The Devil’s in the Detail
Nedko Solakov’s Commissioned Work for Deutsche Bank
Nedko Solakov sabotages collective truths and the social status quo with laconic humor. His works continually pose new questions—not only about art, but also about the failed utopias of past decades. In the newly modernized Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt, the Bulgarian artist’s drawings occupy an entire floor, where he’s also realized a special commissioned work. Dominikus Müller on Nedko Solakov’s Encyclopedia of the Absurd.
||The devil’s in the detail. At least it is on the flowered wallpaper that Nedko Solakov has lovingly covered with ink drawings and texts. A father and son are standing on a huge blossom; the son is telling his father, a qualified financial expert, a joke. But the father isn’t laughing; instead, he answers in the way experts tend to do: "Very good. But whether the joke is funny, and whether or not I should laugh at it is something I’ll get back to you on—after I’ve read the relevant (and, in terms of understanding the joke, necessary) papers." And although the scene isn’t really all that funny—on the contrary, upon closer examination it turns out to be truly heartless—you have to laugh anyway.
Just like you have to do when you see the lonely man sitting atop a stem a few flowers away, small and shy as a beetle thinking about hopping off. “A Scared to Death Investor” can be read next to him. And a few flowers on, there he is: the devil himself, or rather a likeable little devil, arm-in-arm with his extraterrestrial friend, who, as Solakov notes, belongs to the “Four-Hands-Four-Legs-Half-Penis-Race.” The two are daydreaming; they look very happy. Somewhere in the corner, after a bit of searching, one finds the rulers of this strange world: three black circles—a black hole, a burnt pancake, and a small black lake. Their empire is the above-mentioned flowered wallpaper on the 23rd floor of Tower A of the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt am Main, which Nedko Solakov had installed to work on for his commissioned piece.
You can tell right away: if it were up to Solakov, then art should, art has to be allowed to be funny—even when it’s not. Solakov, who lives in Sofia, has been working on this series, simply titled Wallpaper, since 1993. "Back in 1981, I finished my training in ‘mural painting,’" he says about the commission, "and in a way, this is also a kind of mural." On his homepage, which is organized into two large categories of works—"simple works" and "complicated works"—his wallpaper works fall under the former. And they’re anything but "simple". For one, these paradigmatically stuffy flowered wallpaper patterns, which are usually beige in color, are the exact opposite of a chic and sterile white cube—and of the modernized, state of the art Towers of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. "We selected the wallpaper to fit this space here," Solakov says in all earnestness; then, he adds succinctly: "But of course it’s an alien element. It doesn’t belong here at all." Yet this is precisely why he especially likes to install his Wallpapers in rooms such as these, and in doing so, to point to the repressed aspect of commissioned art as decoration, as just another element in the interior design. Beneath the banal ornaments of industrially produced middle-class life lurk, very dialectically, precisely those fears that the flowery wallpaper pattern is supposed to ward off. Solakov covers them with seemingly harmless, childish picture stories whose biting humor only becomes apparent at second glance and after giving the matter some thought. The same principle of the little joke concealed in the detail also works well in his series A (not so) White Cube (2001), in which he applied his scribbled, naïve drawings and short captions directly to the white walls of various different exhibition spaces.
Solakov has often addressed his life in a socialist dictatorship, including his experience of the change in political system and the alleged right to vote. Among his better-known works are the unassuming index boxes that he showed for the first time in the spring of 1990, at the high point of the democratic uprising in the former East Bloc, and again at documenta 12 in 2007. Top Secret, created between December 1989 and February 1990, consists of an index box, filled with a series of cards detailing the artist’s youthful collaboration with the Bulgarian state security, which he stopped in 1983. In Bulgaria, twenty years after the changeover, the official files remain closed, and there are no publicly known documents on the artist’s collaboration. The work caused great controversy when it was first exhibited in the spring of 1990, at the height of the political changes to the long-standing Communist rule. The self-disclosing gesture in this artistic project is still unique in the context of post-Communist Europe, and since its appearance Top Secret has become an icon of its time.
The fact that not every wish became reality after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the advent of western-style democracy is also the theme of other works by Solakov. For The Choice (2001), he added a labyrinthine structure at the entrance of an exhibition space. Visitors had to decide if they wanted to go left or right. In the end, one stood on one side of a high wall dividing the exhibition space down the middle and either looked onto a small golden box attached to the wall or into it through a small hole on the other side. Neither of the two variations is satisfactory—or fair. It’s true: there really is only one world. And we’re still far from shaping it the way we’d like to.
In a text on his exhibition I miss Socialism, maybe in Beijing in the fall of 2010, Solakov writes: "I miss the eyes of ‘Big Brother’. Why? Because my friends and I used to dream about how beautiful it would be if they would disappear forever. They’re gone now, of course, but they’ve been replaced by pairs of eyes much greater in number, even if they’re not quite as large—which observe you, as a citizen of a democratic country, and try to take things away that used to automatically belong to ‘Big Brother.’ But now you’re supposed to give them up voluntarily." What comes to expression here is a particular kind of "sadness" and "seriousness" in the face of the world’s hopelessness that imbues many of Solakov’s works, which initially appear light-hearted and humorous; it’s a way of behaving towards things, of talking about them that is neither ironic nor earnest, but somewhere in between: a way that is both light and unbelievably heavy, that possesses a casualness that first has to be earned in the darker moments of life— in other words, the attribute of being laconic.
This sadness and feeling of loss also permeates the series Murmurings (2007), which is also presented on Solakov’s floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers. The theme of this work is the hollowing out of language in a globalized world in which words and things are increasingly losing their specificity. In one drawing, the exclamation "WOW" appears in capital letters. In a culture in which the abbreviation can stand both for World Of Warcraft and Women Online Worldwide, WOW has grown sick of this level of randomness. In Solakov’s account, it wants to change the term for the spontaneous expression of joyful surprise. This is why the drawing includes a statement to the effect that starting immediately, this exclamation no longer wishes to be represented by the accustomed three-letter sequence. As an alternative to WOW, it suggests the tongue twister CHFUSR. Typical Solakov: with subversive humor, he sabotages all possible forms of representation.
Even if Solakov’s works are formally very different from one another, they are always based on this laconic questioning of the status quo, which also enables Solakov to reawaken interest in his drawing series of the most tasteless tales, simply by calling them what they are, namely Well known Stories (1992-95). The same detached and bitter humor reveals itself when, for his work A Life (black & white), which he’s shown repeatedly since 1998, he hires two people to paint a room for the entire duration of an exhibition. While one half of the room is being painted black, the other is painted white. On the next day, the two painters exchange places and the black becomes white, the white black. The game is potentially endless, limited only by the duration of the exhibition. Everything is carefully laid out, down to the extended lunch break and the not-so-long cigarette breaks: a modern version of the Sisyphus myth. Solakov plays God, and has his cruel fun in doing so—but the cynicism he presents is somehow still charming.
It’s an action whose futility and randomness drips from every brushstroke. Black or white, A or B are interchangeable, and no one possibility is better or worse than the other. Life, it seems, is subject to the caprice of the gods—or just the nasty rules of man-made systems. But to get back to the Deutsche Bank Towers, perhaps it’s also just a tiny bit of fly shit on flowered wallpaper—one of those wallpaper and thought patterns covering the endless halls of this (and every) universe. Maybe this life is just as lost and as worthless as the lives of everyone else—whether they be terrified investors or cute extraterrestrials of the Four-Hands-Four-Legs-Half-Penis-Race. Life, in short, is an absurd joke, but it’s still just that—a joke.