Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art (1982– 2015)

Vasela Nozharova, Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art (1982– 2015) (Plovdiv: Janet 45 Publishing and the Open Arts Foundation, 2018), 301 pp.

Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art (1982–2015), written by the Bulgarian curator and art critic Vesela Nozharova, is a monograph that is likely to become the first comprehensive history of Bulgarian art of the last decades. The book offers an interpretation of the artistic processes, social actors, and institutions in the visual arts, and examines their historical developments and contributions to the Bulgarian contemporary art scene. This pioneering endeavor presents definitions and hierarchies of what constitutes contemporary Bulgarian art from the perspective of its author, currently affiliated with the Credo Bonum Gallery run by the Sofia-based Credo Bonum Foundation. In her curatorial experience, Nozharova has worked in Bulgaria and throughout Europe, including as curator of the Bulgarian exhibition at the 52nd Venice Art Biennale (2007) and assistant curator of the Bulgarian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008).

As readers will discover, the last three decades of contemporary art in Bulgaria have been very productive. Diverse venues and forums have sprung up, including private and state galleries, independent art spaces, artist collectives, contemporary art festivals, and art contests, each with their own definition of what contemporary art is and should be. These factors are important for considering Nozharova’s book, which reveals the challenges in reflecting on a set of essentially new artistic phenomena that require innovative theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches, diverse from the previous Marxist-Leninist discourses on art history. To describe and analyze the history of Bulgaria’s art context, Nozharova offers her previous experience with the topic by including her earlier lectures delivered for the educational platform Introduction to Contemporary Art, an initiative of Sariev Contemporary Art Gallery and the Open Arts Foundation. These discussions motivated her decision to focus on the period between 1982 and 2015 that has not yet received its due evaluation.

The compositional structure of the book consists of seven sections: an introduction, four chapters, and two appendices. The chapters divide Bulgaria’s art historical narrative into four asymmetrical subperiods, developed in a linear and evolutionary perspective: Chapter One, “Contemporary Art in Bulgaria Until the End of 1980s;” Chapter Two,” Contemporary Art in Bulgaria in the First Half of the 1990s;” Chapter Three, “The Second Half of the 1990s;” and Chapter Four, “Contemporary Bulgarian Art After the 2000s.” For the two appendices, Nozharova has compiled a chronological list of artworks and events, followed by an alphabetic index, which are valuable additions to the entire work. According to this chronological structure, the history of contemporary Bulgarian art seems to have developed in a linear progression, although the time span of thirty-three years has been covered disproportionally. Half of the book’s content (two chapters, or 145 out of 300 pages) is dedicated to the artistic practices  of the 1990s. In contrast, the last period under review (2000-2015) – defined by the establishment of institutional infrastructures for contemporary art and increasing productivity of the art scene – surprisingly occupies less than one-third of the book.

The first chapter is concerned with exploring contemporary art phenomena based on a conceptual level as verbalized in the writings of art critics in the 1980s and ‘90s, such as Diana Popova. Тhe important question discussed here is the terminology applied by critics and curators from the period, including “unconventional” and “nontraditional” to describe these new art practices. Nozharova also analyzes the importance of happenings, artistic interventions, the role of artist collectives and art groups, through which she shows how contemporary art in Bulgaria “had occurred at the outdoor workshops and sculpture symposia of the early ‘80s.” (p. 31) These include the Sofia-based Kukuv Den (Cuckoo’s Day) collective (early 1980s), The City Group (1986), and the artist duos DE (1984) and MA (1987), and in Varna, The Group of the Seven (1986-87) that precededThe Group of the 10 (1988). The narrative resulting from this perspective offers Vesselin Dimov as a pioneer of contemporary art in Bulgaria; he showed the unconventional exhibition Landscape and Construction (1982) in Varna’s Promenade Park, which Nozharova notes took place as early as 1979. The peculiar trinity of Varna-based artists Dimov, Vladimir Ivanov, and Tsvetan Krustev, articulated by Nozharova as the pioneers of Bulgarian contemporary art in late 1970s and mid-1980s, represents an interesting finding.(See also: Irena Dimitrova, Towards New Art Practices in Varna Since the Mid- and the End-1980s (IAS-BAS: Art Studies Readings, 2014), , pp.490-98, and Maya Manolova’s PhD thesis, “New tendencies in the art of artists from Varna in the end of XX and the beginning of XXI century.”)

