Curating the Curators

There is an art to curation. Curators must not only choose the works for an exhibition, which involves making aesthetic judgments about “good” and “bad” as well as what fits together according to the exhibition’s theme. Curators must also provide a context for understanding the art. They put texts on the wall that identify histories, genealogies, themes. They produce catalogs that provide even more exhaustive information. In some cases, in this flashy capitalist world where advertising offers more than the product, this curatorial packaging can be more interesting than the art itself. Or, in the hands of a poor curator, the show can be less than the sum of its parts.

In the same way that curation sometimes aspires to the same level of art as the contents of the exhibition itself, some artists are becoming almost curatorial in their approach.

Luchezar Boyadjiev was trained as an art historian – in fact, in the same institute in Sofia that produced Bulgaria’s most famous artist, Christo. This course of study included training in all the traditional disciplines of drawing, painting, printmaking. He has also worked as a curator. So he is well positioned to create art that blurs the distinction between artist and curator.

Consider the piece he did for a show on contemporary art in the Balkans in 2003 in Kassel, Germany – and subsequently in several other places – that he called Schadenfreude Guided Tours. Rather than provide a static piece of art that could be enclosed in a space defined as “Balkan art,” Boyadjiev himself showed up in the gallery. In some sense, he refused to be curated, to be packaged.

“I insisted that I stay for seven weeks at the exhibition,” he told me one evening last September at a café in Sofia. “I did these tours for six or seven hours a day, as long as there were people there to listen to me. I was cross-referencing the works from different countries and artists, and there were nearly 120 artworks at this exhibition from all over the Balkans. I was drawing on everything from personal gossip to very complex issues related to the issue. That made it worth my while to be in that show.”

In other words, Boyadjiev was re-curating the show according to his own experience and his own judgments. “I called it Schadenfreude because I would take pleasure in the fact that the other artists were not there and I could say what I wanted about their art,” he told me. But that of course is what a curator does: they speak of the art in the absence of the artist.

We talked about the trajectory of his artistic career as well as his disenchantment with theory, the challenges of establishing an art culture in Bulgaria, and the failure of understanding the contributions of Muslims in Bulgaria.

 

How Many Nails in a Mouth? (1995) by Luchezar Boyadjiev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?

 

Yes, I do remember. October and November 1989: it’s one big continuum of events that followed one after another. I particularly remember where I was on November 10, when Todor Zhivkov was kicked out of the Politburo. At that time I was fixing up our apartment. My young son and ex-wife and I were supposed to move to our new apartment, so I was fixing it up. I’d already installed the TV set, so I was following the news.

Obviously there was something in the air: it wasn’t a big surprise. The surprise was that it happened so radically and had a physical dimension, almost like a work of art. People physically destroyed the Berlin Wall, like a performance. It wasn’t planned, and it was probably going to get messy. Obviously there were things going on under the surface that we weren’t aware of. And those turned out to be the defining trends afterward.

At the same time, people had a lot of wrong ideas and misconceptions about what was to come. I’m not a very good example because I’d already lived in the United States in the 1980s. I pretty much knew that freedom is not what they tell you about in the movies. It’s more of a contract that is specific to each society, with a lot of philosophical and ethical aspects. I didn’t have great expectations. I knew that it would be very difficult because nobody had tried this path before: to transform a “real socialist” society into a capitalist society. There was no established routine. You could say, 20 years later, that many things were done in a premature way or too quickly or they could have been done differently. I’m not talking about things on the surface like names of streets or monuments. I’m talking about the public wealth and how it could have been transformed into something else.

 

Did you start out doing art here in Bulgaria before you went to the United States?

