The Eye of Medusa
Work on the creation of the third exhibition in TheOtherEye series of the Sofia City Art Gallery (initiated by Maria Vassileva, to whom we are very grateful for inviting us) placed us in the unexpected and challenging situation of having to think/watch/display as a group. We alternated between uniting into a triple being, different-eyed and different-faced, and re-forming into smaller entities (and multiplicities). A triple monster with a revealing gaze, with six eyes or three bodies in a cave full of images.
Ancient Greek mythology has a name for such beings: the three Gorgon sisters and their three sisters, the Graeae. “WhoaretheGorgons? They are monstrous beings of utterly contradictory traits; their monstrosity consists in that very condition – incompatible traits in combination.”1Theirsisters, theGraeae, have only one eye and one tooth, which they share among them. Conversely (mirror-wise), we united the multiplicity of our eyes into a singular (single) event: the exhibition Gorgons in the Storage Room, or, Apocalypse Now focusing on Medusa, the most terrifying of the three Gorgons, the guardian lurking behind every petrified form. Our gazes crossed in the art gallery’s storage room, discovering attractive but monstrous images – images that roam the edge of the known world. “The Gorgons live beyond the Ocean, beyond the borders of the world at the gates of Night”.2 Thefemale gaze reveals already existing images which we omit or do not want to see.
Besides the obvious wink-and-nod to the gender and number of the three curators which indicates the potential feminist uses of the image of the Gorgons3 (expressing female rage, turning what they see to stone so that it can be critiqued, re-examined and renegotiated), the title of this exhibition also gives a wink and a nod to the very idea of “another eye” insofar as these mythical beings embody the anthropological connection between the eye and the image, the threat and risk to the agent related to them, evoking terrifying fantastic visions regarding the monstrous autonomy of the eye. Here is one of the countless connotations of the image of the Gorgons: the direction which no one should turn in; that which no one should see. We couldn’t help being fascinated by this generative power of the mythical monster – a female monster, an inhuman organ, a creator of images. Yes, the Gorgon is in the storage room because she constitutes the foundation of all the paintings stored there and waiting to be rediscovered.
InthesectionoftheexhibitiontitledApocalypseNow, Ani Vaseva and Monika Vakarelova trace the line in the Sofia City Art Gallery collection which deliberately or accidentally reveals the dual foundation of the images of the real. Works that use a banally imagined ‘reality’ as primary material for the formation of a hazy, dual, ambiguous, occasionally topsy-turvy and ultimately monstrous world – frozen under Medusa’s petrifying gaze, swollen with impending tension. The Gorgon’s terrifying gaze makes visible the troubled tremor on the apparently calm surface of images.
Boryana Rossa is not seeking duality and contreversy as hidden “behind reality,” but as clearly expressed in the art works chosen by her. Just like Perseus, this complacent world is trying to use a mirror shield in order to deflect Medusa’s fearsome gaze. Although the head has been separated from the body, the power of its gaze has not been eliminated. That is exactly why it is those who do not want to see a mirrored simulacre – those who want to step back from the TV screen, from the media reflection that protects us from many problems through the shield of common sense – that wrest Medusa’s head from the hands of Perseus, put it on their shoulders and start to turn to stone. It is only by taking the place of the Gorgons that viewers will be able to understand why there exist angry petrifying gazes and maybe wish to join them in order to express their own rage.
We would like to express our deep, sincere gratitude to the Sofia City Art Gallery staff for the opportunity to work with the collection and for the provided freedom and kindly assistance.
Ani Vaseva, Boryana Rossa, Monika Vakarelova
1Vernant, Jean-Pierre (2001) The Universe, The Gods, and Men: Ancient Greek Myths. New York: HarperCollins.
3The figure of Medusa has been interpreted in a feminist perspective by Hélène Cixous; in the last few years Kamelia Spasova and Maria Kalinova have initiated several events and publications on the Gorgon Medusa with the participation of Miglena Nikolchina and Boyan Manchev.
