Bulgarian art has been going through a retrospective period in the past few years, a phase that comes across as overly nostalgic when compared with the 1990s. And indeed it looks as though the ’90s are still here. After a 15-year hiatus, Dr. Galentin Gatev, one of Bulgaria’s first collectors of contemporary art, a doctor by profession but an artist by calling, offered a string of new shows and collaborative projects. Nedko Solakov staged his first retrospective after more than 20 years without a solo show in his homeland. The retrospective was the form that the XXL circle, a group of artists, many of whom left Bulgaria in the mid-1990s, chose for their return. As a whole, historical writing—either in the form of exhibitions or as books—has set in as the predominant trend.
The flow of processes and events also attracted other art émigrés from the ’80s and early ’90s—among them Rada Boukova, Stefan Nikolaev, Daniela Kostova, Konstantin Bozhanov, Ergin Cavusoglu. We normally use the fall of the Berlin Wall as the date of birth for Bulgarian contemporary art, and the absence of an unofficial art scene during the socialist period can explain the belated appearance of the so-called Bulgarian avant-garde. But unlike any other avant-garde, the Bulgarian version did not stand up to the art market: it did its utmost to establish it. In its infancy the Bulgarian art scene gained its character and identity only due to the cracks in the “Western” model to which it referred.
Bulgaria in the ’90s was a time when art seemed to have it all: it enjoyed interesting subject matter, artists, buyers, criticism, publications, and art spaces. This is almost a paradox, keeping in mind the dramatic social and economic backdrop within which it grew and existed. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, George Soros established a chain of art institutions in eastern Europe and put a damper on all of that. However, the ’90s started to be regarded as a heroic period, an almost imperceptible “long decade,” whose effects are still felt today.
If one searches “Bulgarian art scene,” he or she would find only the personalities and institutions that emerged in the ’90s. Not coincidentally, Iara Boubnova and Nedko Solakov referred to themselves as the survivors of State Socialism and post-Socialist chaotic transition in their talk at Art Basel 2013. At a certain moment, the existence of a contemporary art scene came close to collapsing, sacrificing many of the relationships between the people who had sustained it. What survived were individual groups of artists, the first generation of curators in Bulgaria, and Kultura, the sole publication about art and culture in the country.
Hope for a museum of contemporary art and for national participations at the Venice Biennial has also survived. The majority of Bulgarian artists have at least one “museum” piece inspired by the absence of such an institution. Survival, however, has been accompanied by a lack of criticism that seems to be the tenor of Bulgarian art and the entire art climate in the country.
In a recent talk, artist Antonia Gurkovska exclaimed, “You wouldn’t get anywhere at all here, even if you brought Lichtenstein over.” We went on to discuss the enormous effort it takes to stage a meaningful art event in Bulgaria, and how there is no expectation of anything more than a minimal response. Regardless of whether one would rely on big names or participatory projects, the efforts remain marginal. The Bulgarian art scene is so underdeveloped that it cannot respond to events and processes that have the potential to carry it forward. The debates and criticism from the ’90s did not grow beyond clarifying contemporary art concepts and winning some space for “the new.” They got stuck in the same inertia that today lies behind the “Lichtenstein” problem. The absence of a critical perspective has turned many artists into chameleons—ready to instantly respond to changes in the environment.
Gurkovska is one of a host of young artists who have studied abroad and are now living abroad, but have been increasingly returning to Bulgaria. This new generation of artists broke free from the ’90s and has developed a new perspective, one that makes them at once curious and skeptical toward their own identity. The fact is, however, that the current Bulgarian art scene is gradually being staged abroad. And this is an additional boost for historicizing from the inside. Art criticism, insofar as it makes itself heard, serves to introduce and present each new unfamiliar name on the local ground.
This subordinate role was, in effect, inherited from much earlier times. Art criticism has always been in a secondary position in Bulgaria. It is the artists who reign supreme in the art spaces, determine histories, and set up institutions. In the past, the management and the hanging committees of the official creative unions were all led by artists, and gradually, exhibition spaces have adopted this model as well. Kamen Stoyanov returned from Vienna not just as an artist but as one of the founders of the 0gms Gallery (jointly with Steven Guermuer and Ivan Moudov), which is now a presence on the international art market. Lazar Lyutakov, one of many Vienna-educated Bulgarian artists, is responsible for the selection and organization of Grandma Vassa’s Basement, a space that he runs in a small village on the Black Sea coast where artists from around the world gather each summer. The entire alternative scene of Sofia is limited to one or two spaces run by artists—The Fridge & Haspel is the most visible example. The only contemporary art center in Bulgaria, The Ancient Bath (Banya Starinna) in Plovdiv, has been run by an artist association, Izkustvoto Dnes (Art Today) for more than 20 years now.
Against this backdrop, it can be argued that currently criticism and the market are equally positioned in Bulgaria. And both are equally insignificant. Both are propelled by individual texts, individual purchases, one or two commercial galleries, Sariev Contemporary being the most visible, and all this is a series of exceptions, rather than a force to reckon with. The absence of strong commercial relations gives criticism some head start. But it is a meek enterprise, which leaves the matter in the hands of rising gallerists, art managers, and collectors. This often results in wild speculation. While in the ’90s the efforts of the professional community were directed mainly at reframing the figure of the curator amid the conservative surroundings, today they are more focused on defining the relationship between art dealers and critics.
But perhaps the strongest critical gesture the Bulgarian art scene endured recently is that a Swiss collector, one of the most reputable patrons of Bulgarian contemporary art since the ’90s, has decided to donate part of his collection to a local museum, bringing it back to Bulgaria. Explaining his decision, he said that he probably would not live to see the moment when Bulgaria becomes a presence in the international art market.
Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva (b. 1977) is an art critic and curator based in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She holds a master’s degree in art history from the National Academy of Arts, Sofia. She is a committed art critic for Kultura Weekly and an independent consultant on contemporary art for several Bulgarian weekly and monthly publications. From 2003 to 2013 Kuyumdzhieva worked as chief curator of the Credo Bonum Gallery, Sofia. Since 2014 she has been working as a senior expert at the Cultural deparment of Plovdiv Municipality. Kuyumdzhieva is a co-founder of the Art Affairs and Documents Foundation (A.A.D.F.) and a member of ICI.