When the Zeitgeist falls out of step with the times | Sofia, Bulgaria

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the inspiring intervention with the Soviet Red Army monument in the center of Sofia. Overnight, an anonymous graffiti artist transformed a part of the monument, which until then had featured a group of heavily armed Russian soldiers and partisans going into battle, into a colorful posse of comic book characters, superheroes and popular culture icons. Spray-painted underneath the unlikely congregation, a caption read: “In step with the times.”

The short-lived intervention was not just masterfully carried out, but also managed, with a single sweep, to raise issues that have been brewing for years on so many different levels: from pure aesthetics to discussions about contemporary art, national symbols, history and politics.

I thought it was brilliant.

Just four days later, the superheroes disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as they appeared. In a move that must have put the guerrilla graffiti artist to shame with its swiftness and secrecy, the Sofia Municipality had the monument scrubbed clean in the middle of the night.

A couple of weeks after the superheroes’ short-lived appearance, I went to see the monument again – now mostly back to its usual black. Although only traces of colorful paint now testify for its brief transformation, they still stand as a reminder that this momentous (and momentary) transformation ever happened. Although public debate on the intervention has mostly died down by now, the passing of time seems to be doing nothing to diminish my fascination with it.

Not entirely by chance, my visit to the monument was preceded by a trip to the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Sofia, which – in what is surely not a mere coincidence either, opened on the exact day on which the soldiers and partisans woke up as Superheroes. But even without this contrast, Sofia’s new museum of contemporary art is a confusing and sad place.

Visitors are first met by a stone plaque that reads “Museum of Contemporary Art,” which looks more like a tombstone on a grave than anything else. A path among decidedly un-contemporary sculptures then leads to the museum’s entrance. The turn-of-the-century, former arsenal building has been brought up to date in the most superficial and unengaged way I could imagine – by renovating its original façade and smacking some iron and glass appendixes onto it. Inside, the opening exhibition isn’t any less perplexing: in one corner of the space, a couple of Christo and Jeanne-Claude lithographs uncomfortably rub shoulders with a few silver-framed Chagalls and Picassos. The main exhibition consists of decorative ceramics from Norway.

I was dumbfounded, the earnest assurances from the ladies working in the museum that contemporary sculptures will be put in the park behind the museum and the current exhibition will be replaced by a permanent, presumably contemporary one, doing little to ease my uneasy state.

To add insult to injury, as a final stroke, the abbreviated name commonly used to refer to the museum in Bulgarian is SAMSI (Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art). In Bulgarian, ‘sam si’ means ‘you are alone’.

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