A young woman walks towards the centre of a circular, cavernous yet decrepit interior. As she looks around – and she takes her time doing so, we see crumbling mosaics and vandalised sculptures guarding a vanquished glory that has since disintegrated into semi-oblivion. Her voice rings out, clear and crisp, bouncing off the walls of the deserted auditorium. Dressed in multi-coloured ribbons and donning bejewelled head wear, she evokes a pastiche of a folkloric past. Her eyes raised upwards in demure rapture, she emanates a sense of innocence, purity, religious fervour even, as if judged by a surrounding panel of appraisers and an audience which includes communist luminaries such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Dimitar Blagoev, Todor Zhivkov and Georgi Dimitrov. Slowly, the dilapidated structure fades out and fades into a much more contemporary form of ostentatiousness. She finds herself in an empty nightclub, its predominant colours black and bronze, the ceiling a tacky fresco to top off a pervasive aura of über-kitsch. The blacks and golds imply a luxurious lavishness that can't seem to shed its atmosphere of trashy, turbo-Baroque. As the folk-song continues, an unmistakeable house-beat drones on repetitively in the background. Dancing forlornly to the repetitive drone, her eyes are clouded over in a studied, bored sexiness that fits perfectly to her kitsch surroundings.
Balkan Idol (2015)  by Bulgarian artist Gery Georgieva is a fascinating music video. Not only does it impress because of its fine quality and professional production value, but also because it juxtaposes two very different yet both significantly defining socio-aesthetic schemes from Bulgaria's very recent history. By socio-aesthetic schemes we mean dominant systems or regimes that combine a plethora of socio-cultural, ideological, political, economic and indeed aesthetic ontologies that underwrite a specific symbolic language which in turn generates certain sets of fantasies and desires. Georgieva's Balkan Idol appears as a contest between the pompous grandiosity of Bulgarian Socialism versus the magnetic – albeit decidedly and brutally low-brow – allure of the Bulgarian Chalga scene. Chalga music, Bulgaria's persistently popular version of 'ethno'-pop since the very early nineties, seems to mostly celebrate a performative pop culture of light entertainment; silicone beauties, flashy rides, bad-boy bling, wads of cash and the pleasure of luxurious – and arguably pointless – consumption. As such, Chalga socio- aesthetics are the complete antithesis of the types of hopes and dreams that Bulgarian Socialism aspired to. Nonetheless, it does share some striking parallels with Bulgaria's particular brand of Socialism and the spectacular, resplendently symbolic and monumental architecture it gave birth to. Both socio- aesthetic schemes 'borrow' liberally from what they present to be 'authentic' Bulgarian folk culture and history. Both also transmute an expatriate blueprint (e.g. Russian Communism versus Turkish Arabesque or Serbian Turbo-folk) into the Bulgarian context. By fusing notions of modernity and folklore, past, present and future, national and international culture and economy, they try respectively to pass-off this mish-mash as a truly, authentic and idiosyncratic cultural idiom. Both also relentlessly push their socio-aesthetic agenda in an effort to sell their respective phantasms to the largest common denominator of the Bulgarian public (in the case of the Chalga socio-aesthetic scheme, I suppose the word 'consumers' would be appropriate). That, in our humble opinion, is what Gery is hinting at in her richly layered piece. And we do need to be humble in our opinions, for we, the authors, could arguably be described as whimsical, albeit culturally-inclined, tourists. Uninformed though we may be, we were immediately taken by the piece and the plethora of associations that the video gives rise to. It intriguingly collates Soc-Brutalist, monumental architecture and the era that it represents on the one hand, with the celebration of ephemeral vulgarity that Chalga sub-culture evokes, on the other.
All Bulgarians will immediately recognise the auditorium that Georgieva performs in as Buzludzha, or the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludzha. Inaugurated in 1981, the Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party, the forerunner of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Its most astonishing feature is its form; which can only be described as a Brutalo-Cosmist, extra-terrestrial flying saucer, behind which stands an imposing 70-metre tower with at its very top a gargantuan, synthetic ruby-glass star. Many Bulgarians will probably and quite understandably be more than a little tired of foreign tourists waxing loquacious on its awesomeness, but then again, it really is awe-inspiring! Probably the most dramatic of Bulgaria's socialist architecture, it is a favourite among Instagrammers, travel-bloggers and Soc-stalgic fetishists, and we, the authors, admittedly fall into the same category. Obviously, Bulgarian contemporary artists, intellectuals and other actors of socio-cultural and political critique, have dealt with these hulking structures on much more complex levels. And it is precisely this arena of creative activism, visual critique and historical reflection that our current essay aims to deal with. But before we get into that, let us briefly introduce ourselves.
Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Mount Buzludja, from the series "Forget Your Past", 2009.
One half of us, the Marie Bromander half, is an avid researcher with a penchant for Swedish diligence and a fascination for the interaction between people and space, who wrote her Master's thesis Socialism’s Useless Material Legacy? - the symbiotic relation between the human subject and space in 2012. The other half of our present authorial attempt is Sebastian Rypson, a cultural anthropologist of Polish extraction, whose particular guilty pleasure is photography of elegant Modernist lines and Brutalist concrete geometry. Together, based on that thesis and a shared fetish for concrete, we co-curated an exhibition in Amsterdam in 2012 and a couple of years later wrote an article on the subject of Bulgaria's socialist monuments. As such, we have had the privilege to have been able to work with several Bulgarian artists as pertains to this specific subject matter. Perhaps not as consistently as we might've liked, nonetheless, these interactions have afforded us the opportunity to glean a little more insight and generate a whole lot of fascination into the complex dynamics that Bulgaria's socialist past brings out in public discourse. Subsequently, as a result of the above, Bulgarian curator Vera Mlechevska contacted us and asked us to expand upon our previous article and include a number of rather fantastic works and ways in which contemporary Bulgarian artists have dealt with their monumental heritage. Some of them are visually spectacular whereas others are more conceptual in the way they deal with Bulgaria's monumental history. All works that Vera so kindly drew our attention to, utilise these monuments (not all of them Socialist or Brutalist) as extremely potent symbols through which they comment on Bulgaria's past, present and future, it's realities as well as its phantasms.
Arguably, no-one has been more instrumental in unlocking the subversive potential of the Bulgarian socialist monument than Nedko Solakov. It is fitting that we mention him here then, if only for his participation in the Earth and Sky group-exhibition. This extremely important show was curated by Diana Popova and Georgi Todorov in 1989 at Sofia's Shipka 6 Gallery, on the rooftop of the building of The Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA). One of the first avant-garde contemporary art exhibitions in Bulgaria, Solakov's piece, entitled View to the West, consisted of a telescope directed at the Red Star on top of the Party Headquarters in Sofia. This astutely simple gesture gave the impression that this iconic symbol was obstructing the view to what, several weeks before the fall of State Socialism, must have seemed to be an imminent and inexorable path to a promised, Western future (whatever to whomever that may have meant). View to the West represented a daringly subversive act towards a highly recognisable symbol of a reality that was already in the process of implosion. As a piece of politically relevant (yet still rather subtle) critique at the time, the UBA refused to advertise the show. Rumour has it that the intelligence service even went so far as to (partially) dismantle the piece, stealing the bronze plaque with the work's title as well as the guest-book. Solakov – incidentally the leader of the Club of the (eternally) Young Artists (C(e)YA) and the UBA's nemesis – is a crucial artist whose artistic and critical output reaches way beyond the parameters of this essay. What interests us here, however, is his utilisation of a recognisable monument as a legible symbol for a systemic reality whose dominant narrative just begs to be critiqued.
This essay's aim is to focus on the myriad and highly creative ways that Bulgarian artists, like Solakov, have engaged with the multitude of monuments that dot the Bulgarian landscape and often-times dominate its city-scapes. The question, of course, that immediately arises is “Why do so many Bulgarian contemporary artists create works that focus on these monuments?” And we do mean monuments, as opposed to examples of public art that are more ambiguous in their intentions and possible interpretations. Monuments in general possess the innate quality that there is a sheer physicality to them. Often centrally located, they are an unavoidable physical presence that we simply must go around in order to get from A to B. Meant to impress, their visual spectacularity aims to draw crowds and inspire awe at times of ritualised remembrance. Symbolically, they are meant to convey a narrative, often an historical memorialisation that is state-sanctioned, aspires to be dominant, and one that necessarily condenses and simplifies historical complexities to the point of simple, reductionist dualities (e.g. hero or victim, victory or tragedy, past and/or future, etc). Moreover, monuments are generally publicly expensive spatial interventions and, as such, one is safe to assume that there are vested
interests involved in both their construction and location. Finally, after the heavy symbolism of inaugurating these types of memorials and all is said and done, it always remains to be seen how the monuments actually function within their chosen spatial contexts. What we mean by this is how, aside from organised memorial rituals, monuments become used by the public at large, in their day-to-day hustles and bustles. Do they inspire reverence, mirth or animosity? Do they remain strikingly spectacular or do they become, somehow, invisible? Are they inclusively ambiguous in their potential for the public to project its own narratives onto them or are they rather more oppressive in their narrational symbolism. Are they closed off to the public or are they more accessible for people to do with them what they will? As our fetish for socialist monuments was our starting point, we will focus more on the specific works of art by contemporary Bulgarian artists that utilise them in some way. However, as there are several exceptionally astute works of art that deal with the issue of monuments in general, collective memory and discursive symbolism, we make some exceptions and expand our horizon to other monuments that have been the butt of artistic treatments, stunts or interventions.
