Daniel Bozhkov's survey exhibition at Arthouse, Cantata for Twelve Choirs and Several Salamanders, made me feel as if I'd escaped down Alice's rabbit hole for the afternoon. I heard his discussion with the show's curator, Regine Basha, then engaged with his art in a way that made time stand still. Or at least I hoped that it would, so I could have enough of it to absorb the works" complex details. But like Alice in the rabbit hole — little pills, flooding rooms — it also set off my anxieties.
Each component of the exhibition has an accompanying sheet of text that I found essential to the art. In Bozhkov's conceptually based art, his preceding actions are as important as the objects, maybe even more important, so I don't see the extra information as handicapping the work. It serves as documentary evidence of what he has done for each project. The poeticism, transient nature and philosophical bent in Bozhkov's art remind me of another conceptual artist, Douglas Huebler. Like Huebler's attempt to document every living person, Bozhkov undertakes similar measures so extreme as to be laughable. The street front window at Arthouse displays a large photo of Bozhkov in the Black Sea, described by this caption: "Dressed as Darth Vader, Bozhkov scooped sea water with Brita, allowed it to trickle through the filter, poured water into a clean bottle, then poured the purified water back into the sea. He did this many times." In Duration Piece, #5, New York, April, 1969, Huebler took a series of photographs in Central Park that documented the places he heard birds calling. Both artists have conceived of a way of experiencing life that their art translates to the viewer. When I experience their art in turn, I feel as if I am looking at the world through their soul and relating to our shared humanity.
I knew I wanted to see Bozhkov's show because I had read about his stint as a greeter at a Wal-Mart in Skowhegan, Maine. Since I know someone who was also a Wal-Mart greeter, this touched a personal chord with me. Gerri used to work for my husband and his father by helping to manage their apartment complex. She lived there rent-free and met the plumber when someone's toilet broke, or supervised Marcelino, the painter, when he was touching up a space. I avoided her long conversations, but my husband never rushed their encounters. When they sold the apartments, Gerri was left without a job or an apartment. She was a senior citizen, but still needed to work. I was relieved when I heard Wal-Mart had a place for her. But knowing Gerri to be somewhat cranky, I always wondered about her greeting techniques.
Training in Assertive Hospitality was therefore the first thing I wanted to see. When I walked into Arthouse, various sounds murmuring throughout the space greeted me: media coverage being aired on TV monitors and beautiful singing coming from the back. Finding the work I wanted, I put on the headphones and watched the very short video footage of Bozhkov wearing the blue Wal-Mart apron and greeting people as they walked in the door. Whoever took the footage stood behind him, looking over his shoulder, so I got to see the way people treated him. Some (most) didn't even bother replying; at best, they sent vague looks or smiles in his direction. I wondered if the footage had to be taken undercover, so as not to affect the shoppers" responses. In the next segment, Bozhkov directs an elderly lady to the craft aisle. I felt in on the secret and thought, she doesn't know she is in the presence of a highly intellectual, thoughtful and sincere artist!
The whole story kind of reminds me of Jesus, and how people might treat him if he walked amongst us anonymously. Not that Bozhkov is Jesus. But he is something close to it (I mean Jesus as a kind of Bodhisattva, a guide of compassion and wisdom, not Jesus the God, as in WWJD). But there I go, I am polarizing the issue. Bozhkov doesn't do that. Bozhkov specializes in what he calls "positive subversions," and the Wal-Mart project is only one of them.
The largest room in the front of the gallery space is devoted to Learn How to Fly over a Very Large Larry. Bozhkov made this piece around the same time that Mel Gibson's movie about the crop circles, Signs, came out. He made a huge portrait of CNN's Larry King in a Madison, Maine, hay field, personally marking it out and stamping down the grass.
At first impression, the room with Learn How to Fly… , though beautiful, confused me. I didn't realize it yet, but I was looking at evidence of an incredible transformation on the part of Bozhkov. He had managed to objectify, or contain, what had been a series of actions in order to mediate his art for the audience in a discovery-based way. On one wall are the results of a botanical survey of the field. The large framed paper works contain pressed flowers and weeds, an informational survey sheet and a print of the Large Larry drawing. On the adjoining wall hangs an immense painting of the field, facing on the opposing wall a small portrait of Grace, the woman who helped Bozhkov with the survey.
