The adventures of Bear Lache and his friends

Lache can still be seen on the wall of the Carpathian Hunting Museum in Romania, near Brasov. His giant hide, retained as a trophy from the shot of Romanian President Ceausescu, remains to this day an unsurpassed world record as the largest hunted bear of its size. His trophy allowed Ceausescu to surpass his peer General Tito as the record holder and was, for a period, the essential pre-occupation of a certain portion of the Presidential staff.

Ironically, there was nothing wild about Lache. He was bred for size from an unusually large male bear from the Romanian Circus and a captured female from the Carpathians. He was born in a zoo in Oradea, Romania, never left captivity until his selection for the hunt, and his sister was a famous animal star in Romanian cinema.

By the time he became an adult, Lache was the biggest bear in Romania, and was moved from the zoo to a restaurant in the Romanian alps where he enjoyed being a domesticated play-thing of local tourists. As a docile giant, he developed a predilection for beer and pralines, which people would bring him on a daily basis in exchange for photos with him or the chance to hug him.

One day, Lache vanished from the restaurant without trace or explanation. Ceausescu’s staff could finally be calm, having solved his diktat to surpass Tito’s record. Lache was executed in a fabricated hunt in the Carpathians. A huge effort was made to make him explore the forest but he would not move from the spot he was left in. Ceausescu shot him unceremoniously from a few tens of meters away. Perhaps, the only thing “real” about the event was Lache’s death.

Given Ceausescu’s obsession with hunting prowess, it is a remarkable coincidence that his execution was also by firing squad. It came only 15 days after his final bear hunt and only 9 days after the beginning of the Romanian Revolution, in which the rifle was the currency of action. All the action took place between the 16th and 25th of December which is the exact period when Romania people wear bear costumes in an annual festival to ward off evil spirits. Following his murder, the General who had commanded the initial slaughter of protesters, the former head of Propaganda and the former Army Chief of Staff formed essential parts of the new regime. In some sense, the only thing “real” about the revolution was Ceausescu’s death.

It is fitting therefore, that the symbol of the Romanian revolution was the drapelul cu gaură, the “flag with a hole”. This was simply the previous flag of Romania with the Communist coat of arms cut from its centre. The coat of arms depicted the wealth of Romania: wheat, mountains, forest, the Danube, the sun and oil. For citizens who had spent recent history under unremitting austerity with food and fuel shortages, yet who were incessantly broadcast propaganda about the largess and primacy of the state, the removal of the coat of arms seems like an attempt to reset the representation of their country to the reality they perceived. It was empty. I once asked my father why people went on the streets during the Revolution of ’89, what did they expect from it? He said that people weren’t thinking about the future, everyone just wanted the past to end.

With the completion of the revolution came not only the democratisation of politics but also of exploitation. The assets of the state were plundered in nearly a decade of austerity and privatisation. Extraordinary fortunes were made through the theft and sale of state assets but the poverty of ordinary citizens persisted, and in some cases increased. In true capitalist style, all available resources were put to market. Even bears, which under Ceausescu had been preserved only for hunting by the Communist party elite, now could be sold for slaughter to the international elite. In March 2021, Prince Emanuel von und zu Liechtenstein executed “Arthur”, thought to be the largest bear in Europe, in an illegal hunt, which remains un-investigated despite uproar among the Romanian people. One of the leaders of the far-right nationalist AUR party said of the execution:

“In Arthur are all Romanian industries, banks, and minds stolen by foreigners.(...) It has a much greater significance than it seems. (...) It is a perfect parable for the way things have happened in our country, in the last 30 years”.

Yet, the perpetrators of Romanian exploitation were not just foreigners but also the Romanians themselves. In the metaphor of the bear we should see not only the innocent victim but also the perpetrator: Who organised the hunt, who found the bear, who quashed the investigation? Romanians. Romanians wasted no time in expropriating and selling the assets of the state and fleeing abroad, or corrupting the legal process to retain the funds and evade prosecution. The revolution didn’t clear out an old world of corruption to introduce a new reality of justice and rule of law. Old, weakened figures were killed off and new entrants with an appetite for wealth and power found public resources to line their pockets. From politicians to gangster folk-heroes, songs and newspaper headlines celebrated those bold enough to steal.

One lucrative resource that opened up for trade with the end of communism was in women. Under Ceausescu all contraceptives had been banned due to a decree to increase the national population and women were strictly monitored by the security services to ensure their non-use of prophylactics and non-abortion of children. Nonetheless, a massive cottage industry evolved in make-shift abortions as well as a boom in orphans abandoned as unwanted children. Romania was therefore ripe for human trafficking with an abundance of bodies, the lack of economic means to support them and the lack of institutional or state support to protect them.

Following the revolution, unemployment rose above 40% and populations who had spent their lives given work automatically by the state now entered the free market. Families turned to the most immediate resource they had to make money and keep themselves alive, their women and children. Even today, over 50% of prostitutes in Europe are Romanian and of those nearly 60% are “sold” by either their family (49%) or their partner (9%). Romania is also the global capital of the web cam industry. Many high-class escorts are public celebrities and many celebrities make their money as high class escorts.

In true capitalist style, sex work has become not only a source of exploitation but also of emancipation. It supports significantly higher wages than normal work, international travel, luxury goods and, for the most successful women, entry into high society and the elite. To many women it is therefore not morally repugnant but instead aspirational as the only path out of poverty. They perceive that they will be sexually exploited whether rich or poor so it is better to make money in the process.

This the cast of characters that populates Lache’s world. A team of bears and half naked women who play, kiss, dance, love, exploit and abuse each other. Although the ceramic vignettes span two eras: Communist and Post-Communist, the scenes have a natural continuity because they represent the spirit of the people more than the structural identity of the state. In certain cases bears exploit and abuse women, in others, women abuse and dominate bears. The vignettes defy simple explanation because they reflect the ability of any person in the world to manipulate it towards their personal success. Perhaps the only unifying feature of the characters is that they lack the social standing to deny their rapaciousness and lasciviousness.

When I see Romanian contemporary art about Communism (like Lenin statues, and soulless brutalist buildings), I feel it references abstract structural ideas in a kind of prudish avoidance of the ‘crudeness of the ordinary’. Without claiming to tell all the stories at once, I want to explore what I see around me on the streets, when I turn on the TV, read a newspaper, watch an Instagram story, read a magazine, hear some gossip... I engage with the new semiotics of a world that could not fully replace one system with another one, where morality and self is handled flexibly in response to the pragmatics of day-to-day existence and physicality is the primary currency.

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© Ioana Maria Sisea, 2021