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.