The Malta Independent 18 August 2017, Friday

Welcoming The clandestine Lucy Wood: Lucy Wood, politics − and Pierre Portelli

Malta Independent Sunday, 22 July 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

Sadly, the question of illegal immigrants in Malta and elsewhere has become a cliché nowadays. Arguments for or against immigration have been so exploited and abused that we feel a certain intellectual and emotional apathy towards any heated discussions that cover a range of opinions from the messianic open-heartedness of some to others’ aggressive racist and uncompromising iron will. Maltese artists, with only a few exceptions, have been quite oblivious to this tragic and seemingly unending situation touching our shores. This apathy may come as a surprise to a number of readers. However, if the social history of Maltese art is examined, one can detect a constant, neutral, apolitical stance taken by Maltese artists. For these reasons I should not be surprised to see a similar artistic apathy in response to the tsunami waves of illegal immigrants arriving in Malta. An impending example of performance art may however have an impact in Malta in this respect, and highlight, though not solve or resolve, this problematic situation.

Lucy Wood, a British artist who settled in New Zealand in 1981, is embarking on a new venture in the area of performance art. After long negotiations she has succeeded in convincing the Lampedusa authorities in Italy to give her permission to set sail in a ‘clandestine’ boat. According to the Art Newspaper (July/August, 2012), Wood “plans to sail single-handedly the nine metre-long boat from Lampedusa to London”. The journalist Ermanno Rivetti notes that she will stop off in Malta, Sicily, Naples, Rome, Genoa, Monaco, Marseilles, Arles, Avignon, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, before arriving in London, sailing in on the river Thames.

Her luggage will consist of a collection of items that belonged to original migrants, recalling the 20th-century French artist Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Museum Suitcase’. These objects include items she has gathered together from various sources during her sojourns in various “frontier nowhere space”, as she calls places which harbour clandestine (illegal) immigrants. While, strangely enough, she insists that her performance art has no political overtones, she nevertheless states that her sole intention is to “raise awareness”. Bizarrely, “raising awareness” is now defined as an apolitical act! Wood continues, “I am just a messenger.” This may be correct, but a messenger carries a message and that message is unquestionably a political statement. It is sad that today’s so-called radical artists are so diplomatically concerned about the political character of their own acts. Baudelaire must be bemoaning this state of affairs in his 19th century tomb.

James Payne, the director of the PayneShurvell Gallery, is surely right when he defines Wood’s works as “difficult and opinionated” – surely a politically correct term for “political”? According to Payne, Wood’s work has ‘immediacy in its conception, but is politically ambiguous, which makes it challenging. For sure it encompasses issues of denial and social exclusion but she doesn’t shy away from emotionally charged topics. Like the artist, her work has forthright views that are both provocative and raw.

“But Lucy Wood is above all an artist and like so many of the artists ... a great storyteller. It just so happens that in this case she is telling a story through conceptual art. A story that, possibly, we have become indifferent to: human trafficking.

“This year, nearly 50,000 North African migrants have come ashore in the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa or the ‘port to Europe’ as the migrants call it. Lucy’s new show documents the migrant’s journey across unmapped territory between two politically opposite landscapes − North Africa and Lampedusa, a tiny island with only 5,300 local inhabitants whose waters are littered with empty North African fishing boats and dead bodies’ (James Payne, ‘The Art of Politics, the Politics of Art’, The Huffington Post, 13 July 2012).

Meanwhile, the journalist Emily Gosling in Design Week (August 2011) characterises Wood’s works as ‘highly political and radical’.

Wood’s project, which was initiated in Mexico in 2009, has a distinctly political title: Distant Neighbours. She experienced a certain cautious tension during her negotiations with the Italian authorities, which were “initially concerned I’d use the boat against them”. Finally the Italian government donated the migrant boat in which Lucy Wood intends to sail forth in 2013. It would be interesting to know if the Maltese authorities were contacted to seek their permission as well, and indeed to see how Maltese artists and commentators will react to this performance. In this context I can only recall Pierre Portelli’s paper boat installation, ‘and when i reach port’, which was shown at St James Cavalier in 2004. Paradoxically, I remember Portelli himself denying the political element in his otherwise important statement. However, his entry in the exhibition catalogue seems to be saying something quite different:

“Anxious departures conceived in a paroxysm of febrile thought. The sleepless waves bear the boat of the Initiate to the cult of chance as the furtive thought throbs with expectation. Art stretches language to its limits and creates new possibilities even peripheral ones. The clandestine thought, like the ever shifting paper boat provides a means of fragile escape from stagnation, repression … breaking the shackles of imprisoning logical thought and going beyond that to create and transform possibilities.

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