The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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Diplomazija Astuta to represent Malta at Biennale di Venezia 2022

Sunday, 13 February 2022, 09:02 Last update: about 11 months ago

The Maltese Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale will feature the curatorial project Diplomazija astuta. Emma Borg and Hannah Dowling speak to the team leader and co-curator of the project, KEITH SCIBERRAS.

Can you explain the genesis of 'Diplomazija astuta' and how you started working with Arcangelo Sassolino and Jeffrey Uslip?

A couple of years ago, Jeffrey Uslip contacted me because he was working on a project with Arcangelo Sassolino. Essentially, Sassolino was projecting an installation that both wanted to anchor itself in the dripping of the blood of the martyred St John the Baptist and Caravaggio's monumental Beheading. Ideas ran back and forth over a drop of molten steel and they contacted me for art historical advice and perspective. I often get requests for contemporary Caravaggio-themed projects, but I must say this captured me from the onset. I knew Sassolino's work well enough to find it extraordinarily intriguing and, paradoxically, so distant to who and what I usually work on. Added to this, Uslip had a brilliant contemporary narrative. We reworked the project and thought of a number of events to display the work. It kept on growing and at one point it moved almost on its own in the direction of a proposal for the Venice Biennale and the Malta Pavilion. It was at that point that the project took off.


Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Brian Schembri are also involved in the project. What are they contributing?

Yes, the team is a large one. In terms of the artistic/curatorial team, it is made up of five of us. There are two co-curators, Uslip and myself, and three artists, Sassolino, Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci and Brian Schembri. I must emphasise the fact that, in terms of curatorship, this project has strong cohesion in its intellectual and creative input. It was borne out of the many discussions (and obvious arguments) that we had. Schembri Bonaci and Schembri got involved when the framework of the project was being defined and we realised that their contribution would add much more value. Firstly, Schembri Bonaci brings on his input as a contemporary art theorist, in addition to his artwork; the latter reflects his own intellectual background. Secondly, we knew from the onset that the work would benefit from a percussive score. Since the work is anchored strongly in the aura of the Oratory of the Decollato in Valletta where Caravaggio's painting is located, Schembri was the best choice. I must point out that the team is actually much larger because it also includes project managers Nikki Petroni and Esther Flurry, and an extraordinary production team made up of architects, engineers, metal workers and designers who are actually building the project. The entire Malta Pavilion is managed by the commissioner, Arts Council Malta.

Arcangelo Sassolino in the production studio of the Malta Pavilion. Photo credit: Massimo Penzo

How do you manage your role as team leader?

My role is firstly as co-curator and art historian, therefore handling the many curatorial aspects. Then there is the role as team leader, which involves more administrative duties and connections with the Commissioner, the Venice Biennale organisation and the wider platforms of the international artistic community.  The role of team leader is essential. Let us be honest, the absolute majority of creatives can be complicated. I come from the world of Seicento scholarship and, before this, I thought that Caravaggio scholars were complicated. I can assure you that, in comparison, they are not.


The production team is based in Vicenza, correct?

Yes, the production and realisation of the installation is materialising in Vicenza. Importantly, Sassolino's studio is based at Vicenza, so we obviously availed ourselves to expertise, engineers and companies that formed part of his technical entourage. This is also due to the sheer complexity and size of the work. This is a project with a huge tonnage, so we needed to find a place to design and construct as close as possible to Venice. It is much easier for artists and curators to travel to the production site, than for gigantic sheets of metal to go to where the artists and curators are.


Undoubtedly, this project is a large-scale production. How do you manage the costs for such a giant undertaking?

This is the nightmare. Funding: how do you fund a project when you sign a contract in August for April the following year, while in the midst of a global pandemic?  The production costs of this project are enormous. And I use that word literally. We are talking about tonnage of steel, transportation costs, handling costs, engineering costs and testing and design costs. We are working largely with steel, a medium which spiralled in terms of costs due to the pandemic. Every week the costs continue to rise. Obviously, the Commissioner covers part of the project but there are also major supporters of the project. Supporters who believe in it, who know us. They are investing in artistic excellence. Here, I must thank Sassolino for the work he has done for the Malta Pavilion.  Without trying to sound grandiose I think in terms of its creative challenges and material production, the Pavilion is not something we are accustomed to within the Maltese context of contemporary art.


As you've already elucidated, the team is an international one with Jeffrey Uslip and Esther Flury based in the USA, Arcangelo Sassolino in Italy, as well as the production team based in Vicenza. Within this context, how can you ensure that the Pavilion will remain distinctly Maltese?

Today, can we really speak about national art without an international context? Can we speak about a pavilion that is distinctly Maltese, French or American? What makes it Maltese? Is it because the production is Maltese? Is it because it was built in Malta? Was it conceived in Malta? Or is it anchored in Malta? Better if we speak of co-creations, co-productions and international exchanges. In many ways, if we are to anchor it to a space, then this project departs from the Oratory of the Decollato. It departs from how the five of us react to that space in different ways and forms and how we managed, I think, successfully, a work that dialogues with the aura of the Beheading.


A key element to the project Diplomazija astuta is the diplomatic and cultural relationship that Malta has with Italy. Malta has a long and profound history connected to Italy, but today that relationship has arguably shifted. Given the globalised world we live in, Italy's cultural impact locally is not the same as it used to be. Therefore, why do you think it is important to reinforce this connection?

