Feature: Mercedes Balle — 09.11.21

Works Of Renewal Inspired By Complex, Divided Urban Landscapes: With Mercedes Balle


The Open Cave / Synthetic Waters / Fallen Sky /
 Scaffolding Windows / Soil Floor, Soil Floor

Windows / Scaffolding Netting / Tiles

Embedded within the repeated layers of a dense urban landscape in London, the disconnect between nature and the individual became evident. Mercedes Balle was drawn to the materials within, those integrated in the infrastructure and utilised to build up the landscape. A material that is taken, transformed, and that becomes part of a permanent urban space. For Balle, there is a different side. A critical lens is adopted - taking discarded construction materials, altering their purpose, and prompting a visual transformation. The purpose is powerful. Art resembling nature, yet each element of the whole made from the very materials that contrast the natural landscape. Balle’s practice questions the prevalent issues we see in relation to the environment, at a time of emergency and degradation.

The works embody renewal and repurposing, concepts central to the circular economy. In journeying from a small Mediterranean island to a capital city, the feeling of nature in its wildest form detached itself from Balle. Without an overwhelming feeling of the vastness only found at the heart of natural landscapes, without endless expanses of mountains and water, Balle felt at a loss. To seek out the sublime again, the magnetic force, the magnificence - Balle’s practice became a search for the wild. We spoke to Mercedes Balle about the works exhibited for her graduate show - a fluid collection that intertwines sadness, separation, and transformation in urban landscapes.


The Open Cave. Synthetic Waters. Fallen Sky. Scaffolding Windows. Soil Floor, Soil Floor.

A body of work resembling control, resistance, and the limitations of both human and plant life. Hidden within, in an effortless yet demanding manner, are notions which question society's way of living centred around consumption and a single-use economy. For Balle, the overarching meaning behind these works is the idea and intention to “evoke [the feeling of] nature as a bigger force that will eventually take over”.

Why construction materials? The choice was intentional, and as mentioned, led by the artist’s unwavering focus on the changing environment. Becoming conflicted with traditional materials used in oil painting, she took a turn towards materials that were forming a barrier between her and the landscape. So began renewal and repurposing. This body of work - presented for Balle’s graduate show - reuses and repurposes scaffolding netting, tiles and window frames throughout. Again, done with intention. In visually exploring materials and their meanings, the works “consider the end of life and obsolescence of these materials. I mix them with living materials such as seeds, algae and soil, to highlight the disparity between the long timeframe of redundant materials and the relative shortness of biological life”.


Further in, the selected construction materials hold deeper meaning. Scaffolding netting symbolises new building and versatility, a material with connections to the heavily male-dominated construction industry. Once displaced from their intended site however, their meaning shifts radically. Tiles symbolise a physical barrier between ourselves and the soft earth below us. With tiles comes an absence of life, yet where there are irregularities and imperfections there is also opportunity for life to flourish. Window frames symbolise a bridge, both connecting us to the outside whilst also marking separation and displacement. When fused together the materials work in solidarity, serving the artist's intention impeccably.


The Open Cave. As a work centred on displacement how does the mixed interaction between materials and video emphasise this feeling?

“The title of this piece is based on Allegory Of The Cave, by Plato. Presented in a dark basement it shows a video of the slow-moving sky which is projected onto the different layers of scaffolding netting. The viewer is invited to take some time to look at something that is available all the time but is often overlooked. There are many things that separate us from our environment - the constructions, our way of life, technology, rushing - the layers of scaffolding netting represent these.”


Synthetic Waters. Your choice of materials is magnetic in that you repurpose them to present something completely different in a mesmerising way. How is that visualised in this piece?

“The UK generates around 5 million tonnes of plastic a year and many of these are not recyclable. The world is flooded with plastic and this becomes an especially demanding issue when arriving to the oceans, with microplastics that stay there forever. Plastic comes from petroleum which is itself a natural resource. In Synthetic Waters the scaffolding netting, a material associated with new constructions and city development, takes the shape of the water that was once there to escape the city.”


Falling Sky. In fusing aspects such as the beauty of nature with the rough choice of materials it is almost as if you have captured elements of nature in a real and physical sense, as though they are actual pieces of a falling sky. Where did your idea for this emerge?

“Falling sky is made of a group of tiles piled up like junk (just what these tiles really are), and speaks about rubbish, landfill, a broken and forgotten nature, disconnection. After having used these tiles for Life between the tiles, I wanted to stretch their life a little bit more. It came naturally to me to use them as a surface, but painting on them was not really working. I found, through photo-transfer, a great way to utilise the shiny quality of the back of the material. I chose to represent the sky in those because this has been a really important subject to me since I arrived in London, as I see them as the closest connection point to the landscape in the city, but also an element to connect it to another piece of mine, Open Cave. The sky here is represented on the floor, where we tend to focus our sight when submerged in our thoughts. These tiles are not on the floor, instead piled up in different directions and portraying a broken image of the sky. The lightness of the clouds and the air contrasts with the weight of the heavy metal tiles.”


The way in which we are constructing our urban landscapes is broken down, piece by piece, and reconstructed across this vivid body of work by Balle. The pieces when standing in solitude speak volumes, commenting through their rich visual and material composition on the current complex state of our urban surroundings. Balle doesn't doubt that the notions can be extended to our natural landscapes also, a space we too seem to have partially taken over. London is one space. The distinction between the urban - artificially constructed layers - and the natural are evident. In a city like this one “the feeling of enclosure is really present here”, no doubt down to the continuous stages of construction and change at every corner. Will an urban space ever be completely built, completely ready? Is the constant construction part of the character of the space itself? Arising from this body of work is a sense of separation and a feeling of revival. Balle nudges us towards thinking and deconstructing - breaking down urban spaces into its smallest components - and thinking again.

We’re left with unravelling questions. Without materials being within a circular system, when comes the end of the line? Without barriers separating the artificial from the natural, which takes over? Without repurposing and reviving, what will we see?

From a small island and a feeling of wonder to an extensive city and a feeling of displacement, Balle’s body of work is stimulating. As a communicator using aesthetics in a unique manner to speak, ask, address and raise questions about sustainability - Balle knows that for people to hear there has to be noise. With hopes to learn more about repurposing and recycling materials (and holding her first solo show at the end of next year), her current projects take on a new form integrating construction materials with biodegradable and compostable materials.

Just as Synthetic Waters prompts a visual and magnificent change in front of us, Balle notes that change towards a circular economy - fuelled by renewal and regeneration - is now. Within each piece there was a radical change below the surface - a saving from obsolescence, revival, renewal, transformation. Our surrounding spaces must experience that too.

Mercedes Balle is an artist with works evoking the sublime, with a practice attuned towards researching the wild, and with inspiration stemming from the overwhelming magnificence and forces of nature.


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