The text as an artistic medium

by Daniela Radeva

The emergence of text in the visual art in Bulgaria, unlike the conceptual art in Europe and the USA, has different origins, reasons and arguments. Although this is one of the means, forms and genres that by default was put into use with the invasion of information from the West after the changes in 1989, artists in Bulgaria had long worked in a specific political and social environment that had put them in the position of not being able to express themselves directly, and not only through language.  

In the years of socialist realism after World War II, text had a serious presence in art – but not in the literal sense of the word. This was the text that could not be seen as written words, but existed beneath the surface of the picture in the form of a political propaganda slogan. Together with the slogans directly available in the socialist poster, these were statements that did not originate in the artist's mind, but were imposed by the political doctrine. Therefore, it is understandable that in the years after, at the time of late socialism, artists seemed to give up being specific in the content. For over two decades, the intuition in their work acquired an extremely high status and it was considered normal for neither the artist nor the work to engage in articulation and transmission of information.  

Unlike the Soviet Union, there was no artistic underground in Bulgaria. For a long time, there had been the official position that the artist was free in their ideas and means of expressions, but at the same time that freedom was conditional. The boundaries between what was allowed and forbidden were unclear, as if there were a double standard and the arguments for the admissibility of works in exhibitions were constantly changing. In the late 1980s, all this provoked some artists to resort to the use of the so-called "Aesopian language" or associative and metaphorical expression. At the time, this was mainly manifested in titles of works – such as: Mentally Undressed Speaker from 1986 by Nedko Solakov or Boom in Power Engineering from 1988 by Sasho Stoitsov – surreptitiously criticising the system or referring to current societal problems.

Sasho Stoitzov

Boom in Power Engineering, 1988.

Installation

Details

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

  • Property of: Sasho Stoitzov

In 1989, the solo exhibition of Georgi Todorov 1,000 White Sheets opened in the AYA gallery in Burgas. In it, the artist used blank sheets of white writing paper, eliciting a long series of associations from the material itself. In addition to minimalist interventions with the sheets, the exhibition was at its core a series of a thousand titles. Many of them were homages to artists and philosophers and directly referred to the Western culture and contemporary art. However, some of these titles still spoke in a "socialist language", although they already allowed themselves to take an ironic turn – such as White Sheet Chewed by Mistake by a Partisan (So as Not to Be Intercepted by the Enemy) or Portrait of a Sympathetic Scout (Drawn in Sympathetic Ink). Vladimir Ivanov's first works emerged during the transition between socialism and democracy, making use of the possibilities of text – not only as a means of transmitting information, but also as a form with great aesthetic potential.  

The contribution of Vladimir Ivanov, Georgi Todorov, Nedko Solakov, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Kiril Prashkov, as well as other artists who worked at the time, found its expression not only in the introduction of new forms, but also in the revival of the artist's faded status of an intellectual in the time of socialism who, besides talent, had an opinion and education. The knowledge and information coming from abroad already allowed the discussion about "conceptual art" and the use of language to directly transmit information and even to exceed the visual in terms of status.  

The need for education in "contemporary art" at the time of the changes and in the early 1990s, both for artists and audiences, catalysed the creation of numerous homages, references to and quotes of Western authors and works. This annoyed the traditionally orientated part of the professional community and contemporary art came under a lot of criticism for relying on the "foreign" Western knowledge. The exhibition End of Quote, organised by Luchezar Boyadjiev in 1990, in which the word "quote" did not even refer directly to the use of texts in art, but to the citation of artistic rather than political ideologies, came as an answer. In this case, it is more important that it was Luchezar Boyadjiev who introduced and strengthened the position of the conversation about conceptual art in Bulgaria, as well as the acceptance as a standard of the artists’ use of the hand not only for painting, but also for writing. One of the main aspects of art materialised in text is its conceptuality. So, in 1995 Luchezar Boyadjie vcreated his work Self-Portrait as a Conceptual Icon. In Honour of Joseph Kosuth as part of the installation In Honour of – homages to artists such as Günther Uecker, Giacometti, etc., which played the role of one of the textbook works of contemporary art in Bulgaria. A few years later, in the project Hot Visual City (2003), he presented four drawings on beautiful heavy paper, measuring about 70x50 cm, representing a copied in pencil and handwritten text by Ivaylo Dichev – a philosopher, whom Luchezar Boyadjiev admired and honoured with the act of the copying.

