Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Parallel Existences artist Alex Attard at the Notarial Archives
In autumn 2018, Valletta Contemporary (VC) unveiled a series of large-scale, monochromatic photographs taken by Alex Attard. The subject of the series is a collection of decayed documents from the Maltese Notarial Archives’ ‘crying room’. Attard – who is an award-winning Malta-based art and architecture photographer – spent the past three years observing, researching, and – ultimately– photographing the piles of discarded notarial deeds. In Parallel Existences he reanimates the bundles of pages through a poetic photographic exhibition, inviting viewers to contemplate on the past, the present, beauty, truth and even love.
Ann Dingli (AD): This isn't the first time you've worked on a project over an extended period of time (The Overlooked Performance), can you talk about your process on the Parallel Existences project – how long have you been working in the archives, and what would one of your typical visits entail?
Alex Attard (AA): In a similar fashion to when I had worked on The Overlooked Performance project, I always try to cultivate some sort of relationship with my subject. I started researching the archives project in 2015, and it was important for me to connect to the archives at many different levels – for me to feed and foster this personal relationship with everything within the space. What this looked like was a ritual of me regularly visiting the archives and observing the spatial quality of the building, the way it represented the passage of time, the way people conducted themselves within it, the light it captured, and its general aura. Understanding the architecture and infrastructure of the context in which these documents were kept was important to fully grasp the expansiveness of their history.
I would visit the archives about three times a week, at varying times of day in order to experience different light. I explored the entire premises and initially took photos of anything that captured my interest. The archives are expectedly packed with material – shelves upon shelves of unending boxes and files. Within these files lie thousands of notarial deeds, each representing evidence, contracts between parties. They represent indisputable facts. The deeds I was looking at specifically were from a time where these transactions were handwritten, recorded in elegant ink-calligraphy on noble paper. I took my time and I observed the way they were bound and held together, some had parchment bindings that are secured to the text block with leather straps. Eventually when I got to know about the cardboard boxes in the ‘crying room’ all this information helped put together the concept and purpose of this project.
Alex Attard, Document No. 27, Dated 1770, 2017
(AD): What triggered your interest in archival material?
(AA): Dr Joan Abela, the curator and founder of the Notarial Archives Foundation, wished to open up the archives to more than just research for academic purposes, so she invited me to a tour of the archives and asked if I would be interested in working on an artistic project about them.
I had no idea what I would do at the time, but this initial visit left me with a mixture of strong feelings, from sadness to frustration to joy, and an intense gut feeling that something worthwhile could come out of this. So, I accepted her offer to look into it.
(AD): Malta is defined so categorically by its past – a history marked with the stamp of colonisers, passers-through, wars, immigration and so on. Were you thinking about the identity of the Islands whilst working on this project?
(AA): It’s unavoidable to think about your country’s identity when you spend time at the archives. It’s a place where one can actually hold in their hands and read documents spanning a period of over five hundred years, from the time of the Knights, onto the French occupation and the British Period, and the reality of how one century intervenes over the next. What’s remarkable about the Notarial Archives is that through these documents one gets a perspective of not only the Noble and the wealthy, as is very often the case, but also of the common man.
(AD): In the very recent past, and currently, Malta has been swallowed wholly by a post-truth discourse that has changed people's reading of politics, the news, and even each other. In an age where authenticity is constantly questioned, is the crying room and its remnants a metaphor for how we have seemingly begun to discard facts?
(AA): Interesting question. Notarial deeds are documented evidence of an agreed set of facts created between parties to avoid possible misinterpretation and to stand in a court of law. Post-truth, as I understand it, is what appeals to people’s emotions rather than facts. People who choose to understand and believe what suits them independently of facts and circumstances, very often to serve their own ends either consciously or otherwise and reinforced by others who similarly do not evaluate facts. These crushed documents, which once held the facts, have been manipulated into their present forms as a consequence of a war on mankind to impose an ideology. Likewise, one may argue that truth has been crushed in a post-truth world to serve political purpose based on emotion rather than fact. The ‘crying room’ and its remnants may – as you say – be viewed as a metaphor for how we have seemingly begun to discard facts. The photographs, on the other hand, offer a parallel existence inspired by beauty in their forms – a beauty shaped by light and an inspiration meant for the collective benefit of a common good. Personally, I can’t see any lasting beauty in a post-truth world.
Alex Attard, Document No. 6, Dated 1771, 2015
(AD): Many artists have found beauty in the decayed. Can you describe your instinctive, tactile reaction to the manuscripts you found in the archives?
(AA): The moment I was shown one of these blown up documents I instinctively knew I had found what I was looking for, and the more of these destroyed documents I discovered and studied, I realised how although decayed and rendered useless, they could still serve a purpose on many different levels.
A large chunk of our history lay in brown cardboard boxes, useless, forgotten and in a state of stasis. They were of no use to anyone anymore. But I recognised another soul of the archives within them. Lifting them out of the boxes where they had been buried for all these years and looking at how the light was falling on them and how sculptural they looked was inspiring in so many different ways. The idea of restoring memory to history was an exciting possibility. The difficulty lay in how to get the viewer to visualise what I wanted to portray through a two-dimensional photograph, and without any prior knowledge of their history.
(AD): Visually, your images elevate the clusters of destroyed documents to the status of relics, or even biological organisms being examined under a microscope. How did you come to the decisions you took on composition, size and colour for this series?
(AA): The technical process revealed itself once the concept became apparent. I envisioned creating alternative identities for these documents by blurring the line between reality and art. By presenting the photographs as a document and as an artistic expression I hoped to return time and memory to history by providing a parallel existence for these documents. Through this deliberate ambiguity I hoped to capture the viewers’ attention and influence their perceptions by suggesting alternative layers of interpretation and for them to question what they were looking at thus providing history with a sense of continuity. Furthermore, I decided to photograph the documents in monochrome against a black background to focus the viewers’ attention solely on their sculptural form.
My idea was also to create images that verge on the beautiful because I believe love follows beauty and when one loves anything one is more inclined to care for it. This is also what the Notarial Archives Foundation stands for and wanted to promote about the archives.