by Iara Boubnova
I started thinking for the first time about whom do we actually have to contend our forces with on the international art scene in 1996 when in Sofia, together with Haralampi G. Oroschakoff, we were discussing the possibility to organize a second round of Kraftemessen (Contending Forces) in its variety Bulgariaavantgarde (Bulgarian Avant-garde). It's obvious that within the terms of this project, there is permanently the contest with the West (a stable and relatively monolithic opponent), and periodically - with Russia (susceptible to radical actions not only in art). The situation was identical before, as well as, after the self-dissolution of totalitarianism and the physical destruction of its metaphor - the Berlin Wall. Riding on the wave of Gorbachev's Perestroika and being cheered-up by the state need for new representation, the Russian artists were encountering the West in huge numbers. At the end of the 1980ies the Russians in Europe were once again being greeted with flowers. The artists from the other post-totalitarian countries were left with the option to follow suit by progressing slowly and gradually through the unfamiliar territories of "Western" art space. By the early 1990ies it was already clear that the Russian "splash" is over and the Avant-garde forces were retreating back home, feeling misunderstood (according to their own admission). Within the framework of political correctness, Eastern Europe then acquired its due quota of eroticism in the international art shows on an equal basis with the other exotic cultures (for instance, the Latin-American, the Chinese, etc.). It seems that the quota distribution depends on the size of the geographical territory and its political "success", while the attention given to a country in the international media space is inversely proportional to this "success".
At the end of Haralampi's text in this book some black flags are being waved1. Could it be that these are actually the coat-tails of some international curators' and art dealers' jackets?
Our integration (contending forces) was from its very beginning a process of making one's own way as an individual effort rather then as a collective action. And this is reflected in the present show. All participating artists share in the ambition to contend forces through materialized artistic reflection on the current cultural situation and the individual's position in it rather then through a declaration, a manifesto or a representative gesture. In 1995 our Russian colleagues used three detachments of "troops", each one with its own combat tactics, while landing on Munich territory. The first one, for example, used the tactics of the simulative retreat while firing backwards like the ancient Parthians ("The Damaged Utopia", curator Margarita Tupitsyn); the second one, dressed up in combat fatigues, relayed on taking a siege and on its own territory ("Privatisierungen", curator Boris Groys); while the third one - on "catch-as-catch-can" tactics with preemptive psychological pressure on the opponent ("Conjugation", curator Victor Misiano)2. Such a tactical diversity is probably an effect of the ages old opposition between the "Russian spirituality" and the "Western pragmatism" which has been explicated a lot by authoritative historians. Russian art, being familiar with its "opponent" for a long time, had time to prepare itself for the contention of forces, as well as, to preserve some ground for retreat in the wide and deep spaces of the Russian authenticity. At the same time Bulgaria, which was recently "transferred" from the group of the "small" to the group of the "medium-sized" countries due to the 30% increase of independent states in Europe, has no room for retreat yet again. Our cultural history with its unique experiences of existence under some foreign domination, an issue which we have tried to discuss in more depth in this book, presented us with the phenomenon of the "other-centric" culture3. This neo-logical expression is well suited to its specific intuition for differences and absences, which comes from the constant "catching up" to somebody else through the choice of yet newer and newer models. The other-centric culture is the "friendly" type of culture and is pointedly dialogical. It doesn't develop fanatical egocentricity, it is capable of assimilating what's "foreign" to it with ease, while confusing its "upper" and "lower" levels. It often represents itself through the demonstration of its own shortages and is self-ironical by necessity. Behind the component "other" there is also the "what?", the "how?", the "when?" and the "where?". Other-centricity could be compared to the metal box of a computer where all the chips and the plates might be exchanged but it will still be the same computer/box.
As far as Kr╩ftemessen goes, we, coming from the Balkans, are decently good disciples of the "cunning" Byzantines and the "relaxed" Orientals. Our tactics is negotiations, combined with flank-movements in the rear of the "opponent". However, we negotiate only in our native tongue just like Bulgaria and Macedonia, these two neighboring and related countries, have been trying to do for years. The action "Visa Party", conducted within the framework of the "Deep Europe" workshop in the "Hybrid Workspace" of documenta X, proved what the results of applying such tactics to an artistic practice could be. There, some colleagues and friends of ours from the former socialist countries, among whom Luchezar Boyadjiev, speaking only their native tongues (around six) and not a word in any of the languages from the Roman-German group, asked the guests of the Chief Curator to fill out application forms for entry visas. Without such a "visa" the entrance/participation in the prestigious social event was impossible. Immediately such a procedure caused huge lines of waiting people, confusion, irritation and anxiety, and at the end the visit of Mrs. Catherine David herself. Within the artistic context of Eastern Europe in 1997, the strategy should count a success.
