CHASING THE IDEAL IMAGE
Maria Vassileva in conversation with
Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova
М.V.: Most of my conversations with contemporary artists start with the concept. But in this case I’d like to do the opposite. Let’s start with the material. Through the years you’ve used handmade paper, tin, nails, spoons, soap, soap water, sand, ice, ice cream, Turkish delight, cotton candy. You have an affinity for unconventional materials. How did it develop? Does it come, to some extent, from your life in the countryside when you were young or from your degree in Scenography, a discipline teaching us how different materials can imitate something else? Would you agree that your specific perception of the material world around us determines the stories that you later tell?
N.O.L.: No. I just feel the need to share my experiences through images, to materialize sensations caused by concrete events in my life. And because these are absolutely real stories, they evoke the material they need. For instance, the smell of my grandfather’s decomposing body summoned up the memory of the homemade soap of my granny and that’s how I started the soap casts. It doesn’t look specific to me; I’d rather say it’s very simple. And I don’t think particularly about the material – it all comes hand in hand.
М.V.: We discuss materials and materiality, but in the majority of your works, especially the earlier ones, you seem to be more interested in mortality. In New Nadezhdi (hopes), 1999, the ice faces melt; in Soapy Reflections, 1999, your self-portraits made of soap gradually dissolve; in Vanitas, 2000, the audience scoops and gulps down your ice cream mask; in Sweet Dreams, 2001, the cotton candy is also eaten or transformed. Is that a coincidence or the approach is philosophical?
N.O.L.: Well, I think I already answered that question. It’s related with death, so it must be philosophical. I’m not concerned with philosophy; I’m concerned with my own feelings.
М.V.: You started your career traditionally, so to speak, with pencils and paper, then you tried your hand at preparing your own handmade paper, then you sculpted portrait masks. At a certain point, though, it seems your interest in the “craftwork” itself waned. You picked up the camera and started chasing images in the streets. How and when did that transformation happen? And is this approach so different or is it again all about watching and the ability to see what the others can’t?
N.O.L.: I see the “craftwork” (drawing, whittling) as a twitch – something that soothes me, something that I do mechanically. I’ve never stopped doing things with my hands; it’s a necessity to me. I take pictures since I was a child. My first photo camera was a Smena 8. Taking pictures is a bit like hunting. I lie in wait and try to capture something. Sometime around 2000 I realized that I’m greatly fascinated with moving images, and since 2005 I have a video camera. There’s no transformation, really, just parallel activities. The difference is in my motives to summarize, complete and call these activities “works of art”.
М.V.: Your answers are concise, but professionally you like to work on a “to be continued” basis or in series. It is so in Digital Still Life, 2002-2004, where the urban and the digital fuse together, in The Lions of Sofia, 2005, a snapshot of the bustling city, in Something to Come, Something to Happen, 2006, a series about waiting embodied by the tense faces of the people at bus stops, in Globally and on a Long-term Basis the Situation Is Positive, 2007-2009, in which you study the excavator equipment operating around Sofia, whose “portraits” then feature in prints, videos and installations of various nature. The same goes for your latest photographic series, which we’ll talk about later. How do you estimate when a motive or topic may be developed and presented in a single image and when it requires further examination?
N.O.L.: It’s different. Sometimes the reason for a project’s duration (Digital Still Life, 2002-2004) is totally mundane, like the lack of money for expensive printing or the lack of material on which to print. Back in 2002 the digital still-lives came to me as a concept quite fast, but I printed the series as late as 2004 with funding from the Yokohama museum. Throughout these years they have stayed in my mind as an unfinished work and sometimes I’ve made some changes. The public showing, the exhibition, puts an end to that process. My sense of incompletion remains, but the exhibition is a fact and I have gotten this work out of my system.
It’s a very different story with Globally and on a Long-term Basis the Situation Is Positive, 2007-2009. I was obsessed by the desire to track down “evidence” of the growing absurdity (the complete inconsistency between the political rhetoric on TV and the realities of life) in the first years of Bulgaria’s EU membership. I couldn’t stop myself, because madder and madder scenes were happening on the streets. The person who interrupted this passion was you, when you invited me for a collective exhibition at Sofia City Art Gallery in 2009. If it wasn’t for that, maybe I would still be on the streets, shooting away… That’s how I stopped doing the videos, but I’m still not done with the video installations. I think that the installation video, materializing in a concrete moment and concrete space, complies with that environment and changes respectively. With this installation I’ve had the opportunity to make 3 attempts so far. And I can even find changes in the meaning of the three installations, although the videos are the same. I would continue with the attempts.
М.V.: We collaborated on several video installations. I’d like to mention two of these: Moderate Optimism, 2006-2008 and eco stories, 2010-2011. Both are mostly pessimistically dramatic, but this sensation is blunted (or maybe enhanced?) by the extraordinary poetic quality of the image. How do you achieve this atmosphere? What’s the important thing with moving images – the object, the frame, the shooting angle, the rhythm…? Do you have a preliminary plan for the separate parts of an installation or they just occur naturally in the process of work?
