A shared past and a mutual destiny | Klitsa Antoniou

Among the trio forming part of the Malta Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Cypriot artist Klitsa Antoniou speaks about how her experience as a refugee informs her piece, Atlantropa-X, which uses early 20th century utopian visions to speak about the complex dynamics of the Mediterranean

Klitsa Antoniou
Klitsa Antoniou

How did your participation in the Malta Pavilion come about, and what attracted you to the themes that underlie ‘Heterotopias of Evocation’?

The mutual appreciation and respect that was cultivated between participating artists Vince Briffa, Trevor Borg, and myself and the harmonious teamwork that developed during our past exhibitions led us to join our creative forces in order to develop a proposal for the 2019 Malta Pavilion for the Venice Biennale. This is where Hesperia Iliadou-Suppiej, our curator, had a major role in bringing the works together both conceptually and spatially and architect Matthew Joseph Casha, together with production manager George Lazoglou, completed the team by offering their technical and organisational experiences.

It was challenging, but not all that difficult, to find a common ground which would form the foundation of our proposal. Our theme was a path that was easily traced during our discussions. The project focuses on the role of the island as a cultural nucleus of the Mediterranean Sea, both in history and in current times and underlines concerns of displacement and migration. Additionally, performativity and affect were intentionally targeted as we were dealing with such sensitive and traumatic issues. Thus, our intention of raising questions and provoking reactions brought our proposal in tune with this year’s theme of the Venice Art Biennale as described by its artistic director, Ralph Rugoff the project, “Will aim to welcome its public to an expansive experience of the deep involvement... engaging visitors in a series of encounters.”

Given that Malta’s participation this year will mark a distinct shift from what happened last year – namely, that it will be a far more ‘minimal’ take than the bazaar approach of ‘Homo Melitensis’ – your contribution will be made to gel very closely with that of your fellow participants at the Pavilion (Vince Briffa and Trevor Borg)?

‘Bazaar  approach’ is a very precarious way of describing Homo Melitensis, as it has a negative implication. The fact is that Cyprus shares a similar history and past with Malta, and I can clearly see how Homo Melitensis: An Incomplete Inventory in 19 Chapters, looks intentionally and effectively inwards and delivers an associative investigation of Maltese identity in an ethnographic approach. Simultaneously, it is underpinning an endeavor of self-exculpation, which is logically the first step towards self-empowerment.

On the other hand, drawing on the tri-fold of history/archaeology, myth/tradition and vision/expectation, Maleth / Haven / Port - Heterotopias of Evocation aims to create a topos/locus of artistic conversation for the whole of the Mediterranean Sea… it attempts to look outwards and place Malta in a geographical and geopolitical context. Malta is not defined exclusively by what is happening within its borders but respectively by what is happening in the waters and the lands surrounding it…whatever that implies. I anticipate that my work will contribute in providing this perspective…offering another viewpoint within the Mediterranean Sea.

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

The refugee experience is also an important aspect of your work. Could you tell us why this theme first became important to you to explore, and how do you think it informs your contribution to the Pavilion?

By the age of five, I had experienced a political coup followed by a civil war, the invasion of Turkish military troops, the resulting occupation by a foreign country, the captivity and the subsequent displacement of my whole family and the loss of any keepsakes that would have reminded me of life before 1974. My family was, above all, accompanied by an unremitting grief and pain, especially because of my missing grandfather, which characterised the atmosphere in my home for years to come.

My early traumatising experiences persisted stubbornly as I was growing up, as if they were happening, again and again, hovering like an echo, continually reproducing themselves. It was only later, after I became an artist, that I began to work through these experiences of trauma. This progressively became the main subject of my artistic research and work. It could be argued that through my own practice, I re-enacted dislocation, I recreated the experience of transportability of space and memory, and the question of erasure and oblivion versus the perseverance of memory.

Following this line, in Atlantropa-X,  I am examining the idea of activated spectatorship as a politicised aesthetic practice and I am aiming to create a transitive relationship between the two in the wider social and political arena. One of the pitfalls I want to avoid in creating this work is the fetishization of the subject matter. I wish to work on an affective level which does not in any way directly reference those events, but deals with them tangentially.

Atlantropa-X, your installation for ‘Heterotopias of Evocation’, recalls an architectural project first dreamed up in the 1920s but that carries distinctly futuristic overtones. What attracted you to this concept, and why did you find it to be the appropriate groundwork for your contribution to the Pavilion?

Atlantropa-X in the context of the Malta Pavilion will aim to conceptually and artistically join the two islands of the Mediterranean, by offering glimpses on the utopian drives and the dystopian fallouts that characterise the Mediterranean area. Atlantropa was a gigantic engineering and colonisation idea devised by German architect Herman Sorgel in the 1920s, proposing to drain the Mediterranean forming a European supercontinent.

Today, more than ever, the Atlantropa scheme – of forming land bridges in the Mediterranean – seems relevant as it is suddenly fortified by contemporary intensity to remind us of the limits on freedom – migrants and refugees – and the destiny of the inhabitants of this area.

Even though Atlantropa associations in connection to displacement and dislocation can be found in my earliest exhibitions (dating back to the late ‘90s), in my most recent projects I allowed the full resonance of this theme to raise a number of inquiries relating to the ways Ι as an artist could approach the tension between the aporetic visibility or invisibility of border-crossing and the fluid or mobile zones of crisis.

Altantropa-X at the Maltese Pavilion will testify a topos, a transcultural space, a neuralgic border zone, in which multiple and heterogeneous crossings are performed and intertwined, attractive in its diversity, but also confusing in its dynamism.

Finally, what kind of connections between Malta and Cyprus do you hope to establish and elaborate upon with ‘Atlantropa- X’, and what would you say are some of the reasons why we should continue to explore and cultivate these same connections?

Malta and Cyprus are ‘in-between’ places which remain open-ended and dynamic constructions. The two islands are much more than geographical references, they were and still are crossings, open gates, bridges, constant changing settings of ideas, meanings and appearances. Inspired by this topographical area, my research process was about entering this area through different gates/ports, guided by artistic expressions that offer fresh itineraries and distinct routes, different associations and new critical thoughts.

Atlantropa-X draws on this plural space, on a territory in which nowadays has new challenges launched and pursued, charged with history but also with conflicts between the different cultures and religions, a place where memory defines the people and invokes the silent but excruciating forces exercised on its shores. Bearing in mind that it is a mutual destiny and not merely a shared past that connects Cyprus and Malta, one of my most prominent intentions focuses on extracting this distinctive area from its unique and eternal condition of sea of Antiquity, and reconstructing it as the sea of troubled contemporaneity and of an unknown and challenging future.

The 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale will take place between May 11 and November 24