Luchezar Boyadjiev

How many nails in the mouth? Self-portrait with 2 kg 12.5 cm long nails in the mouth, 1992.

Painting

Details

  • Material: digital print on paper
  • Width: 60.00 cm    Height: 80.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Description: 1992-1995

    The “How many nails in a mouth?” work started as an inner turmoil expressing pencil-on-paper drawing made on the terrace in front of the Albertina Museum in Vienna in summer of 1992. Later on it evolved into “Homage to Günther Uecker”, part of cycle of homage(s) first shown at “Orient/ation”, the 4th Istanbul Biennial curated by René Block in 1995.

In the early 1990s, artists became increasingly interested in the idea of communicating with the audience through their works, and there were lengthy discussions about the communicative aspects of art. Communicating with the audience seemed a very promising topic for that time, even more so than it is for young artists now. This trend manifested itself in different ways. For several years, the spray-painted graffiti Kosyo, Huben, Tushev – done by Kosyo Minchev, Huben Cherkelov and Georgi Tushev, remained on the streets of Sofia. These artists, along with the others from the XXL gallery circle, understood the interaction with the audience as a confrontation. They proclaimed the existence of contemporary art, using outrageous artistic gestures to attract attention.  

In the 1990s, the Bulgarian society immersed in pop-folk culture, hypocritical spirituality and questionable financial operations. So, it was no coincidence that words such as "dick" and "pussy" were present quite naturally as part of the artistic works – they were a normal anger reflex of the surrounding modernity. However, they were also a reflex of the deliberate "plastic" arts that had established themselves in our country in the previous decades, and which resisted accepting the idea and concept as a factor in the artistic process. A typical 1990s punk song by the band Bobo, Tosho and Tabakov, based on lyrics by Svilen Stefanov, which is still in rotation on the Internet, begins with the words: "It’s good to kick culture, kick science, kick education. It’s right to kick them with your pointed-toe boots..." The 1990s marked the beginning of advertising slogans in art in Bulgaria, or more precisely in works using advertising language and imagery – sometimes as a commentary on consumer culture, other times as an adequate form of expressing thoughts about art itself, or with other arguments. Adelina Popnedeleva created "Advertising Only" as early as 1996, with the title hinting at the content. The work contained only advertising texts based on popular ones, and the "product" was the artist herself – "Adelina – the best a man can get!"; "Fight back pain with the power of Adelina"; "Adelina – a wonderful wafer, full of chocolate spread, sweet, crunchy and delicious, it is forever with us!".

Alla Georgieva

Alla's Secret-II / Collection 2000, 2000.

Photography

Details

  • Material: digital print on paper
  • Width: 100.00 cm    Height: 130.00 cm    Depth: cm   

  • Property of: Alla Georgieva
  • Description: My works are inspired by the world of advertisement. I investigate the contrast between advertising strategies and the real life. In series of three posters I present my paranoid existence, borrowing tools for influence from advertisement, which itself uses the fashionable strategy of imitating the “real life”. The title of the work is a paraphrase of the name of the worldwide famous underwear company “Victoria’s Secret”. I advertise underwear and at the same time I “advertise” my own life. In the three posters I am cooking three traditional Bulgarian dishes in my house. I use the popular logos from different famous advertisements for underwear.
  • Copyright: Alla Georgieva

A similar theme was used in the cycle Alla's Secret (2000) by Alla Georgieva. "Next Future? Next Underwear!"; "My World, My Dreams, My Underwear..."; "If I Want a Man to See My Bra, I Take Him Home," were set on large-format posters, an ironic look on Victoria's Secret lingerie ads as they presented the preparation of the Bulgarian’s favourite foods. Of course, the message was feminist. In fact, it seemed that exactly in the group of female artists called March 8th the play on advertising was the most popular game. In 2001, the curator of March 8th Maria Vasileva organised the exhibition SHOP-ART. Women Shopping/at the Market, located in several shops along the pedestrian underpass between TZUM (Central Department Store) and the Sheraton Hotel in Sofia. Many of the artists commented on the topic with advertising means and slogans. The shortest but most effective was "Dany" – in the work of Daniela Kostova, yet another artist advertising contemporary art through her own personality. In this case, however, disguised as a pop-folk star. A little earlier, Rassim had also had a similar act.  

