The origins of Bulgarian contemporary art are intertwined with nature: land art in collaboration with the landscape forms some of the earliest examples of art that broke from conventional styles and into new territories.
In the ‘80s, considered the beginning of contemporary art in Bulgaria, the natural world was a place of escape and experimentation. In the west, land art was a way to critique consumerism and the material consumptive culture around art. But in Bulgaria, the practice evolved because contemporary art couldn’t be shown in the official galleries that were part of the communist government’s system of arts and culture. If a piece of art couldn’t be classified in terms of technique or genre, it couldn’t be displayed — so groups of artists started using the natural landscape as their galleries. Art created in the open air, often with found or nature-based tools like driftwood or rope, was a way to experiment without permission and away from censorship. The land was a space for new art forms to take inspiration and thrive.
“Water Dragon,” [Vesselin Dimov, 1983] is often considered the first piece of contemporary art in Bulgaria. It uses the Veleka River in the Strandzha Mountains as the frame for a suspended rectangular grid of rope and wood. Nearly 100 wood slats shaped like an ear of corn and painted yellow, pink, red, white, or blue were sharpened in such a way to submerge in the river’s current, in tune with the flow of the water, and look like a school of very organized, finless fish. Although there is a grid structure created by the rope, the number of wood pieces attached changes row by row, creating an undulating effect.
Water dragon, 1983.
- Material: 70/15 meters, Veleka River near the village of Kosti, 5 km of rope, 96 colored beams, sharpened against the current so that the current submerges them, polyurethane foam floats. September 1983.
- Width: 15.00 m Height: 70.00 m Depth: m
- Description: The work is conceptually related to the plastic searches in "Terrain and Constructions"
"Water Dragon" was an extension of ideas that Dimov had started developing the year before when he created large geometric shapes of wood and stone and rope displayed briefly in Varna’s Sea Garden. His “Landscape and Construction” works were torn down at the orders of the communist party. But the rigidity of these sculptures struck him as out of tune with nature, something he sought to correct when making “Water Dragon.” His goal with this new work was for it to be incorporated into the local environment, becoming a part of the natural surroundings instead of disrupting them. The second day after the wood sculpture was installed, wildlife returned to the area and treated the sculpture as part of their environment.
“My work "Water Dragon" is considered the beginning of contemporary art in our country, but it is more important for me that the fish and snakes accepted the work and that it breathed in the middle,” he told LiterNet in 2001.
"Water Dragon" was made from materials that decompose, and eventually they did. The creature was reabsorbed by nature — which Dimov frames as an ethical, rather than aesthetic choice in art and human existence more broadly.
Dimov’s Varna contemporary Tsvetan Krastev, who later would co-found the ‘Var(t)na’ club in the ‘90s, also worked with nature, often creating settings or scenes based around the landscape, like the Pravda newspaper hat-topped Sunflowers or the half-submerged cafe dining table, complete with white table cloth, in “The Lunch.” There’s a playful quality to the work, and while it makes use of the flowers and water, Krastev’s pieces aren’t trying to fully coexist with nature.
By the late ‘80s, the practice of creating art in more remote parts of nature shifted to green spaces in the capital of Sofia, where another river — the Perlovska — became a framework for both art and political commentary.
Sixth day of the performance "Bridges of art" – the bridge across the street from the Vassil Levski stadium parking lot, 1988.
- Photographer: Orlin Dvoryanov
Eighth day of the performance "Bridges of art" – the bridge in Graf Ignatiev street, 1988.
- Photographer: Mileti Svetoslavov
In 1988, the group DE (short for Dynamic Estheticization, formed by Dobrin Peytchev and Orlin Dvoyanov) unveiled “Bridges of Art” along nine different bridges over the canalized Perlovska River. Their “Light Sieve” filtered sunlight through red, blue, and yellow frames of rectangular metal punctured with large holes, not unlike giant Connect Four boards. The exhibit took place over nine days, a different bridge and a different configuration of the boards each day. Part of the installation was engaging with people walking by the river. The artists posed a series of questions, including if art can be a bridge between people and about the “short-lived presence of conceptual artforms in the urban environment — a realm that under socialism was reserved for monuments and memorials. These large-scale works telegraph people’s dominance over nature, and the party’s dominance over its people.
