“Searching for information on something that happened in Bulgaria 30 years ago is much like being an archaeologist collecting evidence on an event that occurred many centuries ago.”
Sofia-born artist Nikola Mihov has been documenting the fate of communist-era public monuments scattered around his homeland for the last few years, amassing a growing body of images and text.
Political controversy surrounding Bulgaria’s communist years, as well as pure negligence, have ensured this is not a straightforward task.
“Many of the archives were destroyed on purpose because they were related to communism. Others were lost because the people behind them were simply not around anymore,” Mihov says.
A select few of these images can presently be seen at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, part of an exhibition labeled “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast.”
Mihov, who currently splits his time between Sofia and Paris, was 7 years old when communism, under strongman Todor Zhivkov, came to an end. He experienced the early transitional years as a schoolboy before his mother’s job as a diplomat took the family to France. After spending five years in Western Europe, Mihov found he had to move back in 2006. His French was not good enough to gain him a place in the French university system, something which would also have bagged him a visa. “After I came back, I had this feeling of a huge gap. So I began researching,” he says.
Filling the gap
Influenced by the communist-style imagery of his childhood years, Mihov went on to capture black-and-white, mainly frontal views of these monuments. The pictures of the abandoned, derelict and vandalized anti-utopia structures resonate with the ostentatious statements of socialist realism; the grandeur of the concrete masses and statues is still there, but Mihov manages to show how they have sunken into reality.
Interest in them first came from outside Bulgaria. In the fall of 2009, a French magazine did a story on the photos and, a few months later, Mihov was selected for London’s Photomonth festival. “Bulgarians are like that. Once your name is heard abroad, then there is suddenly interest at home,” he says.
Another exhibition followed in Sofia. Mihov began to meet more and more people who were related to these monuments in one way or another. “I spent five years studying archives, meeting with architects, sculptors and construction workers who were still alive. One person would lead me to the next,” he says.
Inevitably, he also visited the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Located on Buzludzha, a peak in the Central Balkan Mountains, it is Bulgaria’s biggest monument and looks like a concrete Starship Enterprise. The memorial, which took seven years to build, opened in 1981. No longer maintained, it has fallen prey to vandals and time. A huge piece of graffiti painted above the main entrance reads “Forget your past.” “It was the perfect name for the project,” Mihov says.
“I do not believe that we should forget the past, and that is why I did this project,” he says. “However, I feel awkward when journalists ask me if I feel nostalgia. You cannot feel nostalgic about something you did not really experience. The new generation is not nostalgic. The problem is that there is not enough information.”
The exhibition “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast” features works by 22 artists from 11 countries. The works, which include photographs and video footage, explore different aspects of collective memory in the region, such as landmarks, places and cultures of memory as well as the role of the image in each process.
The show, a collaboration between the Goethe Institute and the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, has been curated by Constanze Wicke. It will remain in Thessaloniki through May 18.
Bulgaria’s communist regime came to an end in 1989. Elections held in the summer of the following year were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party – basically the rebranded communists. Bulgaria, a close ally of Moscow in communist times, is now a member of NATO and the European Union. A recent Eurostat survey found Bulgaria is by far the most unhappy country in the bloc.
“There is all this opposition between the people who love the country’s [communist] past and those who hate it. But there are also those who just don’t know enough about it. I am part of that group, and I am trying to delve deeper and deeper,” Mihov says.
“It is not safe to generalize about the whole period – a long 45 years – and, similarly, it is not safe to generalize about the monuments. Some are ugly, some are impressive, some are unbelievable. But they are all here, and they are part of our history.”
Museum of Photography, 1st Floor, Warehouse A, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port; Army Warehouses, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port. Opening hours are Tuesdays-Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, log on to www.thmphoto.gr.