 

I was trained as an art historian in a very traditional art academy, the same art school that Christo Javasheff went to. My training, apart from extensive art history and philosophy and theory, also included life drawing and painting and printmaking and anatomy and perspective. So I had a very thorough artistic education by the time I went to the States in the early 1980s. I wasn’t showing anything then. In 1986, I started showing in New York City at a local gallery called Westbeth, a complex of studios that still exists in the West Village. Then I started showing in Bulgaria after 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell. The ironic thing is that the first Bulgarian exhibition that I ever participated in opened on November 11, 1989 in Blagoevgrad. At that time there was a very active group of artists in Blagoevgrad, where the American University is located: south of Sofia on the way to Thessaloniki. In Blagoevgrad, they had already done an exhibition entitled 11/11 in 1988, and we had already organized the exhibition to open on 11/11/89. Then all of a sudden that avalanche of things happened so fast.

 

What was the reaction to the exhibition?

 

It’s almost like the basis of a good mythology. In this exhibition in Blagoevgrad, my works were stolen. And I was so stupid that I wrote an open letter to the unknown collector of my art in the Kultura weekly and, among other things, I said, “Times are changing and I accept this act of appropriation as a legitimate act of collecting.” In the past, after all, colonial powers appropriated art from other places, and it’s still being exhibited in major museums around the world. Then I went on to say, “In the future anybody who wants to have a work of mine will have to steal it.” That of course jinxed me for a long time. I had great difficulty selling my works. And nobody has stolen any of my works until recently.

 

Did you ever hear from the person who stole your work?

 

No. I regret that I didn’t photograph the work. I didn’t have a camera at the time so I didn’t document the work. There is only one photo that has survived by chance. From today’s perspective, it could have been a major piece. I did it in 1987. It was a brochure of the seven monuments of national culture and nature in Bulgaria – a monastery, a mountain, and so on — that were under the protection of UNESCO. Using photo collage, I deconstructed a certain set of clichés about Bulgaria. Those same clichés appeared afterwards as well, especially after EU membership, in various political games around the national identity issue.

 

How would you say that 1989 affected the trajectory of your art?

 

It liberated me. At one level, I felt that all of this came a little late for me. But maybe it turns out that it was just about the right time.

Due to the lack of many infrastructural elements in the realm of culture in this country — not only in the visual arts but mostly the visual arts — young artists develop relatively later here compared to London, Berlin, or even Moscow. The pressures in those cities to mature are much greater, and the competition is much tougher. Here there is not so much pressure. You can take more time. It doesn’t mean that what you accomplish is contextually relevant outside of Bulgaria or even within Bulgaria. But when you reach 30 maybe you’re mature. I was 32 in 1989.

A year later, October 1990, I was appointed by Susan Buck-Morrs, who used to teach at Cornell, and Frederick Jameson and some Russian philosophers to be co-director of a course in postmodern philosophy in Dubrovnik. I was still doing a bit of theory at that time. The course was at the so-called Inter-University Center, sponsored by Soros, and they were doing two-week seminars and courses on various topics. In this particular two-week course, we had speeches by Slavoj Zizek, Boris Groys, and other important thinkers. I was honored to be part of it.

But I was also very disappointed because all these Western and American intellectuals, who were basically leftist critical thinkers, thought that me and my friends there were traitors to the leftist cause. What we had been through for them was completely different, and it was very difficult to synchronize a basic understanding as to what that society was. They had no idea about things that we grew up with, such as the writings of Lenin and Stalin and many other things.

I was deeply disappointed. I decided I’d had it with theory. It wasn’t going to get me anywhere. My friends already had their degrees in Bulgaria, but they went to universities in Germany, France, and the States and tried to integrate themselves into academic circles, with varying degrees of success. Some of them came back. I felt that I couldn’t wait anymore. This was a very conscious decision. I decided to make what I wanted to make, to use materials to visualize my ideas. Later on I would decide whether this was art or not and what kind of art.

This was the way it was at the end of 1990. I was also curating a lot. Because of my experiences in the States I knew a lot more about the international art world than anyone else in Bulgaria. I was working with other friends and curators and artists in the context of the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was set up later on in 1995. But even before that, beginning in 1987-88 up to 1992-2, we had already formed a core group of people that more or less had decided to disregard the fact that we weren’t in New York and to make it worth our whiles to prove that it’s possible to live and work in this country and exhibit here and internationally as well. In a certain way, it has worked. In other ways, it has failed. For instance, we have been totally unsuccessful in educating the political or business elite about the merits of supporting contemporary creative arts let alone influencing the establishment of functioning institutions – in this respect we have failed to contribute to the development of the local situation. We have succeeded in other ways – by being an example of how to survive, function, build bridges. We have a lot of younger colleagues with whom we collaborate or even fight, who follow our example. But all in all, we have had very little impact on society.

