The first thing you notice about the art of Catalin Badarau is just how visceral it is. It is also uncomfortable and quite difficult to digest, but once you hear his story and understand the meaning… you see just how their life can become an artist’s source of truth for everlasting pieces. From feeling like a piece of meat as an illegal immigrant at 16 to becoming a University professor and one of Thames&Hudson’s 100 sculptors of tomorrow, Catalin is sharing an extraordinary journey with the world and with Frank.
What defines you, as an artist? Who are you?
Catalin Badarau: The most difficult question: who are you? Perhaps it is not by chance that the two questions appear here together or in sequence. Perhaps the artist is the one who stubbornly asks themselves with the same insistence and intensity, “who am I really,” even long after the period of childhood, puberty, or adolescence, when these questions have a striking, natural reason.
Perhaps being a visual artist is a specific way of looking for possible answers to this question through images. Something in us constantly brings images before our eyes. I believe that we are constantly dreaming with our eyes open, only that we reject reality because it does not correspond to what we think we know about the world, about others, or about ourselves.
I think you can “speak” convincingly through your art only about something you have experienced. I believe that when we live a thought, a state, a deep emotion truly, simply, and directly, even if everything is very intimate and personal, that feeling belongs to a common mass of humanity.
A work of art can be very complex, but its core – conceptual or compositional – can only remain direct and penetrating if it is born from that area of the authenticity of feelings, which is common to all of us.
I think we are not really as different as we would like to believe. Perhaps this is why art works over millennia, across oceans and continents, in a trans-generational or trans-cultural way.
Your latest work feels so… raw – pun intended. But having heard your story, it is both life-affirming and heart-wrenching. Tell us what in your past inspired your pieces.
Catalin Badarau: Analysing, the process seems to be the other way round in my case. That is, first comes my works and only after, little by little, their possible source or their message starts to be clear to me. Very rarely do my works start from a specific topic. So, I go almost every time from the image to the idea, to the concept, to the story.
When I try to clarify to myself something about my art or about art in general, I draw parallels with the world of dreaming or with the processes of dreaming. I can’t choose consciously what I am about to dream and how my dream unfolds. I am not a master or creator of my dreams (at least not in a conscious way). What I can do though would be after I wake up, to try to understand what would be the possible sources of my dream and possible hidden symbols, that could tell me something about me; about certain situations in my life; about my fears, about possible unhealed traumas, about hidden wishes, about possible answers, about possible solutions.
Sometimes I am lucky and some of my works are born easily, almost without any labour. They seem to develop from their embryonic state to their mature shape, almost without my knowledge or my effort.
At some point, after I finished some of the pieces, I discovered surprisingly that they were referring to some moments from my adolescence.
This is the case for Meat me. It was easy to also discover its origin: I remember the moments when I felt I was being treated like an animal used to carry weights on its back, an animal that if injured, would have gone to a slaughterhouse quickly.
It was 1997 and I was 16 years old. It was a very difficult time in Romania, as well as in all ex-communist countries. In just 8 years of transition from the communist dictatorship of Ceausescu, to a hybrid and chaotic capitalism, almost every important industry in Romania was destroyed. Given that context, most cities that had been heavily industrialised before communism fell were suffering the tragedy of an almost complete economic downfall.
Workplace uncertainty was looming, inflation was growing. Very few people were getting rich and many more couldn’t recover from the turmoil. Many families that still had properties in the countryside took refuge in the villages. Until the revolution, Ceausescu had been accused of many shortages related to basic needs. Now, these shortages became bigger and bigger. Heat and hot water became an even bigger luxury than in communist times.
Former big and small factories were closing one by one. Not everyone could keep up and nobody was clear about how this transition can happen. There were situations when in a family, both parents, the only financial providers, lost their jobs at the same time.
Then, during that difficult time, I decided (without my family’s knowledge) to illegally cross two borders in order to be able to work abroad. This meant preparing for a secret, difficult journey, that involved many risks. We were taken by a group that was illegally moving people over the border between former Yugoslavia and Macedonia, and they carried us in trucks close to the border between Macedonia and Greece.
As a side note, once the Syrian refugee crisis started, I was surprised to see that the same groups were moving refugees from Syria, but in the opposite direction, from Greece to Western Europe.
In another part of the trip, I was walking through forests in order to cross the border and reached the city by foot. I repeatedly told myself that if I ever arrive safely, I could consider that the hardest part was already over. But I was wrong. The hardest part was waiting for me there.
I knew there were a few more difficult steps: finding a job (it wasn’t easy, especially because I was only 16 years old) and hiding because I was illegally in a foreign country, which I had entered without a visa and a legal right to stay. There were situations that created a great vulnerable context for all of us there: the need to earn a living vs the fear of actively searching for a workplace; the need to have a safe roof over our heads vs the fear of exposing ourselves while finding that place; the need to have a safe job; the inability to convince the employer to pay, in the context of no working contracts or no basic rights for the employee; the need of security at the workplace; the lack of medical insurance or the fear of ever calling a doctor because that meant forced repatriation. These were the main risks from which other minor risks arose. And where there are vulnerabilities, there are abuses.
