Beauty in Invisibility,
Fluidity in Identity
Illustration by Ivaylo Nedkov
Elitza Koeva’s career is devoted to art, architecture and media, and the determination to examine the connection between them. We discuss the cultural differences between the East and the West, the future of urban space and the social responsibility that contemporary art bears.
Tell us a little about yourself, your background, your education…
I was born and raised in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I believe the city of Plovdiv has shaped my identity to a big extent and has exerted a strong influence on how I construe reality. The whole Balkan region is very culturally burdened and complex, with a rich and ancient history. I believe it has an amazing creative potential. I was born during the socialist era, which was an era of desires. Desires for many wanted items which could not be satisfied by the socialist economy. Foreign mail order catalogs, like the Neckermann from Western Germany, were passed from hand to hand, and although they were not used for actual shopping, they served as a keyhole for viewing the consumer society in other parts of Europe. I think these burning desires and sense of lack are embedded in the psyche of my generation. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union Bulgaria underwent a painful transformation process on the way to becoming a capitalist society. The ruined monuments from the communist period have become a symbol of collective trauma but without any concept or plan for how they can be integrated into the contemporary landscape. I think this emotional engagement boosted my unabated interest in media, urban space and visual studies.
I did my bachelor studies in International Economic Relations at the University of National and World Economy, Sofia. Simultaneously, I obtained an additional qualification in International Relations from the University of Sofia “St. Kliment Ohridski”. After graduation, I worked for nearly four years at Fame Cards Media (Sofia), where I was running a project presenting social awareness issues. The main objective was to help civil society organizations visualize and convey their message. At that time, Fame Cards was an ACT (Advertising Community Together) Responsible Ambassador for Bulgaria. Through my close work with ACT Responsible and constant involvement in projects concerning environmental and social issues, and through my participation in numerous lectures and meetings with policymakers and NGOs on a vast array of issues, I have broadened the ways with which I construe visual arts and the impact of the media.
I then moved to Japan where I was a research student at a film lab of Kyoto University, and where I also pursued my own independent research on Japanese art and design. I obtained a Master’s Degree in Information Studies from the University of Tokyo. For my Master’s Thesis, entitled A Different Space: A Globalising Architectural Firm in Contemporary China, I examined the design praxis of young Chinese architects (MAD Architects) and how they conceptualize urban space. My analysis, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing, aimed to understand whether MAD could bridge the Eastern and Western understanding of space and envision the cities of the future, by creating a more advanced ‘lived’ environment through the employment of ancient Chinese spatialization concepts.
Why Asia, what led you to that choice?
For many years, I had been following Japanese, Chinese and South Korean cinema, whose visual trends are now being incorporated in Western movies. Through the film medium, I could feel the difference between the cultural codes of the Eastern and Western societies. I felt this subtle sensitivity that leaves a lot to the imagination yet enables one to see the world in greater detail. I was also very much interested in Zen philosophy and meditation, therefore, I wanted to experience these relationships from within. I believe this is the only way for a culture to be understood, if seen and experienced from the inside. Somehow I felt a stronger pull towards Japan, and I got a scholarship from the Japanese Government, which enabled me to pursue my dreams.
What is it that you do exactly at the moment?
After graduating from the University of Tokyo, I did a series of internships and project-based work at various art & architectural firms and institutions: OMA, Arata Isozaki & Associates, Junya Ishigami + Associates, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MOT). At OMA, I got the opportunity to work as an editorial assistant for “Elements of Architecture” (Harvard Graduate School of Design and OMA/AMO) and was part of the team of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition Fundamentals. During the internship at Arata Isozaki & Associates, I was part of the team conceiving and designing the ISOZAKI Arata: SOLARIS Exhibition at ICC, Tokyo. At Junya Ishigami, I worked as an editor of his forthcoming monograph. My internship at MOT ended this April. It has been an exciting year during which I worked on the Oscar Niemeyer: The Man Who Built Brasilia and Yoko Ono: From My Window exhibitions. I got the opportunity to design some of the visual materials exhibited and also to contribute with research. In addition, I did portrait photographs of Ms. Ono. I am also helping a Japanese creative consultancy with their various projects, and was in charge of their rebranding by creating their company profile together with a team of creatives.
Meanwhile, I am also doing my own art practice and research. My practice is at the intersection of fine arts, media, and architecture. My research focus, triggered by my experience of living in Tokyo, is on the production of virtual space, the various ways it augments the physically built space, and how the dynamic tension of their interaction shapes our perceptions, leading to the emergence of novel sensorial apparatuses.
You were part of Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo’s team. What is it like to work in such an environment?
It was really great fun. I enjoyed it a lot. I was very curious about what it is like to work in a contemporary art museum.
My personal experience at MOT was like being in some sort of a wonderland. There is a lot of freedom and you never see the governing body, a bit Orwellian. Also, there are many ‘loopholes’ in which you could disappear. I think OMA was like that as well. An institution by itself.
You have lived in quite a lot of places: can you list them for us? Which one felt like the best fit for you, and did you feel out of place in any of them?
They are not that many. Plovdiv, Sofia, Sandbanks (UK), Kyoto, Tokyo, Beijing, and Rotterdam.
My first encounter with Japan and Japanese culture was in Kyoto. I was unaware of how many stereotypes and preconceptions I had brought with me. In that sense, it was a long journey of deconstructing thoughts and ideas, facing my own mind limitations. While in Kyoto, I was very much influenced by the traditional Japanese spatial practices. The city is full of temples, shrines, old houses, small gardens, and of course new architecture. However, at first glance, its beauty escapes the Western mind, as it lacks solidity. I realized that the beauty is precisely in this invisibility, whereas Western culture is based on materiality. As the architect Kisho Kurokawa says, Japanese tradition and philosophy are conceived as invisible, whereas the European way of thinking is rooted in materialistic civilization (visible traditions).
