A NEW REALIST FROM THE POST-COMMUNIST ERA
(by Ruen Ruenov)
In the late 1980s Galentin Gatev, a Botevgrad-based medical doctor specialising in dermatology and STDs, acquired a certain reputation as a collector among the people interested in Nonconventional art(1). The critical nature of his way of communicating with innovatively minded artists—the proof of which was a collection formed in conceptual lines—was instrumental for the clearing of his thinking and, as a consequence, made him ask himself the question of whether the role of a collector was sufficient satisfaction for his speculative imagination. Thus Dr Gatev’s appearance, astounding for its unfettered virtuosity, on the Bulgarian art scene from the position of a fringe figure(2) and the subsequent recognition of his work within only a year or two did not take place in a vacuum but were the result of the accumulation of critical mass.
Dr Gatev’s curatorial debut was the unusual action Dermatology? Art, which took place on 19 May 1994 at an uncharacteristic venue: the Bulgarian Medical Academy’s Dermatology Department. At the time the artists who took part in it were quite famous: Bozhidar Boyadzhiev; Nedko Solakov; Lyuben Kostov; the rock band The Owl’s Sop, whose leader, Georgi Ruzhev, was a photographer and an artist; and Hristo Mihaylov. Despite the unpopular place and the late hour, these names alone attracted a considerable audience. Up to that moment nearly every Nonconventional group and artist had sought some atypical context to make their appearances, and it’s a fact that the utilisation of all manner of “non-art” spaces was, at least in theory, of central relevance for contemporary art. The fact remains, however, that prior to that day the Bulgarian public had never been in a situation like that, and it was this particular occasion which largely helped determine the nature that similar events eventually adopted. In location terms—it was unmistakably a genuinely functioning clinic environment with all the characteristic features—the project also channelled the ways in which such actions were later experienced and interpreted.
Thought up as a Situationist(3) mystification meant to enhance the effect “of” and “in” the moment in which the artistic intention is recognised/perceived, both in its strategy and details Dermatology?Art proved to be an utter puzzle for those who saw it. The audience, confronted with each one of the art interventions, was introduced to facts and circumstances which put to the test both its faculty of assessment and its sense of humour. The bafflement was purposely heightened as the spectators found themselves mixed with the participants in some international dermatology symposium that was taking place at the same place and at the same time.
Under the project’s strategy of mystification, the five “dermatology” avant-garde artists were in the process of advertising a “revolutionary” skin medicine, Retin-A, which purported to regenerate the skin in acne patients. This was stated in a leaflet which was a kind of hybrid of an art catalogue and an advertising brochure. The publication had been manipulated to appear ambivalent—for the art circles it was meant as a catalogue and for the acne sufferers as the advertisement. The “art” texts were in English and the ones promoting the benefits of Retin-A in Bulgarian. This Neo-Dada hotchpotch was further complicated by the interspersion of the texts with details about the qualities of the medicine and its effect: on the one hand, it promised that “One dose in the evening is enough to make you beautiful and young for the entire year!”, on the other hand, the curatorial project—or perhaps manifesto—addressed “the benefits of a dermatological iconography in the plastic arts”. All this was signed by the dermatology and STD doctor, who promised
… the opening of a new vistas for the Bulgarian Nonconventional art; the elevation of the prestige of dermatology as a branch of medicine rich in visual finds […] dermatological iconography as a macroscopic find and its association with various movements in the history of plastic arts […] anatomy, as a treasure of volume and plasticity, is the chief subject of study and exploration, and the meaning of the authorial presence is the deformation that determines the style of the artist. As a consequence, I present the visual morphological deviations—that is, the pathology, and specifically that of dermatology—as a deformation in principle.
And so on.
The artists were quite successful in fitting in the situation. On the one hand, the order in which art was presented was superseded by the entry into a field of an entirely different and specialised visual convention (which was highly unusual for the chance spectator); the artists exhibited their works for appraisal (aesthetic perception) precisely in this weird context, undoubtedly imparting to them the meaning of artworks. In itself, it was a relatively early date: the Bulgarian Nonconventional art had been making its baby steps; it had almost no public status and the struggle for its institutionalisation was yet to come; also its fan base was still too scant. At this moment, it was a totally unknown person who was upending the perspective in a most unusual way, indicating—or, better still, finding intuitively—one of contemporary art’s most effective strategies: the Situationist manipulation. He was successful both in taking the audience to a space with a different function (at once immutable and legitimate) and in making the artists replace the order in this environment by employing simulative and subversive interventions. Theirs was a persuasive performance.
