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Women at the edge of feminism - Maria Vassileva
Female body - from inside to a sign - Maria Vassileva
Where there is a woman there is no silence - Maria Vassileva
Roles – Desires - Angel V. Angelov
Women at the edge of feminism

Maria Vassileva


The Women's group "The 8-th of March" has existed in the cultural horizon of Bulgaria since 1997 when a few female artists got together, following their natural reaction against the exhibition "Erotica" in which only male artists were invited to take part. Little by little the organised work replaced spontaneity. Since then, 8 exhibitions, a few international projects have been realised, catalogues, brochures, CD and others have been issued.
"The 8-th of March" carries all the marks of the formation that appeared at the end of the XX century, a time when the "borders" were not much respected (particularly in a country trying to be excluded from the Shenguen list). Even the group's members are not the same, they vary according to the specific circumstances or the tolerance/intolerance inside the group. Often the personal gains ascendancy over the professional and it is interpreted not only as a sign of "femininity" but also as contemporaneity, when the common cause gives way to the individual. The motley character of "The 8-th of March" also concerns more profound parts of the nature of the group. Its face does not have regular features. In fact, it does not suit the beauty requirements that rely on symmetry. Some members view themselves as radical feminists, others do not like that "term" at all and there is a third party that does not seem eager to discuss the issue. However, the group continues its existence, motivated by the friendship, curiosity and the huge emptiness of the Bulgarian art- stage. In a typical post-style "The 8-th of March" does not have either a clearly defined platform or its own program. It rather prefers to give a reflectory reaction to the situations and go with the tide of life than attack with a sword sharpened in advance.
Although created by people in their golden age of almost 40 the group keeps on attracting for its actions very young authors. They enthusiastically take part in that chameleon union adding to its colour the point of view and the position (opposition) of their generation.
If for those people who grew up in countries with a built and developed theory and practice in that direction this type of semi-realized associations seems at least weird, we are obliged to remind that not only Bulgarian economy had to step out from the era of the UEC (Union for Economic Cooperation) and to enter the shock market therapy. In the field of science and culture for 10 years the lack of knowledge, restrictions and gaps had to be outlived. The contemporary Bulgarian art relatively quickly has overcome the shock from the change of the closed system "painting-sculpture-graphics" with the help of the boundless horizons of the new media. However, when things come to a women's group it becomes more complicated by the partial knowledge of feminist theory and practice. To all this accumulates the social situation, which still can not put up with such "deviations".
So, the kaleidoscopic character of the group "The 8-th of March" has its explanation and its excuse. According to "world standards" it pursues controversial ideals. Some are trying to protect the idea for female style in art, something that would make radical feminists shout with anger, but it is something meaningful in a situation where for a decade a standard for imitation has been the term "male painting". Others enter into the eternal black and white themes commenting on the male-female opposition (although for some female artists that opposition does not exist at all, and, according to others the oppressive part of the man is strongly manifested). Some of the authors tend to be too serious, and that is something inappropriate even for Bulgaria. Others prefer the humour and the irony, teasing themselves and the audience.
Finally, the created image reflects a number of complexes but also it is sufficiently adequate to the situation in Bulgaria. One great success is the retaining of the reflection viewing the particular circumstances and not the persecution of traditional world models. However, the group exists in constant change and its actions have always been successful even when considering the criticism they provoke.
The latest action of the group "The 8-th of March" is called "SHOP-ART. "Women at(on) the market". That is an exhibition-project, aiming not only to view a phenomenon from all sides but also to "attack" directly the active public spaces in the centre of Sofia (shops and pedestrian zones in the underpass between the Central Universal Shop and hotel Sheraton). One part of the idea concerns the interpretation through artistic means of the philosophical-social-ethical problems, connected with perception of the image of the woman as a "shopping animal" and the attitude towards her as merchandise. The other part of the idea concerns the art out of the gallery in a free competition between it and commerce.
Daniela Kostova pasted posters on which she successfully has transformed herself into a pop-folk singer: a mass product, gaining a threatening popularity in the last years. Thus, at least for a while she wants to taste popularity and the love of the people that she will never have as artist. The replaced values are the foundation of the work of Alla Georgieva "New fragrance". She has brought to the market the last model of a gas flask for self-defence, more necessary for the hand-bag than the perfume that is indispensable for it. Tania Abadjieva viewed the cosmetic products from another angle, emphasising in a poetic video-film the connection between the popular deodorant shape and the male sex organs. Boriana Dragoeva also created a dual character in her cartoon "Vibroelephant", insinuating the woman's eternal split between the childish and the perverse. Daniela Sergieva left the hangers, clothes, bags and underwear with the respective label demonstrating her taste and desires. Nadejda Oleg Liahova closed a beggar, singing and playing on accordion, behind a glass screen. Sylvia Lazarova put an enormous photograph of three gypsies holding boards with the words Faith, Hope, Love under the statue of Sofia (their biblical mother and patron of the city). Adelina Popnedeleva made the audience "consume dreams" in the shape of cakes with the images of brides and Brad Pitt.
The project "SHOP-ART". Women at(on) the market" started two months ago, when tenants of shops had to be begged and persuaded for co-operation. This process became a real part of the project offering a great variety of reactions. The extremely negative ones imposed quick changes on some works and others changed the exhibition as a whole. The positive ones made stronger the belief that the thing in process had sense. Placing their works in the underpass the female artists exposed themselves on one side, but on another were in the position of observing the potential audience. As they were observed they also observed. In a way there was an exchange of parts, and the accumulated impressions in that process will for sure give fruit for another project.

Female body - from inside to a sign

Tendencies in contemporary Bulgarian art

Maria Vassileva

In 1997 we organized the first women show in Bulgaria. Its title was "Erato's Version" with subtitle "Female Erotic Art". It was provoked by a group-show called "Erotic Art", where only male artists was invited to participate. During the installation of the show the main question that was posed to us was: "Where are the male's nudes?". Everybody was expecting that we should expose our ideas about the erotic trough depicting the other sex. This exhibition showed that nowadays, as it was in the early 70-ies when the radical feminism occurred, the women prefer to analyze themselves and to show their feelings and desires through their own bodies. In this point starts and finishes all similarities between the women art in Bulgaria and those of it predecessors. Bulgarian artists use their bodies not as an object of investigation and source of the eternal truth, but as a common tool. They know very well the power of the female body and use it as a weapon. The artists don't wont to be too serious and moralizing, but prefer humor, irony and a playful, more elegant way to defend their ideas, which is very healthy in such a macho society that we have at home. Sacrifices are over. Orlan's belief expressed through her words: "I have given my body to art" is no more a question of present interest.

