Who controls our access? | Tom Van Malderen

Architect and sculptor Tom Van Malderen speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his new exhibition Except For Access Only, which aims to investigate how our public spaces are becoming increasingly more private, and vice-versa

Tables for the 1%, 2018, marble, timber, box steel, paint, poster print by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art
Tables for the 1%, 2018, marble, timber, box steel, paint, poster print by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art

What led you to focus on the dynamics of public space and the dichotomy between the public and private for this exhibition?

For this show at MCA (Malta Contemporary Art), I developed a series of works that reflect upon interpretations of ‘publicness’, the creation of boundaries and other social constructs. Except For Access Only is a humorous look at human urges to be part of exclusive groups, the division between public and private, the politics of fear, island-like monocultures and normative rules for design.

Tom Van Malderen
Tom Van Malderen

The work ‘Gazebo (monument for the public-private space)’ especially questions the loss of public space. The Gazebo as a structure is quite peculiar, in the sense that throughout history it was used as either a very public or explicitly private place to meet and seek shelter. However, the distinction between the public and the private as we know it, is not that clear-cut. Public space has turned into quasi-public space under strict surveillance and increasingly into privately owned public space that is only conditionally made available to the public. What does public space actually mean to us? Especially in the wake of exploding media where private and public spheres have become so intertwined with each other.

How exactly does your architectural background inform your more “creative” work? What do you carry over from the ‘day job’ into such projects and constructions as are featured in this show?

The work shown at the exhibition is very much influenced by my endeavours in architecture. Architecture deals with sociology, anthropology, politics, science, ecology, to name a few and brings along a myriad of interesting questions to work with. My activities as an architect and sculptor are tightly connected and I enjoy the way they inform each other non-stop. I wouldn’t call one more creative than the other. They both have their own interesting dynamics and contributions. The work ‘ERNST (Neufert) I’ reflects upon the way the world of architecture (and therefore any ‘user’) has been dominated and to a certain extend stifled with normative rules for design. Departing from a specific set of normative rules, I deliberately constructed a sculpture that is not that obviously evaluated, measured, quantified or categorised.

ERNST (Neufert) I, 2018, timber, paint by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art
ERNST (Neufert) I, 2018, timber, paint by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art

The cavalier attitude to public space – both in terms of treating it with “sensitivity”, as well as its appropriation – which you appear to be drawing on for ‘Except for Access Only’, feels all too familiar. Would you say there is something particularly Maltese in this theme, and how are you inspired by your most immediate surroundings?

The exhibition title – Except for Access Only – lifted off a DIY sign that was found in the Maltese countryside – is a misconstrued phrase made up by someone who, so intent on denying access, merges ‘except for access’ and ‘access only’.

I find the phrase and this specific sign quite humorous but the actual message and reality of it is obviously graver. It is very much in line with the current rhetoric dominating world politics, emphasising exclusion, isolationism and the building of walls and fences.

On a local level, with relatively limited availability of space it translates into the appropriation or grabbing of a substantial portion of public space.

Be it through informal structures that colonise the country side, plastic tents that overtake the city streets, or PVC pop-up gazebos that privatise a section of the beach, there is definitely a lot of creative territorial kleptocracy going on.

What are some of the ways in which Malta Contemporary Art strengthens both the particularities and the message of ‘Except for Access Only’?

Having the opportunity to show work at Malta Contemporary Art, immediately provides a wider platform for my work and allows me to get out of the studio and share ideas. In that sense it definitely helps to make my endeavours more public and accessible. The work is available online 24/7 and the physical work is available to visitors from Tuesday to Friday between 13.00 and 18.00 and Saturday’s between 10.00 and 13.00.

Gazebo (monument for the public-private space), 2018, marble, timber, box steel, acrylic sheet, paint, chipboard and micro Led spots by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art
Gazebo (monument for the public-private space), 2018, marble, timber, box steel, acrylic sheet, paint, chipboard and micro Led spots by Tom Van Malderen. Courtesy of the artist and Malta Contemporary Art

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

My knowledge of the local art scene is a bit limited to give you any outspoken opinions. The scene is definitely very busy, however, not always as outspoken or as critical as I would like it to be.

Initiatives to link the local scene to overseas opportunities are essential. Be it the Arts Council, a private gallery or the Curatorial School, they are all crucial in linking us up with international curators, alternative exhibition platforms and larger audiences.

The persons I know from the local scene enjoy working locally and with ‘the local’, but find it equally essential to look beyond. It is geographically impossible to rely on the infrastructure, opportunities and audiences that are available in bigger cities and could trigger a professional status.

Hence, I would strengthen and build upon the previously mentioned initiatives and similar ones to help a greater section of the local scene in becoming full-time professional artists.

What’s next for you?

Hopefully, lots of projects and interesting collaborations. It would be fantastic to produce a larger-scale site-specific sculpture for any of the upcoming new museums and creative institutions in Malta.

I’d like to take part in more oversees exhibitions and increase collaboration with other artists and disciplines. And finally, I need to stop procrastinating and get a proper website going.

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