Top Secret
caption
Top Secret, 1989–1990
Acrylic, drawing ink, oil, photographs,
graphite, bronze, aluminium, wood; a shameful secret;
179 index cards in original box; 14 x 46 x 39 cm;
video on DVD, colour, sound, 40'07", looped, 2007
Photo: Anatoly Michaylov and Konstantin Shestakov
Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven



Top Secret, created between December 1989 and February 1990, consists of an index box, filled with a series of cards detailing the artist’s youthful collaboration with the Bulgarian state security, which he stopped in 1983. In Bulgaria, twenty eight years after the changeover, the official files remain closed in general, and there are no publicly known documents on the artist’s collaboration. The work caused great controversy when it was first exhibited in the spring of 1990, at the height of the political changes to the long-standing Communist rule. The self-disclosing gesture in this artistic project is still unique in the context of post-Communist Europe, and since its appearance Top Secret has become an icon of its time.

The forty-minute long video, which shows the artist rereading the index box’s contents, was shot
in his studio in Sofia in 2007.



The Action is on (for the time being)…

Once upon a time there was a boy.

They say he was a smart and obedient one. He got the highest grades in school, he read books at home and he drew. He drew rabbits, hunters, houses with chimneys and airplanes with fivepointed stars on them destroying other airplanes with swastikas on them. He drew and read...He particularly liked the books with the adventure stories where the"good” guys won over the "bad” guys. He also liked spy stories. The brave Soviet "chekisti” and their Bulgarian colleagues Avakum Zakhovand Emil Boev were really attractive to him. They were making him confident that the enemies about whom it was spoken and written everywhere were not going to intrude upon his socialist fatherland.

The boy was growing up. He graduated with honours (gold medal) fromthe prestigious high school for mathematics in his native town and was accepted right away as a student in the Academy of Fine Arts (he was not drafted into the army then because of an ailment which he had suffered in his early youth). His usual diligence and obedience went on here as well.

In the autumn of 1976 (when he was in his second year at the Academy) the boy went on a trip to Paris (his loving parents, whom he also loved, paid for the trip). Everything was wonderful—the Louvre, the Rodin (museum), the Duffy retrospective, a few porno movies. In the middle of the eight-day trip the tour leader of the group of Bulgarian tourists told him there were packages left by somebody for him and for B. (a kind older man, brother of a well-known professor) at the reception desk. To the boy’s surprise his package contained "enemy”propaganda materials. The boy read this and that and handed the materials over to the tour leader with the words: "They are ‘spitting’on Bulgaria!” The tour leader got worried and summoned right away a man from the Embassy to whom the boy gave the package, happy to have carried out his patriotic duty.

A few weeks later though (already back in Sofia) the boy was summoned by the head of the "personnel” department at the Academy, who told him with a secretive voice that there was this "comrade” here who wanted to talk to him. The "comrade” (a nice young man) asked for the "case” in Paris to be described in one or two pages. The boy did so. The"comrade” was satisfied and then asked an unexpected question: "Well, we are actually interested in...” and mentioned the name of a boy’s colleague, one quiet and humble guy. "What’s he like, is there something about him that strikes you as unusual etc.?” The boy (diligent and obedient) answered that since it was necessary he would tell. Afterwards, filled with some peculiar pride, the boy shared that event with a friend and a girlfriend.

The nice young "comrade” had appeared again (only this time in secrecy—eye-to-eye). And thus, little by little, the boy had entered a meadow from where the flowers were gradually disappearing, the thorns were getting thicker, the grass and the bush grew up to his eyes. To tell you the truth, the boy wasn’t too active. But nevertheless when asked he answered (and always afterwards he wrote on a white sheet of paper leaving on purpose a blank white space at the top of the sheet) which exhibition was popular and which one was not, who had contacts with religious sects and who didn’t etc. Did the boy actually realise what he was doing? I would say yes and no. The boy had just trusted the institutions, had believed he was contributing to the realisation of that great future society where everything would be great for everyone. Naturally he wasn’t getting anything for all this (except maybe he was getting some strange feeling of security). While in the army he was transferred to another young man (with epaulets). Here, at the beginning, he also believed he was carrying out his soldier’s duty. But this belief was getting shakier and shakier.