Let's go back to "Erato's version" exhibition. What it showed was that for contemporary Bulgarian woman erotic is strongly connected to the kitchen as a symbol of domestic happiness. One of the accents in the show was the performance of Mariela Guemisheva "Hello, Girls". During the opening, a sexy dressed model fried smelly fish in the center of the hall under white transparent fabric, reminding wedding veil and boudoir. Adelina Popnedeleva presented her installation "Ready-made", consisting from 50 plastic bags, showing beautiful, sexy girls. Bags with which not so sexy housewives carry products all day long to ensure the family well being. Alla Georgieva showed her work "Self portrait as a Sexual-Culinary Object" - an ironical message, based on attitude towards woman's body as a product with a date of experience.

Several years later for the exhibition "Subjects and Shadows" the same artist created three posters "Alla's Secret", a direct joke towards the luxurious advertisement for underwear and in particular these of the firm "Victoria Secret". The scenery here is not an exotic beech or a pool in millionaire's house, but her own kitchen. It's full with huge quantity of traditional Bulgarian meals like "shopska" salad, "kebapche" and "banitza", which she is forced to prepare constantly and these actions are something as a refrain in her personal life. The idea about the conflict between reality and the other's expectations is pretty clear. She is interested in the body not as a physiological object with its privileges and defects, but as a social object. It is used as a sign - easily recognizable and accessible.

We can't miss here the role of the public advertisements and its influence on her art. The streets of Sofia are full of humiliating billboards and posters. Some women organization organized actions against those billboards, covering some parts with white sheets or paint. They have the right to do that, but what the artists think is better to be done - is a more sophisticated method of using the already established power of this public art but upside-down. In other words, working against them, using their own weapons. That's why very often we can see in the art works the visual language from the streets put in different context. It's clear that woman's body sells every product, "the packing sells the product". Even coals are sold with women's images. We try to feel this packing with contents.

Speaking about female body, we can't miss another viewpoint. The female body as a food for the male appetite very often is associated with the real food. Sometimes the juxtaposition is intentional as in Alla Georgieva's works. Other times it's subconscious, but it can't be missed. It's like this in the action of Nadezhda Oleg Liahova "Vanitas". She made an ice-cream cast from her own face, garnished it with fruits and offered it to the hungry public. She often deals with her face as a symbol of the human being, as a symbol both of the body and soul, and organizing different actions, during which is trying to investigate some delicate, transitional conditions, casting it from ice, soap, etc. In her series "Still Life" Boriana Dragoeva compares her own presence with that of the "natura morta".

In contemporary Bulgarian art feminism has its own, lets call it, age characteristics. Artists from the generation of the 40 years old are more strongly connected to the radical feminism. The best example is Adelina Popnedeleva, who makes performances and videos. In her work "Trifling Compromises" she spits on her own face and the viewer is also a subject (even in a virtual way) to this trial, because in the gallery he/she is forced to pass between the two monitors. In "Masochistic Performance after Hans Cristian Andersen", based on the tale "The wild swans", she picks nettles with her hands and weaves a shirt (as we know from the story it will destroy the magic, which turned her brothers into swans). Adelina shows that the sacrifice is not always intrinsic to females' creatures, but often is forced from the society. Passing through this painful for the body and mind performance the artists is trying to deliberate herself, to purge herself in a strange catharsis. The message is direct enough to make us thing for the classical feminism where the black and white have own clear margins.

The attitude of Boriana Dragoeva - an artist from the youngest generation - is different. She is a typical representative from the unisex generation, who are not fond of clear classifications and prefer to investigate these zones from our behavior, which are enough marginal. It is the same with her work "Am I happy?", "Yes, I am happy". Often the grimaces are the same no matter what you expresses - happiness or sorrow. Her video work "…" shows how she marks her body with blue lipstick. The scars could be from love bytes, but also from domestic violence. Sometimes the border is so thin that it's difficult to be distinguished.

In contemporary Bulgarian art the body is no longer a source of self-knowledge and truth, as Carolee Schneemann was defined it, with all artistic movement from interior to external signification. "Female body language" in the traditional sense of the phrase is not already the panacea for contemporary art. Nowadays the tendency for centralized sufficiency of the female body has been dissolved into air. The artists are not interested in the body as a capsulated form, as a world to its own. The body is open to the external world. It's used as a sign among other signs. The faith in the body has changed to a faith in a world, based on complicated relationships, where the body occupies only one part.

Where there is a woman there is no silence

Maria Vassileva

The title of this text is borrowed from the Proverbs of Annette Messager, embroidered on handkerchiefs. By means of an ordinary everyday object she is trying to attract attention and, resorting to parody, to express her admiration for woman. I like this saying for two reasons. On the one hand, it contains that irony which is always appropriate in situations of a "feminine context". On the other hand, it subtly implies a view expressed more directly by a visitor to the exhibition "Obsession": "The presence of more than two women at any one place is feminism pure and simple." Obviously society itself feels the necessity of perceiving every show of women artists as a feminist act - and this expresses best the meaning and significance of such manifestations.

The staging of the exhibition "Obsession" was provoked by 1) the determination of a group of women artists to work on a common theme, to show their work to the public, and to compare and assess the results, and 2) the rather uncommon interior of the Sofia Mineral Baths, now in process of reconstruction, and the mounting social tension concerning their future fate, which has become a point of obsession for the residents of Sofia. The theme of the exhibition touched the exposed nerve of the controversy raging around this architectural monument and gave vent to the artists' idea to show to the public their psychic manias, obsessions and fears in this temple of physical cleanliness.

