“And, of course, a museum of contemporary art is necessary; a museum of contemporary Bulgarian art, that is”, an anonymous author notes on 28 April 2005 in one of the forums discussing the MUSIZ1 project. Earlier, the same author expressed both doubts about Ivan Moudov’s stature as an artist and patronizing condescension about “that contemporary art of ours”; s/he stated (one wonders how this is calculated) the sum of 30,000 Euro for this “action for European projects” declaring it a madness, and announced that Christo’s schedule did not include a visit to Bulgaria, for this “would have been known by many people”.
And after the key phrase about the necessity of such a museum, the anonymous author goes on to say that: “we do have artists like this but, SORRY, they are not among the ones mentioned above”. It is a “key phrase” because it connects the sensitive points in Ivan Moudov’s work with the institution which is already outside the work, thus effectively marking the success of the project as a whole.
A Look Back
It should be noted that given the large number of different opinions, it is difficult to define what has happened, and this is the reason for the doubts about the degree to which what has happened can be described as art at all, and as contemporary art in particular. The broad and very neutral term action seems to dominate because of the implicit active element and the presence of an aim, but the issues of artistry and authorship remain problematic. In this respect what was very interesting for me was Dimana Peteva’s attempt to link MUSIZ with flash mobs and also her disappointment that she had taken part in somebody’s original action, in something that has authorship claims: “And I thought ...that this was a collective expression of our will. That the important thing was that we all want the museum, which has been discussed over the last ten years. I haven’t seen an exhibition of Moudov’s works yet although he is still exhibited here too, for the Bulgarian electorate, unlike Nedko and Christo”. This opinion lead me to try to eliminate the artist’s personality – in the name of the collective expression of will – and this is what came out of it: we spread the news among ourselves by sms text messages and emails, and all of a sudden we get together at a previously agreed time (where?); in order for the expression of will to happen, the place has to be significant, for instance the place can be the Ministry of Culture; then we disperse just as suddenly, leaving the civil servants in bewilderment – no, this doesn’t work! If there is to be expression of will, we have to state what we want. So in my imagination the action gradually took the shape of a street protest from the recent past: we send a petition for the immediate establishment of a Museum for Contemporary Art, we threaten to block the entrance of the National Art Gallery, that we will start camping in front of it and that we will go on a massive hunger strike... I stopped myself before the grotesque images piled over the very concrete problem of authorship and artistry.
Somehow almost imperceptibly the word “mystification” emerged as a definition in the opinions about MUSIZ. And it reminded me of an artwork that appeared 15 years ago which hardly anyone today thinks of. There was an exhibition entitled Drawings by Virginia in the then Lessedra art gallery, which occupied a private basement on 15 Milin kamak street. Without being of any special interest themselves, the drawings suddenly became a media sensation. This was because they were accompanied by an amateurish brochure proving that they were works by Giotto who, in fact, was a woman – a Bulgarian, of course – and here my memory fails me as to whether or not in the brochure she was also claimed to have been the Boyana master as well. This was proved by references to eminent Western scholars (I should note that nearly everything here should be in inverted commas), and the exhibition itself was in Bulgaria with the support of powerful foundations – General Motors was claimed to have been one of them. The reaction of the media to all of this frightened even the artist and the gallery owner: entire newspaper pages were devoted to the event; prominent Bulgarian scholars were invited to radio discussions in order to prove or undermine the authenticity of the drawings, and so on and so forth. For me the most impressive aspect of the story was that nobody had any doubts at all, not even doubts because of the fact that the exhibition, which was supposed to be a world sensation, was presented in a basement that was modified to a private gallery...
This mystification definitely achieved its aim: it was based on, explored and outlined the attitudes of Bulgarian society at that time – a society which was naïve, very confused about its identity and values, and inclined to accept at face value everything coming from the West, particularly when it sparkled up fading national clichés. Of course, this artwork was forgotten amid the euphoria and infinite avalanche of events of all sorts – in those times everything triggered only a short-lived interest. But I remembered it and its timeliness, with the immediate and somewhat sharpened intertwining of art and society.
