SHORTLIST: The overview exhibition of shortlisted artists took place at Gallery Raiko Aleksiev in Sofia from November 2 to 23.
YOUNG ARTIST: Stefania Batoeva, born in 1981 in Sofia, currently lives and works in London and Sofia. She won the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award for young artists 2009 for her Casting Machine. Batoeva received her MA in Architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.
ESTABLISHED ARTIST: Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova, born in 1960 in Sofia, where she currently lives and works, has an MA from the National Academy of Arts in Sofia. She received the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award for Established Artist 2009 for her video installation Globally and on a Long-term Basis the Situation is Positive.
Several new awards for contemporary art have been established in Bulgaria in recent years. Telecomunications company MTel has its annual MTel Awards and the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) Sofia, together with the Foundation for a Civil Society in the US and the international network Young Visual Artists Awards organises the Baza Award for young artists.
In this field though, the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award takes a special place. Conferred this year for the third time, the Ruf awards has managed to established itself as a major event in contemporary art in Bulgaria.
Asked what contributed to the success of the award, jury members Luchezar Boyadjiev and Vessela Nozharova point to the personality of the former Swiss ambassador to Bulgaria whose name the award bears.
"I would say the number one reason would be the personal dedication of an art patron who has a long-term dedication to the art scene in Bulgaria," Boyadjiev says. "As you know, Ruf was ambassador of Switzerland in Sofia for several years in the late 1990s.
At that time, he organised one-artist shows at his private residence, as well as offering all kinds of support and encouragement, including contact and recommendations to funding bodies abroad, to the art scene. He was always the person to build bridges of understanding and dialogue, to offer common ground for dialogue and meetings, to moderate where moderation was not always either possible or desirable.
Last but not least, during his time in Sofia, Ruf collected artworks by his favorite Bulgarian artists - I think none of these has won the award so far. So, his commitment was persistent and manifold. The award came as a natural and logical extension of all of that."
Nozharova says: "What is very important is the general principle of the competition. Artists go through two selections. Criteria such as, what are your trying to say, what is valuable, not only in a Bulgarian context, but also in an international context. In this case, the jury members, both Bulgarians and foreign, work with a shared consensus on the criteria by which works should be judged."
"I think the three editions of the award so far show the current state of Bulgarian contemporary art. It has always been a quality of this competition that it does not comply with specific sections within the Bulgarian art world. It does not comply with the interests of different groups and policies. I think that the quality of the competition comes primarily from the ability of Ruf to balance between the warring factions. This, of course, can be seen in the exhibitions.
The first two exhibitions were more eclectic, more colourful in terms of directions. This year’s selection is more homogenous, in terms of means of expression as well as stylistics. I think this is mainly due to the [Bulgarian - RB] artist from abroad," Nozharova says.
"I am aware that there are a lot of sour faces around on the night of the award-giving ceremony, as well as that there are many saying that the jury is incompetent, or who ask ‘who the hell are these people’," Boyadjiev says, "No matter what anybody says or thinks, the procedure that Ruf has established is unique in the country in terms of trying to establish the highest possible level of professionalism, openness and fairness possible."
It is this international jury that Krassimir Terziev, winner of the first Ruf award in 2007 in the category Established Artists, points out as having had an important influence on the Bulgarian contemporary art world.
"This simple move shifts the local family intrigues to a different level, and somehow it has more weight to have been judged by an international team of experts than by an entirely local jury," Terziev says. "Despite all the criticism the award received over the years, I believe it has its value. In a scene with no major institutional support at a national level, this is something that moves the art world away from provincialism, personal likes and dislikes and other tumours of a closed system that Bulgarian art tends to be."
Asked about the impact of receiving the award on his work, Terziev says "I can see people seeing my work differently."
Coming in from abroad
This year is the first time the Ruf awards are open to artists living and working in Bulgaria, as well as Bulgarian artists who live and work abroad.
This change in the rules of the award, has had quite an effect on the selection of artists that participated in the competition.
Many of the artists in the Young Artist category have finished at least part of their art education abroad, while a significant part of the Established Artists live and work abroad.
"This year is the first time that Bulgarian artists who live abroad can take part in the competition and this changes the look of the exhibition," Nozharova says.