The exhibition "Obsession" continued a trend, which is becoming ever more distinct in contemporary Bulgarian art. The beginning was made in 1997 with the exhibition "Erato's Version". At that time Adelina Popnedeleva and Alla Georgieva informed me and Yara Boubnova of their wish to respond with artistic means to the exhibition "Erotic Art" staged in March 1996 at the "Seasons" Gallery. They felt challenged by the fact that only male artists had been invited to contribute to this show. The hackneyed view that men alone were entitled to handle this theme had understandably aroused their discontent. The idea to mount a separate show betrayed both the desire to demonstrate the views on eroticism of the younger generation of women artists and to release the pent-up negative energies with respect to social taboos in general. It is thus that came into being the exhibition "Erato's Version", staged in one of the exhibition halls of the 6 Shipka Street Gallery. This was the first time in contemporary Bulgarian art that women artists proclaimed openly their commitment to the feminist cause.

"Neither fashion nor style, neither geography nor generation, should determine our projects. I do not travel w ith a methodological suitcase into which I pack semiotics, psychoanalysis, etc."
Griselda Pollock

It is not easy to formulate unequivocally what has motivated the women artists to continue seeking answers to questions which have been the subject of discussion for some 40 years - actually from the time of the first feminist campaigns. The reasons are political, social, sexual, aesthetic and most often all of these are interwoven in a coil of complex interrelations. In this sense, the actions of the Bulgarian women artists can hardly be said to differ from those of their women colleagues around the world. This also explains the participation of foreign artists in their undertakings. What distinguishes the situation in Bulgaria is that the feminist attitude is still being associated with the defence of non-traditional forms in art, which continue to wage battle against the stereotypes of thinking. It is not by chance that an exhibition of painting such as "Erotic Art" elicited a response on the part of women artists, devoted to conceptual art. What was at stake here was obviously not the merely erotic, apparently considered to be a staked claim of the male, but a sui generis reaction against the traditional forms of art - mainly painting and sculpture, as inseparable from the heroic, male rethoric. This is important for the understanding of the nature of Bulgarian feminism, which is striving not so much for equal rights as for differentiation.

"These women are eternally reaching for a way of becoming women."
Louise Bourgeois

On an international scale, the idea of the image found, of personalization is by no means new and has been upheld by the entire generation of American feminists in the 1970s headed by Miriam Shapiro, Judy Chicago and Lucy Lippard. The situation in Bulgaria shows certain similarities but also important differences. In the social and cultural context of the totalitarian society, the idea of equality was raised to a cult and applied in practice. This however led to a marked equalization in the quality of work. Moreover, this placing on the same footing always tends to favour the stronger, the more athletic or, in other words, the more monumental sex (the monumentalizing tendency in society, and art as its reflection, impose the male figure and spirit as a model for comparison). Woman had to be able to found heavy metals, to fly in space, but also to paint like a man. The highest compliment for both men and women in this period was the qualification "manly painting". A woman was expected not only to paint pictures, create enormous murals, mosaics and sgraffitos, carve and chisel sculptures, but also to do it "like a man". It was no easy matter to guess which gender the author of a work of art belonged to, and this was considered a compliment. It was even improper to speak of a male or female idiom in art: this would have amounted to a violation of the concept of equality, but also to a transgression against personal and, indeed, sacred spheres, and that was considered indecent in a socialist society dedicated to lofty moral values.

It was precisely for this reason that the feminist movement in Bulgaria came into being among individuals of a classical academic training, but employing the means of expression of modern art. It was no accident that they belonged to the generation on the "borderline" between the previous and the present period in the evolution of Bulgarian art. They remembered quite clearly the old model and, without negating it, felt the urge to distance themselves from it. That is why this feminism had nothing in common with the social feminism of the late 1960s and the struggle for equal rights. But there is something similar in the ways in which such movements take shape. In the late sixties feminism functioned as a separatist movement, the women artists trying to create a milieu apart from the traditional one - within the framework of conceptual art. In the late 1990s the term "feminism" came again to be employed in the fierce defence of the new visual forms. In both cases the aesthetic platform was playing a very important part.

"It is wrong to recommend a single stylistic move as uniquely feminist."
Toril Moi

Following the "Erato's Version" exhibition there emerged a small group of women artists eager to get together, to talk, and to organize joint exhibitions. It included Adelina Popnedeleva, Alla Georgieva, Dimitrina Sevova, Elena Panayotova, Irina Danailova, Monika Romenska, Monika Fischer, Nadezhda Lyahova, Nadya Genova, Regula Michel, Tanya Abadjieva (they sometimes call themselves "the Eighth of March"). What they wish to demonstrate is that there is a female point of view in art. They do not seek to wage war, nor to ridicule the male half of society, but to defend their own territory. Of course, they do not confound feminism with style and do not want feminism to be reduced to an issue of style. Style can be analyzed only in the context of the specific historical situation. On the other hand, they do not want the position they uphold to be divorced from style. Thus they are trying to change the discourse, i.e. the attitude towards female art both in the practice and the theory of art. The two exhibitions which followed, "Caprice" (ATA Centre for the Arts, 1998) and "Obsession"(The Central Mineral Baths, Sofia, 1999), search for the right view point toward revealing the complex feminine nature. To these should be added the project "Dressing/Undressing", realized at the Centre for Contemporary Art "Banya Starinna" in Plovdiv, 1999, within the framework of the "Alternative Galleries of the 1990s" Exhibition.

The "Obsession" exhibition opened up some interesting fields for investigation, both on the artistic and the psychological plane. On the one hand, the idea to mount an art show in the vast halls of the Central Baths (a subject of conflicting interests in the modern history of the city), gaining command of the endless labyrinth of rooms and the building as a whole, undoubtedly betrayed a desire for conquest and self-assertion. On the other hand, this went hand in hand with a highly personal act - every participant wishing to uncover at least one of her obsessions to the public. For the nudity of the body as a long-standing feminist weapon is substituted the laying bare of the thoughts. The appeal to the profoundly intimate spheres of consciousness and their laying bare is part of the process of getting to know each other. The obsession thus becomes a key to the spectator and his senses, obsessed as they are by cut-and-dried notions and obligations. The laying bare is an act of deference to the public, which must be made to SEE in a new way.

Roles – Desires

Angel V. Angelov

The Occasion

Adelina Popnedeleva offers to eight female artists to stage an exhibition on the occasion of March 8th, celebrated in the recent socialist past as Women’s Day. Through this “festival” the official ideology marked off the exclusivity of femininity as it was implied that the other 364 days of the year were mostly, if not wholly, male, but above all, all days belonged to the Party.

