“The artist-collector dream (a nice thing)”, was an inclusive and unusual exhibition showcasing at Galleria Continua in San Gimignano. Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov engaged in multiple simultaneous roles as artist, collector and architect for the fulfilment of one of his dreams: enriching his art collection.
Imaginative, ironic and a keen observer of the contemporary world, Nedko Solakov defines himself a “storyteller in space”. In his drawings, paintings, videos and installations, texts and image are combined in a fluid field of interconnected stories, subverting clichés and topical issues of the present with an irresistible, often surreal humor.
Over the years, Nedko Solakov and his wife Slava put together a large art collection, mostly of drawings. For the exhibition, Solakov selected nineteen artists, including Chen Zhen, Anish Kapoor and Carol Rama who are not yet part of his collection, writing a letter to all participants to invite them to take part in his project at Galleria Continua.
Core of the show is the installation “Some Nice Things to Enjoy While You Are Not Making a Living” (2008) which featured in previous iterations at Kunstmuseum Bonn, Kunstmuseum St Gallen and S.M.A.K., Ghent, to which he adds one more “nice thing” – his passion for collecting. On show alongside Solakov’s, are works by Monica Bonvicini, Geta Bratescu, Daniel Buren, Chen Zhen, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Ceal Floyer, Shilpa Gupta, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov, Anish Kapoor, Sol LeWitt, Andrei Monastyrski, Rudi Ninov, Dan Perjovschi, Raymond Pettibon, Carol Rama, Karin Sander, Roman Signer, Dimitar Solakov, Artur Zmijewski.
Solakov’s regular participation in international Biennials and important exhibitions, including Documenta 12 (2007) and 13 (2012), the Venice Biennale (1993, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2007), the Moscow Biennale (2007) and the Istanbul Biennial (1992, 1995, 2005) makes him one of the best-known protagonists of international contemporary art.
We talked to Nedko Solakov at opening of the exhibition, and here are some nice things he told us.
Some say that in many ways, artists are the ideal collectors. They see more art than anyone else, and they have well-trained eyes. Do you agree?
Nedko Solakov: Not necessarily. Sometimes they may have weird preferences. Recently I was reading about an exhibition in the States of famous artists’ collections, which included some really underestimated or even amateurish artists. In our collection, we have works by artists that are totally outside the art-system, both from Bulgaria and from other places.
When did you and your wife start collecting?
Nedko Solakov: Back in 1986. We started collecting drawings, because they were cheaper of course, also because back then Bulgarian gallerists would not pay much attention to drawings, everybody was dealing with paintings.
We have some really substantial work from Bulgarian classical masters and small installations from Western artists as well. I feel extremely comfortable when I’m surrounded by my collection. We have work by Raymond Pettibon, Geta Bratescu, Dainiel Buren, Shilpa Gupta, Paul McCarthy, Ilia & Emilia Kabakov, Sol LeWitt among many others.
On the wall opposite my bed there’s a very nice pencil drawing that Jimmy Durham sent me in 1996, when we first met, playing with my name: it says “Nedko Solatief is my favorite artist”. Little by little we enlarged our collection when I started exchanging works with my fellow artists. That was after my work began circulating abroad, though it took me several years to be recognized in western Europe.
When did that happen?
Nedko Solakov: In 1991 I took part for the first time in a major group show in Glasgow called Expressions, curated by Andrew Nairne at Third Eye Centre (now CCA Glasgow, Centre For Contemporary Art). But I first achieved real international attention at the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial in 1992, directed by Vasif Kortun, with an installation called New Noah Ark.
Then I started swapping works with other artists, important ones too. For instance, Daniel Buren sent me a drawing which unfortunately got lost in the mail! When I told him, he promptly sent me another one. I thought ‘Wow’! It was a pleasant surprise that such a prominent artist did this, I was so pleased.
How did you select the works from your collection for the show?
Nedko Solakov: The idea of using Some Nice Things to Enjoy While You Are Not Making a Living as the show’s centerpiece, comes from Continua. From this starting point, I worked out the concept of adding yet one more nice thing: The Artist- Collector’s Dream.
With some of the artists we’ve been friends for a very long time. For example with Dan Perjovschi, who was one of the first artists I selected, together with Daniel Buren. Most importantly, we chose the artists with the criteria of diversity, the only thing in common is that they are all great artists.
