We have never been (too) politically or socially engaged

by Vladiya Mihaylova

Politically engaged art means works, actions, and platforms that comment on and/or criticise the policies and conditions of existence in society. In turn, art based on collaboration and participation, which often involves people as a means of expressing the idea of the work, is defined as socially engaged art. [1] Whichever of the two definitions we may try to apply to art in Bulgaria, we will always be left with relatively few examples. It seems that even to date Bulgarian art is rather “meek”, artists rarely take a scathingly critical stand or initiate actions and platforms. In this text comprised of two parts (without claiming exhaustiveness) I will follow some themes that have been occupying the artists’ minds since the late 1980s, putting them in a broader context of different processes in society. Whether this social and political reflection can fall within the genre of social and/or politically engaged art is a question that will remain open till the end.  

Part One – after 1989

A few years ago, Sofia City Art Gallery held the exhibition Art for Change 1985-2015 [2], curated by Maria Vassileva following the anti-government and anti-corruption protests of 2013. The exhibition itself was a retrospective of a sort with works and processes of the country’s recent history, which took part in the change in society. It involved artists expressing a significant civic position through their works. The exhibition, as well as its accompanying book, covered the themes of speaking out and a change of the art’s expressive language at the end of the 1980s; of the “opening up” of public space, happenings, actions, etc. in the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall; of identity issues, of the meanings and boundaries of the national as horizons of self-reflection and the cultural history in the fast-changing environment towards an opening to the West and the world; of the artistic responses to the economic situation and new social types in society; of the city and of female artists, and last but not least – of the historical moments in which the artists took a stand as citizens. The exhibition suggested that for one reason or another, the artists’ criticism often went unheard; that they were allocated a small public space; that their labour and position were marginalised. “That they remain invisible is largely not their problem, but a problem of the system that used them as service staff at the time of socialism, and for the past 25 years has put them somewhere at the bottom of the social ladder and thus has silenced their voices.” [3]  

But is this a policy issue or is it a problem in the art sphere itself and in the way it communicates in society? I will try to deduce several themes, some of them are covered in the exhibition and the collection created by Maria Vassileva, and some of them are not.

Philosopher Chantal Mouffe says that unlike “politics,” what she calls “political” is an antagonistic dimension that is constitutive to human societies, while "policies" are a set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organising people's way of life. [4] The fall of the Berlin Wall (as well as the Perestroyka years before that) represents precisely such a massive change in the political that leads to a change in the (cultural) policies. For Bulgaria (as for Eastern Europe as a whole), the West is a utopia – the victorious “saviour”, embodying the “alternative” of the totalitarian state – democracy, freedom, opportunity to realise the individual potential, etc. This utopia existed even before 1989 in the desire to “taste” the forbidden fruit, in the curiosity and smuggling of books, music, various goods, when a pair of Levi's jeans or a bottle of Coca-Cola turned into symbols of the free world on this side of the border. It was precisely with this charge that the 1990s set in, which were full of numerous twists, conflicts and beginnings, and which laid the foundations of the contemporary situation not only in art, but also in society’s political life – When the Foundations Were Laid is the title of an article by Diana Popova about that time, which tells about the first steps of contemporary art in the country. [5] Much of the works of art, actions and exhibitions that appeared immediately before and after the beginning of this decade can be understood politically from today's perspective. While they didn't bear direct messages, they showed a way of thinking that was new for their time, which helped redirect art from “the eternal” to “the topical,” from “circumlocutory” to “direct,” from “high” to “popular” and from the questions of “life” to the problems of “the political.” A small part of them are targeted civil actions, such as The Chameleon (February 1990) by the City Group in front of the National Palace of Culture or The Repeal of Article One (December 1989) by Lyuben Kostov in front of the Archaeological Museum. In any case, however, much of the artistic events gave room to the freedom of expression. Gradually, the new means of expression (such as action, happening, installation, various forms of conceptual art, etc.) become carriers of new values, new definitions of the artist’s role or of the objectives and boundaries of the work, as well as of the cultural practice in general. Contemporary art formulated in this way had the potential to change the environment and proved to be a powerful tool for defining new cultural policies.

For some of the artists, the years around 1989 proved to be a turning point in their professional development. The most vivid examples in this regard are Nedko Solakov and Lachezar Boyadzhiev. Boyadzhiev changed his occupation of art critic and began to develop as an artist, although to this day he has remained one of the most active and analytical artists in the field of contemporary art. After the public presentation of his famous work Top Secret, in which he revealed that he had cooperated with the State Security, Nedko Solakov left the Union of Bulgarian Artists and developed as an artist in an international context, mostly outside the country. In many of Solakov’s works, you can find this kind of rift with the art institutions in Bulgaria, in particular with the adopted models of making and thinking not only about the artwork, but also about the environment and the system of art in general. These, for instance, include the early action-exhibitions Nine Objects at the National Historical Museum and Doodles (1996) at the National Art Gallery.

Nedko Solakov

Nine Objects, 1992.