Watching you speak about your art is quite the experience – the pieces come to life in conjunction with their story. How do you engage with your audience and what do you want them to see in your creations?
Catalin Badarau: The pieces of work are dreams or pieces of dreams that took shape, they materialised, and are now standing in front of us. Who can resist the temptation to speak about these weird showings? They seem to contradict reality as we know it and that’s why they challenge us to analyse them. In the morning right after waking up from a strange dream, is nice to find someone who wants to listen to your dream and moreover wants to share their interpretation of your dream.
I like to be surprised by what viewers say they see in my work. It happened to me that as unexpected as what they saw was, it became difficult not to start seeing it myself, from that moment on, in my works.
It is said that art represents a mirror facing the viewer. From the piece of art, the reflected image comes back to us. We see in the piece of art only what we are willing to bring to the meeting with that piece of art.
I believe that every time we are looking at an art piece, we see it together with its story. Never separated from its story, always surrounded by a halo of contexts, which intertwine, overlap, and enrich each other.
The way we relate to an artistic object depends on the context. The richer the context, the more extensive, complex, and profound the artistic experience of the viewer around art can be. Talking with the viewer, the artist can give him a great amount of context necessary for having a full aesthetic emotion. Of course, you can not give a person what they don’t already have. This means that through a piece of art or through talking about it, we never offer something completely unknown to the viewer.
We can’t say anything to anyone that he doesn’t already know, the only thing we can do is to help his soul remember something he has already seen somewhere.
Tell us about your choice of media and what it means for your work.
Catalin Badarau: I work with great pleasure with materials, working techniques, and methods used mainly in the upholstery area such as sponges, sackcloth, silicone, and other textiles. Almost all my work has gone through this stage at some point, even after they were being transformed into stronger, lasting materials.
Later, I realised that choosing these materials has something to do with the fact that at some point I worked in upholstery with my father. It was then when I got familiar with them, and later on, when my work needed a certain way of expression, I turned to these materials that I knew something about. I think I was attracted to them, despite the fact that they do not belong to the traditional sculpture materials category. I am interested in the elasticity and flexibility of materials that are much stronger, like iron, from which I like to develop metal constructions with an industrial look.
For me, silicone is the material that most closely resembles flesh and skin. Trauma is often felt there. The skin is the one that contains us, the one that shapes us and separates us from everything that we are not. At the level of the skin, it is our visual identity, as perceived by most people around us. The skin is subject to gaze and analysis.
The skin is the first one coming into contact with the hostile, blunt environment, with external pressure. The skin is always tense inside and out. Our skin often covers our inner emptiness, masks, or expresses our anxieties. The appearance of our skin speaks of our well-being or our weaknesses. The skin shows us youth or is the first to betray our age. The skin can cover pride or shame.
Nudity of the skin can be attractive or sinful, immoral, illegal, contested, or punished. The skin suffers punishment or enjoys caress. The skin protects or makes us vulnerable. The skin rots in death, or it remains untouched at the promise of eternal life. The skin is preserved by embalming or it decomposes, leaving the elements that made us re-enter the cycle of nature. Due to its incredible complexity, the skin was and still is the main source of study in figurative sculpture from ancient times to the present day.
After your adventure at 16, you went back to your family, finished your studies and now you also teach art at university. What do you hope your students get from their interaction with you?
Catalin Badarau: I want young artists to enter the new stage of their lives with confidence in their technical skills specific to the field of sculpture. I would also like our time spent together to help them discover a special love for this field. If a bud of love for sculpture has blossomed in their hearts, it is certain that their next journey will bring them joy and fulfilment. Sculpture, like almost all current fields, requires critical thinking and willingness to learn consistently and consequently throughout life, and this can only be done effectively if I make the sculpture out of passion and love.
I think this is becoming more and more important as we move more and more firmly towards an age where artificial intelligence, aided by 3D printers and robotics, generates spectacular two- or three-dimensional images with impressive speed and ease. As you can see, I avoid using the term “create” or especially “create art” when referring to A.I. That’s because, for me, “creating” has to do with feeling, being afraid, suffering, agonizing, dying, rejoicing, hoping, loving…
How should someone pick the art that they bring into their homes? What art do you have in your home?
Catalin Badarau: There are many types of collections and many types of collectors in the world. The business world of art is a maze. I know about this part of the art world only as much as I need to help the art I make in the studio. I’m not an expert. I wouldn’t dare give advice. At the human level, I would only say that everyone should collect only what brings them maximum joy. When I say joy, I also mean that kind of joy that we feel when we enjoy the most important tragic works of humanity.
I am surrounded daily by my works and the works of my dearest artist friends. I think this could be the recipe for enhancing the joy of collecting a work of art: for the artist whose works you collect to be your friend as well. In this way, you can have access to a very complex context of his work, thus multiplying your joy. Because a work of art is not just an image, it is also a story, possibly a life story, it is also the story of a generation, a friendship, a life lived together in the same historical time, in the same small village, even if that little village is called Planet Earth.
Meet Catalin Badarau here. His partner, Bianca Mann, an artist too, is having her first exhibition in London.