CONTEMPORARY ART DEFIES THE STATUS QUOI
A conversation between Stefka Tsaneva and Maria Vassileva
We live in times constantly stirred up by politics, which apart from everything else make us wonder what the function of art is in modern society. That question has also been bugging Maria Vassileva, who recently decided to present for the first time in Bulgaria Der Krieg (The War), a series of etchings by the German artist Otto Dix, together with works by Hannah Höch, Günther Uecker, Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter.
We talk about the incoming exhibition Art and politics – confrontations and coexistence at Structura Gallery, but also about the place of art in societal processes.
Stefka Tsaneva: The exhibition opens in particularly turbulent time, in which there’s a lot of talking about the connection between art and politics. Yet, it’s been planned long before the recent events in Bulgaria. What were the points of reference in that particular moment and how has the context changed ever since?
Maria Vassileva: I have always been interested in the place of the artist in societal processes. To me, the most important thing contemporary art teaches us is to stand up for our freedom, which of course is also the primary motor of democratic processes. To preserve your personal artistic integrity, while influencing large groups of people is a serious challenge that all artists face. The egocentric nature of the artist clashes with the global commotions of the present time; the necessity of isolation behind the walls of the studio is confronted by the expectations of others. Can intellectuals be leaders of society? That’s the question we hear lately in these times of anti-government protests. Along with accusations that their voice is too quiet.
The historic developments in the recent years show many examples of active citizen stance expressed through visual arts and rather uncompromising in terms of quality. That was the focal point of the exhibition Art for change 1995-2015 curated by me at Sofia City Art Gallery, which put on display socially engaged works. To me, this kind of works is a substantial part of the change and the long road we have to walk in order to heal the traumas of our communist past. The construction of an entirely new societal system involves the overcoming of huge obstacles. In that process, every single voice promoting new and different values is important. The artists demonstrated that they realize their power, that they understand very well their place and role – to „ring the bell“ on important social issues and to view the problems from unexpected angles, which would hopefully enable a new interpretation.
This year, the political situation in Bulgaria is, once again, unstable. For months on end, there have been rallies against the prime minister, the government and the chief prosecutor. The intellectuals are being accused of not expressing loud and clear their position; that they are not the leading voice that society wishes to hear. This context enhanced furthermore the meaning of the exhibition. The discussion I wish it would provoke is indeed for the power of contemporary art to defy the status quo.
S.T.: Traditionally, the German Institute of International Relations has exhibitions curated in advance, which are presented across the world in a ready-made state. Through the years, such exhibitions have been displayed in Sofia too, with the latest one at Structura being Rosemarie Trockel’s show in 2019. But this incoming one is more special because of your interference as curator, more particularly your decision to complement the exhibition of Otto Dix with other works from the collection of ifа. What motivated your choice and how the works of Dix relate to the ones by Hannah Höch, Günther Uecker, Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter?
M.V.: My reason for that was to bring the conversation closer to modernity through works by authors who were active both in the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. This intention is further reinforced by the inclusion of Antoni Rayzhekov’s piece from this year, dedicated to the Covid-19 crisis.
The etchings of Otto Dix are from the period of World War I and echo his ordeal on the frontline, as well as life in a big city being bombarded physically and morally. The personal experience thus turns into a key to the way one looks upon the world. Tragedy, anxiety, death, devastation, the literal and figurative disabling of society are the subject matters of Dix.
Joseph Beuys had participated in World War II. First, as a volunteer for the Luftwaffe (the German air force), then as a member of different combat bomber units. On 16 March 1944 his plane crashed on the Crimean Front close to Znamianka. From this incident, Beuys fashioned the myth that he was rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt, materials which were prominently used in his later visual expression.
Beuys was confident in the potential of art to bring about revolutionary change. He formulated the concept of social sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art, to which each person can contribute creatively. His most popular phrase is „Every human being is an artist“. Apart from his works, he was also very active as creator and cofounder of various political organizations. Some of his pieces are directly inspired by political events.
The objects shown at the exhibition touch upon ideas defended by Beuys throughout his life. In Samurai Sword he wrapped a piece of sharp metal in soft felt. This fusion embodies Beuys’s concept of Eurasia, an imagined integration of European and Asian societies, which would combine the rationalism and materialism of Europe, and the intuitive, more spiritual modes of experience prevalent within Asia.
Enterprise makes reference to an earlier work from 1966, a performance titled Felt TV in which he covered the screen of a running television with a sheet of felt and hit himself repeatedly with boxing gloves. The multiple to be displayed at Structura Gallery contains a picture of Beuys’s family, who watch a Star Wars movie. The work expresses his fascination with space travel, as well as with television as re-transmitter of ideas. The camera placed in the second part of the zinc box has a felt-covered lens, which connects it with the performance.
