A New York artist who was born in Bulgaria, Daniel Bozhkov makes artworks that involve performances, elaborate installations and a range of comic conceptual conceits. He addresses daunting themes: globalization (he has worked as a greeter at a Wal-Mart, where he painted a fresco), the American vision of masculinity (he released a cologne inspired by Ernest Hemingway), and space flight (he installed a kebab stand near the Berlin Wall in tribute to the first German cosmonaut).
Bozhkov is fascinated at the scope of madness in the world, and takes a special joy in the absurd. For one particularly high-profile project, he made a crop-sign portrait of Larry King and took flying lessons so he could shoot a video from the plane of the image in the field. That footage was picked up by the local news and found its way to King himself, who aired it in the middle of an interview with Matthew Perry (of all people), who had just come out of rehab. Itís a uniquely quixotic work of art.
This winter, the Queens Museum has been hosting a Bozhkov installation titled "Republik of Perpetual Reconstitution and Rebuild," Nov. 1, 2009-Apr. 25, 2010, a work that involves a series of lockers, video projections, Moby Dick coloring books, and a jukebox playing Bach. Itís a far-flung piece that culminates in a square structure of smoked glass panels. One panel is missing, allowing viewers to peer inside, where is seen a full-sized reproduction of Michelangeloís Pieta, lit by a bright spotlight. People are allowed to reach in and touch the sculpture -- which turns out to be a surprisingly moving experience, an unexpected marvel in the secular world of art.
We spoke recently at the Queens Museum.
David Coggins: In your Queens Museum installation, when viewers finally discover your Pieta, theyíre extremely close to it.
Daniel Bozhkov: Youíre right at Jesusí side, where he was pierced by the centurionís spear. Itís a bit like Thomas touching the wound.
DC: If you think about a secular art audience, this work is spiritual, though itís not in a church. You also reference Moby Dick in this piece.
DB: Moby Dick represents the search for something in the natural world.
DC: The whale isnít in the book very much -- which is always surprising.
DB: By the time the whale arrives, everythingís pretty much done. He destroys everything -- heís this menace that ends the book. The book is like the Bible meets the natural history museum. Itís amazing from chapter to chapter -- you have a Shakespearean plot, and then suddenly you know too much about whales, but itís really precise.
In this work, Republik of Perpetual Reconstitution and Rebuild, everything was found at the museum, salvaged from leftovers from the museum expansion. Thereís a depot here that was a site of the 1939 World Fair. That spot was the site of the first United Nations Assembly. So the state of Israel was voted for on this place. When I came there was all this stuff packed in there. There were moldy boxes of books.
DC: Do you like that process of working -- where you respond to something that already has a history?
DB: Iím interested in the transitional nature of a location. Thatís the idea of the Republik. This place has been a different thing several times over -- each one was particular and had to do with hopes and utopias and visions of the future. Moby Dick is interesting in that respect. Moby Dick could be the Russian Revolution in white.
Iím interested in the subject of negative hallucination. A real hallucination is seeing something that isnít there, but a negative hallucination is actually a condition where you donít see something that is there. That happens all the time -- culturally or just visually. Iím not talking about blind spots, but conditioning your mind because thereís something else in the way. It overrides what you see. Itís like hearing Bach from the jukebox -- youíre hearing his music for the first time. It sounds really bad but itís a different music.
DC: Itís like drinking beer out of a coffee cup -- it tastes different. Somebody even said that if you drink red wine and white wine out of silver cups you canít tell which one is which.
DB: Thereís a story somewhere that Native Americans didnít see the Pilgrim ships coming in. Since you havenít seen something like that before you think itís an island.
DC: Your last exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery was an elaborate installation that was inspired by Ikea.
DB: That piece, Advanced Swedish for Beginners, was like a language course. It includes a video of me and a Swedish woman basically going through the Ikea catalogue and she would say the words in Swedish, the way they should be pronounced, like "Odeborg," and I would say "chair with two arms."