Nedko Solakov used dandruff to make some drawings on black paper, laying them out in the clinic’s glassed security entrance booth. Mr Solakov’s second act was an intervention in a given; it consisted of enormous glass-fronted cabinets containing moulages of human body parts afflicted by skin diseases. Among the wax models (utterly repulsive for the untrained eye) he arranged croissants and buns in a way that incorporated them into the whole, making them unrecognisable at first sight.
Lyuben Kostov’s input was Wooden Pimple-Squeezing Machine, an installation inspired by Dr Gatev and staged in Mr Kostov’s characteristic style of constructing ironic replicas; however, it remains a work that fails to count among his best. Bozhidar Boyadzhiev exhibited his Muse for Doctors and Artists, a photo installation, sited in a vitrine, of the multiple images of a nude woman with her arms tied. Mr Boyadzhiev’s second work, Dermatological Calendar, held greater intrigue. It comprised a series of old images (lithographies) that showed various pathologies of the human face, for example “the man-dog” and faces that featured rudimentary sex organs.
Apart from installations—they were all done adroitly and sought to address the clinical situation, yet remained static—the event presented also two performances. The first was by Hristo Mihaylov, a multimedia artist, who in an amphitheatre-style lecture hall used mainly lasers and fitting music to create light-and-sound spaces in which actors appeared. In a funnel-like space, he worked with a laser beam and interferential methods to create a constantly changing virtual shape. For Bulgaria this was an early example of an artwork that involved light.
Dermatology? Art took place on three floors at the clinic, and the audience was left to discover the “art” by itself by walking along the “dermatological” corridors. An even less traditional space was reserved for the second performance, which was carried out by the experimental rock band The Owl’s Sop. Their gig was in the clinic’s isolation unit, a place in the building’s basement and reachable by walking down a narrow staircase. The audience, made up of connoisseurs and fans of the group, was put to a sort of test: they were made to wait for a long time in front of a locked metal door. Eventually, without any explanation, the door was opened and the people rushed down an enigmatic staircase in complete darkness. The walls had “art” on them—Neo-Dada images and texts, among them nonsense posters, collages and weather forecasts. Moving in a corridor fully covered by white bathroom tiles and in darkness that was being dispersed only by the lights from video cameras, the spectators reached a parapet that prevented them from going farther. This was the place for experiencing some sort of “reception of art” and from which the sound-light image that was emerging in the darkened corridor ahead could be observed. In the dark, an unrecognisably modulated voice could be heard from an amp—there were sentences, messages or instructions, as well as technical sounds which were coming from a machine or a system that was working in the dark, in the unknown space that lay forward. After the sound, a light appeared in the distance, consisting of two symmetrical shining dots that started moving closer and closer jointly with the gradual intensification of the sound picture—a buzz in major key. “It”, the creature or machine outlined by only two shining lights or eyes, was coming forward with technical precision and increasing sound. It stopped a few feet before the audience but nothing was revealed to the observers. The “thing” stayed put for a while, still making its loud, technical noise. Then “it” started to recede slowly until “it” disappeared. The “emergence” of the murky object kept on at intervals. Despite its being set up with simple equipment, this physical theatre of sorts counts among the first multimedia performances in Bulgaria.
