Le.Iva and the Point in Between

Giulia Privitelli reviews Le.Iva, a multi-media installation by Maltese artist Austin Camilleri exploring anger, grief and mortality.

To grieve takes effort. At the end of a press tour of the exhibition Le.Iva | Anger is a Lazy Form of Grief, I was left with this primary, perhaps primeval, thought: to grieve takes effort. It involves a sedimentation of tears made of salt and water or, at least, of sweat, also made of salt and water. To grieve takes time; long percolating hours of patience, of hoping, of searching, of fasting, or maybe staring into the depths of an abyss, the darkness of the sea, of history, of loss, of becoming steadily aware of the great unknowability of the horizon, standing resolutely before it, suspended between beginning and end, echoing the conviction of St John of the Cross on the darkest night of his soul: nada, nada, nada...

Leiva, cold-cast aluminium and white paint, 163 x 42 x 32cm, located at the corner of the Castellania Palace, Merchants Street, Valletta (Malta). Brian Grech, courtesy of Austin Camilleri Studio

Looking up at the title-piece of the exhibition, outside, on a raised pedestal at the intersection between Merchants’ Street and St John’s Street in Valletta (Malta), I observed this pristine white, delicate, slightly plump body of a young girl at the cusp of womanhood, standing resolutely like some modern martyr witnessing and giving witness to the indifference below: arms folded yet vulnerable, her anger is palpable, and so is her grief. She speaks without uttering a word, standing somewhere in between, echoing the ‘in-betweenness’ of every thing. Looking at her, I was reminded of some of Austin’s other few (but equally powerful) site-specific ‘offerings’: from the stoic yet helpless three-legged horse, Żieme (2014), to the nine verses engraved into the ‘fragile’ stone or bedrock at different points around the Maltese Islands (Disgħa, 2018). They, too, in their memorialisation and search for justice and truth became, instead, witnesses of loss and uncertainty. Looking at her, my mind darted back to the beginning of the tour, this time standing beneath the towering, larger-than-life, unpatinated bronze sculpture of former Olympian swimmer Neil Agius,[1] the subject of Leap. Another thought came to mind: nothing in mankind’s daring ascent or crossing—however heroic—may measure up to what will be revealed at the end.

There is always some mark—or rather ‘something that…will forever continue to be short of the mark’[2]—a trace of a mark, no matter how faint, which reminds us of human limitation when confronted by the unexplicable and seemingly irreconcilable distance between where we stand and where we would like to go. It is a point which at first appears the same, beginning and ending in the dark, conflating departure and arrival. But to begin weary of the darkness of arrival is, really, to always be at the break of dawn, always beginning, even at the end. And if one should leap in the dark and into the dark, it is but an incomplete movement, guided by the first strands of light faintly outlining the horizon, towards something which cannot be fully known, not even the gnawing pain of not being known, of being forgotten, erased, gone.

This first room is haunted by the reality of unreachable horizons. The Ghost Trip Series­ is an ongoing series of partly-inked, partly-embossed pseudo-cartographic paper works demarcating the area where migrant shipwrecks were recorded around the Mediterranean Sea. Each embossed mark is a concentrated graveyard of bodies, of sunken vessels carrying countless, undocumented, and nameless migrants whose lives were lost at sea.[3] But what we are left with is a punctum of some unfinished story: a memory or a desire, a gain or a loss, a beginning or an end, a mere impression of a swollen body in motion or at rest.

Roland Barthes wrote of the punctum as a ‘detail…a partial object’, and yet, as that which ‘fills the whole picture’.[4] We are numb to the whole picture, as we are to our own bodies and to other bodies. Between the heroic swimmer who made it to shore and the hopeful seekers who never did, the punctum cries out in humbling silence, with dying sounds which fill the entire room. The twenty-first-century bronze warrior glances downwards and we feel obliged to do the same, hanging our heads, perhaps, in shame. We contemplate the ground, the earth, humus: the stuff that the body is made of, and where it is laid to rest, and where a form of grief awakes. This rising grief wounds us and sediments what otherwise cannot be fixed, grasped, known. It projects us forwards and backwards simultaneously, towards what has already occurred and what is yet to be. ‘What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence’.[5] It may lack form but not intensity; the disturbance brings to our consciousness a condensed reality of time, as something which has already happened but not yet. This transitional space is the place of contradiction, of things coming into being and halted processes, of imprisoned forms—much like Michelangelo’s slaves—and others broken, but free. While objects may exist synchronously and in different states (of becoming) in this place of transition, dwelling here too long is dangerous. If the process in which the artwork takes shape and receives ‘life’ is ‘fixed’ indefinitely, matter and thought cannot take on a new form nor can the artwork or idea ever be realised. The image becomes an idol, a Homo immortalis,[6] unable to become anything else, fixed, imprisoned, unmoveable. It is but a mysterious passage; to dwell here permenantly, petrified, is to run out of air.

