Terms and memories with elements of reasoning II

by Diana Popova

The So-Called Non-Conventional Forms

In the turbulent 1990s in the development of contemporary Bulgarian art, the question of terms and in general about the language in which we spoke and wrote about the new artistic forms and practices in Bulgaria was still constantly relevant. While they were still unclarified, undifferentiated and not even quite realised as art, sometimes by their own authors, we called them "non-conventional forms". When I write "we called them", I don't really know who and when called them that for the first time. For a long time, there was a common belief that the author of this compromise term was me – because of the first annual exhibition of the Soros Art Centre, N-forms. Reconstructions and Interpretations (November 1994, curated by Diana Popova, Boris Klimentiev, Svilen Stefanov, Nikolay Boshev; Rayko Alexiev art gallery, Sofia). Yes, I coined this "N-forms" for the very exhibition, but not "non-conventional forms".  

We certainly used it in the second half of the 1980s. Because I remember the conversation we had with the artist Georgi Todorov in the preparation of the Earth and Sky exhibition (October 1989, organised by Diana Popova and Georgi Todorov, roof terrace of Shipka 6, Sofia). This was the first national exhibition of these new arts, and at least the two of us, as its curators, had to figure out what we would call them and, accordingly, how to present them. The choice was between "non-traditional" and "non-conventional" forms. Both existed on somewhat equal footing at the time, being actually divisive terms – they separated the new arts from the classical ones (painting, graphics, sculpture) so that we could understand what we were talking and writing about. Georgi Todorov was for "non-conventional", insofar as the means of expression used were unconventional. Besides, he added, other artists would be offended if they thought they were "traditional." I noted that they would be offended no less if they were also seen as "conventional". But at that moment, it was important to us, after all, the art that we would present in the Earth and Sky exhibition, so we pitched on "non-conventional forms". (Moreover, I would like to note that the art circles in Minsk, which I visited in 1995, had apparently faced with such a choice, and had chosen "non-traditional forms").

I can tell a lot about the Earth and Sky exhibition itself, but I will only address a few important moments in it. The idea about the exhibition was Georgi Todorov’s. He came to me saying, "I've found a great place for an exhibition! Do you want to do it? From me – the place, from you – the artists". And so we started the organisation. Back then, it wasn't accepted that two people would just offer and put on an exhibition, we had to have an organisation behind us. We relied that this would be the Club of the Young Artists, but since the beginning of 1989 it had been in the process of complex and difficult negotiations about its status with the Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA). The club itself was established at the end of 1988 at the location of the former Atelier of the Young Artists at UBA, which was closed down due to the participation of its chairman Ivan Rusev in the Committee for Environmental Protection of the city of Ruse. Three teams in the newly established CYA developed options for its status, of which the most delicate one, to put it this way, was adopted, prepared by the team of Luchezar Boyadjiev. The idea was that this status would most easily be "swallowed" by the UBA leadership. However, negotiations stalled, which is why CYA could not stand behind the Earth and Sky exhibition, so other organisations were found to formally "back" it. (By the way, with some compromises, the status was adopted and in fact the first official meeting of CYA took place on the roof of Shipka 6 sometime around October 20, 1989 – the exact date can also be checked in the Earth and Sky journal.)  

Earth and Sky, 1989


The organisation of the exhibition itself was difficult because we had to use the system of UBA – simply because then there was no other system. And UBA was in the way, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly. For example, an important point was the production of an additional guardrail on the terrace. For this purpose, an artist developed a project; I submitted it to a state commission in the UBA, the project was approved and its implementation was assigned to Prostranstveno Oformlenie, which was one of the enterprises of UBA’s Creative Fund. The guardrail was supposed to be ready before the opening on October 6, 1989; and I often stopped by to ask how far they had come, it was always "almost ready"... And since it had to be installed in situ, I had specifically warned that the pipes for it should be up to 3 metres long to fit in the goods lift of the building. Eventually, the lorry with the materials for the guardrail arrived on the evening of the very October 6, 1989 – and the pipes were 4 metres long, so we took them up the stairs with the artists who came for the opening of the exhibition. Well, we kept a presence of mind, and on the roof, which looked like a construction site, Earth and Sky was announced as an exhibition in progress. And I started keeping a journal of the exhibition so that the audience could fathom what was work of art there, what was a part of the future guardrail and what was just rubbish.  

