There is a mindset in Bulgaria’s cultural sphere that the country must overcome its past and finally catch up with the “global present”.
Gallerist, philanthropist, curator, and collector Vesselina Sarieva has an alternative way of looking a Bulgarian art’s contemporary condition. By exploring 12 artworks from Bulgaria’s past, she shines a light on the country’s innate cultural possibilities. Including both well-recognised and underrepresented works from artists based in Bulgaria and beyond, Sarieva’s selection has its roots in projects by her charity, the Open Arts Foundation. They include Open Art Files, a digital archive of Bulgarian contemporary art, and an educational programme that positions Bulgarian art in a global context.
Vladimir Ivanov was an initiator of projects that were never reflected in socialist Bulgaria’s media or formal institutions. In 1988, he published just 13 copies of the country’s very first art book with a group of friends. It never made the news.
This untitled work, which appropriates an IBM advert, was amongst many that were never publicly shown until recently. It alludes to the idea of a new time of overproduction, juxtaposing the natural human form with the linearity of a machine.
“There is a common misconception that works like this were forbidden to be made during the communist era,” says Sarieva. “In fact, it was unacceptable for them to be shown: clearly, artists were still creating them and keeping them concealed. It wasn’t easy for me to access this work, which was hidden deep in the artist’s personal archives and hadn’t seen the light of day until last year.”
Under the socialist state, works such as Ivanov’s — a photocopy, drawn over with a marking pen — was not considered “real art”. Today, its validity wouldn’t be up for debate, says Sarieva. “In my view, this work, which is part of a series, is significant because it suggests that Bulgaria’s place in contemporary art history may be different [to what we originally believed],” she says. “We were not ‘left behind’. In their own way, artists were developing their practice alongside global creatives.”
Between 1979 and 1989, Tekla Aleksieva created 107 book covers for the popular science fiction series, Galactica Library. Although her covers are incredibly well-known in Bulgaria, they were not considered as artistic works in their own right. Her work was never exhibited before 2019. The exhibition The Galaxies of Tekla at the Sariev Gallery was the first formal representation of the artist’s work, as well as her first solo exhibition, at the age of 75.
“Everybody knew about Tekla; we all had these books at home,” says Sarieva. “In a way, she was neglected as an artist during communism, but this did not stop her from expressing herself in a new and unconventional way for that time.”
As Aleksieva’s art was perceived by the authorities as “merely illustration”, an “unimportant” medium, the artist was given more freedom than many of her contemporaries, with book covers under less state scrutiny than paintings or sculptures. Yet, as Sarieva says, “Aleksieva’s works unite people’s memories and emotions. At The Galaxies of Tekla opening, visitors shared dozens of stories about their book collections, how they waited to see the new covers. Her works provided a much-needed escape into alternative realities.”
Sasho Stoitzov is a stalwart of Bulgarian contemporary art. A Family is part of a series of large, photorealistic portrait compositions. Stoitzov painted the background (using a Raketa vacuum cleaner rather than a customary paint gun) with stencils and tape to mark the several perspectives in the painting. The human figures, meanwhile, were created by magnifying a photograph with an epidiascope and projecting it onto the canvas.
“For me, this work is valuable because of his choice of representing not a union, but a geometric void, a dissonance within relationship, which was very uncommon for its time, but very relevant today,” says Sarieva. “In my opinion, another important point is the imagery of a “different dimension” that separates people as a result of new and changing times.”
Perched in a rowboat, Albena Mihaylova unfurls paper tape across the water of a tranquil lake. Along the coastline, the tape wraps around the crown of a tree crown, covering the terrain in the shape of a spiral, encircling shrubs or stones. The tape runs its way through nature, the lake overrun by human intervention. But as human consciousness reaches out into nature, the body also relaxes. The artist, who is also known as Benji, undresses, until, finally, she is sitting naked in the boat, in the middle of the lake.
Like many of her contemporaries, Benji made many of these artistic interventions — although the censorship of artists ensured it never made it into the paradigm of contemporary art. Most of these performances, therefore, like Benji’s Lake and Tape, happened in secluded places in nature, away from the city’s dogmatic institutions. “The documentation of the work remained hidden in the artist’s personal archives for a long time, which was very common. There wasn’t a contemporary art institution in Bulgaria to archive, preserve and show works such as Benji’s,” says Sarieva.“These documentation photos were exhibited last year for the first time.”
Mihaylova still participates in artistic collectives with Dimitar Grozdanov and RUB, which often engage in happenings and performances.
Luchezar Boyadjiev has a significant presence in Bulgaria’s contemporary art scene. With a background in art history and criticism, he creates socially and politically-engaged works. His self-portrait How many nails in the mouth? has become a defining image for Boyadjiev — starting as “a pencil-on-paper drawing expressing inner-turmoil”, which the artist drew on the terrace in front of the Albertina Museum in Vienna in the summer of 1992.
“This image isn’t a collage: the photograph is completely real,” says Sarieva. “On one side it represents a performance, on the other, a photographic documentation. For me, it depicts the struggle and weight of being that we face every day.”
Boyadjiev has an upcoming retrospective show Re-building the World of Images. 1991-2019 at MOMus, Thessaloniki, later this year.
