25 February 2016

Daniele Balice interview

Co-founder of Balice Hertling Gallery

If the sophisticated Italian-born now France-based art enthusiast Daniele Balice decides to get his hands dirty, he really makes it worth the while. His ambitious baby Balice Hertling—a co-founded gallery project located in Paris and New York—sets such an example. Promising a high-caliber of investigative art, the Robin Hood-esque space has become an indispensable playground for the young yet-to-be-famed artist and an audience that acknowledges the difference between bourgeois desperation and the genuine execution of (real) ideas. Here, human interaction isn’t merely a fetish—but becomes an imperative that constantly draws a parallelism between our history’s past and future. Examining deeply embedded social structures are part of the daily agenda, and everybody's welcome to join the gallery’s discourse.

Balice, an innocuously rebellious and old-fashioned gentleman, genuinely thrives in his role as a gallerist and (unlike many of his fellows within the art business) has managed to stay away from an anaesthetised society, while softly preaching to new generations that it’s time to look around. And honestly, he’s right.

A seemingly unpretentious gchat fling about art, change, queer culture, and being comfortable living as an outsider.

Daniele, it’s kind of impossible to come up with first questions for someone who’s involved in so many different things. The possibilities are endless.

Googling me probably involves seeing my name connected to all sorts of things. And, I guess that's what I’m really all about. I’m constantly drawn from one thing to the next. Things that take new or different directions get me ridiculously excited.

So, let’s start at the beginning?

If we want to go back to the very start of it all, I should probably mention that I went to art school, hoping to become an artist. Shortly after, though, I realized I had absolutely no artistic talent since it was impossible for me to translate ideas into a concrete form or shape. This obvious lack of talent pushed me to look at the work of others, over time nurturing a sincere appreciation for people’s natural talent.

What does it mean to have talent? Being able to translate ideas doesn’t necessarily imply possessing the right amount of sensitivity. Does it?

Talent—either you have or you don’t! It's like having good taste, which basically means being bold enough to question current movements and go forward from there on. Breaking rules is the only way to shape and introduce new ways of looking at things. It means to create new forms of beauty. But in order to do so, you must have a sensitivity that enables to look at reality beyond its tangibility. Art school teaches its students to translate ideas into something specific and how to be integrated, later on, into society. Someone who can break that very rhythm has talent.

Creating new forms of beauty: Do we demand art for its beauty or—for what it’s worth—the lack of it?

This is a philosophical question, and I’m afraid I’m not academically enough prepared to answer it properly. But when I find art beautiful, I physically react to it. The reaction isn’t always the same, and can start with a feeling of disturbance that leisurely shifts into something else. Art needs to stimulate me, and not take over my living room for decorative purposes. I basically live in a white space where my artists’ works rotate on the walls so I can understand them. The space is often given to young curators or artist so they can have their first try.

Art exercises the brain—I’m always amazed how some of my clients have preserved such a youthful attitude by just co-existing amongst art. I think that’s one of its prevailing assets.

Since we’re already there: What’s beauty?

Perception of beauty is subjective. We look at things in diverse ways because of personal experiences and different backgrounds. But if I may dare to make a statement: I believe people who travel and experience other cultures are keen to develop a very refined sense of beauty.

« The perception of beauty is subjective. »

Curating requires skill. It’s imperative the curator understands the artist, and whatever meaning is wished to be transmitted. Is it possible to be objective here?

A curator’s role is incredibly important. They might not need to understand fully the message of the artist, but certainly have the responsibility organizing a space where the audience meets the artwork in the best way possible. Once that’s done, the audience comes face to face with the artist’s message and can do with it whatever they want.

One of my favorite shows was the Berlin Biennale in 2006, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Maurizio Cattelan. I can’t recall another show being so generous with its audience and display of artworks. The whole experience was so intense and real that suddenly the idea of being present at an art show faded, essentially experiencing life by taking a walk. That day I began to grasp the crucial role of a curator.

If generalizing your interest, what's your primary focus?

For many years I felt guilty and thought to have a serious problem concentrating on one thing at a time. But eventually I arrived at the crucial conclusion of loving the avant-garde—in any shape or form. (And what a relief that was!) Since childhood, wherever I went or whatever I did, I tried to look for people who were competent enough to lead an avant-garde movement.

My primary occupation as an art dealer pushes me to exhibit artists that break the establishment. The past is respected, but also moves forward, towards progress. When I write about design or music, I look at people who—in my opinion—introduce new dialogues and try to ameliorate the social structures in which we live.

I like this idea of respecting the past, yet moving forward.

In order to build progress, everyone should know the past. And by past I mean history. In order to create something new, it’s crucial to respect a culture’s biography. I think totalitarian and conservative positions are the result of layers and layers of tension, hailing from the past. Therefore, it’s necessary to understand them in order to break them.

