Kiril Prashkov

Post-talking Reflections of a Modernist

Post-talking Reflections of a Modernist
title: Post-talking Reflections of a Modernist
year: 2006
publisher: East-West
ISBN/ISSN: 978-954-321-584-3
language: english
author(s): Kiril Prashkov
source: Interface Sofia, 2006, Sofia: East-West, ISBN: 978-954-321-584-3
supported by: relations, the German Federal Cultural Foundation

One and a half years have passed since I made the photographs from the cycle “Responsible Painting” and the samples of modernist “decoration” in the concrete panel block districts of Sofia, which they call “the sleeping rooms” of the city, have started disappearing. Many times I tried to refresh my memory of the apartment blocks that had impressed me so much with those blind side walls and their painstakingly plastered up cracks between the panels, which had transformed the walls into delicate replicas of constructivist abstract paintings. Usually I would have to deal with the fact that they have been already “repaired”. I would see instead some ugly pink/lemon/or sky-blue colored squares of thermal insulation material stuck onto the noble surface of my beloved, natural, modernism-tested panels... The primitive and yet so disarmingly simple logic of the new patchwork, which aims at making life behind the treated walls so much better, actually made me think again about the commentaries surrounding my “Responsible Painting”...

In fact my attempts to have the exhibition of this work talk about painting and its local problems did not yield even half of the harvest. The critical and mainly the journalistic reflection would very often glide over the “pictures” as an only too easy example for decay. The general perception of life in a decaying city silenced entirely the theme of catching up with the missed decades of flourishing modernism. However, in my view the decay is in fact demonstrated as an effect of this lack or missing out on modernism. The decay (provided its scale is much larger than the beauty that the exhibition bestowed on us) comes from the distorted understanding of contemporaneity, which is deeply grounded in the weird Bulgarian (that means Sofia as well) rejection of either Modernity or modernism. I reckon the new insulating patchwork all over the socialist-time housing projects is nothing but another example of that.

Of course, it is highly commendable when an art exhibition is able to trigger more interpretations than the artist can provide. However, in this case the interpretations tended to branch out much too widely. Who is the author here – the climate, which is taking care of the sorrow remnants of socialist construction works; or the no-less sorrowful inhabitants of the dreadful housing projects (complexes for living, as they used to be called before 1989) who prefer to stick some make-shift materials onto their cells rather than to abandon them; or the artist who is cutting off the cityscape some bits and pieces that he likes but that are invisible for the other people?

I guess that the last possibility is the most valid one – let's say I was not able to just pass by these accidentally conceived panels. I was trying to discourse the difference between looking and seeing through the exhibition but it seems that it was only triggering debates about the cruelty of the times or about those people who look but do not see, in compassion with their unwilling participation. In fact, the city of Sofia provides a paradox noticed by few – in a country where modernism is constantly rejected and where a multitude of signs point out to the pre-modern, a lot of people actually live in apartment blocks that are the result of this very modernism. In as mush as the neglect or the rejection of the modern spaces that one is occupying leads to disrespect for them, and further on to a “lower quality” of life, the suffering “co-operators” (co-inhabitants of the panel blocks) are enriching these spaces in their own way by the creation of everyday life “murals”. These are non-modern replicas of that, which they are unfamiliar with.

I suppose I should be glad that the “responsible painting” takes us beyond the supporting walls and among the people for whom it is responsible indeed. However, I suspect that if

they are told that they actually live behind a modernist panel they will jump on the inter-
preter. In the current situation I guess a company, which will come up with a special form

for the external thermal insulation, let's say a likeness of the Virgin Mary, will have rather
more success. Anticipating such a monstrosity I prefer the home-grown modernism in its
pure form (I am well aware of the negatives it brings along). I desperately hope that at
least the next generation will develop a sensibility for it. Isn't the spontaneous appearance

of such home-grown modernism a symptom for the fact that the missing out on some his-
torical periods in the development of modern visuality can not go unpunished? The cur-
rent chaotic jump into the post-modern times leads to local under-cooked hybrids – some-
thing like a glass half-skyscraper with a roof that looks like a house from the region of the

Rhodope Mountains made during the 19th c. National Revival period...