Dr. Gatev’s artistic practice began with a single action, In Defence of Solid Material on 4 July, 1994. He convinced the management of a metal processing plant to appoint him as director for a single day. In his new role, he then made the decision for the factory to start producing wooden parts instead of metal ones.
“For me, this absolutely unprecedented artistic act marks the political transition to capitalism in an absurd way,” says Sarieva. “Gatev used the action to explore a variety of ideas, from the meaningless tasks of production to overproduction. His artistic gesture is achieved from start to finish— including a document that officially states his intention to produce parts from wood, completely devaluing these otherwise useful parts.”
Pravdoliub Ivanov’s installations throughout the 1990s were often a reaction to political events such as the Balkan wars, and the border disputes that played a role in the conflict. The installation Territories consists of large banners that have been “cast” in mud and soil. These earth banners replace the idea of flags, or pieces of fabric with their “incomprehensible and forgotten symbols’’.
“This installation reflects a battle for territory to an extent where it erases all ideologies,” says Sarieva. “By viewing Territories, we are reminded that we are all the same, regardless of our belongings or beliefs.”
The 90s were a time of rapid change in Bulgaria: including a shift in how beauty was perceived both in art, and in everyday life. Those changes were captured in the series “Corrections” by RASSIM, the chosen name for artist Krassimir Krastev. In the series, RASSIM played with those new values by turning himself into the stereotypically “ideal” Balkan man: a macho man, a bodybuilder, a mafioso.’
RASSIM has an academic background in sculpture, but decided to use it in a different way in this series — essentially sculpting his own body. “RASSIM’s goal is not merely to reproduce an image; it is to become the image itself,” says Sarieva. RASSIM works on his muscles in the same way he’d work on his sculptures.
Bulgaria’s best-known artist, Nedko Solakov, has gained international recognition for his work. His iconic performance A Life (Black & White) was one part of the Performer and Participants show at London’s Tate Modern, which explored how artists opened up new spaces for participation. The artwork had been due to be recreated in 2020 to celebrate the institution’s 20th anniversary.
In the performance, two workers continuously paint a wall: one using black paint and the other using white. They never stop following each other in the confined space, constantly painting over each other’s work. “[In my opinion,] this work is one of the greatest embodiments of the Bulgarian mindset,” says Sarieva. “You can find constant ongoing opposite actions and reactions everywhere, even in our mythology. For me, it is inherently optimistic: we are in a state of constant, dynamic change.”
In 2005, artist Ivan Moudov staged the opening of the much-anticipated Museum of Contemporary Art Sofia, also known as MUSIZ. Moudov sent out hundreds of invites and led a PR campaign that included billboards across Sofia. When the day came, an immense crowd gathered, including cultural ministers, museum directors, diplomats and artists. Except there was no museum. MUSIZ was an artistic project — although many of the visitors believed that they were actually going to attend a real museum opening. The stunt remains one of Bulgarian art’s most discussed actions.
“This work addresses the idea of absences in Bulgarian history of art, such as a lack of functional contemporary art institutions,” says Sarieva. “It is still relevant today. It asks questions such as what makes up the art world? Is it institutions and the art community? Or perhaps the artwork itself? Does art need to be validated by museums and galleries?”
How We Live is made using polystyrene panels: an industrially-produced material originally fabricated to be used as insulation. This work, meanwhile, embraces a modular approach. Rada Boukova gives the panels a new aesthetic, with architectural or seemingly functional roles within a certain space. The work reacts to, and reorganises, this space. “Rada Boukova’s work is poetic and material: for me it depends on physical experience,” says Sarieva. “You can understand it best when you’re close to it; when you can imagine how this material could suffocate you. The material the panels are made from are known as an ‘energy shield’ because it keeps in the heat.”
Boukova’s work is an ongoing project, and can transform in different settings. When it appeared at the 2019 Venice Biennale, in some parts of the pavilion it was used to fit within the architecture as insulation; in other parts, the panels appeared as abstract painting and design. The work responds to, and criticises, its immediate surroundings. “It is interesting how we may read Boukova’s artwork in today’s turbulent times of self-isolation. These panels promise to protect us, to sustain our energy in an enclosed environment, and at the same time to keep us encapsulated within the building,” says Sarieva.
Martina Vacheva is part of Bulgaria’s latest artistic wave, exploring Balkan stereotypes and tying them to modern realities. In Bulgarian Rose Queen, Vacheva investigates Eastern Europe’s folkloric notion of beauty.
“Martina Vacheva is one of the most rapidly developing young artists in Bulgaria. She is a part of a new circle of Plovdiv artists that work in grotesque, humorous and joyous ways. They introduce a new artistic language, concerned with vitality and “common” people,” says Sarieva. “Perhaps it’s bold to select such a recent work in this overview, but for me, this is an act which opens the door to the future.”
Vacheva’s work is due to be exhibited this summer at the Crack Up—Crack Down show at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw (curated by the collective Slavs and Tatars). You can also see Martina Vacheva and Nedko Solakov’s work in the upcoming exhibition Diversity United. Contemporary European Art. Moscow. Berlin. Paris. at Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, later this year.