A Conversation at Paradise

conversation | My Dear Provincialist


Viktoria This conversation is an invitation to collectively rethink and reimagine provincialism not as yet another overarching category with a centralizing, flattening influence, but as a method of questioning canons, conventions, and geographies. In the My Dear Provincialist  exhibition, we sought to explore a territory of non-commercial pleasure, excessive difference, stubborn idiosyncrasy; this is what we called “province”. In other words, we tried to make sense of a more irrational, more affective form of community and its connection to its fantasies of the past, present, and future. We shared two texts within the framework of this exhibition: one is about the potential of every artwork to develop its own highly idiosyncratic logic and language,[1] the other about how every creative and curatorial endeavour should involve also a process of decanonization.[2]  We have invited all participating artists to share their ideas and join this conversation. Let’s begin with you, Ina. Ina, one of your works depicts a badger against a pink landscape. How is the classic weaving technique related to your choice of motifs?

Ina Within the framework of this exhibition, I turned to the ideas of animism, which is related to quests for a connection between nature and humanity. Initially, I created a series of four drawings, two of which I executed in material – these are the two shown in the exhibition. They are related to “the honey badger”, an animal I found very fascinating. Its skin is extremely hard and almost impenetrable, and it attacks elephants and lions for fun. While I was weaving this animal, a process which took me about a month and a half, I was thinking about how, as a human being who believes she has a spirit, I was actually weaving the image of an animal that also has a spirit.

Viktoria The original drawing is digital, right? What happens when a digital drawing is transformed into material?

Ina Yes, the initial drawing was digital, drawn quickly with Microsoft Paint. Such a transformation takes a hell of a lot of time. While the colours are very easy to produce digitally, making pink wool is a complex process – first you have to bleach the wool because it has a yellowish colour, then you dye it in large cauldrons at a high temperature, making sure you leave it just long enough to get the right colour – if I had left the wool in the cauldron longer than necessary, the pink colour wouldn’t have become more intense but darker. At that time, I read that Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, was the first to describe the concept of computers, for which she was inspired by the Jacquard looms of her day – they used punched cards, based on a binary code. Although they had holes, not electronic circuits as on microchips, the basic principle is the same. Binary code consists of sequences of zeroes and ones. I find this connection very interesting, because when you weave you have front threads, with the yarn running over them as if they were zeroes, and back threads that serve as ones.

In addition, I’m interested in the weaving process as a model of community. In the past, working-bees were a common practice – instead of spinning or weaving on their own, women often gathered to spin together. Nowadays work is much more individualized and isolated.

Viktoria It’s interesting to see whether this project has created a situation of sharing and togetherness that could be relevant as an experience within the society we live in. And then, you yourselves are interesting as a “community”: you’ve known each other for a long time, and you know each other’s works and ideas. You also stage impromptu exhibitions at random places together – you are autonomous in a way that isn’t very common among young artists in Bulgaria. Last but not least, it’s you who chose to call yourselves “provincialists”.

Desislava There’s another form of perceiving provincialism, which is associated with the desire to imitate something, losing your authenticity or feeling rather embarrassed about yourselves. That’s exactly what I felt when I read the manifesto on the mirror. At the same time, the exhibition shows that there can also be other perceptions of what constitutes provincialism. In this exhibition provincialism is defined positively and is associated rather with folklore, with traditional handicrafts, and that’s what brings us together and makes us do things as a community.

Viktoria Yes, this exhibition involves stylization of traditional techniques, but it also addresses the idea of what constitutes a work of art. It raises the question of what is the function of a work of art as a reflection on material and history. It’s interesting to me to what extent the inclusion of such techniques can indeed enable recreating and making sense of a particular experience that can be shared within the framework of an exhibition.

Desislava In this exhibition there’s another type of interpretation, too – the works that look natural in this particular space would look absolutely absurd, illogical, in the context of another framework or art gallery. This brings us back to the question of what is provincialism – not just as a way of thinking but also as a way of framing, a way of interpretation.

