Vacuum sealed but ready to be unveiled | Raphael Vella

Artist Raphael Vella speaks to us about his participation in HERMETIK, a collective exhibition to be held at Fort Tigne, Sliema – where he will exhibit alongside fellow artist Norbert Attard and architect Tom van Maldaren.

Raphael Vella.
Raphael Vella.

When considering the overall scope of Hermetik, what led you to opt for 'Arcadia' and 'Utopia' as your themes?

Hermetik is about self-protection from an external source of danger - this is also the whole point of a military building like Fort Tigne. In spite of this, it didn't really work against the French. Today, more than ever, this bunker mentality is useless.

We experience this uselessness in a novel by German author W.G Sebald called 'Austerlitz', where an architectural historian's ruminations on old fortifications around Antwerp show how the continual expansion of military defenses in the past often proved to be completely ineffectual against the enemy, and the same buildings were eventually transformed from places that were intended to keep people out into places that were used to keep people in (Gestapo torture chambers).

The idea that the enemy is something outside our individual bodies interests me, and this is what led me to deal with utopian ideals in a place that would appear to equate utopia with freedom from whatever is 'out there' or just different. 

'Arcadia' is supposedly about humanity's existence in harmony with nature; in fact, Arcadian scenes in the history of painting typically include shepherds, streams, trees, classical temples atop mountains of hills, and so on.

In my work, however, this 'happy' scene is drawn on a massive sheet of paper that is actually made from all the pages of a scientific manual on human parasitology, complete with medical illustrations.

These 'parasites in paradise' remind us that the enemy is always already within; each one of us is inhabited by enemies that no fortifications can keep out.

The 'Utopia' drawing, on the other hand, is an architectural pastiche that combines elements from the work of architects as diverse as Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, Le Corbusier, and Albert Speer, the infamous architect of the Third Reich.

This large architectural master-plan is drawn on fading pages from an old Royal Army manual on the prevention of disease amongst soldiers.  The book was specifically written for senior officers and is consequently about the use of power to control others' bodies, which, paradoxically, is what Utopian architecture is ultimately about too.

What kind of dimension would you say the venue itself adds to the overall experience of the exhibition, particularly how it relates to your own work?

It definitely adds an overwhelming sense of space - in a space like this, an artist needs to work with, and not against, the vaulted ceilings, massive walls, narrow windows, that sense of history. It's inevitable that the stone walls in particular become part of the work.

I visited the place many times and made loads of drawings before I decided how to welcome the architecture into my work, or perhaps, how to make my work inhabit its space happily.

I played with perspective; I included details such as small openings in the walls in the general concept of the work; the drawings echo arches that are there on site.

The size of the drawings is also huge: the Utopia drawing, for instance, is two and a half metres high. Other pieces of 'furniture' will be installed in the rooms to interact with the spatial environment. At the same time, the work is autonomous, to the extent that it can exist elsewhere and can be shown in a white gallery too.

Do you think that insularity is a 'Maltese problem' that hasn't been adequately addressed by local artists yet?

To a certain extent, yes. So many young, Maltese artists are still fascinated by Catholicism, for instance. Many artists are or were drawn to Catholic imagery at some point in their careers, and this fact is in itself fascinating because religion is not something that will generally help you make lots of powerful friends in the international art world, even if your work is anti-clerical.

Personally, I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the subject over the last few years; what has remained is my interest in power, especially the power of texts over people's minds.

At the same time, I should add that young artists in Malta are clearly reaching artistic maturity much faster than they did in the 1980s or 1990s, so curating exhibitions here is becoming more exciting as time passes.

HERMETIK will be open between October 12 and 13 and October 18-20 from 10:00 to 18:00. The exhibition, which is curated by Micheal Bock, will be inaugurated on October 11 at 17:00. HERMETIK is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and MIDI plc.  

John Mifsud
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