Vera Mlechevska is an art historian and curator. We met to discuss a very interesting and performative project that she is currently working on, together with the writer Dimiter Shopov. The project addresses Bulgarian art history and the national complex regarding this history and the lack of an avant-garde tradition. Whereas most post-communist and post-socialist countries are eager to showcase those artists who continue the tradition of the avant-garde, Bulgaria carries the stigma of not having this tradition, and trying to make up for it by suggesting that there may have been artists working in this manner, but it simply wasn’t documented. Vera and Dimiter, however, have chosen a different approach. They confront this situation head on, by ironically discussing Bulgaria’s notable avant-garde artist, Gavazov – a fictional character of their making.
Gavazov has done everything and invented everything you could imagine. He was the father of conceptualism, installation art, and experimental film. The authors exaggerate his achievements to mock this situation where artists or nations try to stake a claim in being the first to do or create something. They present the material about Gavazov in the form of a lecture performance (which they have been doing since 2011), where Vera plays the role of the curator and art historian, and Dimiter, the researcher. All of Gavazov’s work exists in description form only, because, as Vera told me, to show them, visually, would destroy the myth. Without the physical evidence of his work, the myth can be perpetuated and even aggrandized, as the imagination runs wild with Gavazov’s innovative accomplishments.
Dimiter and Vera created a reconstruction of Gavazov’s studio, and tell stories about how he was “ahead of his time.” So advanced, in fact, that his work wasn’t accepted, appreciated or even understood in Bulgaria at the time it was created. For example, he made a kinetic sculpture that was installed in Ruse, Bulgaria, but the locals didn’t understand what it was, so they started to use it as a real object. Vera and Dimiter have even begun collecting images of found objects or “installations” in the public space of Bulgaria, for example, a random pile of stones, collection of rubbish, which they show as examples of the possible legacy of Gavazov’s avant-garde art.
Gavazov was, however, internationally known and accepted. For example, according to their research, he influenced African Minimalism. While most Eastern European artists try demonstrate their success or influence in Western Europe or North America, Gavazov found his success in Africa. In this way, the story also challenges the Amero- and Euro-centric art world.
Gavazov is a fascinating project, one that confronts local history head on and creates a dialogue about it, instead of either ignoring or exaggerating it. The project reminded me of a similar one by the Romanian Bureau of Melodramatic Research; where, when the artists were denied access to their own history, they invented it themselves. Here Vera and Dimiter rewrite history with a specific purpose: to expose and challenge the complexes about Bulgarian art history, in the hopes of working through these insecurities by creating a new work of art that moves art history forward.