Șerban Savu’s exhibition, What Work Is, at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia

The Romanian Pavilion at the Biennale Arte 2024 is set to showcase an exhibition by Romanian artist Șerban Savu, centred around the history and relationship of work and leisure. Curated by Ciprian Mureșan, the exhibition will take place in both the Giardini della Biennale and at The New Gallery of the Romanian Institute of Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice.

The exhibition in the Romanian Pavilion, What Work Is, intricately weaves the complex iconography of work and leisure, drawing inspiration from historical realism, its ideology, and propaganda art of the Eastern Bloc. Instead of challenging or deconstructing these discourses, Savu rearranges the themes of revolutionary spirit and cohesion among workers. His aim is to capture and portray moments of pause and inactivity as reflections of broader societal changes or crises.

Addressing the general theme of the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, “Foreigners Everywhere”, the sense of disorientation in a political or economic limbo, which is the signature of many paintings by Șerban Savu, is a reflection on the displacement and homesickness associated with migratory work – the disconnection between labour and belonging. The narrative of gaining employment elsewhere and the blissful return to one’s roots can often result in estrangement and double alienation: becoming foreign to themselves. The characters depicted in Savu’s What Work Is are caught in a temporal no-man’s-land between two worlds pivoting away from one another.

Inside the Pavilion, arranged in a vast polyptych consisting of about forty paintings – a cross-section of Savu’s work over the last fifteen years – are populated by disorientated protagonists and lethargic extras, all caught in the lull between work and rest. Across from the polyptych, a large bench incorporates plinths displaying four architectural models adorned with mosaics. These mosaics deviate from the usual themes found in religious settings or the labour-focused narratives typical of Socialist mosaic art. Instead of portraying grand achievements or symbolic representations, the mosaics convey bathos, ambiguity, calmness, and confusion. The paintings and models create a space that raises questions about work and challenges its negative definitions: what work is not, what it does not look like, and what it does not mean.

Invited to respond to Savu’s project, the Brussels-based graphic design studio Atelier Brenda (Sophie Keij and Nana Esi) offers a site-specific intervention on the façade and in the lobby of the Romanian Pavilion. Their large-scale design messaging will be a study in non-ideological propaganda, like the advertising for a social factory: a production facility for a new kind of subjectivity.

Complementing the presentation in the Romanian Pavilion, Savu will transform The New Gallery of the Romanian Institute of Culture and Humanistic Research in Venice into a mosaic workshop. Reflecting the small emblematic Venetian workshops, The New Gallery becomes a space for production carrying on the manufacturing tradition while the Giardini Pavilion functions as a space for reflection and meditation.

The New Gallery will also host a public programme of talks, on topics ranging from the histories of mosaic to theories of work in contemporary anthropology, economy and philosophy, on ecology and the post-work society, coordinated by Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, a prominent Chișinău-based cultural critic.

The exhibition will be complemented by the publication at the end of the Biennale Arte 2024 of a book edited by Mihnea Mircan that will bring together a series of critical texts relevant to the themes raised by the works presented in Venice and which will richly illustrate it.

Commissioner: Ioana Ciocan;

Exhibitor: Șerban Savu, Atelier Brenda (Nana Esi & Sophie Keij)

Curator: Ciprian Mureșan;

Editor: Mihnea Mircan

Project Manager: Cristian Alexandru Damian

PR: Sutton Agency; Dăescu Borțun Olteanu Agency (DBO)

Photography: Marius Popuț

Architect: Gabriel Chiș

Initiated by IDEA Foundation

Organisers: Romanian Ministry of Culture; Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Romanian Cultural Institute.

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