The latest book from Berlin-based Romanian artist Anton Roland Laub, Last Christmas (of Ceaușescu), reactivates recent history and its slippery truths to point at the biggest question mark of the 1989 Romanian Revolution – who does the Revolution belong to? The premise of the publication is a triangular lack: of solid historical research, of assigned legal guilt, and of trust in the post-revolutionary political framework.
Similarly to his earlier book, Mobile Churches, Laub makes use of both archival imagery and his own photographs. With the former, he sought to uncover the absurdity of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s authoritarian regime through an architectural subject; now he deals directly with the image of the dictator. The book opens strongly with the official portrait of Ceaușescu, whose face has been erased. Ceaușescu’s name and figure once aroused a spectrum of feelings, and they have been circulated tirelessly in the past thirty years, to the point where emotional reactions are now numbed down to repulsion, indifference or nostalgia. When a word is said again and again a phenomenon called semantic satiation occurs, where form eclipses meaning. This could explain, too, the desensitisation of viewers to iconic images. This devaluation of meaning is the thread that links all the series that make up the publication: ‘Size Matters’ (2015-2019), ‘Of Titans and Geniuses’ (2017-2019), ‘Last Christmas’ (2018-2019), ‘Ășțî’ (2020), and ‘Noise’ (2020). They all visit common places, which are either easily overlooked or so central to history that specific meanings have solidified around them, obscuring any possibility of interpretation. Although each of these series has a particular aesthetic, the images are not shown in separate chapters, but rather interwoven in a dense historical fabric that loosely follows the chronology of the Ceaușescus’ escape from Bucharest in December, 1989.
‘Ășțî’ is the only series that stems from a familial context. Photographs of a typewriter on a green background entwine the personal and the political – the typewriter belongs to the artist’s father, while the typed message, ‘Alo’, is sourced from Ceaușescu’s last speech. During the communist period, the party’s censorship policy included monitoring typewriter owners and requiring them to provide demonstrative typed sheets regularly. This series, whose title references the special characters of the Romanian language and which gives the second image of the book, seems to work as a preamble, addressing the need for the proper tools to investigate history. Both representative systems, language and images, are at fault – while language can be censored, the truthful appearance of the image is subverted by the presence of the green screen.
Ceaușescu’s name and figure once aroused a spectrum of feelings, and they have been circulated tirelessly in the past thirty years, to the point where emotional reactions are now numbed down to repulsion, indifference or nostalgia.
‘Of Titans and Geniuses’ is comprised of photographs taken in the Ceaușescu residence in Bucharest, dubbed the Spring Palace. The villa, lavishly decorated in golden tones, with silk wallpaper, exotic wood, and Persian rugs, provides a stark contrast to the socialist blocks lived in by the working class. The bathroom, although spacious, is photographed by Laub from a narrow angle to only capture the bathtub, a stool, and a small section of the tiled floor. The most intimate room of a home, where, in solitude, even a dictator’s mask is allowed to slip, seems to stand in for the revealing of the truth beneath the façade. The furniture and the gold mosaic hint at the trappings of royalty in which Ceaușescu sought to envelop himself and his family (his third son, Nicu, had been groomed to follow as leader). They also hint at the villa’s much-criticised design choices, said to indicate the Ceaușescus’ poor education (both Nicolae and Elena studied at elementary level only). Now a museum also available to hire for corporate events, the villa stands as a testament to the way that Romania has managed this episode in its history – it is one of the few museums dealing with this period and it was opened late, in 2016.
‘Last Christmas’ continues with the artist’s own images, taking the viewer on a tour of Ceaușescu’s escape route. After the masses become agitated during his speech on the balcony of the Central Committee, the dictator and his wife retreat inside; on the following day, they take a helicopter to their mountain villa, in Snagov. After the army orders the helicopter to land, they make a run by car to Târgoviște, a small town northwest of Bucharest, where they hope to organise a resistance movement; instead, they are captured by the army. During this time, back in Bucharest, the national television channel is renamed the Free Romanian Television and starts to broadcast the first ever live revolution. Beginning in Bucharest, in the re-named Revolution Square, Laub focuses on the balcony of what is now the Ministry of Internal Affairs. He then moves to the Romanian Television Society building, cropped and shown in inverted colours. He follows on to Târgoviște, where the Ceaușescus’ short trial took place and where they were executed.
Laub’s images conjure up symbolic spaces of power, not to reveal anything secret, not to make any historical statement, but rather to activate a gaze of agency.
