RECIPES FOR ART
Maria Vassileva in conversation with
Nina Kovacheva and Valentin Stefanoff
Maria Vassileva: You live in Paris, but you spend a lot of time in Bulgaria as well. You travel extensively around the world. Do you have a sense of supernational, transborder living? Is this feeling determined by geographic parameters or is it a matter of disposition? In a sense, you started to cross spaces spiritually and physically even before the appearance of internet and low-budget flights. How do you feel about that? And more importantly, how is this reflected in your works? Can you give us some concrete examples?
Nina Kovacheva: I haven’t thought about whether I have a sense of super-national or transborder way of life. I reckon, it’s more of a frame of mind thing. In any case, traveling, moving, is a normal state, some people like it and some don’t. What’s important to me is the expansion of territories, both mentally and physically. I like changes, basically. Changes dislocate the layers and help me see things under a new angle and with new eyes. This explains my use of different techniques and materials in my individual projects. The same process is at work in the creation of my joint projects with Valentin. It’s quite difficult process, very different from the state, when you work alone. I guess the result, especially as regard our video installations intended for the facades of museums and other public buildings, invokes a certain „transborder“ feeling. In the sense that as the installation is neither confined in a closed space, nor reserved for the specific public that we usually meet at galleries and museums, it breaks the boundaries and allows a wider interpretation. Many of these installations have been shown in different parts of the world, which gave us the opportunity to cross over vast spaces mentally and physically. In several cases, one and the same installation had been displayed in Paris, Shanghai, Quebec, Bucharest and Sofia. Every time it’s different – the different architecture, the people in the streets, the cultural environment, the response, the technical teams and the way of putting up the work, the meetings with fellow artists, the discussions – I find all this important for the opening of the spirit and spirituality, the revaluation of your own achievements, the overcoming of fears, uncertainties, delusions.
Valentin Stefanoff: We had the chance or rather the internal necessity to travel, mostly for exhibitions. I emphasize on the purpose of our journeys, namely to visit or take part in exhibitions, showcases or projects, as that’s quite different from a tourist trip. Not that we don’t travel for the joy of it too, but the encounter with other artists and the chance to work with them gives an added dimension to it all. Mostly, it allows you to see the differences in the manner of organization, funding, thinking and attitude toward art. And differences do exist, comparing China and Taiwan with Canada and the US, as well as in the various European countries, regardless of whether the event is privately or publicly funded. We saw the technical staff in a four-storey museum in Shanghai build for just 48 hours a perfect wall spanning from the entrance to the farthest corner of the top floor, with dozens of engineering appliances. For our 2005 show at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest – MNAC we asked whether they can provide us with 8 identical video projectors, and the personnel said that there’s no problem in securing up to 20 of those, but should we need more, they can find as many as necessary. At the same time, we’ve seen some prestigious museums in Western Europe having difficulties in procuring much simpler things. Speaking of the exhibitions we’ve had in Asia, I can say that the staff was able to provide everything we needed and satisfy our every whim at once, on the spot. On the other hand, in 2003 a performance of ours, which had to take place in Nanjing, China, was banned at the eleventh hour… The experience generated from the work and contacts during these professional trips, mainly helps you understand what’s your position among your fellow artists and get rid of the petty ambitions and narrow-mindedness, which unfortunately are prominent in Bulgaria, to some degree. And it’s not just a matter of money and funding, it’s more a wrong attitude and mindset. And not least, lack of information. Not every work of art can be “for the first time ever”, “unique”, etc.; in many cases, it is inappropriate to judge art by ratings and diagrams.
Maria Vassileva: For quite some time, contemporary art exists in specific conditions of isolation. It’s a bit like “haute couture” – it gives directions, shows trends, but has no practical use whatsoever. Let’s tell it like it is: it has quite a narrow circulation. How do you feel in this situation? On the one side, contemporary artists and curators are supposed to be the voice of progress in society. On the other, isolation makes us feel like a part of some (privileged?) group. Are these contrasting sensations help or hinder your own survival in personal and professional aspect?
Nina Kovacheva: The question is complex and multi-layered. It can become the subject of a separate discussion as all its aspects can hardly be covered in several sentences.
I don’t think contemporary art is in greater or lesser isolation than any previous period. And I don’t think the circle of people, who appreciate it, is narrowing. It has always been quite narrow due to various factors – intellectual, educational and financial.
