“The artist must re-enchant, because we live in a disenchanted world”

Eugènia Balcells

A multifaceted artist, Eugènia Balcells (Barcelona, 1943) never stops. A pioneer of multimedia art and a member of the Catalan group of conceptual artists, driven by a boundless curiosity, she has addressed social issues, but she has also taken an interest in physics, chemistry, astronomy and perception. She has recently wrapped up the exhibition She, once and again at Can Framis, a contemporary art space in the Fundació Vila Casas. Her mural Homage to the Elements has been the source of inspiration for the book El meu nom és Univers [My Name Is Universe] (Actar, 2022), by Toni Pou, edited by Eulàlia Bosch, with the collaboration of several authors. Having spent more than three decades between New York and Barcelona, her energies have now turned to completing the plans for her foundation in Castellar de la Selva.

I can see that the circular slide rule invented by your paternal grandfather, Eduard Maria Balcells, holds pride of place in your studio. He was a modernist architect, inventor and creator, among other works, of the building that houses the Cerdanyola Art Museum today.

This rule, the Rosetta slide rule, as my grandfather called it, is very important to me and has influenced me enormously. It was a one-handed slide rule, invented by my grandfather just as the first calculators were coming out. So everyone knew that it wasn’t going to be of any use, but I helped him make it. Many years later, I realised that this Rosetta became a legacy for me because I’ve always had this circular vision of understanding totalities and numbers. There are a number of mathematical concepts that have shaped me. That’s why, many years later, when I created my foundation, I decided that the logo would take the shape of the Rosetta slide rule.

At what stage is your foundation project at?

My works are like my children, which I have created over the course of 50 years. So I have a very extensive legacy, and I have decided to bequeath it to Catalonia.
It is a legacy that is largely immaterial and therefore much harder to protect. We were fortunate to find somewhere in Castellar de la Selva and now we are renovating the building. On the one hand, I want it to be a meeting place for people who can share their creativity in different disciplines. It’s not just for artists, but is multidisciplinary. And, on the other hand, without being a museum, it will be a space for the presentation of my works, on a rotating basis, which will be open to the public. I’d like some of them to be permanent installations, such as Univers [Universe], Frequencies and Homage to the Elements. We’re going a bit slower now because everything has gotten so expensive and we’re in the process of finding patrons who want to support the project financially. We also want to sell editions of the mural Homage to the Elements, as I’ve given the foundation the rights to the work, to help finance it. I’d like it to be all over the world because, for me, it is a fundamental work that presents an energetic vision of reality. It’s the periodic table of the elements, but each element is represented by its light signature, its spectrum, its light voice.

In recent years, your work has been closely related to energy, both from the scientific perspective and from the point of view of mystical experience.

Yes, and there is something that really made my day recently. When we were dismantling the exhibition She, once and again at Can Framis, we were told that a group of people had meditated in the installation Becoming. I am thrilled, because it absolutely breaks with the vision we have of a museum, and the museum space becomes a space for education, life and meditation.

What do you think the role of the artist should be in these turbulent times we are living in?

The artist must re-enchant the world because we live in a disenchanted world, which is the worst thing that can happen. We all need passion, mystery and enchantment to live. And only art can do that. Society would be richer if it valued and applauded the contribution of artists more, because artists work to create collective wealth. Part of the blindness of this society is that it only attaches value to what yields an immediate economic benefit. But there are other facets of the human being, we come here to evolve and these facets don’t have the space they need.

In Portable Album you pay tribute to the women who have influenced you. You have always condemned sexism in society. But you advocate more for the need for a union between the masculine and the feminine.

Virginia Woolf said that for there to be any kind of creation, there must be an interplay between the male and the female within us, a kind of marriage of opposites. We have the two principles, masculine and feminine, within, and they must engage in dialogue. I came to the planet with a woman’s body and I identify on the outside more with the feminine part, but inside me there is an extraordinary warrior, a dancing girl and an old lady, a very complex dance of many characters, but, above all, between the masculine and the feminine.
So I am delighted that now, with the LGTBIQ+ movement, there is out-and-out permission to navigate it externally as you wish. If we managed, collectively and individually, to balance the two worlds within ourselves, so that men would respect and accept their feminine side, there would be no problem on the outside, because they would already have experienced it within themselves. The macho man is the one who cannot dialogue with his feminine side, the one who refuses to cry, the one who denies feelings and care for others. The feminine part, not only of women, but above all of men, should be honoured, appreciated and celebrated.

