In this issue of Stories we speak with Valio Tchenkov about his exhibition “Soma” at Sarieva / Gallery – what inspires and worries him in the current state of the world.
S: Why SOMA?
V: The exhibition was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s philosophy and especially his dystopian novel “Brave New World”. In the novel “soma” is the drug, prescribed to each member of a stable, well-working and happy society. Every citizen carries their daily portion of “soma” in their pockets and is always urged to consume it, if feeling distressed or worried. Even though the story of the book is set in the distant future, I strongly believe that the message it sends is a “burning issue” nowadays.
I want the visitors of the gallery and the exhibition to be immersed in my “soma” characters and explore the possibilities of questioning the grotesque and alluding figures in the paintings, connecting them to real-life situations.
S: During the opening of the exhibition you’ve said quite a few times that the exhibition plays with the space of the gallery. You mentioned the term “grounding”. Can you tell us more about that?
V: This is the first exhibition in Sarieva / Gallery after its renovation. As far as I know, last year the gallery was in its experimental phase – the place was deconstructed, amended and painted various times for different exhibitions.
I’m more than happy to be the first artist exhibiting in the new space, opening the new space. Yes, the exhibition was curated particularly for the new look of the gallery. I wanted to play with the space and experiment with the possibilities that it offers. This is especially visible in the artwork “Decoyed decoy” that I placed on the gallery floor, trying to recontextualise it by powdering some flour on the floor. This way the artwork is somehow extended on the floor, embedded in the floor, embedded in the gallery. Similar technique and idea is used in the presentation of the artwork “Swamp”, where I placed three pairs of slippers on the floor – showing the work’s ability to play with the gallery space, to invest a new meaning.
S: You’ve also mentioned a lot about your anxiety concerning the rapidly growing technological development and how it alienates us from the real world. Can you expand on that?
V: Yes, nowadays it is not possible to even purchase an airline ticket and travel without using the internet. Everything happens online. From our daily purchases – fulfilling our most common domestic needs; to our private lives and sexuality – dating apps, websites and so on. There is this quite famous book by Erich Fromm, the German-Jewish psychoanalyst and philosopher, “To Have or to Be?”, where Fromm examines modern society that has become too materialistic and prefers “having” to “being”.
Fromm mentions that this mentality gives us the great promise of unlimited happiness and freedom, as well as material abundance and domination of nature. But it is so superficial, isn’t it? Even though the book was written in the 70’s – it is very relevant nowadays, where we can see this objectification of the human. It is very connected to the idea of “soma”, as I mentioned earlier. In Huxley’s book “Brave New World” he describes a society where artificial reproduction, technology and eugenics have been developed to a level to become the main factors shaping society. I believe we’re very close to that state even now.
S: In September you curated “Rattling the Fences” – a group show in Belleparais, Munich. The exhibition also includes works by Pravdoliub Ivanov – another artist that our gallery represents. Can you tell us more about the exhibition? Is it connected to your solo exhibition in Sarieva / Gallery?
V: No, the exhibition is not connected to my solo show in the gallery. “Rattling the Fences” is a group show curated for Belleparais in Munich. The exhibition opened on 9th of September. The main idea of the group exhibition was to play with contradictions and experiment with the boundaries between different aesthetic positions and art disciplines. The whole show plays with the idea of contrast.
Besides my own works, you can also see works by Lisa Walker, Stephan Conrady, Benedikt Gahl and Pravdoliub Ivanov. Each of these artists are presenting very different ideas in the exhibition. Lisa, for example, is taking part in the show with her beautifully handmade jewelry – that contradicts with our traditional understanding of jewelry.
S: Did COVID-19 and the pandemic somehow affect your work as an artist? The creating process or the way you think about art or society as a whole?
V: I can’t say that the pandemic affected my artistic process in a direct way but it definitely made me think and reflect more on social issues. I think what changed a lot in people’s perspective is the idea of the collective against individualism, which is so popular in the current neoliberal ideology. Crowd psychology, mob psychology, you know what I mean. It also made the conversations about empathy and humanism – collective humanism – more relevant than ever.
The interview was conducted by Stanimir Stoyanov in November 2022.