Rassim uses the material of his own life to create his art. Indeed, much of his work features himself, his body, or images of himself. But the artist insists that all of his source material comes from real life experience. Rather than finding influence on contemporary artists, he works from this raw material, using tradition elements of art – the body, the portrait, sculpture – and radically modernizing them for today’s society.
One of Rassim’s earliest projects was Corrections. The artist spent two years developing his body, working out according to a program devised by a professional body builder, and consuming special foods and proteins to bulk up his muscles. While at first glance it might appear that the artist was trying to become homo sovieticus, or even live up to the ideal of male beauty promoted by today’s mass media [in the manner of Eleanor Antin’s Carving: a Traditional Sculpture, from 1972], this was not at all the case. Firstly, according to the artist, body building was prohibited during the communist period, as it was associated with Western capitalist culture. In fact, there was only one specialist in this type of training in Bulgaria, whom Rassim used as a consultant on the project. The aim of the project, according to the artist, was to create a new, modern sculpture. When the piece was exhibited in Bulgaria, Maria Vassileva wrote about Rassim as the “new Michelangelo”; whereas Michelangelo created sculpture from marble, Rassim sculpts his body. For the artist, Corrections was a live sculpture, which took two years to create. Even to this day, he thinks of himself as an object of art, an eternal live sculpture.
The artist said that the project developed out of the situation in his life at the time. In 1991, he entered the army, as part of his mandatory military service. It was difficult for him, and he was looking for a way to escape, however he came to the realization that there is no escape from real life. After his military service, he entered the art academy and tried to think about a way to connect his life with his art. And from there he developed the idea of creating a live sculpture with his own body. At the time, this type of radical body art was marginal in Bulgaria; it wasn’t really accepted by academics, and there were no real sources for the artist to draw from, so he says that he was mainly working intuitively. The project was actually financed by a foreign investor – FRAC Languedoc-Roussillon in Montpellier, France. In my conversations with Luchezar Boyadzijev when I was in Sofia, he noted the fact that Rassim’s “transformation” had been paid for by the West. Whereas Bulgaria itself was going through a period of transformation, Rassim’s was the only one that was really successful, and it was financed by the West.
Four years later, Rassim underwent another physical change, in Corrections II (2002). In this piece, the artist was circumcised, and the procedure was documented accordingly. The artist commented that this piece was about religion, which was a contentious issue both in the aftermath of 9/11 and in Bulgaria during the communist period. In the 1980s, the communist government changed the names of Bulgarian people of Turkish origin, effectively Christianizing them. Although the artist physically altered his body, he remained the same person. Likewise, one can change names and still be the same. As Diana Popova has argued, in changing his body, he has become like the ‘Other,’ identifying with him, and yet still remaining himself.
The artist pushed his body to further limits more recently, in Fire Walk (2012), when he walked across a bed of hot coals. He said that he was interested in seeing how far he could push his body, as well as his mind. Demonstrating the power of mind over matter, after the walk, he only had one small wound on his leg, despite the 600 degree Celsius temperature of the fire.
In addition to creating a modernized version of sculpture, he has also created modern-day portraits, for example, his Self-Portrait with GSM (1998), where instead of creating a traditional self-portrait, he uses contemporary objects, such as a cell phone. Likewise, his Self-Portrait with a Cigarette (1995) is a moving image, depicting the process of the artist smoking a cigarette. Just as Rembrandt had painted himself with his wife Saskia, Rassim also created I Love Denitsa (1996), a self-portrait with his girlfriend at the time.
Nowadays, Rassim creates paintings with his own urine, creating a different type of self-image. The artist uses what he refers to as his ‘holographic code’ (his urine) to create a new image; in these pieces, his DNA is literally inscribed in the image. Instead of using other, external materials – such as paint – the artist uses what he has within, his own bodily fluids, to create the image. What the artist seems to be interested in, overall, is truth and honesty in his work. And as he said to me, “my works are real, and I can’t lie, because it is my own body.”