In collaboration with the Notarial Archives Foundation
A photographer's Inspiration
5th October - 3rd November 2018
Visceral memories, refined
The initiation of a task is one of the hardest challenges we all encounter, no matter the frequency of having to begin something. Jean Cocteau, one of the twentieth-century’s most industrious avant-gardes, admitted to the struggle of getting work done, comparing the conclusion to magic that ‘all happens of its own accord.’ Things do get done. How they are completed in whatever form is, in hindsight, a mystery.
Starting points are essential but cruel. They throw a heap into your midst, an intentional obstacle to make the journey arduous, laborious, but that much more satisfying. The thought of entering the Notarial Archives is one such instance that instils genuine fear. Unsorted records of events all with their own protagonists, joys, sufferances. Enough history to cause stomach pangs, the sort that set in a crippling discomfort. There lays enough history to resist succumbing to it, to resist death.
Each document is an accord, a battle; victory and loss. A textual mark of humanity’s will to survive. Notwithstanding the delicacy of paper and the fading of ink, the documents in the archives have persisted. Such resilience is the assurance that us humans want to save ourselves through the memories of others. Bodies don’t matter in this case. Knowledge of existence itself is enough to keep the flame burning. Derrida famously wrote about the ontological purpose of the archive; that ascribed to it and that inherent in its beingness.
Alex Attard’s new series Parallel Existences is a compendium of isolated images of screeching documents, scrunched up by the happenings of time, fossilised, but asserting memory. These documents cannot be leafed through in their present state and yet they still manage to say so much. Each paper tells of an individual event, each bunch a narrative, and collectively the outcome of a recent war. The documents, garlands of forgotten paper, are all housed in the poetically-titled ‘Crying Room’, a repository for those sheets wounded during the blitz. Their pain is visible in their contortion. This corporeality is the most pronounced feature in Attard’s photographs. Boris Groys noted that ‘there is a tension between our material, physical, corporeal mode of existence—which is temporary and subjected to time—and our inscription into cultural archives that are, even if they are also material, much more stable than our own bodies.’
By placing a spotlight on isolated assemblages of folios, each is conferred a dignified status, finally exposed to the world from which they were previously concealed.
Parallel Existences is one important step in remembering what has been cast aside whether for social, political, and economic reasons. The contents of the documents are yet to be discovered. It is an image that Attard provides, but outward appearances are the beginning stage of a relationship.
Direct, sharp, and unavoidable, the photographs raise a grave question. Sixty-three years have elapsed since the Second World War, when the archives endured a halted moment in their life objective of perpetuity, and they have still not been deciphered and rendered into public knowledge. In spite of all efforts by the Notarial Archives Foundation and those who recognise the necessity of archival collections, there is a collective disregard, or indifference, towards Maltese heritage, inflicted by its own people. Archives are one of the victims of this nonchalant attitude from which the nation as a whole will suffer.
The acquisition of knowledge can be an act of rebellion. Unsuitable knowledge that tries established narratives and truisms is tendentiously hidden or drowned out, sometimes out of ignorance, but mostly for the sake of convenience. Archives are thus dissident spaces, and their neglect must be read as intentional. Archives resist the Benjaminian ‘rubble heap’ of history wherein the layers of time induce the loss of memory. Progress functions this way. It alienates by precluding the necessary pause in which to have space to think.
A very peculiar characteristic about contemporary Malta is that the concept of posterity doesn’t seem to feature anywhere despite the nation possessing all the tools to ensure cultural continuity. Prosperity is understood within a very restricted temporal capacity – the now. The now is envisioned as eternal. Yet it is the now that is jeopardising the future and violently consuming space; thought-space and physical space. Nature, history, heritage are all being eradicated. I vividly recall Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci’s Victory Day speech back in 2014 during which he implored the government to protect the country’s art and culture, to ensure that they don’t crumble into intangible ruins. The plea has had a ripple effect in reaction to ever-increasing disregard.
Photography is a vital adjunct to fragile human memory. It reveals the truth (as well as manipulates it). We can see the entire world from a minute screen in seconds. This is why photography is an inconvenience. Attard’s images are revelatory because they show the public what very few were aware of. They are also bare in their exposure of untouched documents contrasted with nothing but a black background. Dissimilar to the layering approach that characterised his 2015 series The Overlooked Performance, there is no juxtaposition or assembly of different close-up or panoramic perspectives in Parallel Existences. Time and its layers are implicit within the documents, and so Attard opted not to tamper with their intrinsic qualities.
They are skeletal. Consequently, so are the photographs. As images they show us what the common eye usually doesn’t see. It is a rudimentary collection with minimal intervention from the photographer. In documenting documents the photographs are themselves inserted into the documentary archives.
Repetition is an evident aspect of Parallel Existences. On the one hand, the photographs emit the experience of sifting through archives: endless words transcribed across endless piles of paper, digits that often induce boredom. It is quite paradoxical that interesting and useful knowledge can have such a lulling effect on the mind and body. On the other, Attard’s photos with their slight nuances offer a very subtle pattern, and that subtlety is so very honest. One different word or number in an archival folio can shift the paradigm of history and open up unimaginable possibilities.
Nevertheless, Attard’s visual non-deviations do expose a delicate sense of trepidation of history, to not tamper with history too much. Archives are temples of historical preservation, to be used as such but not be changed. Photography could have been employed to surpass this limitation, however the images show a respectful compliance. This compliance is also a recognition of the beauty projected and also possessed by the bunches of papers of forgotten happenings. Simplicity has the ability to communicate profusely if used tactfully. Attard’s are documentary images, vestibules of memory, companions to the paper knowledge they portray.
Alex Attard transformed the raw into the refined, revealing the dignity of the bearers of history, hence of knowledge. Images that command respect that are in turn respectful of their subject, somewhat compromisingly so. He always succeeds in giving the commonplace, the overlooked (to use his own words), a significant place in his work. Attard did this in The Beauty of the Given Moment, his project for the Mdina Cathedral Contemporary Art Biennale 2015, by showing those intermittent and disruptive interludes of broadcasting glitches that push one to change TV channel. What most ignore Attard finds wonder in. Admiration for the Notarial Archives’ war causalities is expressed by the simple fact that they are still here despite all antagonism; tangible and intangible destruction. As if by magic, magic concerted by the efforts of the persevering, this part of Maltese history endures all adversity.
Alex Attard is an internationally awarded Malta-based art and architecture photographer with an acute sense of line and space. His aesthetic varies from the stark and minimal, to quasi abstract, to figurative.Chiefly working in a monochrome palette, his work develops in series, in an attempt to scrutinise and explore a subject as extensively as possible. Best know for his series titled The Overlooked Performance, a visual essay through which Alex artfully chronicles the developmental trajectory of the underbelly of Renzo Piano’s parliament in Valletta, and the inadvertent gestures and pictorially abstract formations beneath the surface of this iconic contemporary build.
Alex’s work has been featured in several high-end shows and projects, including participation in the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale with Architecture Project, with whom he also collaborated on a group exhibition in Paris, titled Reasonable Dreams, whilst also having participated in the 2015 Mdina Contemporary Art Biennale. His work has been published in various international art and design magazines, and trend-setting platforms, such as Archdaily, iGNAT, ElleDecor and others.