Art Critic Vessela Nozharova wrote that you and your wife “pay special attention to the manner in which the works are acquired, and the process of communication surrounding the acquisition is important”. Does she refer to the process of exchange with other artists?
Nedko Solakov: Yes, this is the idea. Besides established artists, I exchange with young artists who are happy to receive one of my works, Recently I exchanged with Nikita Kadan, one of the most interesting young contemporary Ukrainian artists. But I also swap work with less known young artists, so that I can help them. I exchange with my gallerists, mostly with Massimo Minini: small works by Hans-Peter Feldmann, Luigi Ghirri, Francesca Woodman, Sol Lewitt, Dan Graham and a pencil drawing with text by Robert Barry which makes me really happy!
We purchase from galleries too. From a Romanian gallerist I bought two drawings by Corneliu Baba, a good classical Romanian painter. I have a drawing by Renato Guttuso, who’s is really well known in Bulgaria, I’m not sure if this is because of his leftist political orientations. But I remember having a Russian book of his drawings at home, and I really liked his technique. I purchased a watercolor of his landmark roman roofs, which is nothing special really, but it fulfils an almost childish desire to possess an original work of his.
The way in which we build the collection is also really diversified.
You have often been critical of the Bulgarian State’s lack of support for contemporary art, and your very original website is a case in point. Could you tell me something about the Bulgarian art environment today?
Nedko Solakov: Bulgarian contemporary art history is peculiar. For five centuries, we were part of the Ottoman Empire, when art mainly consisted in Icons and religious paintings. The first non-religious art emerged as late as the end of the nineteenth century. When we are talking about Bulgarian ‘classical art’, we really mean the end of the 1800’s. Another issue is that Bulgarian art did not really circulate in the West until the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In 1995, I made a project called Private Property, which involved the destruction and transformation of seven classical drawings from my collection. I wanted to cut them, burn them to ashes and use them to make something new. I was reacting, out of frustration, to the fact that our ‘great masters’, considered ‘forefathers’ of our art, were totally unknown outside the county, perhaps with the exception of Nikolay Diulgheroff, designer and architect who was active in Italy as representative of the Second Futurism, or George Papazov, surrealist painter who lived in France. And, of course, of Christo, born in Gabrovo, which is also my home town.
I was struggling to make myself known internationally, and I could see that when my work was shown, western critics and curators were interested, but they couldn’t understand my background, where I was coming from. And of course in that period there was a plethora of artists coming from Eastern Europe to the West. It took time for the art system to realise that the visual diversity in my work was a quality, and that there is a common attitude underlying all my art production, which is storytelling.
The problem in Bulgaria now is that even though we have a National Gallery, which was recently merged with the Museum for Foreign Art (strange name if you think of it), there are no other contemporary art collections. The National Gallery builds its collection mainly through donations.
I belong to an organization called The Institute of Contemporary Art in Sofia, a non-profit private organization focused on the development of the contemporary art scene in Bulgaria. The Institute was founded in 1995, but in 2008 more exhibiting space was needed. My wife and I donated a new venue, buying, restoring and merging two small apartments. Every exhibition on the premises looks completely different. For the opening show in the new venue, Dan Perjovschi covered the entire space with his drawings and scribblings. The Institute really helps with many projects that otherwise could not find the resources to rent a space.
A while ago you wrote “I have done so many exhibitions, so many solo shows. I keep trying to make them different, at least for the cliché reason of amusing myself first and then amusing the viewers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” It is clear how you made this exhibition different, but can you give me an example of when (and why) this really did not work?
Nedko Solakov: Good question! Perhaps I said this not to show off that everything I do is well done! Frankly I can’t remember, mainly for the reason that I tend to incorporate mistakes conceptually into my work whenever something goes wrong, by pointing them out. I’ll give you an example.
In 2012, I took part in Documenta 13 at Kassel, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, with Knights (and other dreams), the most complex project that I’ve ever done. Three days before the opening I had finished mounting the show, and then I had a real breakdown. And the day of the preview all sorts of things went wrong. I was explaining something complicated to very important collectors of mine, Monique and Max Burger, when one of the guards leaned on something suspended from the ceiling, that crushed on the floor.
Precisely in that moment, another big collector, son of the Rubell family, was coming into the room! Soon after Maurizio (Rigillo N.d A.) came to tell me that my exhibition, which was held at the Brothers’ Grimm Museum, had not been put on the official map. I raised hell! But I tried to turn a negative situation into positive. I gathered about 50 of the flawed maps and in the place of my work I wrote making ‘Missing’ making an edition out of a mistake.
