Top image: Atlantropa-X / artwork by Klitsa Antoniou (2019)
After a seventeen year hiatus, Malta’s return to the Venice Biennale in 2017 signalled a triumphant moment for Europe’s smallest member state. Two years on, and what was once a neglected national arts programme, devoid of state funding for nearly two decades, is now transformed, evidenced by their continued presence at this year’s Arsenale. More generally, their pavilion reflects a nation re-embracing the arts. Increased government funding, new art spaces (including the hugely impressive MICAS, Malta International Contemporary Art Space, opening 2022) and a buoyant Arts Council Malta have all contributed in reinstating the country to the international stage.
“In my own personal journey, Malta became my evident heterotopia; a place away from home that became home,” says Hesperia Iliadou, curator of the upcoming 2019 Malta Pavilion. “A place that was other than my own, but which expressed so many gestures I found familiar, and within which I re-discovered lost aspects of self.”
Tying her own experience of Malta into the Island’s storied history, this year’s pavilion sees Iliadou curate a line-up of artists each examining the title concept: Maleth / Haven / Port – Heterotopias of Evocation; exploring Malta’s historical position as an ethnic and cultural shatter zone in the centre of the Mediterranean.
Taking heterotopia as its conceptual premise, the Foucauldian idea of a world within a world that both mirrors and disrupts reality, the commission represents an island caught in a liminal state, betwixt and between continents, language, religion and colonial occupation. Maleth, a Semitic word for safety or shelter, refers to the island’s function as both port and haven – a historical site of migration and refuge that echoes themes in Homer’s Odyssey and the more general need to search for home and freedom.
“”I would like to think that a true haven is the place that indeed allows us to retain our differences and enforces our individuality rather than a place that suppresses it in the sake of homogeneity.”
Below we chat to the three artists selected to show their work at this year’s Malta Pavillion.
Malta-born artist Vince Briffa eludes straightforward classification. Working across film, painting, sculpture and written text, he classifies his output as simply ‘work’, a holistic and mixed-media creative vocabulary centred on the co-existence of dualities.
Outland is a video, audio and water installation for Malta’s pavilion, based on the myth of Calypso and Ulysses. Caught between the safety of Calypso’s loving care and a longing to return to his homeland, Ulysses’ turmoil mirrors that of Malta: a haven of safe refuge and at the same time a stepping stone between continents.
Finn Blythe: At the heart of your work is the paradox of a port as a haven but also as a place of capture. How is this reflected in the multiple narratives of your film?
Vince Briffa: The port is reflected through a series of multi-layered metaphors. Amongst them are a plastic, room-like enclosure that acts as a semi-transparent canvas for the constant scribbling of the male character (Odysseus), a condition that holds him captive within the space which both shelters him from the beautiful nature all around him (this part of the narrative is filmed in a 2000-year-old olive grove in Malta) and on the other hand captures him as hostage within his own obsessive activity.
The port is also portrayed as an archive of maritime remnants, through the many objects present in the reserve collection and stores of the local Maritime Museum, portraying a place of disjuncture that haunts the female counterpart (Calypso/Penelope). The main motif within the work is man’s anxiety with restlessness brought about by place, the desire to move on counteracted by the safe harbour of memory.
“The main motif within the work is man’s anxiety with restlessness brought about by place, the desire to move on counteracted by the safe harbour of memory.”
FB: How is the myth of Calypso tied to Malta?
VB: Overlooking the golden sands of Ramla Bay in Gozo, Malta’s sister island, one finds the legendary cave of Calypso, partly hidden inside the high cliffs that overlook the bay. Have a look at this article for more info.
FB: What would you like people who watch your film to leave thinking or feeling?
VB: The film is very much a close look at the human quality of indecisiveness. It occupies that liminal space occupied by doubt that bridges thought and action. Perhaps in many ways OUTLAND is really a self-portrait, a comment on life lived on a place that the sea surrounds. It is open to so many interpretations.
See more of Briffa’s work here.
Having lived through the Turkish invasion of her native Cyrpus as a child, Klitsa Antoniou’s work for the Malta pavilion bears the scars of that early trauma. Atlantropa-X takes its name from the utopian vision of German architect Herman Sörgel, who in the 1920s proposed the draining of the Mediterranean as a means of uniting a war-torn Europe and accelerating colonial expansion into Africa.
With that in mind, Antoniou’s project aims at conceptually uniting the two Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus. Both territories not only share a history of colonial occupation and violent struggle, but in Antoniou’s words, exist under the same “plexus of tensions”. East vs. West, poverty vs. wealth, political corruption vs. natural utopia, migration vs refuge, these dichotomies lie at the heart of Atlantropa-X, which reconciles the islands as cross-sections of a wider Mediterranean identity.
FB: As a Cypriot, how has your experience of living on a contested island with a history of conflict and multiple occupation informed your installation for the Malta Pavilion?
Klitsa Antoniou: Being a survivor of the 1974 war has had a traumatising effect on me. At the age of six, I experienced the violent attacks and detention of my family during the coup (by fascists Greek Cypriots), the bombing by the Turkish military forces, temporary imprisonment, and the aggressive enforcements of Turkish soldiers into our homes. Finally, the brutal captivity of our family’s men in front of our own eyes. While hiding in our home, my family and I were viciously captured and imprisoned with the children and women of our hometown, until UN soldiers rescued us and transported us to the south, the non-occupied area of the country.
