Capturing a snakily shifting Europe | Margerita Pulè

Having curated an upcoming exhibition by Italian artist Alex Urso, Margerita Pulè speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about this playful and subtly topical exploration of the European imaginary, which will be on show at Studio 87 in Valletta under Pule’s Unfinished Art Space banner

‘Grand Hotel Europa’ by Alex Urso
‘Grand Hotel Europa’ by Alex Urso

What makes Alex Urso’s work so powerful for you?

As a curator, I’m interested in artists who are engaged in contemporary contexts and political realities. I find Alex’s work is very engaged with what’s going on in the world – it reflects equally on local and art-world events, as well as what’s happening in the wider world.

He doesn’t shy away from engaging with people. For example, I thought his performative action in London – The Welcome Project – departed from a place of curiosity and openness, without being didactic or containing a ‘message’ in a conventional sense. Alex spent time knocking on Londoners’ doors, asking them to swap their doormat with his ‘Welcome’ mat, collecting the donated mats for a subsequent exhibition. On the other side of the world, the exhibition he curated with Maess Anand – the Biennale de la Biche on a microscopic island off Guadeloupe – is quite a radical act, creating a biennale on a tiny scale to comment on the huge scale of the art world’s biennales.

His Grand Hotel Europa project struck a chord with me, both in its content, but also in its form; a study of the conflicting identities of Europe simultaneously as a hotel and a fortress.

Margerita Pulè
Margerita Pulè

How did you first get in touch with the artist, and why did you deem him to be an appropriate fit of the Unfinished Art Space residency?

Alex reached out some time ago, looking for a partner for his Grand Hotel Europa project. His work interested me immediately, so we started speaking online, and hit it off. He struck me as determined to see the project through in a Mediterranean country. Unfinished Art Space had just been set up, so we offered to host his residency here in Malta. Since we first spoke, we’ve been in contact over the months, discussing the project, and working out the practicalities of his stay here.

Speaking of which, what can you tell us about the residency, and how it relates to the overall operations of Unfinished Art Space more generally?

Well, Unfinished Art Space is a very new initiative – this is only our second project, and we hadn’t expected to host a residency so soon. The great thing about working on an independent art space is that it’s so flexible and can adapt to whatever is appropriate for each project. So, in our eight months or so of operation, we’ll have produced three or four exhibitions, collaborated to produce a critical writing workshop, and hosted an artist in residence – all depending on the needs of that particular artist or project.

Do you think Alex Urso’s work is relevant to Maltese audiences?

I think Alex’s work is relevant to all audiences – worldwide, and not just in Malta. His work is also relatable – the imagery of the hotel, with an element of melancholy, is a strong symbol of a Europe that perhaps does not still hold the qualities that it once stood for or attempted to achieve; like stability, safety, and even a sense of elegance.

We’re watching history play out day by day, a recent story that has defined our times and sown the first seeds of what is now the European Union, created following the end of the second world war. Grand Hotel Europa engages with this swing of history that is evident here in Malta too.

How do you think it engages and expresses its stated subject (the rise of far-right populism in Europe)?

There are so many things going on in Europe at the moment that – I think – would have been seen as bizarre a few years ago, but are now seen as quite normal. Grand Hotel Europa engages with this reality, through criticism, satire, and, paradoxically, through a kind of nostalgia.

The project is quite multi-disciplinary – its use of collage gives it a graphic and immediate feel. The image of the ‘faceless politician’ is simple, but striking, and the hotel, too, has ‘disappeared’ leaving only an empty space behind it.

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

Well, I think this question can be difficult to answer, because like all countries, Malta doesn’t have a homogenous art scene. I do think that it’s easy to criticise and discount some really interesting work that’s going on. But at the same time, I think it’s important to acknowledge any shortfall or lacunae and attempt to address them.

As I said above, the great thing about working in an independent organisation, is that we are flexible and can afford to take risks. We’re open to collaborations and experimental projects, and I think there is a thirst for that kind of work in Malta.

I enjoyed the recent exhibition Ħudha, that was a week-long independently produced show, set up quite spontaneously at Splendid. At the same time, spaces like Blitz and Valletta Contemporary are maturing, and producing some really interesting exhibitions.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got so much going on at the moment, I don’t know where to start! As an artist, I’m showing work in an exhibition at the University of Malta, Hors Concours in November, curated by Raphael Vella. As a curator, I’m working on an exhibition at Casino Notabile also in November, called Hackable Animals, with artists Elisa von Brockdorff, Ryan Falzon, Charlene Galea, Tom van Malderen and Letta Shtohryn.

Through Unfinished Art Space, I’m really enjoying a collaboration with Nicole Bearman of We Are Here, to bring Berlin-based curator and writer An Paenhuysen to Malta for a creative critical writing workshop at the end of November. And I’m looking forward to collaborations with Letta Shtohryn of What Do We Do Now? soon to be launching a podcast series. There’s more, but I guess that’s enough for now!

Grand Hotel Europa (part three) by Alex Urso and curated by Margerita Pulè is at Studio 87 in Valletta, from October 10 to 17. It is supported by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Valletta in the context of Giornata del Contemporaneo, and Fairwinds Management, and is produced by Unfinished Art Space