The current state of the Perlovska River itself is an example of people altering nature, of forcing the water into a narrow drainage ditch, pushing it into a tamer, more predictable existence. Unlike Dimov’s “Water Dragon” on the Veleka River, there wasn’t much of a community of wildlife for the art to coexist with. People can barely engage with the Perlovska themselves: it has been rendered inaccessible nature, canalized and sunk below street level. In recent years the Rivers of Sofia festival has, in some ways, echoed themes of “Bridges of Art” – the inaugural festival both suspended colorful rope over the river and invited people to reconsider their relationship with the place and urban landscape.
Using nature as a bridge metaphor is also present in Albena Mihaylova - Bendji’s work. One of her earliest works, “Lake and Tape” , was a performance on the Sopot Dam near Karlovo. Mihaylova rowed back and forth across the lake, leaving a trail of paper tape in her wake. Along the shore, she left spirals of the white paper and covered tree branches with it. As she rowed and distributed tape, she took off her own clothes. At the end of the performance, she was naked in the boat, and the lake was crisscrossed with tape.
“The more the lake is "wrapped", i.e. engulfed by human conscience and intervention, the more the body emerges and becomes free,” she wrote about the performance.
Mihaylova’s inverse relationship between human freedom and unspoiled nature suggests a zero-sum game: that one freedom comes at the expense of another. Liberating her own body burdens the lake. It’s a transfer, an exchange.
Her choice of location on the Sopot Dam also brings additional layers of meaning: the dam is a “natural” place that only exists because of human intervention. Like the Perlovska River, the body of water holds its current shape because people created the mold. The dam reservoir was created in 1961 and drowned two villages in the process. So while Mihaylova is drawing a distinction between the lake before and after human intervention in her performance, she simply is the most recent additional layer of human presence, not an initial contact. The tape is the latest way that people have impacted the dam reservoir landscape.
But by taking off her clothes as she rows, she’s not an unchanged participant in the process. She both shapes and is shaped by the landscape.
A few years later, Mihaylova’s piece “The Dress”  continued on themes of empty garments in natural landscapes. It was created at one of Bulgaria’s biggest bridge moments: the collapse of communism. In September 1989, Mihaylova was on the Black Sea coast in Albena at a plein air gathering of the Tolbuhin (now Dobrich) chapter of the Union of Bulgarian Artists called “Nature.” Along with other participants, she constructed a massive dress out of 150 meters of sturdy white cotton fabric that spanned the space from the top of a rocky cliff down to the sea. The garment, made from natural fibers, was suspended with rope and only “worn” by the sea breeze that moved through it. It bridged the space between land, sea, and sky, evoking femininity without human embodiment.
The dress was displayed at an exhibition in Blagoevgrad on Nov. 11 when news broke that the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov had been ousted. The entire country was in a moment of transition, of bridging from one system to another.
With the fall of communism, the rules around what was and wasn’t considered gallery-appropriate art began to shift as artists themselves were able to run their own art spaces and galleries. When nature is brought into the gallery, it’s often to critique human impact on the environment: a caging, sanitizing, or extinguishing force. Bulgarian contemporary art came into force as the realities of the climate crisis were just starting to become public in the ‘80s — “global warming” started showing up in public opinion polls in the US. Bulgaria, like many other Eastern European countries, was late to industrialize. Issues like air pollution are relatively recent. But the communist period’s collectivization of farmland and push toward industrial production started the process, which has continued post-’89 in a rush to “catch up” to western aspirations of consumption.
