Performance Art in Bulgaria

Amy Bryzgel

by Amy Bryzgel

Bulgaria has been largely omitted from the map of performance art history, but this omission speaks more to the lack of knowledge and interest by international scholars than to any absence of a performance art scene or research on the ground. In his pioneering monograph on post-war art, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, Piotr Piotrowski explained the reason he included only limited examples of artists from Bulgaria: “I have spent more time on those countries where the post-war experience of modernism was richer and more dynamic, less where it did not play a significant role.”[1]  

During my time conducting research in Bulgaria, I discussed this notion—that the postwar modern art scene was not that notable—with several art historians, and the outcome remains inconclusive—some agreed with the statement, others said that there were avant-garde traditions but they were simply not written about or have not yet been uncovered. Regardless of whether ‘rich’ and ‘dynamic’ avant-garde traditions did or did not exist in Bulgarian art, perhaps a more pertinent question is why this should matter at all. After all, the prioritizing of avant-garde, progressive, modernist practices above others can now be seen as a very traditional and retrograde approach to art history.  

My research into performance art in Bulgaria revealed that there is a rich and dynamic contemporary art scene, and one can trace performance practices there to the decade of the 1980s. This was quite a dynamic period, as performance and conceptual art practices were just in their inception, as the scene was beginning to develop, and artists were experimenting with a range of approaches. What is particularly fascinating about the manner in which this tradition developed in Bulgaria is that its origins are dispersed throughout the country, rather than solely beginning in the capital.   

In many ways, though Bulgarian artists began using performance art in their practice two to three decades after their colleagues in Western Europe, North America, and other parts of East Central Europe, the development of the genre appears to have followed a similar trajectory as it did when it emerged elsewhere. In the following text I will explore the various approaches used by artists within the context of performance art in Bulgaria from the 1980s until today, namely: happenings, actionism, gender and identity politics, and institutional critique.  

The 1980s: Early Happenings

Thanks to the efforts of the curators at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia, we have a chronicle of the early happenings and actions that took place across Bulgaria in the 1980s laid out in the 1994 “N-Forms” exhibition, which catalogued new and experimental art forms in the country at a time when they were not necessarily ‘new’ elsewhere, but had just recently appeared on the Bulgarian scene, such as conceptual, installation and performance art. Just as performance art elsewhere began with happenings and actions, so, too, was the case in Bulgaria. A happening is an event that ‘happens’, and although it is planned, can appear improvised and allows for the unexpected to take place. The term was first used by American artist Allan Kaprow for his loosely scored events. Kaprow would outline the action with various signposts, allowing participants to improvise within that structure.   

Happenings were a way for visual artists to expand their art beyond the edge of the canvas, and embody the artwork themselves. This was precisely the idea of the Rab (Edge) group from Plovdiv, which staged actions and happenings outside of the gallery space. At times, artists also used their bodies as the canvas, and many experimented with costumes and body paint, as witnessed in the 1986 action The Road, initiated by Dimitar Grozdanov in Turgovishte, in Northern Bulgaria. By enacting a walk, and embodying the artwork, the artists had found a new and more dynamic method of expression than they may have found in painting or sculpture. In 1989, Georgi Todorov staged The Burning of 1,000 Sheets of White Paper in the seaside town of Bourgas. Once again, this live action enabled a more visceral engagement with the ideas and sentiments expressed than a static object. Likewise, in Albena Mihaylova’s performance, Burning the Documents, in 1989, the artist created a suit made of paper, wore it, took off, and proceeded to burn it in effigy.

Albena Bendji Mihaylova

Burning Documents, 1989.

Performance

Details

  • Photographer: Albena Bendji Mihaylova
  • Material: View the previous description
  • Sizes: View the previous description

  • Property of: Albena Bendji Mihaylova
  • Description: View the previous description
  • Copyright: Albena Bendji Mihaylova

Albena Bendji Mihaylova

Burning Documents, 1989.

