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09 May 2013

HALF-LIFE: Stefan Nikolaev at Sariev Contemporary, Bulgaria

Stefan Nikolaev, I Hate America and America Hates Me, 2009/2013
Photo: Kleinefenn, Сourtesy: Galerie Michel Rein, Paris and Sariev Contemporary Gallery, Plovdiv

HALF-LIFE / Stefan Nikolaev / May 11 – June 30
Sariev Contemporary, Bulgaria


Exhibition on view until June 30th Opening Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 12.00am – 7.00pm or by appointment

Vesselina Sarieva
+359 888520375

Sariev Contemporary
40, Otets Paisiy
4000 Plovdiv

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The exhibition 'Half-Life' is Sariev Contemporary's first presentation of works by Paris and Sofia based artist Stefan Nikolaev (b. 1970, Sofia). The show, curated by Emile Ouroumov, will be on display between May 11th and June 30th and will bring forward a selection of recent and specific pieces reunited with significant examples of the artist's previous work.

Stefan Nikolaev's recently published monograph 'One for the Money, Two for the Show' (Presses du reel, France, 2013, bilingual, 240p, with texts by Iara Boubnova, Paul O'Neill and Emile Ouroumov) will also be launched during the exhibition.


Not without some irony – a frequently encountered working tool (or weapon) for Stefan Nikolaev – 'Half-Life' aims at a sculptural outcome of various social topics such as the leftovers of personal freedom in contemporary consumer society, the primitive social importance of violence, which continues to be legal tender, and the possible interrelations (or shortcuts) between the sphere of private history on the one hand, and fundamental historical, socio-political and aesthetic themes, on the other.

The title of the exhibition, which refers to the period of partial radioactive decay in nuclear physics, stems from a desire to deconstruct the retrospective exhibition format, reminding us of our cyclic schizophrenic existence between the aspiration to progress and our chronic cultural and economic mediocrity. The works in 'Half-Life' question how we can continue to live on the continental divide between the illusion of permanent growth and the reality of societal decay (with no Hollywood happy ending in sight).

One example for this is 'Untitled (Hammer)', 2012 – a far-reaching chronological shortcut, reminiscent of the famous opening scene of Stanley Kubrick's '2001, A Space Odyssey', in which, at the dawn of man, a tribe of man-apes discovers how to use a bone –first as a hunting tool and later as a weapon in territorial conflicts with another tribe. The tool is then used in a match cut to another scene with an orbiting spacecraft, alluding to parallels with an advanced futuristic society.

Similarly, Nikolaev's work points at the streak of violence inherent in any form and degree of civilisation. The choice of bronze is an intentional reference to the importance of this metal as a 'founding' material in the evolution of humanity. In earlier ages, its exploitation, frequently away from mining locations, gave rise to basic forms of commerce and the differentiation between use and exchange value. Then the first commercial roads came about and wealth began to be accumulated locally, paving the way to conquest wars and the use of fortifications, as well as to wealth-based social stratification. On the other hand, bronze has been used by artists and craftsmen since Antiquity, progressively becoming the material of choice for classical statuary – a supposedly noble commemorative use, which nevertheless remains subjugated to political, ecclesiastical or pecuniary power.

By juxtaposing these two distinct but inextricably linked uses, Nikolaev's bronze hammer emphasizes the multifaceted foundations of societal relationships, which, while striving for sophistication, retain an inherited spectre of the primitive and the violent.

Adjacent to the bronze hammer is the neon 'Repeat After Me', 2013 (made especially for the exhibition) – a muted response to the diminishing personal freedoms in contemporary society. Ironically enough, it can also appear as a mnemonic device to help us learn how to live in a downsized social sphere – just repeat after me: Good, better, best. Last, lost, lust…

Both of the afore-mentioned works are displayed inside a specially-designed gallery façade, an environment reminiscent of storefronts. Thus Mr. Nikolaev's business acquires a respectable 'brick and mortar' vitrine, a highly valuable asset in these times of crisis. But inside the gallery space, a shift towards hard currency is immediately discernible with 'Cry Me A River' (2009), a gold-plated ATM.

Increasingly drastic gold-plated measures follow with 'What Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger' (2013). The cranium-shaped goblets unearth a peculiar artefact from Bulgaria's ancient history: the silver-plated drinking vessel which the early 9th century Bulgarian ruler Khan Krum the Terrible made out of the skull of his defeated opponent, the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I. Apart from this extravagant gesture, the Khan was known to possess the virtue of temperance, introducing a stringently enforced drinking ban, some eleven centuries before the American Prohibition of the 1920s.

Further on, 'I hate America and America hates me' (2009/2013) shatters past idols. The coyote sculpture refers to Joseph Beuys' historic performance, in which, during his first and only visit to the United States, he spent three days in the company of a coyote. Contrary to the 1974 performance, Nikolaev's work does not concern itself with the desire to reconcile nature and technology or reclaim the original, paradigm-setting image of freedom of the vast American plains. The small, Beuys-reminiscent statue of a coyote wearing a felt garment and a cane is nothing short of an irreducible paradox: the wild animal of American Indian fame transformed into Coyote, the perennial loser from Tex Avery's cartoons or Volk, from the derivative Soviet series 'Nu Pogodi'.

Emile Ouroumov, April 2013