The genesis for the project comes from a contemporary Italian artist who wished to dialogue with Caravaggio and Malta and who, through a contemporary art curator from New York, got in touch with me. But having said that, Italo-Maltese cultural dialogue is within the DNA of Maltese art. We can't separate it if we speak about art throughout the centuries and we certainly can't separate Caravaggio from the Oratory. Caravaggio himself was a Lombard artist. How Maltese did he feel when he was made a Knight of Malta? There is this extraordinary relationship and the way Sassolino dialogued with Caravaggio and the Maltese artistic community consolidates this Italo-Maltese tradition. This I find to be beautiful.


Caravaggio is prominent in this project. Being a Seicento scholar, would you consider this as a re-articulation of The Beheading of St John? Furthermore, would you consider the Malta Pavilion project to be one that de-iconises an icon?

I am not interested in de-iconising an icon. Simply put, the project emerges from the desire of artists and curators within a team, who were anchoring their project to an artist of reference. There was a work of reference or a space of reference. My role as a Seicento scholar was to elucidate on the context of that space and to articulate the contextual, theoretical and art-historical references of the project. Uslip's role is to dialogue with contemporary imagery, while Sassolino, Schembri Bonaci and Schembri sought to anchor their own creative production in what we were discussing. The point of departure, and the beauty of it all, is that the Malta Pavilion reminds you of the space of the Oratory but takes you into contemporary thought and engagement. This is essential. Would it have worked elsewhere other than the space of the pavilion in the Arsenale in Venice? Probably yes, but not with the same impact.


How does this project encapsulate the spirit of the Oratory, and how would you describe this spirit?

I am using the word aura. The aura is a very intimate and often personal bond which one establishes with a work of art or with a space. I have used the same terms very often. Each and every time I walk into the Oratory, the space transmits a personal dialogue that sucks me into the work of art. There is always this challenge in trying to see if we manage to create a space that captures this aura that sends shivers down your spine. We are not competing with Caravaggio, obviously, you cannot compete with the Beheading.  It is not our intention at all to mimic the Beheading.


It has previously been noted that the pavilion plays with metal and with silence. I am particularly interested in the idea of contending with silence. Could you develop on that?

This takes us back to the Oratory. The one thing the aura of the Beheading creates is silence. But it is an eerie silence because it is a silence that seems to be broken by the very act of murder. The space absorbs the dynamics of the execution and provides this silence. The material that Sassolino engages with is metal. When we started off explaining the project one of the main challenges was how we will use induction technology, electrical systems, steel, and water as our media for the creation of the work. The project plays with silence just like Caravaggio plays with his space. The installation we have will have a percussive score which will also provide moments of deep spiritual penetration. These moments are the silent moments.


The previous Malta Pavilion projects all tried to manifest their team's unique relationship with Maltese identity. How do you feel that Diplomazija astuta reflects this identity and how does it differ from previous pavilions in this regard?

The three pavilions are very different in character. They are also different in aesthetics and anchoring, and they provide different experiences. I am not the one who is here to compare our project with the other projects. Ours is perhaps more monumental if we can use that word. This does not make it better or more creatively challenging. But, in terms of mechanics, it has involved a monumental effort in the physical production of the work. It certainly does not make it more artistically valuable. I think that in terms of its Maltese identity this is something that was very strongly recognised by the selection committee appointed by Arts Council Malta [ACM]. ACM's artistic direction allowed for this dialogue and encouraged this collaboration where Maltese curators, artists and project managers engage with international colleagues. The Maltese component is very strong. It also has a strong educational programme, coordinated by the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta.


One of the key themes of the project is justice and reconciliation. What injustice does the project hope to address and what reconciliation needs to be made? How may one tackle these themes?

The oratory was built or completed by the Confraternita della Misericordia. A confraternity that aimed at performing acts of mercy and in particular the burial of the dead. In many ways, the original context was meant to assist in the act of dying well. This was conceived as an act of mercy. To die well spiritually, not physically. In our first discussions, between Uslip, Sassolino and I, we really focused on the drop of blood. We reflected on unjust execution and death, and how we can contemplate the injustices of today. The aim is to create a space/sort of chapel where the audience can reflect freely and where they can situate within the context of contemporary injustices. It can mean different things to different people. I have my personal takes and some are very strong felt. They deal with Malta's recent history and with the injustices in the world around us, whether it was the coldblooded murder of a young woman on the Sliema seafront, or the execution of Daphne Caruana Galizia or the tragic death of migrants out at sea. My hope is that it provides a space for personal reflection on injustice, a meeting for different points of view and ultimate reconciliation. It is also a project that immerses its audience. The further you sink into it, the more you will appreciate the depth of thought.


The curatorial team for the Malta Pavilion comprises curators Keith Sciberras and Jeffrey Uslip, kinetic artist Arcangelo Sassolino, theoretic artist Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, musician and composer Brian Schembri, and project managers Nikki Petroni and Esther Flury.

The curatorial project Diplomazija astuta will represent Malta at the 2022's Biennale di Venezia international art exhibition. The Venice Biennale will be open to the public from 23 April to 27 November. The Malta Pavilion is commissioned by Arts Council Malta, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Heritage, The Arts and Local Government.


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