By flank-movements I mean:
The creation of a serious network of agents, infiltrated within the galleries/museums' spaces of the West (Nedko Solakov) and within the virtual/global spaces of the world (Luchezar Boyadjiev).
A touch of political correctness - 50% of the participants in Bulgariaavantgarde are under 35 years of age.
Offering a historical/political reference section in this book, verifying that our situation is: a/ a result of our geographical situation (the mountains in the Lower East Side of Europe)4; b/ an effect of a tragic history (Orthodox Christianity, Ottoman domination, totalitarian regime)5; and c/ a trustworthy, slow and leisurely "conjugation" in the European community today (we live with a Currency Board, enforced by the International Monetary Fund and travel according to the terms of the Schengen Agreement)6.
Pravdoliub Ivanov's work "Easy Banners" (1997) indicates all the maneuvering during the period of transition, as the politicians are defining our current situation. These banners are just like real ones except for being made out of transparent nylon, waiting like plastic shopping bags to be filled up with some sort of (political, cultural, etc.) identity.
Our personal mythologies are built up around this currently fashionable term which is used for everything - from personal eating habits and tastes, all the way to racial differences. The "classical" other-centricity formulates these mythologies on the basis of the proverb which claims that things are best wherever we are not. Or maybe even whenever we were not around, as in Nedko Solakov's cycle of drawings "Once Upon a Time" (1995-96). The anachronistic details and situations featured in the historical context of the images, as well as, the absurd narratives are not only entertaining our post-post-modern minds with their inventive discrepancies. As if in a "straight" mirror they are clashing us (from before) with ourselves (as we are now), living with a brand new past and changed perspectives. The elegance of detail, the classical "old" drawing technique, the text, hand-written on the margins as if in a diary, multiply the sensation like the one we get from the tautological circles of the time we are living in. But Nedko is known for his tenacity. In the present exhibition he is trying to make photographs of an empty corner, probably with the hope that his identity, which is stalking him having been always already implanted in the gallery by somebody else7, that it could be "captured" with the help of photographic equipment. And although identities, like extraterrestrials, are not fixable with emulsions, he still takes photographs of photographs, of photographs_Until the corner is no longer empty and starts to reflect_an identity.
Luchezar Boyadjiev's photographs from "Chairs and Symbols. A Project for Peaceful Co-identification" (1995-97) offer a refined political solution to the problem. The group arrangements of chairs (the hammer and sickle - for communists, the cross - for Christian-democrats, the crescent - for Muslim fundamentalists, etc.), installed in some conference hall could seriously facilitate the media - isn't it true that events are actually made by the media (after Baudrillard). As for the politicians themselves, the unique recent experiences of Eastern Europe prove that it is precisely their trans-identical nature that is in the core of the constant transformation in our societies. However, Luchezar Boyadjiev's critical intellectualism is attempting to build up just for itself the old/new utopia of "the ivory tower" which is capable of guarding the individual from the chaos. The "ivory tower" is holding the most precious things, it is built up according to the personal scale of its author, with his own very hands and this time with the help of the even better friend of a man - the computer, maybe in the hope to come up finally with a Batmobil. However, the "ivory tower" today could only have transparent walls - "Movables - My Room", (1998), and could be used for disguise but not for shelter.
The attempt to escape from the actual chaos is revealed in Kiril Prashkov's gigantic drawing "Sky" (1996-97) as well. It is meant to be placed above one's head, under the sky, on the ceiling, and just like a roof to give shelter from the elements and to restore the torn apart space/time continuum by the force of enjoyment - the road to catharsis. However, there is the apocalypse up there again, this time with the participation of some broilers (chickens), as if in a joke_
In the middle of the chaos which is reinforcing the other-centricity like in a cosmogonic myth, everything is related to everything else because the eye, as well as, the consciousness, strive to stop in one place at least for a little while when being in the tide of the total transformation (for ten years already!). From good to better, as we are trying to console ourselves. Dr. Galentin Gatev ("Something Like an Old Blotter", 1998) discovers similarities between the shapes of the no longer existing blotter which has disappeared with the progress of civilization, and the children's see-saw sway which has disappeared from our memory due to our own progress in time. On top, this gentle couple is joined by an instrument, the dermatom (used in plastic surgery) which appears to have come straight from the machinery of the post-human8 civilization. With the same swaying motion the dermatom is cutting human skin so that it can be transplanted elsewhere. Only because of his position as an artistic outsider, Dr. Gatev, who is a practicing dermatologist-venerologist, could engage himself with the "formal problems of art" by presenting them as social ones.