Poster (1996) and I Love Denitsa (1997) by Rassim were works that literally existed as advertisements in the Art magazine. They followed the typical style of advertising pages, and although they could be displayed in an exhibition as framed prints, they appeared for the first time in the magazine. Naturally, they received the circulation of the corresponding issue. The content of the slogan I Love Denitsa totally overturned the logic of advertising. Not only because it was not meant to sell, but it confronted the very idea of commerciality, publicly demonstrating the most intimate feelings of the artist's life. The disclosure of facts and feelings from the real life of the artist through storytelling is extremely characteristic of works by Nedko Solakov. There are two main reasons why his text works are so appealing to the audience – they can be frighteningly personal and, on the other hand, literally make them laugh. In them, the fairy tale plots alternate or intertwine with real confessions and fears, and he wins the viewer for being able to bring them to empathy. Or cause a spectacular scandal, as happened when his work Top Secret from 1989-1990 was first shown.

Nedko Solakov

Top Secret, 1989–1990, 1989.

Installation

Details

  • Photographer: Anatoly Michaylov and Konstantin Shestakov
  • Material: Acrylic, drawing ink, oil, photographs, graphite, bronze, aluminium, wood; a shameful secret; 179 index cards in original box; video on DVD, colour, sound, 40'07", looped, 2007
  • Width: 14.00 cm    Height: 46.00 cm    Depth: 39.00 cm   

  • Description: Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
  • References: More info about the work here: http://nedkosolakov.net/content/top_secret/index_eng.html

However, it was later presented as the first work of a Bulgarian artist at documenta in 2007, together with Fears, created in the same year. Fears is a cycle of drawings with captions such as this one: "A little fear was trying to do his job - spreading fear vibes all around. Unfortunately, no one got affected just because there was nobody around. ‘Sometimes it is pretty scary to be alone,’ says the little fear to himself and slowed down a bit." In 2018, Sevda Semer used text to penetrate extremely deep inside her soul and conscience and transform into art what was hidden there. In her project Figures, she combined large-format abstract artworks with sound files, which she presented as their titles. The titles were so long, however, that it took minutes to be spoken or read. This was the first urge to record them with the artist's voice so as they could be listened to by the audience along with the viewing of the abstract images. On the one hand, it was a creative method of analysing the idea of the abstract, the inexplicable and the impossible to articulate – by exporting verbal material from the same source, from the soul of the same artist.

Sevda Semer

Figures, painting with an audio title, 2018.

Painting

Details

  • Material: acrylic, charcoal and pencil, commercial paints on textile
  • Width: 130.00 mm    Height: 209.96 mm    Depth: mm   

Thus, the two extreme positions in art came together in these dual works. But at the same time, the content of the texts never affected the theme of art, but rather filtered Sevda Semer's experiences in life, as if the artist in her did not at all claim to be distinguished from the human being. "One: The eastern idea of the body as a hut in the forest, assembled from the materials lying around, delicately kept in shape. When nothing holds it anymore, the materials return to their natural environment. That is, inhabiting an empty space. Vacuum is what holds the parts in the body. But of course, what keeps the hut in the forest whole is not a vacuum, it is not just an empty space. Still, the idea brings you some comfort. Two: My voice reaches such places my touch couldn't. Places I can't touch you..."

Text as an artistic tool can of course form an artistic work without any visual, formal or material expressions. Achieving such extreme incorporeality distinguishes the work of Rada Bukova Sculpture is not Just a Thing of 2009. Among the visual noise of a general exhibition, on a low grey pedestal that almost merged with the floor, there were headphones with sound, lasting about half an hour. During this time, Rada Bukova describes aloud what an object looks like - a car abandoned long ago in the street. The description does not resemble an analysis, at first "glance" it is focused on formal aspects: "... It's a big hall. It's a beautiful hall. Spacious. It's full of images. There's a car, centrally located. This car is here, for some reason. This car is here because it's beautiful. Because it's monumental. Because it has clear shapes. And why not really...".  

What is essential in this work, on one hand, is the minimisation of the expressive means and, on the other, the insistent focus on the form – the text, the narrative, the story are in the background. This is what we "see", but it is also essential that the information arrives without a trace of excitement and without a critical tone. The artist tries not to express emotion or her words to express one - at one time she says: "Form is extremely intriguing", but with the same disheartening voice that she maintains all the time. The content of the text refers to the work itself, any other possible links that the viewer could make appear, but only to be immediately ignored afterwards.