Nedko Solakov, Ears, 2016, aluminum, acrylic, marker pen. Installation view.

Nedko Solakov, Ears, 2016, aluminum, acrylic, marker pen. Installation view.

Nedko Solakov

Nedko Solakov, Ears, 2016, aluminum, acrylic, marker pen. Installation view.

The tailcoat is the traditional costume of the magician, who is the artist’s alter ego. The mannequin sculpture A Magician’s Nightmare, 2016, clad in the aforementioned garment, is, like everything by the Bulgarian turbo-conceptualist Nedko Solakov, rife with mystery and rueful humor. Solakov’s art is highly personal but also political; spirited and witty, humorous and ironic, it unites critique with self-criticism—and sometimes glimpses of something darker. Some writing on the linen straps hanging from pockets hidden in the tailcoat reveals the wearer’s hidden hostility: I HATE PEOPLE, IN GENERAL. MOST OF THEM DON’T DESERVE TO LIVE AND I HAVE TO ENTERTAIN THEM, INSTEAD OF SHOOTING THEM DEAD.

Solakov is a raconteur, and he set up his exhibition “Stories” comprising completely new as well as reassembled pieces—as a cheerful narrative stroll through the gallery. In the vestibule, the arriving visitor was greeted by a teaser of sorts: the wall piece This Show’s Title, 2016, which combines handwriting with textile-covered letters to reveal the show’s (discarded) title: STORIES WITH LONG PROLOGUES, RAPID CLIMAXES AND QUIET ENDINGS. To tour the show was to tease out the themes and theses Solakov had arrayed, layered, and strung across the rooms in a sleek synopsis of his boundless repertoire of media. This 3-D storyboard included an enigmatic ink-and-sepia drawing in three parts, The Thought, 2015–16, blending graphic bravura with bizarre wit and absurd yet astute humor; it narrates an anecdote of how A SMALL, BUT VERY BRIGHT THOUGHT SUDDENLY APPEARED IN THE HEAD OF A STUPID PERSON. The Abstract Painting (with no frame), 2016, short-circuits art-historical know-how with similarly playful irony: Tottering on spindly legs, the square black painting depicted in this work wonders how to escape its gaudy acanthus frame.

More than most of his Eastern European colleagues, Solakov has maintained a steady presence on the contemporary art stage. Documenta, biennials, great museums, leading galleries: These are his terrain. But despite a spectacular international career, he still lives in Sofia, where he was a founder of the city’s ICA in a space he donated. His work is much in demand elsewhere, but he needs to stay in touch with ordinary life in the Bulgarian capital. The historic experience of Communism and the mood of its post-socialist transformation are still relevant to Solakov’s art. They inform the existential side of his oeuvre. Works such as (not)Nervous, Cozy, and An Attempt at Possible Prevention (all 2016) examine personal fears, the desire for security, and various threats. Cast in aluminum, a member of the state security service’s ears (Ears, 2016) were mounted on a wall, one of them upside down, listening to what informers both righteous and sinful whispered to them.

The kicker in the exhibition was The Old Object. It consists of a sculpture dating from 1989 on a new pedestal inscribed with an explanatory story. The young artist built a model of a mausoleum for a dictator out of such sundry leftovers as an Earl Grey tea container. Twenty-seven years later, the object has landed in our capitalist present, when no one’s interested in mausoleums anymore. Solakov, however, thinks the tomb may yet prove useful. There must be something we can carry to its grave: democracy, maybe? In any case, the exhibition concluded with Droppings, 2016, a blob of black bronze on the floor of a darkened room at the far end of the gallery. The piece demanded a gesture of humility from the viewer: To find out what it stands for meant getting on one’s knees.

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Gerritt Jackson.