Barbara Nati‘s digital art is arrestingly beautiful, breaking boundaries of reality yet still evoking the familiar and recognisable. In an interview with LoVArts’ Hannah Prime, the artist reveals what is important to her work, her approach to being an emerging artist in one of the capitals of contemporary art, and what it is that makes passionate art.
“I describe my work as digital collage.” Barbara Nati sits before me in the café on Caledonian Street, sipping on a glass of white wine. She is instantly likeable, open and easy to chat to. She is modest with it. “I don’t like to describe myself as a photographer; I don’t think it would be respectful to photographers to do so. Photography is a science. Unfortunately I do not have a very scientific approach, but I do love it when science and art come together.” At first glance, her works are images captured in a distorted, unsettling parallel universe. Upon closer inspection, they are troublingly closer to home.
“My works are like postcards from the future,” Nati tells me. And that future is a catastrophic, apocalyptic one, rooted in our present and evolving into scenes which are at once unrecognisable yet strangely familiar.
Barbara has submitted works to the upcoming LoVArts exhibition Infinite London from her series La casa di questa mia sera – The House of this Evening, all mine. In it, the viewer becomes a voyeur, a complicit witness to destruction and decay. In each work we are granted access to view what used to be a home, with all its remnants of life and love and families and relationships. People are missing from the scene, yet evidence of past life remains. Nati evokes feelings of loss and regret, achieving such unsettling beauty through incredible cinematic scenes that the viewer cannot help but marvel at. The giant, tree-like structures grow into dilapidated houses, overseeing vast natural landscapes and heavy skies.
Partly, the beauty of Nati’s works is that they cannot be situated in a particular time or place. Unidentifiable perhaps, but something that we all relate to either through personal experience, or from today’s existence and constant access to digital media, 24 hour rolling news, global or local calamities and catastrophes.
Nati’s works blur boundaries, redefining them and breaking them down. Beautiful landscapes highlight the bleak tragedy of gutted houses, suspended in stillness. Echoes of former lives hover over washing hung out to dry, lights left on, pictures still hanging on walls. “They are still places to live, after all” she points out.
“It crosses borders of time and space. I don’t want these places to be too recognisable; and they shouldn’t be, as they aren’t made up of one photograph, they are made up of hundreds.” The result is a collage of reality and unreality, as if alluding to something familiar and distant. “I don’t like to say too much in my art, I want to leave it for people to discover themselves, to interpret themselves.”
So what is involved in the process of arriving at the final work? “There is no rule that I follow. I pick up on elements I like from a variety of photographs; a line here, some colour there. I get inspiration from small things, and then work upon them, adding bits and building upon them as one would with a canvas.”
“I take elements from photographs I have taken, and add some from images that I find on the internet too, which I think is indicative of the times we live in.” Nati’s works are digital collages in a digital age. “I would love to have the time and resource to travel to places around the world to take photographs. But I don’t want to limit myself and restrict my art because I lack the ability to do this. I want to open it up as much as possible and take inspiration from everywhere.” Nati describes the possibilities which have opened up with the rise of the internet, the ability to travel to strange lands and explore new cultures at the click of a button. She crosses boundaries through her art, and her art itself crosses boundaries of time, place and genre.
“The process of creating my works is a long one, starting out with photography but developing into something else through post production, editing.” The language Nati uses connotes the awe inspiring, cinematic nature of her art.
Barbara says she defined herself as an artist from the age of six, always experimenting with colour and paint and photography. “Painting, and oil painting especially, is a process of layering and blending colours to build up the picture. Today I do this with Photoshop to create my works.”
She graduated as an interpreter in English and Spanish, going on to New York to study at Parsons New School of Design. Jobs in advertising, editing and post production followed, but she never strayed too far from creating her art. “I am largely self-taught; I like to play around with Photoshop. So much can be achieved by simply exploring different processes and methods.”
She came to London in 2008, and found that uprooting was more difficult than expected. “I have come to London in what is an incredibly tough time to try and succeed in the industry.” In Italy, she can be described as an established artist. “In London, I am a few steps back.”
“It is still Europe, but people in Britain talk of ‘going to Europe’ – as if they are separate and different. Despite the ease of connection and travel today, the British still think of themselves as on an island.”
The system here is very different, Nati tells me. “Galleries are less keen to take risks. In Italy there is way less money in the art world, but here in London we are in one of the key cities of the art world, it is quite easy for the art establishment, because they have the money and they display people who have a reputation behind them and are more likely to make them money.”
She argues that while the investment in contemporary art is positive, and highlights its importance to the culture of London and of Britain as a whole, the wealth involved presents problems. “In Italy people buy art out of passion, not for the money.”
“I think more people have something to say with their art in Italy, the art comes from a place of passion. There is a lot of frustration in Italy and this is expressed through the art. Here there is a more established art scene, and they are doing it in a certain way – people go through art school, they make it through traditional channels and there is an establishment.”
This is why an organisation like LoVArts is so important, Nati agrees. Any help aimed at established artists is welcome and necessary, where it is so difficult to break through. “London is the homeland of innovation, one of the capitals of contemporary art.” It’s just that emerging artists need extra support.
And so, what is Barbara Nati trying to say with her art? What frustrations is she voicing? If art is really not too different from advertising, as she says, then what is she advertising? “I want people to think more about the environment in which we live. That is my message.” Her art is a vision from the future, looking ahead to the results of our everyday and cumulative destruction to the planet on which we live.
“The world is becoming so much smaller. We have the ability to travel so much easier and quicker to distant locations, and increasingly people spend so much more of their time on different forms of transport.” The world may have shrunk in size but our ease of access and choices have grown inexorably, breaking down boundaries. “The negative way to look at it however is that we are taking advantage of the world and it is unsustainable. We are exploiting the world. Everyone in their everyday lives can make a big difference.”
Nati is an environmentalist, a vegan, a conscientious consumer. The environmentalist theme is not necessarily the only message which drives her art, but rather comes out spontaneously. “I have obsessive thoughts about this subject.” Nature and our surrounding environment defines us, creates and guides us, which is why the images of destruction brought about by unknown, nameless and implicit disaster in Nati’s work is so powerful.
The inspiration for her series ‘La casa di questa mia sera – The house of this evening, all mine’, and its title, comes from the poem La Casa dei Doganieri by Eugenio Montale. As she recites the last lines for me in Italian (“it just isn’t the same in English”) Nati shudders with delight and tells me she has goose bumps. True to her philosophy, she is utterly passionate about her art.