The collective love of the mountains and escaping air pollution in the city feels universal, but politics and policies to protect those spaces — let alone end Bulgaria’s coal-fired power generation — are not.
“Nature nowadays is the last consensual public good uniting our ever more fragmented societies; but common belongings are out of date in the lands of post-communism,” cultural anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev wrote in 2020.
Some works that feature Bulgarain nature, especially the mountains, include Nedko Solakov’s “Nature”  illustrates the forests near the village of Boriki in detailed sketchbook style made in plein air during a 12-day hike. A pile of dirt, a deer’s head, a rushing waterfall: each is rendered in shaky yet precise linework. There’s a tenderness and care in the attention to detail of both fresh new exploration and deep ancient connection. Or in Dimitar Solakov’s When the Mountain Doesn’t Come to Me and I Can’t Go to Her , his first time painting, which he took up when he was unable to be in nature as a new parent. The series of paintings is repetitive with longing. The mountain peaks are a gray-blue monochrome, darkest in the foreground and lighter as they recede into the distance.
Dimitar Solakov’s “Sanctuaries,”  created a few years later is a series of tiny dioramas each containing a single insect. The boxes are bright colored and vaguely surreal. A carpenter bee is caged with a collection of fake flowers, pink chrysanthemum petals and spiky green plastic grass fill the cage, with a blue-painted background. They are something between a pet shop window and scientific recreation. Instead of pinning the insects like in a conventional scientific diagram, Solakov suspends them on plastic fishing wire connected to a servo motor, forcing the insect to “move like a zombie” — in his own words, “a cynical analogy to the effort of some people to preserve specific species or pieces of land.” The “Sanctuaries” boxes were displayed in Little Bird Place in Sofia, the only gallery in the country specifically focused on contemporary art about nature and ecology. The boxes were paired with his “Exodus”  series of paintings depicting tiny hot air balloon-like spaceships landing on marbled red and yellow planets, and his “Ice Caps” and “Permafrost”  neon signs, where the work titles are spelled out in frosty blue letters, “ice” and “perma” flickering. Collectively, the works point to a future where even quotidien wildlife like bees and butterflies will be museum exhibits as we flee from our overheated planet to new worlds.
Given their focus, Little Bird Place has showcased the work of many other contemporary artists working today, including the "Captured Feeling" series by Alexander Lazarkov, with its concentric inked tree rings surrounding moss and dried herbs, and the AR-enhanced weather conditions projected in Eli Joteva’s CryoLumen.
Maria Nalbantova’s work deals with the unsustainability of human relationship with nature as in “Weather Forecast”  and “What's next?” , where she stitched photos of landscapes and collected leaves onto a large white nylon bag. The plastic becomes the canvas for the landscape, the base that nature is superimposed on.
“Nature is a constant object of interpretation, she wrote about the piece, and [landscape] paintings are an emanation of natural beauty, which contrasts with our contemporary times, where the importance of environmental issues are often widely ignored.”
The piece also plays with notions of where the “natural” world begins and ends, which continues in her solo show "Hybrid-pure" . The show was created as part of a residency at the Sariev gallery; the gallery was her studio until the opening of the show. Nalbantova gathered roots, sticks, and weeds in the garden across from the gallery to create organic forms with both the organic material and plastic water pipes. The resulting sculptures are like ikebana: the tubular roots and spindly branches have created their own structures simply by existing. The water pipes are affixed precisely to their end points and form closed loops with the parts of the tree. It looks like a heart on life support.
Created in the summer of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic is a current flowing under the project’s notions of hygiene and cleanness; the sculptures were complimented by a series of scrub brushes and soaps made from stones. What does it mean to be clean, anyways? What does it mean to be natural?
These questions run up against the definition of “nature” itself and if people can be separated from it — back to Vesselin Dimov’s goal of coexistence but coming face to face with the reality that right now that coexistence feels tenuous.
Ashira Morris, 2022