Burnt. Burn. Will Burn

Boryana Petkova
Curated by Snejana Krasteva
31.10 – 23.12.2023

Boryana Petkova’s performative practice is characterized by its durational nature and cannot be separated from the craftsmanship of drawing in an expanded field. Both painful and painless, her performances often evoke a sense of poetry, stoicism, and transcendence. For this exhibition, dozens of drawings on white paper are spread across the water tower floors. They are the result of Petkova’s most recent performance, partly conducted and documented in the courtyard of the gallery without an audience and partly at the opening of the exhibition, performed live.

For several consecutive hours, the artist was surrounded by burning coal, trying to write three words on paper using hot coals––the past, present, and future tenses of the verb “to burn.” Literally burning herself with each new attempt, the artist could often barely make more than a few chaotic strokes, which is why some drawings resemble doodles or children’s drawings. At times she patted her hands on the cold paper to ease the pain, at others, she dug them in the soil under her. She admits to having been puzzled, feeling that her hands were wet as if they were crying, which helped her go more smoothly. The resulting works on paper are hung in the gallery in the order of writing and the visitors can sense when Petkova has had a surge of energy and when it has “left” her, finally ending the hours-long drawing process. The video recording of the performance, filmed by Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova, is shown after the live performance throughout the duration of the exhibition.

The performance Burn.Burnt.Will Burn. is directly inspired by the rituals of Nestinarstvo, a dying Bulgarian culture from the region of Strandzha. Since the ancient times of the Thracians, it is believed that a society of Nestinari existed in that region, including men and women, who were devoted to their saints. They would “free” themselves from the gods only when walking on fire, blurting out predictions, and enduring excruciating pain for the good of society. The last Nestinarka is said to have died in the 1960s, and firewalking has now taken up that tradition leaving out some of the more sacred and spiritual aspects of this old ritual. These “games,” as they call them, of walking on fire were largely performed by women. They marked important rites of passage, an act of extreme benevolence toward the younger generations whose past, present, and future pain and suffering they attempted to alleviate by taking it on themselves and crossing the fire barefoot. The real Nestinari were said to become ice-cold for hours when “the gods” possessed them, entering a trance-like state while dancing and singing. Often involving others in her works, here Petkova collaborates with Aurora Timev and Stefan Hristov (MR.SMiFF) to produce the accompanying music. Timev’s powerful voice fills the gallery space in the often incomprehensible manner of the original Nestinarki.

Small glass objects follow the whorled shape of the water tower, spreading across the entire length of the building, representing pieces of the original coals collected by the artist after a fire-walking ritual, which are wrapped in glass. As Petkova describes it, when the cold coal collided with the boiling glass, it ignited again and burned out, shaping the glass around it. In many ways, what we see is a time capsule of energy, painful or otherwise, caught in the fragility of the glass, menacing or, on the contrary, promising to release the highly inflammable thoughts it contains.

Snejana Krasteva