Site-specific

Details

  • Material: nine ordinary objects placed in a discreet way among the permanent exhibits

In a similar position, astride between “here” and “there”, were other artists as well: “here” contemporary art struggled for recognition and acknowledgement, for market, national and international presentation, museum collections, collectors, audience, etc.; “there” artists struggled for visibility and autonomy in the wave of interest in the exotic, unknown Eastern Europe; they learned to speak not only English [6], but also the grammar of the international art system – biennials, curators, galleries, collectors, etc. For a long period of time, these artists (as well as critics and curators) lived as homeland-based expatriates, who in most cases managed to reclaim certain islets of change and participate in the difficult processes of transformation of values and institutions. Insisting that the institutions in Bulgaria should open up to the world, to the international history and art practice, to make room for the different, the critical, while maintaining the highly professional and working for clear criteria and autonomy, is one of the most sustainable cultural and political problems that has been in the process of solving to this day. In this context, one can mention the long-standing question of the lack of regular national participation at the Venice Biennale, the lack of a fully functioning Museum of Contemporary Art, the underrepresentation of contemporary art in gallery life; we can also mention already historic exhibitions such as Export-Import (2003, curated by Maria Vassileva), which raised the question of this double standard. [7] Whether this constitutes a sustained criticism of the institutions, acting (and paradoxically) both inside and outside – probably yes, but to this day some of the questions still stand. Such criticism can be found in the works of many artists, and its tools often involve the denial, the sense of alienation, the absence and the emptiness. This precisely is expressed in Kalin Serapionov's video The Museum – Cause of Meeting and Acquaintance (1997), showing extreme boredom of the conservatism of the National Art Gallery or the famous action by Ivan Mudov, MUSIZ – Museum of Contemporary Art (2005), through which he drew attention to the country’s non-existing museum of contemporary art, organising a false opening at the Poduene railway station in Sofia. Following a well-conducted campaign aiming to mislead the public, many of the people, including those holding official cultural positions in the state, found themselves in the empty waiting room of the Poduene railway station instead of in the halls of a new museum.  

Hand in hand with cultural and political change, however, there was also a much deeper change in the society’s value system. One of the important appeals before and after 1989 was that of Vaclav Havel for “living in truth” to oppose the totalitarian system that built “living in a lie”. This was the time when “truth” was not just a word, but a slogan and a manifesto behind which not only artists stood. In 1990, in the centre of Sofia, between the building of the Presidency and the Archaeological Museum, the tent camp “The City of Truth" was located, which began as a sit-down strike demanding the resignation of the then leader of the Socialist party – Petar Mladenov, and with the insistence on a public trial for the totalitarian leader – Todor Zhivkov. However, the crack in the ideological cover was noticed much earlier. In many works from the second half of the 1980s, the artists used “jokes”, absurdities, and irony to show the emptiness of words in official slogans and the lack of meaning in the maintained “bright” idea of the socialist order and future. The crack in the overall picture of the reality, as built and maintained by the Party and its conjuncture, was present, both in works such as On the Road (1983), Hierarchy and Promise Me A Bright Future (1988) by Nedko Solakov and in works such as Boom in Power Engineering, A Hole in the Parquet Flooring, Home Ecology (1988-1989) by Sasho Stoitsov, which show the strange and surreal world of everyday life objects and items.

Sasho Stoitzov

Hole in the Parquet, 1989.

Installation

Details

  • Material: Parquet
  • Width: 170.00 cm    Height: 170.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Property of: National Gallery, Sofia, Bulgaria

Sasho Stoitzov

Boom in Power Engineering, 1988.

Installation

Details

  • Material: Coal, cupboard
  • Width: 70.00 cm    Height: 60.00 cm    Depth: 40.00 cm   

  • Property of: Sasho Stoitzov

We can understand the works in relation to the conditions and lifestyle at that time – with the shortage, with power rationing or with the preparation of home foods to compensate for the poor market in winter. In the gap between the official narrative and the personal, obvious, even domestic truth, there was a sense of delusion, of a world made up of lies, on which artists commented more or less openly.   In his text Synthesis Times, Alexander Kyosev describes the desire for a revolutionary, overall change at a “molecular level”. "This all-ideology had its own automatisms that had to be violated, so as to start a kind of revolution at a molecular level, inside the very structures of totalitarian language, making it doubled, imitated, parodied, “inflamed,” which seemed to us tantamount to a viral attack on the very circulatory system of the totalitarian body.” [8]

In this case, the author was referring to the philosophy and activity of the so-called Synthesis Circle, which was one of several active, reformist and critically thinking circles in the academic life in the country. The activity of the circle was joined by artist Lachezar Boyadzhiev, who is another central and leading figure in contemporary art in Bulgaria. The postmodern tools of doubling, of simulating the simulation, of manipulating the manipulation, comprise a critical action in themselves. Many of them can be seen in the works of Lachezar Boyadzhiev, who used the specifics of this postmodern approach to comment not only on individual social phenomena and occurrences, but also on the very frameworks of the political within the meaning of Chantal Mouffe. Foundational works such as Faith Strengthening (1991), Alice’s Hole (or The Swamp of Marxist-Leninist Aesthetics) (1991), or Cross-Gaze (1994) show not just some doubting the truth, in this case the divine truth, but revealing power, be it the religious or the ideological one, showing its mechanics and its conversion from an afterlife and all-encompassing law into a trick around which any narrative can be constructed. This play on words can be found throughout Lachezar Boyadzhiev’s works, and what is more – it is a basic tool for reflection on reality. The religious, Christian images and symbols in this case create the feeling of primordiality, of basic laws and order, whose questioning also suggests holding out new opportunities, giving the search for another perspective a chance, and means freedom. If in the early1990s, when talking about power and ideology it meant the communist ideology and its instrument in the shape of the Bulgarian Communist Party, that changed very quickly. Lachezar Boyadzhiev’s drawing Neo-Golgotha (1994) shows, using the same tools and again through the religious imagery, a new “ideologist” that sets the political conditions of existence – the market. (Years later, in 2012, Krasimir Terziev created the inscription GOD SAVE THE MARKET on the façade of 145 Rakovski St in Sofia.) This line was continued by the artist in the Billboard Heaven collage series (2005) as well, where the aggressive environment of advertising images occupies the skyline of the cityscape, totally penetrating the picture of reality. The artist also addressed the changing social hierarchies in the city. An example of this is the work Hot City Visual (2003), in which Boyadzhiev explored the advertisements of small businesses and individual ads in the urban space. As part of this work, he created a large billboard, The Construction Crew of Stefan (And His Sons-in-Law), which he installed on the façade of the National Art Gallery. The billboard actually shows a Roma family whose occupation is in the field of small repairs. During the display of the work, however, mayoral elections were taking place, and as chance would have it, the name of the mayoral elections winner was Stefan (Sofiyanski), who is a father to daughters. Thus, the work took on an unexpected significance in the public environment.  

