My interview in LandEscape Art Review, Issue 58, 2021
Hello Nina and welcome to LandEscape. Before starting to elaborate about your artistic production and we would like to invite our readers to visit https://www. ninapancheva.com in order to get a wide idea about your mulifaceted artistic production, and we would start this interview with a couple of questions about your multifaceted background. You have a solid formal training: after having earned your BA of Fine Arts - distinction, from the Academy of Fine Art, Plovdiv, you moved from your native Bulgaria to the United Kingdom, to nurture your education with an MA of Fine Arts - distinction, and a PhD of Fine Art, that you both received from the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton: how did those formative years influence your evolution as an artist? Moreover, how does your cultural substratum direct the trajectory of your current artistic research?
Hello, thank you for having me. I was lucky enough to receive more ‘traditional’ education in my home country Bulgaria, which focused on working with various techniques We also studied human anatomy and spent numerous hours doing drawings and sketches at live drawing classes. The emphasis was mainly on the form in these techniques, the subject was of less importance. And, especially in the Secondary Specialised School for Fine Art, it was more about freedom - in experimentation with the techniques, also in making mistakes. It was in the years after the fall of communism and the art market of the country was so chaotic, that we were not concerned with questions about it, we did not think in these terms. So it was very particular freedom. On the other hand, during my MA of Fine Arts in the UK, I had the chance to speak with my lecturers about my art practice from a completely new perspective, i. e. by focusing mostly on the relationship between the subject of the work and finding its most appropriate form, and also for establishing my own visual language, in searching for a unique approach in fine art.
Working on my practice-based Ph.D. project allowed me to expand my awareness of critical theories and debates in contemporary art, as well as of theoretical approaches of looking at paintings and installations. The latter, of course, would surround my practice so in this sense this awareness has changed my perspective on my work. Growing up in a nation, which seems preoccupied with history, both in the media, as national celebrations and repeating rituals of searching for a national identity in the past, it was a logical step for me to decide to work on a research project concerned with the methods wich contemporary painting applies to understand and cope with the recent past. It was important for me to make the distinction between the notion of an ‘objective history’ (as defined by Lucian Boia) which refers to the past in its ‘objective unfolding’ and ‘discourses about the past’ that reconstruct what happened. Nostalgia and attempts to erasing the communist past were at the centre of my research. During that time, I completed only several series of paintings and four installations. In terms of quantity, it appeared almost like a pause in my practice. Yet, this experience had a great influence on my work. It shifted the focus on the process rather than on the final work. This had reshaped my practice from then on – now I see the process of developing an artwork as a journey, which changes not only the final work but also myself.
Working on my research project has also expanded my understanding of the relationship between fine art and the political – I examined Socialist Realism and the ways the Communist party tame fine art. My interest in politics is very personal and derives from my family’s past – my two grandfathers were almost killed by the Communist party. My father left aside his research in literary criticism to co-find one of the first democratic parties in the country. Furthermore, even after the collapse of the communist closed system, fine art has remained firmly influenced by the politics in the country. Exploring this tension also shifted the focus of my subsequent work – it is often occupied with political or ecological problems. According to Murrey Edelman art is the fountainhead from which political discourse, beliefs about politics, and consequent actions ultimately spring. I agree with his view. Yet, I am convinced visual art goes one step further – it not only advances political and ideological inquiries but also questions of human existence and our relentless search for meaning.
2) The body of works that we have selected for this special edition of LandEscape and hat our readers have already started to get to know in the introductory pages of this article, has at once captured our attention for the way your artistic research about the relationship between reality and its pictorial representation in the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, raising questions about the act of viewing: when walking our readers through your usual setup, would you tell us something about your process?In particular, do you create your works gesturally, instinctively? Or do you methodically transpose geometric schemes?
The process of developing my paintings and installations could be described as a kind of spiral – it usually starts with a question or a concept. Hence the first step is determined by the matters which I find important. Of course, these topics derive from my personal experience. Yet, in my practice I endeavor to move away from myself, not to focus on self-expression, but rather to approach fine art as a way of producing new knowledge, new understandings. This method requires collecting and analysing different kinds of source materials, both written texts, and visual materials. I often take or collect photographs that resonate with me one way or another. The next step of the process often is quite intuitive – I let the images of my future work appear in my imagination without restricting them at first. At this stage, I usually decide on the exact materials which I am going to use, as their choice correlates with the initial questions posed. After completing the first rough sketches, I reflect on their imagery and refine the choices of colors, techniques, and size of the final work.
