Art and Science / Events / Performance Art

Visual Culture Between East and West

Paul Neagu performing "Going Tornado," Grampian TV Studio, Aberdeen, November 18, 1974

Paul Neagu performing “Going Tornado,” Grampian TV Studio, Aberdeen, November 18, 1974

In 1974, Romanian artist Paul Neagu (1938-2004) enacted a live artistic performance in Aberdeen, entitled Going Tornado, which was broadcast on Grampian TV (now STV). The artist had originally come to the UK at the invitation of Richard Demarco, an artist, organizer, and patron of the arts, pioneering in his early recognition of the creativity of artists from communist Eastern Europe. In 1969, Demarco organized the first exhibition of Romanian painters in the UK, and Neagu was among the artists included in it. The exhibition premiered at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, and later traveled to Aberdeen, where it was installed in the Aberdeen Art Gallery.

In the 1960s, Neagu had begun enacting performances on the streets of Bucharest. For example, he installed small boxes that were the height of an average human, and invited passersby to interact with them and open them. At the beginning of Ceausescu’s regime, although not common, this type of public activity was possible, however such performances in the public space soon became completely impossible once the regime became stricter in the 1970s and 1980s. Eventually, Neagu immigrated to the UK and continued his artistic career here, based in London.

Going Tornado is a performance that the artist enacted a number of times in different venues. The Aberdeen version was around 20-minutes long, in order to fit into the time slot of “Images,” the television show on which it was featured. It involved the artist circling around the TV Studio on roller skates, drawing on the floor with chalk, undressing, attaching the removed clothes to his body with string, carving and eating apples, among other things. For the artist, the performance was a ritual, related to the life cycle and creativity. In his words, it “bears a cyclic gyroscopic movement as an instrument of ritual which absorbs life-physical facts and generates art-spiritual suggestions.”[1]

Paul Neagu performing "Going Tornado," Grampian TV Studio, Aberdeen, November 18, 1974

Paul Neagu performing “Going Tornado,” Grampian TV Studio, Aberdeen, November 18, 1974

Following the performance, Demarco led a discussion with Neagu, a lecturer from Grey’s School of Art (Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen), and the art critic for The Guardian at the time. What is so intriguing about this discussion is the way in which each of the participants was grappling for words to describe the performance. The term “performance” wasn’t widely used at the time, as the art form was just in its early days. Even in Eastern Europe, artists didn’t call their work “performance,” but often preferred the term “action,” referring to the implicit action in the work.

Performance art developed in Eastern Europe at the same time as artists in Western Europe and North America began to use the art form. But it did so for very different reasons and in very different ways. In Eastern Europe, where all art came officially under state control and public (and even private) space was closely monitored, performance art often functioned as a “free zone” where artists felt they had unlimited license to create and experiment, because they knew that this unofficial work would not be seen by a wide public – only by a small group of trusted friends. The documentation of these performances, in the form of photographs and, in very rare cases, videos, are the only remaining traces – witnesses, in fact – of these ephemeral acts. These pieces of visual culture thus play a crucial role as artifacts that can provide a glimpse into the history of an art form in a region of the world where its history has not yet been written.

Neagu’s performance, by contrast, was seen by a wide range of people, and was accessible to anyone who had a TV in Scotland and happened to tune in that night. It is exciting to think that Aberdeen was the location of such a seminal event – not only was Going Tornado a very early work of performance art, but it was a rare example of performance art from Eastern Europe visible in the West at the time. The video of the performance, which is housed at the Demarco Archive in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, remains a crucial link between past and present, East and West.

[1] Gradually Going Tornado! Paul Neagu and his Generative Art Group, exhibition catalogue, Sunderland Arts Centre, 1975, p. 27.

Amy Bryzgel will give a talk about performance art in Eastern Europe at the next Pecha Kucha night in Aberdeen on December 2, 2014, at 7PM in the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen.

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