The second chapter describes the interruption of the process initiated in the previous decade. As Nozharova states, “Bulgaria of the early ‘90s had little in common with Bulgaria of the late ‘80s.” (p. 106) This period is understood as a “process of regrouping and conceptual redefinition of the Bulgarian art scene” (p. 106), motivated according to the author by the establishment of a democratic government and the efforts of the art community for a legitimation of contemporary art. Nozharova notes this lack of continuity between the first two periods. She observes that since its very beginning, contemporary art has been interconnected with the artworld’s intentional distancing from the official art authorities and totalitarian art ideology.  But after the political changes, she states, “There was no need for it to remain a quasi-apocryphal activity, as the threat of incrimination had disappeared. A path of gradual professionalization lay ahead.“ (p. 55)

Chapter Three is dedicated to the art of the second half of the nineties. Here, as in the second chapter, Nozharova elucidates upon the interactions between artist groups and collectives and newly established art institutions, and between artistic innovation, cultural policy, and the social and political context. Attention is given to the groups Edge and Disco’ 95 (Plovdiv), and the Art in Action Association and Institute for Contemporary Art (Sofia). Also featured are the new generation of art seminars, cultural magazines and newspapers (Art in Bulgaria, Kvadrat, SVEP, Kultura), and the first private galleries: Art 36, The City, Arossita, Sapio, Vesselin Dossev’s Gallery, Studio Spectrum, Ata-Ray, Lessedra (Sofia); AYA and KA (Burgas); and Akrabov (Plovdiv). During the nineties, Bulgarian artists formulated questions of “identity, the boundaries of political correctness, the visual definitions of gender and sexuality, the relationships between society and art, the connections between the radical, the global and the digital.” (p.158) Relevant to this, contemporary art became a medium that established, writes Nozharova, a “new way of thinking about Eastern Europe.” (p. 188)

The last decade of the twentieth century in Bulgaria was a time of unseen political, economic, and social crisis. This context provoked the self-reflective approach and critical assessment of the national Identity and cultural traditions. Nozharova clarifies: “The concept of the national found its intelligent and ironic interpretation in a large series of works created by the artist Kiril Prashkov during the 1990s.” (p. 160) This conceptual reconsideration of “the topic of the national and its interpretations in the sphere of art” (p. 165) and the “dramatic disillusionment” (p.56) with the leading ideas of the past also characterizes other works, including Nedko Solakov’s paradigmatic Top Secret (Dec. 1989-Feb 1990), Luchezar Boyadjiev’s The Fortification of Faith (1989-1991), Dan Tenev’s Balkanization: The Enraged Triangle (1996), Krassimir Terziev’s Let‘s Dance. Clothes for Collective Life (1997), and Pravdoliub Ivanov’s Territories (1995) and Border by Memory (2006).

Feminism was another topic established within the art of the late ‘90s when the 8th of March Group consolidated twenty female artists from different generations working with different artistic media to explore female self-expression and critique male dominance in visual art history. With a risk to neglect the group’s kaleidoscopic character, I will point out two works by the group’s founders: Adelina Popnedeleva’s installation Ready-Made (1997) that questions popular cultures’ sex-soaked uses of the female image, and Alla Georgieva’s A sexual portrait as self-culinary object (1997) that combines hand-colored, black-and-white photographs, plastic plates, and chicken legs, bones, and plumage to create visual oxymoron that invokes both the genre of self-portraiture of the female artist and the stereotypes of “household responsibilities.”

The general impressions about the art scene before the beginning of the new millennium have been imagined as a dynamic, but isolated cultural landscape that successfully managed to “export” artists and artworks to international art forums and import financial and symbolic resources. Exhibitions that focused on the state of art in Eastern Europe and Bulgaria catalyzed the consolidation of the art scene in the country, among them: Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, curated by Laura Hoptman (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1995); Body and the East, curated by Zdenka Badovinac (Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, 1998); After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, curated by Bojana Pejić, Iris Müller-Westermann, and David Elliott (Museum of Modern Art, Stockholm, 1999); and Inventing a People: Contemporary Art in the Balkans, curated by André Rouille (National Gallery for Foreign Art, Sofia, 1999). Nozharova observes that these artistic events stimulated the process of “the conceptual self-awareness of Bulgarian artists.” (p. 191). As a consequence, the year 2000 is interpreted as а key turning point.