The utopian horizon before 1989 was the bright future (as the communist ideology imagined it); after 1989 in some sense such a horizon became the West as an idea of the alternative, of freedom, of democracy, of rights, etc. What formed the present in the country and the processes going in it, however, was the opposite of utopia. It was connected with Foucault’s notion of heterotopia, in which everything is overturned, chaotic, and displaced. In the 1990s (and after that), a large number of artists commented on the living conditions in society. Ventsislav Zankov's works such as The Limits of Agony (1991), A Taste of Paradise (1993), Porn? The Way to Reach Plain Truth (2000), White, Male and Straight (2002), Seven Brides Spitting (2005), I Badly Need a Mercedes, Please Help! (Christmas action 25 – 29 December, 2003), etc. address the change of values, the loss of meaning of many of the symbols and messages that until yesterday built the Bulgarian identity, the arrogance of the day, the disintegration of values, etc. The White, Male and Straight project drew attention to the previously existing notion of “normal” life and “normality” and how it changed due to the sexual and gender differences suppressed before 1989, just as the social differences. The artist presented in the public domain the image of a white, heterosexual man in whom modernity seems to have lost interest. The work sparked interesting controversy amid emerging feminist projects or LGBT issues in the public domain. In all these works, the transformations in society were related to the living conditions, questioning human dignity, the new power and money allocation patterns, corruption and fraud, which were part of the profound changes in Bulgarian society in the 1990s. In addition to the idea of freedom, privatisation processes were taking place in Bulgaria, which not only changed the concentration of wealth and contributed to numerous abuses of power, but also distorted the very idea of a free market. [9] If, in the words of Vladislav Todorov (author of the book Adam's Complex, 1991) [10], at the time of socialism factories gave birth to poems, in the mid-1990s the factories collapsed, giving birth to the new masters in society. In political life, privatisation was associated with a chaotic process of denationalisation, which laid down the conditions of “capitalism” in Bulgaria; in the artistic circles, privatisation was connected with the disintegration and pillaging of the Union of Bulgarian Artists; and setting up various circles and groups that engaged in confrontations with each other was also related to privatisation as a new model and way of thinking. Privatisation implied (whether corrupt or not) excessive emphasis on the individual and individual expression, which until recently had been rather forbidden under general slogans and rules of collective action. Contrary to that, freedom suggests that one can choose and do as they please – new characters emerged in the public life, urban dandies and thugs, noisy parties and drag queens, pop-folk music and blatant kitsch. Infamies and breaking the norms brought glamour, and the boundaries between legal and illegal blurred. In regard to this context, we should understand works such as Drug (1995), Corrections 1 (1996-98) and Corrections 2 by Rassim (as well as much of the artist’s work); By the Way (1995) and Wanted Category (1996) by Kalin Serapionov; My Wedding Dress on the Roof (1998) and Fish Party (2004) by Mariela Gemisheva; Alla's Secret / Collection 2000 – I, II, III and New Hedonism (2004) by Alla Georgieva; the video project Fresh 1,2,3 by Adelina Popnedeleva; Metabolizer by Petko Durmana; Reality Show (1998) by Huben Cherkelov, etc.

RASSIM®

Corrections 1996-1998, 1996.

Video installation

Details

  • Photographer: DHM Dresden, Germany
  • Material: five video projections-films, sound (35-45min.each) and two posters Before & After , 210 x 90 cm (each)
  • Sizes: five video projections-films, sound (35-45min. Еach) and two posters Before & After, 210 x 90 cm (each)

  • Property of: Edition 2+1AP 1/2 Alain Servais
  • Description: installation view, ON YOUR MARKS. Body-Sport and Society, Deutsches Hygiene Museum, Dresden Germany, 2011 Photo DHM Dresden, Germany
  • Copyright: RASSIM® Krassimir Krastev
  • References: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4cRraHVWL4&t=45s

One of the most iconic events that shows this multitude of artistic reactions and at the same time the environment in which they develop is the Sofia Underground Festival, founded by journalist and art critic Ruen Ruenov. According to the founder of the festival of action and performance, “… Sofia Underground was challenged in 1997 by my personal dissatisfaction with the current art scene in Bulgaria. It was also awakened by the political framework and radical societal events of 1996-97.” [11] The festival has persevered as a “brand” even to this day; its strongest years, however, were precisely when it took place in the underground space of the National Palace of Culture between 1997 and 2000. It is attended by a number of artists, music bands, poets, etc., and the tenor of the event has remained the irreconcilability with conformism, both in art or in society, the desire for a radical, caustic, scandalous, and arrogant at times expression, caused by the current state of society. When There Is No Money for Culture, Eat Shit (1998) was a performance by Boris and Gabriela Serginovi which they did within Sofia Underground. At that time, the critical gesture was often associated with a challenging hooligan manifestation; in this action, however, the “outburst” of the individual could be seen, their desire to conquer their own place – the graffiti Huben, Kosyo and Tushev appeared in the centre of Sofia in 1995 (or 1996 according to the memories of one of the artists) similarly to the first examples of tagging and marking territories in street battles. From the point of view of this underground or only ground of heterotopia, the basic values and directions also began to blur. One part of the artists continued the line of late-socialist art, others embraced new liberal and democratic values and tried to make up for their differences by learning the professional language of the international art scene, and still others displayed through their works the weightlessness of values in society.   