Thus came the summer of 1983. Once discharged from the army the boy had gathered all his courage together (is this the usual expression?) and had firmly refused to be used anymore. The "comrade” (with epaulets) had been trying hard to talk him into transferring him to another "comrade” in charge of the intelligentsia. But the boy "stuck to his guns.”

That was the beginning of a long and painful awakening. The boy’s diligence and obedience were getting displaced little by little by other, a lot more manly, things. But the boy (the man) was still afraid. The fear must have shown itself in his paintings.

That went on until his first child was born (in the summer of 1986). And then the man realised that his path must be chosen categorically if he was to look straight in the eyes of this child who had been carried around the blooming roses and daisies in its mother’s womb during that sadly memorable May 1 of 1986*. And it seems the path he chose did not lead to the "bright future.”

The audience trusted him. It trusted his drawings from the Enlightened by the Decisions and The Endurance of a Nation series from his one-man show in January 1988. It trusted as well his card index in the chest from the exhibition The City?, his telescope with the title sign View to the West pointing from the roof of the 6 Shipka Street Gallery toward the red pentacle on top of the Bulgarian Communist Party headquarters (the telescope though had been mysteriously dismantled by the State security, which had long ago lost its confidence in the man). And his studio was filled with just such honest paintings and objects lying around in expectation for better times.

Could he have stopped with his frankness here?

He could have. It is very unlikely his contacts with the nice"comrades” from seven years ago would have come out in the open. It is not in the best interests of any political party or movement to bring out in public the full lists of just such names (you know why, don’t you?).

But the man had made up his mind that this revelation should see the light of day as well. So he made a new card index in a chest. There he drew and described, using Pop Art means, everything shameful and depressing which was still creeping around his ever more hurting heart. He described the case in question as well.

The man exhibited in public this card-index chest (called Top Secret) at the Club of Young Artists’ exhibition entitled End of Quotation (April 20–May 26, 1990), and accepted internally once and for all that only he or she who can overcome his or her fears can be a true artist. It doesn’t matter what kind of fear this may be—the fear of changing the direction of one’s work in spite of the success it is gathering, or the fear of revealing oneself to the full at any cost and thus accomplish an artistic act.

Many of his younger colleagues (and some older ones as well) understood and shook his hand. About a month after the opening of the exhibition, the Congress of the Union of Bulgarian Artists was held. The man thought somebody would bring up the "question” (his) in front of everybody, but nobody did. Obviously (along the laws of safe existence) he should have kept quiet. But seeing that the conservatism in the Union was once again taking the upper hand, he withdrew his initial decision not to run for Chairman of the Union and again put forward his candidacy. He felt morally obliged to help destroy this horrifying machine for oppression of artists called "Creative Union.” He wanted his colleagues at last to feel free and confident in themselves (not in the Union), to start trusting the audience which had been waiting for them for a long, long time. He was elected Vice-Chairman.

But the story doesn’t end here. The rumour which was started after the End of Quotation exhibition that he was the man of the State security apparatuses in the Union was getting threateningly widespread. Many of his colleagues (obviously not into going to art exhibitions) had not even realised that the man himself had publicly disclosed his own past one month before the Congress. And that this "past” was very different indeed from the concept of the man of the State security in the Union.Thus a not altogether artistic campaign was under way. The man was forced to exhibit once again his Top Secret chest in the former office room of the Communist party at the Union. But since he knew not everyone would get to see it and the talk in the hallways and the cafés was going strong, he asked a newspaper, much respected by him, to publish the above words.

And at the end, stating that the boy, the man and myself are one and the same person, let me give you one more reason for my showing the Top Secret piece. I wanted it to be a warning to all young people who might be misled to fall into the meticulously woven webs of the Institution. Because if in two or three  years’ time (or even sooner) some of these young people are asked by the future "appropriate services” whether some Communists, anarchists etc. are having meetings together, these same young people may not hesitate to tell and this act would be perfectly normal and moral for them. I don’t know if I, as an artist, should feel flattered that a work of mine has caused such a scandal. The whole of it turned into a sort of happening (that is, an action where you don’t really know what’s going to happen next). But I am its author and it is up to me to put the tag with the right title andcontent of the work when its "finale” comes about.

I would like to believe that the artists in the Union of Artists and above all the audience, which I treasure the most, will understand.

*Date of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The Bulgarian government did not disclose the disaster to the public until several days later.
Text written in 1990. Originally published in Kultura weekly newspaper (Sofia), June 22, 1990.