“A painter cannot be like Coca-Cola”

Miquel Barceló is aware that art no longer has a single centre as it did years ago, but he doesn’t want to be everywhere. As he says, “A painter cannot be like Coca-Cola, which aspires to conquer all markets”.

© Agustí Torres

To Miquel Barceló (Felanitx, 1957), art is an immense territory which must be explored and conquered in its entirety. That is why his work, present in museums and galleries around the world, recognised with the most prestigious awards and listed at astronomical prices, has an inexhaustible versatility. Whether it be painting, sculpture, engraving, pottery, watercolour, drawing or large-scale works – the Chapel of Saint Peter in Mallorca Cathedral or the dome of the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva – with a size more typical of bygone times, nothing is artistically alien to Barceló. After many years of living in Mali for long spells, now the artist’s time is mostly split between Paris and Mallorca. He has two centres of operations on the island: a former roof tile factory in Vilafranca, where he works with clay and creates pottery, and his house, Sa Devesa, in Ferrutx in the municipality of Artà, where he lives and has his painting studio.

You bought Sa Devesa thirty years ago this year. What were you looking for there?

It was the first time I’d earned money from my paintings and I wanted a good place to work as far away from Palma as possible. I was looking to create a world for myself with everything I love most about Mallorca: animals roaming loose, places to go walking, having a llaüt (a traditional boat), being able to go fishing and diving. I always have the same lifestyle: I go swimming, I paint, I go to the roof tile factory, I walk in the mountains, and so on.

What’s happened to your friends and neighbours in Mali?

I speak to them each week and I still pay the salary of those who worked with me. They have come here on occasion, but they need me to send them money so they can live their lives there. The problem with Mali is that it has become a very important place, geo-strategically speaking. There’s gas, uranium, petroleum and coltan, and the Chinese, Americans and Europeans are fighting over them. It’s not simply the story of a few Muslims! That’s an American invention, just like Mickey Mouse.

In terms of subjects and style, your work is increasingly primitive. Do you feel closer and closer to the painters of the Chauvet Cave?

Yes, I do. But I also feel close to Tintoretto, Picasso and Pollock. The greatest discovery of the past few years has been Chauvet, indeed. After contemplating those paintings, you see the history of art through different eyes and you totally change your way of doing everything. One of the best books of the past few years is Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan. In it, Dylan explains a fantastic idea. When he was forty-five years old and had done everything that can be done in the world of pop and rock, he felt like a finished man and had a spiritual crisis. One day he met a black musician who showed him a different way of playing the guitar, which he did by changing the position of his fingers. That such a simple change pushed him to redo all his work in another way. After the Chauvet paintings, I feel the same way. I’ve been doing the same for years – elephants, octopuses, fish, faces – but at the same time it’s always different and I always feel it’s necessary to do it. When you find out that they were making art that was so vibrant, so empathetic with the animal world thirty thousand years ago, you can’t look at Egyptian or Renaissance art in the same way.

There seems to be an enormous leap between Cadaverina 15 [boxes of rotting organic material, from 1976] and the dome in Geneva, both in human and artistic terms.

I don’t think there’s such a big leap. If you expand the boxes from Cadaverina, you have the dome in Geneva: the colourful spots, the shapes, the drips, etc. As you grow older, you learn that you always do the same things, inevitably. I always like doing new things, but I also like it when I realise that the new things I do, I have in fact done before.

You don’t perceive fatality as a sentence.

No. Fatality is accepting what there is and who you are. You simply cannot paint any other way.

Is one of the links that unites all your work the remnants of the counterculture in which you were trained?

The Mallorca of the seventies and the Barcelona of the late seventies and early eighties went through very dynamic times. There was a special high-spiritedness back then. People had a thirst for knowledge; they read Lautréamont in bars. Can you imagine anyone reading Lautréamont in a bar nowadays? Everything was very lively. But after that everything started to become stagnant. Plus, the world in which I made myself, conceptual art, began to fall away. I painted pictures of dogs and everyone deemed it unacceptable, both the conceptual artists of Mallorca and the post-minimal abstract artists of Barcelona. They saw them as an aberration.

As an anti-historic aberration?