One thought-provoking example of how monuments work in their specific contexts, or rather, if a monument is taken out of its localised context is Stefan Nikolaev's Monument to Monument from 2003. This was a filmed, and somewhat logistical performance whereby Nikolaev physically had a statue removed of Christo Botev, the late 19th century Bulgarian revolutionary hero and national poet, from its pedestal in Vratza, Bulgaria. Botev proceeded to travel to the town of Chur in Switzerland, and was placed directly facing the monument to one Benedikt Fontana, the 15th century religious/political martyr of Graubünden. Nikolaev does something interesting here, when it comes to the conception of what monuments should be and do. By placing the two 'national' figures together in silent yet ironically audible conversation, he shows that true heroic monuments always need their own space. A space from whence they can be presented to launch their heroic deeds and proclaim their inspired truths. In Chur, however, it seemed as if both Botev and Fontana were babbling out their antagonisms at each other, irritated at the other's incomprehension of both the content and urgency of their respective arguments. Their heroism was, by the striking simplicity of Nikolaev's intervention, relegated to the nationalistic banalities that are doubtlessly the reason for most monuments' very existence.
An exemplary illustration of how context can be subverted when it comes to Neo-Renaissance style monuments is On Vacation (2004 – 2011), a series of work by seminal artist Luchezar Boyadjiev. Zooming in on that most martial tradition of heroic monuments – the equestrian statue – Boyadjiev photographs the heroes on their horses in the urban environment they were once ceremoniously placed, then proceeds to digitally erase the human rider from the statue. One is left, then, with just the horse. And to be fair; what can one have against horses? Horses symbolise loyalty, perseverance, gracefulness. Without their sabre-rattling swashbucklers, they are quite harmless and are rather pleasant to have grazing on our public squares. Instead of militaristic equestrian statues they become, simply, amicable equine statues.
On Vacation…. Simon Bolivar from New York, 2004.
- Material: digital print on paper
- Width: 60.00 cm Height: 80.00 cm Depth: cm
- Description: 2004 – in progress
The work is based on a simple gesture of digitally removing (and thus symbolically sending on vacation) the human figures from the photographic images of an endless number of public monuments from cities all over the world. It implies a personal involvement with globalization… By erasing the, predominantly male, figure of a political leader, historical character, military commander, or a royal subject, etc. the proposed idea is to liberate public space from political tensions even for a short while and in the context of a work of visual art.
- References: http://sariev-gallery.com/data/content/u/5/upload/LB_On%20vacation(1).pdf
The template for all equestrian statues, from Venetian Renaissance onwards, is the lone remaining Roman-era (circa 175 AD) one of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. In his textual elicitation, Boyadjiev writes that by removing the hero(ine)s off their horses, he “...sends them on vacation”. It is an appealing idea and one that Boyadjiev visualises very effectively. Our reading though, tantalised as we were, was rather the reverse. By freeing the horse from its historical-heroic load we imagine that Boyadjiev is, in fact, granting the horses a vacation. He liberates them from their historical context, their masters who rode them into this battle or that, and from the heroic narrative that was so forcefully imprinted upon them. They are now free to roam the public squares, munch on shoots of grass and feel the wind in their manes. The public then, is left not only to appreciate the intrinsic elegance of these benign beasts but, more to the point, to ponder the absence of the heroic narratives that are the raison d'être for these types of monuments. In short, he disrobes the statues of their deliberate heroism and relieves them of their oppressive political and generally militaristic portrayals. The public now has a much more open forum to project their ideas onto. Boyadjiev entreats us “not to blame the animals” , and he does so with poignancy. By taking away the politically charged narrative that was responsible for each and every historical-heroic equestrian statue, he renders the horses that had to do all the heavy lifting in the first place, blameless, benign and graceful in their docility.
The equestrian theme comes back in Vikenti Komitski's piece I wish I was that cool from 2010. On the pedestal of an equestrian statue of Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki, realised in 1974 by sculptor Evangelos Moustakas, Komitski superimposed the eponymous text “I WISH I WAS THAT COOL” in a stark black font. And what boy wouldn't want to be that cool? To start with, you have at least two countries, Greece and Macedonia, squabbling over the right to claim you for their own. Meanwhile, you sit regally on your rearing horse, cape flying, short sword at the ready, about to conquer the ancient world. This is the epitome of mighty cool, we agree,.. with a little ironic humour thrown in for good measure.
Hello Lenin, 2003.
- Photographer: Vasilena Gankovska
- Material: photography, video
- Property of: Kamen Stoyanov
- Description: The series of photographs Hello Lenin (2003) is a documentation of a performance
Kamen Stoyanov did in his hometown Rousse in Bulgaria in the summer of 2003. It
shows him climbing on an empty pedestal, whose statue had been removed in 1990 . Formerly, the statue of Lenin was placed here. Stoyanov wanted to demonstrate how the statue had disappeared but not its ideology; it has just been replaced by a new one.
- Copyright: Kamen Stoyanov
Kamen Stoyanov actually does become 'that cool'. In Hello Lenin (2003), on the pedestal of a since- toppled figure of Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov in the city of Ruse, Stoyanov is filmed as he has clambered on top and stands proudly, roughly in the same pose as Lenin, donning a signature mariner's cap yet also wearing baggy shorts and a raggedy, oversized T-shirt. Although a simple re-enactment, Stoyanov does achieve two things. For one, for at least a few minutes, he literally takes Lenin's place and thus, does indeed assume the iconic grandiosity of this most recognisable of Communist luminaries. Secondly and satirically, he of course can never attain Lenin's fame or infamy, he is not made of bronze, granite or concrete and thus, he never will never be “that cool”, for he is not Lenin – obviously and thankfully. In fact, by the very flippancy of his standing there, where once Lenin gazed eternally into a glorious future, Stoyanov mocks the iconisation of the man and his immortalised gestures, relegating the sanctimoniousness of Socialism's iconography to a clownesque travesty of religiosity. At the same time he appears to demonstrate that the removal of one ideological symbol has only made place for the ascendancy of another.
Perhaps not full circle, but we have come back to our main focus in this essay; socialist monuments, you may remember (and we would forgive you if you didn't). To recap, we started out with Gery Georgieva who performs in a monument, we then continued with Nedko Solakov who dealt with obstruction by a monument. Stefan Nikolaev transplanted a monument from one context to another, while Luchezar Boyadjiev erased their heroic load. Vikenti Komitski wished he could be as cool as one, and finally Kamen Stoyanov, who actually became one. We wish now to divert your attention to an intriguing and visually effective piece that figures within an exceptionally impressive socialist monument, namely Bratska Mogila in Plovdiv.
Weekend 2126 – The Smolyanovs, a work by Bulgarian artist duo Missirkov / Bogdanov from 2008 reveals an extended family in the act of an obscure ritual within what appears to be a futuristic pagan temple.
The work compounds various prevalent mass-cultural associations and notions. On the one hand, the ritualised staging of the subjects evokes a pre-Christian religiosity. On the other, the title, the setting's enhanced sterility and the use of low-budget props – especially the silver-coloured costumes that the Smolyanovs are wrapped in – recall low-budget sci-fi films from the 60s and 70s. It is the structure within which the scene unfolds however, that commands just as much attention as the space-age human subjects inside it. One could hardly imagine a more fitting cinematographic set for this scene of an imagined, and glibly ironic, retro-futuristic narrative. This dramatic backdrop was not specifically tailored for this staged photographic image, however. It actually exists, as you might imagine, and has done so for the past 40 years.
Bratska Mogila – or, as it is officially called; the Mound of Fraternity Memorial Complex – is an other-worldly, seemingly displaced structure on the outskirts of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Its giant concrete slabs, tilted at two different angles towards the centre of the structure, recall a geometric, nearly space-age version of what a Thracian or traditional Slavic burial mound might have looked like. Within its submerged interior, surrounding what used to be an eternal flame, nine sculptural compositions have been placed representing the struggles of ‘three generations of resistance fighters’; namely, against the Ottomans in the 19th century, the September Uprising of 1923 by the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP), and finally, the anti-Fascist resistance fighters between 1941 and 1944.
Designed by architects Lyubomir Shinkov and Vladimir Rangelov, Bratska Mogila was inaugurated in 1974 for the 30th anniversary of the victory of the socialist revolution in Bulgaria. From 1974 to 1989 it functioned as a site for official, annual celebrations with massive crowds flocking to the monument on such days as the Day of Bulgarian Heroes (June 2nd). On a more personal level of remembrance, newly- weds, tourists and groups of school children would have their pictures taken in front of this brutalist structure. A departure from the purely socialist subject matter that was a hallmark of Bulgarian public monuments from the mid 1940s until well into the 1960s, Bratska Mogila is a prime example of the symbiosis of reaffirmation of socialist values on the one hand, with a more nationalistic, revisionist Bulgarian historiography. This idiosyncratic brand of revivalism was instigated by Lyudmila Zhivkova, after her ascendancy as de facto leader of Bulgaria’s Committee of Art and Culture from 1972 until her death in 1981. After the implosion of state socialism in 1989, like the large majority of Bulgaria’s more than 150 public memorials, Bratska Mogila fell into disuse and disrepair. As with the ideology they embodied and the recent history they represented, most of these structures were abandoned and their ownership – as well as their legitimacy – disputed.
