Challenging the “Do not touch” sign - an interview about the "Tchotchke" exhibition

2024-02-06 Ivan Kolarov
Art letters placed on a wall.

At the end of September, we held the opening of the third exhibition at the office of foryouandyourcustomers in Sofia. The atmosphere at the event predisposed the visitors to frank conversations about art, corporate culture, humour and how all of this intersects. In the interim, artist Nevena Ekimova toured guests, shedding light on her unique approach for the 68th Vernissage of foryouandyourcustomers.

In the world of adults and professionals, where focus and determination are paramount in the pursuit of goals, there is a fascinating convergence of art, humour, and encouragement for creative ventures by innovative companies. Join us in the engaging conversation as we discover how art can offer a reminder to cherish the brighter side of life and where lies the harmony between adulthood, with all demands that come with it, and the simplicity of remembering how to have fun and stop being serious for a moment. The artist, Nevena Ekimova managed to captivate this in her artworks for the latest exhibition at foryouandyourcustomers in Sofia – "Tchotchke".

Viktoria Draganova, curator, and Nevena Ekimova, artist.

Curator and artist next to art piece

Most of the art pieces are a direct product of her conversations with the team members, and though each of them was really distinguished, the objects remained enigmatic until the very first tour of the team in the exhibition. In this interview, Nevena Ekimovia and Viktoria Draganova, the discerning curator of the exhibition, unveil the secret behind the origination of "Tchotchke" and how art offers a reminder to "slow down and appreciate the small things in life."

foryouandyourcustomers: Nevena, as an artist, how does this project compare to others you've undertaken? What unique artistic challenges did you encounter during your creative journey with the "Tchotchke" exhibition?

Nevena Ekimova: The two major differences between this and previous projects are connected to scale and process. Although the Sofia office is pretty spacious, I had to downsize considerably in comparison with former purely white cube-based and outdoor projects, where I’ve counted on the grandiosity and immersiveness of the big object.

"... the team of 16 people working in the office – offered an interesting new way of approaching creation..."

Nevena Ekimova

Since the things (tchotchkes) I decided to create were supposed to be looked at closely and, in many cases, literally played with, they had to be executed with an attention to detail that has not been necessary for the large-scale projects I’ve worked on in the past. On the other hand, the existence of a concrete group of recipients – the team of 16 people working in the office – offered an interesting new way of approaching creation, that is through personal inquiry, which gave me a frame for each piece, shaping thoughts and ideas in curious and often unexpected ways.

Art piece placed on a table.

foryouandyourcustomers: Viktoria, as the curator responsible for the preselection of artists, what criteria led you to choose Nevena? Could you shed light on the distinctive qualities of her artistic oeuvre that you found compelling and how it resonates uniquely within the context of "Tchotchke"?

Viktoria Draganova: The interviews with Marta Djourina and Nevena Ekimova last year were almost one after another. Back then Albena Mancheva and Jonathan Moeller liked both artists especially because of their original working processes and their ability to alter the atmosphere in the office. As before the decision process is intuitive but also related to the willingness to work with artists whose practice is interesting and inspiring.

I’m glad that Nevena Ekimova and I had more than a year to prepare the current exhibition consisting of very detailed objects and installations, and almost all of them were created manually and with great attention to detail.

For me, the most exciting aspects of her work are both precision and humour. Also, let's not ignore the “nerd bonding” as Nevena calls it – her interest in all kinds of deeply specialised knowledge.

foryouandyourcustomers: Can both of you delve into the genesis of the exhibition's title: "Tchotchke"? What inspired this choice, and does it harbour multifaceted meanings?

Viktoria Draganova: The decision for the current title originated from Nevena entirely. All I can add is that it fits like a glove to this exhibition because it brings up the question: How is it that some ordinary things become art? It’s not a coincidence that in the exhibition there is a reference to Duchamp’s work made through Nevena’s sweet and silly interpretation. 

Nevena Ekimova: I have been a sucker for words all my life, so much so that my first MA is in linguistics. The word "tchotchke", besides perfectly describing the exact content of the exhibition – a series of objects imitating the small personal items one puts on their office desk or wall – is a fascinating word itself. 

It’s very funny looking, pretty absurd in its double plurality (one tchotchke – many tchotchkes), which almost hurts our Slavic ears, and in this way, I think it offers a direct and succinct way of telling you what to expect – some super serious silliness.

foryouandyourcustomers: Nevena, offer us a glimpse into your creative process. Do you typically embark on your artistic endeavours with a well-defined vision, or do you find that your art takes on a more organic evolution as you work? Share your insights into this aspect of your artistic journey.

