photo: Bogdan Iordache/ Cultura la dubă
“The big art, Art with a capital letter, is something that passes right through you, it extends beyond you and reaches the public, the one who comes into contact with your work and feels that there is something unique in there, something they haven’t seen before.”
Often asked whether he is Romanian or French, artist Mircea Cantor always gives the same answer, which has become part of the official biography included in all of his solo exhibitions: “Mircea Cantor was born in Romania and lives on Earth.”
Cantor, the Earthling, avoids labels of nationality in a world of globalisation that he imprints with a universal art, be it through sculpture, drawing, video, prints or installations.
However, he doesn’t shy away from saying that he comes from Romania, and has even imbued many of his works with the love he nurtures for his roots. Mircea Cantor was born in Oradea and, even if he has lived in Paris for 22 years and travels the world far and wide, he still retains an accent that is typical of Western Romania.
He says that art proved to be his calling when he was a child, even though he didn’t have any other relatives with an inclination towards it.
He won two of the most important prizes awarded to contemporary artists – the Ricard Prize (in 2004) and the Marcel Duchamp Prize (in 2011), and since then, his career has been on the rise.
“An award does indeed open up certain opportunities, but it’s not the award that defines you, it’s the quality of your work. An award can only serve as an incentive, it raises your standards.”
Today he is considered one of the most important contemporary artists in the world, and his work can be found in major galleries and art museums: MoMa, Centre Pompidou, The Philadeplhia Museum of Art or Museo National Reina Sofia.
He is an Officer of the Arts, decorated by the French State, and lets art to “pass right through him” in everything he does.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist. That’s why I went to Art High School, and there I felt like I was floating, like I was already one step ahead. All modesty aside, we had three-hour classes drawing still life, but I already knew what it was supposed to look like, I didn’t need three hours. So I would skip the class, return right at the end and do the whole thing in an hour.”
He studied at the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca and received a scholarship from the University of Nantes.
“I’ve always liked France. My class teacher taught French and she instilled in us a love for French culture, literature, language. I even took part in French Olympiads.
“When I arrived in Nantes, I was very impressed by the technical level they had, the workshops. I was very curious and eager to work hard. I really do believe that you should not let the void fill up your schedule. You have to do something, because looking back and thinking „I could’ve done that” seems like a stupid nostalgia.
Do it now so you don’t have any regrets.
This is my guiding principle – poke your nose, but in a positive way. I believe that those who complain don’t have enough motivation. For me, the verb “to want” is a synonym of “to do”.
If you want something, you do it. If you don’t want something, you go looking for excuses or sometimes even lament, you say you don’t have the budget, you don’t have the space or the ability, you say something is missing. By clinging onto these shortcomings, you suppress your inner drive. At first, I didn’t have any space for my exhibitions either, but I would work nonetheless. I didn’t have the means to create gigantic works, but I would sketch them anyway.
I had a diary with dozens of projects that I wanted to do, I was visualising them. Of course I didn’t have any money, but I figured I had to put them on paper either way. And the director of studies in Nantes saw this diary and told me: “You are already an artist. What are you doing in Cluj? Come to us for your Master’s.”
To this day, I still have that diary, the projects that never saw the light of day, but the mere thought of having them there and wanting to do them made me go on. If you go to a gallery and don’t have anything to show, they don’t just let you in. You have to prove that you have a vision, that you have some ideas.
Romania was not the fertile ground for me to manifest myself. Robert Fleck, the director of studies in Nantes, told us in a conference in Cluj: if you don’t have galleries representing you, you go where they are.
“I didn’t want to leave Romania at all costs, I always wanted to get somewhere where I could express myself through my art.”
We met Mircea Cantor on a rainy Sunday afternoon at an exclusivist gallery in the centre of Paris, where his latest work – a drawing on a collector’s bed designed by the famous French designer Philippe Starck – was on display.
A bed built in 1987 and turned into a work of art now bears the signature of Mircea Cantor as well. Above the ones who will sleep and dream in this bed stands the drawing of two hands joined by string, a recurrent motif in Cantor’s works.
Just a few days before our encounter, a solo exhibition of his bringing together most of his drawings had just come to an end in Paris.
“I like drawing because it feels like meditation, it is a way of understanding and perceiving the world through drawings. The line you draw and the time you spend on it reveal something else. I think this also has to do with the way I approach Japanese or Chinese art.”
In fact, the artist often draws works of art which he himself sees in museums, people or public monumental works.
“I usually have my diary and my brush pen with me and I draw. I have whole notebooks of drawings I’ve seen in museums.”
Simply going to an exhibition doesn’t mean you actually saw it. You can walk through an exhibition and say you visited it, but in truth you didn’t see it. The fact that I draw in that exhibition helps me understand it. I try to translate what I see for myself.