Nowadays, Plovdiv’s residents continue to use the grounds around Bratska Mogila (the structure itself now officially off-limits to the general public) as a recreational area; young parents pushing along their baby prams, couples strolling hand-in-hand whispering sweet nothings, and the elderly, warming their bones in the sunshine and reminiscing about days gone by. Less socially accepted perhaps, Plovdiv’s youth have claimed Bratska Mogila as a favoured night-time spot for low-budget, adolescent pastimes such as skateboarding, smoking joints, drinking and flirting with each other. The monument’s slanted walls are crumbling and covered in graffiti now, with scrawled swastikas, spray-painted profanity, name tags and occasional white paint-overs jostling for supremacy.
These absent-minded forms of daily usage represent a significant re-appropriation of these symbols of former state hegemony, as they reflect their radically changed status. However, they are being dealt with on more conscious, observational and analytical levels by somewhat more specialised strata of civic actors, such as academics and contemporary visual artists.
At the tail end of 2012 we curated the exhibition Socialism’s Material Residue – legitimacy & (re)appropriation of Bulgaria’s socialist monuments at Gallery WM in Amsterdam. Socialism’s Material Residue focused on Bulgaria’s monumental socialist structures and sculptures and their use today, since they have outlived the political period that they were supposed to represent. It sought to explore issues of spatial discourse, politics, legitimacy and (re)appropriation surrounding existing socialist monuments in a post- socialist era. Aside from the quality of their work, the relatively unobtrusive, non-politicised and ambiguous manner in which they chose to deal with Bulgaria’s socialist inheritance prompted us to invite five Bulgarian artists – Georgi Bogdanov, Neli Georgieva, Nikola Mihov, Boris Missirkov and Krassimir Terziev – to participate in the exhibition.
Forming the bulk of the exhibition in Amsterdam, Nikola Mihov’s stark, black & white photographic series Forget Your Past is an impressive, reactive attempt at remembrance of a legacy that many in Bulgaria have actively tried to forget. Travelling throughout the country, interviewing sculptors, architects and ordinary citizens, he traced the history of the monuments, collected archival material and, of course, took photographs. Austere, melancholic and faintly nostalgic, his often frontal, realistic documentation and minute attention to historical veracity resulted in an eponymous publication in 2012. Forget Your Past reveals some of the most impressive monuments built during the socialist era in Bulgaria. A haunting testimony to the monuments’ faded and failed grandeur, Mihov’s intentions seem to be an attempt at bridging a negligent present with a discarded past; a Quixotean rejection of collective amnesia and indifference. The series includes such Soc-Realist specimens as the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia (1954), Burgas (1954) and Plovdiv (1957), brutalist megaliths like the Monument to the Resistance in Vidin (1963), and ‘revivalist’, Zhivkova-era memorials such as Plovdiv’s afore- mentioned Bratska Mogila (1974) and the grandiose Memorial House of the Bulgarian Communist Party (1981) atop Mount Buzludzha. The title of Mihov’s project is a direct reference to this last monument; above its entrance an anonymously scrawled graffito in giant red lettering presciently reads: Mihov's book, incidentally, figured in a performative piece within artist Anton Terziev's 200% Pure Past in 2015. In the video, one sees Terziev glueing the book together, page by page, until he finally produces a hermetically sealed brick of book. Created during the heated debate that raged surrounding the impending demolition of the 1300 Years of Bulgaria monument, Terziev appears to imply that by dismantling this admittedly controversial monument, the general public as well as the powers that be were relegating the uncomfortable historical narrative that the monument represents to a 200% pure past. Although we are by no means certain of Terziev's intentions with his work, the word play on Mihov's title is undeniable.
Time and again, the question of what to do with Bulgaria's Socialist monuments keeps recurring in the work of Bulgarian contemporary artists. Undoubtedly as result of the large number of memorials and the gargantuan scale of many of them, the question won't disappear any time soon. To restore or destroy, renovate or demolish, redeem or leave to rot? More often than not, after the Transition, Bulgarian authorities have opted for benign negligence and incremental deterioration. The value of these monuments, although heatedly debated by the more consciously engaged strata of Bulgarian society, is, nonetheless, often-times left as a question for later by Bulgarian authorities, both locally and nationally. Practicalities, such as the question of ownership, budget, day-to-day issues and treaties are often invoked as reasons for leaving things as they are. Dereliction and procrastination are, then, the sad consequence.
Perched on top of Turna hill, overlooking the seaside town of Varna, the massive Monument Park to Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship was finalised in 1978, vaguely resembling two hands interlocked in stone- carved solidarity. Its massive wings bear four helmeted Soviet soldiers on one side, and three welcoming Bulgarian women in folk costumes on the other. Designed by architect Kamen Goranov and sculptors Alyosha Kafedzhiyski and Evgeni Baramov, the behemoth included 10,000 tons of concrete and 1000 tons of armature iron. Grim and forbidding, this mass of concrete, steel and stone is the subject of another artist video, Trace(1) (2008) by Neli Georgieva, as part of a larger European project of the same name that has tried to evaluate the hereditary value of monuments from the socialist period and how to integrate them into contemporary space. In a subtly sympathetic way, Georgieva’s documentary focuses on the monument’s present state, identity, cultural memory, and how to integrate its history with the present. The artist interviews academics, scientists and citizens who recount their memories and give their opinion about the monument; its construction and function during socialist- and post-socialist times. Tellingly, Georgieva comes across a group of adolescents, idling high upon the star-emblazoned helmets of the Soviet soldiers, who “unanimously declare that [they] know absolutely nothing about this monument.” As implied above, Varna's authorities have chosen the route of inadvertent abandonment. However, echoing the apolitical and subdued tone of her work, one of the interviewed sculptors of the monument, Alyosha Kafedjiyskij, prophetically argues that “time decides the true value of things”.
Within the exhibition at Gallery WM, we included another insightful video work that kept us fascinated; Monu-mental from 2011. Here, contemporary artist and visual anthropologist Krassimir Terziev observes a public space that is popular among Sofia’s youth, namely, the Monument to the Soviet Army. Throughout his artistic research, Terziev investigates the role of urban space in cultural and socio-economic practices, as well as the presence and absence of memory in the spatial praxis of the city’s inhabitants, i.e. how people use, abuse and appropriate public space. Monu-mental shows us how the dilapidated monument has become a fixture in the urban structure of the city, where its residents have colonised the site in habitual ways and, by doing so, turn them into personalised memories. Terziev combines the rather opaque visual scenes with added audio samples taken from drama films, implanting an ambience of tension into his work. Despite the undeniable physical presence of the monument, its ideological aura has been emasculated, its inscriptions of power rescinded, and thus, rendered absent. This juxtaposition of presence and absence, of dramatic sonic codes and mundane imagery, creates an atmosphere of suspense; this is a site where anything can happen, and quite a number of events did happen.
Situated in a park in the heart of the city, this Monument to the Soviet Army was inaugurated in 1954 in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution in Bulgaria and became one of its landmarks, used in state-organised celebrations as well as for recreation and leisure. Approaching the memorial complex, one encounters two free-standing sculptural compositions depicting the Bulgarians’ joy at the Soviet army’s victorious campaign of liberation. The centrepiece is a 37-metre high pillar with a statue of a Soviet soldier on top, machine-gun in hand, raised towards the heavens. He is flanked by a male and a female figure with her child, embodying the working proletariat and the peasantry, respectively. The pillar stands atop a stair-cased platform, its base framed by three bronze bas-reliefs displaying Russia’s October Revolution, various momentous battles from WWII, and the Herculean effort of the post-war reconstruction. The monument itself – or rather the aura that surrounds it, despite being centrally located along a wide busy thoroughfare, is dominated by a feeling of emptiness. The wide open spaces surrounding the monument have become especially inviting for skate-boarders, breakdancers and hip-hoppers which, although gainful subcultural pastimes in themselves, give the complex a rather forlorn and godforsaken aspect.
One of – if not – the earliest, more seriously conceptualised projects to have arisen from the debate about what to do with this centrally located monument and its surrounding grounds, was designed by Diana Popova and Dobrin Peichev in 1991. It suggested removing the bas-reliefs and sculptures to a basement under the monument and incorporating the pedestals and grounds surrounding it to form a new Centre for Avant-Garde and Modern Art (CAMA or TsAMI). The designs consisted of sketches and blueprints for the construction of this new centre, also in the form of a publication in Puls newspaper. This piece of action art was a poignant reminder of the fact that Bulgaria still did not have a centre of contemporary or non-conventional art.
