6/12/2018 0 Comments
Witches, that’s what!
Tremble Tremble by Irish artist Jesse Jones was a large cinematic-installation collaborative work, created with theatre artist Olwen Fouéré, and sound artist Susan Stenger. In an interview with RTÉ’s John Kelly, Jones talks about investigating what justice might mean from a female perspective. Tremble Tremble, that’s now on show at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, presents the figure of the female disrupter; as Jones says “staging a feminist version of the law” by an artist that is part of the “20th generation of women since the witch trials”.
Public folklorist, scholar and performance artist Kay Turner was invited to perform in Malta by Fragmenta’s Bettina Hutschek. Her work, Goddess, Madonna and Witch, took the form of a creative procession in Tarxien Temples; prefaced by a short insight into the legacy of these three female figures. All three resonate in many parts of the world, but Turner told us that Malta is one of the few places where all three co-exist so closely!
Malta and Ireland – islands off the European mainland, both once ruled by Great Britain and both once strongly Catholic countries – have their own, quite different witch legends and folklore. But, at the risk of oversimplifying, it seems that the female self-determination is still something that artists feel needs addressing.
PS, I can't resist a small mention of the iconography of The Pageant of the Seas, held in Malta's Grand Harbour a few days after the Fragmenta event - a huge, slightly droopy, headless female figure, presumably a representation of the 'Venus' statuette found at Ħagar Qim. The figure seemed to be hung by the neck from a crane on a barge in the harbour; so much for female self-determination.
In a speech given in 1912, Polish-born American Socialist and Feminist Rose Schneiderman, labour union leader said “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. [...] The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. [...]”. That last sentence became synonymous with the struggle for respect and dignity as an integral part of workers’ rights. Women who have take part in suffragette and women’s rights marches during any time in history have been able to imagine a different future, an alternate way of living and of sharing power. They have used discourse as well as a form of public performance to challenge unfair and ill-balanced status quos.
I’d like to talk about four performative elements of The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds, curated by Maren Richter; Heba Amin’s OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Times of Dilemma by Transparadiso, Tanya El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta, and the beautiful Who by Fire by Susan Philipsz. All four interventions somehow spoke about alternative worlds, of utopias or non-utopias, or promised lands and of heavens and hells. All brought the female to the fore too, whether through artists-as-protagonist, or through undercurrents or themes which ran through each work. Unfortunately I haven’t yet seen Kristina Borg’s No Man’s Land, and I’m unable to comment on the main The Island Is... exhibition objectively, so I’ll stick to these four elements.
I remember just over two years ago working intensively on a call for the curator of a “high-profile multi-site exhibition and cultural project” worthy of a European Capital of Culture (yes I’m aware of the irony; hindsight is a wonderful thing). The call went out worldwide, the proposals came in, and we were lucky to meet Maren Richter, (previously co-curator of the Maldives Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and Artistic Director of the Festival der Regionen in Austria) and hear her thoughts and dreams for the project. I remember seeing her on skype for the first time, and I think we all knew; this is the one - this is our curator. After all the plans, dreams, tears, artists, theories, determination and venues, The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds was finally opened - mainly due to the determination - or ‘labor’ - of some really strong women.
“I am a woman among men” said Heba Amin during her performance OPERATION SUNKEN SEA. Her composure was unbreakable, her shoulder pads angular, and her speech pointed and perfect. “As China is building a new Silk Road” she declared, “and Turkey building a new canal connecting the Black and Marmara Seas, we too shall explore the capabilities of human progress in a feat of poetic engineering, and sink the Mediterranean Sea.” In a perfect straight-laced satirical and commanding performance, Amin drew on the speeches and actions of dictators to formulate a manifesto for an audacious infrastructural intervention unparalleled in scale; to relocate the Mediterranean Sea within the continent of Europe, simultaneously providing water to the deserts and creating a ‘super-continent’ made of Africa and Europe. Amin researched her speech extensively, and drew from many megalomaniacal sources to create an almost fembotic super-speech.