Overall, the creative process shifts between the conscious and intuitive decisions about the imagery, materials, size, etc. For instance, the work on my series of paintings Fragments of a Past (10 paintings, acrylic on canvas, sizes vary between 30 x 30 cm and 30 x 45 cm), has started with my interest in the relations between contemporary fine art and Socialist Realism, which was the main aesthetics in my country for 45 years. A representation of a detail of an industrial plant as captured by an old photograph is depicted on a white background in the first painting from this series. The old photograph was a valuable source for my painting. The rigid composition, flat sky, and detachment of the architectural structure reference Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies. The latter encompassed a rigorous frontality of the buildings and symmetrical composition, both evoking the simplicity of diagrams and the timelessness of monuments.My painting does not try to copy or describe the photograph.
Rather, by looking at its formal characteristics concerning the contexts of its production and distribution, it endeavours to explore how they interact with and impact each other. In the process of developing the series, each painting has led to the differentiation of new relationships between the photographic representation of the past and its new, post-Communist context - and consequently to a new painting. The meanings these photographs produce emerge in the thin and nebulous constantly changing boundaries between the institutionalised notions of the past, the formal features of the photographs, and the subjects they depict.
3) We have particularly appreciated the way your artworks — especially the interesting Road and Girl from the Computer Views series— feature balanced contrast between delicate nuances that give the paintings such poetic ambience, that is broken by the severe geometry of the forms: such an aspect of your artworks that creates tension and dynamics both at the level of visual perception and at a semantic point of view: how does your own psychological make-up determine the nuances of tones in order to achieve such brilliant results?
Exploring my own psychological experiences has not been a conscious intention in my practice. Of course, the personal emotional state cannot be excluded, or even some outside influence that I was not aware of - a summer wind reminding me of my childhood, a call from a friend... these elements from the context of the work have their influence, yet, I think they can never be fully explored. So I prefer to focus on my work as a result of decisions. In the working process, I am involved in examining the subjects I have chosen and the techniques and colours I use derive from this choice.
The series of paintings Computer Views (it consists of six paintings: Ice, Mars, Field, Polar Bear, Authorization Required and Girl, oil on canvas, sizes between 29 x 41 cm and 70 x 60 cm) is constructed around the tension between the mimetic look of the figurative elements depicted and the abstract forms of the computer dialogue boxes.
The process of working on this series started twofold. On the one hand, it aimed to address formal questions regarding space in the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. By adding the computer dialogue boxes in the paintings, the surface separates into two levels of perception, one been the landscapes and the portrait of the girl, i. e. a realistic approach, and the other - an abstract shape of the computer dialogue box. The nuances are the result of the contrast I pursuit – the contrast between an image that looks calm, peaceful, and inviting (for example the landscape in the painting Field) and the cool gray colors and sharp edges of the dialogue box, which interferes with the perception of the landscape.
The other direction of the creative process unfolded with my hope to contribute to the awareness of current ecological problems, which we all face – the melting of the polar ice caps and the overall global climate change. In this sense, the computer dialogue boxes appear in the paintings as signs of reality, saturated with images, especially on screens. Sometimes it seems as the screens show us a more ‘truthful’ reality than our own five senses in our daily life perceive. We see, hear and еxperience the worlds’ events through screens, we feel as we belong the world through the power of these images. Our own existential experience is deeply influenced by this perception. On the other hand, the world on our screens seems somehow unreal – it resembles some kind of computer-generated reality. Thus issues as fundamental as global warming seem far away as if they do not concern us. My paintings combine elements of these two modes of perception, seeking to open up possibilities for awareness of these ecological issues, for the ways we perceive reality and the functions of visual art within this context.
The painting Girl continues the interaction between ‘reality’ and technology on another level – the face of the girl is covered with a QR Code which opens a website. In this address, the viewer can see the face of the girl as a whole, without the QR code. Ironically, the mediation of technology is once again necessary.