A radical if more symbolic approach was proposed by Lyuben Kostov in 1993, who suggested gradually burying the controversial site with earth, and thence aiming to cool the heated rhetoric surrounding it. In essence, Kostov tried to soothe the historical trauma by creating a poultice-like mound, reminiscent perhaps of the Thracian or Slavic mogilas that dot the Bulgarian landscape. A highly symbolic burial of the recent past, 9 Collages on a Common Grave as a Metaphor had, at heart, a very future-oriented slant as Kostov imagined future generations excavating the mound who could then, dispassionately, decide whether the archaeological artefacts entombed within would merit conservation or not.
Undoubtedly because of its potency as a symbol of Soviet hegemony in Bulgaria, the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia became a natural focal point for street protests in the immediate aftermath of Bulgaria's transition from a socialist country to a nominally democratic and wildly capitalistic free-for- all. A jubilant and quite cheeky celebration of the carnivalesque ensued, with the public revelling in the playful vandalism of heretofore venerable and vigilantly guarded symbols of the 'old' order.
The bas-relief designed by sculptor Vasil Zidarov, on the Western side of the monument, depicts Soviet soldiers in the act of attacking their foes. And it is this specific bas-relief that has borne the brunt of some of the loudest and most visually explicit controversies in the public discourse regarding the fate of Bulgaria’s socialist monuments. Repeatedly targeted, with both paint and graffiti by the more playful strata of Bulgaria’s activists and artists, this bas-relief has had an especially tumultuous life in Bulgarian socio-political critique. During a demonstration at the monument, one of these spontaneous civic 'interventions' comprised an act of defacement, whereby four elements were painted in the colours blue, red, green and yellow. We're not completely sure, but the colours could have been references to both Bulgaria's tri-colour as well as to the colour of the UDF union of opposition parties. This act of playful vandalism was photographically documented by the artist (Sveto)Zara Alexandrova. Based on this documentation, she executed a frontal oil painting of said bas-relief in 1999. It is monochromatic except for the colouristic embellishments, thereby immortalising it in a, presumably cleaner, more polished form. Hence, the painting became a stylised representation not simply of the bas-relief itself, but of the civic unruliness that was characteristic of the time, in a visual language that is presumably legible to those Bulgarians who had been witness to the street protests, in jubilation at the fall of the Communist government and in celebration of the absurd.
Another artist who has depicted the Monument to the Soviet Army is Vasilena Gankovska. In a particularly broad-stroked city-scape, she depicts the ubiquitous logo of the ever-striding Johnny Walker on top of a building. A building that, like so many across the former Eastern block, routinely figure as giant billboards for the new heroes of Bulgarian economic reality. In the foreground of the painting one might notice the thinly traced silhouette of the Soviet Army monument. It casts a faint yet lingering shadow over the brash colours of Happy Consumption that have dominated Bulgaria's commercial socio-aesthetic visual schemes ever since the Transition.
On the night of June 17th 2011, our – by now – famous Soviet soldiers were painted over to resemble superheroes Wonder Woman, Superman, Wolverine and Captain America, as well as Santa Clause and Ronald McDonald. Spray-painted below it was written “In Step with Time” in Bulgarian; a comical commentary on Bulgaria’s head-long dive into Western-dominated pop-culture. It was not until later that this specific transfiguration was identified as the work of a group of artists known as Destructive Creation. The intervention was very effective as the transmutation of Soviet soldiers into American pop- cultural icons was symbolically incredibly easy to understand and was, technically speaking, exceptionally well executed.
In step with the time, 2011.
- 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
Time and again, most often anonymously and not always by Destructive Creation, the sculptural composition has been the focal point for mischievous interventions. These have included commentaries on events like the 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring (inspired by Czech artist David Cerny’s 1991 intervention in Prague, the composition was painted a jarring pink, the graffito beneath it reading: ‘Bulgaria Apologises’ in both Czech and Bulgarian), the imprisonment of Russian punk-rock group Pussy Riot (the soldiers now donning Pussy Riot’s signature balaclavas), and Russian interference and subsequent invasion of Ukrainian territory (in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag) amongst many other such subversions. Thus, from an affirmation of Bulgaria’s gratitude to the Soviet army, through the abnegation of the recent political past, the hulking structure has now become a message board for critique and discontent, successfully grabbing domestic and international headlines.
That being said, Russia's response to the repeated – albeit playful – vandalistic interventions of the monument has been vigorous and reproachful. Although we cannot go into it here in depth, Russia's relationship with its Soviet past (whether within Russia itself or the satellite countries under its influence) has been fraught with tension. It seems to have become a mixture of a revalorisation of its military feats, a revanchist attitude at the loss of its influence and a revisionist stance towards the historical crimes committed during its erstwhile domination of its neighbours. Invariably, after each defacement, the Russian Embassy's letters to the Municipality of Sofia have been rife with indignation, resentment and forceful reminders of the treaty that the two countries signed that compels Bulgaria to safeguard memorials to Soviet soldiers.
Destructive Creation struck gain in 2013, this time in Bulgaria's second city, Plovdiv. With a simple yet effective gesture, they tied a red cape around the neck of a giant, ferro-concrete Soviet soldier, effectively transforming this soldier of Socialism into a decidedly American pop-cultural icon from Krypton. Plovdiv's Monument to the Soviet Army, constructed from 1954 to 1957, is a nearly 11-metre high, reinforced concrete statue of a Soviet soldier on top of a 6 metre-high pedestal, crowning Bunardzhyk hill, overlooking the city. Popularly known as “Alyosha”, the giant structure was modelled on Alexey ”Alyosha” Ivanovich Skurlatov, a young Red Army soldier from the Altai mountains who helped set up telephone lines from Plovdiv to Sofia during WWII. Rumour and most definitely propaganda has it, that in 1944, the 'population' of Plovdiv proposed, by popular vote, a giant monument of gratitude to the Soviet Army to celebrate its glorious feat of liberating Bulgaria from Fascism. After several rounds of rejected designs and redesigns, the state-appointed 'artistic committee' settled on a design of a singular figure by Boris Markov, Petar Tsvetkov, and Nikolai Marangozov and sculptors Vassil Radoslavov, Georgi Kotzev, Ivan Topalov and Alexander Zankov. Alyosha dominates Plovdiv's skyline and hence overshadows its cityscape. Although he was fêted as a symbol for the city during socialist times, after the Transition Alyosha became an understandably contentious figure. The municipal council decided several times in the 1990's to demolish the overbearing memorial. All attempts to do so, however, were rebutted by several groups of the public who demanded its preservation, not least among whom was the Russian Foreign Ministry, aside from representatives of various veteran groups as well as the successors to the revamped Bulgarian Communist Party. Finally, however, the monument seems to have been saved from destruction by two mutually reinforcing reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, Bulgaria and Russia had previously signed an agreement that stipulated that both countries would respect and preserve each other's memorials on their respective territories. This was, indeed, the opinion of Bulgaria's Supreme Court in 1998, as a response yet again, to another attempt by Plovdiv's municipal council to demolish the statue. Furthermore, or perhaps more fundamentally, it was deemed extremely hazardous to even try to destroy the thing, as giant debris from even a controlled explosion were likely to endanger both people and their houses at the base of the hill.
It would be a crime if there was no mention of several other, rather creative suggestions to 'interfere' with the monument. In the riveting documentary Stories with Monuments by Krassimir Terziev and Ivaylo Ditchev from 2009, the former deputy mayor of Plovdiv, Atanas Badev, recounts some of the proposals that he considered executing but ultimately failed to do – to his great chagrin, we can be sure.
One of the more daring proposals considered was installing a type of watering can at the base of the monument, running a hose up the length of the statue and letting a trickle of acid pour on top of Alyosha's head, slowly disintegrating the poor soldier down to a melted blob of nothingness. Another, more diplomatic, idea was suggested by sculptor Kiril Naydenov and artist Anastas Konstantinov, proposing Alyosha to be 'wrapped' in an orb-like, gold-plated installation that was to reflect the sun. They magnanimously offered to keep Alyosha whole, and even leave several peep-holes so that those who wished to commemorate the heroic soldier, could do so, albeit partially. A more capitalist approach was also proposed, we think in all seriousness, to turn Alyosha into a giant Coca-Cola bottle! The idea was that the municipality would then receive revenue for the advertising of the world's most recognisable and iconic brand. On a more conceptual level, members of the Plovdiv-based EDGE group thought to divest Alyosha's cult-symbolism by replicating the original and placing them on all of Plovdiv's five remaining hills. These replicas would necessarily be made from Styrofoam or some such other light, cheap material. This action was envisaged to be done overnight, so that the following morning Plovdiv's residents would wake up to multiple Alyoshas. It later turned out that the concept also entailed the later removal of all six Alyoshas, even the original one, in a flurry of helicopters. In Stories with Monuments however, ex-deputy mayor Badev made clear that Bulgaria's air-force did not, in fact, possess any helicopters whatsoever that would be able to carry off Alyosha's head, let alone the rest of his body. Needless to say, none of these proposals was ever executed, but we sincerely hope that the proposals may never stop coming in! In fact, as part of the Plovdiv European Capital of Culture 2019, the afore-mentioned Missirkov / Bogdanov-duo designed and created lollipops in the form of Alyosha in different colours. What may not have been possible to do with the original monument, it is clear that many Bulgarian artists try to redefine, obliterate or disintegrate the statue in more conceptual ways, including having the monument sucked on and masticated by culturally-minded sweet-tooths.
