Interviews The World Seen Through Binoculars

Anna Kharkina visits an exhibition about childhood and sees artifacts from the Romanian countryside. The exhibition opens doors to an individual and a shared past for those with common memories of childhood in a country that no longer exists.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1:2013, 8-9 pp
Published on on May 13, 2013

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Interview with Lila Passima, curator of the exhibition Childhood: Remains and Heritage.

The older one gets, the more tenuous the connection to one’s own childhood becomes — especially when the country and even the society where one was born no longer exists, and even the place where one grew up is not called by the same name anymore. Feeling I was losing my connection with my childhood dreams, I found that the exhibition Childhood: Remains and Heritage was able to open a door to childhood — others’ as well as my own. Although the objects in the exhibition did not look exactly the same as those I remember from my early years — for example, I did not find the East German toy train set whose happy owner I had been, even if I never actually played with it — I immediately felt something familiar, a sudden knock into the slightly dusty, partially erased memory of my own childhood.

Never before this exhibition had I thought that childhood is more than just a certain stage in one’s own life, but is rather a very special cultural field — one that is, in a way, as the curator of the exhibition Lila Passima claims, universal. There is nothing that can prevent children from different countries, if they happen to meet, from coming up with games that they can play together, and sharing their toy collections. Looking at childhood from this perspective, one might think that childraising consists in taking children out of this universality and placing them in the adult world of locality.

To describe her approach to childhood, Passima uses the term “subjective archaeology”. It is an attempt to recreate the imaginary world of childhood, and to reconnect visitors with their own childhood dreams.

My first question to Passima is about the kind of experience she wants visitors to have in the exhibition.

“The idea of a Virtual Museum of Childhood came to Ioana Popescu, head of research of the Romanian Peasant Museum. She wanted to attract attention to a minor part of our heritage, of no monumental scale, whose value is determined by local, individual, or family memory. The subject of childhood is composed of remnants, specific memories, disparate objects that become a pretext for revisiting a history experienced in its own time, a time of wonderment, fears, grief and joys, that has taken concrete form in the preservation of a favorite toy over time.”

What does the title of the exhibition mean?

“‘Remains and Heritage’ means that we understand that we cannot bring back the past in its entirety, but with the help of fragments we can rediscover it.”

You have assembled objects both from the past and the present. What principle did you follow in bringing them together?

“In the exhibition we connect tradition with contemporary life. To old rituals that mark childhood in different ages, we add new mythologies and the signs of a living culture. In Romania, when we celebrated the holiday called the shearing of the forelock or the breaking of the gingerbread — a baby’s first birthday — we used to put symbolic things on a plate: a coin to bring the child wealth; rice, for prosperity; a mirror or jewelry for beauty; thread and scissors for skill; a pencil or paintbrush for cleverness and talent; sugar for sweet and pleasing looks. Nowadays, people also put miniature office computers, car keys, and euro banknotes on the plate — all kinds of objects from contemporary life. Another example: in the past you could guess the sex of the child by dangling a wedding ring on a thread next to the mother’s belly, and now we have ultrasound.

“We have created a dialog between the peasant world and contemporary urban life. In the beginning of the 20th century, the peasant world became a popular theme in urban society. People made studio photographs with the whole scenography of a village to reinvent a national atmosphere. The question is how the town borrowed from the countryside, and how the countryside is being reshaped today by urban culture.”

We also talk about childhood in a certain period, during communism, when children became an element of propaganda. The image of a pioneer child, as opposed to the image of a peasant child, celebrating the victory and new achievements of the Communist Party and its beloved leader, preparing to become the “new man”, multilaterally developed in a glorious society conceived by its proletarian heroes. In that time, politicians used coercive methods to increase birth rates by prohibiting abortion (the famous decree of 1966). An individual could not preserve his or her identity, but became a number in an army, unable to choose what is good or bad for his or her own life and future.

Did the national theme, which arose in the early 20th century, disappear in the Soviet period?

“Romania is a very interesting geographical territory, situated at the intersection of various cultures: Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, and Western Europe. These Byzantine, Oriental, Western, and Slavic influences are visible in folk art and architecture and create a unique diversity of styles. At the beginning of the 20th century, Romanian peasant art achieved the status of a national art, worthy of inclusion in museum collections. The Romanian aristocracy adopted peasant art both for décor and costumes.”

