File Note 39: Mircea Cantor - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Sophie Moiroux



...‘20 keys to understand’ Mircea Cantor (or: his DNA gate) Images References Quote Biography Credits

...‘20 keys to understand’ Mircea Cantor (or: his DNA gate)

0) This piece is a gate of harmonious proportions on three oak-posts with the wicket gate under the same roof covered with shingles in ornamental forms. There is a door and two larger wings of horizontal oak boards allowing for an openness which lets us see through it. The posts, edged with delicate ‘wolf-teeth’ designs and rosettes, are covered with DNA strands waving their coils along them. It is entirely coated with 24-carat gold leaves. The massive presence of the wood and its fine imperfections emanate from beneath. 1) Mircea Cantor’s monumental golden gate carved in wood is appealing to our senses, it engages a poetic within us looking at it, and demands to be experienced in all its unstable sense, which transpires from the photographs here reproduced.

2) The gate is part of the traditional Romanian landscape: coming down from generations of ancients, it is a legacy. In Maramures, the region where this, as well as the mythical carpet Airplanes and Angels, have been produced, traditional gates are made out of wood, ubiquitous material in this forest-rich area. 3) They are often decorated with ‘Tree of Life’ designs, shaped with embossed twisted rope, a motive unrolling on surfaces as a sacred frame and for higher aspirations to the inhabitants’ important places such as doors and windows. 4) This design has long been used, but its symbolic meanings are now forgotten or not always remembered. It is kept as unconscious decoration – only its image and ornamental power remain, in a strong sense of continuous necessity. Related to pre-Christian beliefs, it is said to have originated in very ancient cultures, perhaps Byzantine or Celt, and strangely resembles the standards of the Roman legions. The circle, like the rosettes, represents the sun, while the cross, also linked to Christianity, marks the centre of the inhabited universe.

5) Carved to decorate most surfaces outside buildings, these are protectors of the homestead, and stand for prosperity, eternity, and the incorruptibility of life. On the gate, itself a protection locus against evil, they also introduce the presence of the owner, who sometimes carves it himself, the combination of designs specific to him. Here, The ‘Tree of Life’ is accompanied by a little man, the ‘Protector of the Household’, he too guarding the entrance to the home. 6) On one of the posts is the date of construction and the name of the carver, sometimes accompanied by a protective hand. Here, Mircea Cantor and woodcarver Vasile Bârsan outlined their handprints. 7) The gate is an important site: it is the entrance to the benevolent space of the house, and an exit towards the road, the external world. It is a threshold between two worlds. Openings are left as ‘eyes’ for people to see through, to glimpse on the other side. Unlike the enclosing vaporous Chaplet, the threshold gate is there welcoming, warning, defining, protecting, opening up. 

8) Mircea Cantor’s life-size golden gate is decorated with DNA strands in place of the usual ‘Trees of Life’, without departing from the creative tradition which inspired its design. 9) The DNA molecule is the post-modern discovery of the universal life code, the inscription of an individual’s own unique identity along with his/her ancestry. It can be seen as a deterministic device, but also a fashionable one through genetic engineering or environmental damaging. It is at once powerful and fragile. Its examination lays bare one’s physical and functional body. Nevertheless, it does not reveal anything of one’s interior life,
one’s story and personhood. 10) ?

11) Displacing and inscribing a DNA helix made out of the twisted rope, which endows it with the sacred power running along the landscape of Romanian homes, onto the Maramurean gate, and using these usual components and style, produces a double new knowledge understanding and sense of apprehension from this waypoint. The large structure defining the entrance of a home casts for passers-by a new light on the identity of what is protected by it and on life itself, its decoration representing the most essential and intimate elements. While the traditional gate, with sheltering roof, openness within its enclosure and demonstration of the owner’s status and home, is decorated with ancient ‘Tree of Life’ motives for protection, the golden gate is also a powerful image of welcome, but it is timeless and universal, decorated with a large-scale DNA motif, the supposed finding of life’s fixed identity.

12) Without the fence and home on the other side, it invites one to cross its threshold, welcoming us to an undefined and unknown world, away from the secure and certain situation of one’s place. 14) It becomes in Mircea Cantor’s words, a passage to the ‘creative potential of life itself’, the ‘manifestation of things which are not controllable’, an image of ‘unpredictability’, as are both life, in spite of DNA determination, and perpetuated traditions through time; an unsettling possibility for freedom and responsibility in the ever present future. 

15) (Marvellous birds saying ‘The Need for Uncertainty’, a couple of peacocks are walking behind a labyrinth of gigantic concentric golden cages, which bathe the space with baroque power and extravagance. Lively, ungraspable and mysterious, they participate in the ambient questioning and wandering increased by the distance disclosed from the construction whose precious metal echoes that of the fantastic door). 

Clothed in gold, the gate radiates bright and powerfully like a fairytale treasure, a religious icon or the arch of a temple, reaffirming the preciousness of both this tradition and the life code carved in it. 16) While anchored in reality, like the Hiatus sculpture enchanting the little wood where it appeared, it also brings about the fabulous and the magical coincidence of the unexpected encounter of two unconnected things and their perspectives. 17) It becomes a work of art 18) to be reflected upon. 19) xxxx


G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (first published 1963)

Giorgio Agamben The Man Without Content, Stanford University Press (1999)

Sun Tzu The Art Of War (6th century BC)

René Daumal, La Grande Beuverie (A Night of Serious Drinking), L’Imaginaire (begun in 1932)

Aldous Huxley Brave New World (first published 1932)

Lucian Boia Le mythe de la democratie. Ed. Les Belles Lettres (2002)

Lucian Boia Romania: borderland of Europe, translated by James Christian Brown, Reaktion Books, London (2001)

The Mathnawi of Jalalud’din Rumi (first translated 1898), Gibb Memorial Trust, 2nd edition (1991)

Ben Zimet Contes du yiddishland, Seuil (2000)

Daniel Arasse On n’y voit rien, Editions Gallimard (2003)

Francis Ponge Le Savon, Gallimard (1967), 1992

Gandhi dir. Richard Attenborough (1982)

Stalker dir. Andrei Tarkovski (1979)

Zbigniew Rybczynski Tango, cartoon (1982)

Fahrenheit 451 dir. François Truffaut (1966)

  ‘Auspicious exterior, suspicious interior.’ G.I. Gurdjieff


Mircea Cantor was born in 1977 in Oradea, Romania. He now divides his time between Paris, France and Cluj, Romania. The Need for Uncertainty was seen at Modern Art Oxford and as a different configuration of work at Arnolfini, Bristol during 2008. Cantor also had recent solo exhibitions at Future Gifts, Mucsamok Kunsthalle, Budapest (2008); Magazzino di Arte Moderna, Roma; Deeparture, Black Box, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC; Museum Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo, Panoramica, Mexico, D.F.; Ciel Variable, Frac Champagne-Ardennes, Reims, France (all 2007); The Title Is the Last Thing, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Burn to be Burnt, GAMEC – galleria di arte moderna e contemporamea, Bergamo, Italy (both 2006). Selected group exhibitions include the 4th Berlin Biennial for contemporary art, Berlin (2006), Power Play, Artpace, San Antonio, Texas (2007), Brave New Worlds, The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Airs de Paris, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France (2007) and the 28 Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil (2008). In 2004 Cantor was awarded the Prix Paul Ricard S.A, given each year to an outstanding representative of the new artistic generation in France. Cantor is co-editor of the cultural review Version ( which he co-founded in 2001 at Cluj-Napoca, Romania.


Sophie Moiroux is an anthropologist based in Paris and a friend of the artist.

Supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute in London and the Ratiu Foundation.