.