Venice Biennale | Malta Pavilion goes minimalist

With Malta breaking its 17-year hiatus from the Venice Biennale last year with Homo Melitensis, the 2019 pavilion is shaping up to be a quieter, more intimate affair where its predecessor aimed to overwhelm

The three artists making up 'Heterotopias of Evocation' (from left): Vince Briffa, Klitsa Antoniou and Trevor Borg
The three artists making up 'Heterotopias of Evocation' (from left): Vince Briffa, Klitsa Antoniou and Trevor Borg

Though it may have rung into public attention something of bureaucratic controversy – casting something of a pall over Arts Council Malta’s selection procedure for the thing – preparations for the island’s second foray into the prestigious Venice Biennale appear to be well underway.

With Malta breaking its 17-year hiatus from this most central of contemporary art showcases last year with Homo Melitensis – curated by Raphael Vella and Bettina Hutschek and taking a dizzying, bazaar-like approach to the Malta’s artistic blueprint – the 2019 pavilion is shaping up to be a quieter, more intimate affair where its predecessor aimed to overwhelm.

In marshalling the Malta pavilion, entitled ‘Maleth / Haven / Port – Heterotopias of Evocation’, the lead curator Dr Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej is keenly aware of just how – and why – it will differ from Homo Melitensis in both approach and content.

“I’ve been working at the Venice Biennale for a few years now, and I’ve noticed just how loyal its audience is – they show up year in, year out. Knowing this, I felt it made sense that Malta was announced to them with the abundance of artworks we saw at Homo Melitensis – the volume of it compensated for the lack of presence in previous years,” Suppiej said during a chat earlier this week.

“However, I prefer a more minimalistic approach as curator – one that is more like a theatrical piece, where the curator lays out the groundwork and then ensures that the artists work in tandem with the established rhythm,” she continued, expressing her satisfaction with the fact that the three participating artists – Klitsa Antoniou (Cyprus), Vince Briffa (Malta) and Trevor Borg (Malta) were very much in agreement on her approach from the start.

Another happy twist was just how well the central idea of the pavilion – dealing with the dynamics of displacement in the Mediterranean – appeared to dovetail perfectly with the overarching feeling of the 2019 Venice Biennale, which artistic director Ralph Rugoff articulated as such: “An exhibition should open people’s eyes to previously unconsidered ways of being in the world and thus change their view of that world, where the meaning of artworks is not embedded principally in objects but in conversations – first between artist and artwork, and then between artwork and audience.”

It’s a viewpoint that perfectly matches ‘Evoking Heterotopia’ in its bid to explore notions of migration, exile and displacement beyond what is dictated by established narratives, using Malta’s position in central Mediterranean culture – the area being, not-so-incidentally, the subject of Suppiej’s doctoral thesis – to create a space where an apposite artistic expression can flourish.

Such an approach certainly appears to be evident in Vince Briffa’s film installation work, ‘Outland’. Projecting video onto pools of water while also employing sound – “the only sound in the pavilion” – Outland draws on the myth of Calypso and Ulysses to dig into the subject of displacement. Through a deliberately truncated visual narrative, Briffa aims to get at the state of, “Being comfortable in your comfort zone, but still yearning to leave... which I believe is a very human thing that all of us can relate to.”

He’s also quick to point out that any explicit association with the Ulysses and Calypso myth – which details how the goddess seduced the Ancient Greek hero into a Gozitan cave for a number of years – has nothing to do with superficial or “tourist-friendly” approaches to the subject.

“Like every artist, I needed a starting point into the work – and this was mine. While I understand the pitfalls of choosing the myth to get the work going, I am confident that my approach is subtle enough to avoid them.”

For Briffa, it is water that is the main “combining element” linking the his work to the myth. It is, of course, easy to overstate the centrality of water in the Mediterranean narrative, and another concern that would crop up when considering ‘Evoking Heterotopia’ is its apparent focus on such an obvious element of Mediterranean life.

Thankfully, Trevor Borg also appears to be avoiding stylistic cliches with his proposed work, ‘Cave of Darkness: Port of No Return’, which seeks to allegorise the so-called ‘migration crisis’ by going back to prehistory.

The title being a reference to the Ghar Dalam Cave in Birzebbuga – which holds many fond childhood memories for the artist – the piece appears to be taking at least a small tear away from the Homo Melitensis book by being primarily based on sculpted objects, drawing from prehistory in a way that evokes somewhat of a cryptozoological approach to the artist’s chosen narrative.

“Since there was no Ice Age in Malta, we had plenty of migration of various large elephants who travelled over here to find shelter during that period – even the likes of elephants and hippopotami. But due to the climate conditions here, they started to morph and shrink in size – that’s why we have dwarf elephant remains – and eventually died out.”

Unsurprisingly, Borg allies this to a contemporary parallel, of migrants arriving to Malta in the hopes of building a new life, with a lot of them “not finding the right conditions” in place for them to thrive as human beings.

To create the ‘cave of darkness’, Borg will use a mix of ceramics, 3D-printed objects and actual bone and skulls. “I will start by using and grinding down bone to create fantastical creatures and mysterious artefacts, while also crafting objects that suggest contemporary conditions and concerns. My hope is that people will be able to leave the cave with an impression of this juxtaposition between the ancient and the current,” Borg said.

The exit from the cave, and the perceptions that would then arise, appear to be as important for Borg as people walking inside in the first place, and this elliptical, holistic approach is what appears to inform the ethos of ‘Evoking Heterotopia’ as a wholesale project.

“Works of art not solitary actors – they are not solitary trees in a forest,” Hesperia Iliadou Suppiej said. “The ideal pavilion should be a garden, where the plants entwine their branches with each other to create a holistic experience.”