Barış Kabalak on the line between love and madness

Léa Rose Emery
July 16, 2022
Lost in Love #16, by Barış Kabalak.

Barış Varujan Kabalak found himself compelled to tell the stories that lived so vividly in his mind. The Istanbul artist speaks to Léa Rose Emery about storytelling, NFTs, and connecting with audiences through a single click.

Surreal, distinct, and expressive, Barış Varujan Kabalak’s style is mercurial, just as effective at exploring haunting emotional depth as it is at capturing intoxicating joy. His impressive series of NFT collections is no small feat for someone who only turned to the visual arts a few years ago, when he realised he needed to find a medium for his storytelling instincts.

“Five years ago I started thinking of ways to create art,” he explains. “I always had stories I wanted to tell, especially before I went to sleep — I thought about these stories, and lived in them.” But eventually, living and dreaming in these stories was “not enough”, and he felt compelled to create. 

To anyone familiar with his work, that Barış’ inspiration came from the hinterland between sleeping and dreaming, day and night, will be no surprise. His images are often ethereal and take a cloudlike form, and he uses these deceptively soft and malleable shapes to explore everything from the most exuberant, universal experiences, to deep-rooted fears and even the grotesque. At first glance, the striking, textured imagery comes across as a playful exploration of light and dark, border and shadow, but the layering and detail reveal the potential of the medium to go further and take on a diverse range of emotional, impactful subjects.  

Lost in Love #21, by Barış Kabalak.

One of his most recent collections, Lost in Loves, plays with the volatility and pliant quality of both the cloud-like images and the subject matter. “Clouds symbolise uncertainties in our love life,” he says. In this collection, the traditionally romantic shapes are underpinned with something more complex. Fittingly, Barış gave the collection the tagline: You call it madness, but I call it love. 

“Roland Barthes defines love as a romantic solution to the problem of death — and my collection is mainly about that,” Barış explains. “Losing yourself in love, fading into love. Losing your sense of the world and surroundings. Love means an escape from reality to me, actually. The people we love transform into gods or goddesses and we want them to save us from reality. And we lose our own sense of reality because we created a whole new, deep perception of ourselves. We become a completely different person, we begin to see and perceive things differently.” 

Barış’ interests run far broader than the heady manifestations of love. With wispy canvases and shapes emblematic of all his collections, his series Lost in Feeling is much the same, but different, boldened by sparkling, electric colours. It’s night time, and we’re gazing upon dreams: nebulae of faces, regrets, and memories; you never want to let go of those memories, Barış tells us, no matter how much suffering you go through. The zooming effect used in Barış’ work underlies a relentless sense of exploration, of excitement — but also the more difficult, unsettling sides to his subject matter, the other side of the same coin. 

This darker side is fully realised in the 7 Deadly Sins AI collection, where Barış’ striking style and unique eye unpick familiar topics in a new way. A synthesis of his own work and an AI trained on “important sentences about the seven deadly sins” in Christianity, the result is surreal and evocative. While the wispy, feathery technique is still undeniably his own, this work is grittier and more grounded. It winks at traditional portraits and compositions, but combines the classic outlay with an entirely new technique. He makes sure to point out this was a “collaborative” effort with another friend, in addition to the computer, to create a series that “bears traces of both of our ideas”. 

Ego #3, by Barış Kabalak.

Much of Barış’ work deals with innate human experience — whether that’s love, feeling, or sin. His most recent collection, Lost in Anxiety, focuses on mental health and the battle to stay in control of your own thoughts. For him, examining these foundational emotions in the digital space was a natural fit. First and foremost a storyteller, he knew what he wanted to scrutinise, what he wanted to evoke. He just needed to find the right medium. 

“I wanted to visually create the stories I liked to tell, and I discovered that the digital environment was the most suitable area for me,” he says. Five years ago he began experimenting in the medium, but for the past two years he has been consistently creating. By enabling artist attribution, credit, and exclusivity, NFTs were perhaps the only way to bring his universal themes to his audience. 

And this prolific artist shows no sign of slowing down. He’s continuing to grapple with some of the most intrinsic human struggles; next, Barış plans on exploring loneliness. Reflecting on web3, Barış explains “it definitely had a huge impact in terms of visibility. No matter how many works you have created, it was very difficult to reach large audiences before. But now even the farthest person can reach you with a single click.”

“The people we love transform into gods or goddesses and we want them to save us from reality.” 

— Barış Kabalak

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Léa Rose Emery
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Léa is an American writer, editor, broadcaster, and presenter based in London. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Huffington Post, WhatWeSeee, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Teen Vogue, and The Daily Dot. She is working on her first book.

Collaborators and honourable contributors: @bariskabalak