An Economy of Endings: Kosta Tonev’s Use of Motion, Cyclicality and Labour
There is something timely, maybe even poignantly fatalist, about taking a quote by Karl Marx on how capitalist production veers from one economic crisis to another and use it as a title for an exhibition. Bulgarian artist Kosta Tonev in his exhibition The heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat perverts the capitalist cycle by reanimating the obsolete. More radically, Tonev recycles the most absolute ending of all, death, in his projects. This is never done in a heavy-handed way. To the contrary, it almost seems accidental or coincidental when Tonev suggests a finite rupture in the cycle. Take for instance the video and series of photographs Self-sufficient Machine (2009). Here the artist cleans a dust-covered vacuum cleaner with its own hose but cannot reach the final part of the hose. The functionality of the apparatus is compromised.
Something becomes obsolete when it ceases to have a function or loses its currency as a commodity. This is part and parcel of the cyclicality of the system, be it capitalist, aesthetic, representational or historical, but in Tonev’s work this is altered. Or put differently, there is a difference in movement within the system. Particularly for this exhibition, “motion” takes on a peculiar symbolic and economical value. This is well exemplified by the detailed pencil drawings that depict historical vignettes, such as a 17th century Bulgarian “pleasure wheel” rotated by strong men instead of mechanised labour. It is the predecessor of the fully mechanised Ferris wheel, an iconic marker of the modern age. Another drawing shows the 100 Leva banknote that the Bulgarian state issued in 1990 after the fall of the iron curtain, the highest denomination to be brought into circulation. Less than a decade later Bulgaria’s bumpy transition into a free market economy caused a massive devaluation and the bill was pulled in 1999. Ironically enough the banknote featured a mural showing the wheel of life by the famous 19th century painter Zahariy Zograf. Life, death, circulation and movement all seems interlinked. With this banknote losing its monetary value, its own wheel of life has abruptly stopped, and it only continues to exist as a small entry in the annals of history.
The most extreme case of an object accruing a different value over time is to be found in the haunting video Death of a Cyclist (2013). A bike lies discarded at the side of the road, its front wheel still spinning ominously. As the camera zooms in on the cyclometer we become aware that though the cyclometer still records rotations, it is pointless: no one is riding the bike, it is not physically moving, it has lost its purpose. If anything, the bike has taken on a forensic quality as evidence in a roadside accident. Perhaps we can also say of Tonev’s drawings that they are historical riddles, rather than mere historical references. How do we solve the mystery of an object or of a historical fact that has lost its functionality or its economic value? Tonev does not seem as much concerned with answers, as he is with posing questions about unintended transactions. What happens to the materiality and the status of an object once it transforms into something else. What is the complicity of the viewer when she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the object’s novel state? In an earlier project titled Misunderstandings (2010-2012) Tonev offers a series of works that address how the conditions of production, usually invisible to the viewer, ultimately determine the essence of the work. For example, in Spray Stencils (2012) he displays a canvas with a text sprayed on it about how his intern, instead of painting a text by hand, used a stencil. Both the artist and the intern wanted to save time and shortcut the amount of labour. Tonev shows how this radically changed the aesthetics and the meaning of the piece.
In The heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat three light boxes containing photographs of envelopes with a letter of the alphabet on each right hand corner, are placed on the floor. Together the letters spell out the sentence “The heavenly bodies, once thrown into a certain definite motion, always repeat”. During his time as a bicycle courier Tonev would scribble a single letter on the envelope before delivering it to its addressee. This action makes the recipient of the package complicit in the circulation of goods, which Tonev as a messenger, helps to facilitate. However, the serially photographed surfaces of the letters and packages are meaningless in and by themselves. We are not privy to their content, nor has their messenger – the artist Kosta Tonev – ever been. It is by leaving his modest mark on the envelopes that Tonev not only bestows an additional layer of meaning onto these objects, but he also makes them part of a larger whole, a system with its own cycle and its own logic.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic.
The K. project presents a trilogy of interrelated works. Kosta Tonev restructures his own identity by applying to himself the protocols of documentation that form the basis of all identity documents.