Reclaiming the right to present your work on your own terms recurs in your practice. Prominently in one of your best known pieces, Top Secret (1989 /1990), a drawer full of index cards documenting your youthful collaboration with Bulgarian state security from 1978 to 1983. Can you tell me about it?
Nedko Solakov: I’m a bit of a control freak, I like things done in a proper way. I have been particularly sensitive regarding the presentation of Top Secret, because it’s a complex and unique story that has been reported incorrectly in some western media before. I was never ‘exposed’ as an agent, I denounced myself.
In fact, in Bulgaria things didn’t work at all like in other countries where, after political change, secret files were either destroyed or disclosed to the public. In Bulgaria, they were not revealed only because they were used against some people. The files about my collaboration, in fact, remained closed for another 28 years after I made Top Secret, until April 2018: only then my name in relation to my collaboration as a young student and soldier was made public.
After the Perestroika, little by little, I had started being disillusioned with the country’s socialist past, mostly thank to my father in law who lent me books, and I began to make political work. My past was a real burden to me. In fact, in 1988 I had already made two paintings inspired by this feeling: Repentance, now at the National Gallery in Sofia, and My Conscience Tormenting Me, in the Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, where Top secret is also part of the collection.
When I first exhibited Top Secret in Bulgaria in April 1990, it caused no scandal. Trouble came two months later, when I was elected vice-president of the Union of Artists, and I wanted to effect change, turning a pyramidal structure into an horizontal one. Then there was a big campaign against me, and eventually I left of my own will, and I concentrated on realizing my projects in the West. Top Secret was exhibited for the first time in 1995, in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in a show called Beyond Belief, and since then it has been a part of all my large surveys.
My gesture of self-disclosure remains unique in post-communist Bulgaria. In 2007, when I was first invited to Documenta, I made a 40 minutes video in which I was re-reading the box’s content, declaring that my collaboration had started in 1976, when in fact it started in 1978 and lasted until 1883, when I refused to be used any longer. You see, out of my overblown sense of guilt I put two more years over my shoulders. Now this documentation, including my mistaken dating, has become part of the work.
Your storytelling is full of humor but often has a dark shade…did you read a lot of fairy-tales when you were a child?
Nedko Solakov: Yes, you could say that my stories are sometime dark. I have to thank my mother for my penchant for storytelling, she spent much time with me reading stories, especially when as a child I had a serious health issue and I had to spend time in hospital.
There’s a room in the exhibition dedicated to a project by Dimitar Solakov, your son, who is also an artist. You wrote that for Dimitar it was a bit hard to deal with the fact that you are a very well-known artist. Was it also hard for you, since your father Mityo Solakov was a well-known sculptor in Bulgaria?
Nedko Solakov: I think that for my son it’s harder, we live in a very different, more competitive art world today. My son is very much into environmentally conscious art, he works on projects rather than single pieces, and he tells stories in a completely different way from the way I do. I was glad to be able to show this project in particular, which includes the installations Permafrost and Icecaps (2019), that address the issue of melting polar ice.
My father made great sculpture, and I really owe him a lot, as he always greatly supported me. Last year in Gabrovo we had a major exhibition at The Art Gallery Hristo Tzokev and Museum House of Humour and Satire, gathering work of my father, my son and I.
When did you start introducing text into your work?
Nedko Solakov: Quite late. I attended the Sofia Art Academy from 1981, and I got a degree in Mural Painting. Being a mural painter, or a sculptor, was considered a very prestigious profession at that time, unlike today. I had graduated in the mathematic gymnasium with a golden medal, and I knew nothing about painting, I made such silly mistakes! But eventually, around the third year I caught up with my fellow students, and I started making small paintings that had stories inside.
After my graduation, I was drafted in the Army for two years. But I was given a studio, and I did some work in Sgraffito technique (some still exist) and paintings. None of my commanders thought that I was doing something serious, but in fact I was a selling lots of paintings, possibly earning more than any of them. Luckily, they never knew. At the same time, I was taking part to all National Exhibitions organized by the Union of Bulgarian Artists, of which I had become the youngest member.
