Bill Balaskas was born in 1983 in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he studied economics before moving to the UK in order to study art. His background has influenced significantly his artistic practice, especially ever since the outbreak of the global financial crisis of 2008 that seriously affected his home country. Since 2005, he is a London-based artist, writer and academic working across different media and platforms.
His works have been widely exhibited internationally, in more than 110 solo and group exhibitions. He has received nominations for numerous awards, including the 2013 AUDI Art Award for the most innovative young artist.
In 2012, he represented the UK in the London Cultural Olympiad and in Maribor, the European Capital of Culture, with his video Parthenon Rising.
This period he presents his work in a solo exhibition in Athens at Kalfayan Galleries titled ‘Remains of a Summer Bliss’. The exhibition is curated by Boston-based curator, artist and academic Lanfranco Aceti.
Concurrently with his solo exhibition, works by Bill Balaskas can also be viewed at MACBA, Barcelona, where the artist presents a new installation commissioned by the museum (exhibition: ‘PUNK. Its traces in contemporary art’); Fundació Palma Espai d’Art – Casal Solleric, Palma de Mallorca (exhibition: ‘De regreso a la isla’); A Plus A Gallery, Venice (exhibition: ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’); and in Boston, where Balaskas will stage a large-scale public performance in collaboration with Boston University, which will feature his 2013 work The market will save us (ArtWeek Boston 2016.
Bill Balaskas talked to Eleni Zymaraki Tzortzi.
E.Z. You have been presenting and exhibiting your work worldwide; what would you say is the main trait that stamps and distinguishes your artistic language?
My works always revolve around social and political issues of one kind or another. However, what I am mainly interested in is the way in which those issues are being communicated to the audience. That is why the visual language of my practice is based on bringing together elements that often seem contradictory. In many cases, the works function as “enigmas”: their surface says something, whereas their content says something else. Irony and humor emerge from this strange marriage, which transforms the work. The latter ultimately becomes a reflection on the multiple layers of meaning hidden behind the images that we are bombarded with every day. Regardless of the political content of the works, I see this act of deconstruction as equally political.
E.Z. What about the audience of your work and of contemporary art in general, can we speak for a common audience or does it differ from place to place? Do you address your audience in different ways each time?
Audiences differ from place to place and this can bean important challenge, especially in the case of socially and politically engaged art. The way in which I try to address this challenge is by developing as much as possible the universal elements of the works. This means that even when a work is inspired by a particular place or event, I employ those as starting points in order to explore deeper characteristics of our culture and time, or – even –deeper traits of human nature at large.
E.Z. What motivates you to be an artist?
The potential to generate a sentiment or a thought that might help someone develop a more holistic image of his or her life. It is the exact same motivation that made me become an academic teacher parallel to being an artist.
E.Z. What does it take for an artist to become successful?
The adjective “successful” is a very dangerous adjective to use. When we are talking about contemporary art, we do not have the advantage offered by the distance of time when making value judgments about specific artworks, artists or movements. What is “successful” today might be forgotten tomorrow. And, of course, each person measures success on the basis of his or her own principles and values… Unfortunately, the political, economic and social crises that we are currently experiencing around the world are also deep cultural crises. This means that contemporary artists, curators and cultural institutions have probably been measuring their successes in the wrong way– namely, on the basis of money, fame, or power.
E.Z. Your performance ‘The marketwill save us’will take place in Boston at the end of September. This label was first presented in 2013 in London, as a banner at the Royal College of Art; how ‘different’does this inscription sound today, three years later?
Unfortunately, not much has changed since 2013. The economic determinism that is highlighted by the ironic phrase of the banner still remains in place. However, what it is now combined with – to an even greater extent than in 2013 – is desperation. This is vividly reflected in the rapid rise of political populism around the globe. The lack of direction in the solutions proposed for the ongoing crisis of globalized capital have not been able to convince people. Thus, we see often-desperate reactions by different electorates, which are more and more easily manipulated by voices located at the margins of the political spectrum. Although this gradual transformation of electorates is completely understandable, it is also highly dangerous, because it can easily lead to moving backwards rather than forward.
E.Z. Documenta’s presence in Athens so far seems like a number of private, exclusive events so called ‘public’; as an artist, how much do you feel that Documenta involves, concerns and has to do with artists and people of Athens and Greece?
My feeling is that Documenta has not been able to connect so far with the deep cultural characteristics of the Greek crisis, or of the “Greek case” at large if you like. Of course, I am not claiming at all that the exhibition that is going to open in spring is going to be a bad exhibition – on the contrary, the Documenta of Athens may very well be a strong exhibition. But, the important questions to be asked here are “why Athens?” and “why now?”. The real answers to those two questions have not been given yet. It is very interesting to note the difference between the conceptual and operational framework of Documenta and the recently announced framework of the 56th Venice Biennale curated by Christine Macel, which is going back to basics – namely, back to justifying the very role of art and culture today. Regardless of how each one of the exhibitions will ultimately take shape, for now, I am feeling much more convinced by Venice Biennale’s sense of urgency, which actually lies much closer to the huge challenges that we are collectively facing. Documenta’s move to Athens is a bold move, but it remains to be justified. It cannot be merely a symbolic gesture.
E.Z. Could you mention the last exhibition you saw that inspired you?
During the installation of my exhibition at Kalfayan Galleries, I revisited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. It reminded me once more of the power of great art to completely defy time. As regards contemporary art, the display of Krzysztof Wodiczko’s work at the Liverpool Biennial has been a beautiful and generous experience.
E.Z. What remains after the summer bliss?
The anticipation of next summer, which will – hopefully – be a better one. However, this is likely to depend on how we will deal with the winter that precedes it.
Photos: courtesy of the artist and Kalfayan Galleries, Athens – Thessaloniki.