Part two – after 2007

Many of the themes and issues that artists covered in the 1990s remained relevant. Both the battle to change institutions and the standing up for new values and patterns of behaviour. However, the political and social situation today has changed significantly. Different political positions are increasingly forming, many new organisations and spaces for art are emerging. City initiatives and festivals, curatorial schools, various exhibition programmes, social and educational projects and much more are created. The realm of art itself is much wider, and some of its boundaries have blurred with lifestyle events, with urban initiatives, with dance, literature, and architecture. Interdisciplinary projects and the way of thinking are part of the modern functioning of society, of ideas for sharing knowledge and the desire to think outside the boundaries of languages and systems of knowledge. They come together with the concepts of sharing economy, with the new models of shared urban living, with blurring the distinction between the academic disciplines, with the innovation-driven market, with the change in the manner of working, with travelling and forming communities. Of course, this positive vision of societal processes goes hand in hand with other dominant problems in the world, such as the expansion and crisis of neoliberalism, the increase in inequalities, poverty, the lack of sustainability (precarity [12]) of human existence. Gradually, this new political horizon emerged after 2007, and in recent years terrorism, intensifying violence, neo-fascism, post-truth politics and the growing threat of irreversible climate change have proved to pose serious new challenges. The big change for the Bulgarian art that occurred in 2007, however, was the opening of the borders as a result of the country’s accession to the European Union. Easier travel also provided better opportunities for the participation in the local scene of many emigrant artists, who successfully developed in New York, Berlin, London, Vienna, etc. Gaining knowledge and experience abroad was also made easier, and the Internet was becoming more and more a source of knowledge and contacts outside the established channels. Speaking English was no longer a matter of personal change and battle, but a normal part of the way of existence in the international environment. The issue of identity, which artists began commenting on as early as the 1990s in works such as Territories (1995) and Easy Banners (1997) by Pravdolyub Ivanov, National Helmet (1992) and National Style (2002) by Kiril Prashkov, A Taste of Paradise (Dear Motherland, You Are Heaven on Earth) (1995), Dignity /I Am a Bulgarian/ (1994) by Ventsislav Zankov, Do You Feel You Are Different? (1996-1998) by Kalin Serapionov, was suddenly posed differently. It was no longer limited to belonging, to overcoming the boundary, questioning the national idea or seeking new models of self-identification. The works of artists such as Kamen Stoyanov or Boryana Ventsislavova addressed the topics of the majority, the absurdities and paradoxes of the “Bulgarian”, the identity “market”, migration as a principle of existence elsewhere. The photograph Tabula Rasa (2005) by Boryana Ventsislavova, Miroslav Ničić and Mladen Penev shows the “power”/the connection between the idea of the European Union and neoliberalism, driven by the networks of global companies and capital. The contradictions of the new situation are expressed in works such as European Language, 2005 by Katya Damyanova-Terzieva or Civic Position, 2007 by Boryana Rossa and Ultrafuturo.

Katia Damianova and ULTRAFUTURO

European Tongue, 2005.

Performance

Details

  • Photographer: Олег Мавроматти
  • Material: Series of 3 photographs, video

  • Property of: Софийска градска галерия
  • Description: Performance - Intervention on Nezavisimost Square.
    Katia Damyanova pierces her tongue with a medical needle on which the European Union's flag is glued - that restricts her speaking abilities for the length of the performance. Behind her are the flags of the member states of the Union. This performance illustrates the moods of marginalized countries in the European Union which have limited political power.

    Video: Oleg Mavromatti
  • Copyright: Katia Damianova
  • References: http://www.kultura.bg/bg/article/view/12319

Where the place of Bulgaria is and whether the Bulgarian government has a concept for its presentation and cultural face in this new situation is a question that again painfully stands before the artists (and managers, curators, etc.). Kamen Stoyanov's works such as the video Cultural Moussaka (2010) or the performance Bringing Kultura (2010) comment on the lack of attitude on the part of the Bulgarian state towards modern culture and its international presence, as well as the absurdities to which this leads. The rift between the government’s official concept and politics (of culture and in general) and the values of a large number of contemporary artists is very deep. In 2009, Nedko Solakov made the video The Silent (But As Rich As Only The Bulgarian Language Can Be) F Words in front of the buildings of the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers, the Presidency, etc. The artist Pravdolyub Ivanov became one of the faces of the anti-government protests in 2013 – Tools, 2013 and Black Balloons, 2013.

Pravdoliub Ivanov

Black Balloons, 2013.

