'The language of the contemporary artist has to be global'

An exhibition in Romania – I Fought The X, which opened on Saturday – features the work of four local artists: Adrian Scicluna, Austin Camilleri, Vince Briffa (and co-curator) Raphael Vella. Boasting over 20 artists from various countries, the show proposes different situations in which one is faced by antagonistic forces and defeat or failure. Teodor Reljic speaks to Vella about the exhibition, which will move to the the National Museum of Fine Arts in mid-July.

How was the Maltese connection to the initiative first forged, given that it’s both co-organised and curated by Maltese artists?

The idea of an international exhibition in two art museums based in two countries (Romania, Malta) came to the Greek artist Dionisis Christofilogiannis and the young Maltese artist Adrian Scicluna, and I was roped in as artist-curator soon afterwards. 

Along the way, we also decided to include other works by Maltese artists, and we now have four works by Maltese artists in the exhibition: Adrian’s, Vince Briffa’s, Austin Camilleri’s and my own. We also have close to twenty other international artists, many of whom have shown their work in prestigious Biennales and locations, from New York to Hong Kong and many places all over Europe.

Is the theme of the exhibition tied in to the revolutionary happenings in Northern Africa? Does an international element help to create a more comprehensive way to tackle the theme, and how in what particular way do the Maltese artists contribute, in this regard?

The theme was conceived well before the current conflicts in Northern Africa and the Middle East began.  The idea of ‘I Fought the X and the X Won’ came from the title of a song called ‘I Fought the Law’ that has been sung by many different bands, including The Clash.  We decided to leave the referent in the title ambiguous (hence ‘X’) to allow different artists to approach it from different perspectives, and we do have a handful of pieces that subtly reference recent political struggles.

However, the title doesn’t necessarily refer to war and violence, because it is quite possible to interpret it in a more oblique, even positive, way: for instance, if you say that you tried to ‘fight’ love but love won at the end.

I would say that the majority of the works in the exhibition do not deal with very specific historical and cultural scenarios that can be linked back directly to the artist’s own country of origin. I think it’s impossible to function artistically in some sort of closed system. Even the Maltese works in this show do not remind the viewer of Malta in a direct way.

This does not mean that contemporary art is homogeneous, like when we say that the taste of a hamburger in a popular fast food chain remains the same whether you are in Tokyo or in New York. We all have different experiences of the “global” and these variegated experiences produce fluid spaces that are being transformed and shifted all the time.  When we say that the language which contemporary artists speak is global, we are not saying that all artists speak the same Esperanto.

Could you give me a description of all the local artists, and the work they will be presenting?

Austin Camilleri is showing a series of small, hooded busts in plaster of Paris that he produced specifically for the exhibition. Vince Briffa is presenting a video showing athletes in their old age, struggling against the effects of time. Adrian Scicluna fuses the “fictional” locations of cyberspace and the real world in a couple of photographs. I am showing large drawings of two beheadings, that of a man and another of a pig.

Will the exhibition travel to Malta wholesale in summer (as in, with all the international artists in tow)? Do you foresee that a local context might alter the feel of the exhibition in any way?

The exhibition will travel to the National Museum of Fine Art in Valletta in mid-July, and some of the international artists plan to be here for the opening. The works that we will show in Malta will be the same ones the public can see in the catalogue, which we published with the support of the Malta Arts Fund. There may be some minor changes, dictated by spatial considerations, but the Valletta exhibition will be largely the same one that is being shown at the museum in Cluj-Napoca in Romania.  

Does ‘exporting’ Maltese artists in this way raise the profile of the local art scene significantly do you think? Or can artists only really contribute on an individual capacity? Do you think that, with more initiatives like these, local artists will be more motivated to improve their work and contribute towards a more rich, vibrant local scene, in the long run?  

If the language of the contemporary artist has now become more global, this also implies that now more than ever, artists cannot afford to have roots that are static and entrenched in a specific socio-cultural context. More so in the case of those artists who are born and brought up in small states like Malta.

I think that a number of young and mid-career Maltese artists are already contributing to a relatively vibrant and growing cultural scene in Malta and even beyond, but some of the conditions in which we function work against this development.  

For instance, the rather parochial standards of some art criticism in local papers actually hinder the internationalization of the Maltese artist, even though it is meant to mediate between the artist and the wider social spheres. A strong public for the arts is not forged very easily in places like Malta and is actually a rather fragile ecosystem.  Take the organization called Malta Contemporary Art (MCA), until recently housed at St James Cavalier, but is now homeless unfortunately.

Whether you like what MCA has been showing or not, one cannot deny that it has an “identity” which not only struck a chord with international artists who have exhibited there but also helped to build a local micro-community of a few hundred Maltese and non-Maltese people who regularly met, enjoyed and discussed art, and drank a few beers there, together. 

In a way, these people “belonged” there, and Maltese artists who exhibited there were automatically associated with an artistic language that is spoken internationally.

Other local cultural centres or galleries cannot create such a sense of belonging or an identity if they show contemporary art in November and nativity cribs in December. And without a robust and conceptually rigorous artistic identity in Malta, it becomes much harder for Maltese artists to be taken seriously in the international circuits.