Nevena Ekimova: Every artwork is different, which is a really boring answer, so let me elaborate. I have a piece I copied directly from a dream. I have had projects that I thought about for years before I even started laying a single metaphorical brick. Sometimes I hear something on the street, and by the end of the day, it is a finished piece.

Art piece tapestry.

For the more than twenty works in "Tchotchke", I experienced various scenarios – everything from artist’s block, light bulb moments and meticulous planning to gimmicky ideas that appear in a split-second and take not more than a day to turn into a finished work.

foryouandyourcustomers: Viktoria, take us on an exploration of the orchestration behind the scenes of the "Tchotchke" exhibition. What were the pivotal steps and considerations that breathed life into this concept? Specifically, illuminates the key placement of objects and decorations within the exhibition space.

Viktoria Draganova: During the exhibition installation it was important not to pile art pieces up and to avoid any scenery – everything had to look as if placed at home, on shelves or tables, a bit souvenir-ish, but also within reach of a hand’s touch.

"Our idea was to overturn traditional art genres and replace them with slightly old-fashioned moments..."

Viktoria Draganova

This way the objects appeared everywhere, like in a game, naturally, but many of them are actually games, even if the rules are goofy. In our jargon these are art installations and the tapestries on the walls are references to paintings. Our idea was to overturn traditional art genres and replace them with slightly old-fashioned moments that, however, create a very interesting situation right in the office.

foryouandyourcustomers: Nevena, your mention of deriving inspiration from personal conversations with team members piques our curiosity. Could you provide specific instances of how these interactions and thematic discussions directly influenced the genesis of particular objects in the exhibition?

Nevena Ekimova: It was clear from the start that different objects would bear varying degrees of relevance to the chats I had with the team members, who were all super nice and fascinating people, by the way. 

Sometimes a single word would propel me in a certain direction – like one person’s mention of a corgi dog, which reminded me of another word, coined by a friend of mine – "Decepticorgi". From then on it was just a matter of brainstorming on the subject of what the hell a Decepticorgi could look like. 

People looking at art piece.

Another team member gave me the impression of a person who really loves their kid, and so I combined forces with AI and spun 15 parallel universes in which parent and child have wild adventures together. 

foryouandyourcustomers: Viktoria, envision the "Tchotchke" exhibition as a catalyst for redefining the dynamics within the office environment. Share your insights on the transformative atmosphere that Nevena aspires to cultivate for the employees and its potential impact.

Viktoria Draganova: Bringing a sense of home comfort into the office may seem surprising at first glance, but the truth is that behind each of these objects lies a story. These stories not only connect the artist and the people working here but also provide them with new directions for conversation, primarily infused with the playful absurdity present in most of the works.

"... we aim to tell stories that allow the same people to rediscover themselves."

Viktoria Draganova

And this is truly significant for any place inhabited by people. That's why we strive to collaborate with artists in a way that goes beyond just hanging paintings on the walls; we aim to tell stories that allow the same people to rediscover themselves.

foryouandyourcustomers: Nevena, let's delve into the underlying intention behind infusing elements of surprise and humour into the exhibition's objects. What motivated this artistic approach, and how did you tactfully execute it to achieve your desired effect?

Nevena Ekimova: In my view, a punchline works best when it’s totally unexpected, so you can say humour and surprise converge in the tchotchkes. I do love comedy, and I approached this exhibition with the intention of really showcasing this facet of my persona.

Artist showing tactile art piece.

I love making serious and rigorously researched works as well, but the idea of an office environment, combined with the fact that the artworks would stay for a whole year, compelled me to try and give the team something truly enjoyable to look at and play with. Whether I achieved my goal or not I don’t know, but I did have a solid giggle making the show, and I am considering making new tchotchkes in the near future.

foryouandyourcustomers: The "Tchotchke" exhibition showcases a diverse array of artistic techniques, reflecting a rich tapestry of creative ideas. Were there particular artists, art movements, or contemporary trends that served as wellsprings of inspiration for this multifaceted approach? Delve into these influences and their resonance within the exhibition.

Viktoria Draganova: Well, it’s best that Nevena tells us more about the Duchamp reference. In general nowadays, artists are using objects that they found. That use may be direct – by adding a conceptual framework, or indirect – a transformation… 

Nevena Ekimova: Inspirations for this particular show come mostly from literature, graphic novels in particular. There are references, and sometimes direct fan art, of classics such as Maus, The Sandman and The Witcher, and lots of childhood nostalgia, and the obligatory memes – we are in an IT crowd, after all! 

