An abandoned penguin is left with the police. The chief tells one of his constables to take the poor thing to the zoo. Later that day he runs into his subordinate strolling through the city, ice-cream in hand and penguin still in tow. ‘Didn’t I tell you to take that thing to the zoo?’ the chief yells. ‘Yes Sir’, comes the reply. ‘Been to the zoo, Sir, now we’re going to the cinema.’
Telling jokes is a conversational skill. It is about keeping communication in flux. Nedko Solakov knows how to do this. In this sardonically titled retrospective ‘A 12 1/3 (and even more) Year Survey’ he keeps the ball rolling without settling for a winning formula. It’s not just punchlines that his work thrives on (though there are some good ones), but rather the exploration of different styles of humour. Solakov treats humour not as a general attitude to life but as a cultural practice, a set of flexible techniques that vary according to the context. In Fear (2002–3) Solakov uses a joke as a personal tactic to fight his fear of flying. After being invited to the Biennale of Ceramics in Albisola, he had some fine Italian clay sent to him, which he squeezed in his hands to relieve the tension the next time he boarded a plane. Solakov presented the resulting fist-sized lumps, shaped by the cramps of panic, alongside the boarding slips. The piece may have served its therapeutic function, but at the same time the absurd blobs of precious clay mock the very concept of art as therapy. Negotiations (2003) deals with a different sort of anxiety. Solakov was invited to show in Palestine but was nervous about going there and so went to the embassies of Israel and Palestine in his home town, Sofia, to discuss the possibility of a ceasefire during his visit. The ambassadors elaborated on the history of the conflict and the chances of reconciliation. One delivered a speech; the other showed educational films. Solakov recorded both on video and now displays these together with a written explanation of his quest. The irony of the work lies in the fact that the candour of Solakov’s inquiry exposes the absurdity of the diplomatic answers. It’s a classic comic role reversal. By assuming the role of the fool, the protagonist reveals the naivety that underpins the discourse of the authorities. (Remember the penguin.)
The installation The Truth (The Earth is Plane, The World is Flat) (1992–5) in turn addresses the psychology of politics on the level of society at large. You enter a rounded space cluttered with strange archive material, including cut-up globes, newspaper cuttings and children’s drawings. On the wall is written: ‘What do the 72-year-old Nobel prizewinner physicist Dr Haraldar Gusstalsan, the obscure Bulgarian artist Sundy Levakov, the sailor Rodald Berikow, the astronaut Vitali R., the skilful politician Philip Mason, a bum named Goro and a seven-year-old girl have in common? You don’t know, do you? Well, all seven (and a lot more people as well) have recently experienced the sudden revelation that the earth is actually flat. Since that moment they have begun living their lives in incredible spiritual harmony.’ The various bits of paraphernalia in the installation now become legible as documents of the ecstatic belief shared by the characters in the story. The work thus becomes a parable for the collective experience of life in a (post-) Soviet country such as Bulgaria, gently mocking the comfort a society finds in the communal illusion of ideology.
Here Solakov identifies with the political history of his country through humour. Yet it is precisely this association with a national identity that he makes fun of in This is me, too (1996–2000). At Manifesta 1 this piece was installed in the National History Museum in Rotterdam. It is a cabinet of curious artefacts, photographs and videos that show Solakov assuming other identities in bizarre costumes. His alter egos include a ‘105-kilo snowflake’ and an ‘ammonite with teeth problems’. Considering the Biennale politics of showcasing artists as representatives of their particular culture, Solakov’s cabaret of crooked characters could be seen as ridiculing both the urge to pin down the identity of an artist and the desire to elude such identifications.
While in this work Solakov uses humour to produce a specific response to a particular situation, the Wallpaper project (1993– ongoing) invokes a broader sense of humour as the free play of wit. Solakov puts up wallpaper incorporating traditional prints (from a local context) and then draws all over it. At first glance the paper seems untouched. It’s only when you look closely, bend down or crane your neck to inspect the corners, that you spot Solakov’s tiny figures, comments and doodles, ranging from the pointed to the silly and from the childish to the obscene. Throughout his work humour emerges either as a personal strategy for coping with crises or as the collective practice of a society to come to terms with its contradictions, as situation comedy or as repartee, and fundamentally as a philosophy lacking institutions but with many practical applications.