Prompting involuntary memories

The entry of Charles Balzan’s art into the public consciousness couldn’t have been more successful with his winning entry for /ru:t/ leaving a definite mark. I interviewed him to find out more. This interview first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture section. 

When the winner of /ru:t/, a collective exhibition to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Malta’s accession to the EU was announced, most were unfamiliar with the name. As he will be the first to tell you, Charles Balzan is not an artist who has exhibited regularly.

This does not mean that art has not always been part of his life, but simply that, up till now, he has considered it more as a private, intimate endeavour.

“When I was young and first ‘discovered’ art, I viewed it as something that foreigners did. My family was not particularly artistic. My interest grew naturally and you can say that I was self-taught,” Balzan says.

Balzan explains how he “devoured” books and anything else related to art, focusing on his own work without thinking too much about taking his work to the public. Finally, aged 40, he decided that the time had come to go for it.

“I started feeling that I was ready to take the next step. Although I had taken part in smaller-scale exhibitions, /ru:t/ was my first major event. On a private level I always took art seriously, but it was only very recently that I got this strong feeling that at one time or another I was going to have to share my works with other people.”

The fact that as soon as he read what /ru:t/ was all about he immediately knew what he would like to do also helped. Balzan says that the question of ‘identity’ has always been a topic that fascinated him.

Charles BalzanCharles Balzan

“For me this idea of roots was always intrinsically connected to who we are and what has contributed to make us become this way. For example, everyone tells me that I have my great grand-father’s lips. I can’t bear the idea of having my appearance affected by someone I barely know anything about. Which is why I like to dig into my family roots, something that is often reflected in my works.”

Balzan’s application to be part of /ru:t/ was accepted immediately. His work, titled Core, is a piece that is both alive and interactive, although not in the ways that we are used to.

“I decided to use a type of concrete called hypertufa which is very porous and which encourages growth of greenery when it’s kept wet, particularly by natural spring water.

The final installation featured a series of concrete frames with living grass growing on the surface, each one different from the other

“The next step was precisely to find such a spot where I could keep my casts submerged for a couple of months while under constant supervision, of course,” Balzan says.

A natural spring in a public location was eventually located and several painstaking weeks followed with Balzan continuously driving to this location to make sure the casts had not been moved or worse.

“One particular day I turned up and found that some enterprising soul had cleaned the area around the spring and had also decided to clean the casts themselves.

“That was a bit of a setback. Luckily, I managed to find out who it was and I explained what I was doing, so a second incident was avoided.”

In the meantime, the hunt for more frames to cast from had started; some were old, family-owned frames, which made the final work even more significant for Balzan.

“Finally, it was time to settle on the size. Everything depended on the venue, but finally all was settled. I had known what I wanted to achieve from the very start. I wanted to touch that interior place within us, our core where, as the poet Rilke says, no word has ever entered.

“Therefore, for me, the aesthetic side or the direct appeal to the senses was just as important as the concept. Without that combination, I felt my work would not have reached it’s aim. In the end all turned out exactly as I had envisaged.”

The final installation featured a series of concrete frames with living grass growing on the surface, each one different from the other thanks to the unique features of the material used.

The frames making direct reference to all our ancestors forming our genetic make-up and the grass reflecting our natural roots… both aspects not normally present in our consciousness.

The idea, Balzan says, was to trigger what Proust refers to as “involuntary memories and precious fragments”.

“I am a person who loves detail. Looking at something close-up often triggers strange and seemingly unrelated memories. This is the experience I wanted to trigger in the viewer, which is why it was essential that people could get up close to the installation.”

But even “up close” was not enough. Balzan also wanted them to interact with the piece.

This he achieved by leaving a spray bottle full of water that could be sprayed upon the individual pieces helping the grass present on the frames to continue to grow. Triggered to spray, the viewer would also be forced to move on from the aesthetic side of the piece and delve into the conceptual part, coming up with his individual interpretation and memories.

Both aesthetics and concept worked, so much so that Balzan was the artist who was awarded the coveted prize of €3,000 in order to further his artistic studies, beating the other seven artists who were also taking part in the exhibition.

Now that the exhibition has just come to an end, only one question remains: Will we be seeing more of Balzan’s work?

“I would say yes. I already have some ideas brewing, actually.”

We eagerly await more.