The following text is based on a lecture delivered during the annual meeting of the IKT organization (international curator's organization) in Budapest, April 1998, which included a 5-hour symposium dedicated to East-West relations. Nedko Solakov was the only artist present at this curators' forum - invited to share his experience of being in a straddling position: based in Sofia, working in the West.
Sofia, March 1998
There is nothing new to be said - in the field of visual arts, the so-called "cultural" exchange between Eastern Europe and the Western part of the World doesn't work sufficiently well - and in some places, like in Bulgaria, it doesn't work at all. Most of the events taking place in "the name of" that exchange are either too geo-politically tinted or marked by such mediocrity regarding their organizers (from both sides) that the final effect has a negative sign.
On the one hand, some of the exchanges of individuals and groups of people in these fields are good. Especially after 1990, there were many possibilities for artists, critics and curators from Eastern Europe to touch, and to try to integrate themselves into, the Artworld with a capital "A". There were people interested in the opposite direction, too - some Western artists and curators traveled in Eastern Europe (mostly its central part). On the other hand the results of these travels, with very few exceptions, were (and are) really poor. If this sounds excessively pessimistic as a conclusion, let's put in a bite of optimism - there are a few symptoms of "normalization" of that process. We may take as an example the activities of some art institutions in Slovenia - a state that, in spite of its own denial to ever having been part of Eastern Europe, is still considered in my country as the best part of it. Specially worth mentioning is Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, where the curators are doing the impossible. They transform the "exchange" type of events into "normal" artistic life. Just like in the rest of the world - nobody who makes an exhibition in Zurich, inviting artists from London, Stockholm and New York, with a curator based in Paris, talks about cultural exchange between the countries, but just about a good or a bad show. In Ljubljana they did it - but it is a hell of a job on an international level, and a formidable struggle with stone heads on the local level!
Everybody involved in this business is aware of all this.
The problem is: would the participants in these artworlds like to change the status-quo? As for the Easterners the obvious answer is "Yes!" That vigorous "Yes!" unfortunately is very much like all other "Yes!"-es we are used to shouting. Like the answer to the question: "Do you guys want some new credits from the World Bank?" In both cases the main defect is the lack of know-how - how can East European art be made desirable to the Artworld, or how can we transform the way we work in order to dramatically raise the economic indexes.
As for the other artworld, the answer to the question is, if not the rude "NO!," then the no less discouraging "Maybe?".
Unfortunately, or better to say fortunately, with a few exceptions, this dragging process cannot be administrated.
It is a question of personal desire to get to know each other. That is why meetings like this one, held in an East European country, are so important. In my opinion, their importance comes mainly from the chance that you people from the Artworld with a capital "A" might get CURIOUS as to what is going on in these areas. And maybe your curiosity will transform into a desire to go and touch. Incidentally, we need curiosity not only from the West to the East, but among the Easterners as well. It is no secret that to this day, much more attention is being paid to the "adorable" West - instead of looking also to the neighbors on the North or South, and eventually starting to work with them.
Nevertheless, I want to point out again something that is an important part of that supposed getting-together-even-while-not-becoming-one-big-whole process of adjusting the artworlds.
Is it true that you guys don't like to work with East European artists?
Some unconfirmed rumors say so...
I am not joking - of course you don't like to!
I will try to give my own perspective. Since 1991, I have got some experience concerning the Western Artworld. On the other hand, despite all my traveling for shows and biennials, I am still based in Sofia - a place that may be on the map of Europe, but that is much more far away from Europe than, for example, some obscure island with an ugly beach located somewhere in the middle of the Ocean. I am not going to comment on what it means to exist and work in such a straddling position. If one is an optimist, one could find a lot of fun in it, but if one is a pessimist, it is hard to find a better situation for breeding one's pessimism (I personally try to gravitate between the two approaches, with a slight trend towards the latter). I have worked with many curators, museum directors, a few gallerists - all of them from Western Europe and the States - with some exceptions from Budapest, Ljubljana, Cracow and Skopje. (Luckily, I very much enjoyed the Central Europeans among them. Here in Budapest, in 1994, working with one of my favorite curators, Katalin Neray, I did one of my favorite projects, "The Collector of Art," about the great black man who lives somewhere in the African desert and collects contemporary art from Europe and America, buying his Picasso for 23 coconuts, or his early Rauschenberg for 7 antelope bones. Katalin was generous enough to let me use most of the masterpieces from the Ludwig collection to place them into the black guy's hut.) While writing this text, I counted the number of "Western" projects in my CV. Since 1991, they turned out to be more than 70 (as compared to about 25 in my fatherland).
Why do I point this out? Not because I like the proverb "Modesty makes a man beautiful, that's why I am ugly." Maybe because I want you to believe me as a humble "expert" in the straddling-crossing-borders-sometimes-with-my-feet-together position.
Back to the question - why don't you want to work with East European artists?
I must admit that most of the spoken and unspoken reasons for that (from your point of view) are true:
First - these artists are boring. We are boring!
Second - they lack that so important "totality" in expressing themselves. They miss this quality typical of highly organized art that characterizes the genuine masterpieces. The kind of totality that makes artists like Pipilotti Rist, Gabriel Orozco, Carsten Hoeller or Stan Douglas desirable items for each curator's list.