N.O.L.: Everything is important. But, maybe, primarily the target. I call “target” the thing that made me pull out the camera. Sometimes this is the object, sometimes the subject (some particular state of mine), sometimes both. All that is important for the static image is equally important for the moving one. It’s just that through a moving image you can capture more easily the shift in time.
And no, I don’t make plans. I’m not into plans, they take away my freedom.
М.V.: How important is text to you? You are very careful when you add subtitles or there is a voice in your videos. You read a lot, both fiction and poetry. Many artists work with the text as a visual image; you count on its meaning. How do you link together the power of the visual image and the effect of speech?
N.O.L.: I don’t know about important, but working with text is hard for me. I feel very insecure with words. Every word denotes different things. On top of that, there’s a huge difference between spoken and written words. Most of the things I write today I would not write tomorrow at all. Of course, the image can also be interpreted differently, but I’m way more comfortable with it.
I speak in my latest videos. I tell real stories, made-up stories too. I’m curious… if I combine an image enabling multiple interpretations with words allowing even wider perception, will the result be twice as obscure? It is also interesting for me to find an image for the word and vice versa – a word for the image. I would do nothing of the sort if it wasn’t for the experiences I want to express.
М.V.: You turn into a storyteller – sometimes the plot lacks any movement, it only forms in the viewer’s mind. However, lately you’ve taken interest in the narrative as well. Like for instance in the video titled A Made Up Story, 2015, where you create a whole novel out of few found photographs. You fuse the document with the make-believe. Is there a dividing line between the two, in your opinion?
N.O.L.: I would like to believe that there’s one, that there exist objective documented facts and historical research is possible. No matter how deceptive human memory can be, there still must be something firm, on which we can step on. I imagine the boundary between document and make-believe like the borderline that forms when you pour turpentine into water. When mixed, water and turpentine do not separate, but don’t become homogenous either. The line is clearly seen at places, somewhere it dissolves, but it exists anyway. In sunny days it’s plainly seen and in dark ones it’s almost gone. Probably I have conceptually developed A made up Story during dark days. That’s why, according to the work, there isn’t a dividing line and all our attempts to examine history are meaningless.
М.V.: Different artists have different approaches. Some try to detach from their personal experiences, others base their work on these only. In the two videos that you presented to an audience for the first time at Structura Gallery in 2019: How Are You?, 2015, and Holes, 2017, you share your own experience. The sad stories of past years have been transformed into poetic tales, as an attempt to cope and find a way out. You undertake different therapies – from traditional beliefs, through pagan rituals, to other people’s superstitions, you try to find a key to grief through repeated actions and various pastimes. The destruction of the evidence of these „184 megabytes of pain and despair“ doesn’t help, but the energy must be spent. Patiently, persistently and desperately you fill the holes in the century-old wall, like an expression of the frenzied strife to regain the lost entirety of the soul. Optimism alternates with sorrow and brutal sobriety. „I must, I can, I will go on“ clashes with the daily battle to overcome the challenges of life. It always surprises me to what extent you manage to do things that only you are excited about. Without caring about or complying with the rules of the art scene and the market. But you succeed. Is that the recipe of success?
N.O.L.: But how can I take interest in things (art scene, the market), which I don’t understand. Maybe I don’t understand them because I’ve never taken interest. Or it’s just how my life has gone so far. Up to 1989 the art existed above the market level. It was perceived as indecent to “belittle” the ideas by talking about money. I didn’t feel right among these slogans so I worked only for money (posters and advertisement pages for the Plovdiv Fair, clothes for the store of the Union of Bulgarian Artists, etc.), but no art as such. The rallies at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 gave a new life to my utopian views of ideals and art. But the utopias collapsed soon after, then I slowly realized that I need to express and share my experience and that to me this is a hugely important process, without which I don’t have “a reason to wake up in the morning” (at least that’s what I said in an interview when they asked me what was art to me after my first exhibition. I remember it because my answer had made the headlines at the time). More or less, we all overcome life’s challenges and we all need to share them. And if we try being honest maybe we’ll find understanding.
М.V.: Let’s touch upon your latest endeavours – prolonged photo shoots of still-lives. What are you trying to achieve with these?
N.O.L.: I race with the light. It’s amazing how fast the sun moves! So many times I’ve stood gazing at sundials, so long I’ve followed the second hand of clocks, but it’s one thing to have seen, to know, and entirely different thing to have felt it. This awareness of the moment appeared with my still-lives. I developed something like a “hunting craze” to catch that fascinating moment. It started a few years back. Once, on casually walking past the kitchen table at our country house I was struck with the sight of the mushrooms left there to dry being magically outlined by the sun. I took out my camera and started to shoot. The lens, of course, see things very differently from what I though I’ve seen, and the sun has moved meanwhile… When the sun finally takes a good position, the jug seems not to be in the right place… and so, the day has passed, my chores have heaped, the camera is filled with hundreds of failed pictures. I know that studio photography had been invented just for that, but then I would have thought out everything in advance, everything would be under control and it wouldn’t be exciting at all. Because I am not interested in the result, but in the process of chasing the “ideal” dreamed-up image.
Translation: Kiril Neykov
With the support of Sofia Municipality. Initiative “Solidarity in Culture”