The text reviews forms of artistic expressions by Bulgarian artists in which criticism is expressed of cultural institutions and cultural policies considered by them to be controversial. By employing artistic means, institutional critique questions the validity of various cultural policies and activities of the art institutions, making transparent existing ideological frameworks regulating the visibility of one or another model of creating and socialising art. In the late 1960s and 1970s, artistic practices formed in Europe and in the Americas which revised namely the institutions, criticising them for not having delivered the promise of publicity and transparency to a sufficient extent. Such artistic strategies take on various shapes such as works of art, critical texts and art/political activism, and are referred to by the term institutional critique.
The Bulgarian reality is different from the history of the institutional critique practices in Europe and America. In the first place, this is so due to the rather close interweaving between the ideological sphere and visual arts in the period from 1944 to 1989. During this period, making a stand against the cultural institution was tantamount to criticism of the very political regime and the cultural policies established under the control of this regime. Still, criticism of the art institutions and the cultural policies existed in various forms even before 1989. In the period after 1944, any explicit disagreement with the cultural policy jeopardised the professional positions of the critics. In such cases, the political or social position that motivated artists to make a stand against the government, including the cultural institutions under its control, prevailed. Together with the local cultural traditions, the information isolation and the pressure on artists, the theoretical discourse undoubtedly contributed to defining the borders of art and strengthened the dominant model of representation. If the doctrine of socialist realism and all its variations of realism could be perceived as one border of the legitimate art, the avant-gardes with all their “-isms” were that dark side – the aporia, in which artists are warned that crossing them would be at their own expense. As Ivaylo Dichev wrote: “They consciously or spontaneously set themselves two basic tasks: to stop the access of subversive images from world centers and to compensate the lagging behind by forcibly creating their own iconosphere, ideologically enclosed by the world.”
Based on the familiar publications on modern art published in Bulgaria in the period 1963 – 1989, it can be argued that although there was a lack of an accurate descriptive imperative set by the government of what the legitimate art of Socialist Bulgaria should be, a number of specific models demonstrating what it should not be were considered.
Several publications  from the period from the 1960s to the 1980s indicated which the inadequate for the socialist “reality” creative methods were. Abstract art, , Dada and Surrealism were rejected, as well as the generally formal experiment and deformation, and realism was quoted as a more advanced artistic method. Those views influenced the cultural policies, educational institutions and large circles of the artistic community in Bulgaria on the threshold of the political changes in the late 1980s. In the period of late socialism, there was an attitude expressed by one part of the artists to carry out their artistic expressions outside the institutional environment, to look for external sources of information and take interest in forms of art that stood outside the legitimate and established styles and genres of socialist art. Their creative experiments occurred against the backdrop of a growing universal distrust of the political system, apoliticality and non-conformism. An interest in art emerged in such individual artists or art circles that went beyond the established paradigm subordinated to the species and genre division of art, and the doubt in the authority of the artistic structures increased. Some of those artists identified themselves with various movements from the historical avant-gardes, such as: the Fluxus movement, surrealism, conceptual art, working with objects, land art, installations or simply indulged in different forms of experiments. Another part of the artists, who remained loyal to the traditional means of expression, also made a stand against the government in the so-called Aesopian language or sought to update the language of painting or the ways in which art was to be displayed and socialised.
The relationships between the artists and the institution in the middle and at the end of the 1980s were ambivalent. In fact, it is known that the earliest manifestations of the so-called non-conventional forms emerged and were exposed outside the walls of the institution. In the early 1980s, space for experiment was provided at various sculpture and metal symposia or plein airs in the provinces, which were financed by the Union of Bulgarian Artists structures.
Towards the very end of the 1980s, the “unconventional” forms gradually received publicity and access to gallery spaces, albeit conditionally. The functionaries in the institutions realised that a change was happening in the fraternal USSR, but at the same time they feared to act against the status quo, following the behest of Todor Zhivkov for “keeping a low profile”.
Juxtaposing two artistic paradigms.
Since 1989, the cultural sector has been liberalised. In fact, this almost happened by the wish of Todor Zhivkov himself, who was planning steps in this direction with his July concept. The liberalisation of the cultural sector was already a fact, but the institutions were faced with a series of problems. British cultural manager Charles Landry pointed out some of them, such as bloated staff, a budget focused on maintenance and not on activities enriching the content, and a conservative programme.
The dichotomies between different creative views intensified too. We can assume that this was result of the existing boundaries of creative expression at the end of the 1980s, cemented by cultural policies and education.
The positions of artists and art historians were formed as an expression of an attitude against the status quo, which in the middle of the 1980s was identified in the representatives of the so-called April generation by some of the art circles. The April generation was depicted by Dimitar Avramov as a bearer of change, a generation that brought Bulgarian art out of the stifling conditionalities of socialist realism, and a generation which overcame multiple constraints. In the 1980s, however, the officially presented art developed into a kind of closed circle of repeatability, which was justified by painting that was “rich and diverse in terms of style and plastic tendencies”. The April generation was also empowered through the public positions it occupied and therefore directly influenced the institutional policies. In the years before and after 1989, various representatives of the art scene found the artistic views and claims for spirituality of the April generation outdated and unfounded. This does not necessarily mean that the established generation of artists was some sort of a unified homogeneous mass with exhausted creative potential, or that the new artists always demonstrated complete and thoughtful artistic ideas. It happened that both sides came to speculate with the value of “the intransient spiritual values” and “the freedom of expression”. However, it is a fact that in certain cases these confrontations occurred on the basis of equal reasons. If we concentrate on the productive side of this thrust backwards, we should mention several important events and expressed positions. For example, Filip Zidarov’s curatorial concept to make an exhibition with painters without paintings (the exhibition The City, 1988) did not specify or have in mind any institutions or persons whose authority was challenged, but was provoked precisely as an antipode of the diehard artistic system at the time.
