The politics of performance art in Bulgaria 1987–1997
Performance art and its use of the body may have been a well-known artistic medium and a cornerstone of Postmodernism in the West ever since the 1960s. However, it was thirty years later, during the Bulgarian transition to democracy, when it originated as a legitimate art form, at first by private, intimate performances and then eventually invading the social space. Although the emergence of performance art in Bulgaria was intimately linked to times of political turmoil, similarly to the 60s in Western history, it is the inherent difference of circumstances in Bulgaria which makes for a significant East/West dichotomy. When being politically charged, performance art in the West was closely linked to leftist ideas. Nevertheless, in Bulgaria it was the opposite — contemporary art was marked by mainly pro-capitalist sentiments.
The reason for this lies in the fall of the communist government in 1989 and the start of the transition to democracy. Performance art formed a response to the political oppression of the communist regime, examining the body of the artist as a metonym for social reality. Freedom is a fundamental concept in Bulgarian performance art, which marked the end of the collective, restricted body and testified to a newfound liberty, expressed in the freeing of the artist’s body through performance. This initial euphoria was soon to be suppressed by economic recession and inflation; by a loss of stability and cultural identity adequate of the times, due to the change of the political system. The beginning of the transition thus called into question the politics of representation and the need for new artistic mediums, as the old was falling apart and new was not yet built. Hence, it is natural that the only art capable to express the problematic of the new age was performance, by taking action and blurring the boundaries between life and art.
The work Overwhelming (1987–8), executed by Albena Mihaylova — Benji, K. Karamfilov, M. Grozdanov, Tsvetko Velev and Svetlaka spoke for the lack of freedom experienced by the artists and its urgent necessity. It entailed the artists going to the woods in the middle of February and burying themselves under piles of rocks. As a group act, this was incited by the feeling that life lacked value and spiritual redemption was possible solely through physical self-effacement. The radical nature of the act spoke for the suffocating effect of the regime and was meant to signify a complete denial of reality. Being a private performance, Overwhelming was not about making a social comment and was all the more poignant for remaining private, as it dealt with the significance of the individual during a political regime which had little or no use for any expression of individuality.
Another politically charged performance by Mihaylova, called Enclosure which was executed in 1989 in collaboration with Asen Botev. Communist newspapers where spread out on the ground and Botev lied on them face down, while Mihaylore traced the contours of his body with black paint. Botev’s passive position of complete surrender, as if shot down, was reminiscent of a crucifixion. Thus, the performance concerned the individual’s obligation to follow an ideology that was foreign to his understanding of the world, thus leading him to a complete renunciation of action.
Political criticism was approached differently by Albena Mihaylova’s Burning Documents (April 1989). During the opening of the annual Youth Art Exhibition in Plovdiv, Mihaylova wore a suit made of pieced together personal documents. These included a police ban for leaving the country, a fine for an attempt to sail a boat and a fine for being in contact with a foreign citizen. Mihaylova then took the suit off in a gesture of liberation and set it on fire on the sidewalk in front of the Artists’ hall. The performance was staged as a response to the repressions of the Revival process, whose policy since the mid-eighties was to introduce forced assimilation of the Bulgarian Muslim minorities. One of the fines Mihaylova burned was actually for communicating with a member of such a minority. The performance was also directly inspired by the 20th anniversary of the Prague Spring and Jan Palach’s self-immolation, linking the events in Prague with the hope for the political liberalization of Bulgaria two decades later. Therefore, Burning Documents bears the unquestionable connotations of fire’s cleansing powers, of regeneration and of spiritual liberation, contrasting the helplessness of Overwhelming just two years earlier. People were leaving flowers next to the burned remains, thus validating the role of the destroyed documents as the carcass of the totalitarian regime.
Accordingly, the confusion which followed the initial euphoria at the prospects of freedom, is reflected in several works from the early nineties. Ventsislav Zankov’s The Limits of Agony (1991–92) is reminiscent of the violent performances of the Vienna Actionists in the sixties. The performance involved the artist visiting a slaughterhouse and making paintings using the blood he found there, echoing the chaos of the times. Boris Serginov’s Man on the Street (1995) was designed to test social conduct by invading the public space, during a period when organized crime posed a significant problem. The artist’s body was bound up, wrapped in a bundle and left on a busy boulevard, next to the tram rails. For more than twenty minutes people simply stared at the artist-bundle, until someone eventually went and cut the ropes with a pocket knife. Serginov’s act thus functioned by exposing social alienation, fear and suspicion, his body converted it in a product of social behavior, by means of its treatment.
Thus, although happening thirty years later than in West, Bulgarian performance art should be understood as occurring when a reaction to socio-political changes required a new artistic vocabulary. Bulgaria simply did not have the same experience of modernism as Western countries. It was instead stifled by an ideology of collectivism and a predominant antagonization of Western culture. Therefore it was natural that during the transition period Bulgaria turned to art forms associated with the democracy of the West. However, this should not mean that Bulgaria’s achievements are secondary, as they are culturally and geographically specific — their meaning cannot be replicated in any Western country as they would make no sense. Thus, Bulgarian performance art of the transition period forms part of a post-historical art history, where temporal progression is not indicative of artistic value.
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Zankov, Ventsislav, ‘The Body of the Artist in the Art of the Transition Period’, Openartfiles.bg, https://openartfiles.bg/bg/topics/3084-%D1%82%D1%8F%D0%BB%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D1%85%D1%83%D0%B4%D0%BE%D0%B6%D0%BD%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0-%D0%B2-%D0%B8%D0%B7%D0%BA%D1%83%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%BE-%D0%BD%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B5%D1%85%D0%BE%D0%B4%D0%B0, Accessed: 27/05/2020
MIhaylova, Albena, ‘In Action’, Introduction to Contemporary Art, Sofia, 25.11.2017