Video Art

Details

  • Material: HD video, color, sound, 1’10”

At that time the series of drawings Central Beach I and II, and Central, 2014 by Krassimir Terziev or Noise Trial, 2013 by Kamen Stoyanov were created as well. This rift is visible both during the mass protests then and on a daily level in the absurdities of living, which the government created and in the institutional paradoxes – for example, as part of the narratives in large-scale installations by Nedko Solakov such as A Recent Story with Ghosts, A Pair of High-Heeled Shoes, (A Couple of Floods) and Some Other Mischievous Acts (2008), works such as Pandora’s Box, 2012, Once Upon a Time in Bulgaria, 2013 or Invisible Skyscraper, 2014 by Zoran Georgiev or more direct works such as Tsar, 2017 by Stoyan Dechev, as well as the action with Boyko Borisov’s monument with glowing eyes by sculptor Andrey Vrabchev from April 1, 2019.[13] Not only was the material from which the monument was made sham, easily portable and thus indicative of the stability of the created object, but also the glowing eyes are a direct reference to Tsar Samuil’s monument that was erected next to the Basilica of Saint Sophia Church in 2015.

Stoyan Dechev

Tsar, 2017.

Sculpture

Details

  • Photographer: Stoyan Dechev
  • Material: brass with traces of gilding
  • Width: 21.00 cm    Height: 30.00 cm    Depth: 5.00 cm   

  • Description: A replica of an antic Thracian ritual mask of king Teres, recently discovered in Bulgaria, is schizophrenically confusing our sense of time and truth, throw it’s resemblance to a powerful politician of Bulgaria today.

Stoyan Dechev

King, 2017.

Sculpture

Details

  • Photographer: Stoyan Dechev
  • Material: brass with traces of gilding
  • Width: 30.00 cm    Height: 21.00 cm    Depth: 5.00 cm   

  • Description: A replica of an antic Thracian ritual mask of king Teres, recently discovered in Bulgaria, is schizophrenically confusing our sense of time and truth, throw it’s resemblance to a powerful politician of Bulgaria today.

Irony, the display of paradoxes, mock-ups and other similar devices proved to be the most favoured by artists for expressing a critical position. The cultural heritage and in particular the legacy of socialism (communism) became a particularly painful topic. Even in the early 1990s, artists and critics created projects that reconsidered the Monument of the Soviet Army and the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov [14], as some of the key symbols of the Communist rule and history. The building of the Mausoleum was demolished in 1999. The decision for that was taken by Ivan Kostov’s democratic government, who saw in this act a symbolic gesture of change and shaking off the past. Instead of achieving this, however, the place has remained a “dead” empty space in the centre of the city for years, filled with negative energy from both the memory of it and the very act of demolition, with which many cultural representatives disagreed. In 2012 (Untitled), Ivan Mudov made an artistic intervention/simulation of a new construction of a private/public building on the site of the former mausoleum. The action comprised fencing the site with construction enclosures and the installation of an information board for a construction site, accompanied by a modified, kitschy image of the former building. By that, the artist commented not only on the emptiness of the space, but also on the mock-up reconstructions of historical sites, which are a new source of corruption and negligence on the part of the government. A similar problem was posed by Dimitar Solakov’s work New Life for the Past (2015), demonstrating the results of the “restoration” of a number of medieval fortresses throughout the country.

Dimitar Solakov

New Life for the Past, 2015.

Installation

Details

  • 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

Mock-ups which displaced the historical truth in its desire to create cheap tourist destinations was also the theme of the film Novo Selo – A Tourist Destination, scripted by Dimitar Shopov (Milos Gavazov) and Vera Mlechevska. The film is filled with much humour and a real taste for disclosing the absurdities of the modern historical and tourist kitsch in Bulgaria [15].

Milosh Gavazov

General view of the exhibition The Destructive Positivism of Milosh Gavazov, 2018.

Painting

Details

  • Photographer: Kosyo Hadjigenchev

The site of the mausoleum, however, is laden above all with political content. It was not until 2018 that its bringing back to life and meaning in the centre of the city was given some thought. This was also facilitated by the installation of the sculpture The Bronze House by Plamen Deyanoff, which generated numerous debates, polarised the civil opinion and made Sofia Municipality face the need to create regulations for temporary display of artworks in the public space. [16]  

In the form of an action (without asking permission for the placement of a work), on December 14, 2019, sculptor Andrey Vrabchev installed the object The Mummy of Communism on the site of the Mausoleum, sending the message that communism had not gone away, but was preserved in the order, leading to social and societal deformities. [17] This was not the first such action by the artist, who on September 9 of that year stained with red paint the fountain in the Doctor’s Garden in Sofia, which is located near the Russian Cultural and Information Centre. The inscription accompanying the action – “Happy Holidays, Ingrates!”, again expressed criticism by reminding of the crimes of the People’s Court and communist Bulgaria. [18] The clearly expressed position was shared by a large part of the society and often polarised the voice of the citizens when questions were posed about the fate of monuments related to the socialist/communist past. The debate shifted away from the issue of cultural heritage from our immediate historical past and became a political case study for the symbolic presence in the city and in the collective memory, which in turn was related to personal and social trauma. This also addressed the topic about the fate of the monument 1300 years Bulgaria in front of the National Palace of Culture, eventually demolished in 2017, which had been going on in the public domain for almost a decade. Two years earlier, in 2015, before a public discussion on the subject in the Red House – Centre for Culture and Debate, the performance Memoreality was held, at the initiative of the Transformatori association and Kristian Ape, which in a “theatrical” setting offered viewers the opportunity to destroy chocolate figurines of the monument with various torture tools. They could use a soldering iron, an iron, a hot air pistol, a hair straightener, a hob, a hammer and thus vent their emotional involvement in the debate. [19] The extreme polarisation of the opinions on this issue can also be seen in the 2008 action by the Ultrafuturo group in front of the monument – A Photo for Memory’s Sake. One of the most downright opponents to the monument preservation was artist Petko Durmana, who is also the founder of the Facebook group for "Public Art", where many discussions on the topic are held. In 2019, he carried out the project Being Alyosha, which enabled people to put themselves in the place of the figure of Alyosha (another monument from communist times in Plovdiv) with the help of modern technologies.  

