Tsarino is a village in the southeastern Rhodope Mountains, located a few kilometers from Bulgaria’s border with Greece. During the 1980s, the village was almost deserted, due to the closing of the local elementary school, as well as to the free land in the neighboring village of Chorbadzhiysko being given away to young families following the 22nd Decree by the Council of Ministers. [The basic idea behind the 22nd Decree by the Council of Ministers, which was adopted in 1982, was to encourage settlement to underdeveloped regions in southeastern Bulgaria by providing cash incentives and housing to young families.]
The two villages are connected via a narrow, eight-kilometer-long road, which until recently was difficult to navigate. However, access to Tsarino got a whole lot easier last year when an enterprising local paved the road to be able to reach the graveyard at the entrance to the village.
At the moment, Tsarino has only one officially registered resident, but besides him, visitors there will also run into another constant guest – 92-year-old Baba Mariyka. She lives with her children in neighboring Chorbadzhiysko, but spends a lot of her time sitting on rocks or simply strolling through her native village of Tsarino. With a few rare exceptions, the houses in the village are deserted and dilapidated, with no electricity or running water.
Four years ago, Plamen and Taro ended up here as they traipsed around the Rhodopes looking for a different and calmer place to work. Taro and Plamen met at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where they are both finishing up degrees in the fine arts. Along with their fellow Rietveldians Marije, Tamara, Daphne, Alexandros, Rotem and Alper, they have registered the Tsarino Foundation – an initiation for the creation and development of contemporary art, whose current goal is to organize summer art residencies.
During the first summers they spent in Tsarino, the group bought three houses and fixed them up. Their stay there was a time for resting, reflecting, working and talking. “Tsarino is a place where the rhythm isn’t given to you by the outside, rather it comes from you yourself – insofar as that is possible, of course,” the artists told us on our visit to the village. The place’s ascetic living conditions are not a problem, but a provocation. "Completing routine tasks like cooking, washing dishes and taking care of the houses in Tsarino can sometimes be compared to the difficulties you face when making art,” Tamara explains.
For the group, the most valuable part of everyday life there is their interactions with the locals from Chorbadzhiysko, where they frequently go to shop and check their email. In the beginning, communicating wasn’t easy, since they did not share a common language – for that reason, everything went through Plamen, the only Bulgarian in the group.
For the locals, the artists’ presence in the deserted neighboring village is quite perplexing. To them, it is unthinkable that someone would want to inhabit a ghost town, which lacks even the most basic conveniences. Their ideas about what the group is really up to in Tsarino runs the gamut from treasure-hunting, to turtle breeding to bodybuilding. Plamen explains that they are artists, but a spark of understanding appears in their eyes only when he adds “landscape artists.” Both parties are satisfied with this clarification – the Chorbadzhiyans, since this strikes them as logical given the region’s natural beauty, and the artists, since this definition describes their activities in an interesting if distant way.
This summer, Plamen, Taro and company decided to give the initiative a more concrete form and announced an open invitation to an art residency through the Tsarino Foundation. The topic of the residency was the connection between art and the context in which it is created. The residency’s basic questions examined the extent to which the environment in which an artist creates influence his or her work and how much the consciousness of a certain type of spectator defines both the creative process and the end result. The residency finished with an exhibit of works created in the Chorbadzhiysko community center.
The residency guests were a varied group – artists from Canada, the UK, Israel, Holland and Bulgaria took part. The participants worked in different forms of contemporary art, ranging from painting to installations and performance to video art. Some of them participated in the Water Tower Artfest 2011, which took place shortly before the beginning of the residency, and headed straight to Tsarino from Sofia.
[The Water Tower Artfest is an international festival for contemporary art, which took place for the sixth time in Sofia in 2011.]
Edno Magazine also hit the road to Tsarino to spend two intense days amidst the mini-community of “landscape artists.”
We asked the artists about their take on the residency topic. It became clear that there are two basic viewpoints on the question: according to the first, art should take the audience into account and indeed bears a responsibility to the public, while the other sees the creative process itself as most crucial, regardless of the viewer’s reaction. As it turned out, the second viewpoint pretty well summed up the guests’ prevailing opinion. Here are the results of the diverse projects:
Within the framework of the residency, David Peter Kerr (Scotland) further developed his project from the 2011 Water Tower Artfest, tweaking it to fit the conditions in Tsarino. The artist worked on a study to calculate the potential profit the monopolist-firm Google would make on its Google Maps function on the territory of Tsarino (a place that doesn’t even show up on Google’s map).