 

The failure is then at two levels — economic sustainability and impact. When you say impact, do you mean at the level of public opinion?

 

Yes, public opinion, but public opinion in terms of voices in the public space. Personally I look at public space as full of various voices including the voice of political power and the voice of the business community.

And this public space allows us to negotiate our differences with power and between ourselves. This public space has been quite active in terms of discussions. But these voices have concentrated more on the evolution of civil society and openness toward the rest of the world rather than on the “little issues” in this country. In this way, we have failed. And sustainability is on one level economic, but it’s also about making this country part of the whole world.

Ironically there was more talk of international, non-Bulgarian issues before January 2007. Once Bulgaria entered the EU, everyone felt that we’d solved this problem and could go back to talking about national identity and what it means to be Bulgarian. We could forget about the fact that there are other ethnicities and other religious communities in this country that have been here for centuries. Bulgaria is the only EU country with a more-or-less indigenous Muslim population. We could learn some lessons from the experience of people who have lived here for centuries.

 

I am often struck by the fact that commenters on the Muslim issue in Europe always forget to talk about the Muslim populations in Bulgaria and Albania. I want to come back to that. But first I want to ask specifically about how 1989 changed your art.

 

Up until 1995, there was a general interest in the art produced in what was considered Eastern Europe. In the second half of the 1990s, the idea of “East” shifted: to the Far East, then the Muslim East, then the Central Asian East. This is one thing to consider.

Also, the second half of the 1990s ushered in the digital era and new media art. There were a lot of expectations and investment in this field, and some people hoped that the Internet would solve all issues connected to separation and participation, which happened to a certain extent. We learned a lot, but we didn’t solve anything. Then came 9/11, and all of a sudden people realized that the divides are not what they used to be. Other divides exist, and the world is more complex and difficult to navigate.

My work has shifted from first dealing with science and recognizable iconological entities and codes of visual language taken from different cultures, such as astrology or religion or the newspaper. I would take these and invest them with something of where I come from. Ten years ago, I was more interested in interviewing people and making video portraits of them. Then from 2002-3 up until two or three years ago, my work consisted of two lines. One was a lot of photographs and texts related to the changing face of cities all over the world in the context of global capitalism — post-socialist, neocolonial, or desert capitalism like in Dubai — and comparing these developments in architecture, advertising, public monuments, the behavior of people on the streets.

The other trend was more performative. I started developing a work called Schadenfreude Guided Tours. I would stay after the opening of an exhibition for as long as possible giving guided tours to the show. It would be organized, with the agreement of the curators, and I would interact with the audience by animating the space. I called it Schadenfreude because I would take pleasure in the fact that the other artists were not there and I could say what I wanted about their art. I could put them down or whatever! I did this in Kassel in 2003 at a show on contemporary art in the Balkans, then in Sharjah in 2005 in the United Arab Emirates, then at the Biennale in Singapore in 2006 and 2008; as well as in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a completely different context. In 2008, I also did it in Jerusalem, which is obviously a very tough place to present anything – the place is already heavily loaded politically.

That was all until the financial crisis struck. I was in Singapore when Lehman Brothers collapsed. I was talking to people from hedge funds, sovereign investment funds. Once again the world changed at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. All of a sudden a huge part of art-making and art exhibitions disappeared for a while. I now sell more, which is good, but I’m no longer an unknown quantity; people know that they won’t lose money if they invest in what I do. But it’s getting tougher and tougher for younger artists. Very often when they construct a budget for an institution or an exhibition, the last thing on their agenda is a small payment to the artists, who are workers just like anybody else. It’s almost taken for granted that artists are very vain and happy to show their works. Well, I don’t want to show my work any more just like that. I want to show my work to people who appreciate it, who are prepared to sacrifice something to see it just as I am sacrificing something, not much perhaps, to make it.