At the Second International Conference of Socialist Women held in Copenhagen in 1910 it was accepted at Klara Zetkin’s suggestion to celebrate March 8th as a Day of International Solidarity of Proletarian Women. The international “women’s” day was indeed promoted as festive in Germanic speaking countries and in Denmark in 1911. Its inauguration can be seen in the context of the various reformist ideas and movements in the beginning of the 20th century. The large historical context, however, would be modernity – the project of emancipation, of political and economic equality, of democracy and property, of the transformation of human nature into social roles. We can trace how the ideas of women’s rights emerge in the 18th century, are radicalized during the French revolution, persist throughout the following 19th century and continue in the 20th. The decision to hold an international “women’s” day is merely an element of that context and only within it can the socialist contribution to the wom

But it turned out differently. The “women’s” day March 8th was expropriated by the Bolsheviks, severed from the preceding efforts at social equality, dismissed as bourgeois. March 8th. was turned, like the other communist festivals, into an instrument of control and propaganda. With the intervention of Vladimir I. Lenin the festival began to radiate in macabre hues.i In the 1960ies in the Soviet Union when everyone had finally been finally proletarianized the festival became nationwide.

Did the exhibition have to be geared only to those of us who still remember the manipulative intentions behind the “festival”? Or did it have to recall, to restore, the ideology of the previous regime vis–a`-vis femininity with a view to mental separation from it? To serve as a memento? The photo-collage calls to mind the monumental spuriousness and state appropriated intimacy of celebrated Woman: “Women heroes” in uniforms as Valentina Tereshkova or “Heroes of the socialist Labour” (so were the official designations) share their experience from the tribunes with the young people. The photos suggest the official monumentality of the woman’s body; the intimacy of the Mother is severe - that of the Mother Land. The young people are children not so much of individual mothers as of the immense body of the Mother Land to which they have to serve and if necessary to sacrifice their bodies.

As far as the collage impresses me, it is not only because of its evocation of a past period but also of mindsets from the present which continue to emanate danger. If it were only for its past associations, the collage would rouse the feeling of relief and ridicule but along with these it now engenders fear. We see it on our way out as it is displayed immediately next to the door and has remained unnoticed by the visitor hurrying toward the object-installations.

If some things in the exhibition have to be seen as feminine, these are the foregrounding of “gender identities”, of the possible exchange, multiplicity and indefiniteness of the social male – female roles. Should we however search for an underlying idea, we won’t find one. In the exhibition there are objects unrelated to the rest; they are independent exhibits. What unites it is the wish for personal closeness, the warmth of the joint experience of a possibly “women’s” community whose joint effort could be sustained after the exhibition too. Is it remarkable that the artists are exclusively female? Yes, because they themselves insist on that, because the title is not a theme but refers, albeit ironically, to a certain “female” nature, nevertheless. On the other hand, there have been stated refusals (Nadezhda Lyahova, Elena Panayotova) to join any of the trends, feminist’s or otherwise. There is a certain lack of clarity about the concept of the exhibition but not about A. Popnedeleva’s motive for staging it. What motivates her is a resistance – traditional in the case of every reformist or revolutionary movement, in this case - towards the status of the roles: artist – curator – critic. The resistance aims at a reform, effected by a community of women, to preserve and transform the original (Social - Democratic) idea of the festival of March 8th.

In Adelina Popnedeleva’s view, the artist is dependent upon the curator and the critic; the aim of the exhibition (and of the possible reform) is to interchange those roles.2 However the lack of a clear overriding principle, of a pragmatics, is due to the absent curator. If the intention was to eliminate the curator, that aim has not altogether been reached. After the female artists decided what to exhibit, there follows an invitation to selected nine persons - critics, curators and an artist to open the exhibition. Due to lack of clarity in the offer, or to the lack of personal chemistry among them the desired selection was not accomplished. And the exhibition did not receive media attention. In view of the care Mrs. Raimonda Mudova takes of the media attention towards the exhibitions in her galleries, the lack of such media coverage is indicative of the power exerted by curators and critics. Because, if you are not covered by the media, you seem not to exist at all. The pertinent question in that case would be whether the exhibition had taken place at all. Yet there exists also social ontology (presence and impact) of the exhibition which does not boil down only to media coverage.

It is, naturally, possible for an artist to publicize community or group identity not through a manifesto but through an exhibition of a number of artists. But the staging of an exhibition itself is an expert endeavor which the curator makes and should the artist wish to remove him from the social field, from the discourse of knowledge and exertion, the artist has no choice but to turn into a curator, thereby contradicting his or her own original intention, viz., a curatorless exhibition. A curator’s experience is also power, and in order to exercise it the artist must become an expert and must not be interested primarily in his or her own participation. And the artist, we may still believe, is a creator of non-pragmatic worlds defamiliarizing the actual one for an existential (emotive, moral, sensory) test of the public and of him- or herself. To achieve her objective, A. Popnedeleva had to undertake the roles of both the curator and the critic, the two being compatible roles. Adelina had to embody the power she herself rebelled against. Quite a dilemma. In case of a collective exhibition an artist’s stance can include an assessment of the entire exhibition, without being closed only to his or her sole participation; he or she however bears responsibility only for his or her own contribution. On the contrary, the concept of an exhibition (idea, participants, space – to enumerate the basic ingredients) and especially the responsibility produce the different legitimacy of the curator’s position.

From my conversation with A. Popnedeleva and from her interview for the magazine “Izkustvo” (“Art”)3 I understood that she expected coverage of the exhibition in the media. It would be a poor curator to fall to defend in the media his or her concept for an exhibition and even to organize friendly critics to write about it. A. Popnedeleva has not done that – probably it did not tally with her notion about the role she performed. But links to the media and the ability to raise funds is part of the expert routine of a curator. In sum, the wish to overturn a gesture of power, the disputed power of the curator on the part of A. Popnedeleva has turned flat. In the sense of a better social functioning it is, of course, to be recommended that critics should not conform subserviently to curator and artists but should problematize (offering readings, creating receptive situations) the exhibition – underlying idea, contributions, intentions, results.

Why the exhibition is entitled “Caprice”? Is it because the caprice is inherently feminine? Only? Caprice, whim, is to exercise petty arbitrariness over others, specializing in trifles, quotidian foiling of joint intentions in seeking to be the focus of irritation if not of sympathy. Generally, a yearning to be noticed through teasing triviality.

