The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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The importance of critical contemporary art

Monday, 14 September 2015, 12:49 Last update: about 10 years ago

Nikki Petroni

The Maltese contemporary art scene has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half. Not only have the participant population and the number of events increased but, more importantly, so has international collaboration both locally and abroad. The latter point is essential to effectuate the breaking down of the distinctions between the small 'us' and large 'them', and I believe that many have managed to transgress the physical and intellectual boundaries of insularity.

This week I paid a visit to the second edition VIVA - the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival - which is produced under the artistic direction of Dr Raphael Vella, and was very glad to have done so. The international dimension is laudable, with all the events and exhibitions involving participants from several countries. What was really notable was the focus on Valletta as a city and the concept of urbanization, a subject which I feel is underexplored by Maltese artists. Last April I attempted to debate the idea of urbanization within Maltese art as part of the Department of History of Art, University of Malta's modern and contemporary art lecture series.

The first exhibit I saw was in fact called Beltin and featured a series of portraits taken by photographer Zvezdan Reljic with documentation by Elise Billiard. The portraits were of people who held an intimate relationship with Valletta's past and present, its high and popular culture, its heritage and people. Some sitters expressed concern due to the rapid development which is changing Valletta's landscape, a constant problem in any urban area.

Another highlight was the collective exhibition at the Upper Galleries of St. James Cavalier called 'Good Walls Make Good Neighbours'. This exhibition was one of the more interesting sections which dealt with issues such as the possibilities inherent in urban destruction, migration and territorial politics, domestic politics and drone technology.

The Palestinian Video Art exhibit presented a couple of creative pieces which tackled the antagonism between Israel and Palestine and the concept of ownership, which was explicit yet creative and multi-layered in the two pieces by Larissa Sansour. Palestine's situation has become a central topic in contemporary art. I had seen several exhibitions in London and other European cities which represented the Palestinian cause. The Pompidou Centre in Paris is currently showing a large retrospective of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum which deals precisely with such questions.

Most exhibits were overtly political, as is much contemporary art seen in the world's major museums and galleries. To address global and local problems in art is essential as one cannot ignore their own surroundings. However, aesthetics also have their own politics, as Jacques Rancière argues, and this is a significant consideration. Otherwise how are to differentiate between politics and art? The form and content of art are inseparable entities, and the importance of one must not exceed that of the other. Theodor Adorno writes that for art to be politically committed it must creatively transcend empirical data; it must be autonomous and objective, or else it risks becoming a commodity object produced for the art market.

There were some works exhibited which did fall into this trap of following certain prevalent models and topics in contemporary art. The idea of Umberto Buttigieg and Maxine Attard's A Dining Room was probably too similar to Rikrit Tiravanija's setting up of an actual dining room in a gallery in 1992, which was again staged at New York's MoMA in 2012. Martina Galea's Transmitted Data likewise appeared as a practical replica of John Cage's 1978 A Dip in the Lake. Links between art and artists are extremely important, but one must always strive for originality, even when making reference to other artworks. Following globalised methods of art production uncritically poses the danger of creating a homogeneous culture which irons out the creases of difference. And the problem with plurality as dealt with today, as argued by Chantal Mouffe, is that in its acceptance of everything it overshadows the conflicts which do actually exist by engendering a false sense of unity. Art and politics cannot be engaged with superficially.

The main exhibit of the 2014 VIVA edition, Austin Camilleri's Żieme, was unfortunately unchallenged in this year's edition. Żieme is unequivocally one of the best contemporary art pieces produced by a Maltese artist in the last decade. Without being explicit about its politics but rather working through the channels of aesthetics, the three-legged horse caused a national outburst. For once everyone discussed art even if from a variety of angles, which perturbed our politicians who were more than eager to do away with the sculpture. This work was based upon a tradition of equestrian sculpture whilst being original and also deeply political.

What Żieme also did was hold up a mirror to the condition of both local and global politics, to the rampant corruption which is witnessed daily. The piece was self-critical, meaning it provoked us to think about our own political landscape. This precedent set by the first edition of VIVA must persist in all subsequent editions. It is much easier for us to look at the migrant and border crisis from an outsider's point of view, but to really penetrate into the problem by means of art ourselves is much more sensitive. We who are so central to the current movement of people across the Mediterranean Sea should be tackling the subject critically.

Later on this year, the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale under the artistic direction of Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci will showcase contemporary art which will also make us stop and think about our relationship with art and politics, with the entire spectrum of systems of belief and non-belief. Belief is of course not tied down to the postulates of institutional religions but is a way of conceiving one's own existence. Over one hundred artists and performers from 25 different countries and all from diverse cultural backgrounds will be presenting work in a variety of artistic media, turning Mdina into a city of contemporary art for two months.

Many foreign artists from several countries have already visited Malta to study Mdina's spaces, its history and culture. Those involved in the project, whether artists or coordinators, have had the opportunity to interact with the numerous international visitors and discuss a multitude of perspectives on faith and its relevance, or irrelevance, to contemporary society.

Events like the Mdina Biennale and VIVA allows us to discuss the global contemporary art scene and world politics. Whatever one's position, it is necessary to dialectically debate opinions and counter-opinions. Exhibitions of international scale and quality are exactly what Malta needs. What it also needs is for people to publicly discuss what that which they encounter at such exhibitions. Criticism and debate instigate further discussion which will consequently incite the perpetual creation of art. Now is an auspicious time for the growth of contemporary art in Malta. 

 Nikki Petroni is a doctoral student in the History of Art Department, University of Malta. She is also a member of the organisational team of the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale which will be held between 13 November 2015 and 7 January 2016. APS Bank is the main partner of the Mdina Biennale.


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