The Blue Cube by Vladiya Mihaylova
Swimming Pool - Sofia
A few weeks ago, at the end of April, the exhibition Balconia opened as a promise. It was, and still is, a promise of a new space for art in the centre of Sofia, Swimming Pool, that has set itself the cosmopolitan task to exchange ideas and visions for art by connecting the Bulgarian scene to other parts of the world. At the same time, Balconia is a promise of diversity in art displayed in the country. This means, above all, a promise to expand the contemporary art trends in the hope to attract new artists and audiences. Entirely in line with its architectural and urban location – on top (on the rooftop floor) of one of the central buildings in Sofia, Swimming Pool’s inaugural exhibition with Stefania Batoeva, Emanuel Röhss and Yves Scherer, itself was somehow “on top” and it was as though the roof had become a helipad connecting the Bulgarian capital with the art scenes in London, Berlin or, say, in L.A.
Stefania Batoeva’s “club paintings” (Club Caligula), Emanuel Röhss’s sculptures integrated into the architecture of the space, and Yves Scherer’s works on the violation of the boundaries of the intimate, belong to a trend in art that can be characterized in brief as a return to emotionality and expressiveness, while inheriting the entire intellectual and technological apparatus of conceptual art. In other words, whereas at its dawn conceptual art sought to push the limits of the aesthetic tradition embodied in the plasticity of the art object, thus expanding the idea about the work of art in relation to texts, cultural phenomena and new creative products, at first sight it appears that this art has taken a U-turn in recent times. Instead of questioning the aesthetic autonomy of the object by making visible its relativity and connectivity within the networks of meaning, the new trend aestheticizes the cultural interrelations themselves: it focuses primarily on the object of art, underlining its construction and precarious character within the cultural field, which has become over-aestheticized, hyper-artificial and predominantly performative itself. These current productive conditions have changed also the state of the art (as well as the artists), which has become fragmented and nomadic, having sudden manifestations that reshape its very subject. All of the works which are included or executed within the framework of the exhibition Balconia, curated by Viktoria Draganova, rely on the as if sudden expression of states, on the eclecticism of images and rearrangement (nomadic character) of objects, and in a specific way, on the materiality embodied not just in them but also in the architecture of the site.
It is precisely the space that is the key to the exhibition. A rooftop apartment built in the late 1930s, with a several-level terrace and a small swimming pool, this space is certainly far from the notion of the white cube as a minimalist, neutral, abstract setting for exhibiting art. A sort of centre is the swimming pool, which is the blue, open cube (according to the definition on the website of the space) that has given the place its name.
All three artists work with the specific site: Stefania Batoeva shows her paintings like murals. They merge with the walls of the rooms and the outlines of the space, and complete it. One may also think in the same way of the swimming pool covered with black plywood that is turned into a canvas of a large painting spread out at the centre of the roof. Placed at different points in the space, Emanuel Röhss’s works are replicas of Gothic figures – fantastic creatures called gargoyles, which usually appear as decorative elements on the façades of Gothic cathedrals and are designed to convey water from the roof. The artist modeled his sculptures based on replicas of these figures found in the houses in residential neighbourhoods in L.A. Displayed on pedestals in the interior of the space or as free-standing objects around the swimming pool, they underline the loss of their authentic function, becoming aesthetic objects with a fictional and even fantasy character (insofar as gargoyles are also common creatures/characters in fantasy novels). The artist has mixed these objects with busts, sculptures or pottery belonging to a collection of the person who previously lived in the apartment. In this way, Emanuel Röhss has created a complete environment made up of heterogeneous objects that communicate with each other through their form, location and material presence. This is an ahistoric, eclectic environment that is both “alien to”, and yet “appropriated by”, the site itself. The artist’s conscious effort to complete his work within and with the space, as well as to create a specific atmosphere, is visible also in the partial demolition of two of the interior walls of the apartment. The holes form arches that emphasize the connection with Gothic architecture “translated” through the notion of post-modern eclecticism. In this way the space itself turns out to be a “sculptural” material.