4) We dare say that you sapiently use the aesthetic aspect that marks out the surface of your artworks as a tool, in order to evoke precise reactions in the viewers: how do you consider the role played by aesthetics in your practice, in relation to more comprehensive goals of your artistic research? In particular, how open would you like your works to be understood?
I would not say my work is about limitless freedom of interpretation. It does not aim to leave the viewer to imagine all kinds of possibilities to complete a given work. That is one of the reasons why I prefer figurative elements in my paintings – as they are easily recognizable based on our shared physical experience and thus provide a more limited ‘vocabulary’ of signs and symbols. Therefore I think the interpretations of my work are not countless. Of course, there are always surprising understandings of the paintings. I leave space for the viewer to complete the paintings. After all, for me, visual art is a form of communication. I do not think it is possible or necessary to limit the interpretations to just one. It would mean that the paintings and art installations take part in peculiar monologues with themselves, and monologues are always frightening, I believe.
5) Your artistic production is deeply pervaded with effective socio political criticism regarding ecological and environmental topical issues — as the melting of the polar ice caps and the overall global climate change — that affect our unstable and everchanging society: as an artist profoundly convinced of the ability of visual arts in providing groundbreaking perspectives, how do you consider the role of artists in our globalised scene? Moreover, what does in your opinion distinguish artistic approach — in raising awareness on such themes — from a purely scientific one?
Working in visual art is a great opportunity to produce new knowledge on a wide spectrum of subjects, wider than in scientific research for obvious reasons, I think. An artwork may be concerned with psychological, scientific, philosophical, political, and religious questions at the same time. Yet, despite this complexity, visual art can ‘talk’ to anybody. We do not have to underestimate its utopian function, I believe. The power of the image concerned with ‘what if’ scenarios for the future is immense and it reaches human consciousness in various ways and levels. Furthermore, visual art is not supposed to answer the so-called ‘hard question’, as defined by neurology, i. e. how does the mechanism of the subjective experience of art proceeds. Rather, through visual art, we directly experience this process. In this sense, it may support scientific research, and this interrelation could be beneficial.
The insights of the artworks can be helpful to science and vice versa - visual art and science could expand each other so a better understanding can be achieved. I am fascinated by this kind of interdisciplinary projects. Regarding the role of artists in our globalised scene, I am not sure I can answer this question. I am not even sure if the art scene is so globalised. Especially now, in the midst and of the pandemic and the uncertainty of its continuity or whether we will be able to travel as before, the world seems more closed even than the world after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when people were able to travel to another town only with the written permission from the police. It seems as the artists have lost their place in the talks for society’s future. Hence I find it difficult to define our role today. On one hand, living in a capitalist system where the image, the projection of a certain lifestyle has become more important than the quality of a product would assume that the role of the artist has become more central. As Daniel Bell maintains, the cultural image changes the economical realm. Another sociologist, Jeffrey Alexander, claims that culture shapes society through the creation of shared meanings. Even in these uncertain times, we can continue to do this.
“To me, death is non-participation in communication,” says Ilya Kabakov in an interview with Boris Groys. This summarises in a great way my hope for my personal role as an artist - to participate in a dialogue, even in a small community, about art, ecology, history, politics, or even humanity itself.
6) Since ancient Greek age, the act of artistic creation — the mimesis — is inseparable from the idea of real world, in which art often disputes large and everchanging models of truth within coeval societal realities. Nevertheless, over the centuries — from Géricault’s ‘’The Raft of the Medusa’’ to Picasso’s Guernica, to more recently to Michael Light’s and Thomas Hirschhorn works — have conveyed more or less subtle messages or personal views in their artworks: what does in your opinion distinguish on this aspect the artists from the past, from our globalised scene? In particular, does your artistic research respond to a particular cultural moment?
My practice references artists and movements throughout art history, mostly from the 20th century and the 21st century. The energy of the attempts for building a new democracy in the 90s , after the fall of the Berlin Wall, although I was a child then, has its great significance in my work. The world around me seemed to wallop with excitement. And visual art had its vital role. My installation In Memory of 10th November 1989 reflects directly to these years. It is concerned with this threshold in Bulgarian history – the fall of the communist regime. This day was anticipated with immense hope in democracy and freedom, the streets were filled with protesters against the old regime. Today, thirty years after this date, we have observed the crumbling of these hopes. In these decades, the country witnessed more than 150 public murders – of writers, prosecutors, lawyers, political figures... murders which took place in public spaces, sometimes in daylight. In my installation, the victims are turned into nylon shadows, connected in a solid chain (literally).
