The rest is secondary | Matthew Schembri

Up-and-coming artist and writer Matthew Schembri speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his first solo exhibition, WiN, for which he draws on the raw memories of his recently deceased mother to create an immersive space that reflects on mourning and memory

Could you tell us a little bit about your background in the arts?

I studied Fine Arts and Maltese at the University of Malta as part of the B.Ed (Hons.) course between 2011 and 2015. In these four years, I experimented with a plethora of artistic media, while writing poems and short stories in Maltese, some of which were published in Leħen il-Malti and Taħżiż publications. At heart, I always felt that I am more of a writer rather than a visual artist.

However, in 2015 I decided to participate in the fourth edition of the annual art competition, Divergent Thinkers 04 with my installation piece entitled Social Kitchen, which eventually won first prize. While taking part in a number of collective exhibitions, such as Frammenti (2015); Of Spatial Concerns (2016); In Transit (2017); Extant (2017) and Human Matter (2018), I continued my studies through the Masters of Fine Arts in Digital Arts (MFA, Melit.; 2017-2018). I also attended a very fruitful six-week art residency at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts in 2016 and another one in 2017 at the Malta School of Art for a duration of two weeks. In addition to Malta, some of my artworks were showcased in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and the USA.

After winning the Konkors ta’ Kitba Letteratura għaż-Żgħażagħ 2016 with my manuscript Stessi, my childhood dream finally came true to work with the amazing team of Merlin Publishers. My debut novel is going to be published in the coming months of 2018.

What are some of your key preoccupations when it comes to what you’ve been creating?

Over the years, there was a move in my creative interests from the so-called traditional media (drawing, painting, photography) to more contemporary ones (mixed media, installation, digital art, performance art). This does not mean that I do not still make use of so-called traditional media at some point in my current artistic practice. All of my recent art projects are conceptually-driven, where all factors are subservient to the main concept.

I am very much interested in challenging traditions by creating art that may be seen as non-art, anti-art or some kind of a hybrid that cannot easily be pigeonholed under one established artistic field. Furthermore, I also intend to produce work that alters roles usually assigned to art creators and art audiences. Aspects such as interactivity, participation, and relations are at the core of my latest art projects, where the spectator is active and, most of the time even becomes the artist.

Appropriation from daily life, contemporary issues and popular culture act as catalysts in achieving what I have in mind in my creative process. At the end of the day, I am an observer. I observe what people are doing, what they are talking about, what they are interested in, especially at the moment. Ultimately, that is what inspires me. For example, I rarely take selfies (in fact, I do not remember the last time I did) but the theme interests me because selfies became something vital for many individuals.

How would you say your previous work has led to the kind of work showcased in this exhibition?

My point of departure for every new project is that of creating something that is the total opposite of what I have done before. I do not like being repetitive and the thought that I am going to work on something “different” drives my interest further. Yet, there are always traces of similarities from previous works that continue to show up in my artistic creations.

‘WiN’ is a great case in point. It diverges from my past works in that it does not deal with “them”, “them” meaning society in general and its current preoccupations, but much more with the “me” and my heritage. It delves into a very private, intimate experience: the life and death of my mother, Rose Schembri (1958-2015) and my relationship with her. This is what makes it very different from past creations because I have never artistically dealt with the interpersonal, at least in such a direct way.

However, the concept of the lottery is an aspect taken from popular culture that strongly shares the idea of widespread participation and relational aesthetics. The act of offering my late mother’s personal belongings as prizes covered in gold serves as a way for me to further heal and move on, while by participating, the public will give the items a new life, generating new synergies and stories. Moreover, this experience is presented through the practices of mixed media and installation – both very familiar to my artistic process.

WiN clearly emerges from a very personal fount of bereavement. What led you to process these very powerful emotions in this particular way?

Yes, one can say that this exhibition was truly an inner, soul-searching journey. My mother was diagnosed with terminal, stage IV bone cancer in September of 2015, after six years cancer-free from a breast cancer she had in 2009. Throughout these years, I took care of her and the thing that hurt the most was seeing her suffer like that. Losing her hair (twice) was extremely traumatic because it was the most important thing in the world for her – this is why photographs of her real hair are predominant in the design of ‘WiN’.

She eventually passed away during my Masters’ course and my first reaction was to hide or not include this experience into my visual practice. I tried my best to push it at the back of my mind and say that I am going to deal with it later. In fact, ‘WiN’ is the exhibition that I never wanted to do. This is because, as you can imagine, as much as it was an exercise of healing, it was painful beyond words to revisit the experience – not only for me but also for my family. I had many ideas for this exhibition, but at the end of the day, this was something inevitable and only a question of time. There is no convenient timing to face such a loss in artistic terms. You just have to.