My second transformative experience was when I was conducting fieldwork in Beijing. After several years in a very sophisticated, refined, but rather detached environment, I was immersed in an extremely tactile, stimulating and ‘human’ environment, built of solid materials. It made me question again what it means to be human. With Japan being on the post-human, cyborg-like edge and China still being very rough but emotionally explicit. I felt sheer joy just by having a walk around the Beijing hutongs. In Beijing, I also got interested in the relationship between our minds and bodies, and in the fact that
I also observed an urban development occurring so fast that, if not documented, nobody would remember the soon-to-be-past present cityscape. A process, taking place all over China, very well documented by the movies of Jia Zangke.
Finally, when I visited Venice for the Architecture Biennale two years ago, I was delighted by the sunlight, by the sense of freedom, and by the whole cityscape composed of architectural and floral elements. It is there that I felt the strong need to return back home and spend some time in the places I come from, walk barefoot, eat home-made food, play with my parents’ dog and so on. The joy of being alive.
About your second question, I will use a quote I came across: “when does the ability to escape become an inability to belong.” In a sense, I feel like a stranger everywhere I go, including Plovdiv, the place I perceive as home, but on the other hand, I am at home everywhere I go. It is a broader perspective, transcending spatial and cultural boundaries, by living life in a state of altered consciousness. As a friend of mine says, “you know everything is an illusion.”
How does living and working in Europe differ from Asia? Did you have a marked adjustment period when you first got there?
That is very hard to say. First of all, life within Europe differs greatly and Asia by itself is extremely diverse. I can only speak from my limited experience in Kyoto, Tokyo, Beijing, and partially Seoul and Hong Kong. If I can afford the violence of generalization, Asia is very hard-work oriented, with very limited time for leisure, travel, social and family activities, less individualistic, companies have rigid structures, vertical hierarchies, slow-decision making processes, a shared responsibility, etc. In Japan, work is a virtue. The company you are working for more or less ‘owns’ you. Whereas in Europe there is a quite nice balance between the private and professional life, organizational structures are more flat, achievements are based on performance, the culture is also more competitive and individualistic. Also, the public space in Asia is almost non-existing and can be found as far as streets are concerned. In Europe it is also rapidly disappearing, but we still have the luxury of the square, street, terrace and park life.
You have worked on so many interesting projects, which one was your favorite?
My fieldwork in Beijing and working for Arata Isozaki. Beijing is very special to me, in a sense that it reminds me of home. I enjoyed contemplating the hutong rooftops and the everyday life on the hutong alleys which reminded me so much of my carefree childhood. I could also trace the Chinese influence that came to Bulgaria, from architecture to food. We also share a communist past. I could relate to many of the processes occurring there, as well as to the ‘lost in transition’ generation, the generation of my parents I would say.
As of Arata Isozaki, he is a very important cultural figure, not only in Japan but world-wide. He is an architect, artist, thinker, and a strong individual. I was lucky to have the opportunity to be near him and draw inspiration from his incessant mind activity. His mind is younger and more ‘aware’ than that of most people I know.
What is “big” in the art world today, where is it all going?
I believe it is the responsibility of the artist to reveal what has been oppressed by the hegemonic order and to make the invisible visible by making it public; I paraphrase Chantal Mouffe here.
I think new digital technologies and social media have facilitated the spread of consumerist behavior across all sectors, including art and academia. However, I also believe that art is charged with the task of ‘enactment of presence’, reappropriating the public space which is disappearing from cities by being privatized, turned into security zones, and so on.
in concurrence with Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture/ social architecture’ which opens a path to thorough integration of art into everyday life.
What are your hobbies? We heard you are an avid photographer.
I do not have much time for hobbies, unfortunately. Or perhaps, on the contrary, my hobbies are part of my work, and in that sense I will need to find new hobbies. I do take photographs indeed, but I do not consider myself a photographer. I use photography as a medium to convey ideas and also to document processes, urban, rural and so on. Also, the camera itself has a different way of seeing, and very often I let the camera complement my vision. This approach is based on John Cage’s music theories (chance operations) and Arata Isozaki’s incubation process. During the past years, I have accumulated a lot of visual data which has become part of my artworks.
I am also very much interested in sound, and in particular city soundscapes, as sound changes with the moment. My current focus is on the human body, its movement, its sensorial apparatuses, and in connection to that, I would love to do experimental dance. I am also occasionally doing yoga and meditation, but what makes me truly happy is riding the bicycle, being out in nature and being immersed in water. Japanese onsen (hot springs) completely changed my relationship with water. I do not know a better way for the relaxation of both mind and body.
You’ve recently been accepted to the Royal College of Art in London and to Harvard for graduate studies. Can you share some details?
I believe it came as a natural continuation of my research and art practice. I have chosen the path of artist-thinker, employing experimental research methodology, which aligns with the objectives of the two programs. After working in-between academia and professional practice, and across fields, I felt that this should be my career path. I am interested in this in-betweenness and the inability to belong to a certain discipline. Also,
I am very much excited to go deeper with my own research project which calls for a renewed questioning of the role of the arts in urban environments, as they are saturated with information technologies and produce a plethora of fast changing imagery. My research will explore how virtually-enhanced urban spaces alter perception by interrogating the role of art, digital media technologies and the city in their respective and inter-related production of subjectivity. I deeply hope to be able to contribute to society on some level.