Trifon Thinking about provincialism, I wanted to work with my idea of identity. I’m from the Rhodope Mountains and I wanted to show something related to my province. I’m not embarrassed about my origin – I’m proud of it. These are layers of association that you carry within yourself and which make you what you are. And this is the technique (of layering) that I actually use in my work. The small masks on the wall are called “kami”, which means a deity, a small spirit – in my work they are always faces, which are purified, detached. They don’t have eyes; they have deep holes instead of eyes because this is associated with death. Kami can be not only deities, animals, guardians of forests, etc., but also your dead ancestors. This connects them to the other part of the installation in the back attic, where there are two figures – of two dead men. One is dressed in older style; that’s actually how my grandfather dressed. As for the music, the voices are of an old man and an old woman from the village of Momchilovtsi in the Rhodope Mountains. I sampled them, adding the bagpipes of the late Dafo Trendafilov, the most famous Rhodopian bagpipe player. This additional layer was important to me because my live meeting with Dafo, who was ninety-two years old at the time, was a very powerful experience. The technique I use is needle felting. Without a preconceived plan, you sit and stab the wool with a felting needle thousands of times until a shape emerges. It may be of a dog, a man, or something else. It is born, but it is within you, it’s like a kind of meditation.

Guest 1 There’s something I find remarkable. As a person who was born in Sofia but grew up in Plovdiv, I see a big difference between the way people living in Sofia look at the provinces, and the way people from the provinces look at the province that is home to them. For those people the province isn’t some abstract concept that is irrelevant to their lives, it’s their memories and above all their childhood.

Guest 2  Province isn’t just a concept, it’s a possibility to look at the city from the side as well as a possibility to look back. What I find in the works in this exhibition are stories about the world as it was years ago, about our childhood, about how we grew up, the memories of our grandmothers, stories about community but also about the function of art, as you said. Perhaps in the provinces, understood as some sort of smaller common places where people live, art is part of everyday life, but this doesn’t make it less art; it’s still a desire to tell a story, to express joy or sorrow. The specialization and professionalization of social activities as art is something very different. Today this seems to be necessary and art is done professionally, while in a small community people assume different roles similar to the traditional production process – instead of having a woman who spins only, another who weaves only, and yet another who embroiders only, they are involved in the whole process.

Guest 3 It seems important to me to note that we should be aware of the fact that we’re speaking mostly in fictions. What you said about the traditional process are probably associations and references that are commonplace and which emerged in the modern era; this is hardly the whole truth.

Viktoria It’s interesting that here we work with clichés and they are our starting point. In the exhibition there’s a rather intuitive turn to history as a possibility to speak about the present. As there isn’t an official history of the 1990s, we all turn to our memories – and that’s what we share here. For example, Trifon’s other work, which is based on children’s drawings of different professions, represents those professions through a child’s gaze. But it’s precisely this gaze that allows us to look into the only experience we have with our own history. Martina, you likewise refer to a more distant history, referencing the relics of Thracian treasures, but only as a starting point.

Martina For me, provincialism is a way of thinking – imitating a model, a stereotype. Amphora head of slut, and Golden King #1 and Golden King #2 are part of a series called Postтраки (PostThracians) representing a contemporary treasure – the legacy that will remain on the Bulgarian lands as culture, behaviour, way of thinking. They recreate our life completely. Amphora is the image that will remain – a contorted mouth with heavy, smudged makeup. It is about aesthetics and a way of thinking. Postтраки sums up a cultural and social context that’s like an echo of the past but which is actually a future notion of the present. Besides this, the reference to “Thrace” plays upon the fact that I’m from the Trakiya (Thrace) quarter in Plovdiv, where I watch from my room nonstop scenes as if taken straight from Hollywood or Bollywood action films. Around me are the Galaxy and the Hollywood bars, Aqualand, the new Oasis 5 quarter. But the Trakiya quarter is like an integrative model and recreates a mix of our culture and various foreign images which we’ve understood in our own way. Postтраки is, besides, a parody of a current in art that will remain in the future as an account of what we like and what we don’t like, of what our childhood, our culture was like.

