Boryana Petkova: Drawing makes the impossible possible

Most of my projects are a kind of “gymnastics” for the eyes

There are states of the body and spirit which are timeless, like pain, fear, love, sorrow, hope. Though often classified as banal, they are part of us and will continue to be part of us in the future. No matter how much we robotise and anesthetise ourselves, no matter how people will look tomorrow, these states remain unchanged. And they will always be contemporary, says artist Boryana Petkova in an interview.

How did you start to explore the limits of the body and where's the source of your desire to overcome the contours of human nature and surpass yourself or, in other words, to go beyond the boundaries of your own body?

The crossing of borders, the exceeding of the possible (not just overrunning the physical limitations, but the attempt to overcome all types of boundaries imposed by ourselves or the external world), is an idea which governs my work. When drawing, I use my own body as a measure unit - its height, velocity of movement, durability. It is both a reason and an obstacle. This transcendence, going out of, beyond, over, is provoked by our confrontation with the impossible. Verticality in itself implies simultaneous movement from the bottom to the top and vice versa.

Can we assume that this aspiration to “rise up unto your toes” and “outdo yourself” is, among other things, an invitation to rethink and revise the socio-political borders that surround us?

All types of borders - social, cultural, natural, must be constantly rethought and reconfigured. Or at least examined and analysed. This is one of the conditions of advancement.

Your observations also take as a reference point the landscape and the architectural environment.

I work directly with the respective space, which I see as a kind of boundary as well. INFTY is a project created for the show Mutuus at the Fine Arts Museum in Mulhouse. It is an intervention on the museum's building itself - on the inside and from the outside. My wish was to modify its highest point in an inconspicuous but real way. To elevate its height. I put a one-centimetre-high object on the museum's chimney (its highest point), which replicates its shape and superstructures it. That object will remain attached to the museum's roof. Then I literally joined the base and the roof of the museum with a long band of sunlight reflecting material. This unusual sculpture is not constantly visible. That depends on the intensity of sunlight. In certain hours of the day a narrow shining line occurs and extends the actual height of the museum.

Another element of this project is a drawing with the same length as the new “ephemeral” height of the museum. When unfolded, its size is 0.3 by 20.01 metres. (It was fully unfolded just once, when I managed to climb to the highest point of the museum).

In this project, the execution was very important to me, the actual process of placement of the object. The project was approved, but not in the way it was supposed to happen. However, I executed it the way I imagined it with the help of three workers, who renovated the museum's roof at the time - they became accomplices to the idea. Together, we unfurled the drawing. With their help I climbed up to the chimney. Also, they were the people that documented the intervention for the most part.

Your work is characterised by the use of fragile primary materials: porcelain, graphite and glass. However, this fragility is often in contrast with visual brutality, like the bleeding porcelain surface cut with a razor blade.

I use materials that in principle bear the risk of breaking, but also of injury. They correspond with the instability and mostly with the fragility of man, which is strongly reflected in my work.

The porcelain mechanical “wounds” in Invivo are only and solely activated by the viewer's physical presence. Here, this danger, the risk, can be controlled. People, who in most cases are tempted to touch the porcelain at an exhibition (but that's forbidden in almost all cases; porcelain items are protected, separated from the viewer because of their fragility), have this opportunity here, but the razor blade placed in the middle of the plate automatically eliminates that desire to touch.

There are states of the body and spirit which are timeless, like pain, fear, love, sorrow, hope. Though often classified as banal, they are part of us and will continue to be part of us in the future. No matter how much we robotise and anesthetise ourselves, no matter how people will look tomorrow, these states remain unchanged. And they will always be contemporary.

In other projects of yours the porcelain functions like a surface for “recording” different types of writing. You've chosen to leave your trace on this fragile media.

As regards the material itself - porcelain has features specific of living matter as well. It changes, breathes. It is hot. Or very cold. It not only absorbs information, it literally interacts with it.

What is the role of sound in your work? How did you decide to study it, to test its immaterial qualities?

So far, I have used sound as a type of drawing. When hearing something, the viewer also sees clearer. But in that particular moment I am very interested in the function and combination of all human senses, sight and hearing included, of course. The senses for distance are the most commonly used, but there's entirely different approach to works of art that require close contact, which engages the senses of touch, smell and taste. I use human properties like body temperature, pulse, blinking. I try to extract these and combine them with the inanimate, the automation, the mechanical.

The titles of your projects attract the viewer's curiosity. Touch Only With Eyes also demonstrates your interest in studying the human senses. In these works, the manner of seeing becomes fundamental.

Ne touche que avec les yeux is something we say to children again and again to prevent them from touching, most when they are in museums and galleries. It's a poetic, but strict prohibition. I chose this expression to be the title of a series of pieces I presently work on because sometimes we are unable to open our eyes and actually 'see'. As if something must really be right in our faces to notice it. Displaying these works in an exhibition context also provokes us to ponder on the stance each visitor must/may/would like to take at such places designed to serve as “temples of art” (museums, galleries, art centres), where the works of art are still revered as icons.

Drawing has often been associated with the production of images. According to Laurent Gervereau the image is connected with the imaginary, therefore with the fleeting and the inessential. But your minimalistic manner of expression rather provides the space the viewer needs in order to “withstand the frantic competition of the million images which surround him/her every day”, thus making the viewer stop for a while.

Yes, maybe most of my projects are a kind of “gymnastics” for the eyes. I urge the eyes to seek instead of just seeing everything at once and without any effort.

Drawing is the core of your artistic practice. What is drawing to you?

Drawing makes the impossible possible.

The conversation originally appeared in February 2020 in the online magazine of the independent art platform Space 52, Athens. For the website of Structura Gallery, it has been expanded in May of the same year.

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Boryana Petkova was born in 1985 in Sofia. She lives and works between Paris and Sofia. In 2011 she graduated from the National Academy of Arts in Sofia and in 2015 from the Academy of Art and Design in Valenciennes, France. In 2015 she won the French Academy's Pierre David-Weill drawing competition. She is a laureate of the European Biennial of Contemporary Art for Young Authors in Mulhouse (France).

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