Here I am almost quoting literally the American artist Mark Rothko, a top abstract expressionist who committed suicide in the 1970s after creating his chapel in Houston. In the late 1960s, when he was at the top of his game and getting high prices for his paintings, a collector asked him, “Why do you charge me so much for this painting. It’s very minimal.” Rothko answered, “My friend, I have paid with my life and blood and everything for the whimsy to want to make it. Now you have to pay with your money for the whimsy to want to have it.”

There are some very good corporate collections made by curators who assist collecting in a responsible way. But that unfortunately is missing from this country. Business in Bulgaria is international. You can no longer say that this is only a Bulgarian corporation. But we have failed to educate them. The most powerful corporations and businessmen have developed tastes that range from total kitsch to just plain cheating. There was, for instance an exhibition of Salvador Dali at the National Gallery for Foreign Art two years ago without a single “work” by the artist that has his signature on it. It was just lithographic reproductions of his drawings…

This is a country without a history of collecting, except for the collection of Bulgarian art, which is original. There are some very nice pieces of foreign art at the museums, but there is nothing of masterpiece quality. It’s spotty, uneven.

In this way, we’re back to where we started in the 1970s and 1980s. In all these countries – here, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union — you led a double life. You had an official life, like Ilya Kabakov, who was a graphic designer illustrating books for children, which were very didactic in the Soviet Union. And at the same time he was an avant-garde artist. Now it’s become divided spatially. I have one kind of existence here, where I am known by the media and colleagues but I am not established. There are hardly any public collections let alone private collections to guarantee some kind of continuity of practice. I matter only outside of Bulgaria, which is my other existence. When I go outside the country, I’m more respected.

 

You said that Bulgarian companies have become internationalized. I want to apply that to the art world. Do the intermediate terms between global and individual — East European, Balkan, Bulgarian — have any meaning today for artists today in Bulgaria?

 

Not really. You can look at the art in different ways: the specific artworks, the method. Once in a while, a person will package a group of artists and artworks in a particular way. Ten years ago it was a trend in Germany and Austria to have exhibitions of contemporary art from the Balkans. This was after the war in Yugoslavia, so there was a bit of interest and money in this post-traumatic situation. Curators who worked and knew us used the moment to do something they’d always wanted to do. Then everybody forgot about it, which was a good thing. Sometimes it’s a fashion, sometimes it’s an opportunity, and sometimes it’s an urgent need to look into certain contexts and package them. But I don’t think it matters, and I don’t think it matters for my friends.

About a year ago, in a place called ZKM, the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in Germany, I was lucky to have a work in an exhibition curated by Peter Weibel, a legendary artist and curator and director of the center. Entitled Global Contemporary, it was based on the writings of Hans Belting, a German theoretician, and it looked at the globalization of art production. The conclusion of the exhibit was that this globalization was more a question of access and identifying issues that are valid for people than a question of the infrastructure of the art world, though that’s certainly part of it. Before the crisis of 2008, there was talk that biennales go where there is money. Only those cities with money have the resources to hold a biennale. We were very critical of that. But now it turns out that it’s not such a bad thing. If your city and the people in your city want a biennale, who am I to say you shouldn’t? Of course, it’s always a complex situation. But at the same time, this is a global trend that depends on local decisions. It’s the same with artists. We function in a globalized environment, but it comes down to a set of local decisions: what I want to do, whom I want to do it with, where I want to show it.

 

Yes, these exhibitions on “Balkan art” were opportunities for packaging, but they were also opportunities for the consumer to make an attempt to understand a set of issues, what “Balkan” means.

 

All right, but the consumer is in New York or London. That’s a very privileged position. If people in New York or somewhere else want to know what it means to be Balkan, they will have to work a lot harder than just go to an exhibition.

 

That’s a good point.