Caprice, however, may transcend the quotidian and enter the sphere of another type of stage management called art. It could be a musical piece where improvisation, license, jest are paramount, where there is a trick (as in “Capriccio sopra il cucu” by Frescobaldi). In fine, since we are at an exhibition, we are somehow naturally referred to caprice in visual arts: in painting to small scale pictures, collaging “photographically” odd reality, to drawings where reality, seemingly pictured with documentary faithfulness, is transferred (through the composition) to the image as fantastic, surprising, capricious. Let me recall the caprices of Francesco Guardi. I could choose one of the meanings of “caprice”, relating it to the exhibition, I could combine everyday and artistic caprice as I also could insist that the chosen title bears no relation to the exhibition.

THE OBJECTS

What follows retraces my steps as a visitor of the exhibition.

In addition to the red panel with the photocollage, directly related to the quondam March 8th Festival is Nadezhda Lyahova’s work “Snowdrops”. In some of us it evokes memories of school and childhood, of the imposed naturalness and seeming communicativeness of this gift, of the concealed morbid vitality of the officially disciplined festival. Snowdrops are impaled on syringe needles. They are grouped in twos like pupils on the desks in a classroom. Snowdrops were the flowers presented to “mum” and to the girls in the class. The gift included the poem and a song, entitled – “naturally” – “to mummy”; sometimes a stanza was printed on a card which was also given as a gift. Such a text, I assume, if added to the installation, would enhance the effect of subversive authenticity of “Snowdrops”. Were the viewer to stand opposite that work, it unfolds like a row in front of him/her, he/she is in the row, he/she would hand or be handed the flower, would join the game of official spontaneity / uniformity. But the viewer can change the point of view and approach the work in depth, see it as a column, thus highlighting the intended perception of a barrack’s facelessness and ceremony, steamrolling the intention to make the festival produce intimacy and cordiality.

Whence the awkwardness in those years during the presentation of these snowdrops, the wish to slip out of the coercion to participate? Was it from the perception of insincerity, or of its mass character? Or quite the contrary, there were times when I have taken part with joy, without the feeling that something is not as it should be, with the assurance that I as everybody else, that the whole class were together, that everybody did it. But why then this pang from the piercing syringe? Who is ill and suffering? The suggestion of orderliness and stringency is consonant with that of a hospital ward and sterility. I viewed the exhibition on the final day, the snowdrops were withering, the perception of morbidity enveloped the installation. Now it seems to me that the festivity generally was superimposed upon the morbid. I recall that upon school-leaving we, “the future stalwart generation”, invariably in the name of the future, were obliged to pay ritualistic respects to death, embodied in the embalmed corpse of the Leader Georgy Dimitrov in the mausoleum in the centre of Sofia. The bright future was laid upon the decomposition, upon necrophile desire, serene paradise of an embalmed corpse. The white hospital atmosphere of the syringes with wilting snowdrops begins to percolate through the red ceremoniousness of the plush covered collage panel.

In a wooden frame Nadya Genova has placed an old but not antique gramophone. It is sprayed with coffee dust, coffee being the velvet of memories. It is placed on the floor, probably because it would be more difficult to fix it to the wall as an artifact. Yet, it is an artifact – it can be moved. Or because to cherish memories is to peer into the well of time, dig up personal archeology, sink. The viewer has to bend down, even better – squat with respect for past time, to touch the softness of the dust, to hear the silence of the forgotten. Oblivion, patinated memory. Today the sound of the past is nothing but silence or unheard cry. Delight, cosiness, coffee cups, salon, drawing room, or, on the contrary, loneliness, unfulfilled yearnings, unrealized, unreal dreams. A world of illusion over which we shed tears. A world of whims, of being shut up or of being together. Which to choose? The softness of coffee dust or the hardness of the apparatus, no longer producing music?

In fact no such thing is meant. No past, no memories and endearing nostalgia. The item is entitled “Stop Exercise 1”. A game of switching on and off. Caprice. A question of machinery and not of sentiment. First shot. Second shot. And yet the item militates against its title through the very tension between the involvement of the viewer in the emotion of possible memories and his/her alienation from them. The viewer is offered emotional identification and at the same time a rejection of it. “Do you remember?” is the item’s message; “Do not get romantically involved!” asserts the title, there is nothing to remember.

To the right, on the wall hangs “Stop Exercise 2”. A ventilator built into, immersed in glass – a mummified jellyfish in crystallized sea water. Absence of air. Liquefied air. Coldness. An entire geological period has elapsed. Timelessness. Breath turned into a crystal. Unlike the warm past of “Stop Exercise 1” this is freezing, enveloping - transparent. The other is opaque, you sink in it, here you are built into and frozen. Not so, says the title. This one, like the first, is merely a joke, a game of turning on and off. There is nothing serious, an intellectual delight: “Stop Exercise 2”.

In the narrowness, where the first space of the “Atta Centre” passes on to the next, Tanya Abadjieva has stretched her “Hunting ground”. As the exhibition is by women artists, probably it would be men who would be hunted. I proudly stand rigid in my male identity. How can I possibly play the hero to avert the embarrassment to be “had” as a goldfish or a booby? Anyway, things are arranged so that the viewer walks, “swims” below, and above him there are many fishing rods forming almost a net which is hard to avoid. After all I could be capricious myself, as well. I have no desire to be caught like a fish; I develop intolerance towards the exhibition, turn round and go home. I have had enough in the first hall. I have had my fill of the exhibits. Or I am sufficiently deft and smart to slip out? On the other hand the fishing rods resemble sweets for sucking (the material is jelly-bean) – very bothersome. My identity would be confused. If caught, I would be fried, I would be crunched. The fishing rods reach down to different heights. And couldn’t I, while passing through this danger zone, give up certain self identifications, and see what transpires. Or should I hunker down and pass unnoticed bellow? In a word, a no-win situation. Outside these suggestions in T. Abajieva’s installation there is usual lightness and fresh air.