And it worked; it was believable because Amin made it so. Her assurance, her certainty in the plan, made the audience believe in it too; so much so that when her performance was finished we had to shake ourselves a little bit to remember that no, she’s not being serious - it’s all an act. There were flowers (if not roses) in her performance; the display on the lectern in front of her was created to look exactly like that used by Robert Mugabe during one of his infamous speeches.
Transparadiso also encroached on male territory, through the contemporary-għana dialogues in Times of Dilemma, a medium traditionally more dominated by men, but here shared equally by both genders.The għana was sung-broadcast between Manoel Island across to St. Michael’s Counterguard in Valletta, 320 meters away. The għanneja sang from song-sheets composed through workshops during which participants discussed the contradictory interests between economic prosperity and community values. And while singing from song-sheets may not have come naturally to the għanneja, their conversations travelled over the sea and fell into a rhythm; a verse loud and clear on one side, answered by a faint response from across the bay, followed again by a clear verse on our side of the bay.
It’s impossible to separate the process and intent of the lyrics from the performance, and here, maybe, some irony or regret crept in; noble lyrics, thoughtfully formulated were being broadcast out to the sea to be heard only by the few who turned out to listen, or by bemused tourists making their way back after a day at sea. In the end Manoel Island will still be privatised, Valletta will continue its journey to a soulless tourist city, and the beautiful loudspeakers glinting in the sun sending the għanneja’s voices over the sea, will become a distant memory. Rose Schneiderman’s bread may have arrived in Malta, but it’s relentlessly pushing the roses out of its way to get here.
Also on two shorelines was Tania El Khoury’s Sejjaħ lil Malta. Sea shells from Tunisian coastal city of Sousse contained a voice, partly giving information about the Mediterranean - a leisure-destination for some, a death-trap for others - and partly telling the moving story of how the art-piece itself came to be. On a water taxi, Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi gave some insight into the history of exiles to Malta, while in on the other side of the harbour, Chakib Zidi’s understated performance recalled the title of the piece ‘Call Malta’. The background of the work was ambiguous; perhaps deliberately so (whose voice is contained in the shell, and is what she’s saying true and personal to her?) but the message was clear; the Mediterranean is a multi-layered space, inviting suffering for many people who live on its edges, while others are oblivious to their ordeals. (As I write, the BBC World-Service is efficiently relaying the news of 46 Tunisians’ drowning in the Mediterranean today).
Lastly Who By Fire, by Susan Philipsz. A word of warning if you intend to go; only look up. Don’t look down at the lights, the wires and the fire-extinguishers. They’ll remind you that you’re in the real world. If you only look up and listen, you’ll believe you’ve been transported somewhere else entirely. The cistern in which the work is located is dramatic in itself - strange roots hang down from the ceiling, and a dignified arch rises to meet them. Light streaming down from a small grate in the street above is the only reminder that a busy bustling street exists still exists somewhere up there.
Then comes the sound; bells, which are followed by a recording of Philipsz herself singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’. The song is loosely adapted from the melody of a Hebrew song chanted on Yom Kippur, supposedly listing all those who will die in the coming year. But you don’t need to know all this to be moved by the sound, by the crystal-clear voice singing in the cold underground air. The sound echos, it’s a beautiful sound you don’t want to hear anything else. As you surface, Valletta seems superficial, overbright, lurid. You want to go back down underground, seek refuge in that voice, those words, in that womb-like space.
And so we come back to Rose Schneiderman’s words, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”. There were many ‘women who laboured’ for The Island Is What the Sea Surrounds. From the curator, project manager and programme manager, to the artists, female għanneja, protagonists and producers, they all worked to somehow represent an alternative reality, or suggest a different way of being. Their work called for bread - and roses - and much more, for many women, of course, but also for migrants, for local communities, whole countries and at a stretch, for all of humanity. Here in Malta though, the home of The Island Is…, it seems that while bread is not hard to come by, the roses have either disappeared entirely.