In this particularly dynamic period – immediately after 1989, the political events prevailed over all other elements of social life and there was logic in the fact that the critical view of the artists was focused on the topicality of the moment. In this period, however, criticism of the legitimate art was rarely expressed and formulated in an artistic form. The artistic form itself was contrary to the legitimate and established art.
Земя и небе, 1989
In the beginning of the 1990s, Svilen Stefanov also formulated a criticism of the cultural policy of some existing models of art organisation. In a series of articles in the Literaturen Forum newspaper, he deposed the claimed “spirituality” and the superiority of the April generation artists, and revealed the pseudo-modern nature of the preferences of various artists from the 1990s to the symbols of the folklore and national tradition. Further on, he outlined the tendency for some artists to adapt their artistic practice into convertibility in the Western artistic scene. In general, Svilen Stefanov saw the work of XXL gallery and the circle of artists associated with it as an alternative to the artistic models reproduced in the UBA. Thus, his position as a critic, curator and artist should also be seen as opposing certain cultural policies and seeking their alternative. Similar ambitions created the Sofia Underground festival, which was founded by critic and curator Ruen Ruenov. The festival offers a democratic scene to artists, theatre lovers and musicians and gives complete freedom for expression and experiment. It was within Sofia Underground in 1998 that Boris and Gabriela Serginovi staged a performance entitled When There Is No Money for Culture, Eat Crap. The two of them, dressed in S&M costumes, destroyed with hammers and angle grinders whatever was around them to the sounds of the music by the band Bobo, Tosho and Tabakov, and offered the audience to taste faeces. The performance was in response to the commonly used phrase used in 90, that “there is no money for culture.”
Svetlin Rusev – one of the most prominent representatives of the April generation became the object of irony and the Plovdiv based group Edge decided to give him the prize for “the greatest blockhead”. The artist Orlin Dvoryanov and Yoan Leviev, also a prominent representative of the April generation, entered into an extramural dispute in the press about the artistic values and the artist’s right to self-determination. Orlin Dvoryanov and his followers had a long history of extra-institutional activity since the 1970s. In the plot of the 1988 amateur experimental film by the Cuckoo's Day group, Doctor, I Have Colorful Dreams, Dobrin Peychev and Orlin Dvoryanov are placed in a strange psychiatric establishment and subjected to routine study and rigorous training. At the end of the film the two artists manage to escape from the “lunatic asylum”, which actually appears to be the building of the UBA in Sofia – a symbol of conservatism at the time.
Докторе, сънувам цветни сънища
These and many other actions and publicly declared positions were provoked precisely as a reaction to the conformist model of compliance with the government established in the 1980s or the narrow-minded views on the boundaries of creative freedom – considered inherent to the representatives of the April generation. This phase of emancipation of the young artists, who engaged in unconventional forms of art, and in many respects were motivated by the sentiment against the status quo and often demonstrated an anti-institutional enthusiasm. In the beginning of the 1990s, several works were implemented based on the context of the place or the situation in which they occurred. These were The Chameleon - action by The City group, A Look to the West by Nedko Solakov, Rescission of Art. 1 by Lyuben Farzulev, etc. Two projects by Nedko Solakov were implemented in direct interaction with the institution.
Nedko Solakov’s intervention in 1992, included in the permanent collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia, is entitled Nine Objects. In this case, the artist did not put objects of art in an environment considered neutral, but, on the contrary, inserted artefacts created by him, which would emphasise the presence of an artificial situation of experience of history, constructed by the institutional authority.
Nine Objects, 1992.
- Material: nine ordinary objects placed in a discreet way among the permanent exhibits
Another project which he charged with institutional critique content was his site-specific intervention Doodles in 1996 in the National Gallery – the Palace. The painter wrote with a marker several hundred names of various artists and galleries that were current at that time for the Western art scene on the mirrors of the palace. The mirrors reflected works from the permanent exhibition of the gallery, such as paintings by Mrkvička or Věšín. Thus, the spectator standing in front of the mirror witnessed an image in which the marker inscriptions superimposed on the reflections of the paintings from the permanent exhibition. In this optical perimeter, two different worlds of art coexisted symbolically, a global and a local one, a focus that is static and stuck in an age and a focus that is dynamic and constantly changing.
In these cases, the artist’s interventions rather underline and illustrate the institution such as it is – too hermetic in its structure and activities compared to the enlightening functions it should perform.
In 1996, after an idea of Adelina Popnedeleva and Alla Georgieva, the exhibition Erato’s Version was initiated (Curators: Iara Boubnova and Maria Vassileva). The exhibition was a reaction to another exhibition, Erotic Art, in the Seasons Gallery in March 1996, in which only men with works on erotic themes participated. Erato’s Version was an occasion to table the question whether there are themes in art that are considered a territory of men. Whether the relationship man-painter – woman-model-muse had established a stereotypical perception, according to which the role of a woman in art is to be present only as an object of contemplation, desire and pleasure, i.e. as a passive object of consumption. Erato’s Version, respectively, displayed only works by women, which comment on the erotic feeling from the perspective of women.
It can be claimed that the exhibition and its initiators addressed a much broader set of problems, which affected the social presence of the woman in general, but Erato’s Version was provoked in this case by an artistic institution, which at that time at least seemed to galvanise a cliché for: the artist-demiurge and the woman- passive model.
