A Contemporary in the Modern
24th August - 5th September 2018
Curated by Norbert Francis Attard
Text by Paul Sant Cassia
In collaboration with the Gabriel Caruana Foundation
Contributors who loaned works by Gabriel Caruana:
GABRIEL CARUANA FOUNDATION
NORBERT FRANCIS ATTARD
ALFRED & LINA CARUANA
Gabriel Caruana was well-known in Malta for at least three things: he was one of Malta’s first ‘modern’ artists; he was anextraordinarily gifted and alchemical ceramist; and he was a superabundantly generous and warm individual, reflected in his larger than life physical presence and his translucent blue eyes. It is difficult to rank these three, but all who were graced with knowing him will surely lament the third the most. For they intuit that this was both the mysterious key to his mercurial creativity as well as the reason for the first two accolades. To the many who knew Gabriel, his loss renders us inconsolable for we shall remember him as more than the great and fresh artist whose every creation was almost always a new invitation to explore a previously unimagined world. Many will remember him as the benign, warm, welcoming individual in his bustling studio surrounded by friends, relatives, and admirers, sitting at his work table, weaving effortless magic with his large hands, guided by a mysterious divine spark in his intuitive eye.
This exhibition commemorates and explores a facet of Gabriel’s work that has perhaps been somewhat obscured: that he was intriguingly both a modern and contemporary artist. The line separating the two is a notoriously difficult one to draw and they have blended in each other. Although it is often easy to distinguish one from the other when confronted with examples, it is sometimes hard to put one’s finger on their essential distinguishing features. That could be a welcoming trove for us as we constantly discover connections, parallels, commentaries, and intuitions between arts of different periods and in artistic inspirations. ‘Installations’ are often flagged as a feature of contemporary art, but how could one deny that Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was the epiphany of ‘installations’? Or what about Velasquez’s Las Meninas, that so intrigued Foucault and is a representation about an impossible installation, or an impossible installation of a representation? (incidentally the one that Dali, that most perplexing Freudian illustrator, unhesitatingly identified would be the one work he would save had the Prado gone up in flames). Nor is social commentary a distinguishing feature: some examples of the most powerful art of the 19th and 20th centuries are precisely that, from Goya’s denunciation of the atrocities of the Peninsular War to his Guernica successor, that borrows from Poussin’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’.
If one were to attempt to explain contemporary art, it might be that it is conceived as ‘in media res’: in the ‘middle of things’. It is also distinctive in the resources it brings to bear; it moves away from iconic representation or iconic autarchy to ideational engagement and to achieve that anything can be employed. There is no narrative in the classical sense; the viewer is confronted with an arrested moment, a metaphor, metonym, or a precipitation in the artist’s attempt to engage the viewer participant, even an irreducible object.
The classical distinction between the producer and viewer-consumer breaks down or is challenged very profoundly as the viewer scrabbles around in a desperate search for understanding. Both the artist-engager-shaman and the viewer-participant are engaged in a process of mutual production of meaning, narrative and exploration, that can be profoundly challenging. And the relationship between ‘the thing staged’ and the text is profoundly shaken and challenging, as perhaps never before.
On a popular level, one major difference between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary art in Malta has been the following. Faced with the former in the 1950’s and 60’s, the public reacted with: ‘But I could have done that myself!’ Faced with the latter the contemporary public often reacts: ‘But what does it mean?’ For the former let us recall that in the late 1960’s Gabriel exhibited an enlarged ‘4d’ ‘Bus Ticket’ with its ‘If not shown on demand, fare must be paid again’. The numerous associations of erasure of identity, transience, proof of existence, insignificance, even its ‘theological associations’ of a modern version of a votive holy picture with its celestial economy of days purchased from Purgatorial exile etc, need not detain us save to note that a public long accustomed and expectant (as it still is) of confirmation of its self-grinding denial of imagination was mystified. Here was a recognizable object transposed and re-contextualised, the hallmark of much of modernity.
But many of the objects here are not so comfortably apprehensible, or recognizable as in ‘what should I read in this?’, manifested in the large coil here on show, not as a vertical teleological spiral of history, but a horizontal coil of emptiness seemingly going nowhere…. Nor was Gabriel shy of organizing installations as he did so both in Valletta’s main square just after City Gate in the 1980’s, or in conceptualising the mega transformation of the large national fuel storage tanks at Birzebugia, that the authorities never sponsored. He was also a major benefactor in the installation of large art works at the University in its heady years of growth in the early 1990’s. But above all Gabriel was a contemporary artist in his openness to co-production as manifested in the constant bustle in his studio. The works here are unexpected, strong, even wild, bursting with unexpected fulminations of colour as in the art of children in which he recognised a kindred parallelism of spirit. Others are graceful, Zen-like in their economy. Allow me to end with an (apocryphal) ‘contemporary art’ sketch that Gabriel would have appreciated for he ploughed his own furrow, truthful to himself:
Alexander the Great was busy conquering the world, when he
met, on the banks of the Indus river, a gymnosophist (“naked
philosopher”) sitting in the Lotus position and contemplating the
ground in front of him.
“What are you doing?”, asked Alexander.
“Experiencing nothingness,” answered the gymnosophist.
“What are you doing?”
“Conquering the world,” said Alexander.
Then both men laughed, each thinking that the other must be a fool.
“Why is he conquering the world?”, thought the yogi. “
It’s pointless. It will be conquered many times over”
“Why is he sitting around doing nothing?”, thought Alexander. “
What a waste of a life.”
PAUL SANT CASSIA