Terms and memories - with elements of reasoning  

by Diana Popova

A long time ago I would joke that I wouldn't write history but memoirs for the history of contemporary art in Bulgaria. And the usefulness of memories is shown in Vesela Nozharova's book. It is clear that we all remember differently and based on our own experience and ideas, we interpret our memories in different ways. But as much as history is written by "overlapping" of individual memories - which usually do not find a spot in the articles that capture the events of the specific period - they can prove to be an important addition to its future research.

Terms and memories - with elements of reasoning  

First meeting

Targovishte, May 1986. I was sent by the Union of Bulgarian Artists to open an exhibition of an en plain air on painting if I'm correct. It was organised and financed by the hospital there, as Dimitar Grozdanov told me, which was unusual by itself. The exhibition was arranged in one of the old houses and there were these strange things in the yard: a white cube (pedestal) hanging on the vines, trails of white paper around it and some garlands here and there, I think. Happening! The artists made it after they arranged the exhibition. I remember Ivaylo Mirchev and Vladimir Penev with all the rest in this yard. I don't know if they participated, but they were clearly having fun with this art event. Then I went to an outdoor cáfe downtown to think over my speech but I couldn't think from all this excitement. All I could think about was "Finally, we got one too!!!" Because I knew what a "happening" was. And I knew thanks to Ivan Kirkov. In 1984 the Pulse newspaper tasked me with interviewing him. I had no idea at the time that he hated art critics but he allowed me in somehow - with the help of Andrey Daniel, who was his assistant in the Art Academy as I would later find out. During the meetings for the interview for the newspaper, I shared with Ivan Kirkov that the education on world art in the Art academy ends with post-impressionists and I was worried that I had no knowledge of nearly an entire century's worth of artistic development in the West. I should also note that in the isolated socialist Bulgaria, I only learned about rumours and legends in friendly circles, such as what Hristo Yavashev has done. I was a first-year student when I saw the exhibition The Artist at Work in America, which was fascinating - I still remember specific works and their locations in the halls at 6, Shipka Str. The problem was that I could not connect them to anything I knew here and they were made out to be pretty controversial for America itself. But I still felt as if there was some logic in their appearance, some line of development that led to here. I reassured myself that it would be made clear in the following years of my study at the Art Academy. But it wasn’t meant to be… So Ivan Kirkov gave me the book Modern Art - a big, voluminous, comprehensive book published in 1977, a gift from Christo as far as I remember, with a signature. It started from post-modernism. We agreed that I would translate it and I printed it in three copies - for me, for Ivan Kirkov and for colleagues who could be interested. The last and shortest chapter of the book talked about the newest events in art along with a certain scepticism on how lasting and important they would be. I also read about the "happening" in there and sort of learned what it was about... So in 1986, after returning to Sofia, I wrote an article on the happening, organised by Dimitar Grozdanov in Targovishte, for the Pulse newspaper, but it was never published. The ideological editorial of the newspaper stopped it because it did not accept the foreign word "happening".  

Second meeting

During the summer of 1986 I was sent to Dospat to open an exhibition by a youths' en plain air on painting. With my arrival Stefan Zarkov greeted me with the words: "We're excitedly waiting for you. We need an art critic!". I was stunned - for the first time ever, I heard an artist say he needed an art critic. "For what?", I asked. "To explain to the rest of us, what we're doing", he answered. And I need to clarify something here. In the plain air, along with the other artists, there were some of Ivan Kirkov's graduate students from 1985. I met them when he invited me to a lecture of his in the Doctor's garden, as far as I remember. Then I realized that art conversations were an important part of his teaching method. His students regarded him highly, as he stimulated their individuality; his course had over 20 people, many of which transferred to study under him - as they didn't want to become "Svetlin's boys". And one of Ivan Kirkov's disciples was Stefan Zarkov. He took me to the roof of the only high-rise apartment block in Dospat at the time. And there, on the floor among the bearing columns of the building, there was a 42-meter long paper snake made of pieces of cardboard glued together in a serpentine pattern. All over it, Stefan Zarkov, Iva Vladimirova (also from Ivan Kirkov's course) and the artist from Vidin Chavdar Petrov, drew various ornaments - expressive, with bright colours and I even remember a crow… Their idea was to glue pieces of Styrofoam together under the snake and let it flow in the Dospat dam lake - from a peninsula in the shape of a dinosaur. And that’s what happened. I watched them release the snake from the hill over the road along with the other artists participating in the en plain air. I don't know what I explained about what was happening there but coming back to Sofia, I prepared a publication about this happening in the Pulse newspaper as well. The pictures were not good, which is why I had Stefan Zarkov make a sketch to use as an illustration. And in order to have the article published, the dangerous word "happening" was replaced with "an artistic intervention in the natural environment". Which turned out to be a much more accurate description of what had happened at Dospat. And this is where I must give credit to Maria Vasileva, who as an editor at Pulse newspaper did her best to follow and publish articles about these new events in the Bulgarian art scene - in all their undefined glory at the time. And this newspaper as a youth organ for culture was the natural place for them.

