22 February 2018

Gery Georgieva's performative self-presentation contains elements of folklore and pop, tradition and kitsch, body and identity. The Double Feature on February 26 presents three of her works.

By Daniel Urban

Entirely alone, a young woman stands in a snowy mountain landscape. Dressed in seemingly folk-like clothing and headdress, her hands are placed proudly on her hips. In the silent and deserted landscape, after a few glances she begins an expressive dance, in which only the muffled jangling of her jewelry can be heard. The woman is Gery Georgieva (born 1986), and even without music, any pop music fan can recognize what’s being performed here: It’s Beyonce’s 2008 hit “All The Single Ladies”.

This spectacle has achieved a certain degree of fame with a good 89,000 clicks on YouTube under the name “Rodopska Beyonce (Autoethnography II)”. Ethnography, folklore and pop music? One might say Georgieva, who put her dance online in 2013, has a certain degree of foresight: At last year’s Grammy awards, Beyonce’s choice of costume was considered to be reminiscent of Oshun, the African fertility goddess of the Yoruba, symbol of fertility, beauty and sexuality and patron saint of the Osun River.

Folklore and Pop music

In the works by Gery Georgieva, who hails from Bulgaria, the interconnection of folklore and Pop music arises time and again. In “Balkon Idol” she again wears a folkloric costume as she enters the Buzludzha Monument on the summit of Mt. Hadzhi Dimitar. The architecturally spectacular building – built in honor of the Communist movement of Bulgaria – was opened in 1981 to celebrate 1,300 years since the foundation of the Bulgarian state. Today, it is fairly run down, having succumbed to both the ravages of time and deliberate destruction. In the light-suffused hall, Georgieva strikes up a folk song, then the footage cuts to a nightclub in which she dances to a pounding beat, while the echo of her song from the Buzludzha Monument can still be heard. Three levels of time and three cultural concepts are interwoven here: the folk song, which harks back to past times and traditions, the communist ideals, which fall prey to degradation, and the kitsch of chalga pop music, itself a blend of different musical styles of the Balkan and Arab world, the content of which one could well sum up as sex, money and love.

Gery Georgieva, Rodopska Beyonce (Autoethnography II)

In “Polythene Queen” the artist, wearing a self-made plastic dress, roller-skates through her studio lip-synching along to a ballad of yearning. Snapshots of souvenir items from a British shop are projected onto the wall behind her, time and again these are reflected on Georgieva’s clothing and body. In “Blushing Valley” she dons the appearance of a dancing rose queen, underpinned with an audio recording from the rose festival in the Bulgarian town of Kazanlak – all set against the magnificent landscape of the Rose Valley, the most important area of cultivation for the country’s rose oil.

What is tradition, after all?

To a certain extent, Georgieva’s appearance in the works foregrounds a kind of representative principle of folklore and popularity: While every custom and every tradition has explicitly specific backgrounds and foundations, these are, from culture to culture, nevertheless so similar in terms of their codes and fundamental representations that they appear interchangeable. For the observer these are clearly recognizable – albeit not necessarily legible. In a globalized world, however, in light of their inherent content they are more the expression of a specific feeling of authenticity – the origin of which we can barely grasp nowadays. Tradition is tradition because it’s tradition. From this point of view, these days tradition plays a lesser role in shaping the individual; in fact, the individual becomes actively and deliberately individualized through codes through tradition. As Gery Georgieva put it recently in an interview with Broadly: “For me folk culture is a weird marker of authenticity”.

Gery Georgieva, Polythene Queen, 2017, Video still © the artist

As her favorite film, Gery Georgieva has chosen “Beau Travail” by Claire Denis. The film was released in 1999 and tells the story of a group of young members of the French Legion who are stationed on the gulf of the Republic of Djibouti. Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) throws himself into a life that seems to consist solely of military exercises and endurance training. He enjoys the respect of his subordinates and deeply admires his commander Bruno Forestier (Michael Subor). When a young soldier, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), joins the Legion, Galoup sees the unit’s well-oiled structure – including his own position – come under threat, so he decides to get rid of the young soldier.

Video Still from Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999, Image via: bfi.org.uk

“Beau Travail” is based on Hermann Melville’s story “Billy Budd” – now a classic of queer studies. Several scenes are underlaid by parts of Benjamin Britten’s eponymous opera. In quiet, long sequences, Denis shows the legionnaires’ day-to-day life and their exercises, which she stages like modern dance. Here, in the homoerotic connotations inherent in the military, the male, martial body appears more as something melancholy than as the property of a fascistic state: The sense and purpose of the unit of legionnaires is barely comprehensible and seems to be more that of a self-help group than the state-organized, violent enforcement of political ends.

Pop music: Folklore of modern times

Hence the threat that Galoup perceives from the new arrival Sentain is indeed absolute. In order to secure himself love and recognition, allegorical, biblical fratricide is his only option. Ultimately, however, in “Beau Travail” it is pop music – or the folklore of modern times, if you will – that helps Galoup to his redemptive and almost transcendental moment of self-realization.

Video Still from Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999, Image via: img.wennermedia.com