No room for nostalgia | Fluid Space

Curator Nikki Petroni speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about Fluid Space, a collective exhibition forming part of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival (VIVA), and dealing with the fraught dynamics of Malta’s built landscape

Triq Ir-Remora by Aidan Celeste
Triq Ir-Remora by Aidan Celeste

What was the original intention behind Fluid Space, and did it evolve substantially after the artists began to present their work?

The idea for the exhibition emerged from a discussion between myself and Raffaella Zammit, one of the participating artists, about the way that politics and economics are changing the areas we call home. We focused on the subject of public space and how life unfolds within such collective spaces, affecting how we interact with one another. We wanted to say something about this by using visual means and so we teamed up with Duska Malešević and Aidan Celeste, who are both sensitive to the aesthetics of the local landscape.

Each project evolved over the past few months as each artist studied their sites and how to present them, also keeping in mind that their pieces must work in harmony with the venue – The Mill Culture and Arts Centre in Birkirkara. I wouldn’t label the evolution as substantial but as organic and conscientious.

Displacement no. 2 by Duska Maleševic
Displacement no. 2 by Duska Maleševic

What is it about Malta’s contemporary urban fabric that makes for such rich pickings for projects like this? Are we in a state of ‘emergency’ when it comes to overdevelopment and bad planning, and are artists only now picking up on it?

The current situation is a major issue which must be talked about critically by all; politicians, academics, artists, and the general public.

I think it is a misconception to state that artists are becoming aware of the developing urban fabric today. Of course, there are issues that are particular to our time that comply with global economic patterns. However, urban life, its physiognomy and cultural experiences, were addressed by artists such as Antoine Camilleri and Esprit Barthet who interpreted the landscape in relation to modern artistic principles. On of the main inspirations for the exhibition was Gabriel Caruana, who reacted to Malta’s burgeoning urban and industrial life not by antagonising it, but by emphasising the opportunities it offered to artists. He saw beauty where others saw only crude materiality, transforming utilitarian objects and sites into works of art. This aspect of his work has not been discussed properly as yet, the politics of his interventions need to be studied. Instead we tend to focus on the idealisation of the rural environment and past customs, a nostalgic habit that has engendered an alienating myth of pre-modern times. The relationship between art and trade and industry is an understudied area, although the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Programme of the Department of Art and Art History headed by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci is working to change this.

On what criteria were the participating artists selected, and what do you believe each of them contributes to the project?

The three artists were chosen because of the way they work organically with the aesthetics of place and urban topography. Zammit’s project is about contrasting everyday ugliness with everyday beauty. She will present images that contemplate the opportunity for beauty by offering unnoticed photographic perspectives on Birkirkara’s busiest roads. Her idea is a reinterpretation of her father Gabriel Caruana’s concept of locating the fascinating qualities offered by the mundane and commonplace. Malešević, who has been documenting Valletta’s built and social landscape for a number of years now, has created a series of photo-manipulations that attempt to create a symmetry out of the signs of construction and dereliction in the capital.

She renders the ugly and ephemeral instruments of change into poetic, almost ethereal, layers of colour, light and shadow. Celeste’s project is a development on a camera obscura installation he had worked on recently. He has linked the sound and flow of traffic around The Mill, a rather chaotic area, with the trabokk, the cage used by local bird trappers. The grid of the imprisoning device is in dialogue with the open space that permits movement but has, due to overcrowding, become an invisible cage of air and noise pollution.

All three have confronted the dialogue on overdevelopment and rampant modernisation with a critical eye, and without reverting to any nostalgic notion of the environment. We need to move away from a position of archaic morality – art needs to address beauty as it surrounds us today since only exploring a romantic idea of the past will not solve anything.

How important would you say VIVA is to the overall cultural ecology of the visual arts in Malta? Would you say it addresses some of its key problems?

VIVA has been a successful project so far. However, there has been a missing element in contemporary art locally not exclusive to VIVA, which is the significant link with history and present happenings. I’m not trying to advocate that contemporary art has to be fettered to the past, far from it. But there is a lacuna in the evolution of Maltese art, and that is an absence of knowledge on our predecessors and even of our contemporaries. All exhibitions should be accompanied by published research and critical assessments on the art presented, otherwise the archive of contemporary art history would be severely impoverished.