‘I want people to be more considerate’ | Isaac Azzopardi

In another debut solo exhibition to open this week, young artist Isaac Azzopardi investigates our relationship with the built environment. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about Hagraisland, now on display at the Malta Society of Arts

What was your main impetus for Hagraisland? Did it have to do with exploring a through-line of Maltese art and aesthetics, or was it more influenced by Malta’s natural and built environment?

I’m not an activist and if I tried, I wouldn’t make a good one. The work partially stems from a certain frustration, that I’m sure a lot of people feel, when faced with the contemporary milieu of development vis-a-vis a more romantic view of Malta. I wanted to challenge the Maltese landscape that I grew up with, that sort of 18th century British painting landscapes of idyll and quaintness and peaceful animals (that was even then in itself a reaction to urbanity). It made me feel frustrated, especially because people still think this is relevant. The Maltese landscape is far from peaceful and idyllic – it’s a dystopian field-trip of traffic, concrete right-angles and sour-faced people.

I’m all for development, if done properly; I’m pro high-rise, if implemented and designed well. While I’m frustrated at the state of affairs, this is not a protest show. It’s a sit back and think, stop and take it in show. I want people to be more considerate.

Furthermore, beyond the spatial, I’m interested in the ‘alchemy’ of the place, the semiotics of material, historical/national narrative and the perceptions of the country through all that and how it informs the image of Malta. I find that, as with everywhere else, we romanticise our country as something it increasingly is not. I try to use a romantic idea of Malta from local contemporary art, like Austin Camilleri’s Stones, to ironise this fact.

Is your interest in Maltese stone and rock formation more skewed towards an appreciation of it in its ‘natural’ state, or is the exhibition also a commentary on how overdevelopment is engulfing the islands?

It is more of commentary. I’m not interested in the rock formations or Maltese stone per se at all. I’m interested in the stories they tell.

Limestone is more than stone in our perception – its home (literally), our very institutions – cultural, political, economical, historical. The fortress as subject matter is complementing this too – the fortress is both representative of an island in functionality in that it is isolating, and is also built with the same material our island is made of. Ironically it is obsolete architecture – is its historical importance also obsolete as we are faced with progress? Politically we are re-inventing ourselves as much as we have to reinvent all the historical material (like the fortress). That’s my thinking process about this show and what I thought as I made the work.

Isaac Azzopardi
Isaac Azzopardi

What were some of your preferred mediums when tackling the works that would appear in this exhibition, and why?

I’m not overly fond of technical processes, so the work is very basic from a technical point of view. But materiality is important, because the work is built with that in mind. I am predominantly using colouring pencils, as it’s quite physically intensive and this ties in with the concept as well. Having seen works by such artists as Do ho Suh, especially his Rubbing/Loving Project, I’m very much taken by the importance of the tactile in our spatial existence or relationship with the spaces with live in.

Suh uses the accent of South Korean when pronouncing ‘Rubbing’, making it sound like ‘Loving’, and this draws an interesting parallel, that touching can be an agent of intimacy, memory, nostalgia, etc. I wanted my work to be felt when looked at, so it is peculiarly textured, just like our spaces in Malta are.

The use of the tactile is as much to elicit the nostalgic as it is to give presence to the object. An interesting thing happened when I rubbed colour over the concrete brick – it stopped being the concrete brick and became something else, and the very act of rubbing the colour became a ritual of reconciliation with this object and what it represents.

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

My relationship with it has become rather sidelined, after having jumped in it quite fervently in my early 20s. Things are always changing and mutating, and I’m speaking beyond Valletta 2018, which I think is just a marketing campaign for tourism and business interests. And it’s quite a good campaign at that, but it’s sad too because the cultural agenda wasn’t really pushed properly.

Despite this, places like Blitz exist and are very active, and Malta Contemporary Art and Valletta Contemporary have popped up which is quite exciting, given the potential they show for more opportunities – both in terms cultural exchange and for local artists.

What I detest is the lack of education, and the feeling that the art scene doesn’t feel diverse – it sort of falters beyond a certain social sphere and doesn’t quite reach out to new audiences. So hopefully sometime soon that starts to change too.

What’s next for you?

I’m sure most artists feel like me when I say I want to export my work! It sounds silly saying export, but that’s what it is. I’d love to be self-sufficient off art and it doesn’t seem like you could do that, here. Unless, of course, you absolutely manage to charm people and enjoy a certain social standing, which I certainly do not. I have plenty of ideas I’d love to get to carry out, so I am keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be lucky enough to do that!