Ivan Moudov – thief, trickster, pretender – artist. Of course, these negative attributes are not Moudov’s character flaws, but rather artistic strategies by which he inserts both his art, and the art of Bulgaria, into the contemporary, international and global context.

When I spoke to Ivan, he mentioned how nowadays a lot of work by artists from Eastern Europe is more focused on issues related to how to get into the art world than about the work itself. Some of his work addresses this phenomenon as well. The situation in Bulgaria, with regard to contemporary art, is unique in Eastern Europe; much like Moldova and Albania, there is not a strong avant-garde or even neo-avant-garde tradition to draw from. Experimental art developed rather deliberately in the 1980s, and then very quickly in the 1990s, and artists cleverly developed strategies to circumvent the limitations that a lack of those traditions might bring. For example, Moudov started by stealing pieces of art works. He acknowledges that he is not the first artist to do this (even his theft is a copy), and one of his pieces consists of stealing the photograph of German artist Timm Ulrich’s attempted theft of a work of art. Ivan’s pilfering, however, has a particular significance, as it provides the Bulgarian nation with a service – that of creating a make-shift contemporary art museum, evidence of a cultural history of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art. The artist described this project as enabling him to “participate in colonial art history,” looting the treasures of one nation to add to his own national collection. He later arranged these stolen bits as Fragments in boxes, reminiscent of Duchamp’s Boite-en-Valise – several of which were displayed in the Bulgarian Pavilion in Palazzo Zorzi at the Venice Biennale in 2007.

This display was not good enough for Ivan, however, who wanted what all artists want nowadays – a prime position on the map of the Biennale, in the Giardini, where the oldest and permanent pavilions are located. So Moudov found a way to surreptitiously enter those pavilions, using a treasured national product of Bulgaria as a sort-of bribe: wine. By offering to donate nearly 2,000 bottles of Wine for Openings to 65 national pavilions at the Venice Biennale in 2007, he managed to subtly occupy each of them, including the most prominent pavilions, for example that of France, Germany, etc. He later distributed the bottles to be used in various exhibition openings across Europe.

The artist is concerned about the lack of attention to arts and culture in Bulgaria nowadays. For example, Bulgaria is one of the only EU countries without a museum of contemporary art. The artist rectified that situation by creating his own – or, rather, staging the opening for one. In 2005, he invited hundreds of people to the opening of MUSIZ, the new museum of contemporary art in Bulgaria. Upon arriving at a disused train station on the outskirts of the city, visitors realized that they were victims of a hoax, and the only museum opening occurring was that of a non-museum. Creating this context is the only way for artists such as Moudov to participate in the institutional critique, that is part of much postmodern art practice, on a local level. In his words, “we don’t even get the chance to hate the museum.” By tricking people, including journalists, into coming to this fictitious Museum of Contemporary Art, he attempted to raise awareness about the situation and generate discussion in the mass media.

But the problem is not simply lack of will or even lack of financing – as Ivan soon discovered. Bulgaria’s own laws proscribe the possibility of establishing a museum of contemporary art, given that in order to create a cultural institution in the country, one must have pieces in it that are worth more than 200,000 Euro, and they must be over 50 years old. While the idea that a work of “contemporary art” would be over 50 years old might seem laughable, it demonstrates the understanding of culture in Bulgarian society – at least as it is inscribed by law and by the institutions that support those laws. One of Ivan’s projects involved hiring a lawyer to draw up the documents to open a museum of contemporary art, with the precise intention of exposing these outdating and unsuitable regulations. In the end, the artist was refused a license to open such an institution, not only because he didn’t have a work that was worth 200,000 Euro, but also because he didn’t have a humidity regulating device!

The artist did manage to create a number of brick and mortar (or wood and metal) institutions, most notably a display of the MUSIZ collection in the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Hamburg, and the 0-GMS Gallery (together with fellow artists Steven Guermeur and Kamen Stoyanov – the GMS in the name being taken from the first letter of each of their last names) in the kitchen of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia. While the former was an actual building with what appeared to be an installation of work inside, the latter is simply a drawer in the kitchen cabinets where temporary exhibitions are displayed. For the installation in Hamburg, the artist rented a space in a former casino and created a sign demarcating it as the Bulgarian Culture Institute. It even had a website. While passersby could peep in and see what looked like an exhibition inside, not surprisingly, the institute was always closed. Conversely, it is always possible to open the 0-GMS Gallery, and even though it is a functional space, it still represents part of the artist’s strategy – as he told me, giving the space the name “0-GMS” means that it is always first on the list at art fairs.

Ivan told me that throughout his work, his strategy is this: to get people to pay attention to him. By clogging up roundabouts in Austria and Germany – straddling the edge of the law by having several friends drive into the roundabout at the same time, and continue circling without exiting (is it technically illegal?) – people certainly do pay attention. This early work, done when he was still a student, along with a similar work where he directed traffic, dressed as a Bulgarian police officer in Greece and Austria,  demonstrates the manner in which it is possible to usurp power, by using the mechanisms of the system to one’s own advantage. By donning a uniform – regardless of its country of origin – the artist is able to command authority; and by using the priority system of the roundabout, he reveals how one can manipulate and even abuse that system, and what the result will be. Whether applied to the art world or contemporary society in general, it is a solid lesson to learn.

Since Bulgaria doesn’t have its own contemporary art museum, it can perhaps experience the world of contemporary art virtually. Ivan has stolen museum audio guides, by plugging a recorder into the devices found in major museums across the world. In a gallery setting in Bulgaria, he enables the visitors to take the tour, and visualize the artworks for themselves. He does the same with museum labels – exhibiting them on blank walls. In this way, the artist invites his viewers to perform art history themselves, by imagining and envisioning the artworks, which then exist in their minds, if not on the walls of Bulgarian institutions.

The artist, however, is not only interested in aligning himself with the Western art world. In fact, he looks more globally, reminding me that the first stop of the Orient Express was in Sofia (in the disused train station that is now the fake museum of contemporary art), and the Ottoman Empire forms a significant part of Bulgaria’s history. As a country between East and West, the artist looks for ways to unite those two aspects. In Turkish Sushi he made sushi rolls using Turkish ingredients – live on TV. This took place when he was in Turkey for the Antakya Biennale. In this way he brings together diverse cultures to produce something new.

Twenty-five years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it is understandable that artists still look to the West, toward the dominant institutions in the art world. Nevertheless, it is exciting to see artists also reaching beyond this age-old binary, using strategies that will eventually break out of these Cold War normative ways of thinking. Perhaps once that has been achieved, Moudov will no longer need to steal, cheat and trick his way into the artworld – or will he continue to do it just for fun?