Ġgantija 2013 Final Exhibition (St James Cavalier, Valletta)

Ġgantija 2013 project – Final exhibition
Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier Centre for Ceativity) Valletta Malta, July-August 2014

The Ġgantija Art Project started as a long-term collaboration in 2013 between the visual artist Victor Agius and composer Mariella Cassar, together with writer Immanuel Mifsud. Victor and Mariella have formed an NGO under the name of Ars Vitae Ensemble to create collaborative projects that use contemporary art and music composition as a primary medium.

The exhibition at St James Cavalier is Victor Agius’ final work for the second phase of the Ġgantija Art Project; a body of work which stems from the first intervention of the artist within the Ġgantija Temple site last year. This time, Victor is shifting context, while remaining loyal to his beloved temple’s roots. Working in a sculptural idiom, he recasts rural patches of the dark earth into large and sometimes massive sculptures, where like the farmer who works the land in order to bear fruit, he works the land so that the land itself becomes its own Arcadia, an unspoiled, harmonious sculptural wilderness that many times belies the same intervention of the artist, as he purposely leaves no trace of his hand, making his intervention one with nature.

The works we are seeing in this exhibition are the result of a deep-rooted labour of love for place and an obsessive, shamanic act of appropriation and possession. Indeed, Victor is preoccupied by the practice of appropriating natural forms, found and even utilitarian objects and displacing them from their day-to-dayness, giving them a new meaning through shifting their context.  This act is one of honest transposition of forms through a rudimentary sculptural method, where the artist prefers to give the work an air of sincerity and where he lifts the natural form into the sculptural sublime. Raw clay, found pebbles, spiky shards, loose twigs and natural pigments are the vocabulary of Victor’s language; producing a sincere statement which draws on our ecological experience and translates itself into an archaeology of form and matter, reflecting on the reality of our lived experience of the natural world.

Victor aims to interpret form through re-inventing the function of what is perceived to be familiar. The materials he uses are displaced from their commonplace and turned into an art object through this honest act of sculptural translation. The narrative these objects emit is rooted in a duality of familiarity and ambiguity.  The artist is well aware of this and constantly pushes us to consider the new meaning behind such commonplace forms. The work therefore, seems to speak of vagueness, where the material it is made of is not clay or does not come from land any more. We also find it difficult at times to conceive if the forms are in their positive or negative states. Is this a found object of little value or is it a prized artefact that has been lovingly cast in order to save it for posterity? Is what we are experiencing a collection of contemporary art work or is this amalgamation of matter, that creates a discordant resonance with the whiteness of the gallery walls, more at home in a museum of natural history? Such questions are the impetus that drive the artist forward into his quest at re-inventing the anima of the land. Like the shamanic creators of Ġgantija, he believes that through preserving the outer form, he is encapsulating the spirit.

The ambiguity of this evocation is further heightened by the visceral sonority of Cassar’s composition in the documentation gallery, which manages to concurrently evoke the primordial desires of our ancestors while contemporaneously speak in a modish language. Like Agius’ work, this evocative composition cuts across the boundaries of the temples on a spatial level, claiming site specificity through the expansive setup of its performers; and also on a temporal level through its coeval and inclusive locution which spans millennia.

This exhibition invites the visitor to immerse herself in the primordial life force of this exhibition, in order to share in the artist’s recreating of the soul of the prehistoric temple, and to the uplifting of nature’s elements to the venerable altar of the gallery.

Vince Briffa


Artist’s Statment

Some of the sculptures are the results of my preoccupation with negative sculptural space of both industrial as well as natural objects. This practice was further developed following the performance and installations that were held at the Ġgantija Temples in June 2013. While the cast objects challenged the temple site through their out-of-context display, the negative spaces or casts in this exhibition interrelate visually with the gallery space. In this case the moulds do not form part of a casting process of an object, but are considered to be the final work. The terracotta pieces are negative skins formed through pressing slabs of clay on a number of megaliths found around Gozo.

The use of an array of different soils, clays and sands form the basis of my language of materials. Other materials which are not commonly used in paintings such as found objects, twigs and roots incorporated in these panels point to the sacredness of the earth and present matter as a pure form constructed with the least possible human intervention.

