By Rebecka Öhrström Kann 1/11/2023

The Solemn Process is an interesting name for a social practice work. Solemn is a term suggesting gravity and levity, not usually words we associate with social practice. It is also the title for Ana Lupas's work currently on display in Tate Modern's Performer and Participant galleries. When we first enter the room where The Solemn Process (1964-2008) is exhibited, we are met with metal biomorphic structures occupying the gallery floor. They look rather strange at first: odd shapes in steel, minimalist yet with a textured surface whose seams serve as an index of their fabrication. Most of all, the pack embodies an uneasy quietness, not a quality one would expect to find in a room exhibiting work relating to performance and participation. Only when we take our eyes from the floor to the gallery walls can we see the shapes' former condition: haystacks initially constructed between 1964 and 1974 in rural Transylvania as a part of a social practice project initiated by Lupas. Composed as a large grid, the vinyl print hanging on the wall shows sepia photographs depicting villagers in the acts of producing, posing, and interacting with Lupas's stacks, quite unlike the steel structures in the gallery. Composed of clay and straw, they appear dynamically textured with ears of wheat poking out like hedgehogs, embodiments of living matter. Here, the objects are situated in backyards, barns, and fields, and the images document not only the objects' physical forms but also the collective effort of their production and locate the works in a long agricultural tradition of sculpting haystacks into imaginative shapes.

Lupas works across mediums such as photography, textile, and social practice to produce conceptual works that engage with tradition and everyday gestures. Her work such as Humid Installation (1970), a social practice piece where the artist engages with ideas of labour and domestic practices through the simple gesture of hanging white laundry, becomes a means to understanding changing traditions in a time of land collectivisation in Romania which moved land ownership in rural areas from peasants to the state.(1) Like The Solemn Process, this work has transformed over time, reiterated at different places and occasions to produce a new set of relations between gesture and the environment. Lupas originally produced The Solemn Process between 1964 and 1974, and although it was supposed to continue indefinitely, the work was cut short due to the Romanian rural systematisation program enacted in 1974 by Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. The program aimed to urbanise Romania's rural areas and transform peasant communities into workers, sometimes by erasing less developed villages to give space to state-owned farmland and collective housing.(2) Or, as Dr Georgeta Stoian Connor puts it, the project aimed to
"liquidate the essential difference between the towns and the countryside" and "eliminate the peasants' independence and spirit, as well as to replace the traditional Romanian rural society with the socialist one of the new man.”(3)  As people left for the cities and villages were erased in the dismantling of old societal systems, peasant traditions like these risked being forgotten. In this way, Lupas's work engages with the idea that, like language, the collective memory stored in ritual is lost when no one can practice it.

Ideas of transition are also present in the installation through the radical difference in the feathery forms depicted in the images and the stiff metal objects in the galleries. While the shape remains the same, the structures have been encapsulated in steel, as explained by the wall text, through a process of conservation by Lupas. It is interesting to note that haystacks as objects are also a form of conservation, a means to preserve fodder for colder months. Lupas's encapsulation, the determination to conserve the work, shows perseverance to breathe life into local tradition despite radical societal change threatening such practices' extinction. The steel protects against the force of time, making them enduring structures (although we should note that metal, too, disintegrates, falling victim to time and rust). 

The work's history of material transformation shares similarities with the Tate Modern, where it is currently on display. The institution is housed in the former Bankside Power Station, which closed its operations in the 1970s after being found too uneconomic and polluting to keep operating.(4) Formally, the work's post-industrial nature also resembles the architecture of the Bankside Power Station building itself, and it is interesting to consider the radical transition they both have gone through from being means of production; Lupas’s structures isolated in encapsulation and the power station vacated of its original function.

Here, the work sits in a gallery located at an intersection of Edward Krasińki's theatrical mirror installation and the experimental Gutai group, both part of Tate's Performer and Participant series. This section deals with action and participation and is a result of the insitution's effort to reject chronology, instead opting for gallery sections grouped by subject.(5) Juxtaposed by the black-and-white documentation of Gutai next door, Lupas's sepia-toned images here seem older even though their original conception postdates Gutai by 20 years. Such difference gives the illusion that the work is situated further in the past than it is. The grid of images on the vinyl sheet resembles a contact sheet or negatives from an archive, and while rejecting notions of institutional hierarchy associated with the rigidity of frames, this installation choice brings about ideas of ethnographic records rather than artwork documentation. Nonetheless, the sepia tone prints also call forth notions of nostalgia and emphasise the process of change these objects have experienced, not only through their radical transformation from the fields into the white cube.

In a way, the objects take on an identity as time capsules, containers of memory and labour, both of the participants but also the loss of peasant culture in the region during Ceausescu's regime. Yet, situated in their new barrier of protection, the objects' original physical nature becomes removed from reality. The work has turned grey and cold, no longer simply light and feathery creations of organic matter. Protection, it seems, also brings about distance. This act truly is a "solemn process", the title of the work initially referencing the traditional term for making haystacks, but here also reflects a desire to conserve what has already been transformed by time. The opaque metal makes the original work inaccessible, and the seams that occupy the grey surface become an index of the metamorphosis that led to such an isolated state. 

Similarly, a move from rural to institution also generates a loss of spatial poetics. Clinical and cold, the white cube has replaced the picturesque countryside, and the protective fence that guards the objects forces us to contemplate their quiet existence from a distance, like a family of odd monuments huddled in a corner. Yet, in many ways, the transition of The Solemn Process exemplifies how remembering can take many different shapes, the meaning of objects and sometimes their very structure unfixed and moulding over time, responding to their new social and physical environments as history unfolds. Still, I leave the gallery longing, with a foolish nostalgia perhaps, to feel the smell of hay, the sound of chatter, and while walking under an open sky to encounter Lupas's stacks with ears of wheat stuck in my shoes.

1. Snodgrass, Susan. “From Rags to Monuments: Ana Lupaş’s Humid Installation.” ARTMargins, March 7, 2023.șs-humid-installation/.

2. Mungiu-Pippidi, Alinai. “The Manipulation of Lifestyles” In A Tale of Two Villages Coerced Modernization in the East European Countryside, 131–54. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2013.

3. Connor, Georgeta Stoian. “Rural Systematization: A Radical Campaign of Rural Planning under Ceausescu Regime in Romania.” International Journal of Business and Social Science 8, no. 2 (2017): 15–20.  

4. Murray, Stephen. “The Battle for Bankside: Electricity, Politics and the Plans for Post-War London.” Urban History 45, no. 4 (2018): 616–634.
5. Tate. “Performer and Participant – Display at Tate Modern.” Tate. Accessed October 6, 2023.