You are caught and you enter the bedroom. You step toward the bed upon carpet of pink flowers. The carpet is simply “roses without thorns” – the jacquard carpet of life. I saw it when the roses were fading which enhanced the suggestion of a mass-produced form of lifestyle with rosy appearance. The title “At the Georgievs There Is a Very Fine Carpet” does not seem ironical, it heightens the impression of facelessness and routine. Let me add a nuance in order to perceive more acutely the triumph of mass production, of ready-to-wear articles. Nomen ist omen. Did not another Alla sing “Millions upon millions of red roses/ you see from your window…”4 The refrain of that hit from the 1980s makes me think of Niko Pirosman (Georgian painter), calls forth the despair transformed into an aesthetic gesture, unlooked-for sign of Post-Impressionist modernity. Following the story told by the Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky5, amidst the waves of flowers with which Pirosmanishvilli deluged the street the roses were the most numerous but not the only ones. But in the mass-circulation hit and in the installation the roses, the banality are all there is. And while sentimentality in Paustovskiy’s short story, in Alla Pugachova’s hit and in Alla Georgieva’s installation is a mark of similarity, the attitude to the wealth differs.

And could we not discuss an installation of roses not only against the background of a popular hit but also in terms of the tradition, and a rich one at that, which the name of the rose has in European culture. Alas, no, because in that culture the worry is rather about the name, creating, mediating, blocking off, the fragrance or the pricking of the rose flower. “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet, yearning to authentically inhale the fragrance of the rose.

“Georgiev” is a name standing for the absence of a proper name in Bulgaria, it is itself a mass phenomenon. So far in the installation, we could discover only sadness and resignation. The title names the carpet but omits the bed. It is covered, it seems to me, in barbed wire, it is not merely faceless but is a device for torturing. A space for mutual revenge. Is it because of despair? A bed from hospital, a hostel or a barracks. A suggestion of disconsolation. The rose leaves will wither, the carpet will disappear, what will remain will be the bed caught up, wound, in wire, and the body, the bodies – whose? – mine, yours, ours – bleeding, pierced, tortured bodies. If we wish to see everyday life as bearing of a cross.

What is left to the Georgievs but the horror of mutuality, a familiar theme masterfully reprised in Russian classical literature of the 19th century. If I pursue this line of interpretation the installation will increasingly turn into an image of the dead-end. But should I not be inclined mournfully to delight in unachievable dreams, then the installation “At Georgievs There Is a Very Fine Carpet” would summon up resistance in me towards a change in the so hopeless situation. In this, I think, I am not alone. Such a response is rather typical of a certain sort of viewer’s attitude. Let me describe it.

As the space domesticated by the installation is ambivalent – conceptual and actual at the same time – the viewer can move in, and interact with it. He/she can freely walk on the carpet, trampling the rose leaves of illusions. If his/her day-dreams were illusions, the regret is insincere; it is merely a cover for the wish to empower illusions for life, a desired autodictatorship. Admitting the illusory nature of day-dreams, the viewer could decide upon an ethical act – to changing the strategy of behavior: he/she can no longer blame the partner for the so reached dead-end; he/she has to admit that he/she him-/herself has been the secret stage manager in the theatre of his/her own reveries. Stepping on the carpet is a liberating act on the part of myself, a step towards the acknowledgement of the other: we are together and not one against another. I can pick a handful of rose leaves and offer them to him/her; we need them in our hands. And finally, this wire which I have wound round myself against myself, against the other. This delicious self-induced languor in the self- and mutually inflicted torture. Quite unnecessary. It is worthwhile for me to try and unwind myself. A tough proposition. even more difficult if the other should resist. I need to think up a solution for mutual liberation, overcoming, encouragement. Obviously, we are not coping, but the uplift when we succeed establishes a togetherness well-nigh festive. The viewer comes closer to the bed and starts unwinding the wire; then he/she dismantles the bed itself. What a change, caprice, relief.

The interpretation offered is likely but meets with some difficulties. To begin with, the perceived wire is the stalks of the rose bushes and it is with none other but them and their thorns that the frame of the bed is enveloped. The bed itself is not from a barracks but is antique, expensive, with a high board – a potential space for oval painting informing a delicate and luxurious nimbus round the sleeping spouses; finally, the carper is not a jacquard one at all but thick, Eastern and profusely ornate. The installation begins to be more and more like a hit number of the other Alla and less and less representative of an existential drama as the interpreter would have it. What should he add to that? Perhaps a silver slipper at the centre of the rose leaf carpet. At the end the interpreter wanders which interpretation to choose or how to combine these and other possible ones.

I have been invited to write the preface to the exhibition catalogue only because others have declined to participate in critical reflection. I am pleased as Punch for having been chosen. Though the choice fell on me only after those originally preferred chose to decline. Female artists select male critics – an inverted situation, a caprice or a desire to make havoc a “gender identities”. The last mentioned could have been the unifying characteristic of the exhibition but is not.

The desire to overturn male-female role identities is, however, distinct in the object by Adelina Popnedeleva. The object is entitled “Penetration” and in order to preclude any doubt about what precisely is meant, a knife penetrates a flat surface and remains pleasurably and / or hopelessly stuck in it. In Bulgarian the gender of “knife” (masculine) and “surface” (feminine) seems to invite the thought of male-female dichotomy. The knife, penetration, is a masculine feature but here it is in a woman’s hands, instead of the more Romantic model her hands secretly to pour poison. A bracketed addition to the title reads: “After L. Fontana”. I find it amusing to speculate that despite the obvious reference to Lucio Fontana’s holes (buchi) and slits (tagli) an alteration of the Christian name permitted by the single letter “L.” before the surname “Fontana” permits me to think also of Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614). Nowadays the works of the few female-artists prior to 19th century are coming into vogue which has revived additional interest in Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola, in Rosalba Carriera and so on. How I can say for certain that it is after Lucio and not Lavinia Fontana? To guess the created inverted meaning in Adelina’s work I need to know minute details of her biography, e. g. her gender. Still in these biographical terms, I can say that Lavinia is Prospero’s daughter and Adelina is Vihroni’s wife6, artistic families both, in other words, by blood or by law, and then why could Adelina not have sought connection with Lavinia as much as, or even more than, with Lucio.