Two years ago Kalin Serapionov started his project-survey of the international artistic community by "shouting out" the question "Do You Feel You Are Different?". The answers collected from various countries and artists set up an installation (1996). Yes, we all feel we are different. Mainly because the people surveyed are artists and this is a sign of their identity which is impossible to erase. However, the colleagues from Eastern Europe, as well as, the author himself, feel they are different three times removed and in a negative sense. They are different as artists in general, as artists in their own countries, as artists within the international artworld which is neither noticing nor desiring them because in spite of all its declarations it is not other-centric.
Kalin Serapionov explicates a way out in his second work, the video projection titled "The Hot Soup and My Home Community" (1998). It signifies the strive for new wholeness through the establishment of a group identity - deliverance from isolation. All participants in Bulgariaavantgarde were invited by the author to eat the soup, which he had prepared himself, in front of the eye of a video camera. Thus, the "otherness" of each one of us is melting dawn in the communality of the simple action.
Rassim Krastev on his part, is simulating other-centricity in his work "Self-portrait with GSM" (1998) which is part of his total on-going self-centered project titled "Rassim(". The substance of this project is in the self-masking of the artist as somebody else, as some "others" - for example, the well known and accepted in our society "New" (Bulgarians). On top of changing/improving his own body by body-building, vitamins and proteins (within his still unfinished project "Corrections"), the author is also trying to change his public representation by taking part in TV sex-shows and fashion shows.
Pravdoliub Ivanov decided to touch with his finger and "materialize" the abstract concept of "transformation" in the same way we were made to see the origin of electricity in school lessons, for instance. To this purpose he is using peaceful, domestic means - hot-plates and old metal pots. The process of transformation, as well as and much like the one of boiling water, turns out to be a process of passage from one to another state of being - steam, etheriality, transparency/disappearance ("Transformation Always Takes Time and Energy", 1998). However, there is nothing left of the initial state either - that's what the laws of Physics are all about.9.
Tania Abadjieva is also involved with transparency - absence. In a whole cycle of works she is "investigating" space by enclosing its "components" with cellophane. The strange, almost invisible, material makes it possible for her to come in contact with this abstract category which is in the basis of every visual language. The results have a slight taste of transcendental vision and trigger doubt in the universality of each language convention.
As a proof to this Kiril Prashkov's installation/text/gesture titled "Don't Forget That Your Garbage Must Be Socially Correct!", "written" up with local everyday garbage as a slogan on the wall, is "contributing" to the wider understanding of the concept of "correctness". I am almost sure that nobody from the influential international circles, "responsible" for the political language conventions, has noticed that this concept is hard to translate adequately in all (our) tongues. It is only confusing and "polluting" not only the language but consciousness as well_
Maybe Kr╩ftemessen actually means that "correctness" is a "struggle".
1. Haralampi G. Oroschakoff. Bulgariaavantgarde - Blind Spot or On the real presence of what is missing.
2. Kr╩ftemessen. Eine Ausstellung ost-ostlicher Positionen innerhalb der westlichen Welt, Cantz Verlag, 1996
3. The definition belongs to Luchezar Boyadjiev
4. See: Christopher Phillips. The View from Europe's Lower East Side, Art in America, October 1997
5. See this book
6. See any daily newspaper
7. This brilliant concept belongs to Yuri Leiderman. He announced it at the International Conference "Is there anything between "here" and "there" in Contemporary art?", organized within the framework of "Ars Ex Natio. Made in BG", the annual show of the Soros Center for The Arts - Sofia, curated by Maria Vassileva and Iara Boubnova, which took place in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in May, 1997.
8. Jeffrey Deitch. Post-Human. Catalogue, 1992
9. Years ago one mathematician told me a joke about this physics problem: there is a water faucet, a kettle, a stove, firing wood and matches. Water should be boiled. What's the solution? The correct answer is given immediately - put the water in the kettle, put the kettle on the stove, fire the wood in the stove with the matches. Problem #2: there is a stove full with firing wood, there is a kettle full of water on the stove, there is a water faucet and matches. Water should be boiled. What is the solution? The correct answer comes after a minute of thought - we take the wood out of the stove, pour the water out of the kettle - the solution of problem #2 is reduced to the solution of problem #1.