Performance

Details

  • Photographer: Albena Bendji Mihaylova
  • Material: Glued on robe documents, fire

  • Property of: Albena Bendji Mihaylova
  • Description: Performance by Albena Bendji Mihaylova
    In front of the Plovdiv artists hall, during the opening of the annual Youth Art Exhibition 1989.
    The visitors and the artists are surprised when Albena disrobs the strange robe she is dressed, puts it on the sidewalk in front of the art hall and lights it up. The robe is a collage of personal documents of the artist – a police ban for leaving the country, a fine because of contacting a foreign citizen, etc. Like a paper sculpture or a human leaky, the robe burns as alive. The visitors put the flowers that are carried by the burnt remains. The performance reminds the Jan Palach’s combustion 1969. It's only been 20 years since the Prague Spring. At the same time Albena reacts on the repression of the communist government related to the "revival process" in Bulgaria from the mid-80.
  • Copyright: Albena Bendji Mihaylova

The fact that these first performances in Bulgaria were spread throughout the country, rather than concentrated in Sofia, is quite distinct from the manner in which the genre emerged elsewhere, starting in capital cities and branching our to the peripheries. That said, throughout the 1980s, the Cuckovden Group, led by Orlin Dvorianov, was active in Sofia, staging carnivals, festivals and actions.  

Given the fact that performance art emerged in Western Europe and North America in the 1960s, a time of great civic and political action across the globe, it is not surprising that artists at times used performance art to convey or explore a political message. Such was the case also with the early performances in Bulgaria, which emerged at an equally significant time of political change. The 1989 action by Lyuben Kostov, Downfall of Article I, reflected that particular moment in history, when the country was debating that part of the constitution, which gave the Communist Party sole authority in government. In the action, the artist set up a row of dominos in front of the National Archaeological Museum. As he knocked one domino over, the rest fell, much in the way that once Article I was dismantled, numerous other changes followed in its wake.  

A 1990 action by The City Group, a group of young artists committed to new and experimental methods of artistic expression, also had a political element to it, and involved the participation of passersby. Chameleon was described as a ‘political action.’ It took place in front of the Palace of Culture and involved members of the public adorning a chameleon sculpture with their Communist Party membership cards to form the creature’s scales.  

In the 1990s, performance seems to have exploded onto the scene in Bulgaria, with artists utilizing the genre to express concerns related to the new post-communist environment and post-Cold War world. One particularly striking example is the work of Ventsislav Zankov, whose work bears resemblance to the aggressive and visceral performances of the Viennese Actionists, active in the 1960s and 1970s in Austria. Zankov created a number of performances using blood and his own body materials, such as his hair. His actions from the early 1990s take the form of ritualistic acts, and even invoke religious imagery in their execution. This is most evident in a series of performances from 1991-1992, The Limits of Agony [Limes Agoniae], which involved the artist visiting a slaughterhouse and making paintings using the blood of slaughtered animals. His Red performances from 1991, also involved the use of blood, and one performance was particularly striking in that it took place outside, in the freezing temperatures and snow, which was left spattered and stained from the blood. The artist commented that these performances reflected the chaos and confusion of the times, as the old system gave way to the new. He utilized blood and ritual to come to terms with the past and purge the old ways to make way for something new.  

While Zankov responded to the turmoil of the 1990s with visceral performances, The Edge group took a different approach. Their 1993 performance, Obvious Breakfast, involved the artists leisurely enjoying a lavish breakfast at the seaside, complete with rare fruits and expensive alcohol, difficult to come by at the time. The performance made an ironic comment on the deficit of goods in the post-communist environment, yet can also be seen as a declaration about the perseverance of the arts, and the people, through such challenging times.  

Gender and Identity Politics

The 1990s across the globe was a time when artists began exploring identity politics, expanding on the work of feminist artists from the 1970s to include other elements of identity, such as race, religion and sexuality. It makes sense, then, that in post-communist Bulgaria these themes should appear as well, and one prominent figure active in this area is the artist Boryana Rossa.  

In 2007, the artist addressed the male-dominated art historical canon by challenging the mythic yet iconic performance by Viennese Actionist Rudolph Schwarzkogler, in which he supposedly cut off his own penis, and then died after the procedure. The artist commented that she had often been told that there was “no stronger gesture [in art] than the amputation of a penis.” Since the artist couldn’t amputate an organ she didn’t have, she re-enacted the performance using a dildo that she stitched to her stomach, and then cut it off, in a piece entitled Blood Revenge II. Prior to the action, she informed the viewers that the performance by Schwarzkogler never took place, and the iconic images of the piece were not of him, and the person whom the images did depict did not die. In this sense, she created a new mythology for art history, one that was inclusive of women.  

Rossa is also a member of UTRAFUTURO, an international group of artists focused on science, art and technology, mainly interested in the cyborg as that which queers identity and invalidates modernist binaries and rigid forms of identity. Russian artist Oleg Mavromatti and Bulgarian artist Anton Terziev are also members of the group.  