Can you point out an artist who exorcises such idea in his/her practice?

One of the artists who translates this idea is Neil Beloufa. Born in Algeria and raised in France, Beloufa clinically analyzes through film, photography and sculptures the various anxieties that influence society’s framework.

His work criticizes how media portraits contemporary society: In reality shows and advertising we see people living together happily. The gender or racial background suddenly doesn't pose a problem here (Look at us, we’re just so fucking happy! kind of script). People from diverse environments are picked carefully, so a wider audience is reached. But in reality, these minorities still fall under the crime of discrimination. Tolerance and integration are yet to prove modern society being superior.

Anything that you find disappointing in the contemporary art world?

I’m not disappointed by the art world, thank god! I try to concentrate on providing a good program and service to my community. I like the idea that a gallery is a place for young artists to experiment, and where the audience is able to discover new things.

But, actually, if we speak about being disappointed, it’s the overt lack of exposure of female artists. If I think back to my time at art school, I remember being surrounded by all these girls. Now—being active in the business—I only see white, straight men running the game. So if we follow a simple principle of calculation, the art world presents by far one of the most sexist climates. I just wonder what happened to all the girls. Where did they go?

Adrianna Glaviano

It’s difficult to dismiss the scarcity of successful female artists. Why do you think the art world is still such a male-driven preserve?

Generally speaking, women are more sensitive and honest than men, simply because they carry a bigger responsibility by nature. A female artist is far more sensitive and, therefore, very fascinating.

It’s very sad to see how some of the artists have it so much harder, merely designated by their gender. Some of them make it, but often because they create work that’s anticipated by the male gaze. Most of my favorite artists are women, just because they generate such intimate reactions.

I’m absolutely in love with the work of artist like Sturtevant, Cosima Von Bonin, Rosemary Trockel, Maria Lassning, and Isa Genzken. As well all our gallery artists, such as Isabelle Cornaro, Eloise Hawser, Julie Beaufils. And the extremely elegant Mary Beth Edelson and Simone Fattal, both of whom struggled with making art because of their many social and historical obstacles. These women are celebrated in my work every day.

Continuing on the topic of prejudices in the art world—how are gay artists perceived?

If you look at the list of top artists in the market, there no gays, no women, no African or Asian. But when it comes to "gay" art, I’m extremely interested in queer culture. Not for sexual reasons, but as a form of subculture and avant-garde.

I’m not interested in gay artists that stigmatize and represent homosexuality in the way straight audience expects them to be. I appreciate those who celebrate the uniqueness of their choice. But generally speaking, I hope people aren’t looking at artists and their sexual orientation!

How does straight society perceive homosexuals?

Straight society’s perception of homosexuals doesn’t solely relate to following ideals of a certain external attitude, but also the kind of roles we’re supposed to occupy within society. Needless to say, there are stereotypical careers we’re supposed to pursue—such as fashion, dance or beauty.

I can only speak for myself, but I definitely witness discrimination in my business. A straight person with family and kids is considered more reliable than a childless homosexual. When summer holidays approached in former jobs, I had to work and needed to follow a typical school holiday. Just because I didn’t have kids. It’s interesting to realize the straight family model is THE model to follow.

I hate generalizing, but I think straight society is based on certain discriminations that need to be broken. However, discrimination is mutual. Sometimes I feel that my straight friends in the fashion business are being segregated, just because they aren’t part of the ‘scene.’

Do you identify with the current gay culture?

As I’ve said I’m more interested in queer culture. I’m very happy about the huge progress achieved in fighting for gay rights, and that we can have the choice to get married. But I don't share the desperate need to imitate that family model and a society that’s so obsolete.

It seems ridiculous to structure society around a design of family that was conceived by our outdated religious backgrounds. I’m worried that gay culture might give up its controversiality for an abstraction, like following a bourgeois lifestyle. I’m having a hard time identifying with that desperate need of gay culture being integrated in a straight society. I enjoy being apart. My different approach to sexuality has caused me to lead an unusual way of living. Though, I often think I’d still embrace the same lifestyle even if I were to be straight.

So you like your position as an outsider? That’s interesting, especially if following the assumption that most people want to be perceived equally.

I like my position as an outsider because it allows me to see things other people can’t. It translates into the gallery program, as we are the very first to discover and promote artists. Being an outsider allows me to take risks and show people nobody else wants in their gallery. I’m all about keeping it fresh and edgy!

What's groundbreaking these days, when nothing really surprises anymore?

I think it's time to start talking about politics. Personally speaking, someone is groundbreaking who creates work that moves towards progress. Also politically. It doesn’t matter if you are an artist or not. A teacher can be more meaningful and influential than a rich singer who sells millions copies of an album that stupefies people.