In the middle of the room are five monitors, showing different accounts of the project, and a lime-green couch. How deepset the couch's seating is varies slightly. Between the TV monitors and the couch is an equally long sunny-yellow coffee table that mirrors the couch's dimensional changes. The seat reaches back very deep for the CNN footage of the Large Larry, then progressively gets smaller, so that the viewer at the other end perches in a much more shallow space. The monitor in front of this space shows Grace walking through the field with Bozhkov and the land's owner.
I watched Grace and Bozhkov for a long time. He had mentioned in his talk with Basha that Grace was only twenty and that she reminded him of a pioneer settler. In the video Grace wears a floppy white straw hat and braids down to her waist that she has tied in the back, and she speaks with a wisdom and authority far beyond her age. This inspired all sorts of questions. How had Bozhkov found her? Who taught her everything she knew? I decided it was either inherited from her motherline, or she had to have been someone's apprentice. I realized that the agency and the power of her insight was what fomented the burning of witches centuries ago. Grace seems to sense the need for a low profile and even says in the footage, "Not many people know about me." Bozhkov earlier had excitedly pointed out that not only was she the local 911 operator, but also her name was Grace. See what I mean about the Jesus comparison? It is as if Bozhkov is an open receptor to good energy, which allows many uncanny, seeming coincidences to occur.
The monitor next to the Grace footage shows only the plants in the field, with bug noises and breezes. Next to this, Bozhkov appears getting lessons for flying over Large Larry, which he later did.
If I had seen the CNN coverage of this crop sign, I think I would have thought: What a crazy nut! Why on earth would anyone do that? But I also would have laughed. Now that I have seen Grace as well, I know something valuable came out of a seemingly inane act. The Grace aspect of this art is the micro version, shown at one end of the couch. In contrast, the macro version (the media coverage) shows down at the other end. Grace tells Bozhkov things like "This Pearly Everlasting is very good for cordage." Then she strips long pieces off and demonstrates how to make it. "Cherokees used to make darts from the milkweed fluff," she says, adding that milkweed is also useful for starting fires. She describes how she steeps tea made from plants such as goldenrod, which helps one to sweat out toxins. "It's very bitter, almost black," she states matter-of-factly. The field's owner, a very elderly man, follows along, compelled by the conversation.
Bozhkov has played a clever, funny trick on the world with his Large Larry. He invented a way that allowed him to obtain mass media coverage while, simultaneously, he uncovered hidden, deep knowledge, undocumented wisdom passed down orally through the generations.
In Eau d"Ernest, Bozhkov used humor for yet another positive subversion. The documentation describes how he worked with professionals in the perfume field to mix a scent, and then he marketed it. He finally offered scent tests to attendees at the 25th Annual Hemingway Look-a-like Contest in Key West, Florida. This corner of the show has a wall papered in Eau d"Ernest poster advertisements, the actual bottle of Eau d"Ernest and its black market imitation, and a monitor built into the wall screening an Eau d"Ernest commercial linked to the Hemingway look-a-like contest and footage of the contest itself. The commercial mimics how perfume ads play on the male fantasy of virility and power. It is set in the Büyük Londra Hotel in Istanbul in 1922, when Ernest Hemingway actually did stay there to report on the Greco-Turkish war for the Toronto Observer. The commercial begins with romantic and mysterious music, soft light and a woman awaiting a man. A young, clean-cut and debonair Ernest signs the hotel registration book, and the sexual tension builds up as he and the woman approach their expected interlude. The commercial finishes with a cloud of scent as she sprays the Eau d"Ernest into the camera.