And then the other video was called High Altitude. It was basically a drawing I made on the window of an airplane and it was a drawing of the ice that was forming and I did it with this sharpie marker and I tried to erase it and it didnít erase so suddenly this mild panic set it. The whole video has this feeling of an involuntary subversion -- tracing something in public and it becomes a violation.
DC: The video was played very straight and then it becomes funnier.
DB: The whole installation was made of Ikea furniture and hidden behind curtains. Drawings combined Ikea instructions and the Kama Sutra drawings and flight disaster instructions. There were sex scenes next to scenes of assembling furniture or a floating device.
DC: Instructions are so interesting -- they involve what designers think we should know. In Learning to Fly over a Very Large Larry you make a crop drawing of Larry King.
DB: At the beginning it coincided with the release of Signs, the film where Mel Gibson finds aliens in his backyard and theyíve made crop signs. I wanted to enter the public imagination when itís was already charged in a particular way. And Larry King -- he looks like this strange bird. Heís the ultimate host. Heís this incredible curator of guests. Heíll have a major entertainer and somebody who just recently had a fantastic disaster happen to them and then a vice admiral from the war. And theyíre around the same table, one after another. The questions are very benign, like "what happened today?" Very casual and then the admiral starts telling you something in a very specific manner. Itís very particular way of interviewing and the way it deals with democratizing information.
DC: King had Matthew Perry on, and suddenly started to talk about your crop drawing. It was funny and strange, but also out of your hands at that point. Itís entered the media realm with a new life. Do you like relinquishing control like that?
DB: You can take an object or a situation and import it somewhere or export it somewhere and it accumulates debris or resonance. CNN ended up coming to my 2003 exhibition at Kreps Gallery and made a minute-and-a-half segment about the show. Whatever was interesting at first about the piece became completely pulverized, like pulp. It was like a decomposition of all important the elements. I called that piece Remote Control, itís completely done in the language of CNN, a mild entertainment.
DC: So the media inspires you to make a piece that gets fed back into the media and becomes transformed -- the meaning shifts each time.
DB: For me that transformation, that track of abrasions, is very interesting. Itís almost like they become traps for coincidences. Theyíre like elevators to somewhere else.
DC: Does that affect the way you work on projects -- can you play into that and anticipate how the work will be received?
DB: The initial step is important. But you can harvest what you want at a second stage. That happened in the Wal-Mart project, where I painted a fresco in the store and worked as a "people greeter" in the layaway department. The fresco stayed there for five years. It constantly got scratched, and I have photographs of the mural with different things in front of it, like massive air conditioners.
At the end, the painting was damaged. So I invited an Italian restorer, who had worked on Tiepolo frescoes in Brescia, to make an evaluation report on the fresco. He used the phrase "abrazione," abrasions. These huge scratches were the meeting place of the two realities -- Wal-Mart, and something that didnít belong. The heart of the piece is right there.
When Wal-Mart changed its colors globally, from blue and gray to beige and tan, then they had to remove the fresco. Now I have this relic, itís like accelerated archeology. Hundreds of years passed before the Tiepolo restoration, but for me four years was enough.
DC: Youíve got this wide range of interests and references: Wal-Mart, genre films, art historical references, Ikea, Larry King, Ernest Hemingway. What draws you to your subjects?
DB: Iím drawn to subjects that are too large to see. You know how something becomes a clichť -- itís been a common truth for a while, until it becomes something thatís not true, it becomes a false assumption. Iím interested moment where thereís an amnesia or opacity. When something is so visible that you stop seeing it -- thatís the time to pay attention.
DC: You made a fragrance based on Hemingway, Eau DíErnest.
DB: Yes. Hemingway represents an incredible transformation. Through him you can trace the 20th century from its beginnings until the late 1950s. The Lost Generation, hopeful journalist, Paris and world travel, his athletic journalism that changed the English language. By the time he gets to his 50s, heís Papa Hemingway, completely absorbed by Hollywood. He goes on a safari, the big hunt, itís dramatic and tragic -- masculinity and melancholia. Itís the crash of the hero who never recovered, the singular knight who became the anonymous soldier. His masculinity had to be overplayed, because it was lost.