Socialist monuments are by no means the only surfaces that Bulgarian artists intervene on and the prolific Destructive Creation group is no exception. One of the two lions in front of the Palace of Justice is a case in point and has also been tampered with to serve as an allegory for the particularly sluggish pace in which the justice system was being reformed. Placed in 1985 in front of what was then the National History Museum in Sofia, sculptor Velichko Minekov opted for a neo-classicist rendition of Bulgaria's heraldic animal. They were placed there at the behest of first daughter Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942 - 1981) who had earlier strong-armed the Ministry of Justice to relocate in favour of the National History Museum in the same building. In 2013 the lion was spray-painted and transformed into a decidedly The Joker-looking character, clearly as a commentary on the state of law it was supposed to guard. The word 'CYRK' was spray-painted on its pedestal, leaving little to the imagination of how the activist group perceived the reform of the judicial system in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria's national animal was used as an oblique allegory in Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova's photographic documentation series (and eponymous video) Lions of Sofia from 2004. The series generally deals with issues of poverty and homelessness in Sofia and portrays the creatures (many of them human) that inhabit and occupy the capital's streets. In a particularly sympathetic way, Lyahova transfers the regal courageousness that the animal symbolises, to the city's less fortunate inhabitants and re-imagines them as the true lions of Sofia. One photograph especially caught our attention; a stray dog, languidly warming its bones in the same reclining position as the leonine sculpture it has chosen to rest against. Unveiled in 1941, artist Andrey Nikolov's lion was swiftly considered too 'bourgeois' for its time and location and was moved around Sofia before being stored in the National Military Museum. The lion was returned to its former place in 1981, when the new Monument of the Unknown Soldier was inaugurated. Since then it has become, and remains, a favourite climbing spot for children.
For us, the series speaks to the rapid disintegration of a previous communal order, the chaotic uncertainty of the post-Transition period, and a subsequent collective failure to take care of the country's most vulnerable. The stray dog who lazes his day away on the monument could, furthermore, be seen as an invalidation of Bulgarian pride as well as a testament to the desacralisation of monuments in general and their irreverently swift re-appropriation by Sofianites to become part and parcel of the urban landscape.
Where Lyahova documents one reclining stray dog – albeit in a position of sublime repose – the ever proliferant Krassimir Terziev features Sofia's stray dogs abundantly in a series of four panoramic composites of Sofia's city-scape. Terziev's series Post-Urban Landscapes from 2003 superimposes a multitude of strays meandering across the urban landscape. As the series progresses from one panorama to another, so does the size of these roaming canines. In his own words, Terziev sees the dogs as “...signs of nature’s vindication over culture, when Sofia was flooded with stray dogs and nature seemed to take back the city...” He imagined that the dogs were mutating and gradually becoming bigger, finally surpassing the size of all the other man-made structures.
Although we can definitely run with Terziev's imaginative associations, we've – admittedly – added a couple of our own. We speculate that the iconic architectural structures that Terziev has fused together to create his panoramic Sofia-scapes, represent layers of previously built-up urban infrastructure. An infrastructure that, though spanning the relatively short but entire history of Sofia as capital city, was heavily imprinted on by its socialist caretakers and overbearingly regulated in the way that its public spaces were managed. We imagine the dogs, on the other hand, wandering this way and that, oblivious to commonly accepted rules governing the flow of human traffic, and disdainful of the boundaries that separate public walkways from, say, grassy lawns or concrete monuments. Our frolicking fleabags represent then the somewhat shambolic process that Bulgaria's contemporary reality has morphed into from its more structured past. Where once a controlled – albeit uneasy – order and pompous grandeur reigned supreme, now vagabonds, loiterers, street-hawkers, con-artists, skateboarders, graffiti-vandals, ad-men, dogs and, worst of all, developers haphazardly trample over Sofia's squares, monuments, and basically; its previously inviolable sancrosanctity of public order.
One of Terziev's panoramas has the grandiose public square in front of the National Palace of Culture (NDK) as its setting. The vantage point being from one of NDK's outside terraces, the open space in front has been inundated by an influx of superimposed mongrels. For us – as we've said above – they function as a metaphor for the liberalisation of public space and the triumph of informal practices over this formerly disciplined space reserved for orchestrated gatherings and public rituals. Although we would love to wax loquacious about the bizarre, octagonal, Egypto-pyramid-esque NDK with an unblinking Eye of Sauron that dominates its frontal facade, textual space is limited. Suffice to say for now, that it is an imposing and strikingly dominating presence, and that it overlooks Bulgaria Square towards what used to be, until very recently, the 1300 Years of Bulgaria Monument.
1981 was a big year for big monuments. The 1300th anniversary of the existence of Bulgaria as a state was celebrated on a grand scale. Not only was this moment a commemoration of a glorious past, but also a self-congratulatory glorification of the present, as well as an inescapable promise for the future. This stage of Bulgarian Socialism was presented as a triumphant achievement of Bulgaria's illustrious history which – following the precepts of the theoretical doctrine of Scientific Communism – would ultimately culminate in the form of Communism, “...the perfect, utopian, social structure of the future, ...”. This grand narrative that fused the past, present and future into one big, shimmering phantasm, was mediated and disseminated en masse in the form of articles, books, exhibitions, sports achievements and significantly, documentaries and films. The mass-erections of mighty monuments were intended as undeniable, indestructibly concrete attestations to a narrational mirage that was ephemeral at best. Not only was the Monument to the Unknown Soldier unveiled in 1981, but the Palace of Culture (NDK) was opened, Buzludzha was inaugurated, the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State in Shumen was finished, as was the 1300 Years of Bulgaria Monument.
The 1300 Years is an interesting case in point when it comes to the various contesting narratives that have dominated Bulgaria's discourse surrounding what to do with Socialism's more eye-catching monuments and symbols. This monument was intended to embody the resolute, ascendant evolution of the Bulgarian soul. When it was unveiled, however, it evoked many a gasp of shock and disdain, if only for its decidedly unfinished look. Clearly a rush-job, the monument extolling the glorious 1300 years of Bulgarian statehood was finished up with sheets of plywood, painted (nearly) the colour of granite, trying to blend in with the rest of the panels that actually were made of granite. It is rumoured that First Secretary Todor Zhivkov, so infuriated and disgusted by the 'monstrosity', ordered his chauffeur never to drive by the ungainly thing again. By 1989 it had already deteriorated badly, its panels falling off, its subterranean level becoming a haunt for drug addicts and homeless people. After the Transition, Bulgarian artists were at the forefront to urge public opinion and the authorities to preserve the monument, if only as an historical reminder. In the summer of 2017, debates were abruptly discontinued as the Sofia City Council ordered the monument's demolition. Again people protested (and a suspected arson attempt even postponed the demolition for a little while), to no avail however as the monument was finally torn down at the end of July. Aside from the monument's symbolic weightiness – having been erected on the site of a former war monument, not to mention the grandiose pomposity of the monument's title – it is perhaps also its unfinished character, bizarre cubo- abstract shape and general aura of immediate decay, that simply begs artists to react to it. Its shape offered a wonderful opportunity to make a statement, intervene or ridicule. At the same time, it also quite probably worked to endear it to many within Bulgaria's critical community, including precisely those artists who poked fun at it in the first place.
In his series Objects and Spaces II, Alexander Valchev composes two triptychs that present recompositions of the 1300 Years of Bulgaria monument. Perhaps inspired by the clunkiness of this hulking structure, Valchev presents photographed details in two sets of three squares, realigning the cubist elements to create alternate versions of the monument. What strikes us is the jigsaw puzzle effect that these recompositions achieve. It gives the impression, that if one were to reshuffle the cards yet again, the result would be quite similar. This need not be so surprising, as the original design – with all due respect to its architects and sculptor Valentin Starchev – could also be seen as a haphazard composition of abstract -constructivist structures and cubo-brutalist chunks. Interestingly, the chunks of 1300 Years that Valchev selects bear the hallmarks of much of his other work where he utilizes cardboard boxes to create temporary monumental structures. Fortress II for example, shown in 2016 in Munich as part of The Fortress exhibition is an imposing, nearly two-and-a-half metre tall cardboard box structure that, despite the throw-away nature of its material, convinces as an extremely solid brutalist structure that one could easily come across exploring Bulgaria's landscape. This is a recurring theme in much of his work. His solo-exhibition The Sculpture as a Hobby in 2014 at Sofia's Arosita Gallery, for example, features a piece, made from stacked cardboard boxes; Untitled/ New “Endless” Column (2014) that, though rather graceful, has some uncanny similarities to the upward dynamic aimed for by Starchev in the 1300 Years. Not having spoken to him directly, we can only assume that his focus on material, especially the disposable varieties, parallels the unfinished and now disposable 1300 Years of Bulgaria Monument.
A very different artist who also focused on the the monument's material aspect is Stela Vasileva in her drawing for a poster she did of an underground performance festival in 2015. The drawing aptly recreates the 'under construction' aspect of the monument from its very inception in 1981.
