Don’t fear the future | Patrick Fenech

While his work hangs at Nord Art, a prestigious annual exhibition of international contemporary art in Büdelsdorf, Germany, photographer Patrick Fenech tells us that the digital revolution is nothing to be afraid of.

Patrick Fenech.
Patrick Fenech.

Patrick Fenech seems to have the inventory of a seasoned professional artist very much in place. As most contemporary artists within any genre would have to these days - for better or for worse - Fenech has his fingers in many pies, while sustaining a rich series of networks and regular contacts and weathering potential setbacks with an unbridled optimism.

The ostensible reason for our meeting a couple of weeks ago seems to bear testament to this resourcefulness, as Fenech's work is currently on display in Germany - specifically, forming part of Nord Art, an annual exhibition of contemporary international art from across the globe.

"My interest will always revolve around the Mediterranean basin, and the selection of photographs for this event will certainly reflect that," Fenech says of the four large photography composites dealing with the 'Dying Sea' from his 'Shroud for the Sea' series - which will serve to represent Malta for the very first time at Nord Art.

"The theme of the sea will always be at the back of my mind. Whether it's something specific and local, or to do with myth - Ulysses, or the sirens - it's an inexhaustible theme that I'll keep returning to."

This 'theme that keeps on giving', by virtue of being so universal, has also inspired Fenech to venture beyond the realm of photography. As part of an upcoming project, Fenech will be involving a group of migrants in a performance art piece.

 "The fact is that in many ways, irregular migration is modern-day slavery - in the sense that these individuals are shipped from one country to another under precarious conditions and circumstances, and even those who succeed in leaving Malta for more economically prosperous countries tend to find it very difficult to integrate..."

For this reason, Fenech intends to employ the historical image of the 'slave ship', bringing the migrants - quite literally - on board to encourage dialogue with the past.

"It will be a headache to coordinate, from a logistical standpoint," Fenech confesses, referring to the fact that by their very nature, irregular migrants can't always be relied on to be on the island for extended periods of time. But his vision for the outcome - if all goes according to plan - is quite vivid.

"My idea is to play with classic tropes, like the Roman ships we're familiar with from things like Ben Hur. And with research I've looked into from Jamaica, I'd like to replicate how the slaves would be positioned on this ship so as to then allow them to 'create' a performance art piece using their own bodies..."

This is, of course, one of those long-haul prestige projects, one that requires long-term planning and dedication and that can't be done in a rush, especially given how most local artists need a primary source of income in order to stay alive - and to keep creating.

"My bread and butter are publications - that is, photography work for local books. I'm also on the board of the Creative Foundation at St James Cavalier, emphasising visual arts; and I teach part-time at the University of Malta..."

It's no surprise that he refers to this roll call of responsibilities as a "juggling act".

"Sometimes you manage to balance things out, sometimes you don't. In fact I'm seriously considering going into education full time."

One reason he cites for this is the simple fact that "everyone is a photographer nowadays", given the ease afforded by new technologies. But he's also keen to ensure that young photographers are made aware of the intricacies of the art form and its full potential.

"I remember the days when the phone wouldn't stop ringing - because being a photographer meant that you tended to be seen as something of a specialist. Nowadays that is not the case, and it's a challenge for young people. But the advantage they have is that, thanks to the internet, they can take their work abroad almost instantly. If you're hard working and talented, you can really go places."