More info here:
OPERATION SUNKEN SEA, Heba Amin; www.hebaamin.com/works/operation-sunken-sea/
Times of Dilemma, Transparadiso: www.transparadiso.com/cms/index.php?id=114&L=1
Sejjaħ lil Malta, Tanya El Khoury: taniaelkhoury.com/sejjah-lil-malta-call-malta/
Who by Fire, Susan Philipsz: vimeo.com/262645934
Maren Richter: www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAyjqUTH3ak
I've been asked by a few people what the Pigeon Project is all about. Well maybe art is like jokes; if you have to explain it, it can't be that good. But I'll try to explain it anyway.
There are several facets to the Ħamiema project. It is, on the surface, described as a participatory project. But the method of participation, and what is asked of participants, is quite strange, so it’s not likely that anyone will actually take part. In fact (in case it’s not already obvious), most of the uploads on the project’s social media page purporting to be from members of the public, are, in fact, from non-existent participants, drawn from a non-existent community. The project describes itself as a community project, but then it calls on all of the ‘citizens of Malta’ to participate; such a broad call, that is scarcely conducive to community-building.
This element of 'non-participation' is a reaction to the recent profusion of community- or participatory- art projects calling for participants; where are all these participants to come from, and why should they take part? In her essay Your organization sucks at “community” and let me tell you why, Rhonia Holmes describes a certain amount of soul-searching that arts organisations should go through, in order to answer the statement in her title. One challenge, she says, is “the arrogance of believing that these communities want or need or should invest in these offerings.” (2016). The Ħamiema project is, in its way, that arrogant community project; participants should take part because they are asked to, and not because this is a long-term grass-roots project with their interests at heart.
Today, in 2018, the project also serves as an exercise in observing a side-effect of the gentrification of the city of Valletta. A few years ago, when the project was first conceived, dead pigeons were two-a-penny in some areas of the city. These days, it’s not easy to find enough material for the project’s social-media page! Are pigeons, then, a casualty of the city’s rapid clean-up? Do they get swept up as soon as their demise occurs? Or have they moved on, and if so, to where?
The Ħamiema project is really a comment on how lightly we can see death on the street without turning a hair. Pigeons are not small birds; they’re big, bloody and meaty. When they’re run over they make a sound, and when they’re left on the street, they make for quite gorey viewing. And yet, nobody seems to mind side-stepping around a bloody flattened carcass. No tears are shed, no children’s eyes are covered. It’s our mortality right there in front of us on the street, but nobody seems to notice.
The call ends with the statement that the citizens of Malta do not have much respect for each other. (For once, Malta is ahead of the curve - we’ve been rude for angry for centuries, but the Guardian’s only just caught up.) So I suppose, what the project’s saying here, is that if we can’t be civil to each other, we could at least, pause in our day for these pigeons.
So that’s it; non-participation, animal rights, and some pigeon trivia, all rolled into one. Make sure you download the template and keep your eyes peeled!
Themes of over-construction and the too-rapid change in the Maltese landscape have, in the last few months, come to the fore in contemporary art in Malta. This trend mirrors a wider feeling of unease towards the construction industry in Malta as a whole, but is far from the cri de guerre that might be expected from an artistic community.
Protest art in Malta is generally of the ‘gentle’ kind (no FEMEN or Pussy Riot here), and while recently a few exhibitions have reflected a certain discomfort over this construction-fever, the overall resultant message is moderate, almost already-defeated.
In Between Obliterations by Maxine Attard, at the Gabriel Caruana Foundation in January of this year, was a beautiful collection of works, made with soil and debris gathered from building sites in Gozo, and in ‘response to the ongoing demolition of houses which are replaced by new construction’. The title lays Maxine’s message bare - it’s clear that to her, these demolitions are, quite literally, obliterating the buildings they are building over, and in the process, obliterating the history and memories contained within them. The grid-like format of her work mirrors a map, or even a building site-plan, while the straight lines contrast with the rough texture of the debris, which contains stones, soil, pieces of plastic and wood, and even hair.
More recently, Isaac Azzopardi’s Ħaġraisland, at the Malta Society of Arts, this March, claimed to be ‘collection of reflections about the changing aesthetics of Malta’. There’s not much anger here, more a gentle meditation on changing iconographies and their contexts. Even the aesthetics of the work itself is quite gentle; the tones are subdued, and contrasts are muted. The only bold piece is the large gold breeze-block in the centre of the exhibition, which, along with a gold piece of rock, references Austin Camilleri’s 1999 work Stones.
