Floating in and out of the silver river | John Paul Azzopardi

Renowned for his striking ‘bone sculptures’, artist John Paul Azzopardi now branches into spiritually-charged black-and-white paintings, showcased in his current exhibition ‘Silver River’ on display at Lily Agius Gallery. He speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the esoteric and transcendent underpinnings that animate these new works

Rivers flow, rivers stand still and rivers esoterically reverse
Rivers flow, rivers stand still and rivers esoterically reverse

Could you tell us a little bit about your evolution as an artist over the years? When did you first become aware of your inclinations towards the visual arts, and at which point did you decide to pursue them in a more consistent way?

I think I’ve always been interested in the arts, ever since I was a very young child. In my early years, when my family was still living in London, very often my father used to take me to museums. We visited the British museum in particular very often. In my early teens I started playing the drums, and I was a musician up until my mid-twenties. But the first figure I made was during class, when I was studying to be an electrician. I was 16 and I didn’t know what course or career path to take, so I started reading to be an electrician. Most classes were so boring that I started making figures from electrical wires and components. From then on I continued to create these figures but with no real artistic intention to create ‘art’. It was during my mid-twenties were I figured out that I really found a language in sculpture, rather than music. So I stopped practising music and continued to create sculpture with more intention.

At the age of 26 I decided to return to my studies and I sat for a course in Philosophy at the University of Malta. The course really started to address a lot of my existential and social concerns. It also provided me with tools on how to research subjects, so the sculptural works I created from then onwards always involved a lot of research and reading.

Prior to that, my works were always about inner turmoil and angst. I realised that it’s unhealthy to keep practising and producing works that address my inner anxieties, because that would make anxiety the main reason for producing work. This, in turn, made me realise that I would in some way feed from my anxiety, and although momentarily I could heal myself, in the long run feeding off one’s negativity for the purposes of channelling an idea plunges you into an unhealthy loop.

From there, I wanted to understand the true origins of my anxieties and existential issues. When I realised that I could locate these issues from external forces, I realised that I could analyse and dissect these issues in sculptural form; my ‘Decay’ and ‘Samskara’ series deals with such topics, for example. Looking for the source itself turns out to be a healthy process.

When I graduated from university, at the age of 29, in mythological terms, it was My Saturn returns cycle – the year where one has gone through the first stage of their life and then after a lot of experimenting with character you realise who you really are for the next 29 years; I realised that art is a language I could communicate with. It was at that point that I realised I wanted to turn this into a professional pursuit.


The ‘bone sculptures’ did become a distinctive trademark for your work. Why do you think the Maltese (and international, given your participation at the Venice Biennale) art-consuming public responded to them to strongly, and how do you feel about that?

I don’t really know why the public decided to respond strongly to this cycle of work. Maybe because they are intricate and made from bone. I guess people are amazed to see such structures made from bone. But those sculptures are more than what they physically present themselves to be. They are structures which address the notion of silence and the beauty of the sublime. An object that can allow you to enjoy the presence of an object where you don’t need to exercise and engage with your critical faculties. It’s meant to do the opposite, to be present and enjoy the phenomena of presence. That’s why in the two solo exhibitions I presented only one sculpture per exhibition. To be present with presence itself. But in collective exhibitions they can tend to lose their real intention. It all depends on how the exhibition is curated. But in most cases, these works haven’t worked so well in the consuming art spaces.

What were some of the most significant developments and/or changes in your artistic practice? And how does this most recent shift – from your ‘bone sculptures’ to painting – define where both your process and your state of mind are at this present moment?

In my early twenties I was interested in exploring my states of inner turmoil. When I entered university I decided to locate what causes these anxieties. During the later stage of my degree another shift happened when I met the tutor Michael Zammit, who lectures mainly in Eastern philosophy. In reading books like The Bhagavad Gita and reading into Advaita Vedanta I found something that really helped me shape other parts of my thirsty self. I then started attending the Practical School of Philosophy, where one learns how to meditate with a foundation in Advaita Vedanta, Platonic and Ficino philosophy. From then, I developed the quest to create bone works that are in some way a practice of Vedic thought.

Apart from meditation, I’ve always been interested in the states where one experiences different forms of time and space. Altered states of consciousness can be experienced in many forms. For the past few years I’ve been reading into this area to understand the conditions for such states and the internal phenomena in one’s mind. I’m currently interested into creating art which serves as a tool for experience, experiential rather than, say, being critical. I’ve been painting for the sake to experiment with some ideas. Trying to understand what I’m looking for before I return to sculpture and other media.

Shadow Time
Shadow Time

The paintings forming part of ‘Silver River’ appear to be exploring themes which are both philosophical, and also indicative of states akin to shamanic journeying... could you speak a bit about how the process of creating visual art is tied, for you, with these cognitive and visual processes?

I’m interested in exploring these states because I want to see what content the mind provides one with, that part which in a normal state one cannot reach. I’m interested in looking into the subtler conditions of the mind and existence. I’m curious about the finer qualities of being. I believe that all the gods and energies are within, and I would like to meet them first-hand. But the real research is to look into the depths of egolessness, when one reaches a pure state of awareness.

As such, Silver River is a collection of works on paper, exploring different states of consciousness, investigating the type of conditions, settings and circumstances that produce different forms of refined and altered states of awareness, alertness or raptness where time seemingly falters, and space dilates. Such states provide experience with a different altered sense of how we usually define or understand personhood.

With this work, and the research that goes into it, I set out to explore the fundamental conditions that create these states, the object and content of internal/external perception, and the cognitive apparatus of one’s awareness, or core self.

Extra-ordinary states of consciousness affect subjective time and space. In such situations time, space and the awareness of oneself as a river of consciousness, are experienced diversely as types of felt time.

In the event of meditation, active immersion, deep sleep, moments of terror and transient loss of oneself, perception engages differently in self-reflection and the world. Therefore, an alteration to the regular awareness of the internal conscious experience of time and space becomes apparent. This, for example, can happen in a rather simple and immediate manner when one’s awareness becomes absorbed in any of nature’s phenomena, momentarily forgetting oneself as mental and emotional experience merges in the sublime. Each work portrays different types of circumstances and phenomena wherein such states are experienced.

Moon tide (Transience and Resonance)
Moon tide (Transience and Resonance)

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

I don’t really know how to answer this question, since I’m kinda floating in and out…

Silver River will be on display at Lily Agius Gallery, Cathedral Street, Sliema until November 16