It’s not about shock, but about pushing people to think. It also depends what role you want to play. For example, you can be a doctor who helps cure epidemics or saves entire continents from starvation. But you can also work as a plastic surgeon and become filthy rich off people’s insecurities.

There's a strong sense of elitism within the modern (successful) artist. It’s very sad to witness how everybody you went to university with gradually gives up on being an artist, just because they can’t handle two (or more) jobs at the same time. What’s your advice for young artists who are trying to cope with these struggles?

This is a topic I feel close to, we have many artists located in New York. First of all, something very simple: move out of NY. I might not be an artist, but I left when compromising with the market took over my artistic choices. It’s difficult to concentrate if there is a constant fear to not make rent or lose your studio because of some condo being built on top of it. It’s not the end of the world to live somewhere else. The world is big and offers many different places. New York is amazing, but when the economy of a city takes over your life, you need to get out. My advice is to move around, be in constant motion. Observe other countries and their cultures. But most importantly, be open! And if you want to be in NY regardless, get wildly political and fight the system!

You talk a lot about systems.

I’ve always lead small revolutions and strikes. In my younger years I spent most of my time amongst communist and anarchist groups.

Can you talk about these communist and anarchist groups?

South of Italy, where I was born, was a complete political mess during my time there. Unemployment was really high and the society was suffocating under layers of corruption. Already as a young child it was imperative to know what kind of life you wanted to lead. Do you want to be part of the general corruption and become a criminal? Or do you want to change the course of things? I tried many things. I occupied abandoned factories to build infrastructures for concerts and art shows. But we were either arrested or kicked out. We also tried to found theater workshops for kids that were obliged by their parents to deal drugs, simply because underage children are untouchable by law. So in order keep them off the streets, we organized these workshops. Their parents usually sent someone to threaten us, or just burned our cars when we weren’t around. In high school we occupied the building for many months, trying to form a structure that’d improve teaching. After a few weeks, angry parents and policemen stopped everything.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I pretty much failed with all those projects, and left to have a life somewhere else.

Why did you fail?

I didn’t really manage to change anything. When it's a matter of such social and political issues, it's quite hard to change something without the public administration being substantially committed.

But regardless, it was great to grow up surrounded by such a politically charged group of friends. I didn’t leave Italy with anger and regret. Still now—whenever I look back—I consider it one of the best times of my life.

You're so optimistic. Quite admirable.

Yes, I’m very optimistic. The result of great therapy. I come from a complicated background and am a self-made man. I treasure what I’ve achieved and, even though I meet a lot of assholes on a regular basis, I won’t let it get to me. I get rid off bad people pretty quickly. No one needs bad energy in their life.

We have to remind ourselves that we’re just animals, and fighting for survival is part of the out nature. While I might be an optimist, I’m also well aware of the competitive side of humans. So when I’m in situations that demand to fight back, I definitely will.

What are your reflections on art with respect to global events?

Art reflects the time we live in. At this moment the Western world finds itself in a crisis. We’re at the last stage of capitalism where all values are moving towards mainstream and safety. Further, we’re not really witnessing major changes at the moment. We haven’t experienced war at first hand, and things like May 1968 are—if anything—mere fantasies at this point.

This is why I push my artists to show in different places. I’m currently inspired by Beirut and the Middle East. They've witnessed incredible changes in all creative fields, catalyzed by the Arab Spring that has significantly affected its new generations.

I’m so thrilled to show art in these contexts. I love cities like Beirut where people are reconstructing a puzzle, but in their own way. Or finding museums in China where my artists can show and connect with young generations that aim for cultural innovation.

I think it’s time to go to places where art is made by people, and who have an urgency of changing the system. Art is not dead and will never die. Today, more than ever, it’s in continuous motion.

« We live in a time where aspiring to become an artist is no longer a real problem. »

Why do people say things like, ‘Art is dead?’

People like to get attention. It's a very bourgeois thing to say. Just extreme statements that publicly advertise the boredom of a rich Western society in which most challenges rotate around a system that’s established by media and a relatively calm state of being.

We live in a time where aspiring to become an artist is no longer a real problem. So, just in terms of that, we’re far from seeing art go extinct. It’s never been so popular and accessible. Actually, right now it’s one of the most exciting times for art as we can finally engage into real dialogue with society.

In your opinion, what does art suggest essentially?

Art offers a territory of mental freedom. It's where a human being can freely express himself/herself without any constraints. Art is also the translation of an object of obsession. I admire artists because they give a body—tangible or not —to their obsessions. I’m fascinated by artists who invent their own language.

Lately, the creative world seems to turn its gaze towards Paris again. Why?

When I’m asked why I opened a gallery in Paris, I always answer: "Why not Paris?" I think it's good to be here. I find myself surrounded by more and more artists. Whenever I do studio visits, I’m completely fascinated by the intellectual poise of the artists here.

