The aged are all of us | Lennard Dost and Mare von Koningsveld

Ahead of the opening of their long-gestating interdisciplinary project – born out of a collaboration between Valletta 2018 and fellow capital for culture Leeuwarden – we speak to Dutch curators Lennard Dost and Mare van Koningsveld about ‘The Culture of Ageing’, which though a series of video interviews and an accompanying exhibition, looks into the different ways Malta and Holland treat their elderly

The Culture of Ageing will be launched on August 31 at St James Cavalier
The Culture of Ageing will be launched on August 31 at St James Cavalier

What were your initial aims with this project, and how did they evolve over time? 

To some degree you can say we just wanted to create this exhibition, called The Culture of Ageing. It’s about ageing, about how societies deal with an ageing population and how elderly people are incorporated in culture.

Artists that are participating are Ferhat Özgur, Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson, Trevin Matcek, Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet, Vince Briffa, Adrian Abela, Femke Bakker, Gilbert Calleja, Kristina Borg, Bettina Hutschek and Azahara Cerezo. We will also show the documentary series ‘UP’ by filmmaker Michael Apted as part of the exhibition.

Content-wise, we wanted to create some sort of awareness about the issue of ageing, which we think is set to become one of the most crucial social issues of the coming decades. Our projects are always research-based, so we looked at the subject of ageing from various perspectives. Such as: what does ‘ageing’ actually entail? What are its consequences? How should we deal with a growing population of people older than 65 years of age?

Last year, during our first visit to Malta, we did our initial round of research and then developed our project proposal. We had already decided on most of the elements within the project by that point, and not much has changed regarding goals or focus. So you could say that the whole layout, or ‘framework’ if you like, was all set.

The content, on the other hand, is what required the most hands-on work. The art works which form part of the exhibition grew out of the video interviews that we did – which will also be shown.

What would you say were your biggest challenges with this project? 

We think the biggest challenge was actually organising this project in Malta, since we are based in Holland. How do you get in touch with the local community, and make them want to collaborate with you while you are only here for such a short period of time? In the Maltese culture, the best way to arrange something, is to meet someone about it and discuss it. That’s a bit more difficult if you live on the other side of Europe. 

How did you set about adapting to the Maltese environment, and what kind of ‘intermediaries’ did you employ to help you understand the Maltese milieu? 

For this project we’re working together with quite a few partners – Care Malta, INIA (The International Institute on Ageing, United Nations), Seniors helping Seniors, Active Ageing, Malta Today – and we’ve set up these collaborations ourselves. It’s really great to experience that quite a number of people is really willing to collaborate with us for this project.

But there have also been a lot of things we’ve had help with: finding people to be interviewed for the video interviews, finding people to work with, translating, finding a place to stay for a few weeks, helping to sort out telephone problems, taking us to places for appointments, and so on. Jessica Galea, our project manager, has been doing all that and more, and we couldn’t have done this without her. 

Jessica, along with our cameraman Josef Florian Micallef, served as able guides for us, and offered us a way into Maltese culture that we wouldn’t have had access to as lonely foreigners.

How would you describe the ‘exchange’ that took place between the Maltese and Frisian artists who formed part of this project? What kind of insights did they bring to your exploration of ageing across cultures? 

 Maltese artist Adrian Abela spent two weeks in Groningen (The Netherlands) in April 2015, and Dutch artist Femke Bakker spent some weeks in Valletta during August. Adrian did research at the European Research Institute On The Biology of Ageing (ERIBA), which is researching how cells age, and how they can prevent cells from ageing. While Femke is collaborating with CareMalta, and looking into how elderly people actually live in these elderly homes in Malta.   

We can’t really say whether Femke and Adrian’s projects lent any particular insight into the project. But in general, I think we’ve learnt a lot from the project as a while, and we’re confident that the exhibition will reflect this.

Having undergone the bulk of the process, what kind of insights did you gain about how both of the respective cultures deal with ageing?

What stuck us most is how, while the ageing population in Malta traditionally stayed home with their families, as time goes by more and more of them are finding themselves in old people’s homes.

The situation is somewhat reversed in Holland: elderly people used to be found primarily in homes, but because of recent welfare cuts are now forced to fend for themselves, all the while relying on family, friends and neighbours for any help they may need.

So, Maltese and Dutch society are in a way going into opposite directions. That’s what we find very interesting. What can we learn from each other? What is the best way of looking after the elderly? Is it best to provide institutional care, or should we cater for them at home?   

How willing were the elderly to participate in this project, and what kind of insights did they provide? 

The project isn’t only about elderly and for the elderly, but yes, we’ve organized a few things that involve seniors. During the exhibition period, on the Saturday mornings, there will be guided tours in English and Maltese by seniors through the exhibition.

We’ve interviewed seniors on Malta, Gozo and Comino. And there’s an education workshop Mare developed with Yvonne Blaauw that takes place in the homes of CareMalta: seniors visualize their secrets of successful ageing on postcards which will be sent overseas to Dutch seniors (while the Dutch elderly will participate in the same workshops and will send their cards to the seniors here). 

So, yes we work with people of all – old! – ages. It’s not one heterogeneous group of people and of course there are individual differences as well. They’re all different people, with different stories to tell. We’ve learnt about their personal histories, their daily routines and Maltese culture and history. It’s not about arriving at some big, empirical insight – what we prize most of all is engagement and connection.

If there’s one important take-away from all this for all of us, it’s that ageing isn’t some abstract thing; seniors are our mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and, in the future, also ourselves.

Are you looking forward to officially unveiling the project in Malta? What kind of reaction are you expecting from the locals?

Of course we are looking forward to the opening! Because we’ve worked on if for about a year and it will be great seeing everything come together now. Obviously we hope the locals will enjoy our project, but we especially hope that the exhibition and the other activities we organize will make people reflect on ageing. Art is about experiencing things. Let art overwhelm you, and then see what happens.    

The exhibition for The Culture of Ageing will be taking place in the Main Hall at St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity August 31 to September 27 as part of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival (VIVA). The film programme comprises three screening: Young @ Heart at Camarata Building, Merchant’s Street on the September 2 at 20:00, Robot and Frank at St James Cavalier Cinema on September 4 at 20:00, and Boyhood at St James Cavalier Cinema on September 5 at 15:00.

A free public lecture titled ‘The End of the World as We Know It! The Coming of Population Ageing’ is set for September 16 and will be delivered by the Director of the International Institute on Ageing, United Nations Malta, Dr Marvin Formosa, at St James Cavalier Cinema at 19:00.

To reserve your place for the free film screenings and the free public lecture, please visit For further details contact the Valletta 2018 Foundation on [email protected] or 21242018

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