Houben Tcherkelov is a Bulgarian artist who has been living in New York since 2000. In the mid-1990s, he was an active participant in the XXL artistic circle, organized around the gallery of the same name in Sofia. After moving to the US, he became popular with paintings and stories borrowed from banknotes and coins. He is known there with the artistic name “Houben RT”.
In all of his work, the artist seeks to suggest the way in which symbolic images legitimize national power. His works have been featured at The Bronx Museum, NY, The Brogan Museum, FL, the 54th Venice Biennial and galleries in New York, Boston, and Charlotte. He is the subject of the 2012 documentary, “Houben Paints Money,” by director Georgi Tenev.
Mr. Tcherkelov, you are about to have an exhibition in Bulgaria in February. What will you show to the Bulgarian audience?
This will be my first solo painting exhibition in 18 years in Sofia. I am looking forward to presenting what I am working on in New York and seeing the reactions of the audience. The exhibition will be held from 1st February to 14th March in the Sofia Arsenal - Museum of Contemporary Art.
Your most popular works are those borrowed from currencies. In the boom of digital money, what values are you and people as a whole excited about?
Human mentality has not changed significantly; the values are success, security, happiness, greed.
Do you plan to draw Bulgarian banknotes?
Yes, in fact, my entire exhibition is inspired by Bulgarian banknotes. I have used levs with images from paintings by Jaroslav Věšín, Ivan Mrkvička, Anton Mitov and Felix Kanitz.
Who are the people that buy your art? Are there Bulgarians among them?
Most of the people who collect my paintings work in the financial sphere. This is a huge business here. There are also several Bulgarian collectors, but I hope that with this exhibition more people will be acquainted with my work.
What is the price of art - in the strict and metaphorical sense?
The price is the one agreed by both parties - from USD 0 to 450 million. Personally, I have paid and am paying a very high price.
The trend of many Bulgarians who have succeeded abroad to return to work in the country is intensifying. Do you have such plans, or will New York remain your home?
I do not see such a trend in my sphere. The principle of art business is to be close to the market. The US economy is on the rise now and I see no reason to return, at least not until this changes. What is more, my works can also travel and exhibitions can be organized.
What do you think has changed in Bulgaria for the 28 years after the Change and what has not?
Bulgaria has changed a lot, perhaps not enough, but it is a fact that people can travel freely and take fate into their own hands. We are part of the European Union and NATO. The disturbing thing is the control exercised by old communist cadres, while they receive their salaries from the State. Actually, there are only few people outside of this matrix.
You are called an “art provocateur.” What would you like to provoke in people with your art?
I do not see myself in this category. The art I am doing is just a reason for dialogue. However, in Bulgaria, when someone is honest and open, it is very convenient for some people to consider him a provocateur.
What do you think is the mission of modern art in the age of digitization?
Its mission is in the statics - to stop the flying time, to talk with the past, and with the future. To not turn into ephemera, unlike the built-in interchangeability of almost everything that surrounds us. In 25 years, artificial intelligence will make many professions redundant, but there will be room for traditional human activity that cannot be multiplied or created by robots.