I am trying to decide whether the disappearance of my panel models that pushed me towards the “responsible painting”, is good or bad. Naturally, my ego suffers from the fact that they have been covered by some reparations and insulations – in fact this is how the samples of modernism, which somehow made it into our lives, are once again left on the level of the “blueprint”. What's more – I do not believe in the benefits of thermal insulation. Either these will turn out to be of poor quality or else the heating company will raise the prices so people inside will anyway end up paying and cursing... For me the pre-insulation walls were one of the very few authentic manifestations of natural modernism with roots in the masses. Though on the other hand, as images I have recognized as of a modernist kind, these same walls are a kind of import, which the same masses are opposed to.

The Bulgaria's development trend is towards a provincial “orthodox-tourist monarchy”. It became ever more popular after the country joined the European Union. Those made even the internal EU import a suspect. Against this background the modern with all its “isms”, is still a “foreign” body and thus a “harmful” agent. Harmful turns out to be also the eye, which though brought up here, is being recognized as “not ours” as soon as it does not appreciate the value of the evermore pragmatic national tradition. Not surprisingly, given the new framing of the country, the eye (or its products) is (self)-exporting. There is nothing wrong with that as long as this is not export/escaping but rather exchange. How under the circumstances such an eye, which is capable of noticing the minutely manifested modernism, has come to being in the first place is another topic. It borders on the appearance and the existence of the very panel blocks themselves that are burdened with “responsible painting”. They are hated by everybody, inhabitants and observers alike, yet in spite of everything they are both inhabited and observed – they are the contemporaneity, which is simultaneously searched for and denied while being adapted to the local way of life.

The three volumes of the Roumen Avramov monumental study of economics titled “Communal Capitalism” *, whose covers are adorned by three of the most important blocks from the cycle, provide an opportunity to reflect upon the seemingly immaculate compositions of the “responsible painting”. With its striking combination of words the title of the book is definitely the most precise explanation yet for the kind of economic activity around here.

Caused by that, the change in “communal culture” seems to provide an adequate explanation for many local phenomena and more specifically for the fate of modernism in Bulgaria. One of the more unpleasant conclusions Avramov draws in his book concerns the history of the country since the Liberation (1878, from Ottoman domination) and the never faltering necessity of external pressure in order to introduce literally every novelty. After all, modernity and modernism do overcome all the obstacles presented by the local tradition. The problem is rather that in the evermore modernized country the very “modern” is being twisted and camouflaged while only its name remains intact. Its strict principles are diluted in compassion; its straight lines become overgrown with national ornament.

In the lightened post-modern situation, which is so much concerned with the preservation of identity, even the external modernizing impulse is in confusion – the city of Sofia might be seen as an illustration. The city looks like it is a compromise – indecently shined here and there, sweetly chipped elsewhere, rudely patched up most of the time, and plainly destroyed everywhere else. And it does look like a corrupt city even from a glance. The active reformulation of, at least, its external appearance according to the “European standards” is stopped precisely because of actual play of European standards. Focusing on the Visual Seminar agenda, we may hope that the naked ladies on the billboards emphasizing the merits of various alcoholic drinks, cars and so on will one day disappear (one way or another). However, the “national spirit” or the so called chalga (by which I do not mean only the sound of the pop-folk music), that are shredding the modernization impulses down to sweet local cliché, will most likely become its internationally sanctioned trade mark.

One may object of course, that we have been doing and will do quite all right without artistic modernism. The price it presupposes must be constantly paid and this price seems to be too high for the impoverished local context. Furthermore, today's hard core modernism, with all its pretence for political correctness, does look a bit unpleasant. However, the price to be paid for its absence will be even higher. The price is to be found in the spreading hollowness that is repeating the already familiar samples of closed off provincialism. That's because artistic modernism is something like the social self-consciousness of modernity. The fact of its missing means that there is a vital element missing in the very process of modernization. That reinforces the insult by underlining the triviality of the place and its somehow sad predetermination.

 

Note

* Avramov, Roumen. Communal Capitalism. The economic past of Bulgaria. Vol. I, II, III. Centre for Liberal Strategies / “Bulgarian Science and Culture” Foundation.
Sofia, 2007

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