View of the first room of the exhibition displaying LEAP (unpatinated bronze, 270 x 100 x 60cm) and the Ghost Trip Series comprising of 180 individual etchings (26 x 18cm each; Magnani and Rosaspina paper). Brian Grech, courtesy of Austin Camilleri Studio.

At the calm and ordered dawn of creation when, according to one familiar tradition, ‘no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up…but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’[7] There is a living body only where there is air, the breath of life. This is the condition of fragility that seemingly sets up the third room, where the slow-moving and ordered stillness of the natural world is almost violently confronted by the high-speed chaos of a capsized boat and the desperate effort to save the man trapped within. Order and chaos are both bound to a chain of events in which, at different points in the history of an object, or living being, one succumbs to the other: chaos to order and order to chaos; to be in control or to lose it. It is, I think, with great incisiveness that the artist includes in this room of looped, contrary (and created) states of being, a found object: a stainless-steel propellor from a migrants’ boat. Hope is often associated with the anchor in religious iconography. However, in this case, the propellor becomes an even more poignant metonym: here are the remains of a journey propelled by hope, an inconclusive journey which in all likelihood did not end with ‘an anchor on firm ground.’[8] And yet, hope, like air, still passes from one being to the next, long after the body has run its course.

There is, then, yet another tragedy more cursed than death itself: the loss of hope—despair—that is, for humankind to be enslaved by the deep-seated fear of permanent loss or the impossible realisation, accessibility, and knowability of its highest desire, a despair which creeps into the abyss and calls not unto life but death. Despair here interferes with mankind’s ‘participation in the eternal’ and continuously threatens to pull it into a state of stasis: forgetfulness.[9] The condition of forgetfulness, that is, the erasure of memory, is, in Derrida’s view, the ultimate driving force of a form of entropic death. Without the arkhe—the place of commandment and commencement, ‘where authority and social order are exercised’—things cannot be called into being and named.[10] In the final room, a to-scale image of the monument of Queen Victoria in Republic Square, Valletta, is blotted out with Stuart Semple’s ‘blacker than the blackest black’, Black 3.0.[11] Had the artist truly poured the paint over the actual monument (in solidarity to the anti-colonial vandalism targeting such statues), we would have had, hypothetically, in the heart of the city of Valletta, a distant relative to what Baudrillard disparagingly tagged a ‘black hole’ (the Pompidou Centre) in the heart of the Beaubourg area, Paris.[12] And yet, both ‘let you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all;’[13] their transparency reveals the political face of culture and the cultural face of politics—these two inseparable bedfellows: politics and culture.

View of the fourth room of the exhibition, displaying the 1:1 archival photographic print of Queen Victoria in Republic Square (Valletta), and the 4k video and model of Anger is a Lazy Form of Grief. Photo credit: Brian Grech.
Anger is a lazy form of grief 2, ash, wood, and metal model, 70 x 90 x 160cm. Photo credit: Brian Grech

Incidentally, behind the statue of the monarch is Malta’s National Library, the Biblioteca, a repository of the vast archive of the Hospitaller Order of St John which indelibly shaped Malta’s cultural identity. The French garrison, keen on asserting its political authority during the brief interlude at the turn of the eighteenth century, in fact, threatened to torch the archive. In this instance too, the attempt at erasure failed. As did the fire which severely damaged the Royal Opera House, ten years after its construction during Victoria’s reign, in 1866, and again by the direct hits during the Second World War. The theatre survived in its ruined form, as a wounded structure-turned-monument, a site of remembrance and continued use which attests to its vitality and permanence; its defiance of death.[14] The artist re-enacts this ruination by fire, on-site and through the use of a model, the burnt remains of which are on show, and thus restores the symbolic worth of the ashes, conflating the anonymity and foreign-ness of the colonial urban fabric with the unique event of its monumentalising.

Here then, lies the paradox: ‘without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness…without the threat of this death drive, this aggression and destructive drive,’ the archive would not be able to exist [15]—a psychoanalytic insight which offers some ground for meaning in the most devastating tragedies of recorded history and loss, indeed, of our current times. Such a threat of loss, in turn, may become the ground zero of a person’s or community’s place of commencement; in disorientation and loss begins the search for the inaccessible secret of the origin of things, at once exposed and hidden from sight. Indeed, while the arkhe is generally understood as something turned towards the past, it is not, however, exclusively a question of the past, but is also concerned with the future: ‘It is a question of the future itself,’ writes Derrida, ‘the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive, if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come…’.[16] This is to say that both the promise and its origin are not evident. It is, rather, like that call which beckons without uttering anything, to paraphrase Heidegger;[17] a call which—like a sharp implement—leaves a mark on material existence from which it is hidden; a call and promise which is eternally mediated through and despite mortality as a received ancestral voice, speaking from the past, from within the fleeting present, and from beyond and into the future; the promise that traverses time.[18]

Such a threat of loss, in turn, may become the ground zero of a person’s or community’s place of commencement; in disorientation and loss begins the search for the inaccessible secret of the origin of things, at once exposed and hidden from sight.

