Pavel Koychev: I chase the unknown in search of meaning

Sculpture is a clash between nature and human, the tangible and the abstract, says the artist

Pavel Koychev has always been connected to space, nature and large-scale works. He focuses on bringing down barriers - in arts, realms and canons. Daringly, much like Leonardo, he does more than creating artworks, he materialises ideas that need to be lived. He compares his work to concerts or plays - a one-time experience that has a beginning and an end. Much like human life, which, nevertheless, continues to exist beyond death - here, there, somewhere, says one of Bulgaria's best sculptors in an interview to

When did you accept your fate as an artist? Do you feel like a “chosen one”?

I do not feel particularly singled out by fate. It is only now, in my advanced age, that I am beginning to realise what sculpture really is. I still do not have the confidence that I can just do it. Because just doing it is a craft. And I chase after the unknown, search for meaning every time. Fear and doubt are my constant companions. Feeling confident is always dangerous - then you start repeating yourself, quoting yourself.

I have this growing, burning desire to work, even though I know full well how pointless this is - true art is always pointless. Because it deals with unravelling the mystery of divine providence. The moment it gets practical, useful, it becomes a craft.

Here is an example - my only son-in-law is a doctor. I always tell him, “Your profession has meaning, mine doesn't! What is all my work good for?” I wish I could invent something, understand more. That is why I keep on going…

Does being a conduit for the divine come with a sense of responsibility?

Oh, what conduit?! I have no responsibilities, as I have chosen this burden for myself. I wanted to be an artist since I was a child, and I have been an artist for more than 60 years now. God has not put any obligations on me. I am just sorry that I have not been given as much as I wish. Because the more I work the more I realise how far I am from the Meaning. Truth is unknowable. Coming to grips with the fact that you know nothing and understand nothing, that is the definition of growing wiser. How do you unlock the mysteries of life? This is not something we are meant to do. There is only one Creator. None of us are at the top, there is someone above us all…

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on the three main positions of the human body - lying, sitting and standing. Those three positions are endless sources of form. Women are another major theme for me. They are part of the mystery of life. I do mostly sculptures of women and that is subconscious, probably some sort of a Freudian thing. I associate the female body with the beginning, the source of life. Not to mention that the female body allows more room for interpretation. It has a more monumental and timeless presence in space.

Why did you choose the large-scale format for your sculptures? Perhaps it is a function of your ego?

If this is vanity on my part, it is subconscious. My choice is entirely dictated by sculptural considerations. Every idea has its form, physical dimensions that carve out its spot in the surrounding environment. Even mountainous sculptures are sometimes too small to fit some ideas. Besides, I am intrigued by the problem of making the shape blend in with the open space, making it into something that has presence. This is how I created the Adam and Eve figures from my On the Grass in the Garden exhibition. The largest sculpture I had done up until then was three metres tall. I chose the challenge of making something bigger - to experience the sensation of gravitation and truly inhabiting space. Sculptures are a clash between nature and human. Between the tangible and the abstract. Because ideas come from the mind and the heart, but they have to be conveyed with stone.

I do not do large-scale pieces exclusively. A sculpture can be as big as my hand. But it has to have presence. Just like when a person walks into a room - some are invisible and others are a magnet for attention.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you would do differently if given the chance?

If I had to do it all over again, I would make the same choice! Even with the benefit of hindsight and knowing how difficult this is, I would do it again! Being a sculptor requires means. Selling is also very challenging. Even when you receive a sculpture as gift, you have nowhere to put it… But I am not complaining.

What would I change? I work without sketches. Of course, I have a direction in mind, an idea of how the end result should look like. But if I could start all over again, I would materialise every idea that pops into my head. I would either transfer it on paper or to a three-dimensional medium, but I would not let it pass. That is one mistake I made.

You have worked during a period of political censorship. The communist regime proclaimed some of your works “unsuitable” or “rejected by the general public”. What about the financial dependence?

It may have actually been easier under political censorship. It is straightforward, you know what to expect. I was never disappointed or offended, because I knew what would happen in advance. Economic censorship is worse because it makes you dependent. It is pervasive - you need money for wood, wax, expensive materials… A writer needs paper and a pen and nothing else. A sculptor needs much more.

You look like a nice man. What could make you forget your good manners?

A lot of things. Like any other person, I hear the devil's whisper. Any single one of us has good and evil inside. But one always overpowers the other. You can tell about a person by their actions - some create and others are born to destroy. If you have a bit more good in you than evil, you are considered a good person. But we all have a dark side, we are all capable of ugliness.

And which side of yourself do you feed - the light or the dark one?

At my age, I can honestly say that I am more about building. I am not 18… Until the middle of the 1970s I used to do these sharp-edged, intense works - I fought, kicked and screamed like any young man. At some point, I realised that I had to approach things with kindness.

What had an impact on you at the time? The Bulgarian social climate?

Oh, yes. But I do not want to talk about it. There is no point in beating a dead horse. I was staunchly against the cultural policies at the time. Perhaps it is for every young person to be revolutionary, to want to change things. But then I realised that was not the way. It is easier to create dark works, to express yourself through negativity. These pieces are also more impactful. If I decided to illustrate my nightmares, I could scare people. But why do that? Why bring people down? Their life is cruel as it is. It is better to try and help them, give them courage. The humane thing is to provide comfort. As an artist, you cannot be reckless and do whatever you want. It is not right.

How would you describe yourself?

As a working pessimist (laughs). I am weaselling my way out of the question, right? If you judge me by my works alone, you would think I am happy-go-lucky. If you only listen to what I say, you would be convinced I am a pessimist. But my works are not pessimistic. They do not weigh people down. The Egyptian text Book of the Dead reads, “The name of my boat is life. And horror is my oars.” Have truer words ever been said? We carry life in us. We live because of horror, because we are fighting it, we are fighting fear?

Is there something that should not be doubted? Do you believe in God?

I am a believer, but I am not religious. I believe there is some kind of force. When I lie down on the beach and spread my arms, I feel this energy and support coming from the entire earth. The vast blue sky is above me and I am just a speck between them. I am at once a speck, an insignificant atom, and at the same time a vessel of the universe. When you look at other galaxies, you feel like a tiny part of it all, a particle equal to the universe though. This is what I have learnt - everything is one and endless. There is no past, no future, no dimensions. Only this simplicity is eternal. Complex things do not last. It is frightening how much we have complicated life.

Where is the world headed?

I do not like this era of over-technologisation. But humanity has been going in that direction for a while. I am not an optimist about the future of the world. On the other hand, life is more powerful than us. It will pull us out of this somehow. But it is not going to be about travelling to Mars of Jupiter. This is not serious. Why venture into space when our inner worlds are still so disorganised. We have enough trouble without trying to become something else. We cannot solve our problems here and so we look to escape them. Infinity is not out there, but inside of us. That is where we should dig deeper. People are difficult. And I do not believe they can change that much. No way. Pain, suffering, fear of death will all remain as the main characteristics of human existence. Our connection to nature, because we are part of it. Those are the things that last.


Pavel Koychev was born 80 years ago in Sofia. He attended the National School of Fine Arts in the Bulgarian capital and then the National Academy of Arts, specialising in decorative and monumental sculpture. He has participated in the 1999 New Work project World Artists at the Turn of the Millennium and the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and has had numerous solo exhibitions. His sculptures are owned by the National Art Gallery in Sofia, the city galleries of other Bulgarian cities and various private collections in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the US, Belgium, Italy and Spain. In New York, Pavel Koychev has been called artist of the millennium. He is considered by some to be Bulgaria's only conceptual artist of global significance besides Christo.

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