In fact, eroticism in art at the beginning of the 1990s expressed many other aspects of personal and social life and the topic deserves special attention.
The contrast between the paralysed activities of the Bulgarian institutions and the example of actively operating art galleries was painfully perceived by the Bulgarian artists in other cases. In 1997, Kalin Serapionov filmed a video in the halls of the National Gallery, Museum – Cause of Meeting and Acquaintance, in which a young man and a woman meet in the halls of the National Gallery, but the interest in the exhibition is quickly exhausted and they both decide to indulge in intimacy in the gallery's public toilets. The exhibition in the national gallery at that time was the only permanent exhibition of Bulgarian art. The permanent collection displayed a limited selection from the 1960s and 1970s, mainly paintings by Dechko Uzunov or Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. The video by Kalin Serapionov is a commentary namely on the conservatism of the museum and on the fact that it cannot engage the attention of the modern person, and also that once visited, the permanent exhibition does not articulate and does not offer more knowledge.
The Museum – Cause of Meeting and Acquaintance, 1997.
- Description: VHS, Pal, 4:3, sound, 21'09'' (loop). Digitally re-mastered in 2001. Exhibition copy on DVD. Edition of 3 + AP
The Museum – Cause of Meeting and Acquaintance, 1997.
- Description: VHS, Pal, 4:3, sound, 21'09'' (loop). Digitally re-mastered in 2001. Exhibition copy on DVD. Edition of 3 + AP
The reactions of the Bulgarian artists to the cultural policy range from nihilistic and anarchistic to inventive and dialectical. For example, for some of them it was vitally important that the Bulgarian contemporary art be incorporated into the international art scene and supported on a state level. This tactically predetermined their interaction with the cultural institutions. In the works of several artists, the concept of a museum was transformed into a contextual structure, with which they fictionalised their own works.
In 1998, artist Georgi Ruzhev self-institutionalised himself by organising his own museum in his parents’ house, where he displayed a collection of his own items. The museum institution was the starting point and reference for the project Fragments by Ivan Moudov. It was conceived as a collection of fragments stolen and broken off from works of other contemporary artists from museum collections. The idea was inspired by the portable museum - La Boîte-en-valise by Marcel Duchamp, which contained sixty-nine reduced-size reproductions of works by the artist collected in a suitcase with compartments opening sideways. All works from which Moudov acquired fragments had undergone the evaluation procedure of the museum and respectively they had been awarded additional expert valuation. The museum in this project had a negative presence, it was the absent institution, and the works of art – markers of their works or something like “thumbnails” images of works. They are rather a trophy from something like expert vandalism or something similar to a trophy from invasion plundering, which according to some makes the ethical essence of the work questionable. The collection of “fragments" is a collage of quotes and an original mobile exhibition that rearranges in another configuration artists that otherwise fall in various institutional and conjunctural frames in the different collections of the museum. In addition, “Fragments” by Moudov asks questions about the definitions of copyright, about how the personal collection returned again in public circulation functions. All these questions affect the legal and ethical aspect of the collections, how they have been acquired and created, what they contain, and whether they were publicly visible and available or private.
Fragments box #1, 2002.
- Photographer: Еsa Lundйn
- Material: Handmade box, stolen fragments
- Description: Courtesy of Nedko Solakov
Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2008
In any case, the role of the museum institution and the arts institution is something that has excited Ivan Moudov for a long time. The problems in our country provoked Moudov to implement his project Musiz. His goal was to aim at the problem of the absent institution – a museum of contemporary art. It is hardly necessary to mention all the needs that such kind of institution fulfil but of course especially important is the function of historising and contextualising art. In April 2005, the news about the new Musiz museum broke. The opening of a museum for contemporary art in the building of Poduyane station in Sofia was disclosed. The event was announced with a large number of posters and billboards, and official invitations were sent to people occupying high public positions such as diplomats and directors of cultural institutions. Through various media it was reported that Christo would be among the official guests of the opening. At Poduyane station there were about 300 people, mainly people from the field of culture, journalists and the officially invited guests. The project triggered a public debate and at least briefly the topic of the role of the museum institution engaged the attention of part of the public.
Ivan Moudov's project fits in a special way in the register of institutional critique, as a large part of the projects carried out in the West were focused on the principles of the functioning of the institution, while Musiz marked the absence of an institution for contemporary art. The project is a criticism of the state cultural policy, which did not recognise contemporary art as symbolic capital. Musiz set as a premise the need for intervention by the state in the valuation of contemporary art through its institutionalisation in a museum. This actually meant legitimisation of contemporary art, which in turn started a big debate about the concept of national policy and its priorities.
The absurdities of the Bulgarian cultural policy abroad are fictionalised in the book Mission London by Alek Popov, which came out in 2001. In the book, the employees of the Bulgarian embassy in London are represented as philistines mainly interested in their own benefit, and the supreme goal of the diplomacy is to invite the Queen of England to a official reception at the Embassy. The main storyline of the book is the preparation of the reception, which in itself is a comic grotesque; an emanation of inferiority complexes and cultural provincialism. The book was filmed by the director Dimitar Mitovski in 2010.
The Bulgarian cultural institutions in Bulgaria in turn were made the object of irony by Georgi Bogdanov and Boris Misirkov. In 2007, they made the series of photographs Solitaire for the exhibition In Search of Lost Time, held in Sofia City Gallery. Misirkov/Bogdanov took photographs in seven cultural institutions, among which the Ministry of Culture, SCAG and NAG. To take the photographs, the artists asked employees of the institutions in question to open the Solitaire application on their computers – the electronic version of solitaire included in the Windows operating system.
