The last gasp of the blue planet | Patrick Fenech

Artist Patrick Fenech exhibited his latest, ecologically-charged exhibit at Spazju Kreattiv in St James Cavalier at the tail end of 2018. Now, parts of it will be touring across Europe. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the themes that underlie this latest work from the multi-media veteran

Selection of works from ‘DIS’, a multi-media exhibition by Patrick Fenech
Selection of works from ‘DIS’, a multi-media exhibition by Patrick Fenech

‘DIS’ implies a very rich, even urgent, combination of thematic elements. What are the main ideas that inform this work, and how did you first commit to them, and why?

Caring about our planet was always central in my work. Perhaps some will recall ‘A Shroud for the Sea’ series and ‘Caught a Rainbow in My Net’. These were large photography composites produced in the years 2008/9, now in the US (Embassy) State Art collection.  With this solo show, I really wanted to emphasise the fact that we are fast moving towards annihilating our precious blue dot and like so many other artists, I feel I can use my art to do that little bit and create more awareness to this situation. However small the contribution might be, every little bit counts. The biggest problem we face today is our collective amnesia on climate change and ignoring the fact of global warming.

The Earth is starting to feel the pinch and the perpetrators at the root of this ecological mess, paradoxically, are Homo Sapiens, who need to preserve the very ecosystems they thrive on. John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ provided the connection, with his same concern echoed from the past, which I then connected to the present day.

Artist Patrick Fenech
Artist Patrick Fenech

Could you now tell us a little bit about the implementation process of the idea? How did you decide on the chosen media for each piece and your general approach to each of them?

Obviously, this is the toughest and most interesting part of my art practice research in ‘presenting the unpresentable’. The process from idealisation to realisation took a good year or so. This is the most exciting part when you let yourself go and immerse yourself into a whirlwind of influences, ideas and thought. Artists such as Hieronymus Bosch and contemporary figures like Goldsworthy and Eliasson, Pedro Reyes and Agnes Denes, etc., all come to the forefront. Then the pivot evolved around literary names the likes of John Milton and Ken Hiltner who researched and published ‘Milton and Ecology’.

Let’s not forget the great photographer Ansel Adams, who wrote in his autobiography: “The quality of place, the reaction to immediate contact with earth and growing things that have a fugal relationship with mountains and sky, is essential to the integrity of our existence on this planet.” Then, after a period of experimentation, some ideas start to fall into place. The fun with installation art is that you are not restricted to one medium, so an artist can express himself to the fullest by using all sorts of media and materials available, especially new technologies.

Do you think that artists look away from contemporary environmental concerns at their own risk? With the realities of climate change in particular becoming more and more evident, do you agree that any artist deliberately looking away from its alarming implications risks appearing blinkered and/or in denial?

Artists who react to contemporary environmental concerns are more relevant than ever. Tying together the scientific and creative worlds in acts of beauty and activism, sculptors, painters, photographers and others have the power to make environmentalism a priority, and bring in green initiatives to the forefront of cultural conversation. The artist, like the scientist, has a crucial role to perform in our society. They see things differently, they then act on this vision and report the failures and successes.  Ultimately, every artist is free to express himself and that is why art seems timeless as it continues to redefine itself.

What kind of international exposure will some of the works in this exhibition be enjoying, and how does it feel to have achieved this?

Three of the exhibits from the ‘DIS-’ exhibition have been selected by an international jury following an open call and will be included in the forthcoming Ostrale Biennale 2019 in Dresden this June. The Ostrale Biennale has been going on since 2007 and is the third largest exhibition for contemporary art in Germany.  Before that, I have been invited to take part in a ‘live transmission’ exhibition called ‘Shared Spaces’ in May, when a selected group of artists will be putting up their work in various countries coordinated by MOVE.BG. This, of course, brings great joy and satisfaction to see that Maltese art is being recognised internationally, as other Maltese artists continue to break ground on the international  platform.

“The artist, like the scientist, has a crucial role to perform in our society”

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

The local art scene has grown and developed dramatically in the last 10 years as more and more youngsters are seeking to become professional artists. There are still lacunas to be addressed, especially on the educational level, as we still do not have proper full time academic courses for painting, sculpture and photography at university level. Even at primary and secondary levels, our educational systems seems to ignore the importance of the knowledge of art. Another area which needs to be improved is the participation of corporate companies in the promotion and acquisition of contemporary art. And, last but not least, the introduction of artists’ retirement pension schemes.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I’m going full circle, editing some black and white photographs of Maltese lifestyles from the 70s and 80s which I’ve been planning to put into a book. There are some unique and nostalgic images in this archive, especially photographs taken in Gozo, and the idea is to present them in a non-linear, non-narrative way, showing how the Maltese lived at the onset of the Republic. Meanwhile, my commitment with photography at university goes on, and I am pleased to inform you that we have now introduced three new study-units on photography in the Digital Arts Department - Faculty of Media and Knowledge Science.