“The Blushing Valley” is Gery Georgieva’s first solo exhibition in Bulgaria. The conversation below is based on the artist talk between Gery Georgieva and Viktoria Draganova (curator) that took place at the opening of the exhibition in December 2017.
Viktoria: For everyone here, it is probably obvious that „The Blushing Valley“ refers to the Rose Valley, a region in Bulgaria famous for its rose cultivation, where roses have been grown for centuries. It’s particularly popular area for tourists during the annual Rose Festival, which you visited in 2017. What prompted you to engage with this geography and this event?
Gery: I’ve known about this event for years. The rose itself is so embedded in Bulgarian national culture together with the export and sale of rose oil and products. As you know, I’m totally enamoured with Bulgarian folk culture and I have this access to it through language, my family and heritage. I’ve had a postcard of women rose pickers: ‘Bulgaria Land of Roses’, on my studio wall for ages. I was particularly fascinated by the figure of the Rose Queen, a beautiful local teenage girl who is crowned in a pageant every year, this feels like unique tradition – both historic and also somehow invented. I wanted to see how she was presented and how her symbolism was dealt with in the ceremonies. At the rozober (rose-picking), The Rose Queen was integrated with the traditional folk dancers, posing in formation with them, and at the same time she was like a Disney princess, a polyester prom queen, cut out and pasted there. The competitive power of female beauty is just so basic and inherent, yet here it is given even more value – the Rose Queen though chosen for her beauty, is also a symbol of fertility, a marketing icon, as well as an international ambassador of the nation and its economic product. When you listen to the epic speeches at the ceremonies – the crowning speech features in my video – you hear the language used to describe and position her in all ofthis.
Viktoria: In this video you stage a re-enactment of not only the Rose Queen, but also the female rose picker we know from some country postcards from the ‘80s. How do you feel about doing this hybrid role play, and how do you subvert the images you incorporate?
Gery: When you have a distinct unfailing image of a female role model such as the Rose Queen, or the typical rosy-cheeked, robust rose picker, which is reproduced and reinforced for decades, I am tempted to think not only about how I can pull it apart, but also how can I relate? Does this image exist in me somewhere as a an ‘essential Bulgarian woman’? How can I insert myself into it and stretch it out? Living in London, my work is definitely informed by different versions of womanhood and narratives of female empowerment in the media, and also the labyrinths and dead ends in their promise. Doing this role play, as you call it, I am imagining that I am various women all at once, like a hallucinatory dream. I filmed so much of the Rose Queen, the wonderful dancers, and ceremonies at the festival, yet this improvisation was all I chose to show. When using yourself as performer, you take on a certain responsibility to the material and the subject matter and so I feel like I can deal with more sensitive subjects head-on.
Viktoria: At Swimming Pool you create а distinct ambience around the video. The traditional woollen carpet and oriental cushions suggest a cosy and intimate screening situation, which, at the same time, through the drapery and colouring becomes more heavy and official.
Gery: I wanted the space to have a sense of occasion, like a screening theatre or an embassy but the handmade rug gives it a homeliness, it has a texture of the province or the ethnographic. There are already these themes at play in the video about the opposition between tradition and nation as well as economic representation. I wanted the space to feel like a hybrid between these places.
Viktoria: What about the improvisation to-the-camera, which is common for most of the video works you create, and which we encounter in this video work again?
Gery: When I’m in the studio I’ll make sets and costumes out of my accumulated materials and use these to encourage improvisations to the camera. Improvisation is powerful because it can feel quite revealing, I like that this can create an intimacy with the viewer. If I am embarrassed by the footage in playback that’s a good sign that it’s working. It’s also a method to relies on instinct. You can examine it postfactum and find the bits that go beyond your expectations.
Viktoria: This certainly refers to the sculptures you made for this show.
Gery: Yes, as you enter the space you come across a mise-en-scène of objects before you encounter the projection. These are mainly things that I have collected, and assembled in the past few months that I’ve been in Sofia. By the door, directly on the left there’s a piece called “Homecoming” which is a rubber door mat that reads ‘Welcome’ and oozes local honey, dusted with metallic eye shadow: a sweet homecoming. At the same time, the honey is dripping and oozing, it looks almost acrid. It reminds me of the tears of the Madonna Lacrimosa, so that adds a melancholy to the sense of return. It also refers to the fact that the gallery is a ripe ground for tourists who are, on the one hand eternally welcome, but also a contentious presence wherever they go.
On the floor are these shopping bags left, as if abandoned. They are decorated with a glamorous film diva and in fuschia letters beside her is simply the word ‘Dreams’. I’m sensitive to how arbitrarily images of beautiful (often naked) women are placed on various goods and surfaces for decoration and often without a sense of the context or provenance of the image itself. The Dreams bags are filled with concrete – a basic component of soviet architecture and fast construction, the DIY quick fix. The bags ended up resembling bodies,with the concrete bursting them at the seams and folding them under pressure: they look burdened somehow. The costume in the video was improvised too, it’s made of a collage of tourist tat items and pound shop stuff: flight pillows, earplugs, sun visor, sexy torso aprons, etc.
