In March of 2022, along with the ‘Artist’s Studio at Sarieva’ residency, which was offered to Tsvetomira Borisova , the ‘Communication and Art – residency for graphic designers’ winner was Elena Chergilanova, who had reached out with the intention of using Sarieva Gallery and the Open Arts Foundation as case studies in her graduate thesis for the University of Europe for Applied Sciences, Berlin.
Elena Chergilanova is a graphic designer from Sofia. She studied BA Communication Design at the Berliner Technische Kunsthochschule and is currently working as a freelancer at the art department of the production service company Solent Film. In 2020 she did an internship at Epic Sofia. She experiments with analogue photography and has participated in various artistic projects, including the fourth edition of Sofia Art Week.
Read our conversation below for more insight into her thought processes while working on the thesis, her ideas related to the physical and digital gallery space, as well as observations on some recent exhibitions, which have intrigued her as a spectator and the subsequent role of the spectator himself in the production of art and curated experiences.
S: Your writing is a comprehensive overview of the museum and gallery spaces’ conceptual and physical trajectory, spanning from the very formal grandeur of the earliest salons in the 1500’s to the much more liberated and contemporary modes of display and audience engagement today. To open up our conversation – where did this interest for your thesis come from? Does it tie in somehow with your artistic background?
E: I’m not sure how my interest in the human experience of space came about, I think it had something to do with frequently changing homes and hometowns after leaving high school and growing more receptive of my inanimate surroundings as a consequence. When having to choose my thesis topic last year I immediately knew I wanted it to have something to do with space. The gallery space struck me as a good subject, being a medium for consumption and spectatorship on the one hand and more personal and deep experiences on the other. Although not springing from it, the investigation of space and place will probably become a frequent topic in my artistic practice.
S: Interesting point. Our disconnection from a solid idea of domestic, personal space, can make us far more impressionable and aware of the potential energy within all other spaces – and finding a sense of temporary domesticity in them. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the character of non-places, those transitional ones, which you write about in one of the strongest chapters of the thesis – part II ‘Theory – Phenomenology of Space’. Can you describe a vivid memory in similar such places – what was particular about it, did it make you contemplate your presence somehow?
E: The term was coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé in the 90s, but existed in the space/place discourse in other forms before. It describes the places of passage, circulation, and consumption in the public realm of “supermodern” urban areas, like a metro station, a highway, a supermarket chain, a mall, a waiting room. As opposed to places that come about through people’s engagement, spent time and memories, non-places exist as backdrops for solitary and dissociative mundane experiences and are not designed in a way to encourage lingering or further interactions. Gallery spaces designed for speed-running past artworks and the content of which is communicated purely by wall-texts, no-photos signs and other “instructions for use” risk falling into that category.
I was back in Berlin after having resettled in Sofia when I first read the book. I barely use public transport in Sofia, where I prefer to go everywhere by foot, but commuting in Berlin, or any other big city, is a necessity. This means spending a significant part of your day in the non-places of public transport, which made me feel removed from my daily activities and more focused on mindless diversions, which ultimately affects the way you experience yourself.
S: You mention El Lissitzky, a Modernist artist and curator, notably working during the Constructivist movement, as one of the visionaries in relation to the use of exhibition space – especially in providing space with an interactive function and creating a Tatigkeitsraum (p.24) – a space of action (related to the (inter)action of the audience in relation to the art).
Why and how important is it for an exhibition or any gallery space for that matter to engage its audience beyond passive spectatorship? Any other favourite examples of interactive exhibitions, which haven’t been featured in your thesis already?
E: When we talk about interactivity in art, we usually mean engagement through physical activity. Such practices are more popular with installation, performance and new media artists, rather than with curators and exhibition designers. A physically active experience is perhaps more memorable, but I wouldn’t say more profound. I think that the spectator has been largely underestimated by the discourse on passivity as a characterless sponge. How mentally passive or active we are in our perception is mostly a matter of our own agency and will. What the exhibition designer can do to facilitate such active experiences is to organise the space in such a way that lingering (passive body), and therefore contemplation (active mind) can take place. On the other hand, by putting too much emphasis on action, the exhibition space’s role as a shelter from the already chaotic external world and emptiness of everyday life gets compromised. If the social element, too, is overemphasised, the art can end up being devalued as a mere decoration to the gathering, like it was in the 18th century.
S: Could you please reflect on some of the galleries and exhibitions that you’ve personally visited in the past few years, either in Bulgaria or abroad? What has intrigued you about them, both from the creative standpoint of their content and the physical spaces, which they’ve inhabited?
E: Something that has stood out for me are the exhibition spaces located in repurposed or overtaken abandoned and industrial locales, where the signs of ruin remain revealed. Homegrown examples of recent years are the Temporary Matrix and Temporary Crisis exhibitions organised by Hristo Kaloyanov in an abandoned computer club, as well as the group show Future Oracles from last year’s Sofia Art Week, which took place in an abandoned two-storied restaurant. While not immediately “cosy”, such worn-out places prove to be conductive of more authentic and informal experiences, and a refuge from the otherwise placeless urban environment, which the white cube blends seamlessly in. As to repurposed places – König Galerie and Boros Stiftung in Berlin are housed in a former modernist church and a bunker respectively. Although the interior of both is pretty clean and austere, the raw environment gives the works a sense of heightened importance, compared to if they would have been displayed with a standardised white wall behind, like any other piece.
S: Your conclusion is also really strong – without giving too much away now, what you discuss is the relation between the artwork and the space in which it is shown, and specifically the hierarchy between the two.
Do you think the idea of an “exhibition space” can be expanded any further? Can you imagine what alternatives to galleries, museums or other public / private / digital spaces there could be, which haven’t been widely incorporated yet?
E: The alternative might lie in a more holistic approach, that borrows from the past, looks beyond the present without denying it, and learns from the images of the future. For instance subtly bringing back some of the atmospheric and domestic spirit from the late 19th early 20th century exhibition design so that the artwork is not the sole carrier of the “vibe”. When it comes to virtual exhibitions, I would like to see galleries with a physical space, from where visitors enter a virtual one that is entirely tailor-made or artist-created for the display of a temporary digitally-native art exhibition.
Elena Chergilanova’s graduate thesis ‘Off Spaces & Non Places: Phenomenology of the Gallery Space’ can be read in full at artnewscafe, Plovdiv until 25 June 2022, accompanied by a selected number of graphic posters and a curated showcase. The text is also available in digital format. Read it here.