This was how, at least outwardly, Dermatology? Art—which was enjoying a considerable audience and youthful spirit because of its element of entertainment and play (an “art party” of sorts)— acquired stylistic dimensions of its own. What mattered, nonetheless, was that it had certain defining characteristics which turned this collective action into a new experience. It was without naïveté; the game was still there but was no longer the carnival of dilettantes. The carnival was superseded by a Neo-Dada play strategy and had a Post-structural direction which in effect turned on its head the idea of what artwork and creativeness mean. The logic, convention and reception of art were manipulated by means of reality-imposed logic and interpretation. There were signals and reflexions that corresponded to the best products of the young Bulgarian liberal arts tradition from the period of transition in the years 1987–1991: the discursive play transgressions vis-à-vis the reality of the late-Socialist-era society formulated in the speeches and writings of the philosophical and critical circle Synthesis(4). In the early 1990s, French Post-structuralist texts by, among others, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille and especially Michel Foucault were being read hungrily—according to Aleksandar Kyosev, a member of Synthesis, “ecstatically, egoistically, in no context and with no corrective.” It should be noted also that in character terms Dr Gatev appeared remarkably suited for the art of simulacrum. On a number of levels Dermatology? Art proved an outstandingly innovative project and was among the first curatorial efforts which met with full success and preceded the reception of avant-garde circles. To be sure, the event received positive commentaries, but the critics were somewhat “baffled” by the Neo-Dada excesses of the STD doctor/curator. The project received a single, very brief critical note in Kultura weekly, and a later portrait of Dr Gatev made the assessment that
Without ignoring the participation of the individual artists … on the one hand, and the clinic’s medical and administrative staff, on the other, this was a par excellence work by Dr Gatev. His artistic skills surfaced in this widely public action. He succeeded in collaging the traditional and the unusual; he put forward his own point of view, which is a unique angle that revived the “dead” art and sent off the “living” medicine into the museum.”(5)
Unlike the specialised publications, the mainstream media and the entertainment pages were quick to use Dr Gatev’s mystificatory potential and occasionally came up with various titbits about him. He cashed in on this attention to carry out a small media action. On 13 May 1994 he “announced”, in Standart daily, the certificate for his second specialty, oncodermatology, as something of an artistic gesture. The “announcement” was accompanied by an interview in which he elaborated on the goals he was pursuing with Dermatology? Art:
At the Dermatology Clinic I presented the artists whom I like. […] I am more interested in showing them in a single frame than in presenting their actual work; it is, after all, only a fraction of them. Let him who wants to be a consumer and a fetishist/collector go to galleries. As a curator, I want to present personalities.”(6)
It is evident that Dr Gatev had the imagination to set up a Situationist environment. Such was the case also during his first solo show, the action In Defence of Solid Material, which took place at the Botevgrad-based machine parts manufacturing company Metaloobrabotvane i Zaboproizvodstvo AD on 4 July 1994. In September 1994 an exhibition dedicated to the action was staged at the Lesedra Gallery in Sofia. Dr Gatev succeeded in persuading the management of the company to appoint him head of production for a single day. For this purpose, a legal contract was signed between him and the company whose subject was
The issuance of an order for the discontinuation of the production of spare parts and the substitution thereof with parts manufactured from wood for a period specified in this Contract. The production process will be managed and supervised by Galentin Gatev, MD.(7)
The document was written in a formal bureaucratic style and is strikingly curious. It said also that
The parties hereby agree to unite their activities for the accomplishment of a common purpose: the realisation of a joint activity for the enhancement and improvement of artistic, cultural and aesthetic necessities and criteria in the staff of Metaloobrabotvane i Zaboproizvodstvo AD at the production site in Botevgrad by the mutual provision of conditions, prerequisites, platform and know-how for the realisation of an art event …
Some 60 workers embraced the idea of working under the artist. Nothing was changed in the production process, but the working material (the metals and alloys used for manufacturing the various spare parts) was substituted with wood, a “solid material”. The artist cleverly explained that wood had a number of advantages: it did not rust, its processing generated less waste, it was much more common than metal and so on. Each process was documented. The production took place in conformity with the technological guidance and specification that went with each part. After the parts had been machined from wood, they were oiled, wrapped in paper, arrayed in wooden boxes and prepared for shipping, accompanied by the necessary documents. No artist in Bulgaria had done the like of this before. Dr Gatev was managing the technological process just like Yves Klein was while, in 1961, assisted by workers and firefighters, he was creating his “fire paintings” at the Gaz de France headquarters. As in the case with Klein—and also with Manzoni—simulacrum documents were issued that certified something. The entire operation was taking place according to some predetermined order and—naturally!—by sticking to the rules. Unlike his notable predecessors, who played with the artist’s “unique sensitivity” and with the poorly understood ideas of authenticity and authorship, Dr Gatev was making an unambiguous political commentary of the Socialist and post-Socialist realities: the factory was run according to the principles of Socialist-era industrial planning; more or less, its output was not “the real thing” but consisted of “token simulacrums”—a term from the then-popular book The Adam Complex by Vladislav Todorov.