Perhaps one of the most controversial monuments, however, remains the Monument of the Soviet Army in Sofia. One morning in 2011, the daylight found it with its relief painted, and the soldier figures in it were transformed into heroes from the modern popular culture. Below them stood the inscription “In step with the time”.

Destructive Creation

In step with the time, 2011.

Graffiti

Details

  • Photographer: Destructive Creation
  • Material: spray paint

  • Property of: Destructive Creation
  • Description: Transforming soldiers from the Soviet Army monument in Sofia as American comic heroes.
  • Copyright: Destructive Creation

The action of the then newly formed Destructive Creation group launched a series of similar interventions on the monument, which made it a tribune for sending various political messages [20], among which were Anti-ACTA and Pussy Riot (2012), the Day of Homage to the Victims of Communism in Bulgaria and Apology for Prague '68 (2013), “Glory to Ukraine”, “Hands off Ukraine” (2014) and others. Destructive Creation were recognised as the group that was the author of still other interventions in the urban environment; the remaining inscriptions on the monument, however, remained anonymous, and they appear periodically to this day.  

The inscription “In step with the time” points to the value rift between official political positions (actions or omissions) and different groups in modern times. It is the work of the generation that grew up with the heroes of the global popular culture, travelling often outside the country, in many cases living outside it, which most often remains unpresented in the political life of Bulgaria. [21] However, in the last few years, this generation has increasingly formed its own spaces, formulated political platforms and taken a position on various social issues. In 2006, works such as EURO DE LUX. Hiring. Offering. Extraordinar. Live by Boryana Ventsislavova or Sweetshirt (My Boss is Turkish) in 2002-2005 by Veronica Tsekova are works that, although commenting on social reality, remained “isolated” and presented only in the art circles. However, these works could have a new reading in the last few years with the emergence of platforms such as the Bulgarian Women's Fund (which was established in 2003, and in the last few years has been increasingly taking public positions in support of women and against domestic violence. In 2019, the fund also announced a competition for art projects) [22], Sofia Queer Forum (founded by Boryana Rossa and philosopher Stanimir Panayotov in 2012) [23], LevFem (left-wing queer feminist group)[24], etc.

Sofia Queer Forum 2012

Sofia Queer Forum, 2012, the fridge & Haspel, Borqna Rossa, Stanimir Panayotov. Curator: Boryana Rossa., 2012.

Action

Details

  • Photographer: Johanna Glösl
  • Material: Photo documentation of an event

  • Property of: Sofia Queer Forum
  • Description: Sofia Queer Forum exists since 2012 in Sofia. The forum is an event, which investigates through the means of contemporary arts, gender and sexuality as parallel systems through which we value ourselves and the others
    is why in focus here is also the changing of the concepts
    “gender” and “sexuality” depending on social, political, cultural
    and medical factors that are inherent in a given time and space.
  • Copyright: Sofia Queer Forum
  • References: https://sofiaqueerforum.org

These platforms revealed different spaces of political action and raised important questions – about the representation and equal rights of queer people and women, domestic violence, the protection of workers’ causes, the battle for social equality, etc. Inviting each time different curators, for the years of its existence Sofia Queer Forum has managed to present a number of international artists, also including many Bulgarian ones, and to create a discussion environment in which topics such as the rights of migrants, the Queer family, minority groups, sexual differences, relations between policies and gender issues, the memory of the October Revolution and many others can be discussed.

Boryana Rossa

Sofia Queer Forum, 2012, poster, 2012.

Poster

Details

In 2019 Iskra Blagoeva created the project Something Is Rotten in Heaven [25], which addresses the issue of female killers. With it, the artist tried to look at the problem of domestic violence from another perspective, escaping from seeing the woman only as a victim. Violence, the spread of ideologies and the fragmentation of society are topics with which Anton Terziev deals with in many of his works, such as the series of paintings Quiet Riots I, II and III (2017-2019), Private Societies, I-V (2017-2019), Cattle Branding at Night, 2019, etc.

Anton Terziev

Quite Riots I, 2017.

Painting

Details

  • Width: 140.00 mm    Height: 195.00 mm    Depth: mm   

Anton Terziev

Quite Riots II, 2018.

Painting

Details

  • Width: 140.00 mm    Height: 195.01 mm    Depth: mm   

Among the authors who actively comment on the current situation is Oleg Mavromati. In his films, objects, and paintings he often focuses on the ways in which policies affect the conditions of human existence. An example of this is the series of paintings An Ideal Country, 2015, which were a reaction to the spread of ISIS, and the very paintings show the artist’s abilities to speak through the language of popular culture about violence and monstrosity.  

The opening up of art to popular culture, be it through the use of images from it, by commenting on specific phenomena or by the direct use of elements, is a way to overcome the autonomous language of art [26], and artistic processes are not separated from the general processes of society’s development. Such an approach can also be found in many of Kamen Stoyanov’s works. In them, he raises social (and political) issues, including the way capital allocation flows shape spaces, create boundaries between included and excluded, absurd paradoxes when mixing different cultural codes, or form links with kitsch and attraction – works such as Bingo Topology, 2005; Tiger Steps, 2007; Synchronisation, 2010, as well as New Istanbul Dream (2017), Fantasy Is More Important (2016-2018), etc.

Kamen Stoyanov

Synchronisation, 2010.