I have always been inspired by artists who give their all to make their art and who are fearless in achieving their artistic vision, like Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abramović, and Lady Gaga – just to name a few. A point that is vital for me is that I do not compromise artistic ideas for anything. Art must always remain at the forefront – the rest is secondary. You have to remain very true to your creativity. I am not afraid to face any consequences – emotional, physical, economic or otherwise – if I truly believe in what I want to achieve. Of course, you have to pay a price (or many prices, in fact) for this, like in this exhibition.

After coming across the works of artists dealing with the theme of mortality, such as Félix González-Torres, Sophie Calle, and Bill Viola, I started a research journal about all of this. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1981), especially the second part of the book, was a pivotal work that helped me a lot through that time. Barthes’ journey in the book – personal, literary and philosophical – was almost an exact reflection of what I was going through. I still have this journal, of course, and it shows a change from a state where I was conscious and waiting – in various degrees and ways – for my mother’s passing, the death itself and then the grieving process such an experience brings with it. Eventually, it resulted in a vast body of work and I think that in it lies the genesis of ‘WiN’.

Another reason why I chose to go in this direction with this exhibition was the fact that due to the severity of her illness, my mother could not leave hospital to attend both the opening and the winner’s ceremony of Divergent Thinkers 04. Thus, my first solo exhibition is not only dedicated to her, but she is the exhibition. Mostly, in the latter part of the artistic development of ‘WiN’, ‘The Lottery’, a short story by Shirley Jackson, had a great influence on me. In this exhibition, spectators are encouraged to try to open with keys the fifty-seven (57) wooden boxes presented in the space, each holding an item that belonged to her. After I carefully selected each object, I covered them with gold leaf, to point out their metaphoric preciousness. The number fifty-seven (57) is significant, echoing my mother’s age when she passed away.

What is it about your intensely personal experience that you would like to communicate to the visitors in the exhibition? In other words, what do you hope they will get out of it?

It is understandable that relatives or people close to our family and strangers are going to experience the exhibition very differently. At least, I assume as much. Art is subjective and I wish to let everyone experience the exhibition in his or her own way – no matter how much it differs from my personal artistic vision. Some people may feel very emotional about what I am doing while others may want only to win something covered in real gold. Both are fine with me. The audience’s interpretation is much more important than mine.

How do you feel to form part of VIVA, and how would you describe its overall contribution to the Maltese visual arts scene?

I feel honoured and blessed that ‘WiN’ was chosen to be part of the fourth edition of the ‘Valletta International Visual Arts Festival 2018 (VIVA)’. Even more so since this year is such an important one for Malta with regards to culture. VIVA has become instrumental in the arts in providing a platform and a boost to artists like me and, most importantly, further exposure to their work. I wish to thank Fondazzjoni Kreattività and all collaborators involved in VIVA 2018 that saw enough potential in ‘WiN’ to include it in their programme of events. This makes me much more confident that the artistic work is of value, at least to some degree.

And speaking of the Maltese visual arts scene... what do you make of it, and what would you change about it?

There are so many diverse artistic activities going on that unfortunately, it is quite impossible to follow them all. However, it is not the quantity but the artistic quality of these events that truly matters. Many local artists and their work inspire me as much as foreign artists, but I’d rather not mention any names because I’m worried about leaving anybody out. I really like to follow what is going on and read a lot of books but my first priority is always finding adequate time to work on my creations.

No matter how much is done in the artistic field, there is always going to be more room for improvement. Funding is the one factor that always comes up to mind. Although there is a lot of change for the better in this sector, it is never enough. Undoubtedly, there are many opportunities for young artists, in fact, if it was not for these opportunities I would not be where I am today. Something that I wish to be improved in the artistic local scene, rather than changed, is that of engaging more the local public in reflecting, understanding and experiencing art, especially that which is contemporary.

What’s next for you? What would you like to create in the near future?

My first priority right now is to publish my book, Stessi, with Merlin Publishers. There is also more visual work coming soon, at least, in two upcoming collective exhibitions. I am really interested in producing some kind of public art in the future, together with maybe moving overseas. I hope this is just the beginning for me. I believe that I have to write many more books and create much more art to really earn the title of an artist or an author. I am also interested in doing something related to philosophy, music or drama. Last but certainly not least for me, is the need to continue studying and learning.