In the early post-Socialist period, the contextual point of intersection of all this was that the parts manufactured from steel were as unusable and unnecessary as those made of wood. In this sense In Defence of Solid Material was an antiutopian action used in the search for truth.
I contend that if Dr Gatev should be judged by his most representative works, he could be classed as a “new realist” from Bulgaria’s early post-Socialist period. As indirect proof, a compliment by Pierre Restany of Dr Gatev’s work can be put forward, on the occasion of the installation Corpus Alienum, presented at the 1996 “Evidences. The Real Diversity” exhibition.(8) In Sofia, Mr Restany attended a couple of joint exhibitions and singled out as contemporary only three Bulgarian artists, the first of whom was Dr Gatev.
I also believe that as an episode from the formative stages of the Bulgarian Nonconventional art and appearing after a series of strategies dominated by mythological, game or simulative approaches, Dr Gatev was the first artist who succeeded in achieving new, social dimensions of expression that were free of any frivolity or compromise regardless of whether his outward behaviour may come across as playful in any way.
In 1995 Dr Gatev came up with four more actions which established him as the most intriguing Bulgarian contemporary artist at the time. In January 1995, at the Institut Français in Sofia, he staged his exhibition/action A Stage of the Production Process for a Printed Product. Again, the spectators were offered a piece of absurdity: the overaccentuation of objects that were at once unnecessary and functionless. These were five-cornered metal plates galvanised in various metals, among them copper, silver and gold. The objects were laid out in luxurious vitrines with directed lighting and were stood on a platform which the spectator had to climb upon in order to see them. Some of the plates had two layers—one on top of the other—which imparted “outer” and “inner” values to the object. The exhibition was accompanied by a ceremony that included a presentation followed by an auction, run by Filip Zidarov, which was in strict conformity with the rules of the art market. In an ironic but utterly plausible fashion, the performance set out to present the cycle of contemporary art: the manufacturing of unnecessary objects, their valuation through the rites of exhibition and opening night; their subsequent validation in the “gallery reality”, and finally their commodification during the ritual of the auction.
Dr Gatev’s next action, Forge Me As Many Horseshoes As You Can, took place on 20 May 1995 in Gabrovo, on an islet in the Yantra River, which crosses the town. On the small piece of rock in the river stands the monument of Racho the Smith, the founder of Gabrovo. In front of the monument—a somewhat modernistic sculpture of a muscular man who works on an anvil and is in the process of forging a horseshoe—a blacksmith’s workshop was set up fitted with a furnace and an anvil at which a real blacksmith, removed from his daily environment, was forging horseshoes. The action took place on Gabrovo’s feast day and lasted about three hours, a period in which a significant number of horseshoes was produced. The literalness of the situation was that the legendary blacksmith/town founder and his late-twentieth-century colleague were facing each other in the same work pose. As a result, the established manner of symbolising a cultural space was changed, having undergone an actual transformation: the factual and the mundane were being juxtaposed to a revival of the historical and the legendary; the artist was no longer devoted to the principles of mimesis, remembrance or aesthetics but was offering a new take on both the past and the reality.
In early July 1995 all principal exponents of contemporary art received unusually designed invitations styled after the old railway tickets in Bulgaria—small cardboard pieces which read, in outdated typeface: Plovdiv Railway Station. Dr Gatev. A Carriage Worthy of Special Note. 19:22, 5.VII.1995, Platform 1, Sofia Central Station. As a result, at the appointed hour, the “specially selected crowd” of artists, critics and journalists met at Sofia Central Station Dr Gatev’s Carriage Worthy of Special Note. The carriage was the last on the regular train on the Plovdiv–Sofia line. It was an ordinary carriage whose only hallmark was the inscription, in technical typeface (red letters on adhesive film) along the entire length on either side of the carriage, and—of course!—accompanied by the artist’s signature. The action took place with the blessing and active participation of BDZ, Bulgaria’s state railway operator: As a result of an exchange of letters between the ministries of culture and transportation, BDZ’s vice president had cabled each of the station masters of the railway stations along the Plovdiv–Sofia line, instructing them that in connection with the art action “as an exception, on this date, Sofia Central Railway Station receive Train 128 at Track 1.”