Performance

Details

  • Material: video

  • Property of: Kamen Stoyanov
  • Description: Kamen Stoyanov uses for his action an empty billboard construction placed next to the Sofia airport . The artist climbes on it, fixes a hamako and finally places himself on it, replacing the missing advertisement. He takes a rest observing the people arriving in the city. By doing so, he awakes their interest.
  • Copyright: Kamen Stoyanov

The artist turned to the real world, to ordinary people and circumstances, often criticising the walls built around the art world, guarding both its autonomy and independence and its elitism, self-sufficiency and vanity - Reality Is Much More Beautiful Than Fiction (performance at Sofia City Art Gallery, 2007), Roma Open Air Museum (2006), etc. Interest in such issues, criticism of neoliberalism and the living and production conditions it creates can be found in the works, performances and overall operation of Voin de Voin. What the working conditions in global production are and how this affects the life and exchange of items/goods is a topic that Lazar Lyutakov covered in works such as Flying Forward (2014) or The Way of the Sand (2019), etc.  

Overcoming the autonomy of art and its opening to/inclusion in the life of society is in itself a political process that has been commented on in art history since the time of the first avant-garde. In a modern context, socially engaged practices or practices on the border between activism and art are those areas of action in which art attempts to be politically and/or socially active; to ignore the security of the gallery space, to turn its back on the market and to risk itself in order to express certain messages or to participate more fully in the life of society. In Bulgarian contemporary art there are very few examples of artistic projects that are, in this sense, socially or politically engaged. Some of them, such as Andrey Vrabchev’s actions, for example, were mentioned above. The works of Kiril Kuzmanov (Dis)appearance of the Content 2 (2013) and Project 0 (2010-2014) were also an attempt at this type of project. However, only in recent years initiatives have emerged that quite actively violate the boundaries of art and the environment in which it is displayed and commented. In 2019, artist Hannah Rose and social anthropologist Nikola Venkov (using for their joint work the name DuvarKolektiv) implemented the project The Beauty We Share together with the Roma families from Plovdiv’s Stolipinovo district. The aim of the project was to explore what the notion of beauty of those living in the neighbourhood was; however, de facto it created opportunities for communication, exchange of ideas and an environment for expression, for giving voice and visibility to those involved. A real exchange of knowledge and experience began between the authors of the project and the people of Stolipinovo through the means of art, which actually changed the living environment in this place, because the power of imagination and the ability to express it is a powerful path to acquiring your own voice and freedom. Again in a Roma district (ghetto), but this time in the capital – in the Fakulteta, Destructive Creation implemented the initiative Warm People (December 2019), which consisted in installing the local heating of some of the houses and giving a model/know how to solve the problem of heating for the families in winter. The action comprised not only a Christmas gift for the people from the neighbourhood and activated the local community to look for solutions to improve their lifestyle, but also offered a specific tool for improving the quality of air in Sofia, which in the last few years has been among the leading topics in terms of quality of life in the city.  

Will these projects remain isolated though, and is there an environment in Bulgaria to develop such artistic practices? This question is also largely related to the question, “Is contemporary art in Bulgaria ‘meek’?” Although the answer is not unambiguous, it is still obvious that art in Bulgaria is rarely harshly critical of or directly engaged in social problems. This does not mean that there is a lack of social reflection in artists, but it mostly remains within the artwork and is less communicated outside the art environment. The reason for this lies not only with the artist, nor only with the cultural policy of the state, as Maria Vassileva writes in her text – it lies with the very realm of art, which to this day remains above all focused on itself and on its internal problems, controversies and battles. In practice, (art) criticism has been absent for a long time, and in recent years it has become increasingly limited to writing texts – more or less analytical, more or less critical, more or less connected to certain circles within the professional art field. In Bulgaria, there is neither educational, nor critical, nor media environment that could help form active social and political art platforms. The few exceptions, such as Sofia Queer Forum, LevFem, DuvarKolektiv and others mentioned above, develop most often outside the focus of direct attention in the field of visual arts in an interdisciplinary context, with the commitment of people with different occupations and knowledge.