When everything used to be a "happening"

... and fun. I was intrigued by the fact that in these first happenings - usually en plain air and symposiums outside the official city art locations - an initiator got some of his colleagues to participate. Dimitar Grozdanov was very active in that regard. But for most of the participants, the happenings were just a bit of fun, a momentary distraction from the "serious" art that they did. Which is why their participation was a one-time thing - this did not open a path of development for them. But the initiators knew what they were doing - or at least came close to it, based on travels and non-systematic experiences that provoked them (in the general sense). For example, Stefan Zarkov travelled to Paris and I presume that is where he received the inspiration for the “snake” in Dospat. Sasho Stoitsov recently told me that he had been to a symposium in a socialist country where a western colleague gave him a catalogue as a gift, which he brought back to Blagoevgrad and started “studying it”. Among the original ways of receiving information and knowledge, was the "Cuckoo" journal of Orlin Dvoryanov and Dobrin Peychev. In one of the issues of this self-publishing magazine were just the quotes of western authors, which Krastyo Goranov argued against in his Marxist-Leninist Aesthetic... The following case that I learned about from a then young sculptor, speaks about the situation in the middle of the 1980s. On a travel to Paris he saw a poster for an exhibition of Joseph Beuys, he knew the name and decided to check out his works. At the front of the hall, he thought it was under construction... and left. The bits of information, the uncertainty in their own limited knowledge, as well as the lack of support in the art practice in our country were the reasons the students themselves seemed to not be too convinced in what they were doing. Parallel to that there was the question of how to determine and define it. But anyway, the process had started, the events continued and were becoming more numerous around the country. And when the word "happening" finally broke through into the newspapers, it became a common name for them all. The term was fine as long as it helped audiences clearly define these events as different from the regular art forms, although the artists themselves had already started the differentiation. Working in groups of like-minded people gave its results, including the base of communication, the shared knowledge of acquired, although small, personal experience. Before continuing, I will note the further use of the word "happening" among the widening audience. Noting the initially unusual form of art in our country, it evolved into public parties with happenings (for example in the Kyustendil town square in 1988). After November 10th, 1989, there were pre-election meetings with happenings and at one point the political parties themselves started organizing happenings. Due to this, the (Ever) Young Artist’s Club at the start of 1990s took the decision that members who participated in political party happenings would do so in a private sense and not engage the club with them. And while the term "happening" was gaining more popularity in the society, the art circles were starting to create and differentiate activities and performances. To a large degree this was connected with the introduction of the new forms in the city environment and in galleries around the end of the 1980s.