A Carriage Worthy of Special Note (for Railway Personnel and Children) (the project’s full title) was directed primarily at two groups of people with a commitment to trains: the railway workers, for whom trains are a profession, and the children who love playing with model trains. During the trip the doctor, accompanied by a gallerist, a photographer and a cameraman, was travelling in the carriage. At each station at which the trains stopped— Stamboliyski, Pazardzhik, Septemvri, Belovo, Kostenets and so on—the photographer and the cameraman took pictures documenting the reactions of the chiefs of traffic. Right after the train’s arrival in Sofia, the footage was shown on a screen set up on a covered-platform lorry. The second part of the action was the exhibition of 100 children’s model carriages which bore the inscription CARRIAGE OF SPECIAL NOTE. This exhibition took place on pedestals set up on the railway station’s platform.
As was the case with his earlier projects, Dr Gatev again resorted to the so-called literal metaphor, through which the reasons, the results and the meaning of concrete facts and circumstances were put on a pedestal or simply “served up” by using conceptual speculation, a legitimate contemporary art device. The “unusual” carriage—signed by an artist(!)—was the object of close monitoring by railway station staff—chiefs of traffic and some policemen, who served as artifacts for the game, or rather carried out its purpose: the manifestation of the “note” phenomenon. With serious faces, they were holding their “sunflower-sticks”, some of them had put on neckties, others were either facetious or suspicious—in one of the photographs Dr Gatev could be seen shaking hands with one of them. These were the carriers of the “special note” the action sought to focus on. The project did not aim at revealing some character traits of these staff (it may be applied to any profession), but to emphasis the act of attention, the act of observation and the act of looking intently in order to make an assessment. Here’s where the “specially selected crowd” stepped in. The crowd of connoisseurs greeted the artist—not without a trace of vanity—and by watching the video that had documented the ride gave their attention, observation and the look that the artist had speculatively solicited. In this way, again by using Situationist manipulation a new innovative work of art was created whose central subjects were the payment of attention, the act of observation and the fixed gaze.
The last action is this series, which put the final touches to Dr Gatev’s character of a “dangerous demystifier”, was Hidden Three-Dimensionality, an exhibition/action that took place on 20 November 1995 in Institut Français’s art gallery. As before, this event, too, was based on an exposition that was “literal and devoid of any practical purpose”. The hidden three-dimensionality was the solid pad which in the past used to be inserted in men’s overcoats to contribute to a more presentable appearance. It was crafted according to an antiquated technology, now used very rarely, in which layers of buckram and horse hair are sown with a sewing machine and finally thermally processed on a special wooden block that gives the material a characteristic triangular shape. Dr Gatev had managed to unearth the form and the technique for producing it, and then laid them out in a vitrine with all the details it required; he added some pictures of his own, as well as technological sketches and explanations. But the project’s climax was the performance that took place on the opening day. Upon entering the gallery hall, the spectators saw 12 aproned seamstresses armed with the above-mentioned heavy irons completing the creation of the “hidden three-dimensionality”—the baking of the pad. The same activity, performed by the artist’s father, was shown in a close-up on a video screen. The Neo-Dada theatre was reminiscent of that of the auction of the galvanized metal pentagons from A Stage of the Production Process for a Printed Product.
I’d like to refer to my immediate impressions from this moment, which speak of an important quality in Dr Gatev: his ability to easily manipulate and mislead the spectator “into the world of art”—in the most innocent sense of the word. The hall was almost pitch-dark and the only shapes that could be seen were the symmetrically arranged 12 ironing women dressed in light-blue aprons. Their movements were monotonous, the irons were hot and heavy. In the middle of the space, in a vitrine, was the “supervaluable” stereometric object: the pad. The silence was as thick as the darkness. Hot vapours were rising off the irons, there was a smell of fabric, wet and burned. The spectators were tiptoeing around.(9)
In this surreal mise–en–scène —which, apart from the heavy smell from the irons which caused slight vertigo in the audience, carried some comic undertones—the two central questions were being asked that underlie all the projects of the doctor/artist: (1) What constitutes art in the contemporary situation
and (2) How is this question to be asked in this situation? Dr Gatev’s actions, his playful Situationism and fringe-figure freshness helped him succeed, in utter virtuosity and without a trace of naïveté, to integrate these questions (sticking to the rules of the nonconventional scene). This ranks him, quite naturally, among the most successful artists of Bulgarian contemporary art’s formative period.