"An interesting trend this year that I think has to yet reflect on Bulgarian contemporary art, is the Bulgarian graduates from the Vienna art schools. A decade ago, due to circumstances, Vienna was the most accessible place in the West to study arts. Thus, a Bulgarian group formed in Vienna, some of whom stayed there and now have established professional careers under the label of ‘Bulgarian artist’. Artists in the exhibition from this group include Costa Tonev, Kamen Stoyanov, Lazar Lyutakov and Boryana Ventsislavova," Nozharova says.
"Initially the rule was not to accept applications from artists who do not live permanently or at least most of the time in Bulgaria. It soon became obvious that this rule makes no sense and can not be easily enforced. Meaning, the separation looked unnatural and counterproductive to the basic idea of the award; to support and promote the development of new art in Bulgaria.
But the main reason for changing the rule and to accept applications from artists who are either Bulgarian by birth or live and work in Bulgaria was, I think, to support the natural and logical flux of artists, ideas and works between all those who want to be part of the art scene here," Boyadjiev says by email from his artist-in-residency in South Korea.
"What we wanted to support was a trend of coming and going. Just like those of us living in Bulgaria are travelling all over the world to show and work, so Bulgarian-born artists living in other art centres should be encouraged to come to Bulgaria and exhibit their works on a more regular basis. This way the art scene will benefit more because of the natural process of exchange and mutual influencing," he says.
According to Terziev, the trend of Bulgarian artists studying and leaving to live and work abroad has been visible for years to those within art circles. "For the first time it was made clear in this year’s award exhibition to the wider public. People who want to be professional artists nowadays seem to prefer studying abroad or simply leaving the country. It is the unavoidable effect of contemporary art being marginalised in Bulgaria," Terziev says.
Asked how this process of coming and going, of exchange and influence, is reflected in the work of artists shortlisted for the award, Boyadjiev says "the language becomes more universal, the level of professionalism is definitely increasing, the self-confidence is different now; more pronounced, more informed, more open-minded and so on.
But maybe the main aspect for me is that the agenda of contemporary art here [in Bulgaria - RB] is becoming more integrated with the world at large. It is certainly a sign of maturity and development when one can relate the concerns of Bulgarian artists to those of artists from other parts of the world. All it means is that the context for art in Bulgaria is becoming clearer and more international."
"Not in all the works and artists, but in most, mostly the young artists, you can see that it is not work born in the local context. And this is interesting because finally this could effectively erase the local-foreign distinctions that tend to produce monstrous provincial effects," Terziev says.
Asked to compare the current situation historically, Nozharova and Boyadjiev refer to the interbellum.
"Those were the years of Bulgarian modernism," Nozharova says. "At the time, Bulgarian artists travelled freely around the world; almost all had studied for some time abroad, mostly in Germany, or in Vienna or in Paris, much like now. Unfortunately, after the communist coup in 1944, this generation that was brought up and educated abroad was destroyed," she says.
Boydjiev says "I should say that there is one great structural similarity and this has to do with the ‘staying power’ of Bulgarian artists and artworks in the international ‘arena’ of the arts. Then, as now, this is a problem. The problem is the integration on a fair basis of artworks and artists from Bulgaria into not only the art market system, but also into private and museum collections, into the integral life of an art scene abroad, into art history if you wish."
According to Boyadjiev, "there are very few Bulgarian-born artists from the 20th century who have ‘made it’ into the art history books. Let’s hope the new world of today as well as the new possibilities available to all of us will change this situation. I am sure that in its modest way the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award is contributing to the opening up of the Bulgarian scene and to making it more competitive internationally."
If anything, competitions like the Ruf awards and others, seem to stimulate artists to produce new work. "In a country where there are no private galleries for contemporary art, where there are no museums or other places and exhibitions for this type of art, the awards become an incentive to produce works of art. The art scene is very small and the problem in these competitions is often precisely the exhaustion of available resources.
However, if no new names appear, if the development of the entire art world, from education through to curatorial practice, is not provoked, things will not change, not just with the energy that is generated by the competitions," Nozharova says.
Boyadjiev is more optimistic about recent developments. "I think that young artists in Bulgaria are beginning to get it, so to say," he says. "If you are competitive in Sofia, you will have a far better chance to be competitive anywhere; if you dare to ‘face the music’ and run the risk of being rejected for the top prize here, you will be far stronger to try and make it anywhere…, which is the reality of the world we live in, ultimately."