While Rossa is a self-proclaimed feminist, Adelina Popnedeleva would categorize herself as a ‘soft feminist’, stating that she is against all forms of hierarchy, and her work is more about equality, rather than focused on gender. Much of her work is very personal, including a performance entitled Psychotherapeutic Performance (2004), in which she aimed to cure herself of her migraine headaches. The first part of the piece involved photo documentation of the artist when she was suffering from migraines, and the second involved a public psychotherapy session in a museum, with Ventsislav Zankov playing the role of the therapist. That said, many of her performances involve the washing of clothes (Alchemy, 2010) or weaving (Masochistic Performance after Hans Christian Anderson, 2000)—traditionally women’s work—through which she explores basic elements of the human condition: evil, suffering, and pain.  

The work of Ivo Dimchev, who describes himself as a physical theater artist, exists at the intersection of dance, visual art, music and song. The artist’s body also crosses, boundaries, as he remains gender fluid in his performances. In his words: “For me, the performative body is more the idea of a body that can really transform into anything, and connect to anything. And the more open it is, the more undefined in terms of gender, the easier it is to connect. Also, I don’t want to limit my vocabulary — there is a female energy in me, and if I don’t explore that part of my energy, yeah, it would just be like fifty percent. It’s very important that I work with my masculine, my feminine, my animalistic and my extraterrestrial [laughter] energies.”[2] This work invites comparison with that of Rossa’s performance The Last Valve (2004), wherein she sewed her vulva shut, creating a gender neutral being. In a country where gay pride marches still face attacks from right-wing extremist groups, the open approach to gender and sexual identity by these two artists is truly pioneering.       

Addressing the concept of masculinity, the artist RASSIM turned his body into a living sculpture as he literally carved it into shape, in a project called Corrections (1996-1998), a long-durational performance in which the artist attempted to achieve the body of a body-builder. The artist followed a strict diet and exercise regime, but in the end, while he did bulk up, he was unable to have the muscle definition of a body-builder, due to his body type. For RASSIM, the project was more about the creation of a new type of sculpture, a living sculpture, and producing a form of extreme body art, one that was not really prominent in Bulgaria at the time. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the significance of a slim, bohemian-looking artist transforming himself into a muscle-bound man, and draw parallels with the impossible beauty and physical standards to which both women and men are held by the contemporary mass media in today’s society.

RASSIM® Krassimir Krastev

, 1996.

Photography

Details

  • Photographer: Angel Tsvetanov

RASSIM® Krassimir Krastev

, 1998.

Photography

Details

  • Photographer: Angel Tsvetanov

RASSIM®

Corrections 2, 2002.

Video Art

Details

  • Photographer: Jean Luc -Cramatte
  • Material: video, photography
  • Sizes: Tow parallel video projections 17 min. sound

  • Property of: RASSIM®
  • Copyright: RASSIM® Krassimir Krastev
    Bellouard BollwerkInternational,Fribourg, Switzerland
  • References: www.rassim.com

While the topic of feminism is one that has been widely rehearsed in the post-communist period, there has been comparatively little discussion of masculinity in the East Central European communist and post-communist contexts. Ventsislav Zankov lamented and addressed this in his project All About Him, which involved a series of discussions and projects related to the topic of masculinity.  

The 2000s: Institutional Critique

Performance art, in its attempt to move beyond traditional boundaries of art-making and create temporal artworks that could not immediately be commodified, participated in an approach to art-making that has since been referred to as “institutional critique.” The idea was to create art that challenged the very notion of what art is, who decides, and who places a value on it and what that value means. The use of institutional critique in a country where artists lack both institutions and institutional support for their work is tricky, and one artist, Ivan Moudov, summed up that complexity by stating: “We don’t even get the chance to hate the museum.” Rather, while on the one hand many artists in Bulgaria craved institutions that would support and promote contemporary art, they were at the same time highly critical of Western art institutions, many of which often excluded artists from Eastern Europe.  

Moudov is one of Bulgaria’s best examples of institutional critique, and a number of his works challenge the dominant Western canon of art history, which excludes artists from Eastern Europe, as well as Western art institutions, whose exhibition policies create a strong dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe. Moudov begins to rectify the situation for Bulgarian art by stealing small pieces of art objects from museums around the world, in an action entitled Fragments. The artist stated that the piece enabled him to “participate in colonial art history,”[3] providing it with a cultural history of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art, which it doesn’t really have.  