When you visit the Louvre, you see a great many paintings, but due to ignorance and a lack of time, you pass them by and in doing so you pass masters and messages by. Nothing is for free at the Louvre. I’ve been there many times, but I usually go to see very specific components.
For example, I go to see the Italian Renaissance. Or the paintings of Georges de la Tour, which I adore.”
In 2019, on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Paris National Opera, the Opera and the French Post Office invited him to create a series of drawings dedicated to this event.
On other occasions he has also drawn Trajan’s Column in Rome or Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, as well as the exodus of Romanians to other countries.
“Romania’s history is engraved in Rome, on Trajan’s Column. What other nation in the world has something like that? Yes, I know it sounds patriotic and exalted, but rationally speaking, from a historical and anthropological perspective, we have actual testimonies in artifacts dating back thousands of years.
This is something we should take pride in.”
In fact, he is also passionate about history and wishes the Romanian authorities would use it creatively. On the other hand, he believes that burying history leads to the development of far-right movements, which exploit the pretext of love for one’s country in order to manipulate the masses.
“If the state were to present our history creatively, there wouldn’t be this faction using history in an extremist way. But since the state doesn’t do that, it is precisely this version that remains.
You have to know what to make of a National Culture Day. How to talk about Eminescu. We speak Eminescu’s language, his poems are intelligible to this day, you don’t need a dictionary. There is so much clarity in his language that you are tempted to wonder how he wrote the Third Letter in 1880.
I think the Romanian state does not want to promote history. The National History Museum has been closed for 19 years.
An entire generation of children has grown without knowing their history, apart from what’s presented in textbooks. If you don’t see Neacșu’s Letter, if you don’t see the sword of Stephen the Great, you don’t internalise these things. If in 20 years you, as a state, haven’t done anything to open the museum, that means you never wanted to.
Romania has the Glykon Snake, an artifact that’s unique in the world, and holds it on a velvet tablecloth. It could be knocked upside down and break into pieces at any moment. How is that even possible?”
One of his artistic interventions was at L’Atelier Brâncuși in Paris, and he did it with the intention of highlighting the stark contrast between Romania’s treatment of Brâncuși and the huge legacy that the sculptor has left behind in France. He added diacritics to the name Brâncuși at the Centre Pompidou, and his gesture, so simple, yet so important, swept the world.
“I confronted Brâncuși’s legacy in Romania, where his works were confiscated and then vulgarised by the communist regime, with his real legacy, in France.
I’d had that idea since 2004. I had a photoshopped picture of myself climbing up there and adding the diacritics. It was a matter of correctness, even if he himself wrote his name without diacritics. But in the American context, they always add them.
So I thought – let’s put them here too. Truth be told, the French reacted unexpectedly well. France is very open.”
The artist is also interested in the relationship between nature and technology, and one of his best-known recent works captures on camera the moment when an eagle catches a drone in its talons. The resulting film is titled Aquila Non Capit Muscas/ The Eagle Doesn’t Catch Flies. The footage features the supreme bird of the sky in combat with a symbol of technology, a contrast between nature and the world we live in. In the footage we see the supreme bird of the sky in battle with a symbol of technology, a contrast between nature and the world we live in.
In spite of these times in which human relationships have come to be dominated by technology, Cantor hopes that the beauty of art will prevail over the ugly.
“It seems to me that the world has gone a bit crazy, but I think there is also a resistance to this ugliness, to this whirlwind of cancel culture, that is setting in. I think the triumph of beauty is largely dependent on ourselves.”
Mircea Cantor lives in Paris with his wife and their three boys, whom he encourages to discover the beauty of the world through books, drawing and music. “Just like a teacher”, as he himself says, he also imparts his knowledge of the Romanian language, history and geography with them.
“I think I never left Romania. Romania is always on my mind, even if I live in France.
You have to know where your roots are and that those roots have something noble in them, something worth hanging onto.”
Since he established himself as an artist when he was just 20, for many years the international press called him “the young artist Mircea Cantor”. This, in spite of the fact that time continued to fly past him, as it has flown past us all.
“They don’t really call me young anymore. Fortunately or not so fortunately, I don’t know (laughs). But in my heart, I am still young, I don’t feel the years have passed me by.“
He doesn’t believe it takes a special kind of education to grasp art, nor does he try to find explanations for it.
“When you make love, that’s art. Can you explain why? You can’t. That’s just how it is with art. You have to be infused with art, otherwise you’ll only do something superficial. You make money, but that’s about it. It’s like poetry, like Nichita Stănescu’s poetry.
I believe you can be touched by beauty and you can feel the need to be touched. Say I’m in the mood for pizza or sushi today. Well, this yearning can also be translated into intellectual thirst, into the need for beauty.
Sometimes you’re thirsty for poetry, for a painting, for music.”
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.