Daniel Bozhkov is a performance artist that needs more than one introduction. His roster of activities shows how his work interacts with reality. Nothing so passive as a picture, installation, or manifesto. Bozhkov is a man of action. He takes an interest in the role of greeter at Walmart. In Bulgaria where he was born, there is hospitality in abundance. Bozhkov wants to experience the uniquely American job of being paid to be hospitable – to see if any of the authenticity could remain if you are being paid to be welcoming.
He documents this performance with a video camera following him in Walmart, greeting customers and being helpful. Then he gets the idea to paint a fresco in the call-waiting room. Bozhkov paints a tiered shelf-like frieze of repeating panels of products, family scenes, and local landmarks. He returns four years later with an art restorer to inspect how the piece has accumulated abrasions from various sofas, refrigerators, and boxed products waiting to be picked up. It is advanced archeology, but given that the store is about to change their color scheme from blue and grey to beige and cream, the mural has to be moved.
Next project: Bozhkov buys time on Bulgarian TV and shows Darth Vader standing in the Black Sea purifying water with a Britta. The TV spot plays for 15 seconds at-a-time between various commercials, placing the viewer in the position to question the uses of a Britta, or what the hell is Darth Vader doing purifying the Black Sea with a Britta? TV time must be cheap in American dollars, anyone can buy their 15 minutes of fame in Bulgaria.
Onto the next challenge: arm wrestle a corporeal in the Scottish Black Watch. This military unit has many honors that reach back in time as far as fighting Napoleon in Egypt. Bozhkov introduces this arm wrestling match by first showing the ceremony of the royal guard as seen on TV and then him and the corporeal sitting at the kitchen table. Next picture: locked hands. Next: struggle. Yes, the corporeal wins.
But oddly enough, there’s more: Bozhkov insinuates himself into a genetics lab that works with human DNA to import it to virus and bacteria, and then experiment with the DNA and import it back. The goal here is health care: teach DNA that cancer is the bad cell. Bozhkov with a mix of curiosity, enthusiasm, and incompetence, gets the genetics excited about a different kind of experiment: to make organic yogurt with human DNA. Given the artist who can apprentice himself to anything and anyone, they take Bozhkov’s blood. From the red blood cells, they make a nourishing soup and with the white cells: they extract DNA, cut it in segments, heat bacteria until the cell wall opens, inject the DNA, and then proceed to make yogurt with it. He packages the yogurt “Human DNA Reinforced” and puts it in a gallery show in Vilnius. “Cloning yourself into yogurt.” You can keep adding and propagating yogurt, but, “That yogurt is not for eating, by the way.”
Um, it gets better: Here’s the title of his next piece (see if you can infer what this involves – it’s bigger than you think): “Learn How to Fly Over a Very Large Larry”. One clue: that’s Larry King … Bozhkov creates a very large drawing of Larry King in a field by stamping down grass with a large piece of plywood. He times this to coincide with the release of the movie “Signs” and the picture in the field does look like the iconic image of Larry King. The famous host mentions the work on air and so do a few other news channels. Bozhkov then takes flying lessons and flies over his drawing in the field in East Madison, Maine. “You have to excavate,” he says – on the surface it is an achievement, but then out of the woods he discovers a home-schooled plant specialist named Grace who lives nearby and knows every Milkweed and Wild Thistle in the field. Her knowledge informs the next stage of the project: a gallery exhibit complete with step-by-step of the creation, plant specimens, the TV spots, and oil paintings of freeze frames of Larry King (Bozhkov is an accomplished painter).
He’s just getting started; it gets better: “Okay, next project happens in Istanbul.” Everywhere in the region you can buy a round pretzel called, Simitci. Bozhkov grew up five or six hours from Istanbul. Bulgaria was in the communist east during NATO, and Bozhkov couldn’t go to Istanbul. He travels to Istanbul this time with his mother, and she knows some few words of the local dialect that Bozhkov writes down, and he figures out their pictogram: these simple forms he makes into pretzel designs. Bozhkov apprentices himself to a Simitci bakery and learns to roll the iconic pretzel roll and then makes a few of his own, prints packaging, and sells them on the streets of Istanbul. The pretzels in the shape of the pictogram for Curtain, Gift, and Two Dogs sold so well, the bakery decides to keep making them.
Next project: a stained glass of a grafted Lemon, Orange, and Tangerine tree, Bozhkov installs on a window in a building near the World Trade Center. He calls it “Luminous Office Transformer” referring to the way sunlight at a certain time of day infuses the room with color.
Okay, this is too much: while he was in Istanbul, Bozhkov happened to stay in the Grand Hotel de Londres, where Hemingway famously stayed as a young journalist “as one of the lost generation sent by the Toronto Star to cover the Greek Turkish war”. The experience gets Bozhkov to thinking about how the essence of the great man lingers in the place “something about his presence, almost like a fragrance” and he decides to create a perfume with the smell of Hemingway. “Bold masculinity with tragic notes.” Bozhkov sees Hemingway as melancholy for masculinity. The scale of WWI was too big to emphasize the individual hero, and traditional masculinity can’t handle the disappearance of the hero.
Bozhkov creates a perfume label from Hemingway’s iconic passport photo as a young man, and he manufactures a few sample scents ranging from “a citrusy smell, to a musk, to an almost unwearable kinda smell”. Bozhkov takes the scents to a Hemingway-look-a-like contest in Key West, Florida. The old guys know everything about Hemingway. They follow Hemingway. Hemingway as “Papa”, these are older men. They smell the fragrance. There is a consensus, “Oh yeah, that’s the one.” It is Eau D’ Ernest, for men. Bozhkov makes a 1,000 bottle edition and puts one back in the hotel amongst all the other curios and memorabilia. Now, Istanbul is the copycat center of the world, and a pirated edition of Eau D’ Ernest soon appears on the market. “The smell was very close, but much more fugitive.”
Bozhkov begins exchanging fake Eau D’ Ernest for fake Chanels amongst the street sellers. He makes a TV commercial with the buy-line “Grace Under Pressure”. The product takes off and it turns out it must be cleared of copyright infringement. The Hemingway Foundation says no. Founded by the surviving sons of Hemingway to manage not only the writing, but the use of the image, name, signature, likeness, and anything to do with Papa. (The first product they licensed was a 500 edition of the shotgun he committed suicide with.)
There’s more work to be done, on to Austin, Texas: Barton Springs Natural Mineral Spring. In the heat of summer it’s the only place you can cool off in downtown Austin. The water is 70 degrees throughout the year. This cherished public pool in the center of town came under threat of privatization and the discovery of a salamander that lives in the water saves the public spring. The Barton Springs salamander is put on the EPA endangered species list and Bozhkov gets the inspiration to stage a music event: “Cantata for 12 Choirs and Several Salamanders”. An albino black man sings “Wade in the Water”. Blond dreadlocks and orange colored glasses. He seems to represent the mysteriously fragile presence of the salamander. His song ends and the entire assembled choir stands in silence listening to the amplified sounds of insects and natural springs.
Well, next he installs a water collection tank on the roof of an enormous gallery to feed a wild garden. Bozhkov has a gallery show of the cantata and places the projector under a pile of stuff. The only way you could see the image from the projector is if someone held a screen for you.
At this point, he has more projects, but stops to take questions from the audience.