The punctum is between nowhere and here, between nothing and everything, the impossible and the possible, choas and order, death and life, between a definite ‘no’ and a hopeful ‘yes’. This punctum, which eludes all names, is able to hold all opposites and contradictions together in surprising, disarming resoluteness: Le.Iva, Leiva, a name for the perfect paradox: a girl, full of innocence and confidence, standing on the ‘pillar of humiliation’ on which criminals once stood. She stands judged before us ‘desiring to be nothing’ and yet ‘arriving at being all’[19]; raised above us, she is the judge and we, humbled and aware of our own presences, efforts and failures, old scars and fresh wounds, finally see her as we are seen. Thus, it is as if we ‘turn toward something and cease to cast [ourselves] upon the all. For to go from all to the all, [we] must deny [ourselves] of all in all.’[20] And yet, perhaps we are not ready—nor have we ever been and possibly never will be—to deny ourselves, to avail ourselves of what we think is rightfully ours. So much the greater our loss. And so, a small prediction: we shall cast our imperfect judgement, a distorted echo of our own enslaved predicament, and remove what we ought to keep.

 

Le.Iva | Anger is a Lazy Form of Grief is a multi-media installation by Maltese artist Austin Camilleri, curated by internationally-renown Rosa Martinez, with the assistance of Irene Biolchini. Le.Iva may be viewed at Spazju Kreattiv (Valletta) until 10 April 2022.

 

[1] As part of an awareness-raising campaign called Waves of Change, on June 26, 2020, Neil Agius completed an epic 28-hour swim from Punta Braccetto in Ragusa to St Julians (Malta), and a superhuman record-breaking 125.6km swim from Linosa to Xlendi (Gozo), completed in just over 52 hours. See https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/neil-agius-nears-end-of-epic-sicily-malta-swim.801096, and https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/neil-agius-swims-into-the-world-record-books.883309.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (Surrey: Alma Classics, 2010 [1869]), 229.

[3] The artist collected the data regarding the shipwrecks and their respective locations from official NGOs and statistic researchers. For the series of works, Magnani and Rosaspina paper was used, the upper section of which was dyed in blue ink, while the lower part was left unpainted and embossed through impressions of bullet cartridges.

[4] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (London: Vintage Books, 2000 [1980]), 45.

[5] Ibid., 96.

[6] This is the name given to a collection of nine veiled busts sculpted in Carrara marble, based on an earlier series of plaster casts presented in 2011 on the occasion of the exhibition at the National Art Museum in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

[7] Gen 2: 5-7.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 359A, 1.

[9] Paul Tillich, “The Right to Hope,” The Christian Century 107, no. 33 (Nov 1990), 1066-1067; Paul Tillich, Theology of Peace, edited by Ronald H. Stone (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 189.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression, translated by Eric Prenowitz (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1.

[11] In 2016, Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to Vantablack, allegedly the world’s blackest black. However, reacting to this monopolisation of colour, Semple developed another prototype black paint Black 2.0, and eventually Black 3.0, which was made available for anyone to use (at a reasonable retail price), except for Anish Kapoor. Thus, the use of Semple’s ‘Black 3.0’ is itself an implicit comment on the cultural implications of political authoritarianism.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg-Effect: Implosion and Deterrence”. October 20 (Spring 1982): 3–13, here at 7. https://www.jstor.org/stable/778604.

[13] Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 69.

[14] Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, translated by Diane Ghirardo and Joan Ockman (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1982), 59.

[15] Derrida, Archive Fever, 19.

[16] Ibid., 36.

[17] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962), 322.

[18] Derrida, Archive Fever, 36–38.

[19] John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, translated by E. Allison Peers (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2000), I.13.11.

[20] Ibid., I.13.12

Author

  • Giulia Privitelli holds a distinction in two Master programmes: Art History (University of Malta, 2015), and Theology and the Arts (ITIA, University of St Andrews, Scotland, 2021), with a research interest in the anthropological and theological value of neglected and abandoned urban spaces. She is presently Senior Editor of a cultural non-profit organisation, Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti; a course coordinator on the intersection between art and faith at the Pastoral Formation Institute (Malta, 2019–2022), and a visiting lecturer at the Department of Digital Arts (Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences, University of Malta), teaching a module on art practice and cultural production (2022). She is also a freelance tourist guide, writer (especially for visual arts exhibitions), and an active member of the Ignatian youth network Living Stones - Pietre Vive.

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