Artist Gabriel Buttigieg examines the human condition through classical mythology in latest exhibition

LAURA CALLEJA speaks to Gabriel Buttigieg on his most ambitious exhibition to date, ‘fabricATE,’ where he uses classical mythology and lore to examine human nature

This is your largest exhibition to date. Can you talk us through the preparation for doing an exhibition on this scale?

It’s been surreal. Long before I staged ‘Narratives for Postmodern Love’ at the Splendid last December, I knew that the Spazju Kreattiv exhibition at the end of April would be one of the most prestigious in my life and I simply had to do it justice. So as soon as I wrapped up ‘Postmodern Love’, I plunged into the preparations for fabricATE. I admit there were some moments during these past four months when I feared this huge challenge would end in failure. The process leading up to a new exhibition needs the development of a fresh idea. I needed to present something new both as regards concept and execution. There’d be no point to an exhibition if I don’t take the viewer by surprise, if it lacked an element of risk or broke new ground.

I was terrified that I might fall back on what I’d done before. Also, I felt compelled to do something different from ‘Postmodern Love’. My career so far has oscillated between, on the one hand, the raw, bold, uninhibited sensuousness and violence which disturbed quite a few people last December, and on the other hand, a more harmonious, aesthetically sensitive, refined and nuanced approach. I go back and forth between these two modes. For fabricATE, I inhabit the second mode. It is a reaction to ‘Postmodern Love’ as well as a restless need for constant change and development. Anyway, to be concise, these have been four hellish months. I’ve worked morning, day and night, and from night till morning, but I did it in the end.

Artist Gabriel Buttigieg
Artist Gabriel Buttigieg

What inspiration did you draw for this exhibition?

The sources were various. I mined the darkest, most visceral tales in Classical mythology and lore and used them as vehicles for my view of human nature. I’ve always found mythology to be unequalled in the way it gives shape to passions and instincts that elude the reach of reason. For example, fathers devour their offspring; they are so terrified of being usurped by their own children that they cannibalise them. And those who threaten the power of the gods or frustrate their wishes are subjected to painful and humiliating metamorphoses or condemned to repeat an action for all eternity. Or think of the monstrous depictions of women like Circe, Lamia and Medea. They rejected the expectation that women should be nurturers, good wives and mothers. Transgression and its price have always intrigued me.

What do you hope to achieve through this exhibition?

fabricATE is about how we have told these stories from mythology over and over again, how other painters and writers have revisited these stories and thrown light on different aspects, each artist adding another layer, throwing light on another facet of the original story. And it is now my turn to pay tribute to those narratives and those artists before me. I wanted layer over layer of colour and light overlie the ancient story to cover it and yet let it shimmer through. But beyond the paintings, this is my first multimedia exhibition. There are two large-scale sculptures, important protagonists who counterbalance the paintings. This is all enhanced with the soundscape, and the agitation and edginess it suggests is mirrored in the video projection. A few years back, I realised I’m no longer interested in painting several works and just hanging them in any space that happens to be available. This is unfortunately a notion that persists in the minds of some artists and curators in Malta. On the contrary, I think all artworks should be a response to the space they are in.

They should be created specifically for that space. Every element in an exhibition should be aligned with the overarching concept behind the exhibition. I believe I achieved this with fabricATE. It includes contrasting elements, of course, but they too are deliberate and there for a purpose. Hats off to curator Lisa Gwen who insisted on this holistic approach with all her heart and soul. In fact, I must thank her for the role she played in how this exhibition came to be. I must also thank the other talented and passionate people involved who added their own layers to fabricATE: Christopher Chetcuti for his guidance in the making of the sculptures, to Andrea Mugliett for the soundscape that accompanies the exhibition, to Matthew Mercieca for editing the video of ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ and to Camilleri Paris Mode, who provided the fabrics on which the works are painted.

During the process of putting this exhibition together, did anything surprise you?

Yes, I’d never have thought myself capable of working under that kind of white-hot pressure. I’d always considered excessive stress as an impediment. Now I recognise that it pushed me to outdo myself. I wanted my work to be worthy of the space and of the opportunity Spazju Kreattiv were giving me. People had placed their faith in me, and I couldn’t let them down. Just remember, we’re in the midst of the Malta Biennale and the people at Spazju Kreattiv gave over this grand hall to me.

Is this exhibition meant to be consumed in a linear narrative? Is there a starting point when people walk into the gallery, or are they free to walk around see which pieces they are attracted to?

No, not really. Human nature isn’t linear, and my mind doesn’t work in a linear manner either. As I was trying to say, I go back and forth, inhabiting one version of myself and then another. There are so many facets, nuances, undercurrents and crosscurrents in any attempt at depicting the human psyche. I’d rather people took a more organic and holistic approach. I invite those visiting the exhibition to roam around as whim takes them, to tap into their intuition and give themselves over to the sensory and emotional experience.

Do you have a favourite piece from the exhibition, or rather, a piece that stands out to you?

No, I have no favourites. Each piece is there because it felt necessary to me. All the works are there for a reason; they all serve the core concept. However, I’m really looking forward to exploring the sculptural element of this exhibition, which I’m including for the first time. People have been commenting for years on the sculptural element in my art, the way I render the human figure, my fascination with larger-than-life canvases. I’d like to understand the motives behind this. But no, there’s no work I like more than any other.

Anything else you'd like to add?

As I said before, it’s a multimedia exhibition which it wouldn’t have been without the involvement of other people. I’d like to thank Matthew Mercieca for editing clips from the film 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'. There is also a soundscape which my cousin Andrea Mugliett created for me to evoke the specific atmosphere we felt complemented the works. The sculptures are larger than life-size, and this wouldn’t have possible if it hadn’t been for Christopher Chetcuti, who recommended the right materials to use, and who placed the tools, material and space at his foundry at my disposal. Finally, it was my curator, Lisa Gwen, always so insightful in her reading of my art, who suggested that I include another layer by working on fabric, kindly sponsored by Camilleri Paris Mode. Christine Amaira was in charge of PR, and Andre Gialanze took all the photos. Above all, I must thank Spazju Kreattiv and its director, Daniel Azzopardi, who approached me about this project. They sponsored this exhibition right in the middle of the Malta Biennale, so I am extremely grateful for their belief in me.

The exhibition will remain open till the 23rd of June, Tuesday - Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday - Sunday 10am-9pm at Spazju Kreattiv.