Capturing what slides in between | Sara Dolfi Agostini

TEODOR RELJIC speaks to Sara Dolfi Agostini, curator at the Blitz contemporary art space in Valletta, about the venue’s currently-ongoing showcase of Tobias Zielony’s works, whose title (Isn’t Life Under the Sun Just a Dream) reveals the Malta-relevant layers of irony explored in the exhibition

Tobias Zielony Hansha, 2019
Tobias Zielony Hansha, 2019

First of all, could you tell us a little bit about how Blitz’s collaboration with Tobias Zielony started, and what were some of the aspects of this current exhibition, Isn’t Life Under the Sun Just a Dream, that you thought would be particularly relevant to Blitz as an art space?

I have been aware of Tobias Zielony’s practice since 2009, when I first saw his breakthrough project Manitoba at Frieze Art Fair in London. That work, focused on First Nation teenage gangs, was also the point of departure of the show at Blitz. Zielony takes aim at the formation of political subjectivity, and offers a glimpse into the yearnings of young people who normally don’t make the news, from Winnipeg all the way to Napoli, Ramallah, Kyiv, and Nagoya. Their desires, hopes and fears surface in emotionally charged portraits, animations and videos, while he explores the interstices between their private and public identities. In the foreground, there is the coming of age of a community and the place it inhabits in times of late capitalism, as a globalised consumer culture seems to offset a cracking social democratic political model.

Malta is no exception with its booming economy and growing cultural contradictions, but it was after Zielony’s participation to the Venice Biennale – representing Germany – that his interest grew. There, he presented The Citizen, partly on view at Blitz Valletta, a project about invisibility and the idea of reversing the typical travel pattern of media information in relation to the story of a group of migrant activists who crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat to reach Germany and ended up in a reception centre near Berlin. After that experience, Zielony was willing to further investigate the sea, what lies beneath its romantic image when imbued with depth for the casual onlooker.

What are some of the ways in which the exhibition reflects the current Maltese political crisis, and what do you hope it can contribute to the ongoing conversation?

It is important to note that Tobias Zielony was invited to Malta over a year ago and came multiple times, well before the abrupt explosion of the political crisis last November, after the dramatic breakthroughs in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation. So, while the new photographic portraits capturing a group of teenagers – party goers and breakdancers in collaboration with the Street Elements Hip Hop Artists – were shot between June and September, the new video Hurd’s Bank was in the making until the day before the opening.

This work captures hypnotic images of ships relentlessly sailing between Valletta’s Grand Harbour and Hurd’s Bank, a shallow stretch of sea just outside Malta’s territorial waters and a major offshore anchoring area on the route between Europe and North Africa. The film is shot from the mainland with a telescopic lens which shows objects at a distance of several kilometres, yet the humidity does not allow for a clear view, suggesting the opacity of human history in connection to the sea. As the narrator toggles between media news of alleged corruption surrounding the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia – the bomb that killed her was detonated from the Grand Harbour – and existential questions embedding a wistful lyricism into hard facts, the darkness swallows everything except the distant quivering lights of the ships. Tobias Zielony’s work is always a process, a journey into chance encounters and unseen places. Whenever he cannot bring the invisible back into plain light, he still shows the struggle, and that is what he did in Malta.

Tobias Zielony’s work on display at Blitz, Valletta. From left: Manitoba, The Citizen and new work shot in Malta
Tobias Zielony’s work on display at Blitz, Valletta. From left: Manitoba, The Citizen and new work shot in Malta

How would you say the exhibition reflects the work and ethos behind Blitz in a more general sense, and over 2019 in particular?

At the beginning of 2019, Blitz launched a new curated programme dedicated to established international artists whose work had never been seen in Malta before, but had critically shaped and influenced the international contemporary art dialogue of the past decade. We – director Alexandra Pace and I – also felt the need to do more than just shipping artworks to Malta. The art community needed conversations and interaction, with a real public programme too. To do so, we only invited artists that were truly committed to Malta as a laboratory of sorts, engaging with its idiosyncratic history, culture, and social landscape as much as with the major challenges of our present society.