DC: Is it overwhelming dealing with a broad subject like that? Sometimes you deal with them comically.
DB: For me the subject is so huge that itís impossible to approach it directly. You have to deflate the intensity a little bit, like an eau de toilette for a man who would detest the idea. Sissifying the ultimate man. I did the project for the Istanbul Biennial. There were 1,000 bottles, and Elle magazine covered it, and Bay Men, Istanbulís version of Bloomingdaleís, wanted to design their new line after Eau DíErnest.
The whole thing started because I stayed at a hotel in Istanbul that Hemingway had supposedly stayed at. This place with thousands of years of history, and you open the guidebook and itís about a celebrity staying there for a few nights.
DC: You participate in your work -- performing, serving food, greeting people.
DB: Most of the projects involve research and then participation. The Kebab Stand was in a desolate park in the middle of the city where the Berlin Wall used to be. Two Turkish kebab sellers ran this kebab stand for a week. At one point a Soviet apparatchik showed up, a man who actually organized events during the Cold War, to celebrate the first German space flight in 1978.
At that time, of course, the two countries were different, and they competed against each other in the Olympics. When Sigmund Jahn went to space he was celebrated as being German. Thereís this whole idea of citizenship and whoís an alien, and of course the Turkish people canít get citizenship very easily. This photograph of all of us -- itís like we were the brotherhood of the debased. Everybodyís from somewhere else and here randomly and not a citizen.
DC: For being a conceptual artist, you were trained traditionally.
DB: I went to Academy of Fine Arts in Bulgaria and I studied painting. It was run like a Renaissance studio. Artists were trained to be members of the elite. I encountered the same term when I studied at Hunter College with Robert Morris. He said his generation was reacting against that. What does the artist do in the larger realm? Should we close all the museums so we donít keep producing this hierarchical structure? It was interesting because when I studied at Hunter it was a conceptual program. And Morris was a link to the New York artists of the 1970s.† †
DC: Your work isnít a response against your formal training. You still paint, for one thing.
DB: I think those different trajectories are part of the work. Iíve floated between a stretch where what I studied was very outmoded, it was so traditional it was almost radical, like studying pigments and figurative drawing. And then at the other end of that, where these things werenít just thrown away, but they got over that several generations ago. I still have use for those things, but it depends on a piece.
DC: It must be interesting now that you teach at Columbia and Yale, where most of the students had a very different foundation than you had.
DB: For me, I canít separate teaching from my work. Itís so much about a certain kind of dialogue. Sometimes the conversation about the work is the work, or how the work comes around. Some enquiries are sprawling, like pouring water over a surface and seeing where the indentations are when otherwise youíre oblivious about the relief.
Iím constantly under this anxiety that a huge part of reality, I anticipate it, I know itís there but I donít have the tools to understand it or purely perceive it. The missing part is a question of mine, and that missing part sometimes comes in a conversation like this -- very clearly. I really believe that you produce yourself as a subject in relationship to another kind of reflection at you. And that happens a lot in teaching.
DC: What are you researching or working on now?
DB: Iím doing a project for the Dubai Art Fair. Iím going to do the fastest guided tour of the Dubai Art Fair. Itís going to be a running tour -- running through 10,000 meters of art without missing a major gallery or significant work of art. Weíre making a flag and making a water bottle.
Another piece is for the Liverpool Biennial. Iím trying to devise a project for that. Since the Irish famine, many of the people on their way to New York actually stayed in Liverpool, which is where the boats left from. Liverpool at that time had a population of about 300,000 and with the influx of immigrants it grew to about 1.5 million people. The city has been in flux, and in constant regeneration since then, which interests me.
Iím also interested in this more recent event, during the Margaret Thatcher years, when she was breaking the unions. Liverpool then had a Trotskite city council and a movement called Militant Tendency. One very peculiar activist was named Dennis Hatton, who was a cross between a fashion model and a political figure. He gave speeches critical of both parties. Now Hatton is in his 60s and apparently has a company that sells luxury villas in Cyprus. Iím interested in that.
DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.