The mechanism that transforms us into citizens is a procedure of discipline and control requiring measurement, description, categorization and photo documentation. Our biometric data are what characterizes us as individuals, and our recognition by others is linked to a document as the only valid proof that verifies our existence. The repressive nature of the identity document is embedded in its origins—the Bertillon system for identification of recidivist criminals based on anthropometric measurements and mug shots, is what today serves to identify us, thus turning every citizen into a potential subject of observation. The identity document is an entry into the system or a way out of it. As one involuntary TV heroine once said: "I do not participate in Bulgaria. I have no identity card."
Initially Kosta Tonev changed the Latin spelling of his name by replacing the "K" with a "C." This exorcist recoding of the name with the open circle of the letter "C" opens up a way for an escape into places with exotic names, such as Costa Brava, Costa Concordia, Costa Rica, which from the Great Geographical Discoveries up until the present day are laying out the map of wishes for ocean voyages, cruises and journeys to foreign lands. While the identity of Costa is freely floating, not reaching a shore, the "K" keeps it confined to a desolate and gray reality. "K" is in fact static, motionless, and even clumsy like the legs of an old sewing machine. Therefore the "C" is an escape from the doomed fate of 'K' - K as in the case of Josef K., judged on presumption of guilt by an anonymous instance, threatening to sue him for an unknown crime.
The visual parameters of the identity document—being the only contemporary image (at least in the secularized world) contingent on the iconic rules for reproduction—are subject to subversive manipulation on the part of the artist. If we open the door for speculation that the identity document is the very matrix defining the personality, then this modification is equivalent to the intervention in the astral card or DNA spiral of the individual. The artist’s last step is to materialize this new, modified identity, whose transformations are only detectable in the presence of the original. The identity document produces a nominal image able to recover in reverse the information about the individual, though only for the aspects that are subject to classification. The face resulting from the automated and soulless registration method presents a descriptive shell - resembling a new skin that anyone can wear like a garment or shoes. Kosta produces a figure, which expects to be infused with life, to be animated and humanized. Everything statistics and classification is incapable of.
A Name As a Work of Art
Warhol or Beuys, just like other “stars” of the 20th Century, made it clear that art always has something to do with self-dramatization.
The young Bulgarian artist Kosta Tonev, who lives in Vienna, deals with this phenomenon in his exhibit at the Startgalerie. His own name, and the misunderstanding that many people think he is Spanish, become a subject of discussion, thereby subtly showing how, in the art world, a name can function like a trademark.
The individual works are not as convincing as the subtle allusion to his signature stroke “Costa”, which is prominently positioned on the white wall and reminds of Picasso’s signature. The first superstar of art is quoted as a label, and the fact that Picasso “also” is a Spaniard, perfects the intended allusion.
In a short video you can watch the artist transforming the spelling of his first name “Kosta” into “Costa”. It is correct to write Kosta with a “K”, but apparently Austrians expect this name, which is pronounced very much like the Spanish word for “coast”, to be written with a “C”. Expectations are fulfilled and the name itself is transformed into a work of art. The name is no longer randomly chosen by others, but is subject to the artist's design concept.
The exhibit succeeds in developing a lasting picture: that of a young man, who knows how to capture the attention of the audience - simply with his own person and his name. In an era of absolute sensory overload, this is the key to success.
from 0GMS – Gallery in a Drawer 2008/2013 (catalog)
Combining the languages of cinema and painting in video works or photographs is typical for the works of Kosta Tonev. He is interested in the relation between image and text (very present in some of his paintings) while creating various conditions for “reading” the piece. We can see an empty mid-of-the-night asphalt road; on the road – a bicycle fallen to one side with the front wheel still spinning. The camera is slowly approaching while floating on a level slightly above the tarmac to finally focus on the spinning spokes. One can see the mileage on the meter. This video -“The Death of the Cyclist” is as much a work about the banality of death as it is a scene taken out of a crime or horror movie. The artist is looking for such associations by the choice of camera angle, the framing of the shot, the lighting and most of all – the sound effects. His interest in the time and object qualities of the image in video art are matched by theatricality as a sign for the links between visual arts and cinema. We can recognize (read) images that have already been implanted into the social/cultural imagination. Next to conceptualist works by Bruce Nauman or Piero Manzoni, for instance, the photograph “Magic Base” once again presupposes a level of visual memory and awareness from the viewer. It is a “sculptural” composition where the performing body of the artist is replacing the object of art, which is elevated on a magical base – the pedestal. The author is focusing on the environment/d cor while demonstrating how the “autonomous” language of art might be an effect of the self-sufficient machines of culture that are producing reality.