Boris Missirkov/Georgi Bogdanov
- Description: От изложбата "По следите на загубеното време", куратори Светлана Куюмджиева/Вера Млечевска
The photographs were manipulated, then printed on vinyl with rough structure and framed in wide wooden frames, so as to imitate the painting canvas framed in a wooden frame. The employees of the respective institutions were involved in taking the photographs, but the hint at their effectiveness remains evident. Their capacity is reduced to doing nothing or killing time such as playing computer games as Solitaire. Or perhaps the accomplices to the idea accepted the artists’ invitation too obsequiously and uncritically? Anyway, in these years – the beginning of 2000 – 2010, the feeling of bureaucratic clumsiness and poor efficiency in the cultural field was shared by many.
Later on, Ivan Moudov again returned to the problem of absent or dysfunctional institutions. He created a fictitious institution in 2009 – the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Hamburg. The Musiz Collection exhibition including works from a private collection was installed in a building in Hamburg. The building, however, was always locked and the exhibition could be glimpsed only through the shop windows of the building. This art action reminded of the lethargic activity of the Bulgarian cultural institutes abroad, raised doubts about the appropriateness of their exhibition policy and in general about how the Bulgarian culture was represented outside the country.
"Bulgarian Cultural Institute, Hamburg" Bulgarian Cultural Institute, Hamburg", 2009.
- Material: Изложба
Such doubts were also shared by Kamen Stoyanov, who lives and works in Vienna and Sofia. The artist came across information in the media about how the then Minister of agriculture and food Miroslav Naydenov opened a fair of the food industry, at which a monument of Stamen Grigorov – the discoverer of the bacterium Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, was inaugurated. During his speech, the minister stated, “We have to revive the image of Bulgarian yoghurt, which makes Bulgaria famous all around the world”. In the same year, the budget for art and culture was reduced. As a reaction to this information, Kamen Stoyanov decided to transport a car bootful of a live, contemporary Bulgarian "culture" (yoghurt) and to arrive with it directly at the opening of his exhibition in a Slovenian gallery. The milk bore the trade name Cultura and was an actually existing product that the author used as a ready-made. With this action, he speculated with the idea that the Bulgarian policy recognised as symbolic capital food more than culture. This unusual situation made Kamen Stoyanov “recognise” the minister's message and use it in the performance. On the other hand, Stamen Grigorov – the discoverer of the bacterium Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus that makes milk ferment, wrote about the milk in scientific jargon as if it were a living culture.
In 2010, Kamen Stoyanov further developed the idea of the dominant position of food over culture in the Bulgarian cultural policy. He was then invited to participate in the first edition of the Aichi Triennale in Nagoya. Curator Hinako Kasagi approached the Bulgarian and the Austrian embassy respectively for assistance. The Bulgarian embassy could not allocate funds, but offered the assistance of the embassy's cook for the opening of the biennale. Kamen Stoyanov accepted this unusual proposal, but later on the cook's assistance was withdrawn too.
That year, the Bulgarian cultural representative office in Japan received its visitors with a cardboard cut-out figure of the sumo wrestler of Bulgarian origin Kotoōshū and thus Bulgaria was presented mainly as the country of the wrestler. (Apparently, being currently the most valuable coin of exchange of the bilateral policy.)
All this Kamen Stoyanov managed to incorporate in the content of his cooking performance. In it, he cooked moussaka from the recipe of Kotoōshū’s mother. During the performance, Kamen Stoyanov spoke about cooking as painting and about painting as cooking; he likened the preparation of Béchamel sauce to the preparation of canvas primer. He added ironically that he was an artist after all and had made paintings; two rural landscapes in oils on the wall. In Kamen Stoyanov’s performance, a culinary element of the Bulgarian national cuisine was widely used. In practice, the national cuisine replaced the notion of culture in the action in terms of meaning and symbols. Kamen Stoyanov speculated with the assumption that the vision for a national culture in part overlapped with the promotion of the national cuisine. The performance itself was provoked by the strange proposal of the embassy's employees.
Cultural Moussaka, 2010.
- Material: Video still
- Description: Video.
Cultural Moussaka, 2010.
- Material: Video still
- Description: Video.
In his experimental film My Heart is an Octopus or My Father on the Shore of the Black Sea Neno Belchev tells a personal story, which among many other topics also includes the artist’s deep disappointment with the political and cultural climate in his hometown Varna. In 2019, he also expressed a direct criticism of the policy of Varna City Gallery by placing the inscription “Pensioners Club” at the entrance of the gallery, making an unequivocal hint at its exhibition programme and policies.
The presented reactions of artists, albeit expressed by artistic means, can also be seen as symptoms of the problems in the country's cultural policy during the first decade of 2000. Viewed from the perspective of creators, the cultural policy deficits are mainly about the concept of cultural policy, in which the recognition of modern culture as symbolic capital is systematically absent.
Serious criticism was also addressed to the ways in which Bulgarian art was presented and supported abroad by the state cultural institutions.
In addition to the policies of the institutions, many artists demonstrated sensitivity to the artist's social status and how they interact with the art system and the labour market. With his project GastARTbeiter from 2000, Lachezar Boyadzhiev described visually how his participation in various exhibitions was converted into real capital and how he again, with his work as an artist, transformed the real capital into symbolic one. Another aspect of his project is the fact that he was hired to carry out an artistic project mostly outside the country, like many of the Eastern European gastarbeiters (guest workers) forced to try to make a living in the richer West.