Watching footage of the look-a-like Hemingways milling around in the street, I saw a quick shot of several of them pushing a fake, nearly life-sized bull down the street. It is on wheels. In that moment, I realized things have gone hideously awry in the world if people are getting together to stage a faux running of the bulls in honor of Hemingway. But Bozhkov doesn't seem perplexed. He sits in a bar with the fishing captain who is the look-a-like winner, along with a bunch of others, and gets them to determine the scent most representative of Hemingway.
Around the corner, a table displays delicious-looking, toasted sesame pretzels made into various shapes. Along with a printed paper bag are pictures of the pretzels being sold on the street, and it made me sorry I wasn't there because I wanted to eat one. I had a quick fantasy of devouring one anyway, but they had long since made the transition from food to art object. Known as simits, a popular street food in Istanbul, the pretzels came out of Bozhkov's visit to Turkey during the 8th Istanbul Biennial, when he worked with Basha on a satellite project that she curated, Without You I am Nothing. Bozhkov apprenticed with Sami and Ayden Eryilmaz at the Ahmet Ogullari Bakery. Together they made the pictogram shapes. They communicated through their hands and dough, Basha recalled, because they didn't speak the same language.
Bozhkov obtained the words for the pretzels, such as the Turkish for cloth, eye and fountain, during a trip to Istanbul with his mother who had recently suffered a stroke. Since neither of them spoke the language, he was surprised to see her recognize many Turkish words. The pretzels are 'signs of linguistic deposits in the Balkans resulting from 500 years of Turkish occupation when part of the Ottoman Empire." He sold them on the street in printed paper bags with his mother's portrait on one side and a list of the words with their pictograms on the other. According to the accompanying text, "the new simits sold well on the streets, particularly the ‘cloth," ‘tail" and ‘gift" shapes."
Across from the pretzels is the Institute for Higher Listening. I needed still more time for this long table of projects, which includes Bozhkov's open journal, his research, stacks of books, and many photographs and much documentation of internationally based projects. The accompanying informational sheet describes it as "a moving platform for the exchange of ideas" that "takes a different form every time it changes location." While I was trying to take in the myriad information laid out before me, I overheard Bozhkov talking to another writer. They were engaged in an intense dialogue. She was asking him questions about his art and making apparently very astute observations of his work because he was saying to her, "I can't believe you said that! It is incredible.…" I felt a little jealous because I definitely was not there yet; I was only at the tip of the iceberg of his intellect and had a long way to go before I could even formulate a question to ask him.
I finally succumbed to the chorus of voices from the back. I had saved this experience, Bozhkov's art produced in Austin, for last. Here angelic voices sing a haunting African American slave song, "Wade in the Water," which was once used as a code for escaping slaves. The voices seem to be carefully orchestrated: At certain points in the song, they are hushed and reined in, but then they build to a crescendo and the song overtakes the space. I passed by a small monitor with close-ups of people singing to see what was hidden behind a large, curved wall. What I found were built-in seats for viewers to watch a large projection of the filmed version of the performance. Bozhkov had collaborated on the film with Austin filmmaker Cauleen Smith. In it assorted groups of choral singers line a round pit encircled by four levels of rock walls. I read the accompanying sheet to find out about the site: the Sunken Gardens in Barton Springs, built by the National Youth Administration in 1935-38. At this site, a spring is currently closed in order to protect the species of the salamander called Eeurycea sosurum. "An interesting note is that the species name Eurycea sosurum came from Austin legislation during the early 1990s known as Save Our Springs (SOS), affording greater environmental protection for Barton Springs," the page adds. During his research, Bozhkov discovered that the actual name of the species reflects the SOS effort, identifying a point where actions have entered the language.
A system of white pipes leads out of the Sunken Garden's walls and converges in the middle, where one pipe extends up high and is topped with a silver cone-shaped device. The camera records the singing from a point near the top of the pit along the circular wall. The singers appear small and faraway, so individual features are hard to make out. Bozhkov revealed in his conversation with Basha that he arranged for the close-up footage of the singers to reflect what occurs when a group sings together. Individual voices merge together to make another, larger sound, but the work reminds the viewer that the sublime sound depends on each entity.
