Nedko Solakov

Nedko Solakov’s installation Mr. Curator, please . . . , 1995, is the third in a series that this Bulgarian artist has devoted to the examination of the ways in which the apparatus of the museum exhibit foregrounds certain aspects of our culture and our institutions. Mr. Curator, please . . . reflects on the practice of collecting by drawing from the museum’s own holdings. The exhibition space, a chapel in Künstlerhaus Bethanien, was ideally suited to the artist’s desire to work against the grain of the art works it “collected.” The course Solakov laid out for us in the darkened chapel ended with a white, empty, brightly lit pedestal, which ultimately served as a place-holder for what is always missing from any version of art history.

In the first part of the show, Solakov spun a tale about the relation between exhibitions and curators. As in real life, in Solakov’s narrative several donors pooled their resources and appointed a curator “to choose an altarpiece from the masterpieces of the giants—Bosch, Breughel, Dürer, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Jan van Eyck.” From this constellation, Solakov sketched, on three levels, a contest of master painters in which the major works of art history as well as their creators were parodied. In the style of a Petersburg salon, a wall draped in black was covered with souvenirs ranging from a Leonardo poster to pornographic adaptations of famous Rubens paintings to a jigsaw puzzle version of a Brueghel (hanging in pieces in a transparent plastic bag). This dark room was illuminated only by a hand-held flashlight, as if one were robbing the museum in the middle of the night. Solakov also showed a documentary video of visits to the national galleries where the originals are normally displayed. In this way, the deconstructed, trashy versions of the works were humorously linked to the real thing.

The second part of the installation consisted of a writing table full of specialized literature and catalogues—the imaginary curator’s work space. As the actual creator of this staged museum, he remained every bit as absent as the artworks to which this faux exhibition paid homage. In the joint absence of curator and works, a slide projector raced through highlights of selected masterpieces on a tiny screen. In addition, a computer had been constructed over whose monitor the portraits of seven artists hovered. Overall, the installation played with the last chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, 1807, in which the philosopher presents his image of the ghosts that linger from history when not sublated into the Absolute Spirit. In art, Hegelian sublation seems itself to have been suspended, to have been denied: all around the room, out of little loudspeakers, the voices of Dürer or Bosch, bickering among themselves over whose works have exerted the greatest influence over history, could be heard. They did not, however, penetrate as far as the empty altar. There, art appeared as an ideal—white, abstract, intellectual.

In 1994, Solakov’s installation The Collector of Art, at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, consisted of treasures brought out of storage as well as permanent exhibits placed in a reconstruction of an African village. The carved Baselitz head G-Head, 1987, as well as Picasso’s The Musketeer, 1972, were returned to their origins in African sculpture, while Ludwig’s practice of collecting art to pave the way for industrial expansion in other countries was evoked as a metaphor for cultural imperialism as a whole. Compared to this rather piercing examination of concrete sociopolitical conditions, the installation in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien seemed almost mannered, though it described quite accurately the way in which the curator frames art history—one need only consider, say, how Jean Clair, for his “Identity and Alterity” exhibition at the Venice Biennale made use of quite far-flung cultural resources to prove a thesis about body-related art.

Harald Fricke

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.