“All this was replaced with a kind of nationalist ideology that was in fact Soviet propaganda, which had no relation with our historical values. It was only propaganda with the cult of personality. The new cultural instructors and inspectors who supervised craft production and traditional art took elements from national history and from old values, and transformed them into kitsch. For the new class of workers they created new folklore, art, and music — a new type of communist folklore.”

Can you describe one memory from your childhood?

“That is a difficult question. There are a lot of interesting and powerful memories. It is strange that, although we lived through the hard period — I was a child in the 1970s — we were happy. There was a huge shortage of those ingredients that can make happiness for a child: there was a lack of toys, good food, and good clothes. I was like many other children at that time in the middle of all this, but I was happy. We created our games, with sticks and elastic thread to jump over; over and over we played hop-scotch and the snail game drawn with a piece of chalk on the sidewalk. We lived through lots of repression and harmful historical events, but we never felt it so traumatically, because a child has a very strong imagination of his or her own world. Simple games, word games, and although all we had was a Chinese bubble-gum that was like a stick of metal, or the famous Eugenia, the poorest and cheapest of cocoa-cream biscuits, we were also happy when we could get bananas. We had really hard times, but we had other things that brought us closer together. We had a real sense of friendship.”

When do you think childhood ends?

“Childhood has no end. You can say goodbye to your childhood when you become an adult, but from that point on you have lost the most important, essential thing in your life, and in the lives of other people. Childhood makes things possible; it helps us to go on, and reminds us how to enjoy life with the heart of a child. It is really the most important thing! If you stop being a child, you close the door to happiness. You have an advantage as a grown-up if you keep childhood near you. You have a fresh attitude, a fresh expression in making things, and the ability to ask questions, including questioning yourself. And of course you have the benefit of that miracle of wonder. You keep wondering.”

I read an article about the political pressure that cultural institutions are under in Romania today, especially the Romanian Cultural Institute. The institute was accused by the country’s leadership of damaging the sense of community among Romanians living abroad. What do you think about it?

“We feel that politicians want to replace the structure I just spoke of: about being open to other cultures in other societies, and to universal culture. You can find contemporary art in China, Russia, and Europe, in Romania as well as the Netherlands: it does not need to be in a certain place. I don’t know why the Romanian government thinks that Romanian culture is not so well represented; I don’t think you can put the concept in those terms in our time. You are not more national than universal. You can be national even if you work in completely different parts of the world; you can be national and universal at the same time. I feel it as an anachronistic return to a sort of communism, to a rigidly restraining understanding of life and values.”

Do you think that the government wants to separate people, to make them think, not about real problems, such as the economy, but something else?

“After the revolution we were together, in my opinion, because we had only one known enemy: the dictators and their abusive and aberrant politics. After the 1990s, political authority created a kind of conflict between different categories of people, creating a false paradigm: the conflict between national and universal views of society. I do not know why they put the accent on this theme, but I suppose they can create — to call it a new ideology is perhaps going too far — but a new orientation, in which I see a lack of creativity. They are not inspired by innovation. Ultraconservative men use force and fear because they do not have creativity, inspiration, and an understanding of other cultures and diversity. You cannot be complex if you are locked into your small territory, using only a self-referential system. You cannot put emphasis only on your past, which, if it is wrongly understood, can be empty. I like my past, I always work with my past, but I do not want anybody to tell me how to work with this past and how to integrate it into the internal territory of contemporaneity.”

Do you think that a conservative comeback is a general tendency in post-Soviet countries?

“I ask myself the same question. We felt the opening of society as a positive movement. We all felt freedom in our work. We could dream, travel, form our own perceptions, and create our own criteria to evaluate the world. I do not understand this phenomenon. It is strange. You would expect that after twenty years of progress, when you have started to create a new basis on every level of society — culture, agriculture, administration, health — the new system would have acquired its structure, its vision. But in my local territory I miss all that. That is why we should ask some questions: what are we doing with our present, and what do we want to do with our future?” ≈

Note: The traveling exhibition Childhood: Remains and Heritage is financed by the European Commission. The project is a collaboration among cultural institutions in Romania, Poland, and France. The exhibition appeared in 2012 in London, Paris, Madrid, and Rome; in 2013, it appears in Stockholm, Warsaw, and Lębork.
  • by Anna Kharkina

    PhD in history and philosophy. Previously an archivist at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (ArkDes); currently involved in the research project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” at Södertörn University. Anna Kharkina previously worked in various cultural institutions in Russia and as a freelance curator and writer.

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