The Oana Ionel exhibition “The Secret Stories of Danube River” in Vienna’s Private Art Club “ART 9TEEN” is already one of the surprising and remarkable exhibitions in Austria’s capital city this year.
The young Bucharest artist shows the Viennese audience that it is time to talk about our understanding of borders. “In times when we prefer to build walls rather than bridges, it becomes clear that we have to re-discuss our understanding of borders.” One of the key concepts in Ionel’s work is to understand borders as an invitation, to linger, to meet and communicate, to negotiate and trade and for mutual understanding. “The Danube ignores man-made boundaries, makes them permeable and metaphorical,” Ionel describes her point of view. This is hardly surprising, as her Central European homeland was for centuries the border between East and West, between the ancient Roman Empire and Byzantium, between the Enlightenment and Orthodoxy. This border goes through regions, landscapes, villages, streets, families and sometimes through individual people. But the doctorate artist and psychologist is interested in something else, namely to find out from our own limitations of fear, which guides us more than usual in politics and society today, from the limitation of analytical thinking, of “either or” towards infinitely creative “as well as”.
Oana Ionel is fascinated by water, by the constant incessant process of becoming new, of coming and going, of washing up new territory and the invisible land, but becoming new again and again. For her, water is a living being with a memory spanning millions of years, older than that of the people on the river. Water always has the tendency to find its way back. The water of the Danube remembers Ada Kaleh, the Danube Island that sank in 1971. The island, which belongs to Romania, was evacuated in 1968 in a “night-and-fog operation”. The Turkish originated population was promptly asked to leave the island. Then it remained empty for several years until it sank into the catchment basin of the Danube in 1971 when the Iron Gate 1 dam was built. Ada Kaleh with his fate became a symbol of diversity, living space and respect. “Above all, a lack of respect for life” adds Ionel. From the perspective of the young artist Ada Kaleh, the massive pressure with which the island was depopulated by the rulers of the time and then left empty for years makes a further example of the failure of a patriarchal society. “Men who are distant from life want to force others to have their own pathological reality”. You can tell that Ionel belongs to a generation that has lived abroad and knows what life can be like in a democracy and in a constitutional state. And this is also a generation that no longer puts up with everything.
The Bucharest artist Oana Ionel is socially committed herself. She organizes conferences or acts as a speaker when it comes to the coexistence of ethnic groups in the Danube countries. She is ready to take responsibility for her country and for Europe. Oana Ionel can’t stand people doing nothing, like watching hypnotized situations and sleeping with their eyes open. “I always thought that it only exists here in Eastern Europe, that it has something to do with communism.” Now she has to realize that she was wrong. What scares her today is that she is observing doing nothing and watching or looking away more and more often in the West, in France, Germany, Austria, in many countries. “You see democracy as a consumer good that you like or not, that you zap or spit out at will. One does not realize that democracy is something that can be shaped, a process that one can get involved in. People are no longer aware of what they have achieved in democracy, in personal prosperity, in personal freedom. You risk too much and sacrifice it to populism that is alien to life”.
Ionel used the lockdown in spring 2020 to reconsider. “I notice that I need another larger look, that I need larger formats in my work that deal with the really important things of our time, not to lose sight of the whole.”
In her lockdown work “Stillness”, Oana Ionel portrayed the silence that captures us when we see a beach from above. In excerpts, but realizing that there is a greater whole. “The lockdown has thrown us back on ourselves, on our own insignificance but also on the confrontation with ourselves”
How can one express timeless meta-political social criticism other than in strong, timeless abstractions? Ionel has no answer to this, stays calm, abstraction is a universal language for her that everyone understands. You can feel the energy in her expressive work. It is a timeless, always there energy that charismatically embraces and ensnares the viewer, but leaves him the freedom of his own interpretation. In doing so, she manages the rare balance between her powerful, expressive brushstrokes and the strong colors, which lively, lively emulate the vortex of the river, but also symbolize the hustle and bustle in the cities along the Danube. At the same time, the work by no means seems light-footed and banal, but rather profound and serious. One stands in front of her works in different shades of blue and turquoise with the same emotion as one stands in front of the Danube itself. She repeatedly uses wax as a special element, which is mysteriously associated with the gold dust of Byzantine painting.
There is not much symbolism required in Oana Ionel’s work, and it is not necessary to chase after artistic trends to attract attention. Oana Ionel leads the way. She is already a role model for many young women and artists, not only in Eastern Europe.