Victor Agius in Faenza
For the past six years, art institutions in the Northern Italian city of Faenza have been organising a week-long festival called the Settimana del Contemporaneo (Week of the Contemporary) to showcase new work by selected international contemporary artists.
The 2016 Settimana del Contemporaneo was entitled Ambiente Come? (What Environment?). The subject was explored by various artists using contemporary media, amongst them video, performance, photography and mixed media sculptures, at a number of sites around the city. Besides the MIC, other participating institutions and organisations included Museo Carlo Zauli, TESCO, ISIA di Faenza, and six architecture studios based in Faenza.
This year’s edition, held from 7 to 16 October, was the first to be organised under a holistic curatorial vision and theme. Dr. Irene Biolchini, who completed her doctoral thesis on the Spanish artist Miquel Barceló under the tutelage of Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, was elected as curator of the entire festival, as well as being the curator for the show at the Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza (MIC). She has directed every show at the MIC since the festival was established and also worked at the museum for some years. This institution is the largest ceramics museum in the world which houses a collection of some 60,000 pieces.
Another first at the Settimana was the solo exhibition of Gozitan artist Victor Agius at the MIC. Artistic exchange between Faenza and Malta was established in the latter half of the twentieth-century by artist Gabriel Caruana, who studied and collaborated with other ceramicists in the city. Caruana was the first Maltese artist to explore the medium of ceramics as an art form, exposing its potential to move beyond the confines of its utilitarian function and categorisation as solely a craft skill.
The ceramic arts tradition instituted by Caruana in Malta gave birth to an innovative scene of ceramic production. The recent small-scale exhibition hosted by the Gabriel Caruana Foundation at The Mill in Birkirkara, De-Form Re-Form (see ‘The Legacy of Gabriel Caruana’, Malta Independent on Sunday, July 10, 2016), showcased an exciting selection of works by contemporary ceramicists who all individually explored the physical, technical and morphological potentials of the medium. Caruana’s importance to modern ceramic production will be the topic of discussion at the upcoming international conference organised by the Department of History of Art called ‘The Mediterranean Reception of Lucio Fontana’s Baroque Continuum’ which will be held at Valletta’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura on December 15, 2016.
Victor Agius is one artist who has built upon Caruana’s formal and conceptual legacy. More significant than the use of ceramics is the overlapping interest in organic form and the principle of chance as an intrinsic determinant force in the life of an artwork. Whilst Caruana’s approach is linked to the philosophy of the subconscious artistic action, Agius’ creations reveal profound existential deliberations, questions that are present in all his works. This preoccupation with cosmological forces also makes Agius an inheritor of Josef Kalleya’s philosophical-theological artistic thought. He is an incredibly versatile artist, and has worked in traditional media as well as performance, audio-visual installation and earthworks.
Agius worked in Faenza prior to the present event. Kapitell, which was installed at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, was a piece that accidently caught fire in Gozo whilst Agius was working on it. Photograph documentation of this incident and the final installation were shown in Faenza together with an 1873 engraving of the Royal Opera House on fire and an image of the MIC when it was bombed during the war, thus linking Agius’ personal story with the history of the theatre and that of Faenza’s major museum.
For his show at the MIC (15 October to 13 November), Agius created a series of works that investigate the specific theme Individui Universali (Universal Individuals). The artist produced sculptures out of found objects and traditional materials that act as vestibules of both personal and collective experience. Being bought up in very close proximity to the Ġgantija Temples has provoked a perpetual interest in primitive material and symbolic cultures, and the natural environment. He is knowledgeable on the international contemporary art scene and integrates current artistic developments into his work, however Agius’ way of working maintains an inextricable attachment to his native land.
His relationship with Maltese cultural life, from prehistory to the present, is coupled with universal spatio-temporal considerations. His art is perceptive, simultaneously visceral and beautiful, and deeply familiar. Agius’ installation for the Mdina Biennale 2015-16, Aktar Pawlijiet, is a wonderful example that shows how the artist engaged with Malta’s Christian culture, Medieval and Baroque art, the local landscape, and contemporary evocations of history and time. Similar holistic qualities are present in the works of certain Maltese modern and contemporary artists, although each conceived differing aesthetic trajectories. They include Caruana, Kalleya, Antoine Camilleri, George Fenech, Vince Briffa and Norbert Attard.
Biolchini handpicked Agius because of his organic creative process of intertwining the individual and the universal. He travelled to Faenza to produce works on site and to use local materials. These were related to death, spirituality and prehistoric forms. IlMewt, for example, combined a traditional limestone base and tree roots to explore the contrasts of permanence and ephemerality, mortality and immortality. It portrays the struggle between nature and man-made objects, both of which are eternally present yet vulnerable due to the looming threat of destruction.
Another work, Presepju II, reinvented the traditional composition of the Christmas crib, a ubiquitous image in Malta. Agius abandoned figuration to focus on materiality. The sculpture is made of rustic stone, tree roots, sheep’s wool, straw and 24 carat gold, and is placed on a carrara marble slab. The choice of materials is deliberate; they are typically found in cribs locally. However, Agius subverted the emphasis on sentimental religiosity as seen in traditional and popular representations of biblical figures and scenes to portray nature as the epitome of spiritual life. The use of gold and carrara marble affirms the richness of the religious narrative and its pervasive meaning. The entire sculpture is a statement against the mimetic and the provincial and addresses contemporary questions on religious heritage and faith. This piece is now part of the collection of the MIC.
His works were displayed alongside those of Italian artist Valentina D’Accardi. The exhibitions were conceived of as two interconnected solo shows. D’Accardi’s installation, River, was a multimedia narrative piece that transported the viewer from the public media world into the intimate domestic life of the artist. Using the news story of the discovery of a female corpse in the river, she gradually went deeper into the event through a series of newspaper cuttings, photographs and drawings to reveal that a publicly known and discussed issue was attached to her personal biography (the victim was the artist’s grandmother).
Agius’ next project will be held on 2 and 3 November at St. Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat. The interdisciplinary performance called Layers is a collaboration between Agius, composer Mariella Cassar-Cordina, author Immanuel Mifsud, and curated by Vince Briffa. Other musicians and artists will also participate in this two-day on-site intimate performance.
Victor Agius, Il-Mewt, Found limestone base, roots and beeswax
Victor Agius, Presepju II, exhibited alongside ceramics displayed at the MIC