You experienced the feminist movement of the 1960s; you studied a degree, technical architecture, in which there were very few women; and you were part of a group, the conceptual artists, in which women were in the minority. What was it like for you?

When I studied technical architecture, I was often the only girl. I was really shy and it was a bit much to be surrounded only by men. At that time, many women needed to impose their masculine side exclusively, like Margaret Thatcher did. I don’t want to lay too much blame on the women who had to do that, because the situation was very tricky for them. They did it that way or else headed straight for the kitchen.

Portrait of Eugènia Balcells ©Cristina Calderer

Half a century later, despite the latest surge of feminism, the struggle is not over.

It’s a very complicated issue that is still not resolved. We only have to look at the news every day about murdered women here and everywhere. There is so much work to be done… But the change has to be made internally, as I said. Until men embrace their feminine side, the feminist struggle is hopeless.

In New York you coincided with some members of the group of Catalan conceptual artists, including Àngels Ribé, Antoni Miralda, Antoni Muntadas, Francesc Torres… Do you think that the work of this group has been sufficiently acknowledged?

Even though monographic exhibitions have been held or the Tous Collection has been exhibited at the MACBA, Catalonia has failed to recognise the high calibre of the conceptual group of artists, and even less so at that time, when very few people, such as the collector Rafael Tous, supported us. What we were doing was on a par with what was being done in other countries, and that wasn’t acknowledged. Look at the publicity that La Movida [the countercultural movement that began with the fall of the Franco regime] received... They were able to really turn it to their advantage. Such a difference!

What has living in New York for so many years meant to you? What was the impact of arriving there in 1968?

I am a child of that time, of that New York of 1968, a bit of a hippie and utopian era, when we really thought we could change the world. I believed it, and that shaped me too. In fact, what happened then is what can save us now. All that spirit is now buried, but there are many people who are living that legacy, and I am sure it will resurface. Admittedly, there has been a massive slowdown with the huge rise of fascism everywhere. What’s more, we are living in a time of attacks on individual freedom and respect for others, and it seems that the dreadful prediction of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 has been fulfilled. But I believe that the spirit of ‘68 lives on and will prevail.

You are considered a pioneer of video art and multimedia art. What memories do you have of the prehistoric period of these media?

Ugh, it took three or four people to move what needed to be moved. Making the piece Travessant llenguatges [Crossing Languages], from 1981, which was recently shown at Can Framis, was an odyssey. It is a two-channel video piece; on one screen you see images of the Miss Universe ceremony and on the other, by way of contrast, a film of two women in the home. To make it, I applied for a grant from the Ministry, where they didn’t know what the word video meant. I had to write a one-page explanation. They gave me the grant, I went to New York and stayed. Doing multimedia art at that time was quite heroic because the equipment was so expensive. With the grant money I bought a U-matic [the first videocassette format], so enormous that I couldn’t move it, and a huge camera. The first thing I did to try it out was to focus on myself, and I remember getting teary-eyed at the thought of all the trouble I had gone through to get my own equipment and my first space to work alone in New York.
And now little kids have much more powerful and accurate equipment than the U-matic! Since I had direct access to the roof of the building where I lived, with 360-degree views of New York City, I set up the camera there for two years with a long cable, and From the center emerged, one of the world’s first 12-channel, 12-monitor installations. The work was presented at El Museo del Barrio in New York and later many artists asked me for the monitors because nobody else had them.

Venturing into such a new and challenging world at that time called for a spirit of research, like that of your inventor grandfather. Have you ever stopped exploring new possibilities?