Ina The professors at the Art Academy in Sofia were very offended precisely by those works. For them, those sculptures had nothing to with “high art”. At the same time, in order to avoid looking provincial, “high art” is presented as something put on a pedestal, described in vague terms and concepts, thus creating a pretension which I consider to be provincial.

Viktoria There’s something else I wanted to discuss with you. In the announcement for this conversation, which consisted of multiple questions, there was one about loneliness. I’m interested in how you see loneliness, because if we abandon the centre without having any other point of reference, wouldn’t we remain on our own and even lonely? Disconnecting the periphery from the centre involves another emotion that is perhaps close to that of loneliness – perhaps the main state of people living in a global city.

Valko Now that you’re mentioning this, I must say that in order to make my work for this exhibition, I spent many days alone in the space of Swimming Pool. And I returned to my childhood, strange as this may sound. But I had a very different childhood, my province was in front of the computer – a sort of ultimate escapism. I watched mostly anime, which are very contrasting, and I listened to Icelandic music which, conversely, is mostly ethereal and fluid. The anime I used here is called Evangelion and it’s about a fourteen-year-old boy who has to pilot clones of the Eva. There’s an epic battle where monstrous beings destroy the whole mountain behind them. I used elements from the landscape and elements from this battle, composing them in the inverted contours of the mountain – as if I’ve filled the air with figures. There was a time when I wanted to be a foreigner very much, I didn’t want to be Bulgarian and cursed the situation here in Bulgaria; in fact, I wanted an apocalypse, the end of Bulgaria.

Viktoria It’s interesting how you use anime. In the present-day world there’s a circulation of images that become autonomous. They tell a story about themselves, but they are also open enough to be included into another story, as you have done. In addition, the feeling of an end which you work with is interesting – it refers us to currents such as Gulf-Futurism and Sino-Futurism, which study society after the end of the world as we know it. A feeling that appears in different geographical places and cultural contexts, and which has different dimensions. It’s interesting that in Krasi’s works there’s also exaggeration, excess, but it comes from a completely different reflection concerning the relationship between kitsch, sexuality, and roles in society. Krasi, tell us about your works – three cakes.

Krasimira I will, but I first want to say that I, too, was born and grew up in a village in the countryside. When passing through the city on my way to another village, I saw the city as the place with hospitals, with a marketplace, with many people – and with prefab blocs of flats. Actually, I hated it that we didn’t have prefab blocks of flats in our village.

Otherwise, I’ve been working at confectionery workshops for two years now and I love my job, but the problem is that cakes are ordered not just for children but also for adults. For stag parties, the most popular cakes are in the form of female breasts or a female bottom, without a body. For hen parties, phalluses of all sizes. When I was invited to take part in this exhibition, Valko suggested that I make cakes. As I didn’t have to make a cake on order, I was delighted by the idea. I first made the mermaids. The black stuff that comes out of their mouths is their speech – those are women who speak nonsense and who certainly don’t meet many people’s criteria of how women are supposed to behave. The other cake is a response to the mums who order cakes for little boys and want everything to be masculine – if I dare to put a pink balloon on the cake, this will cause a row. Generally, they are very reluctant to expose their children to any contact between a man and a woman, let alone homosexual love. And this reveals total sexual complexes.

Viktoria  In the final analysis, what we can see in most of the works featured in this exhibition is a transition from the functional object to an object serving for reflection. This seems to be most obvious in your work, where each one can also be part of a real-life party situation. This ambivalence also raises the question of the boundary between art and design, art and world most generally, where this boundary is perhaps neither firm nor truly divisive.

  • Ina Valentinova, Тhings i’ve learned: honey badger don’t care, 2017. Hand-dyed wool, cotton and acrylic yarn. (c) The Artist and Swimming Pool. Photo: Yana Lozeva.
    Ina Valentinova, Тhings i’ve learned: honey badger don’t care, 2017. Hand-dyed wool, cotton and acrylic yarn. (c) The Artist and Swimming Pool. Photo: Yana Lozeva.