Gery Georgieva is a Bulgarian-British artist pushing the boundaries of performance art and experimenting with video, multimedia installations and musical collaborations. In her practice, she explores the relationship between popular culture, national identity and the different representations of women. The artist mixes elements from traditional folk and pop-folk music with mainstream music, creating chimerical performances in her studio or high in the Bulgarian mountains. Gery who is a recent graduate of the Royal Academy Schools in London has made a return to her native country, marking it with the opening of her solo show in Swimming Pool,Sofia.
Gery visited the annual Rose Festival in Kazanlak earlier in 2017 and experienced the folk dances and songs, the re-enactments of scenes from the rose worker’s processions, the all-day celebrations and the coronation of the Rose Queen. Although the festival’s program remains the same every year, it is an event visited by many people from around the world. The first Rose Festival was held in 1903 and has been happening ever since in a few cities located at the Rose Valley. The valley spreads across 3,300 square kilometres, including the cities of Karlovo, Kazanlak, Strelcha and Pavel Banya. Since the 17th century, Bulgaria has been growing roses and producing its famous attar of Rosa Damascena. Bulgaria is one of the lead manufacturers of rose oil, which is being used for some of the finest perfumes and cosmetics around the globe. Since the last century, the rose has become one of the national symbols and the country’s biggest pride.
The artist describes having the feeling of being both insider/outsider when visiting her motherland. Before the exhibition, she relocated to Sofia in preparation. Speaking the language and having roots and friendships, but being inevitably culturally mixed. The artist felt that she was navigating her relationship as something between familiar stranger. But isn’t it exactly then when the national character, the historical and cultural self-awareness of a country fully emerges, when it is in front of the eyes of an embedded observer?
Gery has been interested for years in the Rose Festival, the rose as a symbol of women, national culture and as a product for export and sales. Visiting the celebrations in Kazanlak, Gery was fascinated by the Rose Queen competition; where the participants are local girls who have just graduated. The contest consists of a series of folk motives and rituals, but recently it had turned more into a beauty competition. The artist shares that during the coronation: ‘’the Rose Queen was integrated with the traditional folk dancers, posing with them, and at the same time she was like a Disney princess, a polyester prom queen, cut out and pasted there.’’
The idea behind the work also came from the Bulgarian tourist postcards, where most of the time the country is represented by a beautiful, young woman picking roses in the valley. Gery recalls being raised with these postcards and always wondering how is it in real life and what does it happen with these women after their photographs are taken for the tourist promotional materials. The replicated image of the Bulgarian beauty is spread nationally and internationally, living on postcards, calendars and packaging of food. With this work, the artist asks the viewers whether this is real or a fantasy, and what does it happen in reality with the robust women.
Gery Georgieva is playing with the different images of the Bulgarian women, The Blushing Valley feels like a mixture of hallucination, fantasy and role-play. The multi-media installation includes video, performance, sculptures and photography; inviting the viewer to step up in an imaginary world, that feels both delusionary and yet fully linked to the Bulgarian reality.
The first piece of this work is called ‘’Homecoming’’ which is a rubber door mat. The word Welcome is shining on the mat, written with the use of Bulgarian honey and metallic eye shadows. Referencing the traditional welcoming with honey, the sweet homecoming but also when noticing that the letters are dripping down the surface and loosing their perfection, the connotation shifts to the sadness of being away and coming back. As well as refers to the meaning of the word Welcome – which is usually said to outsiders, to tourists, to someone who is not a part but it is still welcome.
The next elements of the series are three almost identical sculptures, which at first could be mistaken for somebody’s forgotten shopping bags. The sculptures are made of plastic carrier bags, which the artist found in a one-euro shop in Bulgaria. The image printed on them is of a foreign film diva in a seductive pose and on one of the sides of the bags is the word Dream in bright purple. In Bulgaria, it is common to spot the image of a beautiful, explicit and sometimes naked woman used for decoration, often placed on coffee machines, bath sponges and other mass produced items. The carrier bags are filled with concrete, which is a DIY quick fix but also a reference to the Soviet architecture. After they have been filled with the concrete, the bags start to take different shapes, resembling human bodies.
Bisou II is a combination between concrete and flower pressing resulting in a sculpture in the middle of which is a preserved rose. Reminding of an exhibition display item, as if it could be rather seen in an ethnographic museum.
The artist found an interesting issue of the magazine Harpers & Queen from 1983 in a charity shop in Notting Hill, just before flying to Sofia. Inside of the magazine, Georgieva discovered a photograph of beautiful pedicured feet crushing yellow grapes and decided to add the found image to the series The Blushing Valley. The absurd image is glamorising the beauty of the woman when she is working, as if in a moment of production, the female should also aim for her own physical perfection. With this piece, the artist once again plays with the multi-layer depictions of the woman as a product of consumption.
The satin drapes, positioned before the screening room are creating the feeling of an official space and the expectation of a spectacle awaiting behind them. These pink blushing curtains are creating a tension between the piece and the visitors, the artist references the fact that this is her first time showing her work in the motherland, as if these fabrics could also carry some sense of embarrassment within them. Behind the curtains is a rug, which is handmade, very traditional and everyday; covering the floor, bringing emotions of something personal, homey and cosy. There are a few small cushions on it, where one can rest and have a moment with the wide valley with which the film of Gery Georgieva commences.
At first, the viewer is drowning in the Rose valley, filled only with the noise of nature, birds and bees and for a second it seems natural to even imagine the smell of the hundred roses around. In the distance is the Balkan mountain, illuminated by the last rays of the early summer day, when suddenly the sound of a trumpet and announcement about the opening of the Rose Queen competition begins. The words are echoing from all sides, as if the one is attending the actual festival. Then slowly the image of Gery Georgieva playing the role of the Rose Queen 2017 fades into the scene. She gently picks a rose from the bush nearby, as all the rose pickers do in the postcards. By creating this image, Gery aims to signify the united representations of the woman, as she lists them in her statement: ‘’ In the valley we also find woman. Mother Earth, The Rose Queen, daughter of a nation, field worker.. valley girl’’. The film continues with Gery Georgieva’s recognisable style – dancing without the sound of music and letting the viewer imagine what the sound could be. The slow spinning moves of the artist remind of folk, pop-folk and kuchek (belly dancing) dances. The improvised dance in the film also references a fertility ritual, performance for the earth, which seems like a liability that comes along with the tittle of a Rose Queen. The costume which the artist is wearing is improvised as well, including a collage of various tourist items such as flight pillows, earplugs, sun visor and novelty aprons. The extreme beauty props used in the artist’s appearance suggest an ethno look with drag aspirations.
Тhe Blushing Valley, 2017. Gery Georgieva. Excerpt of 00:37 seconds.
The Rose Queen is a representation of woman empowerment and fertility, as well as she is a marketing icon and a national symbol. Using herself in the work helps Georgieva create different approaches of referencing, addressing clichés of national identity, with a strong dose of humour. Gery explains about her practice: ‘’I look at myself as a product of the multiple-cultures, rather than the culture itself.’’ Gery Georgieva’s work is not simply critical, but rather she sees the beauty and empowerment in these stereotypes. Aspiring to be a Rose Queen or looking at the perfect image of the robust woman on the field, the artists asks what do actually defines us and what is the essence of a woman?