Co-curator Vesselina Sarieva on the exhibition “Brittle Power”

A life in-between – text on the brittle power of the Bulgarian contemporary art
It is traditionally believed that in the 1980s Bulgarian contemporary art emerged in an environment of political opposition in the period up to 1989 and subsequently developed in an environment filled with deficits in terms of institutional infrastructure. Deficits, such as the lack of national representation at the Venice Biennale, the lack of a Museum of Contemporary Art, the few public collections, the lack of private collectors, the shortage of specialized private galleries, the lack of an art market, and of good academic education, which became the main motifs in the artistic life, and also themes of artistic practices. The development of art in such a context resembled a prolonged growth, existence in a situation of “in-between” in parallel to the unfulfilled and never-ending political transition in Bulgaria, much like the processes in all the countries of the Eastern Bloc after 1989.

Being centrally administered prior to 1989 by the authorities of the state, after the so-called Changes of 1989 the local art practice and artists felt a deficit of new institutional support and regulations. Paradoxically, it was a need of institutionalizing in which the visual art neither believed nor believes very much in. The model provided fascinating manifestations of freedom of formation after 1989 of artistic positions, and collectives, but also the freedom to refuse articulation in the general picture (a line existing before 1989). Thus, bright and distinct presences or quiet, respectful absences of artists emerged, who also never stopped creating, but stopped participating in the public artistic life. We are talking about artists, but also about curators, gallerists, peers and lovers of the artistic process.

The situation of insufficient professionalization made room for individualism. This was a phenomenon of the local art context, recognized as a factor by most of the experts on Bulgarian art. They even started talking about individual “isms”. (One might say that in the Bulgarian art scene each artist thought of herself or himself as an individual “ism”.). Names-as-institutions emerged. This happened in a highly hybrid form, names that combined the roles of artists, patrons, curators, gallerists, critics, some of whom even had secondary jobs and professions to sustain them. There came a time when these artists, collectives or organizations began to be perceived (genuinely, misleadingly, willingly or reluctantly) as national representatives. In front of every name stood the definite article “The…” This was not far from the national mythology of the hero-victim, leader of all (or depriving everyone else from that role).

The process of forming a civil society intensified with the country’s accession to the EU in 2007. Then cultural organizations emerged enjoying a broader quorum, liberalizing and opening up the art environment. By mapping, describing, and activating existing models, by including them in more general initiatives and perspectives, they built up new constellations from the individual voices of the past, giving room for the emergence of new artistic positions and stimulating continuity. They, those that “created opportunities for direct communication, meetings, and cohesion, which formed new generations and a new type of urban culture”, at some point formed the new mass, which changed the need and displaced the centralized model of institutional thinking in the country. These were essentially hybrid initiatives combining clusters of organizations with activist spirit; while following the models of the West, they developed strong local ecosystems and audiences. Thus, the accumulation of stability and persistence eventually triggered the emergence of new artistic circles. In a purely thematic aspect, this also had an impact on taking a look around, through which more and more local and sometimes marginal themes began to enter the art practices and discourse.

The fact that the first unsanctioned manifestations of contemporary art in the 80s took place not so much in the administrative center – Sofia, but on the periphery – in Varna, Plovdiv, Blagoevgrad or in the so-called “open air symposia”, should not be underestimated as an emotional prerequisite for this kind of decentralization. The gradual return to the circulation of these stories in the perception of the Bulgarian contemporary art and the activation at these and also at new locations on the periphery eased the tension of/over individualism. Gradually, we started talking about a real formation of fertile artistic ground in these cities, now supplied by the cultural and ever more active artistic production there. We could see clearer now not only the example of Plovdiv as the launching pad for this trend – starting around 2004, developing actively since 2007, peaking in a new way of thinking before and during 2019, but also in the evolution of Veliko Tarnovo as a follower, as well as other cities to an extent.

Internationally, around 2007 many Bulgarian artists already worked in the situation of the diaspora and were joined by new waves – mainly in Paris, Vienna, and Berlin. Their increasingly regular returns to Bulgaria and presence in both scenes created yet another prerequisite for the evolution and diffusion of Bulgarian contemporary art.

It is interesting to note that the activation of the peripheries changed the centrally regulated life in the capital and imposed new models. Following periods of vivid manifestations and calm, somewhere after the first decade of the 21st century, there was an activation of a new audience for contemporary art, gravitating around initiatives that were also hybrid and formed using the grassroots as a source and methodology.

What then is Bulgarian contemporary art today? What is its geography? What is its nationality and range? What is its language? What is its character?

Traditionally considered part of the Eastern European art, Bulgarian art belongs formally, but not so much aesthetically, to this historical area. At the same time, it is also defined by the Balkans – by a kind of closeness in terms of mentality to the countries in this geographical, as well as distinctly overloaded historical/political region. It is a region that, with its inherent sense of detail, domestic concreteness, historicity, Orientalism, and patriarchal tendencies fed thematically and materially generations of artists working in radically different directions and visual idioms.

Somehow distinctly, in a situation of a small, heterogeneous identity, mentally crisscrossed by political and geographical fault lines, there emerged the desire to justify oneself, to fit in the larger art world and “picture”. The presence of narrative and language in the work of Bulgarian artists working in contemporary art seems to “award” a generalizing character to Bulgarian contemporary art. It is this little narrative, those little stories or non-stories that are heard as a signal – murmuring or spamming reality. These are insights, or even a narrative, that builds a world with its own “temper”. There is poetry hidden in the amplitude of the artworks; there are words that create through the artists’ voices their own body, their own corporeal nature.

The narrative “voice” in the works of these artists, contains a very different justification for the emergence of conceptual tendencies in art, compared to the story of Western conceptual art. Here it does not participate in the great circulation of the themes/narratives of “contemporary art”, but is used to humanize and bring reconciliation. Here, it constitutes the individual artist’s voice, standing out from the whole, rather than constructing the whole, the community, through all those assumed individualisms. It is a “voice” producing a text that is not visible but exists under the “surface of the picture”. This text enjoys a healthy life across various artistic practices and generations, because “text as an artistic means can, of course, form an artistic work without having any visual, formal or material expressions”, hence the aesthetic ones.

The artwork in this case is a value in spiritual terms, a place of formation, construction, even in opposition to, and differentiation from. Forming in a situation of hyper textuality, citation, irony, anarchism, self-irony, and reverence, in which there are both inferiority complexes and superior potential.

There is a fragile power in the Bulgarian art scene, where there is always somewhere a new and promising bright individuality constantly developing.

The exhibition “Brittle Power” in Kunsthalle Moen initiated by René Block will present several generations of artists that are representative of Bulgarian contemporary art and its tendencies from the 1980s to the present day. These are: Nedko Solakov, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Pravdoliub Ivanov, Mariana Vassileva, Rada Boukova, Sibin Vassilev, Rudi Ninov and Vikenti Komitski.

Vesselina Sarieva