Art is serious business | Darren Tanti

We speak to artist Darren Tanti about his participation in ‘Selfie’ – an exhibition of self-portraits by a healthy number of contemporary Maltese artists at Studio 104, Valletta.

Detail from Tanti’s contribution to the ‘Selfie’ exhibition
Detail from Tanti’s contribution to the ‘Selfie’ exhibition

How would you describe the ‘brief’ of this particular exhibition, and how did you go about interpreting it?

The ‘brief’ was quite simple – basically an invitation for artists to exhibit self-portraits with a view to commenting on the pervasive culture of ‘selfies’ – what was particularly interesting of this exhibition was that none of the artists knew who the other participants were going to be.

In my case I wanted to avoid the traditional concept of the self-portrait or the contemporary mobile phone camera selfie (perhaps with a messy bathroom as a background) that we are constantly exposed to ad nauseum in social media.

Indeed the ‘selfie’ says a lot about an individual; it speaks about his/her aesthetics and the way he/she wants to present himself/herself to the ‘public’, it keeps a record of the places that one has been to and the people one frequents; it can be a cry for attention, a means to expose oneself or else an occassion to create a fictitious person.

I opted to portray myself by ‘censoring’ my physical face and use other cues to speak about myself (that can be totally different from what others think about me).

Apart from painting a contemporary piece I wanted to make reference to the long history of self-portraiture that has been around for quite a long time; the ‘selfie’ is not a recent phenomenon at all, many artists painted high-resolution ‘selfies’ long before the advent of the camera. At the same time I also wished to tackle the philosophical issues of simulation and simulacrum, which are particularly relevant to the ongoing fragmentation of reality into hyper-reality and digital space.   

What kind of work will you be exhibiting as part of the show?

I will be presenting an oil painting. Instead of going for full life-size dimensions, as I usually do, this time I opted for a smaller canvas, a 70cmx50cm painting. Smaller paintings tend to draw people in and this is what I wish to achieve; I wish the audience to get closer to the canvas and to get a ‘closer’ look at me. They won’t be seeing my face but they will encounter another face from a different epoch that has a lot to say. I urge the audience to look closely at that face, to analyse the obvious, to discover the title of the painting and to read about the individual represented in it.

What do you make of Studio 104 as a space, and what does it offer that other – perhaps more prominent – galleries do?

If I have to describe Studio 104 in two words I would say that is an intimate space. I think that the gallery lends itself perfectly to contemporary art that seeks proximity to the visitor.

It is not a large hall in which a viewer might get distracted by loads of visuals happening at once; on the contrary it is a place that leads to focus. What is also particular to the place is the beautiful print press at the end of the gallery; apart from being a well-maintained piece of machinery, it is also fully functional. The management is very welcoming and are open to dialogue with artists and visitors.

How has your style developed over the years, and what have been some of the most important things you’ve learnt? 

For an artist it is essential to keep research and development as their main goals in his or her artistic carrier. I believe that artists cannot afford to feel too comfortable with their results because it will lead to laziness and sterility. Art is serious business, and needs to be regarded as so, especially by the ones who practice it.

We have departed from the Hollywood depiction of the eccentric/emotional/a bit crazy artist, and we are looking at the artist as a relevant individual that has talent to offer across the whole spectrum of society. These are some important things I have learnt during the years.

A development that can be immediately highlighted in my art is the introduction of the digital. This development can be divided in two different aspects, there is the thematic aspect and the technical aspect, both of which have to synchronise perfectly together.

What, in your opinion, are some of the most pressing concerns of the visual arts scene in Malta, especially now in the run-up to V18?

There is a lot to say in this regard. Everyone knows that positive things have been implemented, and remain to be implemented. But I am positive that the art community, together with the general public and the authorities involved are willing to boost the visual arts scene in our islands... maybe all we really need is to raise more curiosity in our public and to look for more input from the private sector in the arts scene.

I would like to highlight one specific area of development that we really need to address – art spaces for artists – art colonies! This summer I was extremely fortunate to be a resident artist at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in the US, thanks to Agenzija Zghazagh and St James Cavalier (Divergent Thinkers II).

In there I was given two great gifts – time and space. Art residencies are places in which artists are given studios in which to work and time to think, reflect and create. Creativity demands a lot of effort and concentration – forget the Eureka moments that materialise from nothingness – behind every Eureka there are innumerable hours of work and hardship. Everyone who is in touch with the Maltese art scene is aware that many artists have to struggle for their studio space.

Many times the lack of space results into unwanted alterations to the artworks, in others ideas remain ideas (because there is no space for them to materialise in) and others result in frustration and demotivation. In the US artists fight the same problems, every inch of space costs thousands of dollars (especially in the large cities) but they have the opportunity to apply for vacant studios for an amount of time and spend it developing their projects.

The greatest thing of all is that artists get to meet other artists, share ideas, discuss, create projects together and attract new talents into their respective communities.

In my humble opinion, I think that investing in our local talents, giving them space in which to develop, exhibit and generate wealth, and attracting foreign talents to work and collaborate with – exporting and importing knowledge, ideas and market – is something that we really need to take into serious consideration.

Selfie will be open until October 25. Opening hours at Studio 104 are 11:00 to 17:00 from Tuesday to Friday and 11:00 to 14:00 on Saturday.

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