An Inside Perspective
Ivan Moudov is a liar – this is what many of the participants in the debate claim. The disappointment that they had not been initiated in the “plot” became a personal insult for some (who turned up foolishly at Poduyane railway station); for others the disappointment came from the failed expectations for a real museum, and a third group of people suffered because of both. In their essence these responses reveal a lack of understanding of the MUSIZ project as an artwork – otherwise this would pose the problem of veracity in art. On the other hand, if it had been generally accepted only as an artistic expression, it would hardly have taken place as such. (A classic situation, so to speak: if I lie and if I lie truly, then this means that I do not lie – and vice versa, etc.)
It seems to me – and perhaps this may sound odd – that being initiated in the plot is of no relevance at all in this case. For instance, for me it was a burden, which I had to overcome in order to come back to my “external” critical position, as much as it was an advantage in understanding the concept and “inner” logic of the project. When I think about it, I could give up both insofar as I am always ready to surrender to the manipulations of contemporary art and I do not mind being deceived by it – so long as it is a quality lie, of course.
In the beginning my own initiation was purely formal – this was when in the Expert committee we accepted Ivan Moudov as a Visual seminar fellow. At that stage the artist’s project left me with a very wide horizon of expectations accompanied with impartial curiosity about the way it was to be realized. Then the situation radically changed: Ivan Moudov asked me if I could write a text for Kultura newspaper – in a way that suggests the opening of a museum of contemporary art was really going to take place – which would come out before the event, and which should be convincing not so much for the artistic community as for society and for those institutions on which that the establishment of such a museum depends.
This was the beginning of it... First, I could not refuse; second I recognized the responsibility I was taking; third, there was no time. Fortunately, the editors’ office responded instantly agreeing at a hint (if they had needed more than a hint, they would not have been Kultura newspaper). And over the page I was allotted I actively started to experience the project from an inside perspective. To begin with, I decisively rejected my own momentary feelings: it is impossible to write happily when the occasion highlights just how unhappy you are. Effort and imagination are necessary in order to step beyond the occasion and to project your emotions on an indefinite future point which is actually the present – Ivan Moudov’s project. The questions about how I would respond and how one writes about the opening of such a museum in general brought about the notion of “writing through tears manly held back” – a tone that made me think in terror that I would not be able to sustain it for an entire newspaper page.
The problem of veracity – of the text, of the project and of the text about/in the project – complicated the situation further. What is at stake are relations that rule out lying but, to put it simply, they move along the thin line between reality and fiction. The text itself had to be real and true. And this is what it is; by the way, it was only later that I found out two unwitting mistakes I had made as far as facts are concerned in the historical development of the idea about a museum of contemporary art in Bulgaria. At the same time in its relation to Ivan Moudov’s project the text had to be misleading as much as it had to raise doubts. And this is what it turned out to be judging from the reactions of those who read it. Part of them were doubtful because I do not normally write “like that” (whatever that means) and the others believed it for the same reason. (Which confirms another classic tenet: everybody reads what they want to read.)
An Outside Perspective
For me this was much more amusing because it presented the development of the project observing all “rules” to the letter. From the promotional cards showing the small Poduyane railway station as a monumental majestic building comparable to the former Communist Party Headquarters, to the official invitations on which the ridiculous and therefore even more convincing abbreviation MUSIZ was in golden relief, both generating respect and luring to a social and cultural event of the highest class. The internet website (under construction, of course), the phone numbers for contact and confirmations, the posters which flooded the capital on the eve of the opening, the laconic but nevertheless solemn announcement for the media added more scale to .. the project. That is to say, to Ivan Moudov’s work and not to the non-existent (and therefore deceptive, misleading) museum.
This difference became clear (crystal clear, one might say) at Poduyane railway station. But despite this crystal property, the two sides of the work could not be separated. On the contrary, this was the moment of their greatest cohesion and this was the moment that had to be experienced. (It was only later, during discussions and among comments that the two parts began to be seen – Ivan Moudov’s project remained in its time-liness and the museum continues, I hope, along the road to its establishment).
