An old tenement building close to the harbour in Valletta seems an unlikely location in which to launch an organisation for the promotion of avant garde art in Malta, especially as the building is believed to have been used as a brothel. Yet this summer the building was chosen for Cityspaces, an exhibition of the work of 11 of the country's artists, led by Raphael Vella. Originally, he says, the idea was house the exhibition in the streets and squares of the city, which proved difficult 'because of the usual, notorious red tape demanding permits from a multitude of authorities'. Instead, the tenement building was chosen because it was empty.
'Can a space ever be described as being "empty"?' Vella asks. 'When I visited the uninhabited property, I saw ten empty rooms on five floors, all resembling one another and containing (at most) nothing more than a tiny sink with a bucket propped underneath. At the back of each room, the smallest of lavatories: ten identical lavatories. On the roof, a heavily weathered shed with a whole wall built of wood ('Reminds me of Auschwitz,' one artist commented). It was obvious that whoever had lived here hardly enjoyed a basic standard of living, let alone contemplated the principles of décor. There was nothing much to say about the place, except that it was ugly and rather depressing. But the fact that it might have been a brothel made it much more interesting.
'But was the place really "empty"? Is the lack of furniture - the most visible sign of human presence in a building - a sufficient condition to qualify a space as being empty? More important (and more difficult to answer): how do you represent "emptiness"? From the void of Yves Klein to the silence of John Cage and on to the contemporary negative spaces of Rachel Whiteread, this question has haunted the minds of artists and composers at least since Malevitch painted his White on White series around 1918. To discover, quite by chance, the safe refuge of a void: the silent dream of every artist!'
The discovery of the building, however, did not alter Vella's requirements, including that the art should demonstrate a process rather than a finished work and that it should not be for sale. And, just as if Cityspaces had been located in the streets and squares of Valletta, the installations were to relate to their location, which was also an alternative space - not a museum or gallery. In fact, the alternative space could be seen as a deliberate criticism of the gallery used in Valletta for contemporary shows.
Given the reputation of the building, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the artists, Mark Mangion, filled his room with a laptop full of disturbing images surrounded by photographs on the walls of a couple making love in positions recommended by the Kama Sutra. Another installation, by Patrick Fenech, also hinted at the former use of the building. He showed a picture of a semi-nude model lying on the floor who seems to be dead, especially since her body is framed by a police-line. But the fact that the photograph itself is given a religious frame turns the image into an icon. Sex and religion make excellent bedfellows in art!
Religion, in fact, still seems to haunt Malta's avant garde artists, which is not surprising given the art and architecture of the Knights of St John (who ruled Malta from 1530-1798) and the religious festas that take place all over Malta during the summer. Thus Vella had a small book called The Student's Catholic Doctrine nailed to the walls of his blacked-out room, its pages opened at where they offer proof of the existence of God which is marked by a young girl's note in pencil, 'for exam.' Vella apologises for dragging St Augustine into a brothel. And in another room, Pierre Portelli showed an old armchair covered in wax. Maltese churches everywhere are ablaze with candles.
Even if the building was once a brothel - or if it was just a home for the most impoverished of Valletta's citizens - it would nevertheless have been full of dreams and these were hinted at by Norman Francis Attard's installation, A Place Called Paradise. His room had been turned in to a beach complete with an umbrella, deck chair and red water (signifying blood?) continually circulating between the sink and the bucket. As the visitors cleared away the sand on the floor, they could read quotations from Alan Botton's new book, The Art of Travel - but they also discovered that the 'sand' was, in fact, sawdust and gave off a wonderful smell. As is usual in Attard's work, nothing is quite what it seems. It was an outdoor setting in a built environment that contained a multiplicity of meanings.
All the artists taking part in Cityspaces have now formed a new group called StART, one of whose aims is to get the importance of art recognised by the Maltese educational system. At present, it provides no art degree at either undergraduate or post-graduate level. This would be a start in getting the government to recognise the importance of contemporary art in the country. It is, as Vella says, part of Malta's future and needs to be varied, vibrant and encouraged. And a step has clearly been made in the right direction because the Minister of Culture visited Cityspaces and donated money so that its catalogue can be published as a hardback. He has also appointed Attard as a committee member of the newly established Council of the Arts & Culture to advise on government policy.