Yes, anti-historic. I remember conversations with Tàpies and Broto, and they didn’t understand why I was going back to painting pictures with perspective and narration. The more negative reactions my work generated, though, the more I thought I was right. There came a point when neither my cultured friends nor my underground friends liked what I was painting; in other words, nobody liked it. I felt completely alone, yes, but I also felt I wasn’t mistaken; that that was what I had to do. It’s happened to me on other occasions: being in a complicated situation and withstanding it because instinct tells me that I’m doing something that makes sense. Plus, I’ve often encountered people who don’t understand a piece one day and a year later they think it’s fantastic. Seeing art needs its process; it’s like reading Mallarmé, the brain has to assimilate it.

A peculiarity of the seventies and eighties is that the stages burnt out quickly.

In the eighties there was a clear style, post-modernism, and I’m glad to have been part of it. My pictures of painters and libraries are post-modern. Now there is a historicism, a kind of pompier, which I have very little interest in. Most art nowadays is kitsch. They are technically perfect works with a very obvious message. There’s a complete lack of the human touch; everything is mechanical. Many of the exhibitions held at the MACBA in recent years seemed as though they wanted to convince people that painting is a dead art. Today the human touch is totally discredited in art. That’s why I like clay, writing by hand and drawing, because I like the human touch, because the blemishes and the fingerprints are part of a work; they’re not dirt, they’re not defects which have to be corrected.

Does this predilection for the human touch, for the heartbeat of life, explain why the English-speaking world has been more reticent about your work?

I don’t know, I’ve never thought of it like that. I hold exhibitions in the United States every couple of years and they seem to work. Plus, the art market contains many worlds: I couldn’t reach the whole scope, even if I wanted to reach all of them. A painter cannot be like Coca-Cola, which aspires to enter all markets. I like the US because I’ve lived in New York and I have friends there. What’s more, the art world isn’t as pyramidal nowadays as it was a while ago; there’s not just one centre now, but many.

Would you say that constant change has been one of the driving forces behind your work?

Perhaps. But the changes have never been the result of setting challenges for myself that I felt I had to overcome. When I’ve worked on a series of similar paintings for a while, there comes a point when I’m paralysed. I want to go into the studio and for unexpected things to happen there. When I know what’s going to happen, I’m on the wrong track. Good things only come out of me when I surprise myself. Wanting to do different projects is my fuel.

Do you work so intensely on a subject or a discipline that you saturate yourself?

Yes. Now I’m trying to make pottery with colours, which is the opposite of what I’d done until now, which was to work with naked clay, only with colours from the Neolithic Period. The colours will be like an alchemy experiment.

Those who know you say that you’ve always handled fame well. What do you put that down to?

What does handling it well mean?

Continuing to do as much work as ever, for starters.

Yes. But, my aim has always been to work. When I started with art in seventies’ Mallorca, there was absolutely no chance of being successful, none whatsoever. And I was always sure that I would never have any job other than being an artist. I was very radical in that sense.

Have you ever viewed success and fame as a threat?

Sometimes. That’s why I went to Africa, because I saw that the life I was living – a type of hysteria involving sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and money – was leading me towards sterility or physical death. When I was younger, I was one of the squatters at Sa Dragonera and I stayed there for a few weeks working, partly to get out of a rut in Palma that wasn’t doing me any favours. Going to Africa was the same, but in a radical way. In the long run, living in Africa changed my way of life and how I saw the world. It’s a very messed-up place. It’s even a merit having survived it, because it’s very easy to die there.

The life-saving asceticism of Africa made you reorder your priorities, didn’t it?

In Africa, you see everything as though you were a hundred years old. The fragility is so overwhelming that everything ceases to be important. Holding an exhibition or a child being born are events that seem sacred when viewed from here, while viewed from there they don’t seem to be so sacred.

Does creating in a world so oversaturated with information, especially audio-visual information, condition you as an artist?

I don’t know if it conditions me. I live a country life. I don’t have a television and I only use the Internet to watch football and read the news really, so I’m not subjected to a constant barrage. I’m increasingly selective about what I watch.

And how do you think you are conditioned by how viewers see your work? Do you think about that?