First meeting with the performance

In fact, it was in Kyustendil. During a feast in the town square, there was a happening and a performance. To the sound of elephant jazz, the artist Rumen Sazdov painted elephants on large canvases. And then on a nearby platform, Asen Ushev's performance began. Due to the large crowd, I was standing far and could not see or hear well – mainly I got it that it was a staged play, performed by actors. Later, Stela Ivanova wrote about the event and I believe that this was the first time the word performance appeared in the pages of the Pulse newspaper as well. At that time I was translating, for personal and public use, the book Performance Art by RoseLee Goldberg. It had been published recently, Stanislav Pamukchiev had brought it from England and I was happy he gave it to me. (By the way, in 1992, when I had brought it to the Culture newspaper, as Nikola Vandov wanted to find a publisher and to have it published in Bulgaria, the book disappeared from my desk. Someone just took it. The only things left were the chapters I had translated in a hurry and not too well, which were still helpful to some colleagues, including those engaged with theatre.) The book traced the development of the performance, starting from the exhibits and beliefs of the Dadaists and Futurists, through events organized in the 1950s, through Fluxus in the 1960s and etc., expanding the scope of performance at the borders of theatre, dance, music... Of course, happening was referred to as well. And in all the definitions of happening I have read, the one given by Allan Kaprow - the first to use the word in 1959 - is the most accurate for me: "a happening is something that happens, so that it can happen", thus underlining the playful and improvisation moment in it. Yes, I thought, we have this experience here as well now. But for performance, this was not the case. Its lack in Bulgarian art practice I sensed mainly in the translation. In the book, certain important events were described so well that a person could clearly understand what happened and why, what the idea was and how it was implemented. But when that perception is simply theoretical, important moments are lost in the understanding of this kind of art itself, and of its effect. I remember well a performance in the book - "Waterfall". It was described as erected scaffolding, where performers would bring up water containers. And then the "water goes down" - was the laconic end of the description. And there I went in throes: how exactly did it go down, did they flow it out, did they throw away the containers or did they hand them back down the scaffolding?... I consulted people who were more proficient in English than I was, how would they translate it, but they could not tell me either. Because the problem did not lie in the English language but in the event unknown for our country. And when this event occurred, every now and then it would be named inaccurately. For example, the so called happening organized by two families of painters - Elena and Yordan Parushevi and Dimitrina and Alexander Doychinovi – at the Gallery in Sliven in 1989 was more of a performance. The three of them (Elena Parusheva was sick then) had created a structure of nylon, in which they, dressed in nylon suits, drew religious and ideological symbols on the walls, including a five-point star as far as I remember, after which they cut them through and stepped out through the outlines. I mention this work, because it took place in the public gallery. Towards the end of the 1990s, most events of this kind in galleries or exhibition halls were regarded as performances, while open-air events in urban environment continued to be commonly called happenings. To some extent this depended on the popularity the word had gained with the press hence it did not need to be explained to the journalists any longer, and in some cases it depended on the level of knowledge and understanding authors themselves had about what they were doing. This knowledge and understanding was certainly present in Albena Mihaylova’s creative work, in her performances from the end of the 1980s to the start of the 1990s: some ritually precious and, say, "feminine", while in others she interpreted the self-identification in the closed system of the socialist camp (such as those she presented in the Land and Sky exhibition in October 1989). Vencislav Zankov also shined brightly on the performance stage with his series Red in 1990-91. The use of blood formally referenced Hermann Nitsch - and indirectly for the work of these arts, which the artists in our country were quickly adapting to. Orlin Dvoryanov was also active in performances since the start of the 1990s - they were well thought out but may be a bit too long and monotonous and in their length the effect was lost. (I should note that some of our performances included other performers, and the question of whether it was participation or co-authorship was usually unclear in the beginning. And that was true not only for the performances but for other collaborative works as well. In the enthusiasm of those times, even the authorship of the idea was sometimes lost for the sake of the common action. Some of the issues found their answers years later, while for some disputes continue to this day.) In regards to the terms, I remember the following symptomatic conversation from the start of 1990. Daniela Nenova and some young photographers, who recently formed the Yes group, were preparing their contribution to the 10x10x10 exhibition. It was a platform and a screen, with slides of abstract photography to be projected on the screen and on a beautiful naked girl who would be dancing or at least performing exquisite moves and poses in front of the screen. Daniela Nenova claimed this was "kinetic photography", while Orlin Dvoryanov tried to convince her it was body art. Then the conversation was quickly shifted to more specific issues, as at the last moment the girl decided she did not want to be completely naked and appeared at the performance in white panties covering her up to her waist. This definitely ruined the idea, but the picture that was published later was effective as the panties were gone. The Yes group later decided to rename themselves to the Performance group. Which reminds me that I myself did a performance at one point - The Spirit of Manzoni - in 1991. It was artistic and educational, so to say, although I am not sure it was perceived as such. It was based on several exhibitions and actions by Piero Manzoni in 1961. "MANZONI'61" was written on three cardboard posters on the wall and on three stands in front them there were three motionless figures lying and sitting. Orlin Dvoryanov, playing the role of the spirit of Manzoni, draws the signature of the artist with a felt-tip pen on different spots on the bodies. Then the first figure "awakens", goes to the posters and turns the first of them. The sign ZONI'61 remains. Then they wake the second one, who turns the second poster and all that's left visible is I'61; after that the third figure turns the third poster. "The Spirit of Manzoni" appears and writes on the posters "The white surface is nothing more than white surface." After that a recording is played with a short biographical note on Piero Manzoni and the celebratory announcement of "Dedicated to the 30 year anniversary of the first youth art exhibition in Sofia". To me, this was an important contrast between art events in Bulgaria and in the West at the time. In 1961, at this youth exhibition, the so called April generation of artists appeared who overcame the naturalism and ideological literalism, so to say, of the socialist realism of the 1950s. They faced great opposition, accusations and harsh criticism - and for works that today we cannot even imagine how anyone could have been considered provocative. Such as Ivan Kirkov's "Garden", which is a small picture with an idyllic scene of two lovers on a bench in the park. It provoked the critics at the time with the fact the figures of the lovers were painted in the same manner as the busts of the monuments in the alley - how was this acceptable!?! There is no comparison more proper of those two worlds at the time than this - the compromised rebellion of the artists in the socialist camp and the challenges of the artists in the “free world” during 1961. It reminded me of the development which the Bulgarian art had missed due to its isolation and which it was "catching up" at a rapid pace in 1991.

The artists and critics

By the way, the Spirit of Manzoni is the last work I did. I participated more out of solidarity in some exhibitions at the Club of (ever) Young Artists with installations and conceptual works, which were generally poor. The only successful and important co-authorship was with Dobrin Peychev - "A Project for Transforming the Monument of the Soviet Army into CAMA (Centre for Avant-Garde and Modern Art)" from the year 1991. I wrote the text and he made the visual part. I am no good as an artist and I knew that from the start. It is not enough for someone to be able to draw well in order to be an artist, and I just do not have that mindset. The new forms tempted other artists and critics to artistic presentations. I mostly regretted the fact we lost Luchezar Boyadzhiev as a critic then, but contemporary art definitely won an impressive artist in him. Either way, in 1991 I realized that we, the critics involved with the new art forms, were becoming fewer and fewer and the job we had to do was growing. At the end of the year I wrote the first, as it turned out, contemporary art critic article. "What is Hindering the Avant-Garde Party" was published at the start of 1992 in the Pulse newspaper.

End of Part I. 

Diana Popova, 2019