Violence as Sex
“Some simple advice for the hard-edged, violent differences enacted by and upon every population on this small world… try apologizing! Sexual repression and denial of guilt go hand in hand. If sensuality is a path towards the end of war, we must also say we are sorry for past and present slaughter. This is the romantic quest for forgiveness. We are imperfect. Every person on earth has a murderer in his or her lineage. For the fight to stop we have to bow down low, switch off on those shows of humility, kiss each other’s feet, make up and make out.”
Adam Zaretsky, USSMEAC Manifesto
To end wars, US artist Adam Zaretsky (with whom I often work) proposes that sadomasochistic communities become advisers to the Department of Homeland Security. These communities have a clear code of ethics according to which none of their members may be subjected to humiliation or physical intervention without his or her prior consent. These elaborate rituals often involve sexual gratification. Still, the main purpose is a personal and physical catharsis that will relieve participants of their daily dissatisfaction with their actual social and psychological condition. This catharsis frees people of aggression and self-aggression, of the fascination with death and self-punishment – a fascination which, if not vented, becomes the cause of interstate as well as interpersonal and social wars, according to the artist. Adam Zaretsky extends his proposal to all communities in which there is violence (are there any in which there isn’t?). Drawing on examples such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, he proposes eliminating such tragedies by organizing a widely accessible show presenting “consensual” violence enacted with the help of sadomasochistic codes of ethical treatment of partners. This show is to be staged with the participation of volunteers. Thus, the fascination with violence typical of all societies regardless of their social and religious system will be easily channeled into an art form, into a continuous performance art piece, an experienced or real-time sadomasochistic show. This show will be as sensually powerful and cathartic as the violence that is all around us but it will not hurt the dignity of the participants in it; after such a mind-blowing orgasm we won’t even think of continuing to kill each other physically or morally.
Of course, the link between violence and sex has been studied extensively although it has probably never been “utilized” to help national security services – not even in utopian scenarios such as the one proposed above. There is hardly any other subject that is as popular while remaining as provocative and “scandalous” as ever. The creative process is full of violence upon the medium of expression, upon the artist, upon the audience, which is confronted with sometimes uncomfortable truths. This process is also full of satisfaction and revival. What is most important in this part of the exhibition, for which I chose such a “cliché” subject, is the ethics of consent between the artist’s intentions, the context of conceiving the artwork, and the curatorial context. Sex can be gratifying only if violence remains within the limits negotiated by the partners. Everything beyond those limits falls into the category of “torture” and constitutes a violation of the contract between us as a society and as individuals – it is rape, not sex.
Through this tour of the Sofia City Art Gallery collection I have tried to explore the subject of violence and its transformation from a fascination with death into a fascination with life at three different planes. The first one is associated with my role as curator of the exhibition, and the second with the history of the respective work, with its biographical relationship to the author and the creative process. The third level examines the violence stemming from the social and historical moment in which this work was created, from the social conventions of the specific period. As curator and author of some of the selected works, I am a direct participant in those three planes and I speak from the standpoint of this personal experience which reveals constantly changing social contracts, mores and priorities. When the case in point is an exhibition, and especially an exhibition in a museum, those three planes invariably intersect and change each other, therefore they need to be examined in parallel. Although some of the works I have chosen have been displayed many times, their coexistence with other works, their position in the space of the art gallery as well as their textual context are different in each exhibition. All these are “violent” curatorial methods highlighting (or even generating) different meanings of these works. But in addition to this I will also try to understand what were the authors’ intentions, what was the self-violence, the creative suffering of the authors, what was the “violence” exerted upon the creative medium and its subsequent “resurrection” in the form of a work of art that happened prior to the museum.
The social and historical plane will help in revealing the external causes that brought about the expression of a particular idea in a particular form. As a child, I used to spend many weekends in the Sofia City Art Gallery with my parents. Some of the works I have chosen for this exhibition are very emotional personal memories. They have played an important role in my development as a person, but now I see in them other meanings that were invisible to me at the time – and it is those meanings that are at the centre of this exhibition. Art always reflects the social or interpersonal violence characteristic of a certain time period, which can produce a mutually satisfactory contract ordevelopsinto ethically unjustifiable torture. In order to attain peace of mind as viewers but also as representatives of a society that has inspired such art, we need to somehow cope with the anger and rage of this art. We need to see where we ourselves are and, if necessary, to apologize or forgive and to build another ethical contract which precludes torture. The role of art in this dynamic is to reveal the field of torture, thereby asking difficult questions and demanding an answer that should be given sooner or later, and not avoided.
