Maria Vassileva

FRAGILE! HANDLE WITH CARE! Or what’s behind a biennial

FRAGILE! HANDLE WITH CARE! Or what’s behind a biennial
title: FRAGILE! HANDLE WITH CARE! Or what’s behind a biennial
year: 2003
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 954-8334-72-0
language: english
author(s): Maria Vassileva
source: Manifesta and Us, 2003, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia, ISBN: 954-8334-72-0
supported by: Национален център за музеи, галерии и изобразителни изкуства; Швейцарска култрна програма в България

We were admiring in the studio of Nedko Solakov recently the luxurious wooden crate in which his drawings had come back after a show in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Quite often the “western” packaging is triggering true enthusiasm and compassion in us. Sometimes these are kept for years and often survive longer then the artworks they are “housing”. On one hand, they are often fine objects by themselves. It’s more important however, that they are a symbol of the clean, ordered and stable art world, which everybody is aspiring for.

The big biennials, triennials and other international forums are the largest (heavy duty, as the Americans say) and shiniest “crates” of the artistic life generously scattered all over the five continents. One can hardly say about them “Jack-in-the-box”. In general, what one can see inside is expected and even predictable. However, there are surprises. Often these are coming with artists from “the other world” that are impressed by the packaging but are frequently ironical towards the content.

Manifesta, the Biennial for European art, is among the youngest spring outs in the gigantic fright compartment full of international forums. Not only because so far there have only been 4 events but also because of its specifics – to present young artists as well as to look into the still virgin territories of Eastern Europe. Because of its modest age and low budget, Manifesta is marked by an even larger sized fragile sticker that we are used to paste on crates traveling all over the world full of art.

However, what is hidden behind the seemingly tender and vulnerable structure of Manifesta? There is no large international event, which is dedicated to art for its own sake. Such an idealistic concept would be untrue, to say the least. More then ever, art is related to information and communication. The links to politics and economy are very strong and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to claim that it has been turned into part of the mechanisms of power.

It is interesting to follow what the international curators of Manifesta picked out of the crate labeled “Contemporary Bulgarian Art”. The first event in 1996 saw the participation of Nedko Solakov with his work “This is me, too...” 1, a fantasmagorical and entertaining narrative about the life of an artist who has turned into a fossil, a stuffed duck, a snowflake, a dried flower, and other transformations that are reflecting on everybody’s wish to be somebody else. There is also the hope of the artist that this way he might be able to achieve more adequate relations with the surrounding society.

In 1998 in Luxemburg Galentin Gatev M.D. participated with his work “Motor Engines with a Regional Purpose. Evidence”. This is another half-true, half-imagined story about the rounds that four local priests are doing in the area of the city of Botevgrad, Bulgaria and about the technical problems they are having with their vehicles as a metaphor for the toddling (or deteriorating) society. Or as the catalogue text for his work says, the artists is showing “daily madness” of life in a post-communist country” 2.

In 2000 Pravdoliub Ivanov showed “Transformation always takes time and energy” 3. The boiling and slowly evaporating water from the dozens of pots and pans is an elegant metaphor for the time people from our neck of the woods are living through. 2002 was very successful for Bulgaria not only because of the participation of Iara Boubnova in the curatorial team of Manifesta 4 but also because of the presentation of three artists from Bulgaria 4. Luchezar Boyadjiev developed on location his work “I want you for M4” – video portraits of anonymous people from Frankfurt in the style of the classical genre but using new technology. Kalin Serapionov showed his video “Unrendered” 5. In a crowded place in Zurich he is filming the people waiting at a Meeting Point. He is trying to capture the hard to control situation in a public space full of people while transforming it into a “laboratory set of elements where the unrendered documentary material is turning into an object of controlled surveillance” 6. Ivan Moudov takes part in the video landscape of Manifesta 4 with the work “Traffic Control” which is a documentary about his performance in Graz, Austria in 2001. Dressed up in the uniform of a Bulgarian traffic cop, the artist is illegally regulating the car traffic at a busy intersection.

We can detect a certain sequence if we were to analyze the selection of works from Bulgarian artists in all Manifesta events. From works that refer to some local specifics the choice is moving towards works with general impact. If Nedko Solakov project is a direct reflection on a closed off society, the one of Galentin Gatev M.D. is removed even further into the private domain. In the work of Pravdoliub Ivanov one can still see a reflection on local problems although treated in metaphorical ways. The next three projects though, have forgotten about complaining and have even replaced it with ironical aggression towards the “other world”. Luchezar Boyadjiev is casting himself as a psychoanalyst who is trying to build up a portrait of the German person of today. Ivan Moudov has entered straight into the cherished territories of the “West” and is attempting (successfully at that) to regulate the car traffic (as a symbol of life) there. Kalin Serapionov is altogether shifting his gaze form the dilemma of “here and there” and is moving on to general human concerns.

With time the interest of the Manifesta curators is shifting from the local exotics in the direction of the possibilities for a dialogue, or to what Iara Boubnova refers to as “in-between reality” – the place in between the artist’s place of origin and the abstract non-place of the big city. The idea is not to underline the differences but to integrate the different practices. This shift is not only reflecting the social changes in various countries but also the allover development of Manifesta as a forum to reflect on these changes. The words of Dan Cameron “We know that an exhibition is not the world, but it addresses what the world is about” 8 are especially valid here.

Manifesta is probably the most lively international biennial because of its relatively small size, because of the fact that it changes its host city for every event, and naturally, because it is also operating in the most dynamic part of the world in the last 15 years. By the force of the curatorial will and by the inner logic of the exhibition mechanics, this forum is following rather then manipulating the events. The fact was quite noticeable in the last Manifesta event, which left the show without a theme, that is – without a framework (label), for as long as possible. The idea of the curators was not to predetermine the way things should be but rather to leave it up to all things define the allover image of the biennial. Which is stressing once again the active position of contemporary art. In its many guises it finds different ways to reach the viewer.



1 See: Manifesta 1, catalogue of the first edition of a new European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 1996


See: Manifesta 3, European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2000

See: Manifesta 4, European Biennial of Contemporary Art, Frankfurt/Main, Germany, 2002

Not yet calculated digital footage, a term from video montage

EXPORT-IMPORT. Contemporary Art from Bulgaria, Sofia 2003

7 Manifesta 4. Conversation Iara Boubnova, Nuria Enguita Mayo and Stéphanie Moisdon-Trembley, Frankfurt, 18 May 2002

8 In: Interviews with Ten International Curators by Carolee Thea, New York 2001, p. 101


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