Art installation - cat sitting on bidet

As for Duchamp, he is obviously a cherished father figure, but the pissoir reference was actually nothing but a happy accident. I was stuck with a piece inspired by a cat trained to pee in a human toilet. I’d made the cat, but the toilet just couldn’t take shape in my head. One day my boyfriend said: Hey, I found this urinal in the garage, do you want it? And I thought: What better way to take the piss out of contemporary art than with a funny cat?

foryouandyourcustomers: As we contemplate the broader impact of the "Tchotchke" exhibition, cast your vision forward. How do you foresee this artistic endeavour influencing the daily interactions of individuals within their workspace?

Viktoria Draganova: I hope that everybody on the team feels cozier in the office due to the presence of these soft, playful, quirky, and somewhat absurd objects, which contribute to a more personal atmosphere. This, in essence, aligns with the company's commitment to creating a conducive environment, but I see it as an enhancement that encourages the free flow of conversations.

Nevena Ekimova: You know what they say about all work and no play! I hope the tchotchkes serve the purpose of reminding grown-ups that they once were kids, who bonded over toys and cartoons, back in the day when interactions were effortless and friendships were instant.

foryouandyourcustomers: Viktoria, illuminate the collaborative dynamics between yourself and Nevena during the curation of this exhibition. Offer insights into the synergy of your roles and how they harmonised to bring the "Tchotchke" project to its remarkable fruition.

Viktoria Draganova: I work openly and collaboratively with artists. I strive to assist them when they need something. Being a mediator between all parties involved – office, employees, the artist, different auditories, and media – is how I see my primary role. 

As a curator, I often hear various things and try informally to balance these relationships. If we feel comfortable in this exhibition and can hear not only the voice of the artist but our inner voice as well, which is a burst of quiet laughter in this case, then we have undoubtedly succeeded.

Surrounding ourselves with art is part of the corporate philosophy of foryouandyourcustomers. In each of our international cells, we follow the tradition of organising art exhibitions by contemporary artists with the support of local curators. In the past 13 years, the total number of all art exhibitions organised by foryouandyourcustomers has exceeded 70. But that's not just a number. We value exciting art in our office space and support a variety of artists in developing while remaining recognizable – since personal development is part of the philosophy of foryouandyourcustomers as well. 

Here in Sofia, we follow this tradition with a small difference. We want the exhibited art to somehow relate to the employees and it’s always up to the artist to decide how this will happen. Also, we really don’t know in advance what the art pieces will look like. We usually find out promptly before the Vernissages. Trust is a fundamental part of our culture and values, therefore we put our trust in the curator and the artist, and so far this freedom of work has proven very successful for the exhibitions. 

Hailing from her hometown of Gabrovo, Nevena Ekimova embarked on an artistic journey through the realms of contemporary art in Norway and Iceland. Her educational pursuit culminated in a BFA degree from the Valand Art Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden. Beyond her exhibition engagements, she actively collaborates with public institutions and specializes in crafting expansive interactive projects tailored for diverse audiences, including both children and adults.

Nevena's art seamlessly combines the visual and tactile, infusing her creations with a poetic and performative essence that encourages active engagement from the audience. Her artistic philosophy revolves around the exploration of ideas, resulting in a dynamic interplay of techniques and materials, each project bearing its distinct character. Driven by an unceasing desire for growth, Nevena fearlessly embraces novel techniques, perpetually thinking beyond conventional boundaries.

Viktoria Draganova is a curator, writer and educator. She lives and works in Sofia and is an active figure in the artistic and cultural fields. In 2015, she founded  Swimming Pool – an art space in Sofia focusing on curatorial and art research, collaborations, and art education.  In 2021, she initiated the Center for Social Vision, an interdisciplinary platform for art’s involvement in social processes. Viktoria is also the publisher of Sofia Art Map. Viktoria has curated more than 30 exhibitions and projects with Bulgarian and international artists, including the large-scale projects "The Possible Institution" (2021) and "New Ecologies" (2023). She is an initiator of several educational programs and large interdisciplinary public programs, as well she has written for critical publications, magazines, and artistic catalogs. 

In 2023, Viktoria Draganova also successfully placed the "Tchotchke" exhibition with artist Nevena Ekimova. This is the curator’s third exhibition in collaboration with foryouandyourcustomers Sofia.

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