During the entire period of transition, the social and material realisation of the Bulgarian artist was difficult. Most people employed in the field of culture were forced to have several jobs, occupying different positions, and a large number of them were not permanently employed. The uncertain financial situation was only part of the difficult social realisation of the artists. It was accompanied by the perceived marginality of the artist's status itself. In this direction again was Georgi Bogdanov and Boris Misirkov’s project Veterans of Culture from 2001, which presented portraits of 10 cultural figures at retirement age who had been forgotten by the society and the social policy. Another action in this respect was I Badly Need a Mercedes, Please Help! by Ventsislav Zankov in 2003, when the artist came out to beg in the street soliciting money to buy a car, which could be considered an ironic illustration of the financial predicament of the artist who does not fit into the flow of the acquisition of material goods neither as a beggar nor as a racketeer. Although in a foreign context, Boryana Rossa and Oleg Mavromati as members of the Ultrafuturo group staged the performance Blood Certificate in 2009 in New York, in which they directly made fingerprints with their own blood in front of the audience, using stensils with the graphic design of US dollars with nominal value of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 dollars. The artists transformed their own blood into the ink for printing and ultimately into a work that also ironically bore the nominal value of its self-worth in dollars, or that perhaps had the speculative market value of a work of art? The action questioned the value of the work of the artist as such. Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova made the action Position Gallerist in 2006 using a false job advertisement for a gallerist and filming the subsequent interviews with candidates for the position. Thus, the artist exposed the ultimate willingness of young art historians to take on this position by making unacceptable compromises. However, in this case we can hardly blame the young and inexperienced people for their naïve enthusiasm. Georgi Yamaliev’s performance at Sofia Underground 2012 also commented on the predicament and difficulties faced by the artist between the commercialisation and marginalisation of art.
The last listed projects were provoked primarily by the difficult social situation of the art professionals and the compromises that they are forced to accept. In contrast to the unenviable position of the local art community in 2010. artist Zeng Fanzhi and American designer Tommy Hilfiger received the Golden Age medal personally from the Minister of culture without any merits rendered to the Bulgarian culture.
The younger generation of artists marked the artist’s alienation and the loss of connection with social reality in their own way, with more irony and humour. The story of the painter Gavazov (2012), told by Dimitar Shopov, is the story of a globally successful artist who was completely misunderstood and isolated in his own homeland.
General view of the exhibition The Destructive Positivism of Milosh Gavazov, 2018.
- Photographer: Kosyo Hadjigenchev
In Valko Chobanov’s video Residency “Earth”, the artist played the role of an alien that comes to Earth on an artist residency, where the alien feels isolated, engaged in a temporary, low-wage job, while expecting better conditions for artistic development.
Originated again to replace the absence was the Bulgarian Pavilion 2011 project, based on the idea of Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva as a reaction to the absent Bulgarian national pavilion in Venice. Bulgaria's participation in the Venice Bienniale, or rather non-participation, was repeatedly discussed in the art circles. In the years of transition, this endeavour appeared to be particularly resource-intensive against the backdrop of many other deficits in the country. There were also many other questions about how, what and who could represent the country adequately. With her project, Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva returned the debate to the territory of the local art scene and bound it conceptually with the place of the former mausoleum of Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. The demolition of the building was a controversial moment and often this act has been considered through the sieve of the political bias – “for” and “against” the communist regime.
Both the Bulgarian Pavilion by Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva and several more of the said projects were provoked by the deficit situation. (The lack of a museum of contemporary art (Musiz by Ivan Moudov), the lack of an adequate cultural institution abroad (BCI Hamburg, Ivan Moudov), and the lack of a pavilion in Venice. The artists and curators felt the need to construct institutional structures and events by seizing the functions of official institutions in order to demonstrate the societal importance and necessity of the activities simulated by them. This problem was also dwelled upon by Macedonian curator Suzana Milevska, as well as by Alenka Gregorič, who analysed the institutional critique practices in former Yugoslavia and on the Balkans. In their opinion, the situation of deficit provoked representatives of the art community to take on or replace the activities of the official cultural institutions and to self-institutionalise themselves in organisations, organise archives and act as free functionaries. In the Bulgarian situation the processes occurred in a similar way.
If we return to the question of what cultural picture of Bulgaria was shown for external use by the cultural state institutions abroad and how the artists saw it, there emerges a very large discrepancy, which was further reinforced by a scandal - David Černý’s installation. In 2009, on the occasion of the start of the Czech Republic’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, David Černý presented his satirical installation Entropa: Stereotypes and Barriers to Be Demolished at the entrance of the Council of the EU building in Brussels. The installation was presented at the official opening on January 15, 2009. Bulgaria was represented by its geographic outlines, but filled by a collage of the so-called “Turkish toilets”. The installation angered the international representatives of many countries. The Bulgarian side was also quick to react, and the scandal echoed for more than a week. On 19 January, Bulgaria's toilet-shaped map was covered with black fabric. The media reviews of this gesture in the country were rather critical of the decision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because the black cloak carried no less negative connotations than the “squat toilet”. For its part, the society as well as the artistic community were divided in their opinions about the installation. Generally, the position that the work was a manifestation of bad taste dominated, but the act of censorship also encountered objections and many artists tended to defend the Černý’s right to artistic freedom.
The reaction of the Bulgarian senior administration was also far-fetched and reflected a well-practised reflex to prohibit or censor embarrassing works. A glance at the Bulgarian cultural policy outside the country shows that the visions promoted by Lyudmila Zhivkova for Bulgaria as a country of ancient cultures continued to be reproduced out of habit or conviction. Exhibitions of Thracian treasures, Orthodox icons and natural landmarks or Bulgarian folklore continued to be a priority in the exhibition policy outside the country. The imaginary positive image of the country was a complete and unequivocal text that communicated a series of selected facts, although they represented our country more as a cultural province suitable for vacation.
