Martina Vacheva's first solo exhibition Sereality (2016) in Sariev Gallery with curator Vera Mlechevska attracted the attention of her colleagues and the public, and it quickly became clear that her work would be popular both in Bulgaria and abroad.
Martina Vacheva's first solo exhibition Sereality (2016) in Sariev Gallery with curator Vera Mlechevska attracted the attention of her colleagues and the public, and it quickly became clear that her work would be popular both in Bulgaria and abroad. Born in 1988 in Plovdiv, the artist lives and works in her hometown, and for a while divided her time between Plovdiv and the Brittany region in western France. She has a degree in Illustration from the National Academy of Arts, she also studied in Germany, and after winning the BAZA Young Artist Award in 2017, she completed a two-month stay at Residency Unlimited, New York. Over the years, she has alternated between national and international exhibitions, including the Biennial of Graphics in Ljubljana, the Art Brussels Forum and the Diversity United exhibition. Contemporary European Art, which brings together the best artists from Europe. Her most recent solo exhibition Circle Pit opened in 2021 at the Sariev Gallery in Plovdiv, and we spoke to her about the humor in her works, her most important roots, and what lies ahead.
What is your earliest memory related to art and at what point did you realize that it would play such a major role in your life?
I think the origin point for everything is in the family. My father had a great affinity for art. He was a kind of folk artist, so to speak. He was constantly telling jokes, doing funny things, and making us all laugh. He even wrote feuilletons in his youth. At the same time, he always challenged us and taught us to think outside the box, to be different from the rest. He had a strong love for all forms of art and he passed this love on to my sister and me. My sister Iva Vacheva, who is older than me, is also an artist, so the family foundation is reflected in her life as well.
You say that no matter where you live, in Plovdiv or France, or passing through the United States and Germany, the most important thing are one's roots. What do yours look like?
The most important thing is to know where you came from, so that you know how to continue and to build upwards. Don't forget who you are, no matter what. Do not forget your loved ones. Know what is important to you and don't just obey.
Trashland, 2020, acrylic on canvas, metal, 246 x 279.5 cm, Part of Art Collection Telekom, photographer: Hristofor Balabanov
Is there something specific from your native land that you never noticed before you saw it much more clearly from a distance?
Yes. When I return to Bulgaria from France, I become more and more convinced that the perimeter of our sense of humor and self-irony in this country is very narrow. People take offense a lot. A kind of sadness and heaviness has settled in comfortably, which makes sense given our history. There are many pessimists, especially in the older generation that lived under communism. It's difficult to accept radical ideas, they get rejected due to a lack of cultural accumulation.
It's as if we are trying to play our old bagpipes in a new voice – we are still carrying our old national rigid understandings in all things. We fly our flags and we are proud Bulgarians and people should be careful when dealing with us. There are also good sides – sentimentality, care, a helpfulness somehow typical of the Balkans. There is human warmth and impulsivity, not booking an hour a week ahead to see someone.
What are some challenges faced by young contemporary artists that are specific to Bulgaria?
Bulgaria is a small country, so our contemporary art scene is not that big. On the one hand this might be a good thing for young artists, because it is easy to get noticed, and if you are talented, opportunities and doors will open. Something like this happened to me – it was the result of a lot of work, sincerity and zeal in what I do, rather than ambition to succeed at any cost. I was given a chance back in the day after my scandalous graduation from the Master's program in Illustration at the National Academy of Arts, when Vera Mlechevska and Sariev Gallery invited me to do my first solo exhibition Serealityin 2016, as part of the gallery's Young Authors Fund platform. Katrin and Veselina Sarievi believed in me with no reservation and I decided to experiment boldly. The challenges are many and they keep growing, but the important thing is to find support from the right people, and I honestly get a lot of help, inspiration and 100% mobilization from my husband Mitch, and I was born under a lucky star when it comes to my family and friends, who are always there for me.
"The Bulgarian Rose Queen", 2019, acrylic on canvas, artificial roses, 188 x 181 cm, private collection, photo: Maria Dzhelebova
It is also an interesting challenge to be a young artist who does not live in Sofia and to watch how people look at art from "the provinces" with a kind of condescension. Of course, there are exceptions, but I am talking in general. It's a kind of outsider feeling – as if everything should be focused only on Sofia, while in fact wonderful things are happening in cities like Plovdiv or Veliko Tarnovo and the region. Everything feels a lot more rock’n’roll and natural there. You can rarely see young artists on the Sofia scene besides those who live there and Bulgarians who live abroad. An exception to that is the exhibition Art Startby curators Stefka Tsaneva, Vessela Nozharova, Daniela Radeva, which is held every year and is a wonderful opportunity for young artists from all over Bulgaria. The BAZA competition is also like that.
An even bigger challenge is to be a young artists who is a woman living in the "provinces," and represented from an early age by the only successful contemporary art gallery in Bulgaria –Sarieva gallery. To be a young, but already internationally recognized artist, and to be part of many international institutional and private collections – these things did not happen by mistake or by chance, but that is exactly the sense you get from how some of your fellow artists look at you, or the gallery owners and curators in the capital.
The scene is small, and local intrigue is very common. The competitive nature of institutions, artists, curators, the constant heated discussions and comments on social media in defense of or against something and someone, the serious and frozen faces I encounter every time I decide to go to a contemporary art exhibition... I hope this changes so that we can start to see Bulgaria more and more often on the global art map.
"Bingo for millions," 2020, acrylic on canvas, 204.5 cm x 222 cm, Sarieva Gallery, photographer: Hristofor Balabanov
Your work always addresses serious topics in depth, but the immediate emotion they express is humor and irony. Why do you prefer this approach?