Yes, and I also think about whether it makes sense to keep adding things to the world. My poet friends and I often discuss this. I constantly need containers and warehouses to store my work, because everything I do is very unwieldy. But the important thing is to take responsibility for what you do. I take care of all the works I put into the world. As far as the way the world sees them, it’s about waiting for things to become clear.

Do they really become clear? There is so much oversaturation…

Yes. Works of art always end up becoming apparent due to their own power as a work of art. To create is to make a bet with time and the world. The market has no influence there. In the long run, everything is apparent in art.

How does it make you feel when viewers only spend a few seconds in front of each work in an exhibition?

There are always some people who come back to the exhibition and spend hours in front of some works. As artists, we have very few good viewers, but we don’t need to have many. The people to whom I talk about my work, with whom I discuss it and re-examine it, are very few, and the number hasn’t grown over the years, despite the growing number of people in the queues to see my exhibitions.

While contemporary art is a lightning race towards novelty, you seem to aspire to being modern by being old.

That’s one way of putting it, but I don’t know if it’s really about being old. Modernity isn’t a tool or an objective of art. Besides, where is modernity? I remember a time when what was modern was videos, and not for the work itself, but for the medium: if it was recorded on video, the work was automatically modern. Is there anything older than that? And that doesn’t detract from the fact that I really like the videos by Bruce Nauman, but I also like his works in wax, clay and ink. The fact that a work is in one format or another doesn’t really matter. Now the medium is often confused with the message. That’s old, too: McLuhan was already saying it back in the sixties.

Both you and your work have already generated a large bibliography. Would you say that helps you to understand who you are and what you do?

The majority of publications that are being and have been written are absolutely dispensable, unfortunately. The relationship with writers is interesting when it’s creative for both parties. Among the studies on my work, maybe there are some interesting pieces: the book by Dore Ashton, for instance. It might be interesting and useful for viewers, but I don’t read much of all that. Now Vila-Matas has written something about me and I took a quick look at it; I prefer to read one of his good novels than to read what he’s written about me. One thing that everyone does and I’ve never done is search myself on Google. And that’s not out of arrogance; it bores me. I liked reading Hervé Guibert when he did a novel and wrote about me, but I liked it because it was fiction, entertaining and lively.

When you create a work, does it have to be good in itself or is it enough for it to be good in dialogue with your other works?

When I create a work I always see the relationship it has with other works I’ve done, because everything is connected. But each work is independent. What is important is knowing how to see if what you’ve done is good or not. In the past I destroyed some works and later I regretted it. One day I painted two or three drunken penguins under Parisian rain. It was a very strange, very large painting, which I painted in seven or eight hours, and at the last moment, with the last drop of energy I had left, I erased it. As soon as I had erased it, I thought it was a mistake. I don’t know why I erased it; it was as if the gesture of erasing it was part of the work itself.

Your life and your work seem to be the result of an infallible mixture of calculation and instinct.

Wasn’t it Braque who said that art is reason corrected by emotion? I used to work with music blasting and now I listen to audiobooks. I take Flaubert, Stendhal and Maupassant – I really like 19th-century French literature – and I put them on at double speed. Listening to novels doesn’t just affect the work; it helps me to paint.

So you keep the rational part occupied with the audiobooks and that allows the irrational part to paint without a straitjacket?

I don’t know if it’s as simple as separating rational and irrational. The thinking is before and after the work, never during. If I thought about what I have to do, I would never do any of what I do.

This question may seem premature, but have you thought about what you will do with your artistic legacy?

Yes. I’ll probably have to end up creating a foundation, but I don’t want to take care of it myself. I have a lot of work: a thousand notebooks of sketches and writings, a lot of paintings, sculptures, engravings and watercolours. A while ago I made my intentions clear to a notary friend of mine. I have two children, who are now grown up, and I want them to live their lives; I don’t want them wasting their lives taking care of mine. I don’t want to condemn them to becoming dealers or to being victims of dealers. I do want to conserve the work, but I’m not keen on taking the time to make my own mausoleum. I’d like other people to do it. It would be nice if it were in Mallorca, in Felanitx, but I don’t trust institutions very much, plus they are so ephemeral…

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