The site of Ġgantija is synonymous with ritual life, death and regeneration. The rawness of unfired Gozitan blue clay illustrates further the relationship between the ambience of the prehistoric temple and our physical association with the earth.  The organic megalithic form is a metaphor for the temple and transmits its aura through its gigantic proportions while the sphere, with its rugged and agitated surface, alludes to the vastness and infinite forms which know no beginning nor end, reminiscent of our ancestral birth.

Victor Agius

 

Artistic Meditations on the Ġgantija Theme. 

 

The Maltese islands boast of pre-historic sites of world heritage status.  Dating back thousands of years, these gems drew the attention of not only archaeologists and historians, but also of artists.  The latter range from nineteenth century painter Charles F. Brocktorff to ceramist Neville Ferry (1945-2011), and poets such as Achille Mizzi and Richard England.  Charles Camilleri composed works such as Music of the Temples of Malta whilst John Galea’s symphonic poem Ġgantija recounts the legend of a virgin who was sacrificed to the gods.

The Ġgantija collaborative project which was launched a few years ago is therefore a further link in a long chain of such tributes.  This project also illustrates how Maltese artists seem to be de-emphasising traditional descriptive qualities, in favour of more spontaneous responses to a particular subject, in line with contemporary artistic trends.   Artists are also becoming more inquisitive and willing to explore the possible connections between different media.

The current interdisciplinary exhibition being held at the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier, Valletta is the final phase of the Ġgantija project.  Visitors may appreciate recent mixed media works by Victor Agius, together with a video and other documentation of last year’s activity at the temples, which prominently featured the music of Mariella Cassar Cordina, enhanced by lyrics of the poet Immanuel Mifsud.

The initial plans and studies for the Ġgantija project date back to 2009 and subsequently evolved in various activities such as interactive sessions.  These collaborations materialised in a well researched undertaking, curated by Dr. Vince Briffa.  The contributors involved were too many to mention specifically, however the music of Mariella Cassar Cordina, the visual art of Victor Agius, and the poetry of Immanuel Mifsud played a major role.

One of the earlier musical initiatives took place when the Ars Vitae Ensemble met at Ġgantija in October 2009, and recorded some initial improvisations on cello, violin, digeridoo, and percussion, enhanced by other sounds such as water.

Since then Victor Agius created various works where he further explored the use of organic materials which flavour his creations with the characteristics of the local natural landscape.  Despite the unrefined state of these raw materials, the final compositions still convey an idea of neat design. Agius also proposed three-dimensional works which apart from their visual appeal can serve as percussion instruments.  Made in terracotta or found objects such as pebbles or sea shells, these fascinated the percussionist Renzo Spiteri who used them in some performances.

The expression of composer Mariella Cassar Cordina’s proved particularly fitting for the Ġgantija project.  Her willingness to experiment is attested by the way she occasionally incorporates instruments which do not commonly feature in contemporary repertoire, such as the harpsichord or celesta.  Her works are imbued with meditative passages, although not without climaxes.  In addition, when reduced to essentials, her idiom often conveys primordial allusions.  These characteristics feature in the artist’s composition Ġgantija 2013, and they find their parallelisms in the art of Victor Agius, which emphasises organic elements such as raw clay, sand and vegetation, assembled with minimal human intervention.

Mariella’s composition was premiered in June 2013, and the composer has now supplemented the original score with a second movement.  In doing so, she aimed at striking a balance between similarities and contrasts of the respective movements.  Common elements make up for a more unified work, and these include the blending of acoustic and electronic sounds and the use of Maltese lyrics by Immanuel Mifsud.  Additionally, both movements allow for improvisation on part of the performers; the first one is adorned by vocal improvisations, whereas the second one features concluding improvisations by the pianist.  In order to avoid creating a mere replica, there are some key differences between the movements as well.  In particular, the second movement is more minimalistic in its structure and instrumentation, and features more emphasis on manipulated acoustic sounds.

