Ivan Moudov, “Trick Or Treat”, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Braunschweig, December 6, 2008 – February 12, 2009 (Exhib. Review)


In the work of Bulgarian artist Ivan Moudov there is a conscious desire to dismantle the social role and structure of the artwork and the art world. Piece by piece, art is taken apart, and in the process of deconstruction we end up with many more pieces than we initially counted. Still the artist is not content with sabotaging the way things are. His solo exhibition at the Braunschweig Kunstverein also revealed a carefully reconstructed world where the bits and pieces were put back together to produce a “corrected” image of reality: the broken image of art as a corrective to society.

Ivan Moudov, 'Fragments, 2002–2007,' 4 hand-made boxes, stolen fragments. Installation view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Image courtesy of Kunstverein Braunschweig.There was very little in the exhibition to alter Moudov’s reputation for provocative interventions such as his well-known (and semi-criminal) Fragments, a collection of pieces the artist stole from other artworks, or the Traffic Control performance when he dressed up as a policeman and proceeded to regulate traffic at real intersections across Europe. At the Braunschweig show, one’s way through the gallery was intentionally obstructed by a glass wall (The Glass, 2008); the secrets of the Kunstverein’s board members were revealed by a fortune teller (Coffee Portraits, 2008); and real money was being destroyed in a performance financed by the Kunstverein. This in turn allowed the artist to buy works for his own collection (Romanian Trick, 2008). There were also several bottles of Bulgarian red wine specially produced by the artist for the exhibition opening (Wine for Openings, 2008) and generously served to the public. Despite the conviviality of this gesture, Wine for Openings continued Moudov’s subversive questioning of society and art’s role in it. Wine consumption in this context turns out to be yet another (seemingly) innocent ritual over which the artist takes control.

Even when Moudov’s work  detaches itself form the art world and enters into the “real” world he tests the boundaries around art within society. In the Traffic Control performance the artist’s engagement with reality ended with the arrival of the real police. But perhaps the most important part of the performance was not that it put to the test the German or Austrian drivers’ respect for authority even when that authority is clad in an unrecognizable uniform, with the word “police” written on it in Cyrillic letters. What is at stake here is rather to confront the authorities with the fact that the impostor is an artist and the whole action is a work of art. The battle that is waged here does not pit David against Goliath (it is a battle between equals) but the lawyers of various art institutions against the police. In many of Moudov’s performances art has the stronger authority. The artist’s work reflects the fact that art has become the only sphere of life where society’s codes and laws can be violated without legal consequences. While works like Traffic Control seem to celebrate this freedom, they also leave open the question of what happens to art when it becomes an authority in its own right.

There  aren’t many  elements in the production, circulation and consumption of art that Ivan Moudov hasn’t taken up. In the Braunschweig show the viewers were confronted with the artist single-handedly creating an alternative art world, a kind of reality within reality. The artist alternatively or simultaneously adopted the role of curator, collector, museum director, sponsor, or public relations manager. In 2005 Moudov staged the opening of MUSIZ – a fictional Museum for Contemporary Art in Sofia – in order to address not only the lack of institutional support for contemporary art in Bulgaria but also the lack of any serious professional or general public discussion about it. The opening of the museum in the old Podoueneh railway station was publicized by a local art institution (the Institute of Contemporary Art) which sent out a press release and put up posters around Sofia. A lot of public and officials showed up for the opening, mingling with travellers waiting for their trains. Moudov’s museum had walls only for one evening, but as soon as the museum’s material framework was gone the artist took it upon himself to develop its collection.

Moudov’s search for funding set into motion a whole series of other actions and constitutes one of the artist’s most complex works to date, Romanian Trick. In this performance the artist breaks down one and two-euro coins into their (two) metal parts, a trick he picked up from a Romanian. The idea is that you pay five euros to learn the trick but then you can sell the know-how again and again. In Moudov’s exhibition version of this trick the secret is destroyed and revealed to the public. Yet the profit is multiplied a hundredfold as the trick becomes art and as such is brought to the art market where it acquires an appropriate price. Performing his complex barter, Moudov separates the factors that determine the work’s price from its value. The institution or collector that acquires Romanian Trick pays not what would be the price for this particular work, but the price for the purchase of a work by another artist that Ivan Moudov has chosen for his own collection. (Moudov’s collection is exhibited together with the documentation of the performance.) After the end of the show, the institution /collector is left with a video documentation of Romanian Trick as well as the actual pieces of broken money. In exchange, Moudov has gained another art work for his collection. That collection grows as the performance gains in visibility. The “Romanian trick” is thus transformed into a complex art deal but its original logic of accumulation is preserved.

Ivan Moudov doesn’t like to be perceived through the widespread clichés concerning Eastern European art, although he readily deals with these clichés in some of his work. If it would make any sense to insist on origin here it will be to reveal a certain understanding of the relationship between art and society. In a context – like the one in which Moudov matured as an artist – where contemporary art was deprived of any state or private institutional support, the artist completely loses touch with his society, so that for him the only reality is the art world. Moudov likes to push the boundaries of art, not so much because he is obsessed with art but because art is his entry point and model for approaching a society from which he still feels detached (both locally, in his country, and globally, as an international artist). Moudov suggests that if art today is to reflect or act upon society it should begin by reflecting or acting upon the art world.

Dessislava Dimova is an independent writer and curator based in Brussels and London.