In the gallery, many of the silver cone shapes from the film, still connected to their white PVC, act as speakers for the soundtrack. I asked about these during the discussion, and Basha said, "Good question!" The cones are rain collecting devices, Bozhkov calmly explained, which he and Basha discovered together at Tank Town in Dripping Springs. When the exhibition travels to the University of North Texas in Denton, the devices will be used to collect rain off of the gallery roof, and the water will be used to irrigate a garden of wildflowers and native plants. Bozhkov has collapsed together music and water, both valuable and leveling forces, and used the funnel as the channel for either capturing or sending both.
Run by Richard Heinichen, Tank Town is a rain collecting facility. Thanks to Bozhkov's networking, Heinichen will visit Denton in the spring as well, to share his rain catching techniques with the university. "Heinichen is also a kind of artist," said Bozhkov, who was impressed by Heinichen's colored towers and the fragrant lavender and rosemary he had planted along the pathways. "It was a beautiful evening," Bozhkov said about his and Basha's first visit to Tank Town, "and there we were, looking at this amazing place, and the sun was going down…." If Bozhkov is like Jesus, then Basha is the angel watching over his shoulder. The way he and Basha described their working process made it sound as if she had been constantly present throughout his Austin experience. This made sense to me, that she would be there not just to act as a sounding board but also to experience the art taking place, since it is all about the artist's actions.
Bozhkov engages with people, stimulates ideas and acts as a catalyst, which is not necessarily a rare practice. What is rare are his motivations, which are not in the service of business or commerce. He is a mover and a shaker, but he has directed all of his energy to Wonderland, not capitalism. I say Wonderland only to continue the Alice in Wonderland theme, not to imply that his work is in any way a pipe dream. It is very grounded and real. I didn't even get to tell you about the Solar Wok yet, but Bozhkov invented one, and it is suspended over the Higher Listening section. "While watching birds living in the adjacent 300-year-old chestnut tree, Bozhkov and Dr. Pyotr Bozik, Department of Industrial Design at the Art Academy in Krakow, created the Solar Wok. It is a vacuum-formed transparent lid that turns 1.5 liter of water into a lens, and the traditional Chinese wok into a solar cooking device." Bozhkov's Wonderland, then, is right in front of us: It's about seeing possibilities in the everyday world and making them happen.
The Solar Wok and rain collecting devices serve as tools along the way as Bozhkov pursues his alternative course. He taps into my unspoken dread of where the world is headed today, but in a good way, to show sustainability is possible and doesn't need to be funded by Congress. It's just up there with the birds, in the realm of higher listening, waiting for those who have such a capacity. And you don't have to be born with it; Bozhkov can teach you.
In their talk, Basha mentioned how Bozhkov 'scratches the surface" of certain things only to open up a vast array of connections and possibilities. But the term "fulcrum" kept coming to my mind. The best way for me to describe my understanding of Bozhkov and his art is in terms of simple mechanics. Bozhkov himself is the force, and the art and situations that he invents becomes a kind of machine. In mechanical terms, a machine increases the power of an action. On the Institute for Higher Listening descriptive sheet, he quotes Buckminster Fuller: "don't fight forces. Use them." Bozhkov's machines create output that has a ripple effect on the viewers and others involved. He brings people together and good things happen, an array of things happens. When Grace was walking through the field, she described a particular plant that grows outwards in a circle; if it isn't stopped, she said, it could continue forever.
"We"ve been talking about the parable of the rainmaker," said Basha near the end of the talk, and they gave each other a meaningful glance. She gestured for him to explain. Bozhkov told us about a village that had been in a drought for many years, and the people were so upset and desperate, they finally hired a rainmaker to come. When he arrived, he just asked to be left alone, so they left him, and he began his work. After a few days, it began to rain. "What did you do?" they asked the rainmaker in wonder. Everyone wanted to know his secret. The rainmaker replied that when he arrived in the village, he noticed how everything was so out of line, and that he had spent the last few days just trying to realign himself. Then, when he finally did, it began to rain.
Images courtesy Arthouse.
Wendy Atwell is an art historian currently living in San Antonio.