In the third article in the Berlin series, we interview the artist Viviana Druga from Romania. Druga deals with boundaries in her art, on many different levels. Religious rituals, life and death, womanhood, corporeality and motherhood are some of the themes found in Druga’s art. Perhaps female artists examine boundaries more often than men, in more detail? Perhaps not? What is true is that the international art world is still heavily patriarchal. Masculinity is the norm, and the room for personal choice is more restricted for women and other “others”. Viviana Druga is a female artist who is theoretically advanced in how she addresses the crossing of boundaries. Lisa Carlsson met her in Berlin and San Francisco.
The window is open onto Torstrasse in Mitte when I meet Viviana Druga for the second time.The last time we met, it was a scorching, sleepy day in San Francisco. We looked at the house where Kenneth Anger filmed some of his films, then sat in the park opposite and talked about mothers and art. She told my fortune using a pack of tarot cards she had made herself, and what she said found its way gently into my heart. Something magical happened right then, in that place high above the bay.
This time, Viviana has just returned to Berlin from a performance festival in the northern Sahara. Thin curtains in the window are lifted by the spring breeze. The large flat was used both for accommodation and as an underground club when Viviana moved here from Romania six years ago. In the room she uses as a studio, she has left a disco ball hanging from the ceiling as a memento of that time.
It rains a lot in Morocco during the winter, and small lakes form between the sand dunes in the desert. So I had a kind of rebirth when I rose out of the water. I do it once a year, every spring. It’s the best time to be reborn.
What is it about rebirth that fascinates you?
It’s linked to my childhood. I went through a very dark time when I was a teenager when I read Emil Cioran, a Romanian philosopher. He’s a total nihilist and I couldn’t see any hope at all for humanity. I couldn’t sleep during that time; I didn’t sleep for two years. My parents took me to priests to exorcise the devil from my body, but I didn’t like the church and I didn’t trust the priests. I ended up gulping down a load of sleeping pills and vodka. I slept for three days after that. I had no dreams; it was a kind of half-coma. My entire system shut down – it was fantastic. It was a little death. Afterwards, I read that it’s common for shamans in various cultures to do similar things before they become shamans. They go through a crisis and then a ritual. It could be piercing their bodies, or inducing a death-like state. I think that’s what I did. I had nowhere to go, so I induced that state. When I woke up and came out, I just wanted to hug everything I could see. The trees, the buses, the trams. It was incredible. I often relate to that awakening in my performances. It’s like gestures of thanks and understanding to life and death. A reminder to be thankful for being here and to cherish it.
Did it take long before you were able to use your experience in your art?
Yes, I tried to repress it for a long time, but moving to Berlin has helped me process it. Distance helps to identify things you might not have known about yourself before. The important things come to the surface when you are far from who you think you are and how the people around you see you.
The first time we met, we talked a lot about mothers, and you told me about a performance where you channelled your dead mother.
It was a memorial work. I wanted to live in her clothes and take her to places she had never been. She never had the time to fulfil her dreams. For example, she wanted to go to London and marry a British gentleman, but she fell in love with my father instead, who was a Romanian mountain boy. So I went to London for her. I walked around the streets in her clothes for a few days, and on the last day I did a performance at the Anatum’s Abode gallery. I put a photo of her and one of me up on the wall, then attached a string to our foreheads. Like a phone line between us. Then I channelled her as I spoke to her. It was like a dialogue between us. And twice during the conversation, the string fell down. Both times, it was when I had said something bad.
What did you say that made the string fall down?
I told her I had never liked dying her hair. She used to make me dye her hair black to hide the grey hairs when I was a child. And I hated it. It felt like I was getting older. There was something there that I didn’t want to touch. I couldn’t accept that she was getting older. I even let the audience dye my own hair black during the performance. As part of my becoming her. The second time the string fell down was when I said something about how she could be very harsh sometimes. She was a career woman. Very passionate about her job and her children. She was a lioness, but sometimes she was very distant, and that hurt me.
Could you have done a performance like that when she was alive, do you think?
I don’t know. My boyfriend was there with his mother and aunt. I looked at them during the performance and they looked horrified. But when things got more relaxed, I could see they were smiling and I exhaled. I wasn’t as conscious of the other people in the room, but definitely them, since they are both mothers. I think it was all about letting her go. By becoming her, I could finally let go of her. And by talking about how I felt. It’s important to manifest that kind of thing. It’s about freeing ourselves. Both our families and society around us shape something that isn’t necessarily us. By detaching ourselves from our parents, we can become who we really are. That doesn’t have to mean we lose all contact with or connection to our families.
I write a lot about daughters and mothers, and there is something very difficult about those relationships. They are impossible relationships, in a way. Maybe because they are women in a patriarchal society.
That must be it. Although my mother was the one with the power in our family. My father wanted to have control, but my mother was the strong one. There was so much he didn’t understand about her. Everything she did was fantastic. She had visions and dreams. He just followed her and her decisions.