In the autumn of the same year, the media scandal had already faded away when Emil Mirazchiev invited David Černý to attend the opening of the exhibition European Art 20 Years after the Iron Curtain in Plovdiv. Černý’s participation in the exhibition was rather symbolic and actually presented a black fabric like the one that had covered the installation on display in Brussels. The news of the forthcoming visit of the artist sparked mass hysteria at all public levels.
Emil Mirazchiev, for his part, attracted the media interest, but also made a note of the position of part of the artistic circles which defended the opinion that the act of censorship by the Bulgarian state was inadmissible and counterproductive. After 2000, nationalistic moods consolidated in Bulgaria and in 2005 they were represented in a political party that won seats in the Parliament. Some artists reacted to those processes as well. In 2005, Anton Terziev and the group Ultrafuturo organised the performance The Establishment of Ultrafuturo National Movement at the ATA Gallery.
The Ultrafuturo group was formed by artists Oleg Mavromatti, Katya Damyanova, Anton Terziev, Miroslav Dimitrov, and Stanislav Ganchev in 2004. In the same year, the group came out with the manifesto Ultrafuturo Manifesto – a manifesto for radical trans-humanism. In 2005, the artists organised a performance and bio-art installation in the ATA Gallery, which was entitled Establishment of Ultrafuturo National Movement. The artists come out with an ironic manifesto, inviting people to join them out of patriotic motives. They addressed them with the appeal: “If you are a true Bulgarian, come, become part of the establishment of the national movement ULTRAFUTURO A Small Country – Big Deeds! Thus, they cooled down the emotionally charged tone of the growing nationalist sentiment and woefully reported the marginalisation of art by the art agents themselves. After the verbal part, the group performed something like a parody ritual. This project of the group did not so much address the institution, but was a gesture against the marginalisation of contemporary art against the backdrop of the growing nationalistic moods in the society.
Another action by the group in the same year, 2005, was focused on the distorted presentation of the performative practices in Bulgaria in Ruen Ruenov’s retrospective project Bulgarian Actionism. Greet Vienna! in Circle + gallery. The event was intended as a historical overview of the Bulgarian performing arts. At the opening of the exhibition, the artists made an intervention entitled Within the Circle as a critical commentary on the text, the title and the historical representation of Bulgarian art in the exhibition. The group expressed doubts about the aesthetic and ideological connections constructed in the exhibition by enclosing the speakers in a circle with a rope soaked in blood. They communicated a position that their blood was not a sexual symbol, as it was for Hermann Nitsch, and that the Bulgarian art has nothing to do with the traditions of the Viennese Actionism, which the exhibition was trying to suggest. They believed that the Bulgarian art was not secondary in reference to the “Viennese” one.
Yet again, the artists addressed criticism to both the general and the specialised audience for ignoring the actionist art and stated: “Such behaviour closes art within ‘its own circle’ and turns it into an impotent moan of life-worn old people!” The actions of the Ultrafuturo group were perhaps the only ones that raised the question about the rationalisation of Bulgarian art beyond the paradigm of the secondary place to the Western discourse and held accountable the very artists rather than others. In addition, their actions commented on the socialisation of contemporary art and its being driven to the periphery of public life.
After 2000, the interest of artists and the artistic community in the public monuments and heritage from the socialist period grew and it became the subject of various studies, exhibitions of controversy and several artistic actions. (Link to Marie Bromander & Sebastian Robson’s topic)
In the recent history of social criticism, new relationships emerge between artists and institutions, in which cultural organizations or institutions produce artistic projects that illuminate a social problem. For example, in 2017, the BHC organized a campaign aimed at raising public awareness of the absence of women's monuments, which are almost absent in the public urban space, or the Bulgarian Women's Committee provides funding for projects that focus on violence against women. In other cases, the municipalities themselves support and fund projects with a social focus. In such cases, however, sometimes municipalities actually have a direct commitment to solving a particular problem, and financing a particular artistic action that focuses on the topic of the problem does not actually lead to its resolution.
That produced situation depicted by Miwon Kwon in her book on site-specific art and its appropriation by institutions, whose agents actually employed artists to implement institutional critique projects and the respective artists started working on the principle of supply and demand. The end product of this domesticated criticism is more the nature of a PR action that is covered by the media without meeting the claims of social engagement in reality. The exhibition policies again became the subject of criticism in the Art for Change exhibition. In the large-scale in terms of its volume and participants exhibition, curated by Maria Vassileva, Petko Durmana criticised the figure of Svetlin Rusev.
Durmana expressed that criticism in a text to his work, which constituted a canvas with layered red paints, and in front of it a video camera was installed. The text read that Petko Durmana’s self-portrait, covered with red paint, could only be seen through the video camera screen. Covering the canvas with red paint was symbolic and an expression of the fact that Durmana held Svetlin Rusev and his associates responsible for having replaced the Bulgarian history of art.
Another artist – Ilian Lalev, who was not included in the Art for Change exhibition, but was included only in the publication to it, felt deeply embittered and therefore questioned the validity of the curatorial choice. In response, he made an intervention on the exhibition poster hanging on the city gallery façade and changed the text from “Art for Change” to “Art of Replacement”, and at the bottom wrote in his own hand “No to the replacement!”, “No to art oligarchy!”. The artist also came out with a written statement, published on one of the online media. In his statement, he condemned curator Maria Vassileva’s one-sided choice and mentioned artists who were not selected for the exhibition but according to the artist belonged in it, among which he also included himself. Moreover, doubts about the authority of the institution and the curatorial choice were expressed by a number of artists. Some of them solved the problem by organising themselves into their own associations or initiating and managing art spaces. For most such spaces, existence was difficult and sometimes the initiatives did not last in time, but they were nevertheless some of the most productive solutions when the institutional framework was unacceptable for the artists, as there they could show art they wanted to show.