Every show is the outcome of a unique interpretation of a place, and has been a very enriching experience for Blitz and its visitors, I dare to say unique. Tobias Zielony’s solo show Isn’t Life Under the Sun Just a Dream, for example, starts in the form of an enquiry – albeit without a question mark – and presents itself as an oxymoron, since life under the sun refers to inescapable reality, itself the product of often unfulfilled dreams.

In Malta, a year-round tourist destination where visitors seek solace and evasion, the title also hints at complex stories and relationships that lie behind the veil of architecture, local marketing, and economic convenience.

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What are some of the main challenges that local artists face, and how would you go about changing the current scenario to make it easier for contemporary art in Malta to flourish?

The local visual art scene is truly vibrant and healthy, and Blitz’s activities have been very well attended – all of them, from exhibitions, to talks, performances and children’s workshops. They have also been featured in local and international media – Artforum, Folha de S.Paulo, Flash Art International, Mousse Magazine, Weltkunst, Abitare, to name a few – and this is yet another sign that what we do is considered relevant by both art lovers and the professional audience alike. So, I believe our main challenges are actually the same that artists face. We have the potential but we often lack the means.

As Blitz keeps growing and becoming an international contemporary art centre worthy of carrying the Maltese flag at home and abroad, public funding shrank, in an inexplicable turn of events. We are aware that opportunities should be there for everybody, including newcomers; however, an institution such as Blitz that has been pivotal to the development of the local art scene should be recognised in some sustainable manner especially since independent non-profit institutions cannot survive solely on private funding.

Sometimes it feels as though quality is overpowered by other forces, as happened with the selection of Malta’s Venice Biennale 2019 project, as recounted by the media. My hope is these regressive forces will be reined in by the future government. In the meantime, we have just launched a new Patron’s Programme for corporate entities, offering a series of exciting benefits for art lovers starting at €950 a year, as well as an Art Advisory Service. There is no local circuit of commercial galleries for local artists, and we hope that you would become part of our effort to support the production, education, and promotion of their practice. We firmly believe it is time for our spaces – homes, offices and public areas – to speak for who we are today and be inspired by our present times. MoMA in New York did something similar with the Art Advisory Service in 1964 to incentivise a community of collectors who only bought antiques. It remained active until 1996!

Ricky (Malta series; 2019)
Ricky (Malta series; 2019)

What’s next for Blitz?

We will be very busy, as usual. In the first semester of 2020, Blitz will present two of its most ambitious projects to date, both performative in nature. The first is The Journey by artist Rossella Biscotti, which we first introduced in her solo show Three Works and A Script. The Journey (2016-ongoing) is a maritime opera of a ship navigating a route inspired by time, history and current data researched in collaboration with different experts and communities. The narrative is centered on the decision and consequences of dropping a 20-ton Carrara marble block into the international waters of the Central Mediterranean Sea, with the multitude of different territories it tangles with during the process.

We are proud to say we will be producing this project together with the Kunsten Festival des Arts (KFDA) in Brussels, with the essential collaboration of the University of Malta, Port Logistics Operations, Malta Maritime Pilots, Maritime MT, and many others. The second will be a performance and solo show by artist Marinella Senatore.

Over the years, Senatore has gained international recognition by experimenting with formats ranging from radio broadcasts and street festivals to processions with thousands of participants. In projects such as The Parade and The School of Narrative Dance at Guggenheim (Venice), Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Hayward Gallery (London), personal stories and common goods collapse into one multi-layered narrative that aims at reuniting the individual and the collective. Senatore will present a new performance in Republic Street and everyone is invited to participate. More is on the way soon, and people can stay updated through our newsletter at thisisblitz.com.

Isn’t Life Under the Sun Just a Dream by Tobias Zielony will remain on display at Blitz,  St Lucy Street, Valletta until February 29. Opening hours: Tuesday – Friday, 2.30pm–6.30pm; Saturday, 10am–1pm

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