Bearing in mind the balance between those three directions, I believed it was very important that, for example, series of photographs such as Still Life (2000) by Dessislava Dimova and Ivan Moudov or my The Good Woman, the Bad Woman and the Ugly Man (2001) be shown in their entirety. Those series are very often displayed in part for various conceptual and logistic reasons that are quite legitimate. Still, it is important to display the entirety of the intention determined by the authors’ choice of photographs of the original material so that the original idea can be expressed. The interaction between a curator and an artist, between “Dessy” and “Ivo” as people working together professionally and having a personal relationship is balanced only in a full display of the works they have created. In this series there is no dominator and dominated; there is a dominator in some cases and a dominated in others. The means of domination are determined by the personality and the professional role of the two protagonists, and it is obvious that the violence sometimes turns into reciprocity. An emblem or a logical final chord of the photo series is the video in which a shiny stainless steel vibrator (a symbol of the two as a couple)drums for a long time on the top of an antique cupboard (a symbol of the parents/mentors who, as Moudov says in the text to this series, are its sponsors) before dropping out of the viewer-voyeur’s sight, out of the video frame, out of the framework of art. The actual process of creation in which the two worked with their bodies was probably also a process of mutual negotiation, of exercise of directorial violence upon each other – the choice of clothes, make-up, postures, and the consensual decision as to “What do we want to say by this?” cannot have been painless but, on the other hand, they certainly cannot have been totallydeprived of pleasure.
My series The Good Woman, the Bad Woman and the Ugly Man(produced incollaboration with Oleg Mavromatti) is also rarely displayed in its entirety. The bloody background in which a boyish-looking woman (the artist Boryana Pandova), unadorned with the attributes of femininity, kills two men (the art critic Svilen Stefanov and the artist Rassim) is contrasted with the foreground in which a frivolous good-looking woman (the actress Veronika Petrova) rejects as unimportant everything that is going on behind her. She is a symbol of the contemporary woman’s carelessness that all too easily forgets the history of disenfranchisement and emancipation, takes her relatively equal rights for granted, and therefore does not see the danger of their loss. To her, the red colour of revolution blends into the red colour of lipstick. She forgets history and thus exercises violence upon history, but this violence hardly has the potential to become gratifying sex.
The historical context of this work is Ivan Boyadzhiev’s portrait of the sculptor Marko Markov (1931). This painting represents the realistically depicted clothed sculptorsurrrounded by his stylized nude muses. Without denying the right of some male artists to get their inspiration above all from nude female muses, and juxtaposing this portrait with all other works I have chosen, I find that this popular subject which affirms a specific gender norm is not dominant in the work of contemporary authors as it was in the work of their predecessors. Could there have been some tension, some dissatisfaction, some violence in this otherwise endlessly romanticized and sexualized relationship? The artist and his muse?
A re-examination of another norm such as the marriage institution can be seen in Mariela Gemisheva’s My Wedding Dresses on the Roof (1998). Here the author renegotiates wedding aesthetics. Underwear on display, dresses showing theirconstruction, the bleak grey roof – all this is a far cry from the “wedding video” genre or from the sweetness of wedding photography. Gemisheva’s fashion shows from that period represented an aesthetics that differed from the hetero-normative one; they represented an intertwinement, alteration and inversion of norms. The androgynous fashion models hid apples in their underwear imitating the male attributes of pride, which were eventually taken out and eaten. The metal belts could well have been chastity belts, but with their pointed ends they could have just as easily turned into pikes [stings??]. In the video presented in this exhibition the girls’ feet are bare and bandaged – do the bandages hide wounds or are they meant to evoke associations with soldiers’ footwraps? The painfulness of both “foot bindings” again reveals social contracts, contracts regarding roles that are imposed upon their performers not without an element of violence.
Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova’s self-portrait/mask in Vanitas [YEAR??] is transformed from a materialization of her Self into a beautifully served dessert. The artist exercises violence upon herself in all of her attempts at communication with her audience. This audience may be captivated by the fresh fruits and eat the ice-cream heads. But only if it succeeds in overcoming the civilized dread of its cannibalistic instincts.
