The Malta Independent 29 February 2020, Saturday

FIRST: At one with the earth

First Magazine Wednesday, 18 April 2018, 09:39 Last update: about 3 years ago

Greta Muscat Azzopardi talks to multi-disciplinary artist Victor Agius about his work and his current exhibition Terrae.

I first met Victor Agius a few years ago during a session of Valletta 2018's Curatorial School. He was telling the story of how, in 2015, one of his pieces burst into flames while he was making it and was completely destroyed. He subsequently painstakingly managed to create a second version of it but the piece was later taken down from its commissioned location in a public space without his knowledge and before he had even had the chance to photograph it properly. I was intrigued with the dramatic story and surprised that his work had somehow completely slipped my art radar up until then. Multi-disciplinary, matter-of-fact and completely at ease in his connection to earth, I find Agius's work an extremely important narrative for the times in which we live.

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Victor Agius works from his studio and workshop in Xagħra, Gozo. Ġgantija and the Xagħra Stone Circle, located nearby, are important influences, along with their rituals of life and death and a sacred connection to the earth. A lot of the material for Victor's ceramics, mixed-media pieces, paintings and performances comes from locations around the island of Gozo. He collects clay from construction sites that dig deep into the clay layer in preparation for the foundations for big apartment blocks and his workshop is peppered with buckets of clay undergoing different phases of material research, some with location labels.

Agius has been doing personal research on Gozitan clay for the past 13 years. "I have always felt inclined to use natural materials and am now trying to become aware of my own native collection of materials. I'm trying to confront it through my own way of working," he said, as I sat in his studio, surrounded by his work.

"I want people to have a direct affinity to my work. I want them to feel as if they found it in nature, rather than reacting to something made by man. That link between man and the earth, between man and nature, has to remain vital. My mission is to leave matter and earth and nature to speak: the spirit inhabits the material."

Within the backdrop of traditional, Catholic Gozo, this almost Shamanistic approach to the role of the artist might seem alien. However, Agius points out the similarities that are present at the basis of human rituals, be they ancient burial ceremonies at the Xagħra Stone Circle, Catholic celebrations or a performance by an artist who seeks to tap into the very essence of such rituals.

"Through ritual we are trying to make something unseen present by creating something senses can feel. Nature also fills this void of making the unseen tangible. From the times of the Altamira cave drawings - drawn around 15,500 years ago - to the present day, each community has its own rituals of survival. As an artist, I also have my own rituals: I collect my own material just like a farmer works the land."

 

"In Gozo, we are people who love rituals. We want to feel secure doing the things that our grandmother used to do. When I am away for Easter I feel as if I am missing something important. As part of the 2013 Ġgantija Project (an interdisciplinary performance with participation in sculpture by Agius, original music by Mariella Cassar-Cordina and lyrics by Immanuel Mifsud held inside the Ġgantija Temples) I exhibited casts of stone as containers of communal rituals. The Temple was a container for rituals just as the football ground/theatre contains some of our rituals today."

Having grown up with his sculptor father, Agius was introduced to art at a young age. However, it took some time for him to find the courage to show his work. "When I started out in 2008-2009, I kept my work to myself. I did not have the courage to show it to anyone. Vince Briffa saw some of it and encouraged me to get it out there. Studying at Central St Martin's was also a huge source of encouragement to share my work.

"The Ġgantija Project opened a window for me to somehow define myself. Five years later, I still get a lot of questions and interest about what I did there - and this keeps me going. I feel that I am still at the start of this conversation. People ask me whether I'm a sculptor or a painter or a performer, but this is all part of the same search, the same questioning."

Agius's current exhibition Terrae deals precisely with this search. "I'm using elements from the last six years of my practice as a way of gaining perspective on my work. I'm coming to terms with my own relationship within Terrae (Earth). This might lead me to part with the type of work that I have been doing or to create a new conversation from it."

The rugged ceramic and mixed media sculptures that Agius is perhaps now most known for will form the body of the exhibition running during the month of April at Iniala Galleries in Valletta. New work from his two ongoing series Mother and Genesis, made using unfired raw clay, will accompany his signature abstract stoneware sculptures. Somehow, both formless and full of form with rough and agitated skins informed by rock formations and seaside landforms, these sculptures have been described as baroque structures that bridge nature to man-made art.

"Nature is already inside us. It's up to us to communicate with it and within it. Even if we negate it, we have to survive thanks to our destruction of it, thanks to our consumption of nature. Rituals, survival, claiming territory, the economy - all of these are forms of consumption of nature. Everything starts and ends with nature. All of this is part of the same circle."

Large-scale paintings featuring the application of soil, clay and found objects such as twigs or roots will also be part of Terrae. One of the exhibited pieces, Ricordi Ancestrali, shows the ancestral heritage hidden in our local rock layers, unearthing hidden forms and thereby throwing light on elements that we usually tend to ignore.

For Agius, the place from where material is collected is an important element of each piece he makes. "Material is not just material - it has a story." Each painting and sculpture becomes a map and memento of the sites from which it originated, some of which have been forever transformed through urbanisation and the actions of man.

"The more we hear about development, the more numb we become. If we lose our soul, no one will come to see cement. If we lose our scenery and beautiful places it will be a tragedy. It's very sad and I try not to talk about it. I am not yet ready to confront that in my art.

"The artist-shaman puts together a personal story with the communal story, weaving meaning and a sense of belonging into the work. Each place, each bay, each location has both a personal and a collective meaning. I start with my own personal story but when I finish a piece it starts to have a collective meaning, as each viewer creates their own personal story from it."

As we all try to make sense of our existence on earth, Terrae provides a much-needed moment of reflection.

Terrae is kindly supported by Michael Grech Financial Investment Services, RS2, Gozo Arts Furnishings Ltd, Marsovin and Vee Gee Bee. The exhibition will be open to the public from 5th April to 2nd May at the Iniala Galleries in Valletta.

 


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