Nozharova  bases the history of contemporary Bulgarian art on the framework of the national state, but she also highlights the importance of these cross-cultural connections through various Western art forums, as well as the institutional and financial support of Western cultural foundations and centers, such as the Soros Center for the Arts, the Swiss cultural program Pro Helvetia, and the America for Bulgaria Foundation. An important part of the narrative is dedicated to the participation of Bulgarian artists in high-profile international forums and exhibitions, including biennials in Istanbul (1992); São Paulo (1994), and Venice (2001, 2007), and documenta in Kassel (2007, 2012). Moreover, the global art scene is seen as a factor for the development of a national canon. The initiative to formulate the treacherous question of the “national” characteristics of Bulgarian contemporary art is courageous, but Nozharova does not identify specific features (Bulgarianicity or Bulgarianness) of her subject.

Most likely as a curator, she considers contemporary art as a global phenomenon and, therefore, is aware that defining the “nature” of Bulgarian art would be anachronistic to a broad international audience that is the book’s target. Instead, Nozharova addresses her subject by answering the implicit question of what is Bulgarian contemporary art using the terms contemporary Bulgarian art and contemporary art in Bulgaria synonymously. Even if she does not formulate a hard definition, it seems that Nozharova refers to art created by artists living in Bulgaria, made largely within the Bulgarian context. Therefore, it appears that her theoretical approach adopts the so-called “national frameworks” representative of traditional art historical writing, where art history emerges as a tradition of knowledge about art, its history, traditions, institutions, nationally determined within political, social, and cultural frames. (Matthew Rampley, “The Construction of National Art Histories and the ‘New’ Europe,” in Matthew Rampley, ed., Art History and Visual Studies in Europe: Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 231-46.)

Finally, the fourth chapter is dedicated to the institutionalization and shift in focus of contemporary art institutions and forums that have played a role in the consolidation of the contemporary art scene after the 2000s. Nozharova dedicates pages to the private and independent galleries Cibank Gallery and Credo Bonum Foundation (Sofia), Sariev Gallery and Open Arts Foundation (Plovdiv), Contemporary Space Gallery and Bulart Gallery (Varna). An important find of the chapter is Nozharova’s review of the newly established annual prizes for contemporary art and their contribution to the consolidation of the contemporary art scene and canon. She analyzes art prizes with different origins and philosophies: the first contemporary art prize of The Art Project Deport Association financed by the wireless carrier M-Tel, The Swiss Diplomat’s Gaudenz B. Ruf Award, The BAZA Award for Contemporary Art of the Institute for Contemporary Art-Sofia, The ESSL Art Award associated with the Essl Museum-Vienna and Viеnna Insurance Group, and The Edmond Demirdjian Foundation’s Award. Other entities Nozharova identifies  as significant for the development of contemporary art during this period are the Visual Seminar of the Institute for Contemporary Art-Sofia and the Center of Advanced Studies-Sofia, important centers for research and the exchange of ideas, as well the establishment of art festivals in Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, and Shumen.

Throughout her study, Nozharova turns the center-periphery model upside down. Here, the map of contemporary Bulgarian art appears as a decentralized practice born at the periphery – as opposed to the ideological frame of the socialist aesthetic – in the cities of Devin and Varna, the village Kosti, far from the cultural centers of the communist state. Today, the key clusters of cultural activity seem to be in the country’s largest cities –  the capital Sofia, Plovdiv, and Varna.

Nojarova’s approach presents a selection of the artistic production of the last three decades as a series of events correlating it with the specifics of its historical context. Her selection is based on a research strategy for which she argues, “The sequence is always event, artist, and artwork.” (p. 6) In the context of this “history as a memory strategy,” Nozharova describes her selection of the artists and their work as “more or less subjective  . . . influenced by the  . . . time.” (p. 6) Undoubtedly, it seems that within her narrative, art history operates as cultural memory. As Nosharova states, the book is based on her memories, interviews with visual artists, art critics and curators, and archival research of articles and catalogs. I will remind that the author’s perspective is shaped from her art curatorial practice and predicates a pragmatic and personal approach to the research topic. Insofar as Nozharova belongs to the generation of curators whose professional background was formed in the period discussed in the book’s last chapter, her study should  be considered as a result of a participant-observation practice where, by default, the researcher’s interests and commitments shape the objects or events considered as important and relevant to the research inquiry.