Such an example is the Mozei space, initiated by Ivo Dimchev in 2014. He initiated the exhibition Assembly of Shame, and everyone was invited to participate in the exhibition, as opposed to “the subjective curatorial choice”. Such initiatives were the Aether space, managed by artist Voin de Voin, Atelier Plastelin, Baba Vasa’s Cellar, run by Lazar Lyutakov in Shabla, Hip Hip atelier, and other similar spaces, which existed with and without any financial support from outside and run by artists. Naturally, the withdrawal to independent management should not sidestep the question of how public institutions operate, but when the artist engages their personal career, as an argument for criticism their position as a critic is not neutral at all. Either way, Ilian Lalev canalised critical potential as a curator and organised two exhibitions: Scales in the Local, 2015, and Scales in the Social. Art as a Reaction, 2016, Veliko Tarnovo, in which the artists reflected on various topical social themes. Elena Panayotova’s work in the exhibition in Tarnovo was even censored by the gallery director because it did not meet his understanding of art. Both his exhibitions were a more productive expression of Lalevs views.
The problem of public monuments and cultural heritage accounted for a special share in the institutional critique. While the question was about two problems that differed in nature, they were symptoms of a general trend, which was the product of the concept that cultural heritage and history had to be considered priority areas of culture. The mechanisms by which it occurred, this hypostasis of the ruin, were complex. Dimitar Solakov’s exhibition dedicated to monuments of the cultural heritage in Bulgaria which have been restored and reconstructed, A New Life for the Past (2016), is a peculiar almanac of the practices in which ruins were transformed into ‘more entertaining’ and ‘more remarkable’ ones.
New Life for the Past, 2015.
- Material: photographs, variable dimensions, drawings with attached fossils and bone fragments
- Sizes: variable dimensions
- Description: While working on one of my projects I came across the Krakra fortress in Pernik, Bulgaria. I was amazed by the poor quality of the work on the reconstructed section and the fact that the original remnants of the fortress were conserved and exhibited in an even worse manner (most of this work was financed with millions from the European Regional Development Fund). I decided to visit as many of these supposedly reconstructed cultural heritage sites as I could and photograph them. In most cases the end result and appearance of these places is not backed up by any historical evidence. In parallel with this I made a series of 28 14 x 19 cm drawings (re)constructing animals from fragments (various bones, shells, teeth and other fossils). As an amateur (I have no formal education as a painter, nor as a palaeontologist) I distorted and changed the authentic appearance and function of the fragments on the basis of my own hypothesis. The panoramas from the sites should be printed 100 x 200 cm each and the other photographs are spread in a “random” fashion around them, like the visualisation. The drawings are situated in between these clusters.
- Copyright: The Author
- References: https://www.dimitarsolakov.com/new-life-for-the-past
The monuments presented in the exhibition were usually “improved” with a view to their attractive appearance for the purpose of tourism, but not to their authentic condition. The Pernik fortress, for example, was reconstructed with plastic cladding using scaffolding. This gave an artificial but still conditional appearance of the reconstructed part of the site, while other monuments such as the Yailata fortress were overbuilt with AAC blocks, and the approach to the area itself, which is about 3 kilometres long, was “beautified” with small stone pyramids that had never existed in the past. Thus, many heads of local municipalities make decisions to reconstruct ruins, but also to create new tourist attractions according to their personal tastes and ideas. Such interventions occur, in accordance with the possibilities and desires of the local mayors or with their complicity.
If the criticism of the cultural policy in the West is primarily aimed at the commercialisation of the contemporary art institutions, of the transformation of culture into a product and a spectacular event, as well as the institution itself in the object/subject of the spectacle, in the Bulgarian case of converting culture into a commodity this is precisely what happens to the cultural heritage and its use for tourism purposes. In our country, the projections of cultural policy implemented by the will of the local municipalities are not in the direction of instrumentalisation of contemporary culture, but of cultural heritage and its transformation into a spectacle that degenerates into an exotic form of nationalist kitsch. In recent years, the cultural and historical image of Bulgaria has degraded to a downright prop job. This patriotic kitsch can be seen in architecture designs and in many private initiatives. At a state level, the national symbolism is resurrected with the installation of retrograde monuments in a naturalistic style, poorly borrowed from the academism of 19th c. such as Samuil’s monument and the monument to the Bulgarian lion in front of the National Palace of Culture.
In 2015, a monument to Tsar Samuil, the work of sculptor Aleksandar Haitov, was installed in the centre of Sofia within a few meters of the early-Christian basilica St Sofia. The monument was created in a naturalistic style, the face of the ruler is angry to the extent of the grotesque, the accessories from his suit have a sham and theatrical appearance and completely fit into the imagery of the mass film production of the type of historical screen versions of Hallmark. The body is static and is represented in a large volume, only the outstretched left hand with the royal scepter breaks the monolith of the composition. The monument is equipped with a technical innovation – two light-emitting diodes, installed in the eyes of the ruler, which glow in the dark, reminding of the story of the Battle of Belasitsa in 1014, according to which Samuil’s soldiers were blinded by the Byzantine Basileus Basil II.