As for the trendsetting, contemporary art is a type of dissection of society, thus in close connection with social, political, moral and all kinds of other categories. The world has always been in transformation. Lately, however, there has been certain confusion of layers and values, which affected art as well. As I see it, what happens now is more like turning in circles and repetition of things that are already overexploited. We have new technologies, but we don’t have a new direction. So, the trendsetting has to wait for a while.
Yes, the people involved with contemporary art are a “privileged group” meaning that they have a specific societal position. I have always been aware of that and it never bothered me. I’m not sure it’s the isolation and whether that comes from the outside, maybe it’s rather an inside thing. The courage to search yourself, to think differently, that’s the driving force in my opinion. I try not to stand still, to keep asking myself different questions, however painful it may be sometimes.
Valentin Stefanoff: An interesting question, whose phrasing already contains some truths and answers. Contemporary art is contemporary not so much for its forms of expression, but for the way of thinking it implies. Often, it sounds almost like a dirty word, but it still remains a privilege of a limited circle of artists and viewers. The misconception is sometimes so big that the terms “contemporary” and “modern” are being mixed up. An artist using a video camera or bricolaging elements or random objects is not necessarily a creator of contemporary art. The collectors of contemporary art are few, but thank God, their number in Bulgaria is growing. Everywhere in the world, the most interesting and visited museums (apart from the likes of the Louvre, the British Museum or Prado) are the contemporary art museums, with many traditional art institutions opening their own contemporary sections. And it always has been like that; the new (although this “new” is of quite an advanced age globally, a little younger in Bulgaria) had been largely underappreciated and even rejected. An interesting role in its gradual recognition had been played by snobbism and parroting the “Greats”, who on their part were always the most progressive of people. So, ultimately, this tendency has proven a positive one and if you let me use your “haute couture” analogy, people want to know which is the preferred fashion house of the celebrities, so that they can bash them, but also imitate them. Nina and I have a work called “Recipes for Art“, which was shown in Bulgaria as part of our exhibition at Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art in 2018. There we have a recipe for concocting contemporary art. Of course, the main ingredient in all recipes is irony. As for me, I feel good and I know I’m not wasting my time.
Maria Vassileva: In the last few weeks, the somewhat peculiar existence of art has been further complicated by a social isolation due to the coronavirus. Do you perceive this is a warning to everyone prompting us to reconsider our existence? Will this shock change us and help us overcome our ego and artistic arrogance and see the world and our commitments to it with different eyes?
Nina Kovacheva: I am not qualified to estimate what will happen next. In any case, being on your own can be useful, given the time we live in, oversaturated with information, disinformation, all that shouting and clamor. It’s up to everyone to use and interpret it in their own way depending on their individual level, philosophy and understanding.
What I think is clear, however, is that after this almost surrealist period we experience now, things will be different. That had been the case after previous crises caused by epidemics, wars, natural disasters, which the world has suffered. Demolition of the old and creation of new links in society and in people’s private lives. Something like a shake-up to wake us from the sleep of self-importance and brazenness. We’ll have to reevaluate our priorities and rethink words we have drained of all meaning on account of their indiscriminate, mechanical use. I believe that danger of bodily disease will lead to transformation of the spirit, that this is a time for restarting the damaged system we live in.
I hope that this tremor and the changes to ensue in moral, social and political aspect, will give new forms of the art, which has been exhausted and self-searching for some time now. New ways of presentation and a new outlook, newly-emerged trends carrying revised perception of ourselves and all that surrounds us. The price that we’ll pay is big, but as they say, nothing comes for free.
Valentin Stefanoff: The physical isolation is an enormous chance to reassess, revise certain values; it is a time released from the trivial, depending on everyone’s capacities, of course. In any case, the world will be different, and art too. I believe that new ideas will emerge, which will reflect new values. Europe, in particular, should rethink its values rooted in left-wing liberalism, which will lead to changes in the organization and funding of art. Like during or after a war, some will try to „fish in troubled waters”, other will fall victim to disorientation, but there will also be people, bound to push things forward.
As a friend of mine wrote in a message, “Have a pleasant and fruitful quarantine”!
Translation: Kiril Neykov
With the support of Sofia Municipality. Initiative “Solidarity in Culture”