This particular material – nylon – was used not only because of its semi-transparency and surface. It is also a cheap, easily replaceable material. It creates the illusion of a shadow, the shadow of all of these people, killed and forgotten, but also the shadows of all of us – the citizens of this country who were in the position of mere witnesses of these events. In the ways I work with the photographic source material, my practice references Gerhard Richter’s ‘photopaintings’. The artist maintained that he valued photography for how it keeps the artist from stylising, from seeing ‘falsely’, from giving an overly personal interpretation to the subject. Likewise, my practice avoids developing personal interpretations of the chosen subject. I am also very interested in Ilya Kabakov’s work, mostly in the ways he shapes the space in and around his installations, as well as in the fictitious characters he develops. As some kind of alter-egos they represent sometimes opposing views on the same subject, often the way of life during the Communist era.
In my series Utopia (series of 5 paintings, oil on canvas, 81 x 120 cm each, and 24 drawings, ink on paper) I did my version of fictitious artists, who were presenting their visual diaries. One of them was a passionate supporter of the Communist party. His drawings depicted utopian visions of the ‘bright future of communism’ – a future when a state-governed economy will merge with the technological success of an ideological triumph. The other artist did not support the ruling party, but could not take part in any underground art movement. In his despair for recognition, he envisioned an alternative life of his and drew him on 12 drawings. Otherwise, my practice reflects on a wide range of art approaches in the 20th and the 21st century, such as the utopian cities by Paul Noble, the disturbing imagery of Adrian Ghenie, and many others. I am excited by the variety of these approaches and the materials used.
7) Another particular aspect of your artistic research concerns formal questions about the space in the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. Also your installations, as the interesting flying raise questions on the materiality of the work of art: how important is for you to highlight the physical aspect of your artworks?
The work on the installation Flying started with the choice of the material – copper, it was not the usual way I proceed. I was invited to participate in an art residency that focused on this material and I enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with it. For that reason the work was based on the tension between the quality of this metal and the fly of the birds, of course, an action which seems impossible, well, at least outside visual art. In my other installations, I choose materials whose modes of production, usage, and formal characteristics correspond with the concept of the work.
For example, in my installation Preserved Memories (part of my practice-based Ph.D. research project, jars, acrylic on paper, shelves; 180 x 100 cm) I used glass jars to make peculiar spaces for exhibiting the paintings inside them. In this case, the paintings were torn into pieces so from different points of view various fragments of them can be observed, but never the paintings in their entity. Each jar in the installation contains pieces of a painting executed in acrylic which depicts images of either public or personal memories. Why jars? As objects, they acquire a unique position, both temporal and spatial. In the years of state-planned economy, and constant economic crisis, winter supplies were a way of survival. In the installation, they are displayed on wooden shelves, as if they were taken out from one’s cellar. The jars embody a correspondence to attempts for reconciliation with the past on an individual level, in personal narratives of the past confined in a private space. They signify perceptions of the past which connect to the public narratives, interacting and corresponding constantly with them and thus adding another dimension to the construction of discourses on the past.
8) It’s important to remark that the abstract details in your paintings aim to focus viewers’ attention to the fact, that they are looking at a constructed picture: how do you consider the nature of your relationship with your audience?
In my practice is important to maintain a certain distance between the work and the viewer’s perception. My paintings and installations do not aim to immerse the audience in an immediate experience. The distance is one of the reasons to work primarily in painting, as this medium allows a slow process of making and thus long meditation on its imagery. Often the images I depict are fragmented, or the abstract elements (such as the dialogue boxes in the series Computer Views) obstruct the perception of the realistic parts as mimetic, i. e. the illusion of a ‘real’ space has been collapsed. Instead, a more critical view takes place. In this sense the distance functions in my practice as a critical distance. The imagery sometimes resembles a puzzle, as in the case of the series Fragments of a Past, for instance. The pieces of torn photographs look like parts of a bigger picture, it seems as the viewer may find the matching pieces.