On the wall-sized mirror in the room, I’ve tacked a page from Harpers & Queen Feb issue 1983, which I found in a Notting Hill charity shop just before I came over to Sofia. Inside there were these beautiful pedicured feet, crushing grapes. It’s an absurd, fantasy image of a woman in action, producing.
Viktoria: What do you think about chalga – slang for ‘popular folk’ – a music genre with a problematic relation to tradition? For me chalga connects gender agendas to technology, desire, and consumption even if in quite problematic ways. And, these happen to be topics we also discussed in relation to your show at Swimming Pool.
Gery: If you are a local platform with a global audience, I can understand that local people think: “Well, what are you showing that represents us?” Тhey don’t feel that chalga represents the best of them, it is actually such a trashy culture and yet it is a frustratingly successful cultural export. Azis, for example, the one break-out star (a cross dressing homosexual pop folk soloist) plays hipster shows in New York, he’s global. There’s so much more available to be celebrated culturally in Bulgaria. I think also Bulgarians prefer to face the West rather than the East, and this music doesn’t portray them in that way, with it’s kuchek (belly dance) infused style. I see it from a mixed perspective. I don’t feel defensive of Bulgarian culture or threatened by chalga enough to hate it, instead I am curious about its power over me as an individual and also somehow ethnographically over a nation as a phenomenon … But then if I lived here all the time, I probably would’ve been sick of it. When I yearn for chalga I wonder: where on the scale is my appreciation of it? That of a happy tourist or a nostalgic expat searching for borderline clichés? I don’t know yet if there is a word to describe that feeling, that mixed relationship, but I ask myself that question a lot in relation to my work.
Navine: I live in Greece and in Athens there’s a burgeoning art scene, as I’m sure it’s the same here. One of the major issues in Greece is the question of exoticization and I think a lot of Greek artists feel that when they are represented in group shows abroadthey have been asked a lot to represent the crisis, to represent something of Greece or make Greek work.I think this question of exoticization of your relationship to that which is local is very important in terms of what is imported and what is exported and I just wondered how you feel about that notion because I think it’s present.
Gery: It is a problem because of the expectations . Clearly it’s not worth replicating the nationalised image of yourself or your work on demand, that’s a sure way to anesthatise your practise. I am sceptical of any straightforward understanding about what is ‘local’ as this is often an image that is replicated for visitors and is for export, so I aim to interrogate this in my work as well. I am also curious about the idea that the global stage wants to see ‘authentic’ examples of local culture through the work of artists, this is something I want to complicate and bring into question with the references I use and the access I have to them. Wherever I put on a show, I am very conscious how the exhibition should be framed, presented and talked about within its context. The work has a life outside of the references too, it’s ok if there are a few things that are understood atmospherically rather than symbolically.
Viktoria: In my research on the rose I discovered how ambiguous and complex it is as a symbol. Of course we know the rose as something pertaining to the Bulgarians at the same level as yoghurt. There were several attempts in the past to use the rose as a national symbol, but they failed and the rose remained within the clichés developed in the 19th century. It is way too indeterminate as the rose comes from the Orient from one side, but the technology of the production and the economical resource comes from the West. Also, rose oil production is a very small part of our economy, even if Bulgaria is one of the biggest producers of rose oil. It’s such a complicated historical cultural symbol, one we know close to nothing about l with indiscernible provenance.
Voin: I wanted to ask how you as a performer “enter” the image as this is something I’m dealing with in my work. Lately, I’ve been confronted with issues around political correctness about using culture or tradition. Also, how much self-irony is needed if at all.
Gery: I try to direct humour in my work at myself and to avoid being simply ironic about any pre-existing culture or tradition. I also only really feel the urge to embody imagined characters that I have aspired to be at some point. A lot of girls are inherently taught to aspire to the image of perfection or wholesomeness, or more recently to aspire to having an empowered active body, for example. But, it’s all about how you decide to deal with it, if you reject it, how do you go about that? I am critiquing, but I am doing it mainly, self-reflexively, examining myself as a product of these emotional and societal mechanisms of complicity.
Voin: It is important that a work of art is site-specific, but also deals with intuition. This depends on both the integrity of the artwork and the integrity of the space. You can’t just come in and say I’m going to show what I would show. What you show in London has to do with the volume of the city. But at the same time you shouldn’t be too sensitive because you have to continue having the integrity of the practice. It has to continue through no matter where you are and it should stand in any environment.
Gery: I came here ready to fill the space with some really bombastic and uninhibited pop-infused videos of myself dancing semi-naked in my studio in London, with lots of colourful digital layers, dissolves and effects. Viktoria and I discussed the implications of doing an exhibition about Bulgarianness in Bulgaria, as someone from an insider/outsider perspective, and it was a little daunting but it seemed the most unavoidable and urgent thing to do. In the end, I scrapped all this other video material and I went for a very simple edit from the rose valley footage, leaving the nuance to the performance, the costume and the setting, rather than anything else. A minimal approach means the complexity of the subject can unfold of it’s own accord, you put more trust in your viewer and, for this setting, it feels braver to approach it this way.
We are thankful for all comments by the audience, especially to Navine G. Khan-Dossos and Voin de Voin for their contributions and the permission to include them in this text.