According to Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), one essential characteristic of valid works of art, is the transmission of the artist’s feeling to others, which is evoked by means of colours, words, sounds or other media.  Given this, one may expect that along the course of this multi-disciplinary project the respective artists were affected by and responded to the expression of their collaborators.  Mariella notes that both her music and Victor’s visual output evolved in response to each other’s works, discussions and joint research.  Not surprisingly, their output drifted in the same direction over the past year – becoming more minimalistic and aiming to convey the idea of space.  In Mariella’s composition Ġgantija 2013, the latter is suggested through the use of slower tempos, echoes, and unmetered bars.

Immanuel Mifsud’s contribution has similarly changed, since whereas last year’s lyrics featured an emphasis on sounds and vowels, the subsequent poem is a freer response to the Ġgantija theme.  Mifsud was aware that the text for the initial composition entailed leaving room for vocal improvisation, whereas in the succeeding poem he exercised less consideration for musical requisites.  He has thus referred to themes such as maternity and paternity which feature in prior works of his, and the re-generation of life which in Maltese pre-historic art is conveyed by the spiral motif.  Whilst only selections from Immanuel Mifsud’s verses are incorporated in Mariella’s composition, the poems are shown in their entirety in the exhibition, and the poet is reciting these works during the musical performance.

Maltese prehistoric sites are at times accredited as being fulcrums of sacred energy.  Certainly they do not lack the vibes of artistic inspiration, as attested by the outcomes of the Ġgantija project.  But how relevant are these “Standing Stones” to present-day life and contemporary art?

According to Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944): “Each period of a civilisation creates an art that is specific in it and which we will never see reborn. To try and revive the principles of art of past centuries can lead only to the production of stillborn works.”

This suggests that when the intriguing works of our forefathers are used as a source of inspiration, contemporary creations should still differ from their predecessors, if they are to retain their validity.  In this way, it is pertinent to note that the works presented in connection with the Ġgantija project are not replicas or a plain revival of pre-historic forms, but rather a re-interpretation, or an investigation into their interaction with our new ways of life.

Mariella Cassar Cordina acknowledges that Ġgantija constitutes an integral aspect of our contemporary identity, and therefore its adoption as a point of departure for this project can go beyond mere folkloristic or nationalistic concerns.  Indeed, in her case, this venture constituted an integral part of her doctoral programme at Dartington College of Arts, UK, where she explored how Maltese culture and identity can elicit contemporary artistic responses.

Overall it is encouraging to note that our pre-historic locations are still relevant to present-day artists, rather than serving exclusively as a relic.  These sites should be preserved not only through the upkeep of their outer appearance, but also by fostering a general interest in them.

In their haunting simplicity, the works completed during the course of the Ġgantija project demand our attention, without being intrusive.  Indeed, they seem to entice our thoughts to a higher level, and their meditative qualities can serve as a breath of fresh air amidst the hustle of everyday life.  Their emphasis on minimalistic characteristics makes me wonder whether they are also meant to convey an aspect of spirituality – even if they are not spiritual in the traditional sense.  Whether this connotation was actually intended by the artists could be a question of dispute; in parallel with the contention as to whether our island’s prehistoric sites functioned exclusively as spiritual locations, or whether they could have served more mundane purposes as well.

It is thus hoped that the multi-medial creations which emanated from this project elicit a response from us all – a moment of reflection as proposed by the poet Immanuel Mifsud:

“Inxteħet għal wiċċek, isma’ t-taħbita

Ħierġa mill-ħaġar jiddawwal bil-qamar”.

 Dr. Silvio John Camilleri

The works in this gallery are the results of my preoccupation with negative sculptural space of both industrial as well as natural objects. This practice was further developed following the performance and installations that were held at the Ġgantija Temples in June 2013. While the cast objects challenged the temple site through their out-of-context display, the negative spaces or casts in this exhibition interrelate visually with the gallery space. In this case the molds do not form part of a casting process of an object, but are considered to be the final work. The terracotta pieces are negative skins formed through pressing slabs of clay on a number of megaliths found around Gozo.

The use of an array of different soils, clays and sands form the basis of my language of materials. Other materials which are not commonly used in paintings such as found objects, twigs and roots incorporated in these panels point to the sacredness of the earth and present matter as a pure form constructed with the least possible human intervention.