9) With its unique dreamlike ambience and a bit enigmatic visual quality, memories from a utopia draws from a real city in Bulgaria with utopian features, and seems to highlight the bridge between the real and the imagined. Scottish painter Peter Doig once remarked that even the most realistic paintings are derived more from within the head than from what’s out there in front of us: how do you consider the relationship between reality and imagination, playing within your artistic production?
At the time when I started the triptych Memories from a Utopia (oil on canvas, overall size 100 x 240 cm) I had just read a book about charity initiatives in Bulgaria in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. I was amazed by the scale of this charity – the providers were merchants, lawyers, teachers, scientists, and they built with their own funds many schools, kindergartens, children’s nomes, hospitals, etc. These donations were so numerous that, if combined, they could create an entire city. So I thought to myself - what a beautiful utopia this is - instead of looking at our history as a historical chain of revolutions, revolts and heroes, as the prevailing discourse in the media the last decades do, we can imagine and thus conceptualize a country, a place built entirely on charity. Painting in its utopian function could do that.
I was fascinated by the revising the concept of utopia by Frederik Jameson and projects, such as the utopian provocation in New York by Steve Lambert and Andy Bichlbaum where a utopian edition of the New York Times was released. It resembled the real one, but was full of ‘ideal’ news, such as the end of the war in Irak, a new health system in the US, etc. With the presumption that this is just a utopia. i. e. a non-place and consequently we are always only on the path towards utopia, but we are never going to reach an ‘end point’. Yet we can still make some useful steps towards utopia, without the violence that worried Karl Popper. The imagined and the dark side of a totalitarian ‘utopia’ have been explored in my painting The Island of Utopia (oil on canvas, 81 x 100 cm, shortlisted for Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2017).
In my painting Road (oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm) I have placed some of the landmarks of London on a giant cube that hangs over the heads of two receding figures. The depiction of the landmarks allowed me to emphasize the scale of the cube. Reality here is only an outcome of imagination. The neuroscientific perspective of reality as a ‘shared illusion’ confirms this notion. “When we agree about our hallucination, we call that reality”, maintains the Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience Anil Seth. For me, it was interesting to learn that people who suffer from a particular mental illness see the world in such dramatically different ways, which even include different kinds of perspectives, colours, etc. What is even more striking is that they share these distorted viewpoints, i. e. they see the world as their shared illusion. In this sense ‘realism’ in my paintings is not mimetic, rather it is a kind of accorded language which is understandable and thus can convey meanings to a wider audience.
10) Your are an established artist: over the years your artworks have been showcased in several exhibitions, and you were recently shortlisted for final exhibition at ING Discerning Eye and at Las Laguna Art Gallery - Landscapes: as the move of Art from traditional gallery spaces, to street and especially to online platforms — as Instagram — increases, how would in your opinion change the relationship with a globalised audience?
It does seem like the growing influence of online platforms develops more local art markets. In this new space we, the artists, can find an audience that personally engages with our work, the problems it addresses, etc. The only mediator is the particular platform, and of course, the algorithms it uses. It poses new requirements and thus influences our work. What I mean in particular are the social platforms. There one can not only buy ‘followers’ but also comments for their own work. When I learned about that, it reminded me of the spiral, described by Nicholas Taleb - of buying a book not because we find it interesting, but because the others are buying it. This makes me skeptical about some of the feautures in the social platforms, despite their unquestionable benefit. I much prefer to take part in an art scene that leaves the galleries and interacts with the urban space. To see and experience the immediate reactions of the viewers is very valuable to me.
11) We have really appreciated the multifaceted nature of your artistic research and before leaving this stimulating conversation we would like to thank you for chatting with us and for sharing your thoughts, Nina. What projects are you currently working on, and what are some of the ideas that you hope to explore in the future?
Currently, I am working on two new paintings from the series Computer Views, hopefully, to engage the viewer with new viewpoints on our technological life and the perception of reality in all its ambiguity. I am also doing preliminary sketches for an art installation about our future experiences with technology – AI, and the devices that are being planned to connect us on a pre-verbal level. I am fascinated with the development of scientific areas such as neuroaesthetics and I am curious to see how my awareness of this area will affect my work and the direction of my practice