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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À bout de souffle | Shishman Street, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Sofia Breathes initiative, which closed down the city’s most atmospheric street to cars and opened it to art, design and pedestrians for the day was a really good way to end Sofia Design Week, whose motto this year was “Design is All Around.” A good way to end any week, for that matter.

Besides the bars, restaurants and cafés spilling over onto the sidewalks, the children’s chalk drawings on the pavement, the tchotchke stalls and the intentional and spontaneous art installations, my most favorite part of the day was running into all kinds of friends.

In the span of the six-odd hours, I think I bumped into friends from all the distinct and seemingly unconnected periods of my conscious life – from my recently rediscovered first best friend from elementary school who was wearing the exact same outfit as me (Hi, Maia!), my partner in crime starting in middle school (Hi, Maria!), two lovely high school friends I studied with in the Middle East (Hi, Lika! Hi, Annie!), to my wingwoman ever since grad school in London (Hi, Krissy!) and many, many other cool, fun and exciting people I have met since. I think that at some point, I ended up standing together with most of them in one spot, which was a little uncanny.

Speaking of improbable gatherings of unlikely allies, I went to get a look at the nearby Monument to the Soviet Red Army. It usually looks like this, but – thanks to the brilliant recent work of an anonymous graffiti artist, now commemorates the unlikely get-together of Superman (gun in hand, rocking red boots and a cape), Santa Claus (toting binoculars and a Kalashnikov), Ronald McDonald (waving the American flag), the Joker (sporting a purple trench coat) and several other cartoon characters and superheroes I couldn’t exactly identify. If Sofia Design Week had anything to do with this, which I don’t think it did, then what a coup! Design is all around, indeed. The final touch to the monument’s transformation, which I especially appreciated, is the phrase scribbled underneath, roughly translating to “In step with the times.” No kidding.

*Update (Monday): In spite of reports that claimed the graffiti was washed off on Sunday, a friend of mine told me today that the superheroes were still around when she passed by the Soviet Monument in the afternoon – just in time to see a lone, apparently self-motivated older guy show up with some rags and a bucket and start scrubbing away the paint. The organized cleaning, reportedly initiated by the Sofia Municipality but financed by non-governmental organizations, is scheduled to take place early tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, over 1,700 people – in several groups on facebook, have said they are against the washing up of the monument, some of them making plans to create a human shield around it when the cleaners come.

**Update (Tuesday): In efforts to avoid the above-mentioned protests and human chains, “emergency” measures were taken and the monument was washed off in the wee hours of the morning, with only faint traces of colorful paint left as a reminder of what, briefly, was.

This is starting to be alarmingly reminiscent of this… talk about being out of step with the times.