Friday, 28 July 2017

From Soviet Saviours to American Superheroes and Back: Sofia Keeps Pace with the Times

Text by Ekaterina Petrova | Photographs by Yavor Dedek and Ekaterina Petrova   
21 June 2011 | Just four days after an anonymous graffiti artist transformed the Soviet Red Army monument in the centre of Sofia, turning it into a congregation of various comic-book characters and other American popular culture figures, the Sofia Municipality had the graffiti scrubbed off in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.

The bas relief is now mostly back to its usual, oxidised-bronze likeness, save for a few traces of colorful paint. But the controversy raised by the inventive intervention – deemed an act of vandalism by some and a work of contemporary art by others, still rages one.

Last Friday morning, Sofia’s residents and guests awoke to find a part of the Monument to the Soviet Army transformed. The side bas-relief that got the facelift composes a part of the 1950’s massive memorial complex in the centre of the city. It consists of a group of half a dozen heavily armed Russian soldiers and partisans, waving a flag and loading a cannon, in what seem to be preparations for an attack.

With the help of some strategically placed paint and what seemed to be a well-thought out plan, the anonymous graffiti artist wittily transformed the sombre Soviet group into a gang of fictitious characters. Standing in centre stage of the group now was Superman, toting his ubiquitous blue suit, red boots and a cape, surrounded by: Santa Claus, who still carried a Kalashnikov and a pair of binoculars; the Joker and Robin from Batman; Ronald McDonald, waving the American flag; and several other characters who were more difficult to identify.

Tying the whole composition together was the phrase, sprayed underneath it: “[Keeping] In pace with the times.”

Subsequently, the Prosecutor’s Office initiated a preliminary investigation for hooliganism against “unknown perpetrators,” while public controversy around the anonymous graffiti erupted in the following days and still continues, in spite of the fact that - now that the monument has been cleaned up, it remains strictly in the realm of theory.

Reactions to the monument's new image ranged from “a genius work of contemporary art” to “shameless vandalism.” Some called for the graffiti’s immediate removal, while others demanded it stays and even gets maintained, arguing that it gave a much needed facelift to an otherwise outdated and unattractive structure in the city’s centre. The discussion, expectedly, went far beyond the aesthetics of the monument’s transformation and issues of politics and history became unavoidably involved. Some segments of society were scandalised by the disrespect the graffiti showed to the Soviet Army, whose role in Bulgaria’s liberation it was built to commemorate. Polar opinion saw it as a welcome transformation of a communist icon that no longer belonged in the landscape nor among the symbols of contemporary Sofia. Those more philosophically inclined noted that the artistic intervention managed, with a seeming simplicity, to summarize Bulgaria’s recent history: it showed, with a single sweep, how easily Bulgaria changes the altars at which it worships and how quickly it drops the celebrated (super)heroes of the day and replaces them with others. More moderate fractions called for a public debate on what to do with the monument.

Meanwhile, as the debates raged on and before the monument was cleaned up, crowds kept gathering around to see the memorial's new and temporary face and take pictures. It should also be noted that, although the intervention was not part of the programme of Sofia Design Week – one of the city’s biggest cultural events which at the time of the graffiti’s appearance was in full swing, this single act arguably did more to illustrate its motto – “Design is all around” – than the dozens of art and design events organised all over the capital.

In spite of the different opinions, for many of Sofia's residents, the last four days – from the appearance of the monument’s new design and well past its removal, were filled by the common feeling of witnessing something momentous, a realisation that history was in the making.

Presumably inspired by the “title” of the new monument’s transformation, some commentators referenced a quote attributed to one of Bulgaria’s biggest national heroes, Vasil Levski. Although uttered in a different context and during a different part of the country’s history, when he strategised a revolutionary movement to liberate Bulgaria from Ottoman rule in the second half of the nineteenth century, Levski’s words still ring true in the present circumstances: “Time is within us and we are within time; it transforms us and we transform it.” Others, either more sceptically or patriotically inclined, depending on the viewpoint, saw a more appropriate quote in the work of Bulgarian poet, novelist and playwright Ivan Vazov, which dates to the period immediately following that liberation: “And just in a few days, secretly and slowly, the people grew up by several centuries.”

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