[1] “Socially engaged practice describes art that is collaborative, often participatory and involves people as the medium or material of work,” https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/socially-engaged-practice, last visited on January 15, 2020.  
[2] The exhibition was displayed from 20.01.2015 to 05.03.2015 and was accompanied by a catalogue, Art for Change 1985-2015, published by Sofia City Art Gallery  
[3] Art for Change..., p. 8  
[4] Mouffe, Chantal, “More precisely this is how I distinguish between “the political” and “politics”: by “the political” I mean the dimension of antagonism which I take to be constitutive of human societies, while by “politics” I mean the set of practices and institutions through which an order is created, organizing human coexistence in the context of conflictuality provided by the political.” , Mouffe, Chantal, “On the Political”, Routledge, 2005, p. 9
[5]https://kultura.bg/web/%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%BE-%D1%81%D0%B5-%D0%BD%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%85%D0%B0-%D0%BE%D1%81%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B5/- last visited on 15.01.2020  
[6] Here I am referring in particular to the famous work by the Serbian artist Mladen Stilinovic – An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, 1994  
[7] Vassileva, Maria, “The Export-Import project is an attempt to fill a gap in our knowledge of what is happening outside the country (and within). Also, to provoke public thinking towards rethinking the position towards these artists, who for more than 10 years have been the permanent face of Bulgaria before the world. ... And give these artists what they deserve here and now. So as they would not feel as if accommodated at a hotel in their own homeland.”, in the catalogue Export-Import. Contemporary Art from Bulgaria, 2003, published by Sofia City Art Gallery  
[8] Kyosev, Alexander, “Synthesis” Times. Theoretical Memories, in The Auntie from Göttingen, Figura publishing house, 2005, p. 24  
[9] A good definition of what was happening was provided by Lachezar Boyadzhiev – “’Neo-capitalism’ is that of the many ‘capitalisms’ that originated from late socialism, as it was known in the countries from the Socialist Bloc. More precisely, neo-capitalism is based on the post-socialist situation and its main issue – the reallocation of public ‘wealth’ (as it was) accumulated until 1989, the resolution of which was disguised as a redefinition of the concept of ‘property’, its legal guarantee and fiscal strengthening. For the construction of neo-capitalism, there is a plan, however ironic that may sound. In word – it is built on a specific model – that of the Western European market economy and parliamentary democracy. Indeed, it developed by its own logic of apparent decay, and actually by a hidden regrouping of elites, redistribution of property, entrenching in political/economic alliances, etc.”, Billboard Heaven (notes on the visual logic of early neo-capitalism), in Visual Seminar. Interface Sofia, compiled and edited Kyosev, Alexander, published by East-West, 2009  
[10] Todorov, Vladislav, Adam’s Complex, Ivan Vazov publishing house, 1991  
[11] Ruenov, Ruen, After Four Years, in the Sofia Underground 1997-2000 catalogue, Tasev &Co. publishing house, 2001, p. 8  
[12] Precarity (also precariousness) is a precarious existence, lacking in predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. The social class defined by this condition has been termed the precariat - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precarity - last visited on 22.01.2020   [13]https://www.dnevnik.bg/bulgaria/2019/04/01/3413296_koi_napravi_pametnik_na_boiko_borisov_video/ - last visited on 16.01.2020   [14] For example, such were the projects 9 Collages of a Mound as Metaphor (1993) by Lyuben Kostov or the project for cutting the building of the mausoleum of Vasil Simitchiev. For the latter, see Popova, Diana, What to Do, The Kultura newspaper, issue 31/1999; http://newspaper.kultura.bg/bg/article/view/2863 - last visited on 22.01.2020  
[15] A few years ago, the trailer for the film was screened within an exhibition by Dimitar Shopov. The whole film is about to be publicly screened.  
[16] Some publications on the subject: “For and against: ‘The bronze house in the place of the mausoleum!” - https://www.dnes.bg/sofia/2017/11/10/za-i-protiv-bronzova-kyshta-na-miastoto-na-mavzoleia.358832 - last visited on January 22, 2020 “The Bronze House that divided Sofia" - https://www.dw.com/bg/%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B7%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B0-%D0%BA%D1%8A%D1%89%D0%B0-%D0%BA%D0%BE%D1%8F%D1%82%D0%BE-%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B0-%D1%81%D0%BE%D1%84%D0%B8%D1%8F/a-41118406 - last visited on 22.01.2020 “The Bronze House Case” - https://whata.org/awards/%D0%BA%D0%B0%D0%B7%D1%83%D1%81%D1%8A%D1%82-%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BD%D0%B7%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B0-%D0%BA%D1%8A%D1%89%D0%B0/ - last visited on 22.01.2020  
[17] “The date December 14th was not chosen by chance, on that day in 1989 a multi-thousandth rally was held demanding the urgent repeal of Article 1 of the Constitution, which states that the leading role in the government of the country is that of the Communist Party.” https://btvnovinite.bg/bulgaria/mumija-se-pojavi-na-mjastoto-na-bivshija-mavzolej-v-sofija-snimki.html - last visited on January 16, 2020.  
[18] “There are many killed, properties are expropriated... without trial and conviction. There is no way that entire groups of society can hide behind the mask of anti-fascism. I don’t feel my hands bloody, it kind of made me feel relieved.” https://www.dnes.bg/obshtestvo/2019/09/09/kyrvava-bania-v-sofiia-za-9-septemvri-chestit-praznik-neblagodarnici.422194, - last visited on January 16, 2020.  
[19] A full recording of the debate can be seen following this link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4sasPhSjaQ&t=4s – last visited on 16.01.2020  
[20] Wikipedia - https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%B5%D1%82%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%BA_%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%A1%D1%8A%D0%B2%D0%B5%D1%82%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B0_%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%BC%D0%B8%D1%8F_%D0%B2_%D0%A1%D0%BE%D1%84%D0%B8%D1%8F - last visited on 16.01.2020  
[21] It was only in the last few years that this situation has begun to change. For the time being, this is happening mostly at municipal level, in the opening up of Sofia Municipality to the sphere of contemporary art and culture and the desire to integrate young generations into municipal culture policies. An example in this direction was the project to create a strategy for the development of the free stage Shared Vision. More about the strategy can be found here - https://www.sofia.bg/svobodna-scena-s - last visited on 22.01.2020  
[22] https://bgfundforwomen.org/bg/ - last visited on 17.01.2020  
[23] https://sofiaqueerforum.org/bg/ - last visited on 17.01.2020  
[24] https://levfem.org/about-us/ - last visited on 17.01.2020  
[25]https://plus359gallery.com/2019/05/09/%d0%b8%d0%bc%d0%b0-%d0%bd%d0%b5%d1%89%d0%be-%d0%b3%d0%bd%d0%b8%d0%bb%d0%be-%d0%b2-%d1%80%d0%b0%d1%8f/ - last visited on 22.01.2020  
[26] “Autonomy” in art usually means the idea of “art for art’s sake”, which does not reflect reality and is devoid of (practical) purposes beyond itself. Ideas for autonomous art can be found in Kant’s philosophy, the theoretical works of Theodor Adorno, etc.