On the Border of Two Eras – Avant-Garde

Conceived as an ease for the audience, which found itself in an unusual place for an exhibition and among unusual works, the Journal of Earth and Sky later became an important document not only for the development of the exhibition, for the joint work and communication of the artists on the roof, but also for the time of societal and political turmoil at the time. It was mostly I who kept it, and in a few days Georgi Todorov replaced me. Every day, I glued on a rack brief descriptions of the events during the previous one. And so the viewers, coming every few days, were both having fun and were informed of what it had happened in the meantime.  

I think retrospectively about how many things showed through those pages and how many I couldn't write about then. The communist regime was unstable, but none of us seemed to know how serious this was. When you were born at a time when Todor Zhivkov was in power, as I was, you wouldn’t expect the regime to ever collapse. You would think it would go on like that, shaking for a long time - as it’d been shaking in the decades before. Even the "perestroika" in the USSR, which echoed in Bulgaria and incited the spirits of the people, seemed to give no real hopes for a great change. Moreover, because in 1987 Todor Zhivkov proclaimed at a plenum or at a Congress of the Communist Party of Bulgaria the directive: "We will lower our heads until the storm is over". And the "storm" was precisely the perestroika. The times were insecure, and this could also be seen in the Earth and Sky exhibition. UBA didn't want it, but apparently it didn't want to ban it directly. So some of the obstacles it created in its preparation were more about the idea that Georgi Todorov and I would give up doing it ourselves. For example, the request for permission from the building engineer for the weight of the works on the roof was reasonable – we found him and he gave permission for 400 kg per square meter. However, when I was told that I also needed permission from the Air Traffic Services department at Sofia Airport, I almost laughed. I explained that we had no intention of raising new floors of the building, but would only be doing an exhibition on its roof that already existed – and surely the flights of the planes had long been tailored to its height. Then, when the exhibition was already running, part of its development was due again to the precarious and therefore unpredictable actions of the government. I don't know what the reason was that one morning when I opened the terrace I found out that there were sheets from the rack log missing. It turned out those were the pages mentioning Nedko Solakov's The View to the West – a telescope mounted on the railing and fixed on the red five-pointed star of the communist party house. The very telescope the artist brought in the morning and took home in the evening. However, the brass plate, which was the label of the work, had disappeared. It was clear that the “secret services’ were watching the exhibition, but this downright criminal way of obliterating the provocative work really made me mad. I recovered the missing pages – at the time I wrote everything on a typing machine in three copies using carbon paper, - and in the diary for that day I wrote only the sentence "The plate of The View to the West went missing". In any case, the work had already become legendary, and its absence only cemented its status for the audience.  

Quite direct, however, was our clash over the dissidents’ recital. It happened like this: A colleague came to ask me if a recital of ecopoetry could be held on the roof. I did not mind; moreover, the club that organised it existed formally at the Sofia University. I told her to ask Georgi Todorov anyway. Of course, "ecopoetry" was a signal of dissidence – at the time the environmental topic, as ideologically neutral one, was used as a form of resistance to the government. The club members had glued around the centre of Sofia small, downright miniature, notices about the recital. As a result, Georgi Todorov and I were summoned to the UBA headquarters – there were people unknown to me there, probably from the "secret services" – and we were literally told: "This recital must not take place". The interesting wording was accompanied by threats, including the closure of the Earth and Sky exhibition, a ban on the upcoming 11.11.89 exhibition in Blagoevgrad and in general the end of these new forms in Bulgarian art. Georgi Todorov convincingly explained that we had no connection with these people, we did not have their phone numbers; that when they came, we would tell them that the leadership of UBA did not want this recital – and that was what we could do. And that's what we did. The recital started on the roof, and when the poets were expelled – some of them I remember were Nikolay “Barefoot” Kolev, Mihail Nedelchev, Vladimir Levchev, they continued it in the Doctor's Garden. The Earth and Sky exhibition was not closed, but only reduced to the works on the roof-terrace itself. Some of them were trampled and broken by the recital audience, which provoked the discontent of the artists. I recorded it in the journal accordingly, and two days later, when it became clear that there would be no more consequences for the exhibition, we replaced the sheets with the more neutral descriptions of the event by Georgi Todorov. So the Journal, which I gave to the Sofia City Art Gallery as a present years ago, contains both versions.

The situation was also complicated because some of the participants in the exhibition had already had unpleasant experiences with the "services" in the past and were rightly afraid. On the other hand, for the audience, the exhibition was a place of freedom and artistic rebellion against the system. The media declared the "non-conventional forms" avant-garde – and in some ways for the moment and for the society in our country at the time they played exactly that role. For their part, the artists were aware that they were adopting art tradition and development, from which the Bulgarian art had been torn away for decades, being isolated in the socialist environment. A kind of connection with them was Christo, for example, whose appearances were known in narrow circles, among colleagues and friends, but officially he was not talked about – he had fled the country and his art was among the "harmful Western influences" according to the communist regime. And along with this new tradition in Bulgaria, language was also learned – and not only artistic.  