One piece of work that features the 1300 Years Monument by the afore-mentioned contemporary artist Luchezar Boyadjiev immediately made us laugh. Boyadjiev juxtaposes two images, that of the 1300 Years in Sofia as well as that of a child-friendly version of a raptor dinosaur clutching an egg. This second dinosaur is located somewhere in the environs of the hideously, mass-tourism inundated seaside resort of Sunny Beach (Slanchev Bryag). Both – shall we say – 'sculptures' bear a strikingly humorous resemblance to one another. They were, obviously, constructed with completely different intentions in mind. The first, in Sofia, eulogised Bulgaria's past and propounded the path to the country's ambitiously glorious future. The other, quite probably made from fibreglass, is a manifestation of an entertainment-oriented, consumerist culture that that future seems to actually have become. Though so far apart ideologically, Boyadjiev seems to remind us that both structures are similarly absurd. Both implicitly reflect the pompous promises that the sculptures respectively symbolise and serve as metaphors for the ideological systems that spawned them. The first is the love-child of a totalitarian, socialist, imperfect and ultimately failed regime whose legacy simply refuses to disappear. The other is, as Luchezar was keen to point out: “...[a by-product of] a supposedly better, consumerist society based on free market economy and representative, parliamentary democracy that never came as [was] promised – to solve all our problems at once...”
One piece that dealt with the impending demise of the 1300 Years was an intervention event organised by the group Ultrafuturo in 2008.
Available as a single channel video and a series of twenty colour photographs, it documents the event in front of the monument, where passers-by were asked to write on a wall, indicating whether they supported or rejected the demolition of the monument. This piece was prescient as it turned out, as people were also given the opportunity to take a last 'memory-picture' in front of the structure. Opinions were very divided, in keeping with the controversy that the monument had given rise to. Those that had participated in the construction of the monument opted for it to be renovated and maintained, others espoused rather cliché slogans of anti-communist rhetoric and, finally, youngsters, many of whom had not witnessed the Transition consciously, by-and-large thought it might make an excellent skate-boarding ramp.
A more digital approach was the project ReVision from 2013 by the Transformatori group. As support for the candidacy of Sofia as the European Cultural Capital 2019, Transformatori used the monument as a giant projection screen in an attempt to revaluate this and other neglected monuments. They attempted to translate them to a contemporary historical context through the use of digital and interactive technology. As part and parcel of the intervention, the team organised a competition and workshop for 3D-mapping on the surface of the monument. Focussing on city monuments as places of shared cultural and historical values, Tranformatori maintain that monuments influence and send messages to generations, through generations, and thus generate emotions, aesthetics and social interactions.
The issue of trans-generational communication becomes very apparent in the tribulations that surround(ed) the Mausoleum of the first Head of State of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov. No longer extant, the Mausoleum was the embalmed embodiment of Bulgaria as a Socialist People's Republic after 1944. Built in just six days, the neoclassical Mausoleum proved uncannily difficult to remove and provides a striking metaphor for the speed in which Bulgarian Socialism was founded, the difficulty Bulgaria faces in removing the dysfunctional aspects of its legacy, and the chaotically 'retractionist' attempts – after the Transition – to render this domineering past invisible. As Socialist ideology was quickly being discarded to the rubbish heap of history, so too many in Bulgaria seemed to want to obliterate its monumental markers from collective memory.
The Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov was a key landmark in the communist era of Sofia. Built just days after Dimitrov’s death, this massive, white marbled, Stalinist structure housed his embalmed remains until they were removed, cremated, and finally placed to rest at Sofia's Central Cemetery in 1990. A prestige project by the government's pro-Western, anti-Communist Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, he maintained that the destruction of this symbol of totalitarian repression was imperative, despite popular opinion against such a move. After several, quite frankly embarrassing, attempts to blow it up, it was finally blasted in 1999 at the fourth attempt in a series of controlled detonations. Amusingly (and we have heard this quite a number of times), whenever foreigners are guided by locals through the fair city of Sofia, this empty space is invariably pointed to as the former place where Dimitrov's Mausoleum used to be. Thus, the monument's absence ironically remains ever-present, perhaps even more so now, after its disappearance as a physical structure, if not a mental one.
- Material: http://openartfiles.bg/en/topics/1434-%D0%B4%D0%B8%D0%B3%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B0%D0%BB%D0%BD%D0%B8-%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BA%D1%83%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%B0-%D0%B2-%D0%B1%D1%8A%D0%BB%D0%B3%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%B5%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BA%D1%82%D1%80%D0%BE
- Property of: Petko Dourmana
Unsurprisingly, there have been quite a number of works that relate to this monument and it is worthwhile mentioning Ivan Moudov's Untitled/ Intervention in public space, faked new construction of a public/private building on the location of the former Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, Sofia, 11.2012. Moudov announced a public event and designed an accompanying poster to announce a 'fake' opening of a building that very much resembled the old mausoleum. The design basically added an upper story or two in what looks to be black granite or marble on top of the pre-existing structure, ensuring the public's ire and alarm, and understandably so. As it turned out, this was Moudov's plan all along; to generate debate and discussion about what to do with these kinds of monuments. He was thereby poking a stick at what he probably perceived as Bulgaria's collective, monumental amnesia. Generating a great deal of public and media attention, Moudov was forced to concede the mischievous gag prematurely and assure everyone that it was, indeed, a fake proposal.
The fight against communal amnesia is also of prime concern in Petko Dourmana's Bluetooth Graffiti from 2006. Convinced that the radical disappearance of Dimitrov's Mausoleum was an unhealthy form of forgetfulness, Dourmana decided to regain the lost physicality of the Mausoleum in virtual space with the aid of the mobile phone-carrying visitor. Via the Bluetooth function, visitors could access a compendium of old documentation, photographs, video and audio fragments that would open the floodgates of collective memory. A (for then) new digital technology was employed to recreate that which was not only actively being forgotten, but had urgently been destroyed. As the former Prime Minister of Bulgaria Philip Dimitrov (UDF) is quoted saying: “the rational thing is that some things stay, and others must be erased. From that point of view, this symbol was the most appropriate to be destroyed.”
Rational it may have been, yet erasure, as any psychologist, sociologist or anthropologist will tell you, is ultimately detrimental to a body's health, whether that body be private or collective. The Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, or rather, its absence, shows that the removal of history's physical markers, does not remove history itself.
Absence took pride of place in the proposal by curators and art critics Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva and Dessislava Dimova for Bulgaria's participation in the 2013 Venice Biennale. In their The Bulgarian Pavilion, Kuyumdzhieva and Dimova proposed an alternative interpretation of a national pavilion with a series of artistic activities in various locations and within different institutional structures over a period of two years (2011 - 2013). Though participating physically at the site of the Biennale in Venice via video-link, the spatial void left by the demolition of Dimitrov's Mausoleum was intended to be the main physical and critically symbolic site that would host The Bulgarian Pavilion. The passionately contentious Mausoleum and its subsequent destruction serve here as a powerful symbol for the sudden estrangement in the relationship between art and power in Bulgaria since the Transition.
After all the years in which the arts were of primary importance for the Bulgarian State's propaganda machine, the Transition was a rude awakening. The new Demo-Capitalist State dismissed art as a tool for effective propaganda and has been largely indifferent to art as a form of social critique. Though liberated from the State's overbearing tutelage, without state support compounded with an absent art market, contemporary artists found themselves in a cultural limbo, at least financially speaking. They also viewed themselves as being at a distance from the major developments of Modernism and the Avant-garde that had taken place in the West. The minimal and incidental Bulgarian representation at the Biennale served only to underscore this perception.
The curators' choice of the former site of the Mausoleum strikes us as particularly poignant, as by doing so, they symbolically link together multiple layers of a multitude of voids, blanks and non-spaces that they feel characterise the Bulgarian field of contemporary art, both nationally and how it relates to the international art market. This sedimentation of absences is echoed by the pointless and ineffective erasure of the Mausoleum. Thus, by the act of demolishing the Mausoleum, the powers that be had, in fact, ensured its survival, if only as an indelible after-image that has refused to disappear.
Unlike the eerily absent Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov, the fate of at least one of Bulgaria's monuments has finally caught the attention of the world at large. A masterpiece of architecture, engineering and art, this spherical structure is an epitome of Bulgaria's socialist heritage, if not European architectural patrimony. We are speaking here, of course, about the Buzludzha monument that we started this essay with. At 1441 metres, Buzludzha overlooks a largely empty countryside and appears to defy gravity. This extra-terrestial aspect takes center-stage in the work of the prolific duo Missirkov/Bogdanov. Part of the same series Weekend 2126 that imagined Plovdiv's Bratska Mogila as a futuristic temple-like structure, the artists now turn their attention to this Brutalist, retro-futurist, flying saucer.
