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Both Sides Now

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In the Greek myth, Tiresias one day came upon two snakes in amorous embrace. He struck the female snake with his staff. The goddess Hera was so furious at this act that she transformed Tiresias from male to female. For seven years, Tiresias lived as a woman, even giving birth to a child. Once again encountering two coupling snakes, Tiresias deployed his staff, but this time with a purpose, and was transformed back into a man.

Zeus and Hera were having an argument about who derived the most pleasure from sex - and they went to the only person they knew who could definitively resolve the issue. Knowing what happens to a mortal who offends the gods, Tiresias was reluctant to give an answer. Prodded by the two deities, he sided with Zeus -- that women are the luckier gender in this regard. A poor loser, Hera rewarded Tiresias for his umpire skills by blinding him. Zeus tried to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy.

Most people of a certain age in East-Central Europe have seen both sides of the major split of the 20th century. They grew up under Communism, and then after a certain point they suddenly were living under capitalism. It was as if, in 1989, the gods had effected a great transformation not of one person but of many.

The art gallery owner and curator Stephan Stoyanov knows perhaps better than anyone about this transformation. At this point, he has lived exactly half his life under Communism and half under capitalism. More importantly, he has experienced the most intense versions of the two.

As a young man, he studied at the Karl Marx Higher Institute of Economics in Sofia, the academic nerve center of Communism. He was majoring in accounting, a field he didn't like very much, and expected to work as an accountant for a state-owned firm back in his hometown.

Then 1989 happened, and Stoyanov seized the opportunity to leave Bulgaria and follow his dream of studying art history. He ended up in New York City where he worked on Wall Street as a stockbroker for 18 months. Finally, though, he was able to break into the art world. Now he runs his own gallery, located on the Lower East Side, where I recently interviewed him during an exhibition of Renata Poljak's work on the conflicting memories of the Communist and post-Communist periods.

"You should see this particular document that Renata Poljak did, Staging Actors, Staging Beliefs," he told me in between chatting up visitors and potential buyers and several visiting artists including Renata Poljak herself. "When I watched it, I have to confess that I started dying inside because it was so much me in many ways. Back then there were some great things -- free education, free medical system. And the education was far superior than today. It was also very safe. I could walk through the parks. Now I can't. People had jobs. Yes, our basic needs were barely satisfied. But you don't need much actually. This whole madness of consuming endlessly, it's not good either. It's another extreme. Before, under Communism, people were judged by who they are and by their deeds. Now, more and more, particularly in Bulgaria, people are judged by what they own. And this is very wrong."

But because he has seen both sides now -- "from up and down and still somehow" as Joni Mitchell crooned -- Stoyanov added, "There were amazing things about the system and awful things about the system. We couldn't say what we think. We couldn't leave when we wanted to. We couldn't move from town to town freely. All creativity was controlled. So there are pros and cons to both systems."

The Interview

There was a point when Eastern European art became the "it" thing.

It hasn't been that hot. It's a perception. Probably the most appreciated has been the Leipzig school among the collecting community. Now very trendy is a school from Romania. Trends come and go.

There were a couple key exhibitions like Land of Blood and Honey. But it seemed like interest peaked around that and then people went off to other parts of the world.

Yes, that's always been part of imperial thinking, historically, as well as human nature. Here, the interest hasn't peaked yet. There was one big show at the New Museum called Ostolgia. It was very inclusive. But there was no one from Bulgaria. I was very offended. But I was happy that there was a show about my part of the world in America. My friend Christopher Eamon also curated a show in Canada, and I helped him meet with curators and artists in certain of the countries. We had a small budget, so it was a very targeted, short trip, and we had to come up with a lot of ideas.

Do you think Ostolgia cohered as a show in terms of being more than just the sum of its parts?

There are different schools in the different countries. I'm often opposed to this kind of shows because they're very general. They create a kind of ghetto. At the same time, because America is the empire, it's a good way to start somewhere. So, at the end of the day, I'm pro those shows.

What stays with me is one room done by a Serbian artist who did a very obsessive and yet simple conceptual gesture, taking pages from the dictionary, erasing the meanings and putting "pain, pain, pain." So, the whole room was covered in pain. That was the core for me, that particular piece. All the other ones I've forgotten.

You said that as you get older, your sensibility is veering back toward Bulgaria or Eastern Europe.

I miss my country! I miss the people that I love. I have not given a solo show to a Bulgarian artist yet. My gallery is my psychoanalyst. It's where I'm most honest. I'm trying to be very strict with it. It hasn't happened yet but it will happen. I've helped various Bulgarian artists in different ways and I've involved a lot of Bulgarian artists in my group shows, putting their works in a larger context. I wouldn't do a Bulgarian show per se, because I don't think it's right because of what I was just saying about the ghetto thing.

When you go back to Bulgaria, what do you miss the most, other than the people?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.