text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Pavel Koychev puts up quirky sculpture group by... motorway

the bathing 2.jpg

Sculptor Pavel Koychev, a household name for anyone interested in Bulgarian art in the past 50 years, marked his 82nd birthday with inviting a select group of individuals to attend the inauguration of an idiosyncratic installation by the village of Osikovitsa just off the Hemus Motorway, at the end of May. The "sculptures" – foldouts depicting famous works of art through the centuries – were planted, using an elaborate mechanism involving ropes and weights, inside a lake behind the wall of a service station. They include the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, David by Michelangelo, The Three Graces by Raphael, La Maja Desnuda by Francisco Goya, Venus of Willendorf, the famous ancient Egyptian women wearing kohl from a tomb mural in Thebes, one of Modigliani's females, Venus of Milos and numerous very Bulgarian donkeys, horses and water buffalos in various stages of water submergence. Usually, the lake all of those float in is clear and blue. On such days visitors can even hire a waterbike and go around the installation. But after the by now characteristically Balkan heavy rains the water turns brown with mud: a cagey wink by Pavel Koychev to the current state of politics and society in this country.

Koychev, who has made a name for himself internationally, usually works in bronze. His works can be seen in galleries and museums through Europe. But he is no stranger to other materials, including twigs and mud, nor to politically loaded art. His notorious Inhabited Housing, made of twigs, mud and manure was placed in front of the... Office of the President, in 2000. It was later transported out of Bulgaria and installed at the Notre Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels.

The Bathing and its author

The Bathing and its author

Another work of his, Dung Beetle, made almost entirely of wood and manure, was put up in front of the National Place of Culture in Sofia. It stayed there for a few days, but under the cover of night was dismantled and stolen by Bulgarians in search of... firewood. Koychev was interviewed about the incident in New York. The kneejerk reaction of the Americans was to alert Interpol and start a search for the Dung Beetle. A search for something made of wood and manure that had long been put in someone's heater, Koychev remembers?

Predictably, Pavel Koychev is no stranger to political controversy. In the early 2010s he was approached by the city council of Tsarevo, at the southern Black Sea coast, to erect a statue to replace an old light beacon placed on a rock in the sea. The beacon had been destroyed by a storm. Koychev took the task seriously and devised a figure resembling the famous stone caryatids of the Thracian tomb at Sveshtari. The city council, at the time controlled by Boyko Borisov's GERB, was happy. Koychev went ahead. But contention was quick to ensue, including by the Orthodox Church. Why should we represent pagan figures, the Archbishop of Sliven wrote in a letter? Why not a Bulgarian saint? In the meantime, Boyko Borisov's government fell. The BSP, or Bulgarian Socialist Party, took over. It was quick to ban the project, saying the rock in the sea was the property of the state rather than the local council, and consequently the mayor could not make decisions about it... The "caryatid" did materialise but it is now placed on the Tsarevo quay. Koychev was bitter: "It was a sculpture designed to stand in water, not on the mainland. I would have accepted artistic criticism, but not political, even less so clerical one."

A Modigliani nude and a Minoan fisherman share a pond by a Bulgarian highway

A Modigliani nude and a Minoan fisherman share a pond by a Bulgarian highway

Koychev also laments the fact that, with a few passing exceptions, no modern public art has been erected anywhere in Bulgaria. What Bulgarian urban decisionmakers are interested in is overwhelmingly sculptures of bearded 19th century freedom fighters and historical national heroes.

The Bathing sculpture group is on the land of an entrepreneur, Miroslav Mihaylov, who bucks the trend of the business community pouring resources into modern church building and icon painting. Up the road from the small lake with The Bathing there is a large permanent exhibition of white sculptures by Pavel Koychev well as an eco-friendly house, "a plastic art space that can be inhabited."

The Originals

The Originals, a permanent exhibition of Pavel Koychev's art can be seen a hundred yards uphill from The Bathing

The Osikovitsa artworks are easy to reach by motorists but you have to know which turn to take. At the 70th kilometre of the Hemus Motorway out of Sofia, watch for the OMV service station. Once off the motorway, make a sharp right turn towards where it says KFC takeaway orders. You will be out of the fence in minute. Then take the first left. A tiny asphalt road will take you to the Bathers in less than 100 metres. 


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