“…my family and I were viciously captured and imprisoned with the children and women of our hometown…”
That was when my life as a refugee began, living in tents with absolutely nothing, with no reminders of a previous life. My family was, above all, accompanied by unremitting grief and pain (especially because of my missing grandfather), which characterised the atmosphere in my home for years to come. A sense of guilt for having survived was common among many of my family’s members, who felt they had outlived some of the others, and especially for enjoying the pleasures of life while the deceased or missing could not. I know what it is like to be a refugee, and how it feels to be the child of a refugee, and thus to inherit the uncertainties of this rootlessness.
It was only after I became an artist that I began to work through these experiences of trauma. This progressively became the main subject of my artistic research and work. Atlantropa-X examines the idea of activated spectatorship as a politicised aesthetic practice, I am aiming to create a transitive relationship between the two in a wider social and political arena. One of the pitfalls I want to avoid in creating this work is the fetishisation of the subject matter, which is something we see a lot in contemporary work dealing with migration and the refugee experience. I wish to work on an effective level which does not in any way directly reference those events, but deals with them tangentially.
FB: Geography aside, what do the islands of Malta and Cyprus share in common in terms of national identity and collective trauma?
KA: Living on a Mediterranean island amounts to living amid military, political, economic and social complexities. Enviable wealth, grievous poverties, economic fluctuations, ecological disasters, political corruption, large transformations in the aftermath of war and forced migrations. A plexus of tensions and crises hover over a space that simultaneously exists and does not exist, a space that can be located quite easily geographically, but resists any epistemological definition. It is a sea of tensions, where cultural and historical currents ceaselessly overlap. A place of hidden and concealed ambiguities, of transit and exchange, a fluid topography of rejected and forgotten memories, and finally, of an unseen and silent cartography of memories.
My work, Atlantropa X, addresses the uncertainty of the Mediterranean and its construction, which is characterised by socio-political and cultural borders that are constantly shifting. The sea’s evasiveness becomes a metaphor for the position of our islands between East and West, offering insight into the associations between place, artistic practice and expression. The Mediterranean is an ‘in-between’ place, which remains open-ended and dynamic and in crisis.
See more of Antoniou’s work here.
Trevor Borg first visited Ghar Dalam as a child. The prehistoric cave, located on the south of the island, dates back some half a million years and holds the remains of animals that became trapped on the island and subsequently died out once the land bridges were submerged at the end of the last Ice Age. Swept up in the fantastical mystery of its buried inhabitants, the cave has long occupied the artists’ imagination and now forms the basis of his sculptural installation in Venice.
What at first appears as a taxonomy of animal remains, uniformly bleached and organised like an ancient pagan ritual, is in fact a blurred assortment of genuine and counterfeit. Interspersed among actual remains excavated from the site are 3D-printed forgeries and ceramic imitations that, to the untrained eye, are indistinguishable from the real thing. For Borg, the cave embodies the same inherent tensions of Malta as explored in the work of Briffa and Antoniou: a haven that once provided shelter and refuge for Mediterranean fauna while at the same time a place of no escape that ultimately sealed their fate.
FB: You first encountered the cave as a child, what impact did it have on you at the time?
Trevor Borg: The cave, locally known as Ghar Dalam meaning ‘Cave of Darkness’, emerged as a hauntingly beautiful yet mysterious place, brimming with fascinating stories, some real, some not. The valley where the cave is located is also called ‘Valley of Darkness’, although for the majority of the year it is awash in Mediterranean sunshine. The valley is full of ancient relics dating back to the Pleistocene up to Bronze Age, Roman, Knights of St John, and World War II periods. The cave became a fertile ground for my imagination – it fueled fantastical and imaginary speculation in my mind which were far more historically ancient than is the case. My work at the Venice Biennale loosely draws on this real/imaginary history evoked by this wonderful cave but along the way I leave the cave behind and continue to wander in all directions. My narrative is not about the cave but remotely linked to it.
FB: How do you feel your work relates to ideas of displacement?
TB: ‘Displacement’ and ‘deterritorialisation’ are core aspects in my work and such movement can be discerned in the various levels that constitute the installation. ‘Displacement’ is evoked in the re-contextualisation of objects. The vast collection that constitutes Cave of Darkness is being shown under a new light and in a contemporary context that is the Venice Art Biennale. The phantom-like whiteness that glosses the objects allows for new readings to emerge – like a blank slate the work is meant to be re-written. The audience is encouraged to fabricate new histories and to explore imaginary narratives based on fake and genuine facts. The work speaks of post-truth and meanings lost and found in translation.
The work concerns mostly displacement on a conceptual level and how meanings might change when context is reconfigured. The meaning of an object might also change when it is placed alongside other un/related objects.
FB: What influenced your decision when it came to displaying the items? Were you consciously aiming for something in between the traditional, Victorian vitrines and a more ritualistic, pagan layout?
TB: The installation consisting of hundreds of objects juxtaposes Wunderkammer displays with museological conventions, pagan shrines and fantastical environments reminiscent of fictional archaeology.
The Malta Pavilion is presenting the exhibition Maleth/ Haven/ Port- Heterotopias of Evocation at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia located in the Artiglierie of the Arsenale.