Contemporary art

I clearly remember a conversation on the train with Maria Vasileva in 1990 on the way back from Lovech. There was an exhibition and conference, I believe it was dedicated to the new languages in art, in which we participated as a group from the Club of the Young Artists. And our conversation with Maria Vasileva was precisely about the language – or rather its shortage, when discussing the so-called “non-conventional forms”. We lacked not only terminology, but also a language in a more general sense – such as approach, thinking and talking about those new phenomena in Bulgarian art. Moreover, when they were treated with neglect, and often with contempt, by much of “the guild”. "This has already been done," said artists representing the classical arts on the occasion of the installations within the exhibitions of CYA, which was later renamed the “Club of the (eternally) Young Artist” because of frictions with UBA. So to "this has already been done" I replied - "painting has already been done as well, and sculpture, for much longer, they have been done for centuries and millennia"...

Meanwhile, no matter how quickly they evolved and differentiated, already without the threat of ideological sanction and with the available freely entering information, the lack of experience in these "non-conventional forms" sometimes had their say. For example, when, in the summer of 1990, the Bulgarian National Council granted C(e)YA the entire building of Shipka 6 for the Moderate Avant-garde within the Framework of Tradition exhibition, I suggested to the colleagues on the roof that we do the Beach exhibition. For purely practical reasons. From the Earth and Sky exhibition the previous year, I knew how the sun shone on the roof-terrace even in October, so I imagined what it would be like in the summer. The suggestion was accepted, I provided an awning and pools from sponsors – which was an adventure, and a real beach started functioning on the roof. Of course, there were also works of artists tailored to the place and theme. However, it was only after an article by Georgi Lozanov in the Pulse newspaper that I realised that in fact Beach was not just an exhibition, but a performance. It was performed daily in a variable composition by both the participants and the audience, and lasted until the end of the summer – when the Moderate Avant-Garde... exhibition downstairs had long been over. Years later, I was asked at the UBA when I would reopen the beach on the roof...  

Beach, 1990


I vividly remember another conversation – with Iara Boubnova. It was after the N-forms. Reconstructions and Interpretations exhibition (1994), which I mentioned above. It was the first annual exhibition of the Soros Arts Centre, it became a kind of review of the 10-year development of "non-conventional forms" in Bulgaria. And for the first time, there was money for a catalogue! There had been unsuccessful attempts or home-made catalogues for individual events before, but there was no officially printed edition for these arts. That's why we collected in the catalogue of N-forms... everything we were able to find about their history. I was invited to the curatorial team of the exhibition at a later stage, when its chosen name was Installation. Reconstructions and interpretations. But since it had to present not only installations, the name seemed to me too limited and inaccurate. On the other hand, "non-conventional forms" had already been an established term for these arts, but it was too cumbersome to name an exhibition. So I suggested N-forms – given their many varieties. In the end, this name was adopted, the exhibition was a spectacular event for its time, the catalogue remained in history – and it was a kind of apotheosis of the so-called non-conventional forms in our country.  

N-forms, 1994


And it was exactly at this point in our conversation that Iara Boubnova asked me by and by, "Why do you keep calling them ‘non-conventional forms’?". “And how should I call them?” I was puzzled. "What about ‘contemporary art’," she calmly replied. I immediately "took in" what it was about. And it was about a double standard, actually. The works of Bulgarian artists in international forums were "contemporary art", and in Bulgaria they existed as unspecified "non-conventional forms". The terminology had to be aligned because this Bulgarian art was already coming out on the international art scene. And it was to become part of it, and in a more distant perspective – to make the Bulgarian art scene international.

I sighed heavily, to be honest. We had worked so hard to persuade at least “the guild” of the legitimate existence of these arts in our country and to establish them through the term "non-conventional forms", and now we had to change it. And to engage in explaining and establishing another term – "contemporary art", which would take many more years filled with disputes, discussions and struggles even... But there was no other way – we had to start.

And so we did.  

P.S. This is where I finish the second part of my writing. Of course, there may be a third and a fourth one, given the different terms that entered into the contemporary Bulgarian art and alongside with it. But let's just say they're upcoming. Possibly.  

Diana Popova, 2019