Arosita Art Gallery reopens after two months of nationwide lockdown measures with Slav Suite, a solo exhibition by Nikolay Petkov. His low-profile but persevering figure in this country’s cultural life is persistently associated with the gallery’s activities. Nikolay Petkov’s endeavours have challenged critics, artists and art historians. His artworks are attracting with their unusual visual (self)reflection, internal references, findings and scepticism. This time we will avail ourselves of the opportunity to listen to the artist, who also writes about visual imagery.
Q: Your solo-exhibition was planned long ago and had to wait until the end of the lockdown. Did this bring a whole new meaning to it for you?
A: I hope that this exhibition would increase in those, who are not paralysed with fear, the feeling that they are not alone and that our conviction that there is more to man than being just a (potential) carrier of the virus will reassert itself. Possibly, an unexpected heroic spin will be put on some of the watercolours on display such as Movements and Hug.
Q: Introduction of a musical form (as a set of instrumental compositions played in succession) suggests artistic interrelation between the watercolours, and with the term ‘Slav’ we face the insoluble issues of cultural identifications. Thus the title makes the show both easy and difficult for victors. In what environment of images do you develop your works?
A: Ethnic as well as any other identity is, of course, conditional these days. I could give a materialistic enough explanation of the Slav in the exhibition’s title: all the works were painted on Russian and Czech paper. Yet, the challenging overtones are there, activated by the Russian presence both when they were made in 2016/17 and now. Curiously, reminding nowadays that paper has been invented in China may be deemed to be a challenge. This, along with the dynamism of the phobias and stereotypes of our society, also evinces a salient feature of art: its ability to pose new challenges in a different context. Bearing in mind these conventions, I remain a modernist, though a late and doubtful one, and do not give up my longing for universality. Thus I easily came to the musical denotation, which should bespeak discipline and improvisation along with the artistry mentioned by you. Discipline in the sense, which flashes, I hope, in the watercolour of the same title, of course, rather than in the zealously propagandised in recent months vulgar sense. It was not by chance either that a large-scale 1996 retrospective at Guggenheim Museum, NY was titled Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline. I would be happy if my works raise and hold in a specific way open question doing their work of contemporary art. In the conditions of their perception, the semantically impregnated urban environment, as well as our collective immersion in the glimmering universe of digitally reproduced imagery, flourishing and passing, can hardly be avoided. Still, I hope that some analogue references will be visible in the exhibition in the way in which the ancient people summoned the ancestral spirits before a battle. I would mention here the painting of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondriaan and Alexander Rodchenko, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, Gerhard Richter, Jean Degottex and Bernard Frize.
Q: The precision and long duration of the controlled gesture when working on the watercolours leads to such values as hard work, stamina, patience and reworking internal mental states through action. Do these values reassert themselves in your everyday experience? Using elevated diction, do they bring us closer to understanding the human condition?
A: By adding single-mindedness and coordination to the values enumerated by you, we’d get closer to homo faber’s set of values in Hannah Arendt’s interpretation in her The Human Condition. This figure has been somewhat overshadowed in recent decades by social roles, believed to be more significant and highlighted, but has not vanished. And could not vanish if we want to live in a world. One of my concerns in my practice is to present more visibly, almost transparently, the processes of manufacturing objects and meanings, to make it clear who and how makes the world, so to say. Watercolour seems to be the appropriate medium for the purpose.
Q: With the experience of the two months of self-isolation under the threat of the pandemic, it has transpired that teaching may well continue by using online resources alone, that virtual museums tours are possible, that buying and selling may be online only, etc. The original copyright in images, music, texts and ideas is increasingly harder to trace in the entangled links of websites. You conduct courses at the National Academy of Art. Will you please outline the positives and negatives, the potentials and losses of this practice of studying art (or what we call art for the sake of brevity)?
A: New technologies can undoubtedly be instrumental in knowledge acquisition and educational processes by offering new opportunities, but I am sceptical about their ability to supplant the quality of real-life communication. Here even 3-D technologies are less helpful as there are more than three dimensions to real-life communication. Breathing the same air with the one you are conversing with, being in the same physical space with the picture you are looking at is still a privileged position. The aura is still a value; Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno were right. At the same time a two-dimensional representation can sometimes give more in communication than a three-dimensional object and history of painting pointedly illustrates this. Was I contradictory enough?
Slav Suite exhibition was unveiled at Arosita Art Gallery on 18 may and runs until 1 June 2020.