On another level, a special note should be made on Dr Gatev’s contribution to the contextualisation of Bulgaria’s contemporary reality. Despite the putative randomness of his subjects, Dr Gatev turned out to be among the most successful interpreters of Bulgaria’s post-Communist reality, a contention maintained by a number of international curators, among them Vasif Kortun and Rosa Martínez. In 1998 Dr Gatev took part in Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg with the intriguing installation Motor Engines with Regional Purpose. Evidence. It traced the daily journeys and troubles of four Eastern Orthodox priests in the Botevgrad region. It was noted in a review in the German magazine Kunstforum that the installation “reflected the craziness of the daily routine in a post-Communist country”.(10) In the installation, the priests have no money and are conflicted as to the import of their enterprise. In their efforts at making their rounds around their parishes, they find themselves constantly under their old run-down cars, repairing them.
In this way, the documentary approach and the constant transformation of reality into symbolic meanings in Dr Gatev’s projects are proof that he is indeed a “new realist” in Bulgaria’s post-Communist environment. In the words of a critic
he comes across as a realist who goes the whole hog in “metaphorising” everything that leads to the real, material result. The work of art veers between its function of an instrument of knowledge, which it imitates, and that of an object of delight (the art).(11)
Once he had unconditionally asserted himself in a key moment of the formative period of Bulgarian contemporary art and having left a series of landmark projects, Dr Gatev’s appearances over the next years became rare.
In all these cases, the artist’s strategy to create visual images and events was not so much the result of his expression of political positions but rather to his acute powers of observation and highly inventive irony. If Dr Gatev’s finest projects coincided with the frenzy of Bulgaria’s early post-Communist reality, in 2002 he was seen teasing, in a seven-second-long video titled Movement With a Black Box, five world-renowned curators. In the video, for seven seconds Dr Gatev’s silhouette is moving from right to left and a curator appears who gives the thumbs up. Then the curator changes the sign, giving the viewer the finger.(12) The making of contemporary art consists primarily in the questioning of established points of view and authorities, as well as in constantly verifying the world.
1. Also known as Nonconventional forms, a term that art critics use to describe the art of change which followed the normative aesthetics of the Socialist era. The term was used from the mid-1980s to 1994, when a retrospective exhibition, “N-forms”, was staged in Sofia.
2. A couple of the so-called “art marginals” (fringe figures)—people that came to the art world from outside— played a significant role in the establishment of Bulgarian Nonconventional art. They were seen as catalysts—a common moment in the history of twentieth-century avant-garde movements.
3. The ideas of Situationism were developed by the Internationalе Situationniste movement (1957-72), whose chief theoretician was the French philosopher Guy Debord. The people who practise it consider the Situationist means—that is, the setting up of temporary situations—as necessary for the emergence of special degrees and intenseness of perception. Within a short period the Situationists reached beyond the realm of art and turned to critical social theory. Regardless of the fact that Dr Gatev’s best projects are of Situationist nature—Dermatology? Art, In Defence of Solid Material, A Carriage Worthy of Special Note—by his own account, he was unfamiliar with the ideas of Situationism, but got to them by intuition.
4. A group of men of letters and theoreticians who played a significant role in the change in the cultural climate in Bulgaria.
5. Boubnova, Yara, “The Doctor as Artist”, Kultura weekly, № 33, 18 August 1995.
6. An interview with the artist, Standart daily, 13 May 1995
7. Catalogue, “In Defence of Solid Material”, published by the Lesedra Gallery. The catalogue features a facsimile of the agreement. I use the original materials from Dr Gatev’s archive.
8. Yolova, Iva, An interview with Pierre Restany, Trud daily, 18 November 1996, p.6
9. Ruenov, Ruen, “Hidden Three-Dimensionality”, Kultura weekly, 15 December 1995
10. Kunstforum, Oktober-Dezember 1998
11. Boubnova, Yara, “The Doctor as an Artist”, Kultura weekly, № 33, 18 August 1995.
12. The curators were Rosa Martinez, Vasif Kortun, Orwoi Enwezor, Maria Land, Robert Fleck and Francesco Bonami.