‘Live updates and social networks have impacted all contemporary art, not just media’

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the emoji, for better or worse, curator Sara Dolfi Agostini speaks to MaltaToday about how the currently-running exhibition Face with Tears of Joy addresses our current cultural reality 

Curator Sara Dolfi Agostini, posing with ‘Gimme A Hug’ by Rob Pruitt, which forms part of the Face with Tears of Joy exhibition. Photo by Alexandra Pace
Curator Sara Dolfi Agostini, posing with ‘Gimme A Hug’ by Rob Pruitt, which forms part of the Face with Tears of Joy exhibition. Photo by Alexandra Pace

The exhibition explicitly grasps at the assault of internet-enabled cultural simulacra. As a curator, how do you deal with the challenge of somehow crystallising – or at the very least, ‘freeze-framing’ for a short while – something which is by its very definition in a constant state of feverish flux?

It’s complicated, because the uncertainty pushes you to more conservative positions, drawing you to the categories that you absorbed from art history, but I don’t think they apply anymore. So how do you approach the shifting landscape of visual culture? I think that as a curator, my work is not only challenged by the images of our times, but also by the way systems of production and circulation affect temporary icons and symbols. I see how corporate interests invade our personal space, online and offline, and I react to visual contamination, mass creativity and the popularisation of critique in art, in politics and in every other field of our society.

Luckily, my work is not a solitary pursuit but a constant dialogue with colleagues and artists around the world. For example, Face with Tears of Joy was informed by my conversation with Alexandra Pace, the founder and director of Blitz, and by her recent work Corridorworld that I decided to include in the exhibition. As I answer your question, I also think of more private moments, like the first time I read the seminal essay Dispersion (2002) by American artist Seth Price, which shook my understanding of contemporary art in the expanded field of general culture… and actually, it can be easily found online!

Andy Holden
Andy Holden

On that note, how would you say Face with Tears of Joy handles the multi-faceted nature of contemporary technology and communication? Did you seek to find some kind of through-line or commonality among the artists that make up the exhibition?

While researching how globalisation and technology affect the way we communicate today, I realised 2019 is the twentieth anniversary of the first set of emojis, developed by Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita. So I decided to dedicate the title of the exhibition to this emoji, which was also dignified with Word of The Year status by the Oxford University Press in 2015. To me, this is a sign of a cultural shift, from the exactitude of the written word to the playfulness of computer culture. If the role of emojis, gifs, memes, social media, and videogames in our lives is unquestioned, what is yet unknown is how decisively they have transformed an audience of adults into one of eternal kids and adolescents.

Back in the Old World, artists were the only adults allowed to look at and be inspired by children. At the end of the 1850s, influential art critics like John Ruskin and Charles Baudelaire encouraged aesthetic throwbacks to childhood for artists to recover freshness and innocence. The cliché of the eyes of the child now applies to everyone. Then what happens when every message, personal or public, can have multiple interpretations ranging from serious to teasing? What present reality and future can we build? The nine artists of this show – Cory Arcangel, Simon Denny, Andy Holden, Maurice Mbikayi, Alexandra Pace, Rob Pruitt, Paul Sochacki, Amalia Ulman, and Serena Vestrucci – are responding to this intriguing question.

Serena Vestrucci
Serena Vestrucci

Do you believe that the deliberately fragmented nature of an exhibition such as this one will lead to a more streamlined aesthetic in the (perhaps near) future? Based on your experience and overall perception of the scene, would you say that ‘new media’ art will calcify into something a bit more concrete and cohesive?

I personally welcome the plurality of forms and aesthetics of contemporary art today, and think the age of artistic movements and manifestos is over, and that this is for the best. A few years ago, the art world seemed to converge in the label ‘post-internet’ for artists whose practice explicitly reflected on the impact of the internet in arts and culture. I remember it referred also to Simon Denny and Amalia Ulman, as they critically infiltrated the virtual aesthetics of global power and self-fetishism on platforms like Instagram. However, the label was soon abandoned and now it sounds limited.

In fact, by blurring the lines between producers and consumers, free live updates, social networks, apps and videogames have impacted all contemporary art, not just that openly embroiled with new media. So the way Simon Denny mingles old board games, colonialism and media culture to criticise libertarian mythologies and utopias powered by technologists like PayPal founder Peter Thiel in his new work currently showing at Blitz is just as contemporary as his previous productions. A similar attitude can be found in Cory Archangel’s resurrection of the Java applet ‘lake’, a once popular device in the ‘90s used to create a seemingly liquid reflection, or Alexandra Pace’s appropriation of the mainstream movie The Shining (1980). Their works question images as both products are encapsulated in a specific time and society, yet are also as intensively interactive, interchangeable, and incomplete elements for different epochs and generations.

Amalia Ulman and Paul Sochacki
Amalia Ulman and Paul Sochacki

What was it like to work with Blitz? How would you say the venue contributes to the local arts scene, based on what you’ve had a chance to experience of the visual arts in Malta?

When I first visited Malta in early 2017, Blitz was the only independent contemporary art space, operating since 2013, and several international colleagues told me to get in touch with its founder, artist Alexandra Pace. Our collaboration started officially in 2019, at the end of a three-year residency project with more than 200 international artists applying for the open calls. However, the magic of art residencies mostly happens behind closed doors, and visitors were constantly knocking at the door, looking for inspiration.

Now residencies are upon invitation, and respond to the needs of a new curated exhibition and public program which kicked off last January with the solo show of Italian artist Rossella Biscotti, strategically planned to find partners for an ambitious performance work on migration that will happen later this year in Malta. Solo and group shows like Face with Tears of Joy are conceived to nurture the art community, while establishing a strong dialogue with the international art scene through artworks that deeply resonate with some of the major visual challenges of our Western societies. In fact, these challenges are all very evident in a small country with an incredible heritage – from the Megalithic temples to the Baroque churches and masterpieces by Caravaggio – and a strong ambition to be on the forefront of the growing fintech, blockchain, new media industries and… contemporary art.

Face With Tears of Joy will remain on display at Blitz, Valletta until June 14. Opening hours: 1pm to 6pm (Tuesday to Friday); 10am to 1pm (Saturday). The exhibition will close with a finissage event featuring British artist Andy Holden on June 18 from 19:00. Prior to that, a children's workshop inspired by the exhibition will also be held at the venue on June 14 from 14:00 to 16:00

More in Art