The Malta Independent 26 March 2023, Sunday
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The cabinet of many curiosities

Nikki Petroni Monday, 13 June 2016, 15:57 Last update: about 8 years ago

The view outside my front door is that of a construction site, that from the living room window is of cranes adding a sizeable extension to an already existing building. The development and the destruction of Malta's built environment are being discussed everyday on social media, in newspapers and political cartoons, naturally provoking many to react. It is clear that much is changing at a pace which is oftentimes difficult to make sense of, let alone consider the future consequences of such unending activity.

Walter Benjamin argues that it is very difficult to contemplate architectural form when we experience it due to the utilitarian purposes of buildings. Which is why I really appreciate those moments which allow me to concentrate on buildings, to look at the way in which they shape space and are themselves shaped by the surrounding environment.

I once again ventured into ideas on the form and function of architecture when seeing the piece presented by Architecture Project (AP) for this year's edition of the Venice Biennale's International Architecture Exhibition displayed at Palazzo Mora. Presented as a collection of complex narratives told with the use of objects and images, the work, titled 'The Rabbit-Duck Illusion', is one which focuses on cultural and architectural memory, and on new ways of rethinking contemporary visual and intellectual culture, both in Malta and abroad.

It is presented as a purpose-built display cabinet which exhibits a plethora of diverse objects, reminiscent of a display at an ethnographic museum. Each item is intriguing and peculiar, yet imbued with a sense of historical importance. The familiarity of some of the objects provokes one to remember individual and also collective memories, establishing a link with various moments from the past. Yet the unfamiliarity and even ambivalence of others creates new visual experiences. The juxtaposition of all the objects opens up a multitude of experimental doors for the possibility of creation without negating the preservation and the reinvestigation of the past. The intention was to permit multiple viewpoints and interpretations, essentially opening up history to a future of possibilities.

The cabinet displays a collection of found objects from old buildings. These primarily include a number of abandoned heads that were discovered over the course of the years that AP have been involved with old buildings: wax heads found in unwanted chests of drawers, a clay head of St. Paul which was lifted out of a well, and, also a head of St. John about to be decapitated.  One of the main objectives was to show that architects have the task of turning 'horror stories into masterpieces'.  Artists Madeleine Gera, Aaron Bezzina and Aude Franjou interpreted the uncovering of these stories while at the same time hinting at how art can save the world.

This is not AP's first project for the Venice Architecture Biennale. The architectural firm also participated in the 2014 edition. The team, made up of Konrad Buhagiar, Tom van Malderen, Guillaume Dreyfuss and Erica Giusta, wanted to create a laboratory; 'an interface conducive to the development of creative practice and architecture in Malta, and providing the platform for confrontation on the international scene.' AP's participation in the Venice Biennale, supported by the Malta Arts Fund, is an opportunity to contribute to the international debate on contemporary architecture, to involve the international community of architects and designers in its research. This would give those involved and those who engage with the ideas presented in the piece the chance to enrich Malta's architectural and creative potential.

What interested me most about this project is its engagement with current architectural problems and developments in Malta, as well as with those of other countries undergoing similar rapid and large-scale change, without explicitly and uncritically illustrating the situation. In fact, the curator of this edition of the architecture exhibition, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena wanted the biennale to discuss the precariousness of architecture as an inventive, creative practice which is sometimes faced with the inevitability of destruction.

When asked about the current situation, the AP Biennale team underlined the need for architecture to be conscientious whilst embracing contemporary opportunities; 'There is no escaping today from the reality that the commercial dimension of the construction industry is paramount for the economic well-being of the island, with all the political implications that this brings with it. There is a lot of advantage to be had, both economic and social, however, effort must be put into the architectural and urban quality of our construction endeavours as this brings with it more lasting and sustainable financial and cultural returns. Architectural history can provide not only worthy lessons but also the discipline that can guarantee continuity, integrity and quality.'

It is not only history but also the importance of myth which is tackled in 'The Rabbit-Duck Illusion', an element which is just as important to the creation of social and artistic value in architecture, as in all other art forms. Myths underline collective traditions, but more importantly, as history shows us, acts as springboards for continuous creativity. In fact, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci argues that the 'obliteration of myths' is practiced by dominant powers to alienate people from their culture and history, and hence their communal links. 

It is in keeping history and myths alive that we may build lasting futures. The advantage of being engulfed by so much development is that everyone is discussing Malta's architectural past and its future, thus making us revisit cultural and individual repressed memories. Projects like 'The Rabbit-Duck Illusion' give us the chance to take a step back and to contemplate the qualities and implications of the new and the old, and to analyse how these may affect contemporary and future life.





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