Luchezar Boyadjiev interviews Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva

Luchezar Boyadjiev: Some people in Bulgaria would say that you are not really an art critic. What is it that legitimates an art critic, apart from the art history degree some people have? What is the difference between an art writer and an art critic? How do you navigate the differences in opinion in this overly delicate domain of art?

Luchezar Boyadjiev. “Neo-Golgotha,” 1994. Installation; fabric, ropes, hooks, etc. 450 × 850 × 70 cm (variable). Installation view: “Attitude 2007”, CAMK (Contemporary Art Museum of Kumamoto), Kumamoto, Japan. 2007. Collection: CAMK, Kumamoto, Japan. Photograph courtesy of artist.

Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva: I think judgment is what makes the difference between an art critic and an art writer. And by the same token there are people who would say that I’m the only art critic in Bulgaria.

I have never sought to find legitimacy for myself as a critic. What’s more, it would hardly make any sense, bearing in mind that critical writing has never been studied here. Anyway, I could not imagine writing about art without the instruments of evaluation and expression, and also without trying to arouse discussion. In that sense, the idea of a difference between art writing and art criticism escapes me.

Boyadjiev: Some people in Bulgaria would say I am not really an artist. What is it for you that defines an artist?

Kuyumdzhieva: It is the same as what I think defines the role of the critic for me—judgment and expression—but achieved with artistic means, if we can still afford such a distinction (apart from your art history degree).

Boyadjiev: I have heard that art critics are supposed to make and unmake both trends and artists, that an art critic is expected to formulate public opinions. If so, where does the art critic’s authority come from? Why should I or my auntie in Gabrovo [the town in Bulgaria where Christo was born] pay any attention to what you write?

Kuyumdzhieva: Who says you should pay attention? Those days ended decades ago. The experience people have with art has changed. I would take the critic’s role as one of the multitude of voices on the art scene, never as an authority. Everyone’s a critic now, except your auntie maybe, no matter that few are indeed qualified.

Besides, in terms of mediation with the public, curators have very successfully replaced art critics. Critics, however, continue to give perspective to the entire process of the perception of art, a perspective that’s different from the curator’s. And it is a perspective that enriches both the function of criticism and the way art is perceived.

Boyadjiev: In the world of collectors and galleries, auction houses and art fairs, museums, curators, and biennials—what authority is left for art criticism? Of course, all these are somewhat lacking in Bulgaria, but still, we are part of a larger art world where these issues are relevant.

Kuyumdzhieva: Yes, art dealers and collectors have taken the leading role, leaving critics on the side. For better or worse, the art market in Bulgaria is underdeveloped, but still many buyers see themselves as art authorities.

But I see the problem as lying far deeper: art criticism has been neglected here for quite a long time now, serving the Communist authority for more than five decades. The leap from one dependency to another has left almost no space for any sort of substantial criticism to emerge.

Boyadjiev: Art criticism seems to be a shredder of both history and theory—supposedly for the benefit of a better grasp on the actual art practices of the time. How important are these for you? What is the intellectual context that you’re aiming for in your writing?

Kuyumdzhieva: As a critic, I try constantly to catch up with both history and theory. It is not only a matter of deficits, which art education in Bulgaria undoubtedly has. I am sure all my colleagues do it, although the notion of what art criticism is keeps changing and reinventing itself. However the more I read, the harder it is for me to write.

But let me reverse your question. I’d say that if I had to constantly adjust my texts to the intellectual climate in which they come out, I would not bother much with either history or theory.

Boyadjiev: Artworks or artists? Which do you believe in?

Kuyumdzhieva: Artworks.

Luchezar Boyadjiev. “Gagarin in Space,” 2011. Installation: inflatable object, paper collage; app. 150 × 60 × 50 cm. Installation view: “After the Flight” (Show dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s 1961 flight in outer space), ICA Gallery, Sofia. 2011. Collection: EVN, Vienna, Austria. Photograph: Kalin Serapionov.

Boyadjiev: You work with visual and spatial phenomena that are irreducible to words; using words to describe something that exists in space—objects or visual images—seems to be a fundamental shortcoming of writing on art. How do you solve this problem of “translation”? What procedures—or even tricks—do you use in order to get from the image to the word?

Kuyumdzhieva: This kind of “translation” is probably the only thing in which I was actually trained. I had done many exercises and made a lot of blunders before I learned to work with the words as an artist. I am sorry for the Wilde reference, but in fact it was the model I was taught. There are no tricks; there are only catches and concepts. I always try to shape my wording as if it is an art piece itself.

Boyadjiev: When it comes to artwork, being “new” as a fact of production does not always mean being “new” as a statement, let alone being original as a contribution to the “story of art.” Sometimes for an artist it is hard to “calibrate” her or his creative ambition. How is it with art critics, with you? What kind of coordinate system do you use when you are critiquing an artwork?

Kuyumdzhieva: Nowadays, when talking about art, I don’t get the notion of the “new.” So, thank you for the quotes. What’s more, I always strive to avoid “calibrated” artists. However, I guess we use the same “coordinate system”—if this is a good metaphor—just keeping the “whole picture” in focus.

Boyadjiev: How do you know a great artwork when you see one? Or even a moderately brilliant one? That is easy for me; if upon seeing an artwork I experience a deep, uncontrollable, and all-consuming desire to have made the work myself, then it means this is a great artwork. It happens very, very rarely but it does. How is it for you?

Kuyumdzhieva: Well, for me it’s much less taxing because I’m enjoying it fully without writhing in jealousy.

Boyadjiev: What are the responsibilities of an art critic? Can you imagine a situation where there is no art criticism at all, and yet art flourishes as never before to the mass enjoyment of the public?

Kuyumdzhieva: With the risk of your taking me for a traditionalist, I would say that if there is art, there will be art criticism too. I’m sorry if I’m ruining your hedonistic vision. Communication with art cannot be separated from art criticism.

On a different level, I think that today the role of the art market has reduced critics’ involvement to little more than supervision. Still, I have the privilege of being spared the necessity of working in market conditions: I deal with artists and their works, not with their dealers.

Contributors

Luchezar Boyadjiev

Luchezar Boyadjiev is based in Sofia, Bulgaria. His work is about private interpretations of public space and visuality of global cities; about fostering involvement with audiences through breaking up the local/global, the active/pasive participant, and the artist/audience devides. His media is installation, photography, drawing, text, video, and lectures. Recent exhibitions: Not a Library Artist either, SALT Galata, Istanbul (2013, solo); Artist in the Storage, City Art Gallery, Sofia (2010, solo); Economics in Art, MOCAK, Krakow (2013); The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, 1st Biennial, Kiev and The Eye Never Sees itself, 2nd Biennial, Yekaterinburg (2012); The Global Contemporary, ZKM, Karlsruhe (2011).

Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva

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.

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