In 1986, I joined a group of avant-garde painters called The City Group, and we started exhibiting in the attic of my parents-in-law, which became my studio in Sofia. The attic was full of objects, an old bicycle and other old stuff, and it was then that I started working on objects and make assemblages. Gradually, my practice evolved into the present storytelling form, in spite of the fact that my colleagues from the Union, who were great artists, couldn’t understand. They thought that painting should be for painting’s sake, not mixed with literature.
Today, when I’m asked to define my practice in few words I say that “I tell stories in space”. I often quote my old professor of Mural Painting at the Academy, Mito Ganovski: “when as an artist, you enter an architectural environment, even if it was created specifically for your work, you always come second there”.
Preparing this show must have been complicated and time consuming, as the venue of Galleria Continua here in San Gimignano is spectacular but also complicated, partly an old cinema and partly a sequence of small irregular spaces.
Nedko Solakov: Not at all, in fact gallerists and curators are often surprised at the speed with which I work. In 2011/12, an iteration of my multipart touring survey “All in Order, with Exceptions” was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Serralvers, in Porto, designed by Alvaro Siza, a complex building of interlocked volumes. Joao Fernandez, then director of the museum and curator of my show, was amazed that it took me about fifteen minutes to decide where each work should go, when it usually takes weeks. I developed a sense of space with practice, I feel it with my whole body. The same goes for texts, I don’t plan in advance, I just go.
Talking from a gallerist’s point of view, this not always helps as a strategy. If the work is really well integrated into a space, then it becomes difficult for collectors to imagine it in their own house.
In a series of really attractive ink and watercolor wall pieces on paper, titled An Art World (2014), you describe the contemporary artist’s nightmares. I found very amusing the “blue chip” artist waking up in the morning to find that “out of the blue” he has become just cheap, and the artist about to be crushed by his falling price. Do you reflect, at least partly, in the characters you create?
Nedko Solakov: The way I feel is always reflected in what I do, ever since I started painting. Of course, if one’s work is based on life experience, it needs incorporating a certain amount of self-irony, otherwise it’s just presumptuous.
That said, I’m far from being a blue-chip artist, the market doesn’t always necessarily reflect public and critical recognition.
Of course one wonders if the work will be liked or not. One of my pieces, the installation Life (Black and White) (1998-ongoing) was bought by Tate Modern in 2009. But its most successful iteration was in 2001, at Harald Szeemann’s Venice Biennale. The work had really been very popular with audiences, and I thought: this is the most successful work I’ll ever do, from now on it’s going to go downhill.
But then, at Robert Storr’s Venice Biennale in 2007, Discussion (Property) also attracted a great number of people, who were reading my story on and on, so I thought that perhaps I could relax. [ Discussion (Property) dealt with the quarrel between Russia and Bulgaria over the ownership of the intellectual property rights to produce the famous AK47, Kalashnikov rifle. It was awarded best national participation at 52nd Venice Biennale curated by Robert Storr – N.d.A.]
By the way, as we speak, Life (Black and White) is being performed in London and Lahore, and it will be performed as part of Tate Modern’s big celebrations in May for the 20th anniversary of its opening.
Let’s go back to collecting, this time in a “cheeky” version. At the end of the exhibiting path there is a very amusing DVD video-film, titled Confidentiality Guaranteed (2006-2008). Could you tell me about it?
Nedko Solakov: The performance on ‘the best art you can buy with your black money’ was filmed at Brussel’s Art Fair with Sint-Lukas Galerie. It’s about traffickers of stolen art. I had two actors play the role of Alan the gallerist and Luigi the middleman, and they were so incredibly good and hilarious in acting as art-world rascals and making up great intricate stories. They had folders of stolen masterpieces, including an “Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum” folder, which of course was one of the most mysterious thefts in art history.
Here at Continua the audio is a bit confused because the video is placed in a narrow corridor. But actually, this conceptually suits the work, hence I declare in my text that the sound is muffled for “security reasons”, because the whole thing becomes even murkier. In a sense, the video is the exhibition’s ideal closure, which begins with a painting (part of a series of six, entitled Collectors) in which collecting is shown as a precarious balance between the heart and the mind.
Finally, have you got a tip for the young global artist?
Nedko Solakov: It is difficult to break through today, even if some artists seem toreach notoriety in their twenties. I’d say: if you want to be interesting, be true to yourself. Trying to be someone else may work for a short time, but certainly not in the long run.
SOURCES AND INSIGHTS -artist's website -Galleria Continua