Interestingly, in recent interviews, (with Eve Cocks & Teo Reljic respectively), neither Attard, nor Azzopardi represent themselves as particularly angry about this over-construction. While Azzopardi speaks about a certain amount of frustration, it’s not quite the raw anger one might expect from a young artist concerned about the aesthetics of his homeland. Attard, too, is almost accepting of the demolition she is representing; ‘that’s the pace of life’ she says and seems unsure as to whether she is criticising it or not.
And indeed, it seems that of the three works mentioned so far, Camilleri’s 1999 work is by far the most dramatic, large-scale and daring. The huge gold boulders, covered in 22 carat gold leaf, sent to all four points of the Maltese archipelago, certainly made a physical impact.
Thirteen years later, and on the scene of one of Camilleri’s Stones, Bettina Hutschek’s work City Gate from 2012 was a video-documentation of the destruction of the old Valletta City Gate. Bizarrely, (and in a scene that calls to mind the recent demolition of the Fortina Hotel in Sliema) diggers work on top of the old gate, while old yellow buses serenely circle the Tritoni. Dust and debris fall to the ground, but the feeling is one of documenting the inevitable, not of protesting against destruction; indeed, watching the scene is referred to as a ‘meditative practice’. So the artist, here, chooses to document without comment, and to bear witness to change and the passing of time.
More hands-on, and more direct, was the intervention, curated by Hutschek herself as Fragmenta Malta, by German artist Erik Göngrich. Leave Me Alone I am an ODZ Hiding took the form of a walking-tour around the now infamous Outside Development Zone at Zonqor Point and questioned if art has or should have any say at all in Outside Development Zones, or in politics at all. Göngrich also produced a series of drawings and prints - sort of personal maps of the area, detailing local landmarks and developments. This type of work comes closer to activism, or participatory work as we know it, and indeed it was developed through direct contact with work being done at the time by Front Ħarsien ODZ and various NGOs, against the development of the land.
Also hosted by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation, is Fluid Space, a collaboration between artists Duška Malešević, Raffaella Zammit, Aidan Celeste, and curator Nikki Petroni. Indeed, Zammit, one of the founding members of the Foundation, has become preoccupied with these sudden changes in Malta’s urban landscape and the destruction of local heritage. The project is ‘an exploratory journey of Malta’s urban fabric; its forms and the way in which we construct and shape our environments’. But it’s also described as ‘an introspective venture’, so, while the resultant photographs and videos are no doubt be beautiful, they are not provocative or challenging to the status quo; nor, I think, do the artists themselves want them to be.
Recently-sighted around Malta, and hopefully generating some conversation, is an unassuming work by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni, curated by Maren Richter as part of the Dal Baħar Madwarna exhibition. Nowhere is Home takes the form of five small, run-down cars, parked at various locations around Malta. The cars have been converted to be habitable; commenting on the gentrification of Valletta, and the possible resulting state of homelessness; this is possibly the most visible comment on the changes in Malta’s landscape in recent years, ironically commissioned by the V18 project, itself responsible for much of the gentrification of the city of Valletta. This is a direct political statement by Halbouni; the work is clearly saying; those who can no longer afford to live in this city will one day become (metaphorically, if not actually) homeless, and will have no more personal space than if they lived in a car.
Meanwhile, other initiatives attempt to come to terms with these sudden changes in Maltese towns and villages. The Valletta Design Cluster project, Design4DCity endeavours to engage with citizens of various locations, to convert empty or overlooked spaces into places that can be used by their communities. The Blitz-lead project Transformer, while being ostensibly a mobility and artist-exchange project - uses this transformation as grounding theme for the project.
So, is it then, the duty of our artists to protest on our behalf, and to rage against the machine on our behalf? Or is it enough for art to document, process and create for us an aesthetic experience from what it sees around it? For now, it seems that Maltese artists will stick to the latter; their projects manifest themselves as reflections attempting to come to terms with over-construction and the destruction of urban heritage. They contemplate, but they don’t make a fuss, they might gently raise a finger, but they never raise a fist.