There are cities that sound like a musical note. Cities that are whole, complete, perceptually smooth. Sofia has a rough surface. It seems similar to those models of the human body, those “picturesque” moulages, in which you can see all the layers of the organism through a vertical cut. In the same manner in Sofia layers of different eras open up as if constructed for a school activity: Roman walls are built on Thracian ones, Byzantine architecture alternates with Muslim one, communist monuments flow into gangster nouveau riche baroque. All these models, however, do not look like a museum exhibition; rather, their effect is similar to the one of a mismanaged store area. They are carelessly thrown around as if in a fit of boredom at their excessive superfluity. And we live with the sense of the city without a face, the city of dispersed appearance. The capital of Bulgaria does not even have its own symbol. The attempts to turn the statue of St Sophia in one2 stumble in reality itself. The sleek, sumptuous figure does not look like its city. Its gilt face reflects beautiful girls and begging children, bright yellow taxis and battered yellow trams, shiny cars racing against old Lada-s, boutiques of famous brands and street stalls that have been put up by means of odds and ends. Among them the odd “lass” (as people call her) stands alone and ridiculous.
In the city that looks like a layer-cake people live in different layers. And they rarely intersect. Only artists try to cover its immeasurability. For several years now Nadezhda Lyahova forages the existing, but invisible for many, city spaces. By lifting up the curtain of our sense of self-preservation she forces us to see things that we do not, or do not want to see. With a camera in her hand, the artist has brought to the foreground the old women in colourful dresses and rose-patterned headscarves, who, for the ordinary person, remain invisible among the market stalls, but they are there gripping tightly at their layer of life. Now Nadezhda Lyahova makes us face the Sofia Lions – another unsuccessful candidate for the position “symbol of Sofia”. In times when the term “ballroom lion” has emerged in celebrity columns in Bulgarian and foreign media, Nadezhda tries to see those real, living lions surviving in the urban jungle who daily pass before the eyes of their bronze counterparts.
The image of the lion is significant in the mind of every Bulgarian. Since we were children we have been led to believe that the shape of the map of Bulgaria looks like a lion. One of the greatest national heroes is called Levski3. The state coat of arms has always had a lion and now there are as many as three. A lion is found at the centre of the Sofia coat of arms too. The use of the image of the lion is prestigious, it conveys power, but it also acts as a lucky charm. It is no accident that it can be seen both in front of the Multigroup head office and on the VIS-2 logo4. At the same time the image of the lion is on the police and army uniforms. In Sofia statues of lions are placed at locations that are emblematic for the city: Lion's Bridge5, in front of the Court of Justice, in front of the Ministry of the Interior, in front of the St Sophia basilica (where the bronze lion by the famous sculptor Andrey Nikolov is incorporated in the Monument of the Unknown soldier), on the bronze shield of another famous bridge in the capital, Eagle's Bridge, etc. Probably it is because of this excess in the use of the symbol that it has been devaluated, it has lost some of the awe that it conveys but it is nevertheless almost genetically linked to Bulgarians.
The title of Nadezhda Lyahova's project – Sofia Lions – is a very good idea. For all citizens of Sofia the expression is already loaded with information, with history, it speaks to them and calls forth particular images. The viewer approaches the exhibition with a particular attitude and it is only after they see the photographs that they understand the irony of the title. The artist counts on this provocation. She plays with the stereotypes of expectation and skillfully uses the shock of their not realizing.
In the project the lion, this age-old Sofia pet, is used as a background (although its figure appears only twice in her works, it is present in our knowledge of the city), a background against which the events of the day take place. The bronze lion is a synonym for that other layer of the urban that is linked with tradition, magnificence and wealth which today is distanced from reality and is used more as a reminder and comparison than as a contemporary symbol. At the foreground of the works are new, different characters. Characters who are not found on postcards and official websites but who have become features of the city to a much larger extent than the stately monuments.
In the lap of an exquisite and proudly reclining bronze lion nonchalantly rests a street dog in a similar posture. This emblematic photograph by Nadezhda Lyahova could hardly be read without knowledge of some dramas in Sofia daily life from the last ten years. One of them is the drama of stray dogs that rule the city and evoke terror, pity and discontent6. In Krassimir Terziev's project The city of dogs (post-urban landscapes), 20037 , by means of montage the city is conquered by stray dogs as though in a Balkan version of King Kong. With fierce expressions and postures they control the situation, larger and uglier than the panel blocks of flats among which they walk. Nadezhda Lyahova's approach is different.
She counts on the suspense which is coded in the sweet – at first sight – picture behind whose apparent harmony fear, diseases and powerlessness hide. The lion and the dog have agreed as if on some wartime ceasefire; they are forced by circumstances into cohabitation in quiet resignation.
Where is Sofia going to? We ask ourselves this question when we stand in front of the surreal photograph on which modern and old vehicles race in an impossible mix while the bronze lion stands above them as if in frozen incomprehension. To the south of this same Lion's bridge on Maria Louisa boulevard monarchs and heirs to the throne have been greeted, merchants have arrived8. The way this place looks today is not reminiscent of its glory (though for those whose orientation is good the movement of the main characters is outward not toward the inner part of the city). The layers of machines and means of transport in an obvious chaos are turning into a symbol of the city which lives according to the law of the jungle, a place where survival justifies any action.