 

They’re going to have to read books, study up on history, see movies. An exhibition cannot solve all that. Otherwise you package an identity in a very superficial way. This is precisely why I was doing these Schadenfreude Guided Tours at the Balkan exhibition in Kassel, which every five years is the center of the contemporary world with Documenta. Rene Block was the curator of that show. I refused to show anything material. I didn’t want to be packaged in that way. But I could contribute in a different way, and this was my contribution.

The audience is very educated in Kassel, but they have no idea what “Balkans” means. I was reacting to this set of clichés people have about the Balkans. I mean, they don’t even know how to pronounce the names properly. Look, I can’t pronounce German names correctly, so it’s fair game. But if I want to show German artists here in Bulgaria, and I don’t know how to pronounce their names, I should think twice about doing it. That’s why I insisted that I stay for seven weeks at the exhibition. I did these tours for six or seven hours a day, as long as there were people there to listen to me. I was cross-referencing the works from different countries and artists, and there were nearly 120 artworks at this exhibition from all over the Balkans. I was drawing on everything from personal gossip to very complex issues related to the issue. That made it worth my while to be in that show.

 

You’re getting at the issue of power and balance, not only between nations but within nations, between those who have the opportunity and money to attend an exhibition and those who don’t.

 

The opportunity to organize an exhibit. To attend an exhibit is not so difficult any more. Anybody can go and see a major art show in Venice and Kassel and Istanbul. This generation of 30-something and under is extremely educated. They go to museums without anyone forcing them. They travel; they open their eyes. Unfortunately the elite, which is basically my generation in politics, doesn’t think this way.

 

I want to go back to your comments about Muslims and ethnic Turks here in Bulgaria. You said that you think that they have something to offer in the way of an example.

 

I’m not part of the community. I have a human understanding of the situation but no direct knowledge. You should talk to people from the community.

I have some friends in the community, including a wonderful artist who is 10 years younger than me, Ergin Cavusoglu, who lives in London. I’ve known him for many years, but we just had some time together at an exhibition in Kiev this spring. In the summer of 1989, he was in the army, in the barracks, and he didn’t even know that his family had been kicked out of the country. He has made some works about it. That is one kind of experience

Half of my family on my mother’s side emigrated after the Russian-Ottoman war of 1876-78 from what’s now the Greek part of Macedonia and settled in Sofia. Some of them did some really bad things. There was a first cousin of my grandmother, Kosta Yankov, who was a major in the Bulgarian army. He was also a leader of the military wing of the Bulgarian (at the time underground) Communist Party. In 1925, he organized the country’s first real terrorist act, blowing up the St. Nedelya cathedral in the middle of Sofia. But in 1880s, when they left northern Greece, they were running away not from the Turks but from the Greeks, who already had a tradition of ethnic cleansing that was much more radical and violent than the Ottoman practice. So, that’s another thing from the history of the region.

Or another example – a couple years ago there was a debate about mosques in Western Europe: in Germany, Austria, Switzerland. It was not about the temples. It was about the minarets, the visual signifier. Actually, in the history of the Ottoman Empire and more specifically the Bulgarian space, there was a legal precedent established at the time, and it had visual implications that were used by the Christians in order to have dignified temples within the law. They found a way to satisfy everybody, so why now can’t a solution be found?

 

And an auditory signifier as well.

 

Yes. In Ekaterinburg, a place in Russia which is undergoing big scandals involving the Russian Orthodox Church, I heard for the first time a prayer in an Orthodox church that was broadcast in a public space. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable because it is not part of this tradition. Not that I am religious.

But on the minaret question, in Doha there is a new cathedral, the first Catholic cathedral constructed not only in a Gulf State but in a Muslim state in recent times. It has a cross on top of a roof that’s shaped like a doughnut. You can see the cross from the point of view of heaven, but you can’t see it from the street. So everyone is happy.

