By Eva Nikolova | The prints of 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow were created using light in a cameraless, inkless printmaking process. Precarious interventions allowed pictures to come to fruition as if to restore the overused image of my native landscape, the archetypal Balkans. I traversed through eras of artistic tools and technology while exhuming buried recollections of the scenery drastically transformed.
The relationship between geography and memory has been the central preoccupation of my work ever since moving to the US from Bulgaria in 1992. When past and present are geographically discontinuous, as they are for the immigrant, recollection is forever bound up with place; the meaning of home remains perpetually unsettled. And so it is through my drawing, printmaking, animation and cameraless photography that I am drawn to images of land and dwellings as well as narratives of displacement, loss, longing and remembrance. In 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow (2015–2016), I set out to create a suite of works as a meditation on the radical metamorphosis of the place I grew up in, then left, and later revisited after a decade’s absence. What I found was the environment of my youth being reshaped into a sort of building site without prior history, where development and obliteration were effectively indistinguishable. While I absorbed this new reality, it became apparent to me that even when all traces of a past are erased, landscape is haunted by memory no less than memory by landscape.
To arrest this erasure, I could have reached for my camera; that I did not may seem counterintuitive since photography and memory are seen as analogous in their capacity for time-space travel. Yet for me, nothing can efface the experience of the past quite like a photograph, which replaces what it purports to preserve. To create photographs that would not rob me of the subjectivity of lived experience, I looked back to the dawn of the medium, before the tyrannical ubiquity of the camera, when photography still existed as an outgrowth of a free experimentalism with materials, of unfettered curiosity and of a fascination with the making of marks on paper.
Starting with drawings from memory, the works in 21 Fragments underwent various transformations spanning historical and contemporary media and technologies. A printmaker by training and mindset, who processes experience through drawing and has dedicated the last few years to cameraless photography, I turned to the cliché-verre technique—an inkless method whereby a hand-designed matrix (as in printmaking) is traced by means of light onto light-sensitive paper (as in photography).
Born of dual lineage in the 19th century, cliché-verre has remained a practice decidedly on the fringes of both photography and printmaking even after it was rediscovered by the avant-garde in the 20th century. My own introduction to the technique came thanks to American printmaker and cameraless photographer Douglas Collins. He also directed me towards bleach-etching, a rare and mysterious process I employ in conjunction with cliché-verre to create in the space between illusion and materiality, object and image.
While the original cliché-verre matrix was a glass plate onto which an artist drew with an etching needle through a smoked etching ground or printmaking ink that had been dusted white, contemporary approaches involve a wide range of drawing substances and tools. To make the matrix, I drew with graphite, charcoal, black and white ink, white chalk and oil pastel. Because I mixed a variety of materials whose visible tones do not coincide with their opacity—which is what matters when making a negative to print from—I photocopied the drawing onto thin printer paper, often reworking this copy by scratching through the toner with a blade. This then was the matrix contact-printed under the enlarger onto gelatin silver photographic paper developed with standard darkroom chemistry to yield cliché-verre prints, which would constitute a sizeable edition, were the process to end here. But rather than acting as an end point, each cliché-verre was merely the stage for a series of further interventions. I reworked the individual prints into unique images, which, if successful, could serve as matrices once more to be scanned and output as archival pigment prints.
Eva Nikolova, Untitled XI: 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow, 2016, cliché-verre, archival pigment print, 18 x 15 inches image size, 21 x 17.5 inches paper size, edition of 5, image courtesy of the artist.
In a careful procedure in which creation takes place on the edge of ruination, I bleached-etched the clichés-verre until the image disappeared and the emulsion with its metallic silver began to lift off. The fragile emulsion was in places rubbed away, and in others painstakingly rearranged with a needle, while the prints were selectively redeveloped in a process that, owing more to painting and alchemy than to photography, resurrected chosen parts of the vanished picture, imparting color to the black-and-white prints solely via chemical interactions. The gelatin-silver emulsion, equally a site of creation and dissolution, became the embodiment of the works’ thematic content, connoting the nature of transformation and the interchangeability of construction and destruction within the unstable, fragmentary edifice of memory itself.
Imbued with the singularity of the process that gave rise to them, these twenty-one prints endeavor to reclaim a stereotyped Balkan landscape. Alternately understood as a site of genocidal brutality, exotic getaway, unsurpassed real estate deal or iconic object of nationalistic pride, the depicted locale instead became the locus of a deeply personal connection to a place and its past. While they may signify the region’s history of war and its current predicament of speculative development, the works transcend the specificity of the context from which they arise. Ruins evoke not only their own site, but resonate with other images of decay and catastrophe, functioning as a trope of global trauma fraught with the ever‐increasing wreckage of modernity.
Image top: Eva Nikolova, Untitled XIV: 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow, 2016, cliché-verre, archival pigment print, 18 x 15 inches image size, 21 x 17.5 inches paper size, edition of 5, image courtesy of the artist.
This article Eva Nikolova: 21 Fragments of Yesterday and Tomorrow appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No. 1, published in April 2017.
EVA NIKOLOVA (b. 1973 in Sofia, Bulgaria) is a visual artist working in drawing, printmaking and cameraless photography. She holds a BFA in painting and printmaking from Southern Illinois University and an MFA in printmaking from Indiana University, Bloomington. Her work has been exhibited in the US as well as in England, Canada, Scotland, Germany and India, and is in the permanent collections of Temple University, the Amity Art Foundation, the Manhattan Graphics Center, Arkansas State University and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Nikolova has received over 20 scholarships, fellowships, grants and awards, including a Fellowship Residency Award from the Vermont Studio Center (2015), along with a MCAF Grant (2015) and Su Casa Residency (2017), both from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Eva Nikolova lives and works in New York City.