The objects of exile | Norbert Attard

Artist Norbert Attard 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 Raphael Vella and architect Tom Van Malderen.

Norbert Attard.
Norbert Attard.

Was the work for this exhibition inspired by the brief for Hermetik, or does it echo concerns you've previously had as an artist?

I had already been working on Exile I and Exile II when I was invited to participate in Hermetik. De-Fence and Hermelock were born of and as a direct response to the curatorial statement. I found the brief or the theme of Hermetik very inspiring, as it reflected some of my previous works, including issues revolving around censorship and, chiefly, the concept of injustice, as in works like Where are you from? (2008) and Third Gender, (2011), and the sound installation Salina's Lament (2003).

Another aspect which connects some of my past works (Intelligence Series, 2010, and Wonderful Man III, 2011), with the Hermetik theme is the context, a fortress, ultimately representing war architecture and by its very nature having hermetic qualities. This inspired me to create De-Fence, consisting of a circular fence made of scaffolding material and involving one V-shaped ladder that strides between the inside and outside of the fence. Its shape was a direct reference to the perfectly round fortress (apparently the only one in Malta); and the overall geometry of this work reminds one of the simple geometric qualities of military architecture, not to mention a direct reference to the distinctive plan of this particular fortress. Hermelock, the fourth installation, consists of a series of Hermelock manhole covers laid down on the floor to form the word 'exile'. The inspiration came from the term 'hermetic seal' and from Hermes, the Olympian god, a messenger who intervened  between mortals and the divine.

Do you believe insularity to be a largely unaddressed issue within the Maltese artistic sphere? Do you hope that your work for this particular exhibition - focusing, as it does, on censorship, surveillance and borders, will...?

The Latin word insula means 'island', so automatically all islands suffer from some kind of insularity. If you refer to Malta's tourism or the economy, then one can say that we (the Maltese) have been open enough in this regard, most especially since we joined the European Union. I believe however that we are still insular in our attitudes, namely that in many ways we do not look outwards (away from Malta) but mostly inwards. This is true of most local artists. While most Maltese artists are happy to exhibit only locally, some others wish to participate more in international events, but unfortunately find it difficult to realise their ideas or projects abroad.

READ MORE: Raphael Vella on Hermetik

Both Exile I and Exile II, using bread toasters, books, typewriters and oil barrels as stands, are contemplations on the situation of exiled people, their lack of communication, the censorship of their life's work. Many have been banished, but some have left their native countries of their own accord. Oddly enough, the experience has been a stimulus for some of literature's finest work.

Would you say that opting to use mostly found materials puts you in touch with the overall ethos of Hermetik, in the sense that it's taking place in a venue that remains in 'rough shape' and that hasn't been open to the public?

When the British forces left Malta in 1979, the military barracks - including the fort which was built by the Knights in 1792 - fell into disrepair and neglect. Until recently it was a derelict ruin. It has recently been restored as part of the redevelopment project. The fact that Fort Tigne has been given a second life in some way connects me with the idea of how used, discarded materials and objects are brought to life again as art.

I have always thought found objects intriguing because the found object in art, from the start, has been a subject of polarised debate. Even today it is still misunderstood and not readily accepted by the general public. The French objet trouvé ('ready-made') was coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915. Ready-mades are often perceived as having a non-art function, which is why they are not normally considered art. The meaning is altered when ready-mades (whether or not modified in any way) are exhibited in a different context. This is what makes their use so strong and meaningful.

All four installations in this exhibition were created with found objects. I have for a long time felt a strong need to use ready-made objects, firstly because I am interested in dealing with or expressing real-life situations and issues in my art and a ready-made object is the nearest thing to real life. We live in a world of commodities, and I think that all things and objects are ultimately commodities. The object can alter or heighten its meaning because it's placed in a different context, but more importantly it allows us to perceive commodities as they really are.

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