Third - usually these artists want too much. They complain all the time. They are too pushy. Sometimes they are so pushy that for the poor Western curator there is no big difference between these guys and another pushy group of East European representatives - the famous cross-border prostitutes.
Fourth - and so on and so forth. You know better than I what exactly flashes in your head when your secretary finally - before saying "Can I take a message?" - decides to ask you whether you are capable of talking to someone with an unutterable name. And the worst is that this unutterable name is quite different from the other types of unutterable names coming from the really hot Asian, African and South American areas.
Why do we - the EEA, lack the proper qualities?
Maybe what I am going to say is too radical, but I think that in general EE artists are more "wise" in comparison with their Western colleagues. More "wise" not only in the everyday life sense of the word. All of them are witnesses, no - they all in one way or another are active/passive participants in this change in society unique in the history of mankind, a radical change which has never taken place in the Western world and apparently will not happen in the future either. The Westerner was able to read in the papers about the famous Winds of Change, could watch the TV "Live" broadcasts, even go and spend some time there - in the other Europe. But all this is not the same - one cannot feel it, cannot be a real participant. In some cases it is possible for that Westerner to become jealous. Jealous in terms of the bitter realization that maybe there are some more substantial things in the world (coming from the non-world as it may be) that may happen to be more lively and thrilling than a problem like: When exactly will the sexual harassment issue stop the reproductive process between human (former animal) beings?
If we accept the idea that the EE artists "know" more about life (which does not at all mean that they live in a better way - quite the opposite) and that their experience makes them "wiser," then in a way we can understand that when you are "wiser" you cannot be so "total" in your way of expression. It is understandable that when you are "wise" you cannot be so radical. The balance in your position is difficult to express in a total way. Of course this cannot be an excuse. The artwork is an artwork, and it is the artist's fault if his acquired "wisdom" does not help him in creating better works. I have to say that the best Western artists, even when they explore such highly particular problems as the weird development of ordinary testicles, they draw global conclusions in an extraordinary (not at all boring) way. If they succeed, a brilliant work of art appears.
On the other hand, we have to take into account that especially at the very beginning of the so-called "changes," some Western intellectuals (usually politically oriented to the left - with plenty of artworld people among them) really started thinking of Eastern intellectuals (with plenty of artpeople among them, too) as traitors, accusing them of betraying the Bright Socialist Idea by being the main force behind the Changes. To put it briefly - for some Westerners, Eastern intellectuals are not reliable. Actually, that euphoric period of Eastern intellectuals leading the people lasted a short time. Nowadays these people are really confused about what they are supposed to do in their societies, which are currently led by much more suitable, technocratically oriented rulers. Maybe that confusion, combined with the acquired "wisdom," is the base for the above-mentioned boredom.
I am aware of the fact that nobody can be forced to use EEA, but going back to the CURIOSITY, I think that the Western curators and exhibition organizers could and should afford such curiosity. Just travel! It's not so dangerous - the worst that could happened to you is to be kidnapped by an artists' organization (alternative or official). But considering the lack of information about you in our countries, this most certainly will not happen.
The local context of East European art works is important (no less than that of Western art). Maybe after touching that context, part of their boredom will go way. Maybe even a small discovery will take place - that the complexity of these works does not automatically fit in the Western standards of all the problems of globalization, total migration, self-identification, multiculturalism, etc. And this is not bad. And maybe there - on the EE spot - the Western curator will understand why some of the main themes of the contemporary art world circulating all over are a bit anachronistic for some of the EE artists - simply because they have already been there, some of the so-called "issues" are from our socialist past.
And we will all understand that some of the problems are due to simple human misunderstanding.
I want to end with a joke. It was told as a starter for a working meeting between the representatives of a powerful Western cultural foundation and some Bulgarian guys (myself among them) who were supposed to present their projects already short-listed for possible funding. The joke, dedicated to the misunderstanding, was meant to serve as a friendly welcome. It goes like this:
An Indian Chief meets the American President at the Oval Office. Looking straight to the President the chief does this:
Obviously getting angry, the big white brother does this:
Then the Chief this:
Then the President this:
and, apparently becoming really angry, leaves the Oval. What do they say to their wives after the meeting? The President: "Darling, I think this man was really arrogant! Can you imagine? In my own office - to point fiercely at me with his forefinger and to say in his own way: 'I will invade you!' Of course, I didn't give up, and raising the victory sign with my fingers, warned him that the American people would win. Then this guy lifted his hands and tried to tell me that his people are going to cover the lawn in front of the White House with their wigwams - all over the place, can you believe it?! I had no other choice but to retort that my soldiers would raze their wigwams to the ground!" The Indian Chief goes back home, sits down next to the fire, and after quietly filling his pipe, addressed his wife: "You know my dear, this man, the President, is a very strange person. When I met him in his place I asked him a simple question: 'What is your name?' He became a bit anxious and told me it was Rabbit. Then I asked him whether his name means mountain rabbit, and then he got really nervous, snapped that he was a plane rabbit and ran away."
Frankly, even though the dumb one in this story is the President, I don't want to be a chief anymore.