NORTH ADAMS -- Ro man ian artist Matei Bejenaru has come to the Berkshires not only to introduce his work to the art community, but to find common ground between post-communist Europe and post-industrial New England.
"Art into Life, Life into Art: Matei Bejenaru's Socially En gage Art Practice" is showing at The Artery at 26 Holden St.
The show at The Artery is a retrospective of Bejenaru's work, along with a new piece based on interviews he has conducted with North Adams residents. Bejenaru is multidisciplinary, with a passion for performance and public work, but also known for his photography projects capturing life in Romania. With last year's "Prut," he documented the lives of villagers on either shore of the Prut River, which has recently become the border for the eastern side of the European Union.
Previously, his photographic series "M3: Work, Memory, Movement" concerned itself with the various faces of labor in Romania, from factory work ers to researchers, and captured the breadth of what the modern worker looked like as a way of addressing the worth of labor in the post-communist world.
Bejenaru has also crafted social satire, as with his installation and brochure "Traveling Guide," which, through the parody of travel brochures, claimed to offer Romanian citizens helpful information on entering Britain without ob taining a visa.
Bejenaru has also directed a number of videos, often investigating the immigrant
Bejenaru had an engineering career in his 20s, but had always been enticed by the thought of pursuing art. After the fall of communism in 1989, he decided a new beginning was in order. The world around him was stripping down and starting over, why not him?
"My passion and my interest for making art was not as a Sunday amateur artist," Bej enaru said. "I was painting in the beginning. I used photography initially to document my performances. Slowly, I looked at it as an artistic medium."
Though a drift away from communism might have had obvious perceived benefits for the country -- specifically, the freedom of opportunity -- and for Bejenaru as an artist -- the freedom of expression -- there were also the down sides that Bejenaru says are less known outside of the former Iron Curtain. He admits to feeling the loss of the positives and these are part of what he has devoted his artistic practice to investigating.
"Social solidarity disappeared in post-communist society today, as well as an interest for industry and technology," he said.
As a reaction to this, social engagement became a crucial part of Bejenaru's art. Sometimes, it takes the form of public performance. Other times, the social portion lurks behind the work as part of its invisible structure -- the conversations and stories that result from doing photographic work, as well as the issues captured in those images. Bejenaru's curiosity about the lives of people, and his penchant for delving into them through conversation, has fueled his creative output.
The country that Bejenaru now examines in his work is one that still reels from the fall of communism more than two decades later and struggles to survive as a society amidst an mass immigration of the best and brightest looking for their own way to get by in this world.
"After 1990, when the communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe, the Ro manian economical structure, based on heavy industries and very few on services, collapsed too,' said Bejenaru. "In one decade, most of the Romanian factories were closed, leaving millions of workers and engineers without jobs."
"Many of them were forced to immigrate. Today, generally speaking, the Romanian economy is based on relocation, with Western companies producing their products in Ro mania because is cheap, and re tail. We produce less than we consume and, if we continue like that, we will get closer to the Greek situation. Young, educated Ro manians are looking for better jobs in Western Europe."
This is part of the direct impact of the global economy on the Romanian one, and emblematic of its effect on other countries, as well. While some countries of the post-communist world have pulled through a little smoother, like Poland, there are plenty others filled with what is now a marginalized European population.
"The meaning and the function of my art is to create awareness on difficult social issues," Bejenaru said. "I am focussing on those social segments which lost almost everything in the past two decades, such as workers and engineers."
What Bejenaru hopes visitors take away from his show is an understanding of the realities of the fall of communism. From our vantage point, it was a triumph for the American system and a victory for freedom. That's a simplistic way of looking at it, though, and the cracks in the firmament of the capitalist monolith are apparent to citizens of countries like Romania.
"The transition from communism to capitalism in my country was, and still is, a painful one for many people," said Bejenaru, "and the capitalist road is not paved with gold."
Matei Bejenaru can be found online at mateibejenaru.net.