Three years after the end of World War II, Transylvania was a very, very dark place. Bears and wolves stalk its dense, endless forests, the roads are still muddy, bumpy trails used only by the carts of local farmers. Some had managed to hold on to a few sheep, whose skins they could trade for beets and potatoes. Europe was newly divided. And in the middle of the Eastern Bloc was Romania, a country once famous for its countless churches, scores of which dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu would raze to the ground to transform his capital, Bucharest, into a second Pyongyang. From the 1960s onwards, his brutal, megalomaniac brand of communism would turn Romania, already suffering after the war, into the continent’s desolation row.
In 1947, when Alexandru Chira was born in a tiny north-Transylvanian village near Cluj, he was the second youngest of eight sons, two of whom did not survive childhood. The family lived in dire poverty—”like animals,” Chira’s daughter will tell me, explaining that this was particularly painful because their family had still owned forests and land until the new communist government expropriated them. Chira’s father was a hard man who loved his cows more than his children. His mother didn’t compensate for this deficiency—on the contrary, she hardly even spoke at all, nervously submitting to her husband, unable to provide her children with the security and warmth they needed.
In this climate, any child growing up sensitive and artistically talented is almost destined to a complicated, unhappy life, and Chira, too, would struggle with his mental health. But first: art school in Cluj and then the Fine Arts Institute in Bucharest. The whole program took five years (as long and dedicated as med school at the time), and the elegant and handsome Chira had managed to snag one of only around 20 places in the whole country. When his first girlfriend left him, he immediately turned to her best friend, an aspiring dentist called Monica, and the two got engaged. She worked on Bucharest’s outskirts, and her patients paid her in onions, potatoes, and chickens, so they always had enough to eat. Having previously lived on cigarettes and wine, Chira rose to a new level of comfort, especially once they moved into a large city apartment, which he was even able to help pay for after receiving an art prize. Otherwise, his wife was the breadwinner, while he never got up before eight, heading to his studio three times a week and not coming home until 11pm. Their daughter Irina was born in 1976.
“He was never really there,” she says, when we talk about her father. “He simply wasn’t interested in family life, but even in his absence he was extremely present. Everything revolved around him.” This was also when Chira started developing his obscure formal language through paintings, drawings, and sketches for a landscape monument in Transylvania. He was utterly convinced that the world needed this constellation of strange, totemic-looking signs, which would be bigger, better, and more important than anything any artist or person had ever even dared to attempt. The extremity of Chira’s obsession was already evident. He spoke like someone floating above it all, lost in his fixations—exposed, driven, dreaming, even though his eyes were wide open. “He was very sociable, and had a lot of fans he kept talking to about himself and his work,” Irina tells me. “He could be fascinating and charming, but he also sucked up all your energy. He was very self-centered and autistic, both of which became more and more extreme as he got older.” Of course, Transylvania is vampire country, home to the real Count Dracula, and just like him Chira fed on his admirers, his family, even his entire environment, not just to have a ready audience, but also to finance his project. “He was an incredible narcissist,” Irina says with a sigh. She became a psychoanalyst partly to understand her childhood spent in the orbit of this man, whose mood swings she could read seismographically, but who always remained a cipher as a father. “If you ignored him or didn’t give him enough love, he’d slam the door in your face. It happened to my mother too: at some point she got depressed and tired of his egoism, and he immediately netted a new girlfriend.” That was around the turn of the millennium, when Chira got tenure at the Bucharest University of Arts. “He was crazy about her,” Irina says, “though of course he was crazy anyway.” When that girlfriend left her father a few years later, he plunged into a deep depression, so deep that a good friend feared he’d kill himself. “He wasn’t well physically either, but he was still just as obsessed with his art. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2011, and given only six months to live, he looked like a very old man—although he was just 64.” But even when he could hardly stand, only one thing mattered: the work. Weakened and barely able to move for the pain, he got on a train to the place where it all culminated, the place that had ruled his art and his life for over 30 years: Tăuşeni.
In the no man’s land of Transylvania, on a hill outside the small village, Alexandru Chira erected a monument that looks like a cross between a cosmic playground and a sculpture garden. Made of concrete, metal, wire, and mirrors, it has a life-affirming, New Agey brightness that stands out against the dark Transylvanian wilderness and at the same time matches the colors of the area’s ancient settlements.
The piece is composed of several stations: a light blue mound nippled with a bump, a rainbow arching over everything, colorful metal constructions, slim, steep stairs, symmetrically patterned floors, and hexagonal frames with hinged mirrors and stylized schematics inside. The abstract composition has a filigreed geometry, like aliens designed it for some spiritual ritual. Chira may have been thinking about his compatriot Constantin Brâncuși’s famous outdoor sculptures in Târgu Jiu, the Endless Pillar, the Table of Silence, and the Gate of the Kiss. But whereas both artists’ assemblages are oriented to the sky and exude enormous mystical power, Chira’s work is much more enigmatic and interactive. What’s at the heart of his monument is a doorway to heaven, being beamed into a space beyond the worldly, beyond the explainable—for Chira, this poetically magical, spiritual piece also has a more concrete function: De-Signs Towards the Sky, for Rain and Rainbow, as the entire installation is called, was intended to return the rain to an area that had been parched for 30 years, an area where modern agriculture has failed.