Upon the very installation of the monument there broke a scandal, resounding again in the media and the artistic circles for months on end. A civil petition was initiated for the dismantling of the monument and reconsideration of the centre of the capital from an urban planning perspective. In this case, the artistic community was far more explicit that the monument was inappropriate both stylistically and in terms of positioning in the city: in the historical centre of the capital and together with its significant symbols. What is more, a large part of the artistic community was angered by the fact that no public discussion and debate were held about the installation of the monument. The Kultura magazine published an article by Irina Genova. This text was different from many other texts reporting the case with the glowing monument due to fact that it informed of a fictitious organisation, A Future for Sofia, that planned on the moving of all public monuments to the city suburbs. In this park, everyone could pay homage to monuments that they considered the embodiment of their personal beliefs, a tribute to authorities, etc., as a consensus on representations of different memorials in the public space was obviously impossible. In the very beginning, the text explained what the goals and objectives of the foundation were and how it would function. It was not until the second half of the text that the reader could see clearly that the first part was fictitious and ironic. In the text, however, the journalistic genre is blurred with fiction and managed to cause a reaction by certain readers that perceived the text as genuine information. It was performative in terms of effect and form and this brought it closer to the artistic practices and the so-called “tactical media” methods, employed by groups such as YES MAN in order to focus the public opinion on a certain problem. In this case, Irina Genova’s text centred around the lack of a wide debate about the installation of the monument, whether it is possible to consolidate the common memory around exactly this symbol, and also touched on the question about the inertia and irresponsibility of the political conjuncture and the seizure of the public interest through private investment (the monument in question was initiated and paid for with private funds).
Another aspect of the problem of public monuments is the long-discussed monument 1300 years Bulgaria by Valentin Starchev, which has been left to go to ruins for more than 20 years. The monument is again the subject of political projections by the general public, and its aesthetic and constructivist features remain in the background, as well as the fact that it was implemented in a late-modernist international style, and is also in a stylistic and compositional harmony with the NPC complex.
The discussions around the monument continued until its final dismantling in 2017. As a personal reflection against the deletion of cultural memory and iconoclasm against the monuments from the time of socialism, artist Anton Terziev made a performance in 2015 entitled 200% Real Past in front of the crumbling monument. He glued the pages of the book Forget Your Past by Nikola Mihov, which documents precisely the modernist and brutalist monumental architecture in the territory of Bulgaria, consecutively one to another. Of the three cases which became the subject of artistic reaction and stating a critical position, it is evident that the state institutions overlook the arguments of artists and critics and that their position has little weight in making decisions about the visual projections of the government and the public. We also should not ignore the fact that the fate of public monuments requires the achievement of a public consensus, which is difficult in view of the extreme polarisation of the society. This process could, however, be mediated by the participation of artists, art historians and critics, in order to bring the debate to an expert and supra-political level.
The criticism of institutional policies exacerbated cyclically and after 2010, due to the availability of the Internet social networks, platforms and some media, it was canalised there. This situation, alas, did not start a real dialogue, but on the contrary, the positions further polarised, the personal opinion was expressed as a last instance and was often devoid of arguments.
Many conclusions can be drawn from the presented artistic reactions to the cultural policies in the country. Each of these actions brings to light various problems of the artistic community. At the beginning of the period, in 1989, this was the conservatism of the art institutions and the presentation of Bulgarian culture outside the country in an inappropriate way. Different substitution strategies emerged, which filled gaps in the country’s cultural policies and replaced or designed their establishment. Many artists felt art and themselves driven towards the periphery of public life, while others recognised the instrumentalisation of culture by different government bodies. The question remains how all those critical positions can be canalised into a reasoned and constructive debate, which has the potential to achieve consensus and positive changes in the cultural policy and, on the other hand, what visions the cultural institutions develop for their programme and how they can engage in a dialogue with the different communities.
 The term Institutional critique is used to denote politicised artistic practices in the 1960s – 1970s, and first appeared in a text by Mel Ramsden in 1975. See Alberro, Alexander. Institutions, Critique and Institutional Critique. Page 8. Alberro, Alexander and Stimson, Blake (eds.) (2009), Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists' Writings  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
 Dichev, Ivaylo. From Affiliation to Identity, S. 2002, Dichev, p. 128.
 See: Mlechevska, Vera. Sources of Information about Modern Art up to the 1980s – Limits on Freedom of Expression. Collection, Art in Europe: Models and Identities, BAS, 2018. http://artstudies.bg/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Art-Readings_New-Art-Module_2018.pdf
 Vasileva, M. The Beginning of Our Avant-garde?, Art in Bulgaria., 17.1994, p. 6-9
 Avramov, Dimitar. Chronicle of a Dramatic Decade: Bulgarian Art between 1955-1965, Sofia: Nauka I Izkustvo, 1994.
 In it, each of the EU member countries Is represented in a sarcastic manner or with a banalised cliché for each specific country. For example, Italy was represented by footballer who perform sex movements with footballs, and Poland – with catholic priests that waved banners of the gay movement.
 Betina Zhoteva, speaker of our permanent representation to the EU, stated: “The scandal is grandiose, we will smash the art installation with hammers". The director of the Europe II directorate Nikola Kaludov requested that the module representing Bulgaria be immediately removed. The Czech Presidency of the EU was forced to express official apologies to Bulgaria and the other offended countries. The situation got to a point at which Václav Klaus appealed to the Czech government to distance itself officially from Černý's work.
 “When our modern art is discredited, unnoticed, ignored as media and a means of expression and influence, when it is stated, and not just by anyone but by our own curators, art critics, etc., that in our country there is no art, nothing happens, there are no modern artists, what is left to do is to mix in a real action politics and art. We used political means to provoke and raise questions affecting everyone.”