Ivan Mudov

Fragments box #1, 2002.

Installation

Details

  • Photographer: Еsa Lundйn
  • Material: Handmade box, stolen fragments

  • Description: Courtesy of Nedko Solakov

    Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2008

    2002/2007

The artist also challenged well-known institutions, for example the Venice Biennale, one of the world’s oldest and most significant art exhibitions, with representations of the best artists from around the world. For many years, Bulgaria lacked representation at the biennale, due to local political and cultural issues, but even when it is present in Venice it does not have a pavilion in the Giardini, the central area of the biennale containing the pavilions of countries such as the US, France, Germany, and other major Western nations. In 2007, he used a performative gesture to occupy 65 national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, by donating 200 bottles of Bulgaria wine to be served at the respective exhibition openings. In donating the wine, the artist managed to give a presence to Bulgaria at all of the major national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, including those in the Giardini. At the same time, the piece raises questions with regard to who is included, why and how. Since Bulgarian artists were denied a presence in the Giardini due to institutional structures and policies, Moudov found his own way around those rules.   Similarly, Kamen Stoyanov’s 2010 performance, Cultural Moussaka, takes to task Bulgarian cultural policies, as he presents a cooking show, preparing moussaka and adding ‘several spoons of Bulgarian culture’ (the yogurt Kultura)…commenting that ’it tastes much better’. The performance is a reference to Stoyanov’s 2010 appearance at the Aichi Triennale in Nogoya, Japan, wherein the Bulgarian Embassy in Tokyo provided Stoyanov with a cook, rather than money, to support his stay there. Both Moudov’s and Stoyanov’s performances challenge the notion of Bulgarian culture as a culinary one, suggesting that the country has more to offer, for example in the field of contemporary art. Stoyanov also played on perceptions of Bulgaria by outsiders—for example, a popular yogurt in Japan is called ‘Bulgaria,’ and the sumo wrestler Kotoōshū Katsunori is of Bulgarian origin—his favourite meal is moussaka.  

Another artist who does not shy away from East-West politics and identity politics is Luchezar Boyadjiev, who has coined the term “Deep Europe” to indicate the complexity of the identity and place of the Balkans, being that it is a place where multiple identities overlap. Boyadjiev was among the first Bulgarian artists to exhibit abroad, and perhaps his knowledge and savvy of navigating the contemporary art scene can be attributed to the time he spent in New York City in the early 1980s. Upon returning from the US, he was looked to as a source of information regarding international contemporary art, for explaining key terms not yet utilized in Bulgaria, such as curator.  

In his 2000 piece GastARTbeiter, the artist attempted to calculate his ‘value’ as an artist to international museums and galleries, by cataloguing all of the receipts accrued during international visits, including hotels, food receipts, per diems, and travel. The title refers to the artist as a ‘guest worker,’ because he is not paid by his home country for being an artist, but rather by foreign institutions. Boyadjiev has been vocal about having to be categorized as an “Eastern European artist” and looked to by foreign museums and curators as an exotic object that will enhance their collections. Rather, he states, “I just want to art.”   Lastly, a very important long-durational lecture performance by Dimitar Shopov  and Vera Mlechevska addressed the issue raised at the beginning of this article and throughout—that of the lack of a Bulgarian avant-garde and its impact on the reception of its art scene throughout the world. In 2011, Mlechevska and Dimitar Shopov began delivering a series of lectures about the made-up artist, Gavazov. Gavazov is the answer to all of Bulgaria’s prayers—he was Bulgaria’s first conceptual artist, minimalist artist, first avant-garde artist, and he has done all the things that the Bulgarian art world seems to lack.

Dimitar Shopov

Gavazov, 2012.

Book

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  • Description: cover

Gavazov represents the mythical artist that Bulgarian artists and art historians are waiting to discover, the one that will demonstrate how they do have an avant-garde tradition and they were pioneering in experimental art practices. He is a sarcastic solution to the problem raised by Piotrowski among others, and in this sense points to the absurdity of this being considered a ‘problem’ at all.   The recuperation and reconstruction of the history of performance art in Bulgaria is carefully being carried out by a range of local scholars, which will hopefully lead to greater interest by those outside the country’s borders. For example, Ventsislav Zankov completed a PhD dissertation on the history of performance art in Bulgaria, and Yovo Panchev currently maintains the archive of Ruen Ruenov, founder of the Sofia Underground Performance Art Festival. Much more work has yet to be done to get these and other archives, such as that of Orlin Dvorianov, into the public view.  

