Watching the destruction unfold

Visual artist Maxine Attard will never take a walk in her neighbourhood again. Rampant urban development is the culprit, and her latest exhibition of works at The Mill in Birkirkara – entitled In Between Obliterations – is her creative response to the islands’ ongoing crisis of uglification

In Between Obliterations is on display at The Mill – Art, Culture and Crafts Centre, Birkirkara
In Between Obliterations is on display at The Mill – Art, Culture and Crafts Centre, Birkirkara

How would you describe your journey and development as an artist, and what have been some of the key motivating factors for your work so far?

My development as an art practitioner was definitely not a straight line. I studied art history for my undergraduate degree in Malta mainly because there were no fine art courses available back then but also because I was still unsure whether I wanted to make art or write about others’ work. During my studies in art history, I still kept on developing my work, attended evening classes in figure drawing and participating in visual arts’ projects.

I found few individuals in Malta who believed in my work and they helped me persist and move on in developing it. However, one of the main key motivating factors was definitely my studies in Brighton for an MA in Fine Arts. My tutors there were fully dedicated to us students. Their attention helped me finetune all my previous studies and practice into a line of thought which I am still building on today. Since after I finished my studies in Brighton, I have made a commitment with myself not to let anything demotivate me from continuing my practice.

And this brings me to a second key motivating factor which is my constant travelling to art exhibitions and events around the world. They keep me up-to-date and maybe more importantly, fulfil my need to experience work of good quality.

What is your favourite medium to work in, and why would you say this suits your aesthetic and thematic needs in particular?

I have a tendency towards using a certain group of materials such as paper and wood but I wouldn’t say I have a favourite medium or material. However, in many cases, it is the materials themselves that are often the starting point of my work. For example, I may notice that a particular kind of paint would work well with a particular kind of wood. I notice how these materials catch the light and how they relate to one another. I am attracted to solid materials such as wood, paper and fabric. When I use paint, I mostly use industrial, oil-based paint which is very dense.

Most of my work does not revolve around a particular theme, so the materials I use do not have any particular significance other than that which the viewer gives them. However in this exhibition, the main material – which is the debris that I collected from building sites – is central to the work and the whole exhibition. This series is what I call an offshoot from my main line of work.

I am aware that my work is aesthetically attractive to some viewers and I tend to leave my work open to interpretation so that viewers can relate to it in many different ways.

But when I am in the process of creating a work, I do not ponder about aesthetics, at least not consciously. For example, when I am creating a composition, all I think about is whether or not the composition is working for me.

With In Between Obliterations, you’re explicitly tackling some particularly Maltese approaches to urban development (to put it mildly). What motivated you to pursue this subject?

The same anger and frustration that many people feel at seeing the country turning into one big building site. Two particular moments were decisive in my making of this series; my driving through a part of Malta which I hadn’t been in a long time and being appalled by how much it changed, and a walk around my village one Sunday afternoon some months ago. It was supposed to be a relaxing walk. I haven’t taken another walk since then.

Another motivating factor which turned out to be the starting point of this exhibition and then its underlying factor is The Mill itself. In this exhibition, The Mill is as important as the individual pieces which I produced. Its walls are as significant as the debris which I collected and enclosed in frames. It is as if The Mill, a building of almost three hundred years-old, is housing the remains of other old buildings, the majority of which are now lost.

Do you hope that your work will at least lead people to reconsider the status quo of our urban environments and their development? And speaking more generally, what can artists do to effect positive social change in that regard?

It is very attractive to think that art can lead a social or political movement of some sort but I don’t think it can. There has been and there still is art which has a strong protest element in it but in most cases art is the result rather than the cause of something. What I mean is that art is made by a particular group of people who have greater sensitivity than others have and they have this need to express what they feel about a particular thing.

In order to do this, they resort to means of expression – such as painting, music and so on – because the usual method of ‘talking about it’ is not sufficient. These individuals are what we call ‘artists’.

However, after an artist has fulfilled their need in tackling an issue by producing artwork, then the latter is exhibited for others to experience. And the reason why artwork gets shown to the public is because it can and should influence it. Since artists can feel and notice things which others cannot, they can offer the public alternative perspectives towards an issue.

What artists should do more of, is respond to such issues through their work in whatever way they see fit and then make it accessible for everyone to see.

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it? There is certainly more going on than there was 10 years ago both in terms of quantity and quality. This is due to the increasing number of people who work independently and outside non-private institutions. I cannot discuss in depth other artistic areas other than the visual arts but I can discuss culture because the visual art scene in Malta is hindered from an attitude towards culture in general, an attitude that is fostered by public institutions. It is not up to these institutions to ‘make’ culture but to let it happen. At times it feels like there are a group of people inside these institutions that think that they can make culture by sitting around a table and writing it down.

This is utterly ridiculous and completely out of touch with what culture is all about. This absurd view is reflected in the quality of work that gets produced or in projects that start off but die down after a short time. Of course, these institutions and individuals who support them can come up with arguments about who decides what quality is. But their arguments do not hold because they are detached from the art world context and needless to say, no country can make it alone in the world, let alone a tiny one like Malta.

There are those artworks and events that get produced for purposes such as for power, whether institutional or individual. Art that gets produced for such purposes is not art but rather something that looks like art. And something that is fake, besides wasting public money, does not fulfil the instinctive, spiritual – or whatever one wants to call it – needs of the people, but rather fools them.

I also think that there is an urgent need in bringing to Malta important artworks, exhibitions and other events of international repute. Besides putting Malta more on the international cultural map, it would give the Maltese public access to high quality artworks and make it understand what the purpose of art is, that is, something that everyone can relate to and deeply needs.

In Between Obliterations will remain on display at The Mill – Arts and Crafts Centre in Birkirkara until January 28. Opening hours: 17:00-19:00 (Monday, Wednesday and Friday; excluding January 22 and 24). Attard will be at the venue today, January 14 and 21 between 11:00 and 17:00 to meet visitors. The exhibition is supported by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation and Gozo Art