Paris has more movie theaters than New York, for example. You can easily watch a restored version of the first Visconti movie in three different theaters. It's just an easy example of culture’s accessibility.

I believe that FIAC has been bringing in tons of people, from all over the world. Finally people seem to realize how nice it is to be here, the density of museums and how much inspiration the city propagates. Also, it’s a tendency to forget the fashion business’ energy, followed by the growing interest in design and experimental forms of creative business. Take all that, plus an amazing quality of life, and you got Paris!

So Paris is the place to be?

I love Paris for many reasons, one of them being a city that’s not a slave to trends and being cool. Paris will never be cool and I’m totally fine with that.

There's a sense a motionless here, allowing to analyze more thoughtfully the fast pace of the rest of the world. It's like being in a bubble that allows for contemplation. In France all basic needs are taken care of because their social system and its people have different ideals.

I think Paris can be great for creative people who are willing to dare. Recently I realized that I’ve been looking for artists all over, while there are so many good ones right here, right now!

Sex, money, love, power—in what order?

Sorry, I’m Italian so I have to add food to the list! Therefore I would say love, sex, food, power and money. Money is a transitional element and not crucial in the pursuit of happiness. The rest of the list is what makes people happy. And as much as power goes, I prefer being influential. It’s much more rewarding than power! I don’t mind not making money. But being on this planet without leaving a trace—well, yes—that scares me.

« Money is a transitional element and not crucial in the pursuit of happiness. »

I remember getting into fights with my mother about dating men that were—for lack of a better word—broke. She’d say that money doesn’t bring happiness, but security and certain freedom. It’s only now that I’m beginning to understand what she meant all those years. In order to be happy, isn’t it also necessary to be financially secure? Why do we tend to put the matter of money and happiness in the same box, like we need to choose ONE or the OTHER?

Of course, all of us need to be financially secure. When I travel to certain places in the Middle East that have been hit by the war, I relativize the concept of security. I don’t come from money and I’m not really becoming wealthy. And it’s not what I first think about when I wake up.

I don’t like cars, because I don’t drive. I can’t and don’t want to buy an apartment, and I don’t like expensive things. I don’t like to show off and I don’t like vacationing in fancy places. When the gallery makes money, it’s all reinvested in the projects of artists or art fairs that self-promote their work. Sometimes I take very big risks and put myself in dangerous situations. But that’s alright.

Implying money doesn’t matter (at least brushing it aside) often stems from a privileged perspective, I think. Having enough money can be liberating and—like we previously discussed—might introduce the dream alone of even considering the pursuit of an artistic profession.

I think money DOES matter when in terms of making projects happen. However, it’s important to not obsess over it. Working in the art world nowadays gets finally recognized as a real career. Now all of us (curators, critics, artists, etc.) have a public voice and the chance to be part of the establishment. And, just like that, we have the necessary power to introduce change.

If we were to look at the inspirational background of art making, what has been its driving force over the past centuries?

History acts a crucial element in having influenced artistic production. Perhaps it’s not an inspiration in the traditional sense, but definitely a context we’ve looked at throughout our past. And if we haven’t, we should!

I recently talked to a friend about disappointment, vengeance, and melancholy often being the fuel for making art. Would you agree? Or, like Jan Verwoert poses the question: “Could we do without it?”

I’ve noticed a lot of young artists dealing with the idea of romanticism, which borderlines the idea of tackiness. It’s almost like a suburban Sofia Coppola movie.

The three elements you mentioned are very interesting: disappointment/ vengeance/melancholy. I think of bourgeois Western boredom immediately. Perhaps I sound a bit harsh, but those very young artists just show their lack of inspiration for creating art. These kids should look somewhere else—new references and cultures. Look at real places with real issues!

I agree, the suffering artist is passé, especially if it concerns someone who’s unable to get past his/her own vanity. But a person who’s able to transmit life—which eventually equals the universality of experience— without passing judgement and falling into the easy role of martyrdom (or as you said, boredom), takes great skill. It’s like THAT rare memoir you actually want to keep reading because for once its author isn’t predictably over-sentimental or conceited.

I agree, but you must look at where that sorrow comes from! If it’s coming from some Western kid who can afford an internet connection and a computer, and is just overwhelmed by the everyday information, I really couldn’t care less. We are lucky enough to have the tools and skills to make this world a better place, so all of us should all work on it.

Lastly, what’s your goal as a curator and gallerist?

I want to help the current generation of artists to leave a trace in the history of art. I believe in my intellectual responsibility and hope to somehow honor it in the long run. I love owning a space that serves as a melting pot for so many different types of people. Everybody can come whenever, and look at art for free. I can put together a show that a museum can’t do for bureaucratic reasons. For example, the matter of security. Art students can come to the opening for free booze. Maybe I should've opened a bar, but I can’t drink that much anymore! I just enjoy sharing what I do.

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