…with a brown cross, 1966, features Beuys’s „patented“ means of expression, the Braunkreuz (sometimes called „Beuys’ brown“) that, in his words, is both color and material and which refers to the Nazis (who strongly associated with the brown color; to this day some speak of Germany’s „brown past / Vergangenbeit“), but also to the Red Cross. Together with the animal fat and the felt, it has become an autobiographical media, which traces out in a peculiar way the entire body of work of the artist.
Hannah Höch is maybe the least popular of these artists, at least in our country. To me, her work and life are of tremendous interest because of her constant drive for resistance and the composed but profound and adamant forms that this resistance takes. She is known for her photomontages and is a representative of the Dada movement (Otto Dix also has had a Dada-inspired period, in which he used to make collages). She was interested in the “new woman” – professional, energetic and androgynous. In her works, the artist defends the woman’s right to take her place in society as man’s equal. This position and her overall interest in political discourse is the reason for her inclusion in the exhibition. The Nazi authorities banned her 1932 exhibition at the Bauhaus as they disliked the aesthetics of her works as much as the messages – the genderless figures that she drew were in sharp conflict with their tastes. All in all, the lack of clarity in her images, the cryptic and obscure messages were meeting no support whatsoever.
Günther Uecker is part of the group Zero striving for a new beginning and a new artistic form, the so-called degree zero, which would erase the destructive forces that had taken over mankind during the war. He combines that with an interest in the meditative practices, eastern philosophy and cleansing rituals. It may be said that one such ritual is the repeated hammering of nails, one of Uecker’s prevalent artistic methods. This originates from his war-time childhood memory of people blocking the windows with boards to barricade their homes. The artist uses very simple materials such as monochromatic paint, ash, sand, stone, glass, cloth, to create poetic images opposing the decline. He claims that his works are a spiritual reality, a zone of light. White Tears is his personal reaction against violence inflicted by one man to another.
Uncle Rudi by Gerhard Richter is a strong psychologically-charged image, which tells a lot about the past and the present, the private and collective traumas. The picture depicts the artist’s real-life uncle, killed shortly after. Despite being a portrait, the photography does not function as such because of the blurred image. Richter conveys the idea of the disappearance and obscurity affecting many historical facts. Rudi was a Nazi, but also a perished soldier and close relative. How can one’s feelings be divided between guilt and love? This small work encapsulates the entire post-war debate on the drama of National Socialism.
S.T.: Besides being very diverse in the topics, techniques and approaches, all these works have been created by artists of different generations, therefore reflect quite different periods of the European 20 c. – the Weimar Republic, the post WWII period, and with the work of Antoni Rayzhekov we also have the contemporary pandemic perspective. In other words, the exhibition covers a period of exactly 100 years. What has changed and what has stayed the same for these 100 years with regard to the link between art and politics and in terms of artists and their role in the fundamental changes in society?
M.V.: Artists today certainly enjoy greater freedom. This enables them to openly express their opinion on all matters that concern or interest them. In the modern history of art there are many such examples. But for me the real question is how their output reaches the public. Where are the mediators – galleries, museums, critics, curators, journalists, the media? Even an exhibition such as this one should have been organized by a museum, where it would have a greater exposure. But that doesn’t happen or if it ever happens, the way of interpretation would be, to put it mildly, a traditional one. The same goes for education, at least in this country. Are young artists instilled with the idea that they need to have a position or rather that they just need to have certain skills? I’m afraid it’s the latter.
S.T.: The exhibition features a single Bulgarian entry – the work of Antoni Rayzhekov. How did that come about and how does the work fit into the historical context of the show? Speaking of art and politics, what are the similarities and differences between Bulgaria and Germany? And what are they, if we speak of art as a means of reassessing history?
M.V.: Rayzhekov’s work is dedicated to the situation with Covid-19 or rather to people’s sensitivity to being governed, manipulated and pushed into restrictive mechanisms. That’s why I see it as strongly political and raising important issues, just like the other works in the show.
From a historical perspective, both Bulgaria and Germany have suffered devastating blows – wars, National Socialism, communism, loss of territories. The inherited traumas are different, of course. It seems to me that, after all, the artists in Germany had been exposed to much more persecutions and restrictions during the reign of the Third Reich compared to their Bulgarian counterparts in the socialist period. Maybe that explains the resilience and determination developed by the German authors when it comes to defending their positions. Moreover, at present the German state obviously demonstrates immeasurably greater understanding of the power of art. Even if this excessive attention to artists is caused by respect or fear, the state supports them and treats them with reverence. There is no such thing in Bulgaria, or it is only in its initial stages. This situation leads to the marginalization of the artists and to the sad fact that generally society shows no interest in them. And it is exactly that public attitude, which prevents their voice from being heard.
Very often artists make reference to history in their works. For them, to build bridges between styles and eras is a natural process. Their keen eye sometimes strikes a nerve, which lays dormant under the thick dust of time. Ability such as this must be valued, respected and sought after.