Painter and animator Theodore Ushev:
Art is losing its sensitivity
At some point we become malignant cells hindering the world's normal existence
8 March, 2018
Close-up: Theodore Ushev was born on 4 February 1968. He is the son of artist Asen Ushev. In 1995 Theodore graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia with a degree in graphic design. For nearly 20 years he has been living in Montreal and creating his projects in association with the National Film Board of Canada. His animated films, including Tawer Bawher, the children's Tzaritza, The Man Who Waited based on Franz Kafka's book The Trial, Gloria Victoria, etc., have earned numerous international awards. In 2017 his short animated film Blind Vaysha, adapted from a Georgi Gospodinov story, was among the three nominations for the Academy Award in that category. Recently, Ushev opened a mixed reality exhibition in Sofia entitled As If in a Dark Mirror. - Mr Ushev, after an Oscar nomination and a triumphant international tour, can you now pinpoint the key to the success of Blind Vaysha? Is it the fact that your animation style is close to the Bulgarian printmaking and linocut tradition, or perhaps it is Ivan Milev's work that makes the film different and more intriguing against the backdrop of the deliberate Hollywood “beauty”? - Those factors certainly played a role as the film stands out with its aesthetics and anti-aesthetics. The end result was strongly influenced by Bulgarian church prints. Perhaps that helped. My family is originally from Bansko and I am a descendant of an 18th-century iconographer named Toma Vishanov. He studied in Austria and that is how he came by the nickname Molera (derived from the German word for painter “Maler” - editor's note). His sons founded the Bansko Icon-Painting School. Many of the church murals in the city and in the Rila Monastery are the work of the Molera family, my forefathers. After his return from Europe, Molera did not have many commissions because his characters were considered too pink-cheeked, too baroque, which was outside of the mould of the established iconographic school in Bulgaria at that time. He infused his works with a larger dose of realism, influencing the next generations of icon-painters - from his sons Nikola and Simeon all the way down to me. But let us be honest, this is not the whole story - what is created in Bulgaria is not entirely Bulgarian; it always draws on outside contributions too. We are not alone on this planet, we are affected by everything surrounding us and no matter how isolated our ecosystem can be, there is always some kind of foreign impact, albeit delayed and mitigated. So the images and aesthetics of Blind Vaysha are not exclusively Bulgarian - they show traces of German printmaking, expressionism and perhaps in certain ways some Canadian artists. I struggle to tell where individual elements come from, let alone analyse why Hollywood people liked this film. - Has art benefited or lost from the world becoming a global village? - I would think it has lost its sensitivity to a certain degree. This is the biggest problem I see during my visits to museums across the world. I believe that artists have become too conceptual in their approach. Everything is so contrived and they seem to have lost some sensitivity in the race to come up with ever more fascinating, complex and comprehensive ideas. This has an effect on art and not only painting but filmmaking too. But then there is the opposite dynamic too. For example, the films nominated for this year's Oscars - they are all centred on a personal story, the ordinary person fighting the impenetrable and harsh system and coming on top against all odds thanks to irrational actions. - How are things going with your feature-length project based on Vladislav Todorov's novel The Spinning Top, a hybrid between feature film and animation? Do you believe in the notion that Bulgarian filmmakers are good in thinking in concise, philosophical categories, thus excelling in short films, but lack the ability to tell a simple and yet meaningful life story in a feature film? - My film is in pre-production so I do not want to talk about it because it still has a long way to go. Speaking of the Bulgarian school of filmmaking though, I have a theory. I have the utmost respect for a certain figure in Bulgarian animation, and his name is Todor Dinov. He was one of the greats, practically founding the school and even though there were people who tried to hinder him, he kept pushing on. Todor Dinov produced a remarkable quote I recently saw in an interview: “Be happy for your colleagues' triumphs and share the disappointment of their failures.” I think that is by far the most important advice that can be given to artists in Bulgaria. For some reason, there is no synergy in the country. - Your anthology film debut 8 Minutes and 19 Seconds (8'19"), an adaptation of stories by Georgi Gospodinov, will be screened at the Sofia International Film Festival. What did working on the novella Christine Waving from the Train, one of the six miniatures in the project, bring to you? - It was a very enjoyable experience. Bulgarian filmmakers are amazing professionals. It is what inspired and moved me to dare to make a film in Bulgaria. I was very much impressed by their professionalism - they are excellent both in the technical and the creative part of the process. - Your first major exhibition in Sofia, As If in a Dark Mirror, teems with images of compressed human figures fused with one another. What are they - sufferers or a threatening mob? - These are the people I see, know and meet every day. If you look carefully, they imitate the shape of cancer cells because I truly believe that at some point we become malignant cells that hinder the world's normal existence. I call them clusters, and while creating them I realised that I was actually painting the way that cancer, this devastating disease, grows and spreads. - Can a piece of art be modern, contemporary or universal without multimedia or special effects nowadays? - Of course, I believe that the images I show in this exhibition resemble rock drawings. Primitive people used to draw the same way I drew on the art gallery's walls. The only difference is I use highlighters instead of charcoal. - What does your mixed reality, when you step out of the workshop or the art gallery, look like? - It is as if I leave reality behind me. To me, virtual reality is reality - it feels truer than what I see outside, however strange that might sound.