Nedko Solakov’s oeuvre is so rich, and he is such a prolific artist, that I cannot discuss all of his works here. He is not a performance artist, and he is perhaps better known for his drawings and conceptual installations, but there are several works in his repertoire that are either performances or performative.
One of the artist’s earlier works is indicative of some of the themes that he would occupy himself throughout his career – the position of Bulgaria within the global art context, and the East-West binary. In his 1989 installation, The View to the West, he placed a telescope facing West on the roof of the Artist’s Union gallery in Sofia, revealing the red star of the communist party headquarters obstructing the view (and thus the artist’s path) to the West. The artist himself has surmounted that obstacle, as he is perhaps one of the best known contemporary artists from Bulgaria, having participated in numerous international exhibitions, not to mention having a number of solo shows across the globe. He even has his own App!
Nedko was a member of The City Group in the 1980s, one of the first avant-garde groups of artists in Bulgaria. Formed by an art critic, Philip Zidarov, the group met to discuss art and ideas, and spent two years preparing an exhibition entitled “The City,” which debuted in summer 1988. The concept of the exhibition was created when Zidarov asked a group of painters to make an exhibition without paintings, a particular challenge in a country that does not have a strong neo-avant-garde tradition of conceptual, performance and installation art dating back to the 1960s. Nedko’s own contribution was an installation, consisting of various found objects.
Nedko’s drawings are very performative. When he works in a space, he lets the architecture guide him and lead him, and he considers his drawings to be like a conversation – both with the space and with the people in that space. He described the manner in which he moves through a space to make his drawings, which are usually teeny-tiny little scribbles, doodles, drawings, and texts, that draw the viewer in and make him move around in the room, too. Just as Allan Kaprow commented that to understand a Jackson Pollock painting one had to be “in” that painting with the artist, moving back and forth with the lines of paint on the canvas, Nedko, too, creates a drawing that facilitates the movement of the viewer, forcing him – or at least persuading him – to move and perform along with him. The artist himself conceives of his work as “telling stories in space.”
What immediately comes to mind when looking at the artist’s work is the play, whimsy and cleverness about it. But that is not to say that his work is only humorous – many of his works deal with rather serious issues. For example, one of his best known early works, and one of the most controversial, at least in Bulgaria, was a self-confessional piece entitled Top Secret – a box containing a series of cards detailing the artist’s “youthful collaboration with the Bulgarian Secret Police.” Following a visit to Paris in 1976, he was approached by a “comrade” who asked him for some information about his trip to Paris, and then for more information about colleagues, over the course of the years. As the artist (and man) matured, he gradually came to realize what he was doing, and put an end to it, but this piece collects and catalogues his guilt over his complicity.
The artist has invented characters and alter-egos, for example, El Bulgaro – a contemporary of El Greco whose identity has only just been discovered and revealed. One gets the impression that it was actually a Bulgarian artist who crafted all of the Spaniard’s paintings, as Nedko’s piece tells us there is “too much hard-to-ignore evidence” that El Greco was “hiding behind” El Bulgaro’s personality. In this way, the artist creates a historical legacy for Bulgarian art where there was none, placing its culture on the map of canonical artists and works of art. This challenge to the Western-European-centric art canon can also be seen in The Collector of Art. The subtitle of the piece elucidates: “(Somewhere in Africa there is a great black man collecting art from Europe and America, buying his Picasso for 23 coconuts…).” Both of these pieces are exhibited as installations; the former primarily a wall installation documenting the discovery and explanation of El Bulgaro’s work, and the latter a 3-dimensional installation of the ”Art Collector’s” hut, complete with sand, zebra skin, coconuts, pineapples, and crates.
Despite the fact that Bulgaria is a European country, its appearance at one of the most significant art exhibitions – the Venice Biennale – has been problematic. In 1999, Nedko came up with an Announcement, in which he “announced” that Bulgaria was finally ready to participate in the Venice Biennale in 2001. He distributed business cards with a statement to that effect, on which was also printed the Bulgarian tri-color, along with t-shirts that were worn at the Biennale. The artist commented that people didn’t get it at first – they found it hard to believe that a “normal country like Bulgaria” wouldn’t have a pavilion in Venice.
Aside from his drawings, which compel the viewer to interact with the space in which they are found, the artist also involves the viewer in his work in other interesting ways. For example, in Emotions (without masks) (2009) the visitor to the exhibition was greeted with a letter penned by Nedko, which read “I have a real problem. As part of my “Emotions“ exhibition agreement with Mathildenhoehe I were to do a new work for this water reservoir. Believe it or not, but recently I ran out of ideas. Would you be willing to help me with this by giving a thought to what work of art could be created in this so special, very picturesque, mysterious (and not really needing any work of art) place?” Several visitors left suggestions, and Susanne Scheulen, from Frankfurt, was chosen as the winner. Her idea was to leave everything as it was, and present all of the submitted ideas in frames, to make all of the other possibilities (had she not won) visible.
Nedko has also involved curators in his participatory work, for example Sexual Harassment a video installation/series of video performances in which several curators speak seductively to the viewer. Instead of trying to seduce you with contemporary art, the artist told me, they seduce you with something else. Similar to his Emotions (without masks) piece, where he left the final exhibition piece up to chance, in Rivals (2004) he staged a competition with the curator of his next show in the gallery, the winner of which would decide which project of his would be exhibited. They competed to see who had more hair, who could drill the most holes in the wall in one minute, who could make the guard laugh first. Although the curator won, Nedko still did what he wanted anyway.
I could go on for pages describing Nedko’s work, but hopefully this is a tantalizing enough taster to get you to check out his website, books and App!