Conceptual artist Alla Georgieva infuriates audiences by slaughtering the best-kept sacred cows
Sexy girls in folklore costumes against a background of blue mountains and roses... isn't that a publicity stunt designed by one of the genius publicists of Bulgaria's National Tourism Agency and paid for with government money? Do look closer, however, and you'll catch a glimpse of some naughty lingerie and garters underneath. No, that cannot be Aneliya Krushkova's invention – and certainly the establishment, which has recently learned some lessons in modern art appreciation, won't approve.
This sort of politically sensitive art, by now old hat for years in the West, used to be very popular in Britain and the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Bulgaria has been a bit slow to catch up. And it now takes a Ukrainian-born woman to pave the way.
Alla Georgieva's Bulgarian Souvenir is an ironic interpretation of the stereotypical image of this country as a tourist destination of beautiful landscapes and cultural traditions, as opposed to the more realistic venue for cheap resorts, booze and sex. The Bulgarian Souvenir project includes a series of photographs, a one-minute animated film of two girls dancing to the sound of an acapella choir performing a lazar song, or song celebrating the coming of spring.
A Boat Trip
The installation also features a rug and a pillow decorated with interwoven advertisements of erotic clubs and escort services' phone numbers. The project was shortlisted for the Gaudentz B. Ruf Award for Contemporary Art 2007 and was shown as part of the Kunstraum Kreuzberg Bethanien exhibition in Berlin the following year.
Obviously, Bulgarian Souvenir is a parody of Bulgaria's main cultural export, folklore, but it is also a response to human trafficking and prostitution. "Sex tourism will be the future of Bulgaria unless things get under control," says Alla, who has been closely following the debate on legalising prostitution in Bulgaria. "The rationale for those in favour – that it would fill the state coffers, for example – disguises a deeply hypocritical attitude. People know that everybody in Bulgaria is a tax dodger. It is immoral to fill the state coffers by taking a cut from human flesh sales, be it legal or not."
Alla Georgieva has gained notoriety in Bulgaria for her uncompromising social commentary in her photography and video projects, and her lasting interest in what in Britain is known as gender art. She is one of the founders of the female artists association, 8th of March, established in 1997. Named after the Communist-era International Women's Day, the group is trying to promote contemporary women artists' ideas.
That purpose has been achieved through organising over a dozen exhibitions in places as far apart as Sofia, Dimitrovgrad (in southern Bulgaria), New York and Istanbul. Alla's Secret, one of her previous projects where she poses in lingerie – not against the sort of backdrop you find in expensive advertisements, but in her own kitchen, surrounded by dishes she has cooked – has become a part of the permanent collection of contemporary Bulgarian art at the Sofia City Gallery.
Alla, an enthusiastic collector of trash memorabilia showing women as sex objects, has focussed most of her unflinchingly provocative work on representations of what many Bulgarians, including MPs, refer to as "the weaker sex." In 2006, the Exit Gallery in New York showed her New Hedonism project, consisting of huge photographs of young girls breastfeeding pets. "The family does not exist as a structural unit anymore," she says. "Even in the patriarchal Bulgarian society, many young women prefer their career to marriage and motherhood. There are, of course, others – models and mutresi, or girlfriends of criminals, who consider themselves to be a man's gift in the form of a sex object."
But it is not only feminist topics that attract the artist's critical attention. Her works include Happy Birthday to You!, touching on the increasingly frequent gun shootings at schools. She makes posters reminiscent of advertising campaigns: She takes pictures of boys with real guns and rifles, and decorates cakes with images of non-fairytale characters, a father beating up his wife in front of the children, or people in bathing costumes reading the newspaper around a swimming pool while someone is drowning in it.
"There are different things that attract me or annoy me," says Alla. "When something makes an impression on me, I begin to observe it. I collect information and grasp the bigger picture." This is the formula for Alla's most recent show, Tales of Love, Great and Small at the ARC Projects Gallery in Sofia at the beginning of 2009. In it Alla Georgieva plays with Lenin, Hitler and Stalin as gentle and romantic lovers and husbands.
Her 20-year long career as a cartoonist has perhaps played a significant role in conditioning Alla's approaches to 21st Century Bulgaria. Together with her husband Chavdar Georgiev, Alla has created thousands of cartoons, satirical paintings and illustrations. In 2008, the couple received the Grand Prix for caricature from the Union of Bulgarian Artists.
One of their most famous recent works is a representation of Stefan Sofiyanski, the former mayor of Sofia. The pair depicted Sofiyanski, who had achieved a sort of record by getting himself acquitted of corruption charges on four occasions, wearing a prison-like Armani pin-stripe suit.
Alla and Chavdar's works have been purchased by the Cartoon Museum in Basel and the House of Humour in Gabrovo. They have been published in Bulgarian and foreign magazines, including the American Witty World, the German Eulenspiegel and the Polish Spillki.
Cartoons are a fast, precise and democratic form of art, says Alla. They are also very powerful – a good cartoon is stronger than a strong newspaper report. "Look at what happened to the Danish cartoons or to the Entropa installation by David Cerny, which uses the language of caricature."
Spring Is Here
Alla Georgieva was born in Ukraine. She graduated from the Kharkov Art and Design Academy in 1978. Three years later she came to Bulgaria with her Bulgarian husband.
The fact that she was a foreigner would get her involved in a controversy. In 2005, Alla joined "The Wonderful Art" initiative by the Ultrafuturo group of radical artists. Members of the group slashed their wrists in front of the audience in the Academia Gallery and covered a white piece of cloth with the blood, exemplifying their attitude towards a large-scale exhibition by the most famous artist of Bulgarian origin, Christo, that was taking place at the gallery at the same time.
"We are against the commercialisation of art. Christo's current project at the time, The Gates, was backed by $26 million in funding. But we believe that art does not need to be backed by huge amounts of money so that it can be seen and appreciated by a broad public.The work and the ideas of artists are more important than money. At present, it is mainly artists who shock people – like Damien Hirst, who covers human skulls with diamonds. We wanted to draw a line."
Critics have referred to the blood painting act as the Russian artists' initiative (the Russian-born Oleg Mavromati is a member of Ultrafuturo). "This upset me. Artists have been living and working in various countries for a long time now. National identity is an anachronism. Besides, everybody has the right to express their opinion."
Such controversies aside, the greatest challenge to Alla – and others creating art that is not liked by the current "patriotic" establishment – is financial. The prevailing opinion is that all great artists are dead; most galleries sell mainly handicraft souvenirs. The only commercial gallery for contemporary art, the pioneering ARC Projects, was established just last year.