Space and the Next Generation

Performance art continues to be an important genre for artists nowadays in Bulgaria. Across Eastern Europe it is experiencing a revival, perhaps as an opposition to the classical approach to art making still being taught in the academies to this day. The post-communist landscape provided the opportunity for new, independent spaces to appear and support new and avant-garde art forms, such as performance. While Sofia may still not have a museum of contemporary art, it does have a range of independent spaces – both physical and temporal, in the form of festivals – that support the continued development of performance activity.   Among the first performance art festivals in Bulgaria was Sofia Underground, organized initially by Ruen Ruenov in 1997. The festival has continued in various forms until today—from 2001-2003, it was held under the name Sofia Downtown, and it 2007 it returned as Remember Sofia Underground.

Much like in other countries across Eastern Europe, in particular Romania, there is a strong connection between contemporary performance art (as it emerged from the visual arts) and contemporary dance. The first Antistatic International Festival for Contemporary Dance and Performance was held in 2008 as a platform for new artists and artistic performances. One Dance Week was also launched in 2008 as an annual festival dedicated to contemporary dance. The Derida Dance Centre was established around that time, in 2010, to provide a solution to both the lack of spaces and quality performers in contemporary dance, by offering not only the space but also the training—thus filling a gap once again left by the traditional dance academies. Derida Dance Centre also offers artist residencies to help develop and encourage young talent [4]  

Most recently, in 2016, performance artist Voin de Voin opened ÆTHER, an independent space for art in Sofia. The artist has used performance art for its interdisciplinarity, crossing fluidly with other art forms, such as dance. Much like Allan Kaprow, he sees the significance of both structure and play as elements of performance, stating that, “performance art could be looked at as a notation or score that writes itself while going along.”[5] For Voin, just as for the other artists mentioned in this text, it is the temporality of performance art that is important, and the fact that it develops from an idea and evolves as it is performed.  

In the absence of both a contemporary art museum and institutional and academic support for the study of contemporary art, the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate fills an important role in the arts and culture scene in Bulgaria. Established in 2004, it not only provides a venue for independent artists, but a free space for open discussion and debate about contemporary artistic issues, which are often—especially nowadays—also political.  

Much as the artists from the 1990s used performance to establish a critical stance, contemporary artists continue to use performance and the body to interrogate the politics of the body and identity. Gery Georgieva (b. 1986) is an artist working in the UK but much of her work explores the notion of Bulgarian national identity. For example, her video performance, Auto-Ethnography: Doin’ Ma Own Li’l Thing (Rodpska Beyonce) combines traditional Bulgarian folk costume and dance with contemporary pop culture.

Gery Georgieva

Rodopska Beyoncé, 2013.

Video Art

Details


Similarly, Valko Chobanov (b. 1991) examines the hybridity of contemporary identity in the era of globalization. His performance Pizza Slut probes the nature of freedom in a multicultural society from the experience of what he calls an “internet migrant.” Carrying on the traditions of performance art that first started in Bulgaria in the 1980s is Georgi Yamaliev (b. 1978), a student of Orlin Dvorianov. His work also uses performance to explore the realities of the contemporary post-communist, global world, and the impact of technology on our everyday lives.    

Bulgarian artists have made a strong and unique contribution to the genre of performance art. What should not matter is the moment in which it appeared, because hopefully, in the New Art History, we have moved beyond the modernist prioritizing of progress and ‘firsts.’ Rather, these contributions should be appreciated in their own right, for what they are—intelligent, engaging, innovative works of performance art.  

[1] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), 9.

[2] Bean Gilsdorf and Ivo Dimchev, “This Difficulty: A Conversation with Ivo Dimchev,” September 6, 2016 (accessed June 20, 2018)

[3] Ivan Moudov, in an interview with the author in Sofia, May 30, 2014.

[4] One could also mention the DNK multidisciplinary space, focusing on contemporary dance and performance; the Brain Store Project, established in 2005 with similar aims; and Inform Bureau, a platform established in 2008 to support and develop contemporary artistic projects.

[5] Voin de Voin, quoted on the artist’s page on the SomoS art space website (accessed October 4, 2018).