In Weekend 2126 – The Valchevs (2008), the Valchev family is depicted as being on a sunny Sunday outing, languidly strolling the slopes of Mount Buzludzha. Some family members are even in the act of idly composing some musical score, just after having landed their ship on top of the mountain in an otherwise deserted landscape. This scene, though referencing a reimagined old and a half-remembered new, is set in the future, that much is clear. This, despite the quirkiness of their ethno-medieval-esque dresses, dashiqui-like shirts and handmade musical instruments that are reminiscent of some long- forgotten, yet pop-cultured, folklore. Missirkov/Bogdanov's tableau offers a possible version of how Buzludzha might be viewed and valued several generations later. Mixing the initial utopian pathos of Buzludzha's designers with the mass-utopian myths that low-budget sci-fi movies from the 60s and 70s projected, Missirkov/Bogdanov effectively (re-)create an apotheotic display of universal Cosmism. The artists ask themselves “How would these places look in yet another 150-200 years after they'd lost their primary function? How would they be apprehended by the "future man" - the ideal human being in whose name they have been erected?”
As mentioned above, Buzludzha has thankfully garnered the interest of several organisations dedicated to preserving European architectural heritage, whatever their initial ideological intentions. In September of 2018, after an application by The Buzludzha Project Foundation, this Cosmist relic was added to the 7 most endangered programme by the Europa Nostra heritage organisation. This is intended as a start of a process to mobilise public and private partners on a local, national and European level to find a viable future for the site. We submit that the international spotlight shined upon Buzludzha's destiny is not only the result of its admittedly impressive architectural design and spectacular setting. We put it to you that the attention devoted to these types of monuments by contemporary artists and their subsequent popularisation by all manner of travel-bloggers, Instagrammers or in-flight-magazines has been instrumental in creating an awareness that aims to revalorise and save these vestiges of abandoned cultural heritage. In a personal communication with Luchezar Boyadjiev, the artist expresses his sympathy for this Brutalist UFO yet pertinently asks: “...the questions about how, who, with what money and above all – to what ends...” the monument should be preserved for? It would seem that these questions now are being dealt with in a pan-European context, and couched within professional, institutionalised structures in order to revamp and preserve this iconic structure for future generations. Only time will tell, however, in what way Buzludzha could sustainably be preserved and operated. It may very well turn out to be that its viability can only be maintained by exploiting it commercially, ironically embedding it into the global super-systems of hyper-consumerism that are the hallmark of our times.
The Bulgarian word for monument is 'паметник' or 'pametnik'. 'Pàmę̄tь' is the Slavic root of the word and denotes the idea of 'memory'. A monument is thus, logically, intended to convey a trans- generational memory of an event, person or idea contained within a physical, identifiably recognisable marker. It should be clear by now, that the type of monuments that were consecrated during Socialism, let alone monuments from before the 1940s, have had their day and have largely been debunked as a format by most current designers. It should come as no surprise then that contemporary artists have sought to complexify the very notion of what a monument is meant to convey or what it is supposed to look like, and have thus begun to redefine what monuments are.
The oft-mentioned Luchezar Boyadjiev, for example, was asked in 2007 by a curator from Göppingen, Germany, to come up with an equestrian monument for Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich “Barbarossa” the First. The curator in question was wondering why such a statue had not, to date, yet been conceived for Friedrich. This, especially in light of the fact that the good Emperor presided over the flourishing of Late Medieval chivalry and its uncodified code of knightly conduct. In keeping with Boyadjiev's presumably rather anti-militaristic inclinations and echoing his On Vacation series, the artist devised an equine monument that included two riderless horses on a pedestal, on which was written; Friedrich und Beatrice. To all accounts, Beatrice was the love of Friedrich's life, accompanied him on many of his travels, was literate, and was thus attributed as a patron of literary works and chivalric ideals. Boyadjiev's two horses, tenderly nuzzling each other's muzzles, evoke much more romantic notions about Friedrich's and Beatrice's life rather than the military, political or ideological character of traditional equestrian monuments. This, then, was to be a monument to courtship, to romance, to love.
In 1936, in Nachlass zu Lebzeiten, the fiercely anti-authoritarian writer Robert Musil wrote:
“[T]he most striking feature of monuments is that you do not notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen – indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.”
Zaimov Park in Sofia's affluent and increasingly trendy Oborishte neighbourhood is a good a place as any to pose fundamental questions concerning the notion of what monuments and sculptures are, and how their presence influences public spaces. Brimming with a seemingly eclectic assortment of sculptures, most of which, puzzlingly, are devoid of any information concerning their titles, creators or intention, the park has become a framework for the projects of two Bulgarian contemporary artists.
In 2010, Rada Boukova opened her solo-exhibition Landscape with Stone at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery, located just behind Zaimov park. Comprising photographs, videos, 3D objects and art-walkthroughs related to park- and public sculptures, Boukova collected these visual pieces from different locations, finding strange similarities between the disparate pieces. Some of the collected photographs are of objects that we immediately recognise. One, for example, depicts Still Life with Spirit and Xitle (2007); the infamous piece with the gigantic Mexican stone dropped onto Jimmie Durham's car. In another photograph we see the famous Elephant Butte of Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation Reservation. Many, however, are from parks, including, presumably, Zaimov park. Interposing both man-made and natural forms, Boukova blurs the lines between intentional monuments, sculptures and formations and those that are the result of geological processes. In this way, she perceptively asks us whether we actually notice park sculptures? If we do, do we want to observe them closely? Are we curious to know why sculptures were erected specifically on their respective sites?
Also using Zaimov park as the point of departure for her visual research, artist Stanislava Ivanova deals with the notion of multiple layers of memory, what the city remembers, and how social processes are visually interpreted in the art objects within the city. This city space invariably contains layers of different times and memory. They are evidenced not only by the objects preserved in it, but also by the ones time has erased, destroyed or forgotten about. How this memory could be restored, what it carries, and what the artist's role in this process is, was explored in 2 (2016 – 2017), an installation whereby the missing parts of the sculpture Foundry Worker by sculptor Velichko Iliev, were visibly recreated. This installation was included in her exhibition Anonymous Presence at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery in 2018, that also comprised a documentary, objects, installations with texts and pictures, documents, questionnaires and photographs. The exhibition by Stanislava Ivanova raises issues that are increasingly relevant in the dynamic development of the urban environment, such as communication of art in the city and the attitude towards cultural heritage through time and space.
What Goes Up Must Come Down, 2007.
- Photographer: © Kalin Serapionov
- Material: bronze, gas generated flame
- Sizes: 440 x 230 x 230 cm with plinth; 320 x 130 x 40 cm (bronze body)
- Description: 52° Biennale di Venezia, Bulgarian Pavilion
1/3 Vehbi Koc Collection, Istanbul
The issue of what contemporary monuments should look like and should deal with takes on a surprising yet time-relevant form in the sculpture What goes up must come down by Stefan Nikolaev from 2007 that was presented at the Venice Biennale in the same year. The piece, a four metre-high Dupont lighter cast in sparkling bronze, sits alluringly on its pedestal, its flame flickering in the wind. A lighter in itself is, of course, as much a mass-produced article as it is a by-product of globalised mass-consumption. Seemingly a monument to ambiguity, does it evoke the idea of an eternal flame or is it a testament to our present economic culture of disposability? Does it celebrate the lighter as a means to fan the flame of revolutionary fervour or is it rather a witness to the very human predilection for instant gratification? With this alluringly ambivalent piece, Nikolaev successfully provokes questions about what a monument is, what it could be and what it can lay claim to.
Reconstructed Identity, 2005.
- Photographer: Veronika Tzekova
- Material: fibreglass
- Width: 0.90 m Height: 3.00 m Depth: 0.90 m
- Property of: Veronika Tzekova
- Description: Reconstructed Identity was born after the daily encounter with the second-hand employment of the Coca-Cola bottles. Old women selling homemade milk in Coca-Cola bottles were casual view on some of the central streets of Sofia. This symbiosis between the world’s most famous brand and the homemade milk might be a banal sight for the passers-by in Sofia, but it is intriguing with the way it becomes Bulgarian symbolic representation of the process of globalisation.
Reconstructed Identity is an attempt of producing an adequate to its time “monument” of society in transformation, a “monument” of a global form filled with local content.
The sculpture represents large-scale model of a Coca-Cola bottle, made as a solid object of materials resembling visually the originals and with height 3.00 m as the original proportions are kept. Instead of the original soft drink, the bottle is “filled” with milk.
Installation view from Belgrade, Serbia
- Copyright: Veronika Tzekova
Similarly, Veronika Tzekova fuses the themes of monumentalisation, globalisation, mass-production of recognisable brands and their re-usage within a local context. Her monumental sculpture Reconstructed Identity (2002 – 2005) is a 3-metre high, fibreglass model of a plastic Coca Cola bottle, filled with the home-made milk that elderly, head-scarved grannies sell on the streets of Sofia. It represents the symbiotic relationship between the ubiquity of global consumer-oriented products that have flooded Bulgaria since the Transition, and their instant adoption as convenient, second-hand containers to store a variety of home-made agricultural products. Moreover, the piece seems to echo the strong links that still connect young urbanites to their rural background. Reconstructed Identity is, to our minds, an extremely strong example of a contemporary sculpture that embraces poly-interpretability, is representative of a society in transformation, and a “monument” to a global form filled with local content.