Never, because I am more of a researcher than anything else. I focus on researching the gaze, technology… That’s why I’ve always worked with people from other fields. And yes, my grandfather played a big part in all of this. He, for instance, invented glasses that had prisms on the sides, so that if you put them on and looked straight ahead, you could see the room. I had them when I was a child.
When I was 21, I was in a very serious car accident and was therefore in a cast and immobile for a long time; I could only see the ceiling. One day, Dr Palazzi, who was assigned to me, came into the room and said to me: “Joan of Arc, I have a present for you!” And they were glasses similar to my grandfather’s, which allowed me, looking up, to read the book on my belly. All these things changed my brain’s circuits and I didn’t have to actually read it, I just lived it. When I was 15 years old I wanted to be a filmmaker and they forbade me. I had to embark on a long journey, but when the film Letters from Akyab (a tribute to the artist’s Burmese ancestors) was presented at the Filmoteca, the poster read: “Eugènia Balcells, filmmaker”. Aha! It’s taken me 79 years, but finally, someone has acknowledged me as a filmmaker. I’ve done it!

As a native of Barcelona, I would like to ask you about the most genuinely Barcelona-based work in your career, Barcelona, postal de postals [Barcelona, Postcard of Postcards].

It is an installation similar to a piece I made in New York in 1986, with a thousand postcards of the Statue of Liberty, all different, to mark the centenary of the monument. It’s a large collage depicting a recurring theme in my work: the multiplicity of vision. It is a symbolic puzzle. At the moment, the piece is still under the statue.

And how did you create the Barcelona piece?

Barcelona, postal de postals, from 1991, is a work commissioned by Barcelona City Council to be installed underground beneath the fountains in Plaça de Catalunya. It is a 40-metre-long piece with nine panels, a portrait of the city of Barcelona with more than 6,000 postcards of various places: the statue of Columbus, the Arc de Triomf, the Magic Fountain, the Ramblas, Park Güell… It took me three years to make it, quite an undertaking. It was finally installed in the Fòrum building in 2004. It was supposed to stay there permanently, but when it was decided to move the Museu de Ciències Naturals there, it was removed and put into storage. The work is the property of the City Council, but the condition I set was that it should be on public display. For such a work not to be exhibited is sheer madness. I don’t want to have to die before it can be seen again. For me, it is a work that symbolises my love for Barcelona.

Throughout your career you have thoroughly explored themes such as feminism, the fragmentation of the image, visual culture, perception, light, the cosmos… What subject are you interested in delving into now?

I am now interested in taking on a work that will explore the quantum field, which absolutely fascinates me because it is something that the mind cannot grasp. The observer, our brain, our desire and our stance influence reality. This is a place that only mystics have ventured into, but now quantum physics is exploring it. Our mobiles are already working with quantum. We are already using the qualities of quantum physics without understanding it. Many of the great contemporary inventions depend on the fact that one particle relates to another particle somewhere else on the planet. This opens up a vast world of possibilities.

©Cristina Calderer

The work Becoming is based on the idea of a woman who is reborn again and again. How has the artist and the woman Eugènia Balcells evolved?

There is a curve that governs our society, that records when we are born, grow up, are educated and evolve, and that, by the time we reach 35 or 45, we are just waiting to plummet and crash straight into the ground. This curve is inside our cells. It has been instilled in us by advertising and social pressure. But I have erased it from my cells and have replaced it with one that rises gently, organically, until it runs parallel to the line of infinity. Then all it takes is a small leap and a change of dimension.
This curve means that you don’t hit the ground because we are evolving and learning till our last breath. This means that, when it comes to older people, who have been on the curve the longest, it might be worth listening to them and not dismissing them as a nuisance. Moreover, the drive for life is the same in a three-year-old child, in a woman in her thirties or in a person at the end of their life. It is the same attitude and we can all engage in dialogue because we are on the same curve. Otherwise it is impossible, an incredible separation is created between ages; not to mention between genders. I think of life as an adventure, as a dance, as a way to learn, because we are all artists. This is how I see life and work at 79 years of age. And I find what I do now much more interesting than what I did when I was young. I am working, alive and kicking and creating all the time.

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