Still Standpoint gallery talk

10.01.2014

Still (2013) Presentation at the Museum of Socialist Art  22nd June 2013

I’m going to talk today in relation to my project Still. […] I want to talk to you about the work both in relation to the thinking that informs my practice, the architectural structure of Buzludja and socio-historical context to which this building belongs, and of which I feel it is emblematic.

[…]

          The work’s title, Still, conveys several different meanings that together communicate the sense of time past, passing and to come that I have tried to capture in the work. Stillness describes the condition of the photograph; an image that mechanically captures the dynamic flux of events, rendering periods of duration as stills. Similarly, still life painting uses inanimate objects to depict of everyday events. Furthermore, political ideologies claim to offer stable principles within dynamically changing circumstances, and monumental architecture such as Buzludja works to support this candidacy for permanence. But change is constant, and the word still also conveys another meaning which is useful to my work – a sense of the belatedness; the yet to come. Each of these meanings reflects my thinking about The Memorial House for the Bulgarian Communist Party, which is slowly disintegrating into the earth on top of Mount Buzludja.

The Buzludja monument shares its current condition with much Communist-era East European architecture and socialist realist monuments that are now surrounded by the bustle of commercial activity and the universally recognisable signage of globalised capitalism. Nearly twenty-five years after the collapse of communism, the projected future symbolised by these statues of political leaders, martyrs and heroic workers seems oddly disjointed from the social reality that has emerged around them¹. Such sites have recently become the object of several documentary projects exploring the legacy of communist ideology within Eastern Europe and beyond. Carey Young, whose recent video installation, Memento Park (2010) features shots of communist-era statues in Budapest, states that the statues she filmed now exist in “suspended animation”². A similar fate has befallen late communist-era architecture, and while Frédéric Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed (2011) celebrates the buildings, Armin Linke & Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss’s Socialist Architecture: The Vanishing Act (2012) examines their status in relation to the contemporary architectural landscape³. Other projects, such as Unfinished Modernisations – Between Utopia and Pragmatism at Belgrade’s Museum of Yugoslav History, have looked to the lessons and unrealised possibilities that such structures still hold for contemporary urban planning.(4) I, too, as part of an ongoing engagement with Bulgarian culture facilitated by my three-year involvement with Water Tower Art Fest, have been drawn to a disintegrating late communist-era structure, Guéorguy Stoilov’s Buzludzha Monument, located in the Buzludzha National Park in Central Bulgaria.

Designed in 1981, this building commemorates both a battle with Turkish armies in 1868 and the Buzludzha Congress in 1891, a meeting which led to the formation of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. My interest lies in how this building, in its current state of entropy, testifies to a shift in Bulgaria’s political compass: how the country’s 1989 rejection of Communism can be seen to correlate with the abandonment and deterioration of this building. Documentary photos of its 1981 opening seem to capture not only a monument to Bulgaria’s Socialist past, but, with the flag-waving crowds, the apparent potential of the country’s Communist future; yet the building now sits atop its mountain as a relic, the left-over ideological construct of an unrealised – or unrealisable – political vision that nevertheless remains as the primary historical precedent for Bulgaria’s current cultural and political make-up. The building is a circular structure. One enters through a spacious ground floor foyer flanked by stair wells on its left and right hands sides that lead up towards a spectacular inner conference room. Four further stair wells then lead up towards a perimeter corridor enabling visitors to circumnavigate the site.

I chose to work with the perimeter corridor, because I wanted to deal with movement and explore the multiple functions performed by this transitory space. Aside from facilitating movement around the site the corridor performs two further functions. It facilitates views of the surrounding landscape through a series of large curved windows set in the outer wall, and supports the depiction of Bulgarian history, rendered in mosaic tiles on the internal wall. I have made a photographic installation designed to contextualize Buzludzha Monument as a part of the contemporary cultural landscape of Bulgaria. The shoot was made on the 16th and 17th of June 2013, a time of year that twenty three years previously the Bulgarian electorate was contemplating its future after the collapse of Communism. I positioned two Russian rangefinder cameras on tripods inside this corridor – a Zorki 4 and and a FED 4, also dating from the 1980s – at the furthest point before the curvature of the corridor took the Zorki camera out of the FED’s field of view. Facing in a clockwise direction the Fed camera took a photograph looking back into the space occupied by the Zorki camera. Then, the Zorki camera looped around the Fed camera, which also turned 180 degrees. In its new position the Zorki camera then looked back on the FED camera, in the position from which the previous shot was taken, from the furthest point before which it disappears out of range. I repeated the process moving cameras and taking photographs every eighteen minutes until after twenty four hours, having circumnavigated the site several times, I had produced eighty exposures; enough to make one full rotation of a slide carousel.

