Krasimira Butseva and Julian Chehirian talk about the double exhibition The Neighbours, the product of many years of research on communist-era repressions
Twenty years of research, eight years of teamwork: that’s how much time and effort went into the exhibition The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945-1989) which will open simultaneously in Sofia City Art Gallery and the temporary space The Neighbours (Benkovski 40) on November 3.
Artists Krasimira Butseva and Julian Shehiryan, together with historian and documentarian Lilia Topuzova, have created an immersive experience at both sites which uses modified objects, audio and video to recreate the experiences of people who passed through the prisons of the communist regime.
Julian Shehiryan, Jorge Rubiera, Krasimira Butseva
The people behind The Neighbours
Dr. Lilia Topuzova has been researching this topic for the past twenty years – she has conducted numerous interviews with survivors of political violence, and her visits to the Belene labor camp inspired the AGITPROP documentary The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (2007) and the book Reclaiming a Memory: An Inquiry Into the Bulgarian Camp Past (2007).
Krasimira Butseva started working on this topic in 2016 while studying for an MA in Photography at the University of Portsmouth, UK. As part of her artistic practice, she started working with methods from the humanities; she interviewed survivors and their relatives and visited the sites of former forced labor camps. One of her latest projects exploring this topic, "Photography in Adverse Conditions," won the annual BAZA Contemporary Art Award.
Julian Shehirian is a PhD student in history at Princeton University who met Lilia when he was researching psychiatric practices under communism. This research inspired the installation "Unearthing the Psyche" at the Red House (2015). In 2017, Krasi met Lilia, who was already working on the idea for an exhibition dedicated to the topic of political violence with Julian.
The Cuban-American director Jorge Rubiera also contributed to this process; earlier this fall, he shot documentary footage for the project with Julian and Krasimira.
"And that is how we all linked up – at first, and for the longest time, it was all digital, through screens and phone calls," Krasimira and Julian say. The two see art as an important and powerful tool in confronting and working through the past.
The two point out that exhibitions which explore our recent past can often carry elements of nostalgia, or talk about political violence in a more literal way. "This practice can sometimes result in a superficial representation of history which does not discuss its fluid nature and its many complex layers. We hope that we can tell one part of this complicated history, for which there hasn’t been a well-defined narrative or position from the state. For example, the people we interviewed, and a large percentage of those forcibly interned in the Bulgarian gulag and prison system without trial and without a sentence, or with a fabricated sentence, belonged to leftist movements – anarchists, social democrats and farmers."
Recently, as part of the prepwork for the exhibition, Krasimira and Julian have been working on constructing living spaces which will host the audio interviews they conducted and video footage from former camp locations.
"We recreated a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen in order to talk about the different ways of remembering and forgetting these traumas. This summer, we went back to Belene and Lovech, the locations for two of the forced labor camps. When we arrived at the quarry in Lovech, we saw what little remains of the camp, and we also discovered that people had turned part of that area into a dump. We found a refrigerator, a table, chairs, shelves and cabinets. We were amazed that the part of the installation that we were creating in our temporary studio and art space at 40 Benkovski Street also existed in parallel at the location of the camp."
A past without a verdict
The victims of the totalitarian regime can be described using a variety of different terms – repressed, interned, prisoners – but the team chose the much gentler term "neighbors." How did they decide on it?
"We prefer to use the word survivors – because it has a different connotation than the words repressed, interned or prisoners. All three of us are academics, so we are very careful with our language. We chose "neighbors" because it points to themes and ideas about collective memory, about the existence of political violence in our society, about choosing to reveal or disclose this past. And also because all the people we interviewed who survived and returned from the camps to their regular lives had "neighbors," all these people around them who, knowingly or not, witnessed this trauma.”
Their studio The Neighbours is in a 1930s building in downtown Sofia. Its first floor was designed to house a printing press. The space served as the studio where they first built the pieces making up the exhibition, and subsequently displayed the installation. Krasimira and Julian found some of the materials used in the installation in the building.
Visitors to The Neighbours can see "three rooms," where they will be invited to sit and listen to the stories of strong and resilient people who suffered at the hands of the regime. Krasimira and Julian wanted each room to tell a different story and convey a different experience:
"The first 'room,' the living room, contains the most complete memories of survivors who shared their stories in their own books, other people's works, in films and television programs. The second, the bedroom, houses the memories of those who rarely told their story, did not participate in public events or contribute to historical representations of what happened, but decided to share their story with us. And in the third room, the kitchen, words and sentences are entirely absent. Here, people only exist through the sounds of cups, plates, footsteps – this space represents all those who could never tell their story, or who tried to forget it.”
The event will be followed by an educational program, tours and discussions whose goal is to address the lack of a broader conversation about this issue.
"Textbooks tell the history of political violence is in small fragments, and it was only added to the curriculum recently – this is not nearly enough for the preservation of this historical memory, so that it is not forgotten, so that it does not happen again. We hope that initiatives like ours can help create a space for these tragic events in our collective memory, and will bring us closer to collective healing of this trauma, which is still denied, ignored and disregarded."
The Neighbours opens on November 3. The curators are Krasimir Iliev at Sofia City Art Gallery and Vesela Nozharova at The Neighbours studio. The exhibition at SCAG will be open for viewing during the regular working hours of the gallery, and the one at The Neighbours will be open Wednesday-Friday: 15:00-19:00; Saturday-Sunday: 14:00-19:00
On November 10 at 6:30 p.m., Sofia City Art Gallery will host a roundtable featuring Vesela Nozharova, Bair(y)am Bair(y)amali, Luiza Slavkova, Daniela Koleva and Momchil Metodiev.
The artist and researcher Bair(y)am Bair(y)amali will host a workshop at Sofia City Art Gallery on November 26 and at The Neighbors on December 3.
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