And whereas Lyahova relies on the audience’s anti-civilizational impulsesto achieve an intimate communication with it: a fuse, through this self-voodoo ritual, in Everyday Life [YEAR??] Tekla Alexieva represents the essence of the modernist civilizing project. An architecture that can accommodate more people in need of housing, products created in order to maintain both the necessary minimum of this civilization and its chic (toilet paper, chocolates, Schweppes “Grapefruit”) placed in packages and left on the backseat of a car – all this is a set of conveniences, albeit everyday ones, which however have been negotiated and assumed to be necessary in our contemporary society. Despite the grey colours of the painting and the artist’s probable desire to create a feeling of monotony and boredom, her work tends to evoke my childhood memories, rather than gloom, as well as the questions: Who bought these products? Who lives in these homes? Who owns this car? Is everyday life easy or difficult to attain, and for whom? The contemporary division of people into ones who can and ones who cannot afford “everyday” banal civilizational necessities or chic, places this painting into an entirely different context, while its meaning is a matter of historical renegotiation that will probably reveal both the roots of the past and the present suffering we endure in our everyday lives.
Although Luchezar Boyadjiev’s Flower-Fan (2004), Stefania Batoeva’s unidentified thing banging inside a cupboard and screaming Drink Me (2011), Anton Terziev and ULTRAFUTURO’s luminescent lamp full of blood in Red Cross(2007), and the flex machine locked behind bars in Orlin Nedelchev’s Untitled (2009) are the work of artists from different generations, here they can be grouped together not just on a genre basis (objects); they can also be regarded as pseudo-utilitarian innovations presenting new ideas for renegotiation and consent. The flex machine has been “restrained” behind bars, it cannot cut; but then its “peaceful” function as a tool has also been curbed, being forcibly locked away in a box with bars invented for the purpose. Batoeva’s metal cupboard has the same restraining function and so does Terziev’s lamp which contains blood that is being transformed into another chemical state. These works make us feel claustrophobic and this is irritating. For its part, Boyadjiev’s flower has the opposite effect, but it is just as irritating. It draws our attention to the function of the fan (it has something like vanes that are meant to “fan” us), it is red and lovely, it is a “fluffer,” it blows lightly until it turns into a real fan and performs its function. But the flower will never turn into a fan, its petals are soft and tender, it cannot extinguish the heat – it can only annoy us, placing us in a situation of violence against our feelings unless we make an effort to harden its petals.
This particular part of the exhibition, which is conceived and curated by myself, brings together and juxtaposes concrete images that reflect and, at the same time, generate certain social and historical phenomena, provoking or calling into question a concrete social context. They communicate with the rest of the exhibition through the relationship of the three Gorgons – the unifying symbol chosen by Ani Vaseva, Monika Vakarelova and myself to represent us as three curators looking intently at the museum collection. Each one of us has a different gaze that petrifies or “turns to stone”, as in the ancient myth, whatever she looks at. Just one of them, Medusa, is mortal; her gaze is captured in Perseus’s mirror, which eliminates the petrifaction of the image, making it elusive, indirect, vanishing and weak. Still, the cut-off head itself retains its petrifying power. Following Lacan, the mirror image gives us our first sense of the self as an independent entity; this mirror image generates our first feeling of discontent, insecurity and uncertainty, and the wish for “petrifaction”, for clarification of our relationships with the world, for protection from evil, from violence upon us. But we do not need a mirror; we need someone to clarify to us, to “petrify” the world around us, even if just for a little while, so that we can find our way in it.
On the other side of the exhibition room we are watched by children’s heads, monsters, strange beings that mark, even if just by their very presence, another world – a world of the indefinite and indeterminate, a world of the pre-social and even of the “pre-mirror.” They call into question many of the relations and tensions which I have tried to illustrate. The petrifying gazes of the Gorgons look in different directions and see different things. And despite the presence of so many stones, I hope the audience will not use its own mirror shields to avoid the gaze of the curators. I hope the audience will take part in the renegotiation of violence; I hope it will take part in the show through which violence evolves into gratifying, not humiliating, sex.