Nonetheless, the book has succeeded in defining a comprehensive canon of contemporary Bulgarian art after 1982, through its visual artists, artworks, artist groups, critics, and institutions. Nozharova’s art historization offers a tendency to create a national contemporary art canon as a “history of deficits.” (p. 6) – defined by a lack of cultural policy for contemporary art, relevant education, contemporary art museums, institutional and financial support, public understanding, and a contemporary art market. Even if this is not stated explicitly, Nozharova’s narrative follows Alexander Kiossev’s methodological approach defined as a “self-colonization metaphor,”(The self-colonization concept interprets the ambiguity of the “Europeanization” process in Bulgarian history. It “described the way in which modern Bulgarian culture has been born in a self-reflexive condition – the self-consciousness of the anxious absence of European cultural goods and the way Bulgarian Kulturträger imported foreign models to “fill in” these lacks, a condition of a traumatic identity building.” This notion appeared in the mid-1990s and was revisited later as an analytic tool of cultural history. See,  https://www.uni-giessen.de/faculties/gcsc/gcsc/events/semesteroverview/archive/Summer%20Term%202018/master-classes/mc-alexander-kiossev) and implicitly applies this frame to illustrate the historical development of contemporary Bulgarian art. Consequently, she concludes that “the art scene has suffered systematic shortages that have prevented it from functioning effectively.” (p.284) Therefore, it may be assumed that while adapting a self-colonization theory to the visual arts, Nozharova’s narrative describes the way in which Bulgarian contemporary art was born in a condition driven by an awareness of the absence of the essential cultural goods.(Alexander Kiossev, “The Self-Colonization Cultures,” in Cultural Aspects of Modernization Process (Oslo: 1995).) Furthermore, and as the traumatic cultural identity of Eastern Europe is previously discussed in Hungarian art historian Edit Andras’s comparative study that “considers the uses of cultural trauma as a concept for understanding art and its reception,”(Edit Andras, “An Agent That Is Still at Work: The Trauma of Collective Memory of the Socialist Past,” in Writing Central European Art History (ERSTE Stiftung Reader # 01, 2008/9) pp. 5-21.) Nozharova’s narrative fits the tendencies described within the leading art studies of the region.

Missing from the book is an interpretation of cross-cultural dimensions between Bulgarian artists living in the country and those living abroad.(Several generations of Bulgarian-born artists have worked in cross-cultural environments. In contrast to traditional art history, the cross-cultural historical approach, centered on intercultural encounters, allows and invites intense reflection on how Bulgarian artists who have left the country (either during or after the Cold War) have interacted with the wider artworld.) Nozharova does comment on the early works of significant visual artists with a cross-cultural biography – Alzek Misheff (Italy), Albena Myhaylova (Switzerland), Vassil Simittchiev (Sweden),  Valio Tchenkov (Austria), Mihail Simeonov, Georgi Tushev, Genadi Gatev, Houben Tcherkelov, Kossio Minchev (USA), Valentin Stefanoff, Nina Kovacheva (France) – but is modest about their work after they left Bulgaria. The exception that proves this rule is her discussion of the “Bulgarian artists in Vienna phenomenon” (pp. 220-22).(See the catalog here: https://issuu.com/mariaart/docs/bulgarian_artists_in_vienna._contem.) Additionally, the process Nozharova describes needs to be set within a more global, panoramic view of contemporary art history and to reflect on how local art history (or histories) “might fit within the Western canon, or to question its authority.”(As stated in the program of New Europe Colleague-Bucharest “Periodization in the History of Art and Its Conundrums: How to Tackle Them in East-Central Europe,” supported by Getty Foundation, http://www.nec.ro/research-programs/periodization-in-the-history-of-art/.)

Throughout Introduction to Bulgarian Contemporary Art (1982–2015), contemporary art history in Bulgaria is framed within the expanded modernization debate of social studies and the humanities. As such, a conventional timeline of canonical contemporary Bulgarian art is established and, thus, open for critical discussion. Thanks to the author’s efforts, the path is now open for a post-historical understanding of art history and future attempts to question both the “rules of the canon” as well as “the role of the canon and canon formation.”(Hubert Locher, “The Idea of the Canon and Canon Formation in Art History,” in Matthew Rampley, ed., Art History and Visual Studies in Europe, (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2012), pp. 29–40.)

 

Nora Goleshevska
Nora Goleshevska is an independent scholar and current participant in the international research program Periodization in the History of Art and its Conundrum: How to tackle them in East-Central Europe (2019-2021) at the Institute for Advanced Study-Bucharest. She holds a PhD in "Philosophy of Culture: Media and Rhetoric" from Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski." Her research interests and publications are in cultural theory and history, visual studies methodology, contemporary Italian philosophy, and visual arts.