Sergey Balovin has been living from exchanging his artworks for a number of years now, in particular portraits in black and white watercolour, of useful things, without using money: from clothes to laptop, from flight or train tickets to medical insurance, from painting materials to food.
Sergey is not a media legend, but a pragmatic visual artist who has managed to turn an artistic project into a life experiment. He was born in Russia, in Voronezh, where he grew up, studied and pursued an academic career teaching painting at University. In 2010 he moved to Shanghai.
It all started when he rented an apartment on the 16th floor of a skyscraper and he had nothing to put inside – not even an easel for painting. Luckily he discovered that his neighbor had one. So he asked her to exchange it for a painting because the easel itself had been a present she had received and therefore he found more appropriate to offer her a gift instead of money.
She accepted and she became the first participant in In Kind Exchange – the name Sergey gave the project.
“I’ve always loved interacting with people. And it was at that time with the easel of my neighbor that I realized that I could make portraits for people, not for money but letting them decide the value to attribute it,” he says.
“I started promoting my exchange art project, but people asked me what they could give me back. They needed a guide. And because at that time my apartment was completely empty, I decided to propose them to present me anything useful to furnish the house. And in a few weeks my apartment was completely furnished. “
He made portraits for his neighbors, students, important gallerists, for a Swiss economics minister, TV anchors, radiomen, restaurateurs …. anyone. Without any distinction.
“And one day I was invited to Siberia for an art exhibition, they paid me the flight ticket and I went there. But once there, because of the little budget, they could not offer me any meals. So I started promoting my project as “Feed the Artist and Get Your Portrait Made” and people came to feed me, inviting me for lunch or dinner, to restaurants or even cooking at home for me. I saw that people were very happy to give me food in exchange for portraits. I realized that with my project I could even travel the world.
So Sergey in 2013 started his free money world trip, from China to Chile, from Siberia to India. For more than a year and a half he travelled exchanging portraits for food, flight tickets and accommodation. People fed him, and sent him from one destination to the next.
“Food and accommodation are the two most important things that you need when you travel. Money is abstract, food is alive. Food gives life. “
In fact food is one of the gifts he still receives the most. In one of our first conversations he told me how in Shanghai many people presented him with vegetables that he didn’t know how to cook or many sweets, but he’s not that kind of sweet eater (besides from French patisserie) but he had to eat them in any case.
And once, in Shandong province, a Chinese region where people eat dog meat and scorpions, he received something which he just had to return. “I portrayed a mother with her five year old daughter. And when I finished, the little girl came up and handed me a plastic bottle with a live scorpion inside. It was to eat it. But I couldn’t cook it and I didn’t want to kill it, so I returned it.”
As Sergey’s relationship with food has strongly fascinated me and as I’ve never been able to conceive the idea of not personally choosing what to eat, but to delegate the choice to someone else, Sergey and I started to collaborate in bringing In Kind Exchange into restaurants, cafes, wine bars. We started in Hong Kong, setting up artistic performances of portrait painting in exchange for a lunch/dinner/coffee/glass of wine/brunch.
The exchanges were a great success and the most interesting moments of the exchanges were when restaurant owners asked us: “What do you want to eat?” But our reply was always the same: “The choice is up to you.”
Some remained surprised, some incredulous, some wanted us to taste the whole tasting menu and some others forced us to choose.
by CLAUDIA BECCATO