Having gone through this mind-boggling list of interventions by Bulgarian contemporary artists who have dealt and continue to deal with free-standing monumental sculptures, we would entreat the reader, one last time, to turn your attention to a project that transcends the notion of monumentalism, indeed,
of memorialisation itself. Peripheral Light, Air and Sun (2017) by Krassimir Terziev and Daniel Kötter is a four-channel, thirteen minute video installation, with an accompanying paper-back book that includes texts and photographs. This immersive work is the result of an admirable piece of artistic research into two separate social housing districts of the 1960s to 1980s; Gropiusstadt and Lyulin, on the peripheries of Berlin and Sofia respectively. Peripheral urban colonies, the world over, are uncomfortable reminders of the inherent conflict between the dynamic allure of an often organic core and the mundane dreariness of a pre-designed, sub-urban fringe. Though undoubtedly visionary and well- intentioned, most post-war housing estate projects on the outskirts of cities proper have failed to live up to their grand expectations, both in terms of utilitarian functionality and as experiments in social engineering. The Modernist promise of comfortable, affordable housing with “light, air and sun”, has quite swiftly and all too often become a grim ghetto of neglect, dilapidation and a depot of undesirability. Notwithstanding, they are ubiquitous not only as spaces where increasing segments of urban society actually live and work, but also as engorged gateways of attraction and repulsion to and from the urban centre. The urban outskirts are themselves testaments to ideals that could arguably called visionary, and at the very least, ambitious in scale. All too often, they have transmorphed, however, into a reality altogether different. Not only because of the inherent flaws within their designs at the moment of their inception, or because of the fact that many of these housing-block systems were never completed, but also as a result of the infrastructural chaos that ensued with the coming of uncontrolled Capitalism. These types of social housing districts have become, in Terziev's words “...excellent sites of conflict of dramatic proportions since early Modernism up until today's mess.” Kötter and Terziev's visual and textual approach in terms of layered depth and researched insight goes much further than we could ever hope to reproduce within the confines of this text and the limits of our analytical prowess. We endorse the project gladly within this text, if only for the associative impact that it has had on our thoughts and musings about architectural monumental heritage.
The Plattenbau/Panelki blueprint of pre-fab panel construction evokes in us ambivalent feelings of nostalgia on the one hand and a recognition of its dysfunctional flaws on the other. Let us be honest here; we both readily admit to a hard-to-define and slightly awkward sympathy for these pre-fabricated housing estates. We like the retro-aesthetics of these architectural complexes and, embarrassingly, the shabbier they are, the more we like them. Perhaps it has to do with the calculated cleanliness of the architect's blueprint that is only emphasised by the decay that has set upon it. On the other hand, maybe our secret joy at walking through neighbourhoods such as Lyulin or Gropiusstadt is simply a banal manifestation of an imagined and so-called 'Ostalgia' or 'Soc-stalgia'. Whatever the reason, we feel that Peripheral Light, Air and Sun is not only a comparative study between two social housing districts, but functions for us as a kind of 'monument' to these types of housing districts, themselves often built on a monumental scale. For not only intentional monuments are markers of a past (whether distant or relatively recent). Lyulin and the like are also testaments to a certain historical period that has crept, ever so gradually, into urban society's DNA. Moreover, and quoting Kötter and Terziev, these “... peripheral spaces receive much less public, academic or political attention than those iconographic spaces in the cent[re] that place the image of a city on the map of competitive global tourism and city marketing.” This, despite the fact that in the majority of European cities nowadays, most people reside precisely in the peripheral housing blocks than they do in city cores. Even more so than the monuments that were intentionally erected to memorialise the glory of Bulgarian Socialism, the panelki housing districts are functioning, lived-in and thus embodied spaces of Bulgaria's recent history, not only of Socialism, but also of the ensuing period of Demo-Capitalism.
We conclude this essay by returning to the question that we posed at the 'beginning' of the text. Why is it that Bulgarian contemporary artists so often feel the need to deal with their country's monumental heritage or, indeed, propose alternative forms of memorialisation and monumentalism? For although we are by no means art historians and are relatively unversed in Bulgarian art history in the broader sense, we do think that Bulgarian monumental heritage is a crucial theme that Bulgarian artists are generally very well aware of, if not – as we've seen above – actively deal with.
Being extremely visible and visibly deliberate manifestations of biased historical narratives, monuments possess an inherent gravitational pull for those criticasters who feel the urgency to confront fundamental and controversial aspects of society, such as history, communal memory, identity, morality, religiosity, power, economy, corruption and so on. This one-sided partisan rhetoric comes into sharp relief when a society goes through the upheavals of a major socio-political transition, such as Bulgaria has experienced. Most monuments, the world over, make universal claims of heroism, victimhood and their respective glorification. Socialist monuments in particular, are notable for their penchant for not only eulogising the (or Socialism's) past, but also glorifying the present and harbouring innate promises of a fantastical (and Communist) future. As the failure of these narratives became apparent, and especially as the historical period that they represent is still so very near, these monuments have become extremely legible and readily available objects for contemporary artists to project their critique onto. Their very prominence, both physically and symbolically, implicitly encourages artists to confront both their form, and more importantly, what they stand for.
At the same time, perhaps because of Bulgarian Socialism's sudden insolvency and the relatively sudden tectonic shift of Bulgaria's economic, political and, indeed, social structures, Bulgarian artists have tried to make sense of this bankruptcy of grand narratives and the volatility that social and national identity has been subject to. Meanwhile, Bulgarian society itself, struggling to succeed in a chaotically competitive, Demo-Capitalist environment, seems to have largely tried to ignore its recent history. Whether by actively agitating for the erasure of the most conspicuous symbols of an inconveniently recent past, or merely by letting them slide into negligent oblivion, Bulgarian society seems to have taken the road of indifference and communal amnesia. Bulgaria's contemporary artists, however, aren't letting their society off the hook any time soon, it seems. The projects and pieces that are dedicated to dealing with the physical markers of Bulgaria's history (whether Socialist or other) seem intent on remembering and acknowledging this past, as difficult as it may be. They believe that the only chance for a healthy society, is for that society to squarely face its past, look into the gaping jaws of discomfiting embarrassment and rip the band-aid off the trauma festering below. With their incessant reminding and remembering, via artistic, visual and conceptual language that is projected onto the symbolic canvas of the past, they function as the nations whacky psychologists, albeit with more ironic humour and a creative approach to therapy. As such, Bulgarian contemporary artists seem to have become Bulgaria's historical conscience. Like so many present-day Don Quixotes, Bulgarian artists seem intent on bursting the bubble of complacent forgetfulness. As Bulgarians' urgency to deal with their monumental, and thus historical, legacy leaves much to be desired, Bulgarian artists keep fighting the windmills of memorial numbness.
 Personal communication with Vera Mlechevska (17-12-2018)
 Lyudmila Zhivkova (1942 – 1981) was First Secretary Todor Zhivkov's daughter. Educated at Oxford and Moscow, Bulgaria's First Daughter grew up in very priveleged circumstances. An art historian, she became the patron Bulgaria's cultural life, despite increasing unease within the BCP as well as in Moscow due to her growing interest in the occult.
 That is; aNTHROPOLOGISTS iN aRT (Nahuel Blaton and I) in conjunction with Marie Bromander
 Kafedjiyskij in Trace(1), Georgieva 2008
 SDS or Сдс: Съюз на демократичните сили
 Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP or БСП: Българска социалистическа партия
 To be clear; we hope the proposals never stop coming in. It is not our fervent wish for Alyosha to be removed
 Originally built in 1941 as the Palace of Justice
 Originally meant to be a series of six photographs
 Personal communication with Krassimir Terziev (15-02-2019)
 NDK or НДК: Национален дворец на културатa
 Personal communication with Luchezar Boyadjiev (03-04-2019)
 Designed by architects Alexander Barov, Atanas Agura, Vladimir Romenski, Alexander Brainov and sculptor Valentin Starchev
 Curated by Johannes Blank
 Incidentally curated by Vera Mlechevska
 Personal communication with Luchezar Boyadjiev (03-04-2019)
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2NQrtQTrwI (accessed 07-02-2019)
 As well as sports, it should be mentioned
 http://www.missirkovbogdanov.com/ (accessed 15-03-2019)
 Personal communication with Luchezar Boyadjiev (03-04-2019)
 We're referring here to the geological formation, not the animal's rear-end..
 Navajo: Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii
 Popova, Vyara. “Cultural News Brief.” http://bnr.bg/en/post/100113120/cultural-news-briefs (accessed 18-04-2019)
 http://veg.sghg.bg/en/?page=izbrana_izlojba&exhibition=2018.05.16-2018.06.10 (accessed 18-04-2019)
 Personal communication with Krassimir Terziev (15-02-2019)
 That finds its origins in the charming 1920s neighbourhood of Betondorp, Amsterdam
 Krassimir Terziev & Daniel Kötter: Peripheral Light, Air and Sun (2017)
 We would like to thank, from the depth of our hearts, all the sculptors, architects and artists who created the material that afforded us the opportunity to wax loquacious about all the monuments and works of art that we came across during this process. In particular, we would like to thank Vera Mlechevska, Krassimir Terziev and Luchezar Boyadjiev for taking the time to explain key aspects pertaining to Bulgarian reality and fantasy. All mistakes within this text are our own and we take full responsibility for them.