The resulting photographs are projected onto a gallery wall using a 35mm slide projector. Each photograph shows a section of the surrounding landscape of the Stara-Planina, and the camera that took the previous photograph in situ within a particular section of the corridor, which itself shows the murals of Bulgarian history. Each click of the carousel’s rotation continues the movement around the building, with the cameras perpetually moving counter-clockwise in the direction to which their back is turned. The carousel also continually repeats this day in the gallery space, during which the cameras documented this corridor space on multiple occasions, repeatedly re-contextualising these same features and vistas in changing conditions. During the carousel’s rotation the sun sinks to the horizon spraying shards of light throughout the corridor, and throwing complex shadows made by the wreckage of the building’s roof throughout the space. We then see the sun set before the building is suddenly thrown into darkness, a period during which we see nothing inside the building, and only the muted night sky through the congress house’s windows. Next the sun rises again, before we are finally brought back to the midday penetration of overhead sun light casting the space in deep chiaroscuro.

My aim with the work is to invite prolonged engagement with these continually varying representations of the same building. For the entire period of the exhibition the projector continues to rotate allowing visitors to continually view the work, and return to it on multiple occasions. Repetition and variation become key thematics of this serialised representation of Buzludja. The building also becomes the technical support for the work, as the building’s own circumference defines the cameras’ locations and the distance through which the cameras finally travel. Together the exposures offer multiple images of Stoilov’s building, featuring the mosaics produced by a team of Bulgarian artists, the refuse that tourists have left after their forced entry to the site and the wreckage now left by acts of theft, vandalism, and the forces of nature. The building now simultaneously embodies the multiple acts of production and its significance for a contemporary audience lies in the layering of their historical accumulation. In this way, I have invited people before my work to engage in a critical reading of the Buzludja site in its current state.

I intended for the work to take on an allegorical structure in the manner articulated by Craig Owens in his 1983 essay The Allegorical Impulse: Towrds a Theory of Postmodernism. My photographic intervention within the site becomes a vehicle for traversing through and reading the Buzludja site, as well as, through the carrousel’s perpetual rotations, suggesting the accumulation of time within the site. In this way I understand the work to be a palimpsest in the manner described by Owens, as ‘one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be’.(5) Palimpsests are re-usable writing media from which text can be scrapped off allowing new writing, yet with each new inscription traces of former texts remain. Thus, whilst one reads the most recent writing, one is also made aware of the previous writings with which it mingles. At Buzludja the production and gradual dismantling of the site makes the layering of these multiple writings especially apparent, and in this way perhaps my own intention originates in the impulse towards allegory that Owens identified with critical postmodernism. Owens describes this through Robert Smithson’s comment that ‘in the illusory babels of language, an artist might advance in order to get lost’(6). By traversing the multiple layers of cultural meaning embedded in the ruined structure of Buzludja, I believe that such an activity could yield productive reconsiderations of not only Bulgaria’s cultural history, but also of what Socialism might mean in a twenty-first century context, here and beyond. Indeed, this was my intention in the day’s work I undertook as a cameraman within this space.

The work then brings together the sequence of the day, as mechanistically ordered by the slide carousels, with the historical sequence of time, as captured by the memorialising function of the Monument itself and the murals’ depiction of Bulgarian history. The conjunction of past, present and future that I wanted to generate is indebted to Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeiten, or ‘the time of now’(7). In this formulation, each passing moment contains the possibility of redeeming the past in a way that might transform future circumstances. Benjamin says, “For the revolutionary thinker, the peculiar revolutionary chance offered by every historical moment gets its warrant from the political situation. But it is equally grounded, for this thinker, in the right of entry which the historical moment enjoys vis-a-vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked.”(8) Through this work, then, I want to invite both remembrance and re-evaluation of the problems and opportunities of Bulgaria’s past, a history that I believe at this moment of rapid political change across the globe might also carry broader international significance.

(1) See David Harvey, Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction. “Neoliberalization has in effect swept across the world like a vast tidal wave of institutional reform and discursive adjustment, and while there is plenty of evidence of its uneven geographical development, no place can claim total immunity.” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography, Vol. 88, No. 2, Geography and Power, the Power of Geography (2006), pp. 145-158.

(2) Carey Young, Statement concerning the work Memento Park (2010), http://www.careyyoung.com/past/mementopark.html [accessed 18/01/13].

(3) Chaubin considers that his project “reveal[s] an unexpected rebirth of imagination, an unknown burgeoning that took place from 1970 until 1990.” Frédéric Chaubin, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, (Cologne: Taschen, 2011), book information on rear cover.

(4) This project aimed to “analyse and compare the production of built environment in two opposed economic and political systems: those of socialist Yugoslavia and the market-based democracies that emerged out of its collapse.” Unfinished Modernisations, About Project, http://www.unfinishedmodernisations.net/pages/about-project-2 [accessed 18/01/13].

(5) Craig Owens, The Allegorial Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernis,m, October, Vol .12, (Spring 1980), p. 69.

(6) Robert Smithson, ‘A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art’, in Robert Smithson: Collected Writings, (Los Angeles: Univeristy of California Press, 1996), p 78. Quoted in Craig Owens, The Allegorial Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernis,m, October, Vol .12, (Spring 1980), p. 60.

(7) Walter Benjamin, Thesis on the Philosophy of History, translated by Harry Zorn, in ‘Illuminations’ (London: Pimlico, 1999), p 255.

(8) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. by Marcus Bollock; Michael W. Jennings, Vol. 4, (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 401-402.

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