Meet the Bulgarian Artist Dancing to Beyoncé
Gery Georgieva examines identity through clashing aspects of pop and folk culture.
Balkan Idol (2015), Frieze Projects, Courtesy of the artist
If you haven't already come across London-based artist Gery Georgieva for her iconic reworking of Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" you're in for a treat. Standing against a bucolic backdrop in traditional costume, she shimmies her way through a perfect rendition of the entire routine. The overall effect is hilarious and captivating all at the same time, a bizarre Balkan reinterpretation of an iconic moment in pop history. It stays with you long after the final hip flick.
Gery returns to this clash between mainstream pop culture and the folk influences of her native Bulgaria throughout her performance work—both as an artist and via her alter ego, Vera Modena, an electro-folk diva.
At this year's Frieze Art Fair, she was commissioned to create a film as part of their non-profit Projects. The work, Balkan Idol, is supported by Random Acts and will be broadcast on Channel 4 later in the year.
Blending song, dance, baroque backdrops and her signature blend of Bulgarian tradition with club culture. We caught up in her studio at the Royal Academy to talk alter egos, silver lamé and the true meaning of authenticity. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell me about Vera Modena. When did you first develop her?
Vera Modena was a name I wanted to use as a disguise to separate myself from myself and from my performance work in the art context. Having an alter ego meant you could have that extra bit of liberty to be playful and lose yourself a bit.
So she was very separate from your art performances?
Yeah, it was a way of being able to take on a mysterious identity—she was still mysterious to me, I was building her as I went. She sings only in Bulgarian and it doesn't feel like me. I'm British and Bulgarian, I'm a mix. It was a way of having this identity that can be exoticised, and pushed apart from how complicated I feel my own one is.
In Balkan Idol, your new work for Frieze Projects, is that Vera?
It's Vera creeping in. I sometimes perform an acapella lament at the end of our shows. Because the music preceding is made of these very harsh sounds, it's a real tonic, and feels quite vulnerable. There's something also super cheesy about—it so believes in itself—which makes me sort of cringe but I like that feeling.
Can you talk a bit about your practice of blending mainstream and folk culture. What relationship do the two have to each other?
I see Pop and folk culture as parallel, in that they're the lowest common denominator way of belonging that can move such a big amount of people. That power—to have the ability to encourage thousands of people to learn a Beyonce dance - that's something quite special and weird. What's going on there? It affects me as well, but I can't help be suspicious of it, so I try and use the same mechanics that it does when I make my own work. In the film, the folk song I sing was written in the Fifties, and for me folk culture is a weird marker of authenticity, especially when nations use it to kind of market themselves, when they commodify their own culture either for export or for sense of identity—I'm fascinated by that.
In Balkan Idol you cut between this old auditorium and a deserted, glitzy Chalga club. How has the Bulgarian music genre Chalga informed your work?
I find Chalga interesting because it's a culture that most of my friends in Bulgaria are really against in terms of how crass the things it supports are. At the same time I do think it is a cultural export. There's a national identity to it, an unfortunate one in some ways. It is crude, but it's also very Bulgarian, and celebrates national culture through the songs which use folk motifs at the same time as trying to be modern in a really capitalist, grabby kind of way. In Balkan Idol, the auditorium I'm singing is an old Communist party monument on the top of Buzludzha Balkan peak, and they used it for these ceremonial meetings. So it's this idea of something that once had national significance, and then a place that does in a different way—I wanted to look at the parallels there
Your work feels accessible, in part because you don't need to know anything about Bulgarian culture or history to appreciate it
Exactly—the specificity doesn't matter too much to me. It's more about playing with the idea of authenticity, of trying to be real, however funny that sounds. It's about trying to sing a song like you really mean it, and trying to dance like you're truly free.
Your performance in the Beyoncé video is flawless. How long did that routine take to master?
Initially two weeks. But then I practiced for a year and performed for two years. Then I had to go to the NHS because my hip was popping out because of that move [mimes the hip flick]! I had to get Beyonce physiotherapy!