For Nedko Solakov’s touring retrospective, ‘All in Order, with Exceptions’, each of the four venues presents a unique set of works chosen according to strict curatorial criteria imposed by the artist. First, Solakov prepared a comprehensive image catalogue of every work he made between 1980 and 2010 – a collection of 5,683 digital files. From this archive, curators from IKON Gallery in Birmingham, S.M.A.K in Ghent and Museu Serralves in Porto each selected a set of 30 works for their own institution, under the strict condition the each could only include one work from a given year. The exhibition’s final venue, Galleria Civica – Solakov’s commercial gallery in Trento – will feature the artist’s own selection from the works rejected by the curators.
At S.M.A.K., Solakov slyly expanded this salon des refusés by making images of all the unchosen works accessible to the public in folders containing an overwhelming 1,353 pages of documentation. THE FOLDERS (2011) – the ‘31st work’ in the show – constitutes a unique archive scattered throughout the gallery space, smuggling in everything that was initially excluded by the curators. It’s hard to tell if Solakov’s choice undermines the very idea of a retrospective or genuinely seeks to present his achievements in their totality. There is a paradox embedded in ‘All in Order, with Exceptions’, a contradiction between an overdose of information and a haunting impression of incompleteness (we are, after all, aware that there are three more versions of the exhibition). This ambiguity is characteristic of Solakov’s often humorous and ironic oeuvre.
Throughout the exhibition at S.M.A.K., which features everything from doodles on the walls, to paintings, videos and large-scale installations, Solakov offers a pretext to looking at his artistic production through his own figure as ‘the artist’. The first room contains a complex installation entitled This is me, too... (1996–2005) encapsulating absurd incarnations of Solakov dressed as ‘The Humble Snowflake’ or ‘The Ammonite’. The oldest work in the show is also a self-portrait: the painting Studio (1980) represents the artist lying in bed, perhaps thinking, or in a state of idleness, while occupying the space traditionally connected to professional activity.
If one can see Solakov as performing this futile action against the official Communist rhetoric of his native Bulgaria at the time, it also represents the usual first take on him, namely, his status as an Eastern European artist. His 1989 work The View to the West originally consisted of a telescope pointing west, paradoxically focusing on the iconic red star crowning the Communist party headquarters in Sofia. An ironic and semi-exotic take on the artist’s homeland also reappears in 2008 in A Recent Story with Ghosts, a Pair of High-Heeled Shoes, (a Couple of Floods) and Some Other Mischievous Acts, a large-scale installation which portrays Bulgaria as a country in which disasters and accidents are attributed to the ghosts of medieval emperors rather than inefficient politicians – a witty but bitter reflection on national identity and the country’s current state of affairs.
The tension between Solakov’s Communist past and his attempts to overcome it recurs in his work. But it is this tension that reveals the strategic equilibrium he maintains between the local context in which he makes his work and the more global context in which he knows it will be received. The works included here range from subtle institutional critique and questioning of the art market to timely issues like the value of money and the banking system. The trajectory allows us to identify the persistence of certain motifs, but also to spot Solakov’s moments of searching and transition – often aimed at transgressing the local art circuit and establishing his international career. We can observe, for example, how his written texts switch from Bulgarian into English, or read his disarmingly honest confession about the influence of Anselm Kiefer on his work after attending documenta 8 in 1987. Not least, the format of the show itself, and its comprehensive catalogue, proves that Solakov is a skilled promoter of his art.
Solakov’s constant self-consciousness is reflected in his trademark texts, which often accompany his works or even constitute the works themselves – from spontaneous additions scribbled on the wall to lengthy informational captions. Regardless of their status, they have a personal, casual tone, in which he exposes his concerns and unveils his weaknesses. In Fear (2003), Solakov (who is afraid of flying) presents small clumps of clay he squeezed in his fists while on a plane. The modest sculptures occupy a small surface of a table, but the narration describing his phobia takes over a whole wall next to it. In Solakov’s practice everything seems to be justified and transparent. The author’s comments leave little space for doubts or mystery.
On the other hand, A Life (Black and White) (1998–ongoing) is a performance without text, involving two people: one is instructed to paint the walls of the gallery white, while the other effaces them with black paint. Rather than a monochromatic binary between black and white, the abstract splashes and drops of paint on the floor remind us of the intervening shades of grey. Seeing this simple yet deeply existential work alongside more revealing and effusive text-based pieces, I couldn’t stop thinking: if so many lines have been written, is there still a need to read between them?