The resemblance to Lucio Fontana is in fact external. The pure forms of “I buchi” and “I tagli” feature the “concetto spaziale” developed by Fontana since the late 1950s. The pure reduced forms are a spatial phenomenology of existential states. “Waiting” (Lucio Fontana, Attesa, 1965, Milano, private collection), is a form of experienced space. What is achieved through the slit in the flat surface is not only that someone awaits someone else but the ontology of waiting, of anxiety taking possession without possibility to get it under control, and amidst it – a narrow strait, a danger of disappearance at all. And if the viewer manages to recognize his/her waiting in the red canvas with the dark slit (“It’s me, this knifed, wounded, blooded flesh…”), he/she would make the ontology concrete, individual and through this to go beyond the personal experience / limitation towards understanding and experiencing others in their anxieties. This transforming of ourselves however belongs more to the sphere of dreams.

It is possible that the object “Penetration” refers to the described existential condition, much more however it refers to a principal theme known from other works by A. Popnedeleva whose aim is social critique, unmasking the manipulative techniques of mass culture, of the facile acquiring of an identity. The comparison with Lucio Fontana manifests differences primarily; that with Lavinia will probably reveal more similarities. Shall I count Adelina’s object as an element within a feminist project? In which one?

A knife and a flat surface is what we could focus on. A canvas, the customary space for laying on lines and spots, for painting, is stretched on a frame. On the canvas there could be a brush instead of a knife; could Adelina conceivably be illustrating the killing, the cutting up of painting, of a painting of someone? The medal on which Lavinia is depicted holding a brush in front of the easel is an enactment by the female artist of a role preserved until that moment for men7; a similar aspiration in Adelina’s object to appropriate a male role. In the field of gender identities we can situate the object but also the intention of A. Popnedeleva about the whole exhibition. The canvas pierced with a knife, though, makes me think of painting and of the depiction of a knife and a killing in it. Several models to be followed have been preserved for women’s images: Judith beheading Holofernes8, Lucrece’s suicide, allegories of virtues such as Fortitudo, Justitia. The topic in the Adelina’s object is the knifing of the flesh not of oneself but of someone other. It amuses me to think that there can be a connection in terms of heroic virtue between cutting off someone’s head and the slitting of someone’s painting. Or like a conquest of social territory. If we assume an element of play in the “Penetration” it lies in the illusion of the knife in the canvas hanging; it is in fact fixed on a piece of wood placed on the reverse side (of the allegorical painting surface) which the viewer does not look at and does not see.

If I insist that without being looked for, Adelina’s links are more with Lavinia, than with Lucio Fontana, it is because of the similar aspiration to contest the existing division of roles in the sphere of art, hence of the socio-aesthetic practices as well. What justifies this arbitrary link between Adelina Popnedeleva and Lavinia Fontana? My conscious refusal to think here in terms of historical contexts, only through which such parallels can be sustained. My desire to equate as equally close historical traditions, to think of them as present in a potential “now”. This can give rise to situational connections whose accidentallity and non-essentiallity does not revoke the reality of the connection, nor does it affirm it.

“Changing of Clothes - An Old Children’s Game” is the title of the installation by Elena Panayotova which appeals to memory, to the childhood of the (female) viewer: Changing of clothes, of costumes and situations, perhaps of faces and of bodies also – an opportunity for re-incarnations. We are not however on stage, not yet, but in the dressing-room of the theatre (of life). Which face shall I choose and which hairstyle, shall I dress like Harlequin or shall I cast myself as another type? No one is yet looking at me, I am simply choosing, I shall act myself later. What does oneself mean? The game is an old one, says the title, the exchange of roles and desires of long standing. Difficulties with identity are not of today, nor are they valid for a definite age-group.

And could we not read in the installation a suggestion of dolls, literally manipulated, marionettes, controlled from the outside and coming to “life” in someone’s hands? Does it matter then which role I shall choose? But maybe I manifest a natural inclination towards some doll, a seeming predisposition achieved by cherishing the mechanical. In ignorance of my inanimate mechanical identity I perceive it as my cherished essence.

Or, shall I take another line – the game, though very old, is for children; the child does not know, cannot even suspect all that. The play is genuine but the genuineness of the game is not that of reality. Here everything is possible, the realities are potentialities and these potentialities are innocent. What else? Innocence is longingly ascribed to the infant’s consciousness by that of the adult. But we spectators are not, not all of us are already or still children, nor is the artist. What then? I am offered not mere sinking into memory, into innocence, but a possible pattern of behaviour now – a model of choosing and hesitating in answer to the question who am I, which role I should prefer, should allow, not being the person I think I am and simultaneously being driven by forces unbeknownst to me: someone jokingly and seriously chooses the roles for me.

In the installation by E. Panayotova the title “Caprice” of the exhibition can be perceived only as negated. To play one needs commitment to the game: do I wish to be Pierrot Lunaire? Yes, no, why? Am I afraid? Don’t I like just this setting? Do I prefer another? Do I want another body? I can go on further and ask to be told the rules of the game. Are they already defined? Changing clothes and other alterations take time. How is the game ordered in time? Or is it entirely up to the spectator to establish the rules and through them defining his/her participation and even him/herself?

Or, without inquiring about anything, I simply watch “the old children’s game” as a relief in two parts in which contrasting figures and background take turns graphically – white on black, dark on light.

At the end of the exhibition, in the bottom of the second hall, bluish (lifeless?) neon light rescues from the darkness, from the emptiness, a brilliant, solemn cube, enveloped in white silk. Soft fabric and cold brightness – a canopy, a shroud, a pedestal, or a ballroom, nuptial dress? I can “take” any of these lines – the title is “Without Words”. Every line is possible to take which is related with the form of the object and the colour of light, with the nature of fabric and the emptiness around and possibly inside it

In other objects there are titles which either suggest or deceive, which are simultaneously integral to the work and outside it. The title inhabits the borderline between the image and a potential intertext / intervisuality; it can support but also run against the presence of the object, the installation. One title which the artist Monika Romenska speculated was “I Love You up to Here” which transports us back in time when the composition (and the lyrics) of the rock group FSB were the hit of the day9. In conceptualist practice (called in the past and sometimes still “art”) the title ought to bear a portion of the concept, to be the presence of the word, of the verbal in the visual, a linguistic mark for the idea.