I think it’s like that in a lot of families. But despite that, it’s a patriarchal environment.
Absolutely. There’s something between sisters too. I am the youngest, and I love my sister so much, but she terrorised me all the time. There’s only a year and a half between us, and we played together a lot as children. There was probably pressure on her to look after me. I imagine she didn’t really want to, but she raised me. I had two mothers when I was growing up.
I am the youngest too, and it still feels like I have two mothers sometimes.
Haha, that’s so funny!
What other themes have you worked with?
I have done a tarot project to try to understand psychology and the subconscious. It was a photo project in which I created a kind of human alphabet. I’m interested in what brings us together. Are there images that touch all human beings at a deeper level?
So you made a pack of tarot cards?
Exactly! I photographed people who I thought had some kind of connection to the card they represented. Like a reflection. Although some of the pictures were more about strengthening. I wanted to keep to a traditional canon, so the positions and details are reproduced from the tarot cards. Otherwise I would be moving too far away from the knowledge that I see as sacred. I added a few details, but not too much. I didn’t want to disturb the order. It took two and a half years to finish the pack, in collaboration with the designer and costume designer Tata Christiane, since I was waiting to meet the right people to portray. When we took the pictures, it was like a performance. The people became the cards they represented.
There are a lot of spiritual and religious themes in your art – did you have a religious upbringing?
My mother was a fantastic Christian. Or rather, that’s what she said herself, but she hardly ever went to church. I used to judge her for that, but now I understand her. She was so absorbed by her faith that she didn’t need the church. We always missed out on the priests coming round at Easter to bless our house with flowers, so my mother did it herself. She was like a priest. That’s how I realised she was special. I see her as more Wiccan than strictly Greek Orthodox, but she would never have admitted it. She tried to instil a deep faith in my sister and me. We started in the German Evangelical Church when we started at German school. It was easier to embrace. Mass there was exactly three quarters of an hour long, and then we got chocolate. In the Orthodox Church, it could last for hours if the priest had a vision. And that oil they burned. It was creepy at times. But the horror of it, the stuff I never really understood, like performing an exorcism on someone, is more present in what I do now.
How did you start working with art?
During the summers my sister and I spent in the country, we had loads of time so we had to find things to do. Every day was a challenge to find something new even though it was the same garden, the same forest and the same river flowing past. We put plants in water and pretended they were potions that could heal wounds. We buried birds and washed little baby rabbits. Being alone in nature created a kind of confidence. I was never afraid in the forest. Then I got together with an artist when I was 20. He was an artist doing paintings. Being with him made me understand that there are other people who think like I do, and it was with him that I began doing photography.
You seem to return to certain original scenes from your own life in your work.
Yes, a lot of it is about my childhood. But it’s just the female side of my family. I might start making use of my father soon.
Oh lord, how long will that take?
Hahaha, I don’t know. When I start on that, I’ll need to work with completely different themes. Sexuality and romantic partners. I’ve actually been processing these things for over ten years, but I’ve never used them in my art. I wouldn’t be able to show any of it yet. My boyfriend would be horrified.
Do you use sex at all in your art?
I use the energy. For me, sex is creativity. It’s something that can tear you to pieces, that you need to learn to tame. There’s so much there. It’s like an animal and a devil.
I think it’s hard to write about sex without the feeling that you’re hurting someone. It’s as if the people I love are always watching me.
That’s why it’s easier to write under a pseudonym.
Yes, but for me the feeling would still be there. There are certain people whose gaze I can’t shake off.
It’s like Foucault’s panopticon. The eye that always sees you. You feel judged all the time. But of course there always have to be limits to freedom. I think limits are useful.
I think it’s impossible to work without them. But speaking of being watched, would you talk a bit about your hide-and-seek performance?
I was invited to do something during “Surveillance: Visibility and Invisibility” at Funkhaus Berlin curated by Gaby Bila Guenther and Emanuelle Nedelciu in Berlin. The topic was surveillance, visibility and invisibility. I wanted to do something on my experience of communism in Romania. I was eight when Ceausescu was overthrown, so I still have vivid memories of that time. Everyone was a potential suspect; there was no trust between neighbours. You couldn’t get away from the feeling that someone was always watching you. There was a picture of Ceausescu in every book, even children’s books. He was always there; he could see us all the time. Now we give up our freedom for free on social media. The performance scene was in the forest outside Berlin at an old radio station, so I set up a game of hide-and-seek. It’s a simple children’s game that most people know, but it can be so much more. We played it in the street when I was little, and at the same time our parents were playing hide-and-seek with the state. The participants had to hide in the forest, and then I started looking for them one by one. A lot of people got very nervous and frightened by the game, even me.
That sounds very intense. Is it normal for people to need to be comforted after participating in your work?
Yes, some people need to, and I’m always there afterwards if they want to talk about their experience.
Do you have a responsibility as an artist?
I really think I do. I need to be careful what I do.