At the end of Europe, and the end of my research: Bulgaria

In some ways, I felt like I started my trip to Bulgaria before I arrived. A few weeks before my trip, I spoke with Boryana Rossa, a visual and performance artist from Bulgaria who is currently an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University. Not only did she speak to me about my work, but she also helped me out with contacts in Sofia. The purpose of my trip was two-fold: firstly, I was going there as per usual, to meet with artists and look for materials for my book. But I was also invited to speak at the Sofia Queer Forum, whose topic this year, Manifestations of the Personal, was focused on gender. So, I had the opportunity to present the beginnings of a draft for that chapter of my book. [Yes, it is true, I have started writing it!]

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

Bulgaria is one of those places that art historians seem to have forgotten. It isn’t included in Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, for example, most likely because it doesn’t really have strong avant-garde or neo-avant-garde traditions to speak of. Bulgaria’s Eastern neighbor, Romania, seems to have received a lot of attention in recent years, but I have to admit that I knew very little about the scene in Buglaria before I went there.

My first day in Sofia was jam-packed. I had contacted Nedko Solakov, perhaps one of the best-known Bulgarian artists, weeks in advance of my trip. I was impressed by how quickly he replied, and was happy to have that 10AM meeting set up with him in my calendar for weeks before my arrival. The taxi ride out to his studio was somewhat chaotic. Once again, I had a very poor Google-map print-out of his street, one that would help no one, really, and the taxi driver just couldn’t find it. I started to worry when he began pulling over and asking pedestrians if they had heard of the street, and no one had, no one knew where it was (surprising, since we were in the neighborhood, and were only off by a few streets). I wanted to say “This is where Nedko Solakov, the famous artist, has studio!” but I figured that wouldn’t have helped much. In the end – as always – we got there, and only a few minutes late at that.

Nedko is not really a performance artist, he is really more well-known for his drawings – which he usually does spontaneously, on the walls of museums and galleries – and installations. He is a very prolific artist, and I took care to spend a good few hours going over his website, clicking on each and every work of art, reading the descriptions, before we met. I am glad I did. Not only did he seem pleased that I knew about his work, but I had later heard that he has little patience for reporters or art historians who don’t do their homework. So, if you are reading this and you plan to interview Nedko: study his website (and, of course, the books and catalogues of his work). Even though Nedko is not a performer per se, I find his drawing very much performative (and I am not the only one), and he also has some pieces that are indeed works of performance or action art – either works that he does himself, or that he directs others to do. Furthermore, Nedko was involved in a group called The City, which was a very important experimental art group active in Sofia in the late-1980s and early 1990s. What was fun, though, was that in speaking with Nedko about his work, he remembered other pieces that he did that could be considered performative. We spent nearly four hours talking about his work, and I easily could have spent more if I didn’t have another meeting to get to across town, with Adelina Popnedeleva,

Adelina is primarily a textile artist, but has done a few significant performance pieces as well. When I first presented my “list” of artists that I wanted to meet to Boryana, she remarked that there were no women artists on it. I had taken the names from my main sources: Body and the East and East Art Map, but those publications are already dated. So, I was happy to have Boryana’s suggestions and additions to my list. After my meeting with Adelina, we shared a taxi yet further across town to Luchezar Boyadzijev’s studio. We both had an opening to go to that evening for the Sofia Queer Forum, which we were invariably late for, due to yet another extended conversation. Luchezar had lived in New York City in the early 1980s, which in and of itself is cool (as a teenager, I often dreamed about how cool it would be to live in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s for the music and punk scene, and then later, as an art historian I dreamed about it for other (art historical) reasons) – but for a Bulgarian artist to do so, well, this made him not only cool, but a complete and total authority figure on all things artistic when he returned to Bulgaria. He told me about discussions he and his fellow artists would have, where they would ask him about concepts particular to the West at the time – for example, ‘what is a curator?’ Bulgaria did not have a very active experimental art scene until the late 1980s (one art historian told me that it was common that some artists would create experimental land art or performance only when they went abroad, and work more conservatively at home), and it is interesting to see the manner in which these ideas spread through the local art scene when artists went West and returned.

During my time in Sofia, I spent a few afternoons at the Institute for Contemporary Art, speaking with art historian and curator Diana Popova about the experimental art scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s that she was a part of. She showed me photographs from some of the exhibitions that took place at the Artist Union’s Shipka 6 Gallery (named after its address), including those that took place on the roof. One of the most interesting things I learned from her was the role that she played in the development of contemporary art in Bulgaria. When I asked her how she learned about non-traditional art as an art historian in Bulgaria in the 1980s, she told me that she complained to her professor, and he gave her a book on modern art, which she the proceeded to translate into Bulgarian, and the copy circulated hand-to-hand among artists in the manner of samizdat. She also told me that she did the same with Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art: from Futurism to Present, which had only been published in the West 1979.

The Sofia Queer Forum kicked off at the beginning of my trip, with the opening of an exhibition at Vaska Emanouilova Gallery of work by a number of artists, including Boryana Rossa. Czech artist Darina Alster also had a video installation at The Fridge/Xaspel, the social center that organized the Forum. She also hosted an artist talk where she showed examples of her work and discussed the development of feminism and gender-based art in the Czech Republic.

The night before I left I gave my talk at Xaspel, with discussants Luchezar Bojadzijev, who I had met earlier, and Snejanka Mihailova, who was linked up with the talk via Skype. Boryana Rossa also made a virtual appearance in the same manner. The talk was well attended, and provided a nice cap to my week in Sofia.

I was really impressed by the art scene in Sofia. I don’t really understand why it hasn’t received as much art historical and critical attention as its post-socialist neighbors, but I hope to take one small step in rectifying that in my book. The artists I met were all producing really striking and compelling work, and their generosity with their time and willingness to explain everything in great detail went a long way, since, in the absence of a significant body of publications on the art from Bulgaria, my notes and my memories will hopefully enable me to paint an equally vivid picture of the scene, and capture it permanently in print.

Downtown Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the distance

Downtown Sofia, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the distance

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.