“The name of the land-art project is a spatial super-metaphor,” Chira wrote about the 18-part work. “Each of these could become a programmatic essay in its own right.” There’s The House of the Shepherd, or of the Angel, which functions like a guardhouse to the rest of the hill—its hexagon framing a suspended sentry figure, arms outstretched like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Then come The 66 Steps of the Sower, which Chira called “the spinal cord of the monument, and geometrically its symmetrical axis.” Lining the hexagon that tops the steps are mirrors “designed for all who see themselves as sowers, and also for those who can relate to the archetypal sower, for those who plant regardless of season.” The next hexagon on the right arcs out from half a rainbow atop an earth-toned pyramid: “The Rotating Icon for Rain and Rainbow is meant to invoke the rain and the rainbow; it has two reservoir containers, one for rain and one for the rainbow.” On the left, The Rotating Mirror for Messages, installed on the blue breast, is “for sending but also for receiving messages (therefore, it is designed for announcements, predictions and storytelling). The whole monument is in fact meant to evoke a communication—receiving and broadcasting—station.” In the center of the whole is an abstract winged figure sheltered by two metal tubes that vault over a geometric design on the ground below: “The House of the Firebird, or the House of the Rain: the fire marks the center of the house, or of a world, while rain either contains or maintains the fire; the bell announces either rain or feast, thus tempering over boil. Placed in the center of the plateau, the vertical axis of the House of the Firebird is marked as the axis mundi. The inscription at the base of the vertical axis reads ‘Here is the center of the world—for a moment, a day, or for all days to come.’” If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Chira’s words were instructions for an adventure game, or a blueprint for a para-religious community.
In fact, Chira did manage to get the residents of the nearby village involved when he broke ground in the 1970s. The curator and art critic Erwin Kessler, who remembers Chira from the University of Arts, says that the locals didn’t know a lot about art and never thought much about what the monument meant, but simply helped this man because he was so obsessed. “Chira’s starting point was agricultural: the monument should bring rain. But at heart the work was intended to be purely metaphorical, poetic. Chira wasn’t so naive as to believe that he could really construct a rain-making machine.” But as a conceptual artist—and that’s what he was, although he also made around 100 drawings and another 100 hexagonal paintings, the compositions of which were meticulously connected to De-Signs (and which he sometimes worked on for five years but never sold)—as a conceptual artist, he trusted the installation’s formal force and intensity to convince the skies to rain. “The monument is a closed system; poetic, formal, and functional at the same time.”
And what better place than Transylvania to set its powers to work. To this day, superstition is as widespread here as Catholicism, which the communist dictator also tried to drive out, to no avail. Magic and ghosts still fog its forests, hunched hamlets, and fortified churches; doors and windows sometimes open and close by themselves; and soothsayers are proven right more often than anywhere else. No wonder that it now rains quite a lot in Tăuşeni. So much so, in fact, that the villagers have started to curse the monument. Though De-Signs Towards the Sky, for Rain and Rainbow has been moldering since Chira’s death in 2011, functioning but never completely finished, it’s the most unbelievable, beautiful, and outlandish piece of land art in Europe—even if hardly anyone knows it exists.
But that might soon change. Since four years, Chira’s estate has been represented by Delmes & Zander, a Cologne gallery specializing in so-called outsider art. “I immediately knew that Chira was an extraordinary artist,” Susanne Zander says. “His paintings and drawings have a very strong sense of authenticity; they’re in a class of their own. No other artist uses these strange formats, with those faces hidden in them. That’s also connected to his narcissism: they’re really all reflections of himself.” In fact, when you look at the Tăuşeni De-Signs on Google Earth, it also looks like a giant face. And yes, in the pastel restraint of Chira’s images, their cosmic forms and gnostic figures—spheres and triangles, geometrically embedded UFOs and folded hands—radiate great warmth, while the rest of the installation gleams in primary colors. “You can sense the incredible intuition that almost all the artists on our roster have, and his boundless obsessiveness.”
Building a monument that precipitates rain and paying tribute to nature’s beauty by constructing a rainbow not only attests to Chira’s fantasies of omnipotence, but also to his great capacity for spirituality. You can really feel the unearthly power he exerted. As precisely apprised as Chira was with the art movements of his time, his work itself ranged even more wildly, swirling together astrology, ufology, shamanism, theosophy, physics, mysticism, and magic into one modernist Gesamtkunstwerk whose transcendental potential ultimately evokes that divine entity Chira might’ve believed himself to be: God.
“It’s a one-man monument, a temple to himself,” Kessler says. “Chira subliminally subverts religious tradition with a church of his own making—similarly to how his country’s communist regime did.” In a way, he subconsciously adapted the idea of the “new man” in a “new era” that had arisen in Russian Constructivism. “Subconsciously, he followed the nationalist cultural ideology that Romania’s artists were superior to all other artists.” Though of course Chira didn’t care about any other artists—or much about anyone else at all. Chira lived inside a universe in which he only revolved around himself. “I used to often see him in the corridors at the University,” Kessler says. “He was something of a dandy, with an aristocratic, unwelcoming air. Yet at the same time he was extremely vulnerable and shy. His distance was a form of protection.” In the end, his work also formed a kind of cocoon in which Chira could live, withdraw from reality, look up to the heavens, where he was more at home than on Earth. Perhaps the rain that revived Tăuşeni’s soil is an incarnation of his spirit, a means with which the artist can signal from the great beyond. That no one knows or seems to appreciate it only shows how much suffering and struggle is inscribed in Chira’s work—in a man who was never happy and satisfied. Even if nobody recognized it, he knew the truth: he was better than the others—and entirely out of this world.