In the 19th century in this country, some city people became wealthy and could afford to build a new church. But this was during Ottoman rule and the law said that you couldn’t have a cross on the top of a church that was taller than a Muslim on a horseback so that the eyes of the true believer would be offended by this symbol. So, what was the solution of the people in small towns and even in Istanbul? They would buy a plot of land and construct walls that would obstruct the line of sight of the believer on horseback. They built high walls and inside the perimeter they dug into the ground. From the outside you couldn’t see anything accept a very small church. But once inside, which is what matters, it was huge. This was the rule all over the Ottoman Empire, which was in a way very tolerant to religious minorities, all things considered.

This is a cultural fact, and a legal precedent, that could be presented for consideration. But it’s not used. Here is another: Sofia is one of the few cities in Europe and perhaps the world where a mosque and a synagogue stand across from each other with a church nearby. Of course, there used to be many more mosques. Some of them suffered during the earthquake 100 years ago, while others were demolished because the minority was kicked out.

The experience of Muslims in Bulgaria between 1984 and 1989 was traumatic. It was also traumatic for the whole country. And it hasn’t been talked about sufficiently. We can still learn a lot of things about that period. I recently went to Istanbul and met with ethnic Turkish people who emigrated from Bulgaria at that time. They are already well established. They have businesses, Bulgarian passports. They were kicked out, that was bad. But they have settled in a new place. How did that evolve? And yet, on a visit to Istanbul over the last couple months, I heard friends referring to these migrants from 1989 as the “Bulgarians.” It’s really tragic and yet ironic – they were kicked out once from Bulgaria for being “Turks,” and now they are singled out in Istanbul for being “Bulgarians”.

But as I said: you should really talk to people from this community.

 

I will. For instance, I’ll be talking with folks from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

 

The current minister of culture, who used to be a friend and will be a friend again when he’s not in government, is a sculptor. He’s a good person, but it’s not his place. He’s made a lot of mistakes. Anyway, he’s ethnic Turkish. His mother was a famous folk singer in Kurdzhali. He won a parliamentary seat in a district that was dominated for years by the MRF. He ran against this movement. He’s a populist now, a minor copy of the prime minister in his macho appearance and rhetoric. But he overcame this monopoly in this region.

 

You told me that you’re relatively pessimistic about the near future.

 

I don’t see the political will here. Bulgaria is still undergoing a process of nation-state building. The country is still building the institutions of civil society. Of course a nation-state is not any more such a treasured thing. But at the same time, in terms of the rule of law and the judicial system, this is still a country that needs to be civilized, modernized, and, well, fixed.

In the last few years, things like this happen here only if there’s external pressure. Internal pressure is not enough. It always ends up as a partisan game for power. Once someone is in power, they begin reshuffling the field for their own benefit. If there is improvement in this respect, it comes from the outside. This happened with the IMF and the currency board back in 1997, which stabilized the general picture. I’m not saying it was good from the point of view of social security or social benefits, but it did stabilize life.

This government does get some things done, but at the same time it has created this kind of cloud to hide behind and not commit to anything, because internally they don’t know how far to go. In our country, power is business. You go into politics because it’s like a business, and you want to benefit from it. You don’t necessarily want to serve the society and the people.

These days there is less monitoring here in this country, and this makes me pessimistic. Once there is no monitoring, I don’t know what will happen to this country. No matter how many laws there are here or how many law enforcement agencies or how well trained the politicians or civil servants are, there is always this fear that the political class will revert to its old ways.

When Bulgaria and Romania were negotiating for membership in the EU, the two countries were often compared to Holland and Germany. This was a mistake. We should have been compared to Greece. My Greek friends are now saying, “We have to learn how to live like you did over the last 20 years: in a crisis with very little money.”

In 2006, about a year before membership I asked Meglena Kuneva, who was the minister negotiating for membership, “Will they accept us?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Why?” I asked. “It’s not realistic. This country has to be fixed first.”

And she said, “Because they are good people. They promised once and they don’t want to go back on their promise. That’s the only reason!”

 

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has happened here in this country, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

6

 

Same scale, same period of time, but your own personal life?

 

8

 

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Bulgaria with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

I think that it’s below average right now. So, that would be 4.

 

Sofia, September 27, 2012

 


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