Humor is not the only tool in my work, but I use it a lot. I think I mentioned the serious faces and the old bagpipes, the prejudice, the rigidity – this entire local atmosphere needs a good shakeup with some punk humor. Inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism, punk humor plays an important social role in the modern world, as different way of understanding and assimilating reality with a penchant for the absurd. It is sometimes an instrument of criticism, like the bourgeoisie was once ridiculed for its greatness, hypocrisy, pomp and corruption. Because of all this, I like to use it as a tool to make sense of our current reality.
Your last solo exhibition Circle Pit was heavily influenced by the pandemic as a metaphor for the whirlwind we were all drawn into, like at a rock concert. How did you get out of this circle?
This was a very important exhibition for me. Yes, it was a big whirlwind, and it's not over for many people yet. The tornado dragged us into itself and locked us in physically in order to open us up emotionally with things that everyone piles up in the back, in the closet of their subconscious, and then to throw a party for them in the pandemic living room where they can explode in all their splendor. It's an examination under a magnifying glass. Many existential questions – what is valuable in life and the things we do, what we leave behind, why we do anything. The fake facade collapsed. And some thought it was madness or loss of mental stability, but from this instability and these cracks emerged our actual priorities and values. Things that, because of the circumstances of this whirlwind, are being rearrange for you, for others and for the whole world. I look around and see myself with all the nakedness of my own weaknesses and my qualities, and I laugh, looking down on myself and the world – how insignificant, but also fragile and valuable everything is. Maybe I parted with my self-delusions, I became more direct, with an even sharper sense when it comes to other people. These are just some of the things ... Circle pit was also an important moment as the last exhibition with Katrin Sarieva in Sariev Gallery, after which this place turned a new leaf as Sarieva Gallery. These events in themselves are also a part of this Circle Pit.
"The appetite comes with the vote", 2019, acrylic and collage on canvas, 205 x 240.5 cm, Art Collection Telekom, photo: Maria Dzhelebova
You worked on the main piece in the exhibition, "Splash," for about a year. What is it like for an artist to spend so much time with a work?
You feel like that the picture is never done. And it isn't. You strive for some kind of perfection, but there is no such thing in life. You chase yourself and there's always something that does not reach the end. That's the neon spot in the painting – this flash, this white spot and tornado. There's the head missing from the jumper. Because it is all in the impulse of the unpredictable. I lived with it for such a long time, as long as the first wave of the pandemic, with the first reopening and the hopes, fear, courage, disappointment, destructiveness, euphoria, apathy, uncertainty, risk, control, dangerous impulses, loss, burnout and whatnot. I experienced as many different things as there are people in the audience in this painting, and their states of mind.
You are currently part of the exhibition I have so many things to tell you (until March 20, 2022) at the National Gallery of Fine Arts. Which of these "many things" are you able to say in it, and which did you not manage to?
My painting in the exhibition of the Art Collection Telekom I have so many things to tell you, with curators Martina Yordanova and Boryana Valchanova, is called "The appetite comes with the vote" and it was created in 2019 for the 33rd Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana Crack up - Crack down, which had an emphasis on the history of satire up to the present day. The painting is inspired by the Balkan archetype that is the most popular Bulgarian antihero Bai Ganyo from the 19th century, who is still a recognizable stereotype in various layers of social and political context, and as the profile of the rough Balkan side of Bulgarians. The grotesque bloodthirsty faces invite you to their table under the slogan "The appetite comes with the vote," which is like propaganda to buy off poor voters, to win more votes for their side.
Corruption is still the main problem we are fighting, and I very much hope that this time there will be a crack in that dam, and that "The appetite comes with the vote" comes to depict a topic from our past, not the present. Low education and low goals are also connected to these many problems. Bai Ganyothe politician looking for his windfall seems to finally be shaky on his feet. The stubborn Bai Ganyo, who understands everything better than everyone, the smartest and most cunning man, always making sure he's not getting screwed over, is again relevant to our indicators in Europe. We are "the best" when it comes to negative indicators in Europe. A sequel is to come, we will see how this picture will develop.
Martina Vacheva, Photographer: Vladimir Mladenov
What is the last Bulgarian contemporary work or exhibition that left a strong impression on you and made you think?
Although French by nationality, he is based in Plovdiv, so I consider him a Bulgarian artist. It's a favorite work of mine by Mitch Brezounek. I am absolutely biased, but I think it's understandable, given that we share many common values and themes in art, life, and we have the same sense of humor, with which we inspire each other. I am talking about his film How to Become the Best Artist in the World, which absolutely buried me and hit a bull's eye. It's a kind of ridicule and absurdity that asks painful questions about how art functions under the conditions of the global market, of affect and the fierce competition for visibility. The film was presented along with artifacts from the production as a solo exhibition at ICA with curators Pravdolyub Ivanov and Krassimir Terziev in 2020.
Which topics excite you at the moment and what's next for you?
In the spring I was supposed to do the last stop of the tour of the group exhibition Diversity Unitedin Paris, but I decided to withdraw my participation voluntarily. My refusal is a sign of protest and solidarity for the Berlin art scene, which is fighting for an important case that I fully support. (#boycottkunsthalleberlin)
As for my projects – right now I'm excited about things I don't want to reveal because I'm still working on them. The humor will still be dialed up to the max, but it looks like this will be one of my biggest and most interesting projects so far, which I am very excited about.
The exhibition I have so many things to tell you from the Telecom Art Collection featuring Martina Vacheva is at the NAG until March 20, 2022.