Contemporary Bulgarian Art -
In Search for the National Identity Abroad

by Diana Popova


"Why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian?" - this is the question that the monk Paisiy put forward in the beginning of his History of Bulgaria in 1762. His idea was to show to the enslaved people the they have had a glorious past. Today probably nobody in Bulgaria (except for a few historians) knows how the book continues. Generations successively graduated high school with only this phrase. And the history of Bulgaria since the end of the 19th century, for all we know, has paradoxically confirmed this cliche. Long periods of foreign dependence (in one form or another) alternated with short-lived periods of independence, which determined the constant swinging of Bulgarians between the East and the West, between political interests and cultural influences, among which they still can't find their own selves. The history of the country had been reshaped continuously under the pressure of current conjuncture and the only certainty left was the phrase of Paisiy pointing at some indefinite, initial and almost original Bulgarian shame.
During the short periods of independence the problem of national identity has usually been replaced by that of integration. With the failure of the imposed (usually Eastern) model the gaze was directed to the West with a longing to join the European culture. The question "where are we?" usually got a quick and straightforward answer, while for answering the question "who are we?" the independent periods of the country's history had proved to be too short. Every consecutive "liberation" brought in a devaluation of former values, dismantling of myths, reappraisal of events and personalities. This confused situation generated reactions in both extremes: groundless nationalistic arrogance or/and masochistic negation of the national character. Usually a foreign (political, economical, cultural) "model" was sought as a way out of the confusion - if we would apply it in Bulgaria probably everything would go to its place. But this created another problem: which one was the right model? And everything started all over again from the beginning...
Bulgarian art naturally followed and reflected all these waverings. Our artistic development since the end of last century was marked by a succession of short openings to outside cultural influences and subsequent closings for 20, 30 or more years. The styles and tendencies imported from abroad were gradually melted into the artistic conventions here and the resulting compromise evolved artistic individuality with national importance only in the work of few authors. Usually they turned into anachronisms during the next opening and under the pressure of new Western influences. With this intermittent (revolutionary) development Bulgarian art acquired tendencies and forms, which in the meantime had evolved in Western Europe to be leading and most widespread trends, overlooking those which had just come into being and were still controversial. This determined the other special feature of Bulgarian art - it is continuously "catching up". The lack of corresponding preceding tradition brings forth incertitude and confusion, it furthers a rather formal following of the adopted models and makes the compromise with home conventions easier.
The last "revolution" which happened in the second half of the 1980-ies was connected with the coming of the so called non-conventional art forms. This indefinite term corresponds exactly to the thinking and the activities of the artists who introduced the art forms of the installation, the object, the happening, the performance art, etc. into Bulgaria. Their establishment concurred with the last "liberation" of the country - i.e. with yet another depreciation of former values, dismantling of myths, etc. During the initial enthusiastic destruction of the totalitarian regime several artists and groups made ironical projects for the monuments of the Soviet army in Sofia and Plovdiv, for the Communist Party House, for the mausoleum of the communist leader George Dimitrov, etc. Yet in the course of the years came the inevitable sobering down - what should fill the wide opened value "gaps"? Fragments of history, beliefs from different times, traditions, heroes and saints began to haunt around in a kind of primary chaos and spontaneous discussions blazed up and down at random. The folklore (village costumes, embroidery, etc.) - the almost only thing steadily connected with the idea of the national in art - is "dead" since the first half of the century. Its later resurgences were regarded as anachronism and today they are yet another fragment of tradition hovering in the common chaos. That is why the "non-conventional" artists approach the folklore theme only rarely and did it, as a rule, ironically. Meanwhile the Bulgarian artists began to participate more regularly in international art forums, to make exhibitions around Europe and the USA, and began to affiliate with global art tendencies. But these tendencies went together with the ideas, themes and problems of the already structured Western societies. So in a few years in Bulgaria we saw artworks connected with AIDS, homosexuals, feminism, etc. while the debate on these issues was far from having a prime significance for the country. Nevertheless they entered the general value disorder.
The problem is that the destructive art approach needs some structure on which to be applied. And in Bulgaria there is no such structure. In 1991 Luchezar Boyadjiev made the installation "Fortification of Faith" (based on the would-be hypothesis that Christ had had a twin-brother) thus outraging religion, presented by the only institution which in those days seemed stable - the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The artist unwittingly predicted its split a few years later: today we have two Holy Synods. And the destructive tendency in our society triggered again nationalism, negation and a search for the right foreign "model".
The present disorder in Bulgaria brings the artists before three possibilities:
- to reflect it, showing in the artworks their discomfort of living in it. A typical example is the work of Houben Tcherkelov titled "The Appropriate Suit" (1996) - an official suit with very long sleeves, implying the useless efforts to civilize the "monkey country";
- to put the disorder into order, trying to create their own hierarchy of Bulgarian values. The only artist who works systematically in this direction is Georgi Todorov. He uses events from the past, historical personalities and Christian symbols for his hierarchy, trying to impose it on society. In this way he just reminds the society that their value vagueness makes them an easy target for all kinds of speculations;
- to make a double stroke, which means first to imagine that society in Bulgaria is ordered according to some Western model and then to apply the destructive art approach to it. Here are the above mentioned artworks connected with AIDS, homosexuals, feminism, etc. This strategy gives sometimes paradoxical results. For example, it turned out that the ideas of feminism in Bulgaria were the exact opposite to their counterparts in Western Europe; that the mechanism of censorship was triggered at a much lower level - the presentation of a naked body - while missing far more provocative art works, etc.
Of the three variants it is the last one that seems to show, although very vaguely, some national characteristics. While the main instrument with it is the foreign "model", albeit hypothetical. And it has been working so far. I say "so far", because some beginnings of the settling of values are already seen in Bulgaria. For example on the occasion of the national holiday (3rd of March) Bulgarians realized that they did not know basic dates from their recent history: the day of the Unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia (6th of September 1885) and the declaration of the country's Independence (22nd of September 1908). A whole discussion was started, as to when indeed the Bulgarian people had been building its state in a united and independent manner, rather than waiting for a "liberation" from abroad, etc. May be the shame of Paisiy is being overcome? In a recent interview for the "Culture" newspaper the artist Georgi Toushev said: "I have the depressive feeling that again and again we are going through some kind of revival with all its moods of enlightenment...". He can hardly guess how right he is.