In Nadezhda Lyahova's works the city has narrowed down its parameter. It fits in between the poster of the pop-folk star Azis and the crammed tram (the posters advertising English language courses do not improve the situation, they actually make it worse), in between the stray dog and the horse carriage, in between the old musicians and the lonely chess player, in between the group of men and Tchapkanov's sculpture in the fountain in front of the National Theatre. Nadezhda Lyahova's musicians are extremely serious. Their faces do not express anything that could be expected from the “entertainer” who hopes to get money from the passers-by. There is some cheerful irony in the mannerist female figure9 dumped in front of the National theatre in a fountain that does not work – the background against which an old man is sitting with a gadulka10. The backside of the sculpture resembles the shape of the musical instrument that the old man is holding with so much affection. And the traditional embroidery on his shirt seems to be in a dialogue with the “national” theatre (which, in fact, was built in a Viennese variation of the art deco style).
With all the musical instruments and menagerie it is strange that nothing is heard: no violin creaking, no piercing wails of an accordion, no hooves thumping or lions roaring. Not even dogs barking. Even the terrifying noise of the motor has moved away somewhere dragging with it the clanking of the trams. Even speech has stopped and the speaker is still as if under the spell of an evil spirit. Is anything moving at all in this world of stone figures? The chess player's clock does not show anything. Nadezhda Lyahova has called her series of female figures against backgrounds of flowers “Digital still-lifes”: “digital” because of the way the background has been processed and “still-lifes” because of the unreal setting of these characters in today's world. In the Sofia Lions canvases, too, people have simply taken a place in space, like objects. In Holland in the 17 c. the term “quiet life” (coined to mean still-lifes) was also used for works depicting everyday life in which nothing happens. Is it not also relevant for Nadezhda Lyahova's compositions populated by humans? And what is this “quiet life” – doomed or simply banal?
The compositions seem premeditated, directed, manipulated. The artist has sought, consciously or not, such an effect – these little stories take place in our city, but also as if outside it too; they are here but also outside our ideas about life in the city in 21 c. It is no accident that the photographs are printed on canvases and stretched onto frames. In this way they resemble paintings and seem once more removed from reality and closer to the museum. In the “paintings” those burdened with art history can even find different styles – an impressionistic opening of the colours or a Caravaggio-like dramatic quality of composition and light. In any case the urban tableaus seem to be more convincing in the exhibition hall than in reality.
Where do the images from Nadezhda Lyahova's pictures send us? Could it be the past if no one remembers it? Could it be the present if no one sees it? Could it be the future if we do not want it? The proud dog, indomitably reclining in the embrace of the bronze lion, lives in a timelessness which is made up not of little stories, events and dates, but of tempers, characters and behaviour. The sounds of the accordion and the gadulka are here but the impossibility to listen to them leaves us with the odd sense that we are not part of this story. The time that has stopped suspended in expectation on the clock of the park chess player does not seem to concern us. It is his time, not ours. Ours runs in other channels, dissolved in other layers, flavoured by different fillings and spiced differently. And maybe for us it is better, healthier and easier to accept that Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova is telling us a fairytale. This is the approach that can allow us arm ourselves with patience in order to be able to wait for the happy ending.
Note 1. The phrase used for the title of the article is taken from the title of Nadezhda Lyahova's exhibition at the Goethe-institute, Sofia, 25 January – 23 February 2005, which is also the subject of this text. 2. As Georgi Todorov never grew tired of claiming, with the placing of the St Sophia statue a replacement of the name of the city is done, a name which means divine wisdom i.e. it refers to the God-Word or to Jesus Christ. 3. Levski means “lion-like” in Bulgarian (tr.) 4. Multigroup is one of the biggest business groups in Bulgaria after 1989 and VIS-2 is an insurance company whose name is a synonym for mafia and racketeering. 5. They are placed there in 1891. Lion's Bridge is on the most important for its time boulevard in Sofia connecting the railway station and the city centre and where all important ceremonies were held. The graphic image of one of the two lions is also printed on the current 20-leva banknote. One of the significant dramas during the period of transition was the theft of a lion's tail by “the metal traders”. 6. At the end of January 2005 the number of stray dogs in Sofia was 35,000. In the country they are about 1 million. A boom of diseases transmitted by stray dogs has been recorded in recent years. The number of people who have been infected with Mediterranean spotted fever, Q-fever, Lyme desease, tape-worm, rabies has increased by tens of times. In 2004 450 people were infected with Lyme disease, 1600 with Mediterranean spotted fever, 300 with Q-fever, 60 with-Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever. Between 10,000 and 13,000 people a year are immunized against rabies. On average, every year 700-800 people with tapeworm have undergone operations (for the sake of comparison, before 1992 the number of people was between 100 and 120 a year). Some of the diseases lead to a lethal end. 7. The project has been created within the framework of the Visual Seminar. 8. Et al, The Capital City of Sofia. Sofia, 1999, p. 122. 9. For those who know there is a hidden layer here – this is a scupture by Georgi Chapkanov, a.k.a. “the court artist” of the Mayor of Sofia at the time Stefan Sofiansky, author also of the sculture of St Sofia. 10. A folklore musical instrument with strings (tr.).
Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia. The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme