Once in a while everyone should start from the beginning and ask where it all came froam. How did we get here?
Where to start? Walter Benjamin famously started from the 19th century - flashbacks of a Berlin childhood and the memories of a City – that of the century's capital – Paris, pealed off layer by layer, no core, only surfaces that still haunted the 20th century. One has to start from the origins of the present moment.
There are many urgent topics that dominate our present, but if we have to choose one word to describe the constantly shifting terrains, the movement and the speed, the uncertainty of ideas, territories and people, this word should most likely be change. Yet this is a word that still seems to belong to the previous century, overly exploited already more than 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin wall. More pressing concerns make this memory seem irrelevant yet it still has bearings upon and can teach us lessons about our present.
Borjana Ventzislavova’s exhibition “We are part of a collection” is such going back into (personal) history in order to understand our present, looking at the origins of the artist’s consistent concern with topics of hope and change, imagination and reality, past and future.
It all starts with Borjana’s hometown of Sofia and listening to her telling about the time of her teenage years around 1989, is a virtual walk through city. Sofia had not yet experienced the rapid changes of the mid and late 90s, with new constructions, transformations and the demolition of monuments such as the Mausoleum of the first party leader Georgi Dimitrov. The real changes in the city were the movements of people, of young people. There was a lot of gathering outside – аt the monument of the Soviet Army, in front of the Drujba cinema (the theater of the Bulgarian film archive), The Pope (the monument of Patriarch Eutimius of Tarnovo across the street from the cinema), Kravai (a fastfood pizza place), Apteka (the Pharmacy – simply a pharmacy). “There were not that many bars and cafes then, Borjana remembers – they appeared later, and anyway we didn’t have much money for that.” It is telling that a lot of these underground locations were out in the open. They were places of energetic and joyful gatherings, anarchistic moods and dark or hard music – a true statement, the opposite of the supposedly bright and well-organized life of the official discourse, which quickly turned into chaos in 1990. For the “normal” folk however these places of weird congregations of strangely dressed young people were not only new and difficult to understand. They represented a dark new world, the edge of society for the first time out in the open. Most of these young people were far from being outcasts, on the contrary - a lot of them were coming from middle class families and attended top schools. An article from a daily newspaper from 1995 opposed the “healthy” drinking crowds in regular bars to the “rat men” – the underground youth in the bar- hole “Kalnoto” which was occupying the long abandoned pit of the future Sofia metro, but these were already the last years of the true “underground”. Roller skating and skateboarding, drinking wine or beer in the park might all seem like banal teenage occupations, but at the right moment and with the right attitude they became symbolical gestures of claiming the city and one’s own freedom, of declaring individuality and difference, in a time when difference was not yet part of the socially accepted discourse. The changes that were already becoming palpable in the second half of the 1980s were manifested most acutely in a youth underground culture that was a truly new phenomenon of the times. Music was its most powerful agent, with various underground groups identifying with different styles, and Bulgarian groups like Violetov General or Nova Generacia reaching a cult status .
The importance of music and the mixing of cultural references and social contexts through songs is addressed with the project “West Music in West Park” (2013-2016). The installation was conceived as a karaoke set, for which the artist has made a selection of songs that are mostly unavailable in karaoke libraries, but represent the soundtrack of her teenage experiences – Bulgarian, Western and Russian alternative rock, new wave, punk or pop, and children’s songs.
Borjana Ventzislavova’s upbringing was undoubtedly intellectually privileged. Growing up in the capital, in a family involved in cinema, she had probably more access to foreign films, music and information as well as to critical discussions than the majority of her peers. It possibly allowed her to be more daring and fearless than the average teenager, although not in an overtly political way. Political change as much as it truly existed (knowing now a lot of it turned out to be simply a shift of players and ownership of resources) and to be fair, for a time it did exist, was carried by the older generation. For Borjana and her friends it was more about living the change as an act of personal and collective transformation. We cannot but wonder - is it different to grow up in tumultuous times, when everything around you is shaken? Or is it the nature of every growing up to see its history as times of change, as a moment to turn things upside down? Do you perceive the uncertainty surrounding you as something exceptional or on the contrary as the way the world has always been? Do you make yourself immune to the bleak reality of the painful experiences that inevitably accompany the revolutionary excitement? The way these changes made us is the way they have made up the world of today.
Listening to some of the songs of the time, these appear to have been indeed some dark ages. The song from which the title of Borjana Ventzislavova’s exhibiton is derived – the 1992, “Part of Collection” of Nova Generacia – talks about butterflies pinned down by their own dreams, unable to fly, just part of a collection. Another song, from which the artist has also borrowed a title – Milena and Review’s “Flowers from the End of 80s” – is about how accustomed we have become to suffer in silence: flowers like bird wings die in the iron embrace of square forms. It seems that no optimism could be rescued from the political and social changes as finally the individual had acquired the right to openly address suffering and melancholia. However it is true that the generation of those song writers – older than Borjana herself – paid the highest price of the transition and the feeling of being too broken to learn how to fly was not simply a poetic indulgence. Furthermore, melancholia and a dark mood was the general air of the times on both ends of the Iron curtain. It is telling that the film that has been most cited as an influence by bright young people in Bulgaria at the time was Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987). A direct reference to the film is also present in Borjana’s exhibition in the neon sign “Als das Kind Kind war”.
There is, of course, a lot of this dark, poetic mood to be found in the exhibition, for example in the photographic series “Thank You for All the Flowers” (2016). Close ups of flowers meet objects that have been symbolic of Borjana’s personal experiences and those of her generation. They might seem banal and recognizable as anybody’s memories - ice cream, strand of hair, roller skates or the tape of an old audio-cassette. Yet, the way they float on the dark background, like artifacts of a lost civilization sent in space from some distant past, charges them with importance even if we don’t know their particular significance.
Another piece that looks like an eclectic collection of memorabilia and plays with the allure and opacity of the silvery reflective surface is “Colored Concepts” (2016). Here the objects from the artist’s teenage years have lost their original colors to become generic silver casts, while gaining in mystery. If some of the objects are fairly recognizable (a Walkman for instance) others (like what turns out to be a chicken’s rump) leave us perplexed. The images are paired with the handwritten words describing the concepts that very much defined the epoch: “transition”, “democratization”, “privatization”, “crisis” acquire here unexpectedly personal tones and reveal themselves as dramatic backgrounds for very intimate and unapologetically mundane concerns.
Despite playing on a nostalgic note, most of the works on display are rather joyful and light. The flight in space is not an accidental metaphor as there is a hint of the promise of modernism in Borjana’s rendering of her past. Progress, bright future and other planets were promises that may have persisted longer in the East. This symbolic, yet very personal notion of the bright future is approached and materialized with complexity and humor in two of the works, with which the exhibition begins.
In “Lovejoy” named after the comet which is most famous for releasing types of sugar and alcohol in space, Borjana Ventzislavova presents us with a large wallpaper of a snapshot of the universe – millions of tiny stars, clouds, dust, galaxies, bright and colorful, somewhere among them – the greenish light of the comet Lovejoy. What stands out – literally- in the image is not the comet though, which is somehow lost among the heavenly bodies. A neon sign – a disproportionate pentagon - is posed on the image of the skies. Dreams and symbols are mixed up here, just like in the imagination of a young person growing up around 1989. Distant galaxies, omens of progress and other worlds encounter the collapse of ideologies: what becomes of our dreams in a world that seems to have stopped dreaming?
Another neon work seems to give an answer to that question. On a black surface a neon sign reads: “Is still coming” (which is also the title of the work). Those who know Borjana Ventzislavova’s previous work might recognize in this fragmented phrase “The bright future is still coming” (2012) – a neon sign placed on a palm tree seascape. This older work was part of a trilogy “for the future because of the past - specters everywhere”, which was dealing with the question of imagination of what was beyond the Iron curtain. The use of silvery foil in this series symbolized the curtain, not so much as a physical separation, but as a projection of desire. In the new neon “Is still coming” the subject of the sentence has disappeared in the black hole of the dream realized. However, something is still coming, a hope that is impossible to erase, but there are no ready answers or prescriptions telling us what it might be. The black surface points to a nothing, that is both dark as Borjana’s inspirations from the 90s and alive with new beginnings.
The silvery reflecting surface – as a mirror, as a soft and festive, light reflecting material, and as an impenetrable wall, which does not allow us to see beyond, reappears instead in the site-specific work “Hey you! It’s us!” on the façade of the gallery.
The windows and walls on the outside are literally wrapped in foil, while on the top a coil of razor wire turns the gallery into a fence, a border, like the ones which once divided Europe and which now have reappeared with the refugee crisis. Europe as an impenetrable dream, a projection, a shiny thing on the horizon; borders supposedly non existing, but still preventing people to move freely; the uneven mirror that reflects light and shadows, our broken silhouettes, not yet a strong clear shape. “Hey You! It’s us” takes the Berlin Wall as a reference and reflects on the current phenomenon of enclosing Europe by building new walls and borders. The artist addresses our fear and literally puts a mirror in front of it – it is not the others but ourselves we are afraid of. “Hey You! It’s us” is Borjana Ventzislavova’s answer to “fortress Europe”– let’s imagine walls as mirrors and take a good look at ourselves.
In Borjana Ventzislavova’s work the interest in migration, refugees and human rights is a persistent concern. The video, photography and text installation “Migration Standards” (2011), showed children recite extracts of text related to migration and pose in front of backdrops of buildings with historical and political importance in Vienna, the backdrops themselves placed in the middle of places migrants have to cross – roads, fields, sea. It is easier to understand the artist’s engagement in the light of “We are part of a collection”, which is a historical exhibition of sorts. Borjana Ventzislavova reminds us that no past should be discarded with the excuse of new, more pressing circumstances. It is the experience of this past that allows us empathy and understanding of our present. May be growing up not only with uncertainty but also with an image of an elsewhere (which in the case of Bulgaria was alternatively communism or the West), experiencing living between here and there, being a foreigner, reminds us of the persistence and the legitimacy of the dream of people crossing lands and seas in order to give a better future for themselves and for their children. “We are always in the place where we don’t want to be”, said recently author Georgi Gospodinov about what seems to him to be the burden of Bulgarian history. It is easy to see how this has become a universal plight today.
Borjana Ventzislavova’s work is particularly sensitive to the sense of general instability and anxiety of our society. In “It Shakes Everywhere” (2012) she took photographs of people in LA, standing on the street in their pijamas in the middle of the night because of earthquakes. Here it is literally the ground under our feet that is unstable. But what allows us to move forward, and it is really the quality of Borjana’s work to always grasp it, is the human capacity to dream.
What better image of dreaming, than a whole dreamworld that has spanned now over two centuries – that of Hollywood? One of Borjana Ventzislavova’s most poignant works is probably “Permanent Casting” (2012), a series of 42 photographs and texts. The material for the work comes from the casting process for another photo and video piece “American Dream Acting” (2012). The artist has interviewed aspiring actors about their own “American dream” and captured their image before and after the interview. The collection of stories is deeply touching – personal strife, challenges or simply following one’s own dreams, journeys across countries and continents, all meet up in one place, the promised land of all dreams. What is most striking in this work as a document, is the change in the faces of the participants in the before and after photos– the softening, the gain of trust, the openness - the humanity of sharing one’s dreams.
A similar, although more socially charged “before” and “after” of dreams is explored in another photo and text piece – “Roles” (2014). Borjana Ventzislavova has invited friends of hers to share how they see their role in Bulgarian society today. Even though dreams are not directly addressed here, we can feel the confrontation of a before and after, of the sudden realization of how what you do measures up to your dreams. This subtle yet powerful awareness of our present moment in history, and of our power(lessness) in society is carried not only by the testimonies of the participants but also by the dramatic play of light and dark in the photographs. The images, taken at the seaside, show us people in a moment of freedom, barefoot in the sand, the dark sea behind their backs – there is no hint of their occupation or “importance”. It is an image of infinite possibilities, where dreams are still possible. The participants are lit by a spotlight as if on a stage. This seemingly random carefree moment becomes the crossroad of all our choices, of what we are now. Borjana Ventzislavova’s talent lies in capturing this moment where past and present come together and our faces become the mirrors of our dreams and memories.
Precisely such an encounter between different times and spaces, between projections and reality, between history and the now is at play in Borjana Ventzislavova’s new large scale photographic series “Study of Causality” (2016). Like all the other works in the exhibition, this is also a kind of autobiographical piece. However the artist has avoided pointing the camera towards herself trying instead to understand her past and present through spaces and people. Two moments in time are confronted by the means of photographic collage – the places of the artist’s youth in Sofia and the people (and their own working or living environment) whom she has encountered through her work. These are collectors, curators, representatives of institutions. Among them Josef Ostermayer, the former Austrian Federal Minister for Arts and Culture, Georg Pölzl, Chairman and CEO of the Austrian Post, or Stella Rollig, Artistic Director, Lentos Museum Linz. They pose diligently for the artist, proving their engagement with her work. In the collages created by Borjana Ventzislavova they are, unbeknown to themselves, confronted to the environments of her youth – a school, a famous gathering place, a cinema or fragments of private interiors. These places creep in the image, not only as someone else’s memories but as a collective imaginary, a common past. Somewhere behind the shoulder of collector Gaudenz Ruff we see a young Borjana working on her homework in the room of her childhood. This is the only time the artist’s image appears in the work. In the foreground we see the artist’s studio and in fact some of the props used for the works in the exhibition. The role of the sitter becomes clearer here. We see a person, a patron, who supports the artist but also a person who legitimizes her artistic efforts – a sort of authority figure. As in most of Borjana Ventzislavova’s work, we have a multifaceted mirror here. The two spaces – the one of memory and the one of reality are mirrored. The personality that has been pictured is thus somehow a curious mirror image of the artist - someone who by engaging with her work, takes a place between her past and present, between the dreams of the young girl and the aspirations of the artist. Is it too big a responsibility to bestow to someone so seemingly random and external to the path of a person, to the intimate makings of an artist? It is a responsibility we all take by engaging ourselves with art, or anything else in life for that matter. In the text accompanying the work there is another collage – the thoughts of the sitter about the artist’s work meet the memories of the artist herself. These are two different regimes of language, both personal, yet in one art serves as a distancing mechanism – speaking about the work we speak neither directly of ourselves nor directly of the persona of the artist. The work confronts us with an essential question we rarely address – how do artists negotiate a deeply personal practice with the necessities of a professional world and the demand to speak for humanity rather than for themselves?
We are all part of a collection, seems to be Borjana Ventzislavova’s answer – collectors and artists, general public and figures of authorities. We are all butterflies animated by dreams and memories, trying to move forward in the world. Eventually we are pinned down by labels, statistics, sometimes history itself. Our most intimate selves are very similar though. If we can only see we are equally part of the same collection – just one possible order that traps us into roles, may be we can rescue the future we still owe to the children we once were.