Interview with Vasil Berela
While enjoying last year’s walkabout of the Weißensee Academy of Art in Berlin, I casually stumbled upon the studio of Vasil Berela. From all the works exposed, he was undoubtedly one of a kind. Don’t get me wrong; there were many beautiful works of many artists exhibiting. But somehow, Vasil’s studio with his exhibits, I did not forget. Reason enough to talk plainly with him about his by anarchy lived childhood, his art, and my preferred question, if art is nowadays a joke.
Velártez: Vasil, you were born in the Georgian Republic in 1986. How do you remember your childhood?
Vasil: I remember it a little dark. The civil war was raging, and the economic situation was difficult as well. There was no electricity because the national infrastructure had collapsed. So at night, it was pitch black. As a child, I didn’t understand that I didn’t have a civilized childhood like western kids. It was just my reality.
Velártez: Can you get more into detail?
Vasil: There was no police, and as a result of that, anarchy reigned the country. I couldn’t play outdoors because my parents were always afraid that something tragic might occur to me. Of course, I didn’t understand their concerns, but I was aware that I couldn’t play freely. And so it happened that I spent a lot of time with my neighbor. She had agoraphobia and was unable to leave her home. And because she was always at home, I could visit her whenever I wanted. She could play the piano fantastically and taught me my first brush strokes. She also had psychoses, which caused her to see the world in different colors. I didn’t understand that as a child as well, but it influenced me to see the world through different eyes. Today, I think that it was crucial for my development as an artist.
Velártez: Could you at least go to school?
Vasil: Yes, but it was not always easy. For example, because there was no electricity or gas, it could get icy in winter. Sometimes we couldn’t even write because our hands were painfully frozen.
Velártez: What did you do after school?
Vasil: I started studying at the Art Academy of Tbilisi, in the Faculty of Architecture. At that time, I thought that the job would suit me well. But the study couldn’t give me what I needed. So I only stayed there for a year and moved quickly back to my hometown. I wanted to focus on becoming an artist and started working in an artist’s studio as well. But when two artists work side by side, there is friction. So I soon left and continued working on my own.
Velártez: How did it come that you moved to Germany, and in which year did it take place?
Vasil: I came in 2009. I always tried to save everything as my dream was to build my very own studio. I had already acquired a property. But one day, the political situation deteriorated again, and the war broke out a second time. When the first bombs exploded in our town, it was clear that all life’s efforts could be wiped out at any time. Georgia was a dictatorship, and the government was simply an additional risk. They wouldn’t treat you as a human nor protect you. So at some point, I was just ready to leave. I was very fortunate because, after a short time, I found a client who kept on ordering paintings from me. I was soon able to stand on my own feet as an artist.
Velártez: Let’s talk a little bit about your creative process. There is a phase in your past in which you paint very dark. Later you change your style and paint in a traditional, realistic, romantic way, only to become more ominous than ever before. How did that happen?
Vasil: I wanted to evolve as an artist but didn’t know in which direction nor how. It was challenging to reinvent myself. To detach yourself from the old and create something entirely new. I knew that my old style would no longer keep me satisfied. The last, dark pictures are also so dark because inside, I felt that way. The desire to do sculpting had been dormant in me for a long time. But I never had the right working environment to start with it. When the Weißensee Academy of Art accepted my application, I could finally develop myself.
Velártez: How does a typical day look like in your life as an artist?
Vasil: I like to work in the evenings. But my day always starts with a cup of coffee. In the morning, however, I usually don’t produce any art. I come into contact with it rather slowly. I read a lot about it and analyze the works of others. It helps me to stay in touch with the art world and to keep away from the ordinary, everyday things. I read a lot about philosophy or listen to audiobooks. I hear them at least three times in a row because I often lose myself in thoughts and lose the thread (Laughs).
Velártez: What is it that inspires you?
Vasil: Often, I get inspired by dreams that haunt me at night and that I can remember the next day. Even if I don’t understand them immediately, it may be that they inspire me. Sometimes, I also get my ideas on the urban railway. I have no idea why, but I like the suburban train (laughs).
Velártez: Which art movements, artists, and styles do you like the most?
Vasil: I like Basquiat very much, although I’m sure I could never paint like that. But art is incredibly diverse these days, so it is difficult for me to limit myself to something specific.
Velártez: What are you trying to achieve with your work?
Vasil: Most people just try to find their way, and so do I. My artworks are just an attempt to show my self-discovery and self-realization to the outside world. It’s like looking for a door handle in a dark room without doors. I don’t have a specific goal.
Velártez: They say that artists are very narcissistic. How much do you love yourself?
Vasil: I don’t feel that way at all, but who knows what others might say about me. Ask my girlfriend (laughs). But I’m very self-critical. It goes so far that I often feel depressed that my work is not good enough, which is also the reason why I haven’t done many exhibitions so far.
Velártez: Do you take drugs to be creative?
Vasil: No. The best drug for me is when I understand something. I admit that a lot of people who see me think I smoke pot. Often people approach me on the street and ask about marijuana or papers. I like to play with stereotypes (laughs).
Velártez: Vasil, I have the last question for you: 75% of artists make less than $10,000 with their art, per year. But a few make millions over millions. Jeff Koons, who sold a balloon dog for $45 million, or Pietro Manzoni, whose own feces get auctioned for over $200,000. Or a banana that is first taped on the wall and then eaten by another artist. Is art a joke these days?
Vasil: Art can also be a joke. The banana shows that it is sometimes effortless to reach the art scene. One side of the art community is very distant. The other side is very open. You can compare the banana with the World Record Egg. A guy posted an egg on Instagram to get more likes than Kylie Jenner. The thing went viral, and so it happened with the banana or with Manzoni. Manzoni was smart enough to transform his feces into money. It’s up to you to find it funny or tragic. There is no longer a particular trend in what sells well. But what’s problematic is that there is an incredible number of artists. Of course, there is not enough space for all of us. But I believe that if someone does something valuable, it is never lost. It just takes time to be recognized as relevant.