The project by Terry Vreeburg and Alexandros Papamarkou (Holland) thematizes the myth-in-the-making about the group as “landscape artists.” At the exhibition, they presented a performance entitled Van Gogh’s Bulgarian Period, in which Terry, dressed as Van Gogh, imitated the renowned artist’s style, painting the landscape in front of the community center live in front of the audience. Terry, who in principle does performance art, explained to us that drawing is not his forte, so for that reason he had to practice for his performance in his room. If the locals recognized him as Van Gogh, this was more likely thanks to his red beard, rather than the painting itself, the artist confided.
The Bulgarian artist Mina Minov also took part in the residency. His latest projects are short video works that last only a few seconds. Mina worked on a similar video for the project in Tsarino as well. He based the plot of the film around a treasure trove of galoshes of every size and shape, which he found in one of the village’s abandoned houses.
Daphne de Sonneville is from the Netherlands and sees her stay here as a parallel life – here, she does things that are not characteristic of her everyday life, nor of her work. Daphne is a painter, but for the exhibit in Chorbadzhiysko, she decided to work with rocks. She manipulated the structure of the moss on several of them, while she wrapped others in cloth. Her piece is called Cover Up and deals with the question of what it means to protect something that does not, in principle, need protecting.
The Israeli artist Boris Oicherman is influenced by 1960s and 70s art. His project was tied to the long-since defunct fountain in front of the community center in Chorbadzhiysko. He decided to fix it and take water from it through an installation of pipes to the middle of the village’s main street. There, the water cascaded onto the road from high above, like a small waterfall. During the exhibition, the people from Chorbadzhiysko immediately made use of the water for their own needs – some gathered it to water their tomatoes, while others took advantage of the opportunity to wash their cars. Thus, Boris’ artistic gesture took on a practical value and gave new meaning to the idea of communicating through art, which was completely in step with the spirit of the 60s.
Ofri Lapid is also from Israel, but now works and lives in Berlin. She spent her time in Tsarino looking for abandoned treasures in the village’s houses. Her “archeological” approach led her to some interesting objects, such as an old party membership card, a fishing license, a list of names of people who had ordered wood way back in the distant 80s, broken decorations and lots of photos. This was her way of getting in touch with the place and writing her own story about it. Ofri displayed the objects in a handmade case at the community center, while the title of her work was obvious – Treasure Hunter. "I was interested in people’s reactions when coming face-to-face with such familiar things, even in cases where they don’t recognize them as their own possessions,” Ofri explained.
The video artists Webb-Ellis – otherwise known as Andrew and Caitlin Webb-Ellis from Canada and England, respectively – worked on a film whose means of expression were reduced to a minimum: still shots and voiceover. In it, the artists tried to position themselves within this unfamiliar place and to speculate on the possible ties between the present and the past. The result was a poetic and melancholy film on the border between fiction and reality, which reminded us of the visual language of the French experimental documentary filmmaker Chris Marker.
Marije Roos is from Holland. In addition to taking part in the residency and the exhibition, she is also one of the project’s organizers. This is not her first visit to Tsarino. She likes to come here because she enjoys observing the different tempo at which things happen in Tsarino. This strikes her most clearly when she drives past Baba Mariyka on the hilly road to Tsarino and wonders how long the elderly woman’s journey has taken. The artist attempts to capture precisely this state between peace and life in her works. Her painting was created with watercolors and charcoal and represents the decrepit body of a cow. At first glance, the animal appears to be dead, but when you look again, you discover the intense gaze from one of its eyes, fixed directly on you.
When the We Are Landscape Artists exhibition opened, more than 100 people came to see it – even the school kids, who during the summer basically live at the Internet café, migrated towards the community center. The exhibition was accompanied by a reception catered with goods from the nearby supermarket – supplied thanks to support from the deputy mayor of the Kirkovo Municipality. This is a sure sign that the We Are Landscape Artists exhibition has entered the village’s calendar of events.
At the end of our stay in Tsarino, we still can’t give an unambiguous answer to the question raised during the art residency – is a dialogue between artists and viewers possible? Yet perhaps the answer lies in the idea of the landscape genre itself – for the locals, the only function of landscape is to reflect natural beauty, while for the artists ,“landscape” is a much broader concept that reflects attempts at constructing reality and finding one’s own point of view. This is the kind of landscape that was also imprinted in our minds as we left Tsarino.
text by Desislava Pavlova, photography by Mihail Novakov
translated by Angela Rodel