This is how things happened for me: I met with a colleague, a gallery director, who had arrived almost especially for the event, at the tram N20 stop (at the corner of Dondukov boulevard and Veslets street). It turned out that this was the meeting point that other colleagues and artists had chosen as well. We filled the tram with ourselves and our comments during the 20-minute ride to the railway station. When we got off we nearly lost our way in the huge underpass, which is practically dysfunctional, with its complex branches, and we bumped into other confused colleagues but we somehow found the right direction and then we all crossed at the traffic lights. The view in front of us was awesome. The little railway, looking as if a whole century of sweeping urban waves had passed it by, was filled with crowds of people, camera flashes and video cameras. The place was swarming with individuals in constant motion: rushing, stopping with little groups, gesticulating, finding their ways in a business-like manner around others hanging out or maneuvering around TV cars on the car park democratically-chaotically mixed with diplomatic limousines – each with a little flag... We too entered this instance of Brown’s movement in order to be separated, get lost and instantly melt into it. Every group was discussing the project and was part of it – very consciously and with pleasure, at least those with whom I talked. Personal experience, professional judgment and miscellaneous observations quickly followed one after the other or mixed randomly, being equal and equally valid. Who had heard about it when, how they had heard about it, whether they had bought the story or not; these intertwined with analyses of the drama and with playful exchanges of congratulations on the new museum. Who else said what and how another person responded was also very important – mostly with regard to the celebrities, the directors of institutions, diplomats and journalists because it was a high society event judging from the high society ...at Poduyane railway station. I could not get this paradox out of my mind the whole time: the quiet station with its limited local importance suddenly found itself amid this incredible excitement while the people who are a constant presence there – a couple of drunkards – retired to a small café at the end of the entirely empty platform; they observed the scene with distrust behind their beer bottles...
“The Ambassadors support the action for the museum”, “The journalists don’t care about him, they want Christo”, “Svetlin Roussev made a joke about it and said that Christo got off at the Central Station by mistake”, “Some of them left in a rage, it’s interesting what they will write” – these are some of the comments I heard in the mayhem. And I hurried home for the late news. The coverage offered by the smiling reporter on Nova TV started like this: “This evening the Sofia artistic community occupied Poduyane railway station for several hours... This action was the artists’ reminder that Bulgaria is the only country in Europe that does not have a museum of contemporary art”. In fact, despite the rumour about the angry journalists, as far as I am concerned I did not read a single negative response coming form them. There were, of course, moments of puzzlement but there was also clearly a willingness to understand once the main point was explained. Besides, they had much more mature professional reflexes compared to the mystification event 15 years earlier. Now some of them tried to research the facts as much as possible which had been a challenge for Ivan Moudov and his fellow plotters, but also a lot of inconvenience for Christo’s family and friends, I suppose, which Ivan Moudov regrets. By the way, using public figures and famous names in art projects is a subject too extensive for me to deal with here. The important thing is that the journalists, who were the target of the “deceptive” side of the artwork, responded (with few exceptions) accordingly and truly professionally. Which makes me hopeful about our society as a whole.
A Look from Aside
For the artistic community the debate about the museum of contemporary art is not new at all. It has been glowing and flaring up every now and again in the last few years, it has its development, but until now it left the participants in the debate with the feeling that this idea is of limited interest, that it does not extend beyond their circle. This was the case at least with me: until Ivan Moudov’s MUSIZ I had no way of knowing whether the subject of the museum was only a concern for me and a few other museum activists (and opponents), and to what extent it was a concern for wider artistic circles. The answer, as a result of the project, is not simply “yes, it is a concern”. Given all the heterogeneous instances of reserve, suspicion, negations and occasional congratulations directed at the artwork and its author, the leitmotif “we need a museum of contemporary art” not simply shows through – it is very clearly legible. It seems to me that Ivan Moudov’s project impelled the debate to a wholly new stage. Over a period of just a few days the opinion of one artist evolved from “I don’t need such a museum’ to the suspicion that ‘some people don’t want and obstruct the establishment of the museum”.
“Establish” is now the key word. It replaced the recognized “need for a museum” and calls for action. So that it will not be ingloriously defeated by the “utopia” it is fighting at the moment...
1 MUSIZ is the transliterated abbreviation which in Bulgarian stands for Museum of Contemporary Art (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