|Dr. Army Bryzgel discusses the work of Bulgarian artist Ventsislav Zankov
Ventsislav Zankov was one of the first body artists to appear on the scene in Bulgaria. In the 1990s, he created very visceral performances using blood and animal parts. While his work has been compared to the Viennese Actionists, he said that it originated from a different impulse. At the time when he started working, he wasn’t completely aware of the Actionists’ work. Rather, he “worked after rumors” about their it. Ventsislav cites some local influences for his work. For example, he studied under Orlin Dvoryanov, who was responsible for some of the first Happenings in Bulgaria. He also recalls seeing the work of a Bulgarian artist named Simichev, who had immigrated to Sweden, but returned to Bulgaria with some of his students in 1990. Most importantly, however, Ventsislav told me that he worked with such visceral material because “the times were dramatic,” and called for such radical action.
In the aftermath of the fall of communism, Ventsislav made a series of performances called The Limits of Agony [Limes Agoniae] (1991-1992). In part one, he visited a slaughterhouse and dripped the blood from slaughtered cows onto white sheets, making a form of action painting with the blood. In the second part, the blood paintings were exhibited at the Shipka 6 Gallery – the gallery of the Union of Artists – and the artist did a performance in front of them, entitled Steak and Chips (February 11, 1992). In it, Ventsislav faced a “mirror,” which was in fact a TV monitor containing his image. He sat with his back to the audience, while he had his haircut. Next, he ate a steak with his cut hair mixed in with it, while a voice overhead read from Roland Barthes text “Steak and Chips” (Mythologies, 1975). Later, the audience was served steaks as well.
The artist described the event as a “ritual,” and at the time he was interested in different types of rituals, including blood rituals, and the ritual of hair cutting – for example, he was aware of one tribal ritual where one cuts their hair when a loved one dies, so that his or her ghost doesn’t recognize that person when they come back from the dead. He described this ritual as a way of facing the death of communism, and described the challenges and atmosphere of life at the time: “Time was confusing and people were confused. The past was proclaimed irrelevant, there was no future, the present was void, a vacuumed society without rules, a vacuum pierced with relict rays… a vacuum in which I might have blown up out of my own pressures, yet a vacuum that I could set free, or maybe set myself free, free of my past self… I reached out for blood.” Consequently blood, for the artist, was a way of purging, and breaking free from the past.
One can also witness this in his three Red performances from 1991. Red I took place in the middle of winter, outdoors, in 0-degree Celsius temperatures. The artist appeared in a white gown and proceeded to pour blood into cups and glasses, soiling his white gown and the white tablecloth, and spattering the surrounding snow. In the end, he undressed, and bathed himself in this blood. Red II followed the next month, in March, indoors. The artist performed a ritual with blood and red wine in front of a crucifix formed from white sheets. The final instantiation involved a female body and human embryo, resembling a fertility ritual, and perhaps suggesting the birth of new life out of the carnage. Aside from the ritualistic elements of the performance, the artist was also interested in the contrast between the symbolic and ritualistic meaning of the blood and the manner in which it becomes aestheticized once it enters into the gallery space.
In addition to attempting to deal with the communist past, the artist also addressed the present-day art market in Bulgaria in several of his performances. For example, his Bubble Speech in 2002, when he gave a speech at an opening at the Irida Gallery, and instead of the usual clichés heard at openings, he blew bubbles. In 1991, when local art critics announced the top 20 artists in Bulgaria, Ventsislav ignored his rating at number five, and hijacked the opening by arriving with paparazzi, acting as if he had been named the number 1 artist, in Cream Art.
More recently, the artist has been involved in a project that attempts to give a voice to the heterosexual white male in society. He began this project in 2004, when he was fed up with the political correctness that he observed as predominant in society, and sought to find a language to speak about men’s issues, and to generate that discourse. The project, entitled All About Him, took place from 2004-2008, and was supported by the Goethe Institute. While it may seem like a controversial topic, to aim to give voice to the male majority, the artist maintains that discussions surrounding gender usually take place in the context of feminism. Men, he said, need feminism too. This echoes sentiments expressed by the Polish artist, Katarzyna Kozyra, whose Men’s Bathhouse project exposed the body issues related to the contemporary male. Kozyra, who disguised herself as a man to gain access to the men’s section of the Gellert Bathhouse in Hungary, said that one thing she learned from the experience was that men have their issues, too. They have a standard to live up to – they have to be virile, and not only produce, but support their family. Indeed, what both artists draw attention to is the fact that the issues and concerns regarding the male identity in the post-communist sphere have not yet been addressed. Ventsislav’s project represents one step in widening the discourse on gender to be more all-inclusive.
The turbulent times and controversial claims of years that we have to get over push us back to hopes or memories, to nostalgia and ambitions. I still remember the time that made my past useless and dismissed my future as shapeless. Deprived of them both I was left to the grim present, with its endless horizons. 1990-1992.
The past and the future shrank and fused into each other , sinking deep there into the black whole of the present. The horizon of events was cut down to ‘today’, the blackness had a ‘tactile’ quality: darkness all around, no lights, with the only thought about what will come tomorrow.
I reached out for ‘The Bible’. Searching for my roots and ends. I read ‘The old Testament’ failing to grasp it now and then. I saw how a nation named itself God’s elect. Desert, blood and sacrifice. I saw the ruthless face of Faith. I thought of death, I felt the agony, I went through the pain of lost identity, the pain brought by the acceptable world-order, the one that I know, the one which I got used to. A kind of world-order . .
I had soon graduated from the Academy as a sculptor. All my artistic ideas and skills, ready to work, craving for work, got suddenly useless, irrelevant, void of content.
I would sit at a cafe with a friend (Zhoro Ruzhev) in these early afternoon hours, and it was one of these afternoons that brought the question: ‘who told you to be a sculptor, anyway?’ (later I became quite good at substituting the word ‘sculptor’ with other words’). To cut the long story short I turned to doing the things that I needed to do, free of scruples, opinions, ‘evaluations’. Time was confusing and people were confused. The past was proclaimed irrelevant, there was no future, the present was void, a vacuumed society without rules, a vacuum pierced with relict rays (the astrophysicists will tell you they abide the lower red part of the spectrum), a vacuum in which I might have blown up out of my own pressures, yet a vacuum that I could set free, or maybe set myself free, free of my past self . . I reached out for blood. Later critics were late to draw their analogies with the ‘Wiener Aktionismus’, to juggle with Performance and with other terms. Yet we all went through the incomprehensible quality of these years, the ignorance and the confusion.
I know the feeling one has turning back to these years, the feeling that we simply imitate the history of modern European art for the last forty years, and that we do it at high gear. . . It is the feeling we have when looking at the first silent movies, the feeling of fun, the naive feeling of romance, and tender sorrow, and the nostalgia for the true zest, the energy and the enthusiasm to make things happen . . .