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For PUBLIC ART’s sake

“Art is language and public art is public speech.” Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

Kapitell, 2015, Victor Agius. Photo by Elisa Von Brockdorff

Walking into Spazju Kreattiv a few days ago, two hanging plates caught my attention. I immediately recognised the suspended crockery as a ‘comment piece’ by Victor Agius, created following the contentious removal of his temporary public artwork from Pjazza Teatru Rjal (PTR), a few years back.

One plate carried an image of the artwork titled Kapitell – a stone and mesh-wire piece that was precariously plugged atop one of the remaining standing columns of PTR – a powerful and symbolic representation of the site’s history, while on the other, the following quote was reproduced: “It would be better if your experiments in contemporary public art, weren’t shown in public spaces, but in an appropriate museum, so that we don’t risk shocking or scaring people away from modern art” (translated from Maltese). The author of this comment was not named; however, the reasoning seems to have been given as justification for the removal of his piece; flawed though it may be, as well as defeatist of the very notion of what constitutes public art and the space(s) in which it should sit, inhabit or even the contexts with which it should interact. 

Isn’t that the sheer beauty of public art? It’s a ‘phenomenon’, whereby an artwork or monument, irrespective of size, shape or colour, is placed in a (generally) strategic hard-to-ignore space, demanding some form of public engagement – positive or negative. Contemporary public art seems to attract much of the latter, simply because of the visual language used by contemporary artists – a language which fiercely departs from the predominantly Neo-Baroque style we are collectively accustomed to being presented with. In fact, the figurative busts, the full-length figures, and commemorative statues, outweigh the abstracted, conceptual and contemporary artworks in our midst.

Which is why PTR’s public art programme, launched in 2014, was so praiseworthy: for the temporality of the artworks, the variety of subjects addressed through different media, the social comment, the high audience engagement factor, and the altered contextual dynamic which each piece provided to the space in which it sat. Agius’s Kapitell was the penultimate to be shown; shortly after this incident, PTR’s public art programme was scrapped. It remains one of the most successful efforts towards proper discourse and engagement with public art in Malta to date.

Perhaps this was the original intention behind Valletta 2018’s Hekk Jgħid il-Malti, which saw thirteen temporary artworks, representing Maltese proverbs installed around the capital city. On paper, this could have been a fabulous project, which addressed public art, as well as language and intangible heritage through visual means. Unfortunately, the poor design of the pieces, as well as the literal interpretations, and the choice of material (polystyrene), did not add to the project.

The pieces were only removed from Valletta a couple of weeks ago, most having suffered terrible damage across the seasons. However, the media recently reported that the works are being distributed in different localities across the country, despite their poor condition. And this is the aspect which I struggle with most; the so-called inherent project legacy vis-à-vis the choice to commission works in such a weak material. The intention, the purpose of a project, is key. To quote Prof. Pavel Buchler (Manchester School of Art), “Public art can be static, moving, part of the infrastructure or a projection of light and sound. It can last for a minute, a day, a year or a lifetime.” It’s still not clear just what the intention of this project was.

Yet there have been a number of successful efforts towards introducing permanent contemporary public artworks in Malta and Gozo. Perhaps the most successful programme to date remains the scheme launched by the Gozo Ministry within the ecoGozo 2010-2012 Action Plan. As many as thirteen works of art were commissioned, with each project successfully carried to completion; each a distinct component within its respective environment.

Similar programmes have been launched in Malta. In 2015, two Ministries, supported by Arts Council Malta and MUŻA (Heritage Malta), invited interested artists to submit proposals for Art in Public Spaces – the programme was meant to span three years, culminating and ending in 2018. To date, three of these have been realised, and work is underway on two others; Matthew Pandolfino’s Dgħajsa tar-Riħ for Dock No. 1, and Ħaġarna by Victor Agius, to be placed near Ġgantija in Gozo. Adrian Abela’s Misraħ il-Kliem Mistur, to be placed in Għar Lapsi, should be completed ‘later this year’. Yet, hope is the last to die, and possibly the next series of projects – the second phase of this programme was launched a few weeks back – will translate into remarkable artworks, which challenge public perception, as much as the spaces for which they are designed.

Yet not all public art follows calls for proposals, or a competition. This seems to be the case with a figurative sculpture placed on the Kappara roundabout last November. After much digging, it transpired that the piece, Mother and Child, was made by Paul Vella Critien, the creator of the notorious Colonna Mediterranea – an abstracted, yet seemingly phallic, ceramic sculpture. Vella Critien’s Mother and Child possesses similar proportions and height to his Luqa monument; its aesthetic and location are equally questionable. Although I stand to be corrected, I couldn’t trace a call for this particular monument, nor any media coverage justifying the choice of the artist or the public expense, and neither could Gzira Local Council shed any light on the matter, rather requesting the undersigned to provide them with information instead.

Lastly, I cannot omit a comment on Castille Place: which has today become a fragmented ‘gathering’ of public sculptures and monuments – all within close proximity of each other. Three figurative monuments dedicated to ex-Prime Ministers Dom Mintoff and Gorg Borg Oliver, and philosopher Manwel Dimech, are fiercely juxtaposed with the Knot sculpture commemorating the Valletta Summit on Migration in 2016, and by the Eternal Flame commemorating the Maltese who fought for emancipation. It is a hotchpotch of unrelated monuments that each speak a different tongue; they stand in painful contrast, almost littering the square that once bore a luscious green roundabout, full of mature trees. The trees have disappeared, supposedly in the name of progress. And what the public has been left with a space which hardly caters to public need, nor is representative of public interest

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