From abstract dreams to solid structures | Norbert Attard

Architect-turned-artist Norbert Attard speaks about his currently ongoing Retrospective exhibition, charting the artist’s works from 1964 to 2014

Norbert Attard at Gozo Contemporary
Norbert Attard at Gozo Contemporary

Why did you decide to hold a retrospective?

The original intention was simply to have a studio open weekend but as always, a high degree of ambition, just as with my works and projects, turned my initial idea into a retrospective exhibition. Ideas developed and one thing followed another very fast. At one point during this development, it dawned on me that I have been a practicing artist as for as long as Malta has been and independent nation, the 50th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year.

For some reason, I thought this coincidence was worth pursuing. I made sure to include examples of works from more or less all the different creative phases, including the formative one. I displayed a small selection of works from as early as 1964, a significant year for me because I had changed schools in that year which allowed me to have my first studio at my parents’ house at Birkirkara.

Apart from showing works in transition, three main phases are exhibited: The Printing phase (1977-1988), Abstract paintings (1988-1996) and the Contemporary Art phase commencing in 1997 until the present. I basically wanted to show, under one roof, and for the very first time, my entire development as an artist, including my early influences and interest in architecture.

What did working as an architect teach you about art?

Architecture has been a contributing factor since my teenage years. It is one of the threads that links all my very different and distinct phases. I conscientiously terminated my practice as an architect in the late 1990s to work in other methods of visual expression, preferring the politics of form over those of function.

However, architectural idiosyncrasies are evident in the foundational layer of all my artworks. Architectural knowledge and experience has permitted me to produce and create in all sorts of environments, using a vast array of simple and complex materials, while retaining great consideration for that existing beyond the materiality of my pieces. The interventions in public spaces, built environments and outdoor territories are testimony to my architectural education.  

Given your experience, how would you say the Maltese art scene has evolved over the years?

Fifteen years ago (in terms of contemporary art in particular) I used to say that there was much to be desired. The contemporary art scene started in the late 90s. Events and opportunities for contemporary artists were seldom up until recent years. I believe the Malta Arts Fund has made a difference, contributing to the increase in diverse projects which can only happen with funding.

However, at the educational level, we need more support in this sector. I believe we should introduce contemporary art at schools if we want to appreciate it as grown-ups. The majority of people are stuck in the past, having no idea what contemporary art is. This can be remedied only with education starting from a young age.

I certainly think that the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018 will put us on the right road, on a par with what is already happening abroad. We should be getting our act together in spite of whether or not Malta will be Capital of Culture but we need this kind of excuse to establish the necessary infrastructures which are much needed. I hope contemporary art will be given its due.

How did Gozo influence your views on your own art? And more recently, how did alternating between Gozo and Berlin affect the way you view your work and its cultural context?

Gozo, in more ways than one, has for many years been a great haven for the creation of my works. When I rediscovered Gozo in the 70s I considered it my ‘South of France’ just like the Modernist painters who traveled to the South of France and elsewhere to find inspiration. Gozo and Berlin are on opposite sides of the scales. My works deal with the concept of dualities and paradoxes, so I needed to choose a city which contrasted to Gozo in a multitude of ways. I like living within this polarity.

What first led you to installation art, and how did your relationship with it develop?

When I see all the different phases I have gone through (this exhibition has helped me to see my own works in perspective), I often wonder why I did not start creating installations earlier. I could have done away with the abstract phase between 1988 and 1996. Even though I had great success with this phase, I stopped painting abstracts, feeling I had arrived at a cul-de-sac.

It would have made more sense to have gone from the lithographic prints (Walled Cities, Mihrab and Kimono Series) directly to doing installations but for some reason this did not happen. I wanted to express ideas which were not possible to execute with abstract works, so I had no alternative but to change direction. Abstract art was in complete contrast to what I wanted to do so maybe it had a good purpose as it led me, through my complete frustration with it, to the world of installation art.

Today, I am still comfortable working with installation art because each project is extremely different and challenging all the time. The architectural element, especially in site-specific works, the collaborative spirit and – ultimately – engaging audiences in my works are important components.

The conceptualisations of my installation works are inextricably linked to a given sites’ history and natural environment, as well as to its socio-political histories which determine the purpose and meanings of the space. I practice different disciplines and the choice of materials are endless, giving me great scope to avoid repetition, which I dislike.

What would you say is the philosophy behind Gozo Contemporary, and how will it translate to your upcoming venture – Valletta Contemporary, in East Street?

Gozo Contemporary is an artist-in-residency program I initiated in 2000. I have always believed that creating work away from one’s usual environment is one way to recreate oneself as an artist. Residencies were non-existent at the time so this was one good reason why I wanted to do this. Unfortunately, expenses run high nowadays so the only possibility to continue this program is to have a funded residency. Valletta Contemporary will be a different platform. Apart from functioning in many other ways, Valletta Contemporary is an exhibition venue for contemporary art. I want it to have strong educational programme. Valletta Contemporary will be showing works created during residencies at Gozo Contemporary, for example.

Finally, how would you describe your role as a committee member of the Pjazza Teatru Rjal? What is your vision for this new – and much publicised – venue?
As board member of Pjazza Teatru Rjal, my role is quite definite. I’m mainly responsible for the Visual Arts Program, which I devised together with my assistant Nikki Petroni. We have come up with three main schemes, one of which – the Public Art Commission Scheme – has been inaugurated recently. We commissioned Pierre Portelli to create the first installation on this site to be opened to the public for a period of six weeks. In this particular scheme, we will be commissioning five artists per year. I strongly believe that this site has all the potential for the showing of contemporary art and in time, these schemes will hopefully create a strong identity for Pjazza Teatru Rjal in terms of the visual arts.

The exhibition will be open until April 30 at Gozo Contemporary, 11, Mongur Street, Gharb, Gozo, and subsequently by appointment. To book an appointment call 79041051/21560016

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