06/03/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

Curating the Curators

There is an art to curation. Curators must not only choose the works for an exhibition, which involves making aesthetic judgments about "good" and "bad" as well as what fits together according to the exhibition's theme. Curators must also provide a context for understanding the art. They put texts on the wall that identify histories, genealogies, themes. They produce catalogs that provide even more exhaustive information. In some cases, in this flashy capitalist world where advertising offers more than the product, this curatorial packaging can be more interesting than the art itself. Or, in the hands of a poor curator, the show can be less than the sum of its parts.

In the same way that curation sometimes aspires to the same level of art as the contents of the exhibition itself, some artists are becoming almost curatorial in their approach.

Luchezar Boyadjiev was trained as an art historian -- in fact, in the same institute in Sofia that produced Bulgaria's most famous artist, Christo. This course of study included training in all the traditional disciplines of drawing, painting, printmaking. He has also worked as a curator. So he is well positioned to create art that blurs the distinction between artist and curator.

Consider the piece he did for a show on contemporary art in the Balkans in 2003 in Kassel, Germany - and subsequently in several other places -- that he called Schadenfreude Guided Tours. Rather than provide a static piece of art that could be enclosed in a space defined as "Balkan art," Boyadjiev himself showed up in the gallery. In some sense, he refused to be curated, to be packaged.

"I insisted that I stay for seven weeks at the exhibition," he told me one evening last September at a café in Sofia. "I did these tours for six or seven hours a day, as long as there were people there to listen to me. I was cross-referencing the works from different countries and artists, and there were nearly 120 artworks at this exhibition from all over the Balkans. I was drawing on everything from personal gossip to very complex issues related to the issue. That made it worth my while to be in that show."

In other words, Boyadjiev was re-curating the show according to his own experience and his own judgments. "I called it Schadenfreude because I would take pleasure in the fact that the other artists were not there and I could say what I wanted about their art," he told me. But that of course is what a curator does: they speak of the art in the absence of the artist.

We talked about the trajectory of his artistic career as well as his disenchantment with theory, the challenges of establishing an art culture in Bulgaria, and the failure of understanding the contributions of Muslims in Bulgaria.

The Interview

How did 1989 change your artwork?

Up until 1995, there was a general interest in the art produced in what was considered Eastern Europe. In the second half of the 1990s, the idea of "East" shifted: to the Far East, then the Muslim East, then the Central Asian East. This is one thing to consider.

Also, the second half of the 1990s ushered in the digital era and new media art. There were a lot of expectations and investment in this field, and some people hoped that the Internet would solve all issues connected to separation and participation, which happened to a certain extent. We learned a lot, but we didn't solve anything. Then came 9/11, and all of a sudden people realized that the divides are not what they used to be. Other divides exist, and the world is more complex and difficult to navigate.

My work has shifted from first dealing with science and recognizable iconological entities and codes of visual language taken from different cultures, such as astrology or religion or the newspaper. I would take these and invest them with something of where I come from. Ten years ago, I was more interested in interviewing people and making video portraits of them. Then from 2002-3 up until two or three years ago, my work consisted of two lines. One was a lot of photographs and texts related to the changing face of cities all over the world in the context of global capitalism -- post-socialist, neocolonial, or desert capitalism like in Dubai -- and comparing these developments in architecture, advertising, public monuments, the behavior of people on the streets.

The other trend was more performative. I started developing a work called Schadenfreude Guided Tours. I would stay after the opening of an exhibition for as long as possible giving guided tours to the show. It would be organized, with the agreement of the curators, and I would interact with the audience by animating the space. I called it Schadenfreude because I would take pleasure in the fact that the other artists were not there and I could say what I wanted about their art. I could put them down or whatever! I did this in Kassel in 2003 at a show on contemporary art in the Balkans, then in Sharjah in 2005 in the United Arab Emirates, then at the Biennale in Singapore in 2006 and 2008; as well as in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a completely different context. In 2008, I also did it in Jerusalem, which is obviously a very tough place to present anything - the place is already heavily loaded politically.

That was all until the financial crisis struck. I was in Singapore when Lehman Brothers collapsed. I was talking to people from hedge funds, sovereign investment funds. Once again the world changed at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009. All of a sudden a huge part of art-making and art exhibitions disappeared for a while. I now sell more, which is good, but I'm no longer an unknown quantity; people know that they won't lose money if they invest in what I do. But it's getting tougher and tougher for younger artists. Very often when they construct a budget for an institution or an exhibition, the last thing on their agenda is a small payment to the artists, who are workers just like anybody else. It's almost taken for granted that artists are very vain and happy to show their works. Well, I don't want to show my work any more just like that. I want to show my work to people who appreciate it, who are prepared to sacrifice something to see it just as I am sacrificing something, not much perhaps, to make it.

Here I am almost quoting literally the American artist Mark Rothko, a top abstract expressionist who committed suicide in the 1970s after creating his chapel in Houston. In the late 1960s, when he was at the top of his game and getting high prices for his paintings, a collector asked him, "Why do you charge me so much for this painting. It's very minimal." Rothko answered, "My friend, I have paid with my life and blood and everything for the whimsy to want to make it. Now you have to pay with your money for the whimsy to want to have it."

There are some very good corporate collections made by curators who assist collecting in a responsible way. But that unfortunately is missing from this country. Business in Bulgaria is international. You can no longer say that this is only a Bulgarian corporation. But we have failed to educate them. The most powerful corporations and businessmen have developed tastes that range from total kitsch to just plain cheating. There was, for instance an exhibition of Salvador Dali at the National Gallery for Foreign Art two years ago without a single "work" by the artist that has his signature on it. It was just lithographic reproductions of his drawings...

This is a country without a history of collecting, except for the collection of Bulgarian art, which is original. There are some very nice pieces of foreign art at the museums, but there is nothing of masterpiece quality. It's spotty, uneven.

In this way, we're back to where we started in the 1970s and 1980s. In all these countries - here, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union -- you led a double life. You had an official life, like Ilya Kabakov, who was a graphic designer illustrating books for children, which were very didactic in the Soviet Union. And at the same time he was an avant-garde artist. Now it's become divided spatially. I have one kind of existence here, where I am known by the media and colleagues but I am not established. There are hardly any public collections let alone private collections to guarantee some kind of continuity of practice. I matter only outside of Bulgaria, which is my other existence. When I go outside the country, I'm more respected.

You said that Bulgarian companies have become internationalized. I want to apply that to the art world. Do the intermediate terms between global and individual -- East European, Balkan, Bulgarian -- have any meaning today for artists today in Bulgaria?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.