Yves Scherer, who displays works exploring the interactions between the material and the digital environment (the real and the virtual/imaginary) from the perspective of the concept of personal space, has also succeeded in finding a place of his own within the space. In one of the rooms where Rӧhss’s spatial rearrangements continue in the form of a loosely placed ceramic horse, one also finds rather a bedroom situation with airy silk curtains covered with drawings, an unmade bed, and a mute video – projected directly onto the blue wall – of a girl smoking, who is Scherer’s friend. The room is filled with intimacy and an invisible eroticism that is rather sensed as if cigarette smoke. Opened up to the public, the artist’s intimate space corresponds with another small room, lit up in red, where we see a figure with the face of British actress Emma Watson, best known for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, as well as for her Burberry ads and as a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador. The whole composition made up of different objects, videos and details partially replicates the structure of Yves Scherer’s solo exhibition, Closer, shown at Galerie Guido W. Baudach in Berlin at the end of last year. The exhibition in Berlin focused on the mix of real and virtual, with the artist hacking the gallery’s website to show many images of Emma in her leisure time, which she spends with her boyfriend or with her mother, among others. All images were arranged in a directory and could be downloaded by visitors, while a number of different figures with Emma’s face, in postures and gestures expressing abruptly violated intimacy, were displayed in the physical space of the gallery. They were surrounded by images of smoking celebrities and other works by the artist, related above all to his personal space. Yves Scherer’s participation in Balconia replicates this very structure, placing an even stronger emphasis on intimacy and the elusive mix between the private and the public. Emma is displayed not merely in the exhibition space, she is displayed confronting the viewers’ eyes who project their own expectations onto her; she is shown as a sheet of paper under a red spotlight, which is expecting to be filled with words or images. In contrast with the exposed eroticism of Emma’s figure, Scherer’s “personal” room, although opened up, still preserves an “original” sense of intimacy. In this way he creates a specific feeling of the phantom nature of the image in general and of its elusive character that is related in a complex way to the presence and absence of the subject: the projected figure of the girl in the video is much more present than the material figure of Emma. All of this supplemented also with the virtual reality and infinite collage possibilities of the digital environment in which Scherer has pre-created the models of Emma could give us to think about the concept of post-internet art as addressed to the works of the artist. However, this definition connotes above all a variety not only in the used media, but primarily in the differences in the feeling of shareability, authenticity, presence and absence, as well as the very nature of the image.
The spatial “cohesion” of the works of the three artists also fulfills the task of the exhibition itself – namely, to inaugurate the site. The implicit idea of post-internet art as well as the character of the artworks themselves, however, are intriguing enough to make us think about how, and to what extent, such a definition works conceptually for the whole show. Stefania Batoeva’s expressionistic approach and painting technique, which leaves vast white empty spaces on the canvas on which the artist paints, with energetic gestures, curving lines and thick entities always almost forming figures and objects; Emanuel Röhss’s post-post-modern fantasy transformations of objects; and the mix of real and virtual environments in Yves Scherer’s works, dwell upon the current state of art and the conditions of communication and creativity in the contemporary world where social networks, YouTube, virtual spaces and information exchange have not only blurred the notion of reality, cultural framework and time – they have also redefined human relationships, states and emotions. The infinitely extended boundaries of the notion of creativity and of the aesthetical have given rise to an exchange and rearrangement of images and contents, which has materialized in a somewhat extraordinary and extratemporal nomadic way in various figures and concrete spaces, conveying a specific atmosphere much more than a clear notion of context. In this sense, the exhibition was conceptually located in a “post” time stretching from post-modernism through post-conceptualism to as far as the post-internet. But what certainly prevented the feeling of decline and of fragmentation from becoming all-encompassing was the event itself and its positive energy to be like a vacation spent on the roof (according to the concept of the exhibition itself). In this there was much more of the romanticism and enthusiasm of new beginnings than of the sadness of failed projects – be they of modern art, the dream and the speculative desire of conceptualism, or of the utopia of the digital revolution.
Vladiya Mihaylova is curator and cultural theorist based in Sofia.