Stylistically, the photographs inside the military barracks in Târgoviște offer a parallel to Laub’s images of the Spring Palace – the framing is as narrow and the space is shaped by frontal flash. However, the effect here is different; whereas in the Spring Palace the flash brings out the golden tones and vivid colours and heightens the glossy surfaces of leather, wood, and crystal, the interior of the barracks is flattened out claustrophobically, accentuating the tawdriness of the golden paint details and the dreariness of the wood panels, the chipped parquet and the metal crockery. Another photograph with inverted chromatics, a sister, perhaps, to the earlier image of the television headquarters, shows educational books on a couple of shelves, the dictator’s name repeated twelve times on the spines. They both make for a vivid metaphor of propaganda as a distorted, but seductive packaging of information.
Four other photographs play a distinct part in this series. Seemingly underexposed, they deal with a natural subject, presumably the Chindia Park in the centre of Târgoviște, which houses the Chindia Tower, a medieval construction built by Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure who is said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The atmosphere here is eerie, with deep dark shadows taking over the landscape. A sign reads ‘electrocution danger’, but there seems to be no one around to heed the message. The dimness of the pictures recalls early movies like Vampyr (1932) and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), where what appear to be night scenes are in fact shot in daylight with a neutral-density or a colour filter, creating an effect of gloom and apprehension.
In fact, in ‘Noise’ there appears a frame from Nosferatu. The images in this series are superimpositions of film frames on a background of television interference. Most of them are sourced from the Romanian Television archives and depict the events of 21st – 25th December 1989: the last speech of Ceaușescu, the trial and subsequent execution. Two other frames show a snowy, mountainous landscape and another one a decorated Christmas tree. The latter is joined on the spread to the left by a blurry frame of the Ceaușescus’ trial, in a recreation of all Romanian Christmases since 1989 – the family comes together to celebrate the birth of Christ and the death of the dictator. These same frames of the Ceaușescus’ trial are broadcast, year after year, almost religiously; they have also appeared in a number of documentaries, such as Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992) and Andrei Ujică’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010). These images, so widely circulated, serve an almost ritualistic function for a nation that is recovering from trauma. Laub’s use of the TV static in the collages, however, points to the absence of a clear picture.
‘Size Matters’ functions as a visual epilogue, appearing after Frizzi Krella’s and Lotte Laub’s essays. Here we are taken on a tour of the Palace of the Parliament, also known as the People’s House, the second largest administrative building in the world. Ceaușescu didn’t get to see it finished; today it houses a democratic Parliament and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Laub’s narrow framing once again focuses on decorative details – the stairs, the floor tiles, a chair, a crystal wall lamp, a Sabin Bălașa painting, two closed curtains – magnifying them to the size of monuments. Once as magnificent as the Spring Palace, the building has started to be marked by the passing of both people and time – the marble is chipped, the upholstery is ripped, the painting’s varnish is coming off, much like people’s dream of capitalism and democracy. Throughout the book, Laub seems to be pointing at Ceaușescu, at his grandiose personality, reflected on a personal level in his home and at a social level in his ruthless regime of fear and hunger. But in ‘Size Matters’, Laub brings the viewer into the space where the present is being manufactured, asking whether we have been looking for justice in the right place this whole time. Laub ends the tour with an overexposed photograph taken from the Parliament’s terrace, which overlooks the Union Boulevard, flanked by the European Union and the Romanian flags. The slanted angle creates the illusion of motion, the whole city seemingly slipping away, bathed in light, in a possible message of hope.
Throughout the book, Laub seems to be pointing at Ceaușescu, at his grandiose personality, reflected at a personal level in his home and at a social level in his ruthless regime. But towards the end, he brings the viewer in the space where the present is being manufactured, asking whether we have been looking for justice in the right place this whole time.
Owning a communication apparatus, such as a typewriter or a photocopier, was allowed the day after Ceaușescu’s death. There was no purge of government officials, however, and those who occupied positions of power during Ceaușescu’s regime found their way back to public life. The identity of those who fired on civilians on the days following Ceaușescu’s capture is still concealed today. This significant historical moment, which had enormous symbolic potential for the rebirth of a nation, has been deliberately obscured. Laub’s reference to Nosferatu alludes to the vampirical nature of power, both in its parasitic feeding off the masses and its concealed machinations. Nonetheless, vampires are incompatible with light and Nosferatu meets his end at dawn. Laub’s images conjure up symbolic spaces of power, not to reveal anything secret, not to make any historical statement, but rather to activate a gaze of agency. In a transparent, democratic society, where citizens may look anywhere, the eye needs training to uncover wrongdoing. ‘Last Christmas’ is an exercise in focusing attention where it matters, not on historical spectacle, but where power resides today, hidden in plain sight.