The Malta Independent 5 December 2023, Tuesday
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A pavilion on the sea

Marika Azzopardi Tuesday, 21 May 2019, 13:18 Last update: about 6 years ago
‘Outland’ – installation by Vince Briffa, photo by David Levene
‘Outland’ – installation by Vince Briffa, photo by David Levene

The Venice Biennale Arte 2019 certainly lives up to the theme with which it has been baptised... "May you live in interesting times".

Arriving in Venice to be part of the throngs of people who flock there for the main reason of seeing it all at the pre-opening, and failing miserably, since that "all" is larger than enormous, I head to Napolean Bonaparte's Giardini to see the far end of the Biennale expositions.

Tracing my steps back to the Arsenale, I reach the massive building wherein the Malta Pavilion is located. Once inside, I have to walk past a wild array of works - conspicuous, bizarre, impressive and exciting to say the least. There is more elsewhere, at the other venues and palazzos hosting exhibits and shows. But at the Arsenale, there is enough inspiration to last a good long time. I am in awe of works by Alexandra Bircken, Arthur Jafa, Christian Marclay, Hito Steyerl, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Yin Xiuzhen. And this is just a taster. Being at the 58th edition of this International Art Exhibition on the opening day of Malta's national pavilion is nothing short of extraordinary.


Against this backdrop, Malta has created a pavilion that looks unsettlingly mild, seemingly tranquil, isolated from external cacophony, but carrying undercurrents that fill the darkened space with meaning, the darkness of time. It is all about the waters which block us on the islands, the waters that protect us, the very same waters which break us away. The themes of separation, distance, isolation, emigration and immigration are ones we Maltese know too well, and are as old as our island nation. And even as we still experience these realities, we are conscious of the fact that the diversity caused by this migration lands us in the very same "interesting-ness" we are being wished.

Three artists are representing Malta with their respective works - Trevor Borg who presents Cave of Darkness - Port of no Return; Vince Briffa who presents Outland and Klitsa Antoniou from Cyprus who presents Atlantropa X. The three installations are bound by the common title of Maleth/Haven/Port - Heterotopias of Evocation.

Atlantropa X - installation by Klitsa Antoniou, photo by David Levene

Borg is inspired by prehistory, the remains dug out at Għar Dalam and the evolutionary meaning of the passage of animals which became entrapped here, thanks to the movement of land masses in the Mediterranean. He admits to a childhood fascination, a curiosity of how these first migrants must have lived their experience, as they walked here in terror and hope, and then starved on a rock which could not feed them. The exhibits in this part of the pavilion add up to nearly 400 and take the form of re-created animal remains and renditions of archaeological finds. All are made of delicate ceramic, as white as sun-bleached bones, all evoking discoveries unearthed in Malta.

Briffa takes the migration issue one step forward in time and recreates a part of Homer's mythological story of Ulysses, namely his landing on Calypso's isle which, legend has it, is Gozo. A multi-media installation attempts to interpret Ulysses' seven-year-long inner battle to leave, to stay, to head for home when home had become elsewhere. The short film evokes feelings of frustration, escapism, melancholic memories and confusion. The presence of a contemporary "Ulysses" is balanced out by the presence his female counterpart, a dual personality embodying both Calypso who wants to keep him, and Penelope who wants him back, perhaps. The film is screened overlooking "saltpans" of seawater, actual water, aptly reflecting the movement of the video itself and reminds us of the ethereality of existence... the sea which brings the salt and leaves it behind to scorch under the sun.

Hardcore reality is represented by walls of Mediterranean seaweed rising above my head, perhaps simulating walls of sea waves ready to wash us away. The sea that surrounds us and makes us the islanders that we are. Or perhaps this is a seabed of weeds where corpses lie to rest. A movement of water and colour is at my feet. I step on projected footage of the movement of Mediterranean waters filmed by NASA over the past two years, punctuated by news footage of migrants travelling, arriving, landing or being rescued from their boats, seeking refuge on a land they can probably never call home. This is the work of Antoniou who understands this reality only too well, having been a refugee child in her own country, having lost family in conflict, which caused the kind of rifts that tear families apart. Her inspiration for this installation was a barely remembered German architect's 1920's project proposing to partially drain the Mediterranean Sea and create one supercontinent - factually named Atlantropa.

Cave of Darkness,  Port of no Return  - Artworks by Trevor Borg. Photo by Charlie Azzopardi

And so the opening event proceeds. The crowd is a healthy mix of artists, connoisseurs, organisers, Maltese and not. The event is well attended even by members of the foreign press who, like myself, are present to ask questions and observe. The overall theme of this curatorial project is intense and actual. The presentation is neat, nearly apologetic but providing a sensitiveness to the topic. The pavilion is drawing the attention of a varied selection of choice art media, ranging from Frieze magazine through to Christie's even before the official opening date of 11 May. 

Most certainly, visiting this pavilion on a quiet day would be greatly recommended. A day when there are no crowds, when sound, imagery and exhibits can be appreciated in isolation, and thus the raw undercurrents of the project can be allowed to wash over the mind and be absorbed. I realised that this pavilion is all about an island and the sea and it is here, placed neatly on another island called Venice.

The Venice Biennale Arte 2019 closes on 24 November.

The Malta Pavilion has been commissioned by Arts Council Malta and curated by Dr Herperia Iliadou-Suppiej. Architect and designer - Matthew Joseph Casha; Production manager George Lazoglou.


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