“Without words” in Bulgarian means, of course, without a title, which is a kind of formula with an almost automated impact. Yet, the intention of the purposeful refusal “Without…” is meaningful, even if the artist has simply not found a suitable title. Giving the title “Without Words” to a visual form is giving up a linguistic referent, at the same time an “insistence” on the fact that the presence and the concept are carried entirely through the visual: matter, form, light, interaction with the space. The signifying elements are not words but more tangible materialness, corporealness. Parallelism of word and image can be usual in conceptual art10; that is why each conceptual work which through its refusal to be verbalized plays with seeming nonconceptuality can make a theme out of the presence / absence of the word. The absence of a linguistic referent and the particularized space can impel me to see “Without Words” as a sculpture and as an artifact generally.

Different, non-coincidental interpretations and non-correlative lines of perception are possible depending literally on the distance / closeness from / to the “sculpture”. What has this white satin enveloped? It is solemn and cold and it is so quiet that I feel inclined to tiptoe as if I am on a pilgrimage. The buzzing of the neon evokes associations with a research environment – screens, observation, distant control; I feel enclosed in a space which I wish to leave and take a breath of air. In one way of interpretation I could link “Without Words” to N. Lyahova’s “Snowdrops” and in another, to see it as a place for changing one’s clothes, to enter it is terrible, tempting, repellent, I might find no way out or come out as some other person I do not want to be. Can I place inside Elena’s theatre and Adelina’s knife? Shall I sustain the impression that this white volume is a place for possible transformations which are invisible, hidden from the onlooker outside? Is it not by accident that it finishes off the exhibition (if we take that line of viewing)?

But I can pursue a different tack – not one of penetration into but one of stepping away from it, not of empathy but of defamiliarization – and I see a bed in which you can not just lie down and sleep, you have to climb upon – you, I, we, both of us, they. To climb the pedestal of mutuality, to turn into graveyard sculptures of love or of the impossibility of it, or become actors playing roles in a film or characters in a novel. But those who had been upon the pedestal double bed are no longer there. There are only traces of them being there in the past. This way of perceiving would enhance the suggestion of a limit in space and encapsulation in time.

I would like there to have been a switch for changing the lights in order to see what the impact of that would be – for the object and for my perception of it. To add red light to the neon white bluish or change it altogether, to briefly experience transformation in sense perception, the time-honoured task of the aesthetic. I can walk round the object, can look after all for a ladder on the hidden site for climbing / elevation should I wish to follow the route to the limits of chilled eroticism. But should I really wish to see what is there under the drapery, I dismantle the given framework – it is precisely the achievement of the hidden that launches us into unfinishing guesswork.

THE FASHION SHOW

The exhibition “Caprice” was used as the scenery for a fashion show with a performance by the female singer Kristin Dimitrova broadcasted in the programme “Twenty-four Carats” on National TV.

Is the art which regards itself as alternative really such? How can it resist a possible takeover by the attractive banality? Is indeed the questioning of (the subversiveness towards, the disagreement with, the resistance to) some frozen, quasi natural social attitudes and roles, which is the aim of the installations and objects, achieved as an alternative act or, on the contrary, it supports – against the wishes of the female artists – the mainstream? In my opinion, the fashion show with its pleasing aesthetics, supplemented by a performance of a pop singer, is a good test; it reveals the actual or merely seeming alternativeness of the exhibition. The fashion show, the pop-folk, the hits (aiming at simple identification of the listener with the melody and the text) are also aesthetic practices as the making of installations is; the difference is in their social function. The one affirms with pleasure the status-quo, drifts below the horizon of audience’s expectations, narrows it and requires nothing else; the other is, should be, featuring the existing as a problem, asking uneasy questions, aiming to overturn meanings and stereotypes. Here I adhere with a modification to a known position – that art comprises actions which are alternative toward hardened, not always apparent, social conventions and behaviors appertaining to authority and power; actions which put to test but with no coercion the personal and social identity of the audience, transcending the horizon of its expectations – aesthetic as well as ethic.

The fashion show sought for a correspondence between the design of the clothes and the objects of the exhibition which met with some success in the case of “At the Georgievs There Is a Very Fine Carpet” by A. Georgieva and “Without Words” by M. Romenska, but with doubtful success in the case of “Snowdrops” by N. Lyahova and “Penetration” by A. Popnedeleva. The fashion show sought for correspondences and not for contradistinctions. The attempt was to absorb the works and void them of their problematic nature, an attempt at possible nonresistance and harmony, obliterating any doubt in the social roles which was the aim of the works.

The bare pedestal of “Without words” was re-interpreted as a backdrop (whiteness, silk, ceremony) of a wedding dress. What kind of an audience would it be, more precisely, in whose eyes today the innocence designed by the white colour immediately correlates to the wedding ritual? “Without Words” simply would not permit being perceived as a backdrop of such an idea. It would have been much more amusing if the wedding dress had as a backdrop the coffee-sprayed old gramophone. (“Stop Exercise 1” by N. Genova.) The wedding ritual would have appeared as a very near future and simultaneously as a memory, distant in time. But the two objects by Nadya Genova could not probably be assimilated by the fashion show and that is why they were not filmed. “The Old children’s Game” by E. Panayotova could not be seen very clearly which was all to the good because otherwise it would have been a parodying backdrop to the tempting undressing / baring, typical for the fashion show.

Were repeated gestures of the singer Kristina Dimitrova as if to suck the sweet fishing rods a legitimate interpretation or usage of the installation “Hunting Ground” by Tanya Abadjieva? Yes, because that superficial, straightforward usage highlighted a lyrical element in T. Abajieva’s work – an element not protected against drifting into sugariness and which supported exactly the roles Tanya wishes to interchange and mix up. What in former times used to belong to the category of the beautiful is now a social conformity. Contemporary art can be tamed precisely upon the territory of the beautiful when it itself allows that, when its alternativeness is insecure and not radical.

Why however should the quality of being alternative alone be an invariable feature of contemporary art? Because the aesthetic practices which “embroider” on yearnings, so human, for harmony and beauty support precisely this social relations from which they liberate – it would seem – their admirers, viz., the impossibility of achieving harmony and beauty. These aesthetic practices turn their audiences into puppets in the hands of the entertainment industry and into a source of profits. Alternative is that aesthetic practice which at least offers its audience a situation of choice while at the same time making the identification with that choice difficult.

Also taking part in the exhibition were Monika Fischer and Regula Michai (Switzerland). As I could not meet them – and while I was writing the present essay conversations with the artists were important to me – I preferred not to include interpretations of their works.

September 1998

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