Artist Interview: Norbert Francis Attard
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Norbert Francis Attard in his studio.
Ann Dingli Firstly, let's talk about the ruler. Why did you choose this object as a starting point in the series? Can you describe what first gave you the idea to make a sculpture out of this tool?
Norbert Francis Attard Over the last 20 years I developed a curiosity at the way of how I looked at everyday objects. Whether I am in a hardware store, electronic shop or in a market, I am consciously looking for every-day objects that have the potential of transforming them into some kind of structure. In this case, I discovered a four-sided ruler, which I first bought from LIDL in Gozo (the rest were all ordered online through Amazon), which instantly reminded me of the sign of a hashtag. Also immediately, I realised that if I put together six or seven hashtags in a row, I would be creating a free standing three dimensional structure which has a volume that connects to architecture. At that moment of discovering the potential of the four-sided ruler, I became also conscious of several other factors that helped me to justify, to go ahead with the realisation of this idea. It is not enough for me to create abstract forms and shapes that are unmeaningful. The fact that the sign of the hashtag is instilled with meaning because it’s a sign used in contemporary culture, especially as a sign used on social media, websites and applications, to identify content on a specific topic, was important. Everything I do must have a concept which is the starting point of every art work. I also found the use of a ruler appealing simply because it’s a tool used in building construction and therefore is linked to architecture which is also important since architecture is primarily my basic foundation which informs most of my works. Rulers are used for measurement but can also mean a ruler of a sovereign state or country. These two different meanings had great significance which at the end prompted me to go ahead with my idea of creating a structure that was to symbolize the sign of a hashtag. At that point, when I first purchased half a dozen of four-sided rulers, I was not aware that I would take this idea further. The thought to expand the idea of making a series came after I created the work Hashtag. At the time, I was also working on a completely separate series of works which related to three specific themes: Covid 19, laundering of money and Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination. Because of this, my second structure with the four-sided ruler, which I called V (not to be confused with another work titled V, created in a public convenience, in Valletta, in 2010) and which related to these themes, instigated me to delve deeper into realising an entire series. The letter V stood for Virus, Vaccine, but also was a symbol of Victory, Life and Peace.
AD Your work spans over three decades and evolves through several formats, mediums, scales and concepts. Here, you are making a series of small-scale sculptures. What made you choose this scale of work, and how does it differs from other sculptural projects you've created in the past?
NFA If by ‘three decades’ you refer to my last and present phase, the last 25 years since 1997 creating contemporary art works as opposed to my previous modernist phase which spanned between 1964 and 1996, then that is correct. My Modernist phase consisted mainly of painting, drawing, printing techniques like etching, silkscreen and lithography and also worked as a graphic designer designing many posters and other commercial designs. If you add my previous phase to my present phase, then we are talking of a span of around 57 years.
The scale of my three-dimensional works varies enormously. The size depends on the materials used but most important, especially when they are sculptural installations, the concept and even more important the context of the place. The choice, in terms of size, goes hand in hand with these parameters including whether the project is a site-specific work i.e. working with an existing physical space that becomes part of the work. It also depends whether the work is permanent or ephemeral in nature. All these factors determine the size and choice of materials.
The Archetype Series are independent structures that are not influenced or depend on a specific context. They are based purely on a concept and can be placed, moved around, and be exhibited anywhere. Their size are small-scale because the ruler is intrinsically small. They come in three sizes, 30cm, 25cm and 15cm in length.
My large-scale sculptural installations, like V, Valletta, Malta, 2010; Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Hellerau, Dresden, 2011; Boundaries of Infinity, De Panne, Belgium, 2012; You are the Staircase, Valletta, Malta, 2012; Spirit of the Wolf, Verdala Palace, Malta, 2014; Micronation Series I & II, Valletta, Malta, 2014; Divine Three Winds, Aaros, Denmark, 2015; and many other projects differ from the small-scale works for the reasons outlined above. Large scale works mostly depend on institutions who commission public art works which are usually required to be large in scale and also depend on funding which they provide. Small-scale works do not necessarily depend on an institution but usually are created and funded by the artist.
Norbert Francis Attard explaining his work Hashtag, 2021 exhibited as part of The Archetype Series (Image by Michaele Zammit)
AD How long does each sculpture take for you to make – can you describe the process around creating each of the 'archetypes', from idea to finished work?
NFA Before one starts to assemble the work, one has to go through a process of deciding on the concept or meaning of each symbol, to see that each work fits with the rest of the collection, and also to study if the shape of the symbol can be realised with the rulers. Some symbols are far too complicated to be realised with the four-sided ruler. From the beginning, it was vital that the entire series of fifteen structures should not only have the same material as a common factor but also that each work has symbolic meaning which is also common to all these works. Studying the process with a sketch is an absolute must, just like one needs to have an architect’s plan for a building, is required to fully understand what, more or less, the outcome is going to look like. Following the sketch, and as one is going through the process of actually building the structure, one realises that changes need to take place. There is always room for developing the structure to possibly take another direction. At first, the structures I created where on one level only, then after probably the ninth piece I realised that one can create different levels which bring out the three-dimentionality of the symbol even more effectively. Importantly, one also has to study how these rulers are fixed together. After experimenting at first with special glues I soon realised, because some structures became eventually more complex, that I had to use stainless steel studs to connect all the rulers together. I had to drill practically each and every nut in order to pass the stainless steel stud from one side to another. Some structures where very straight forward to put together, like Hashtag for example. But some, like Swastika and Quotation Mark were more complicated to assemble. I believe I started this series in February this year and finished all fifteen structures by the end of November 2021 meaning they took about 10 months to create them all, from start to finish.
Installation view of The Archetype Series, 2021
AD To me, this work bears relation with the graphic boldness of Frank Stella, and the minimalism of Sol LeWitt. Can you talk about some of your artistic influences and how they may have shaped this series, either directly or indirectly?
NFA Indirectly, the influence of Frank Stella is somehow present but not in so far as his ‘picture as object’ (as oppossed to the picture as a representation of something), but particularly his series of two-dimensional Black Paintings which he created in 1959. The black paintings had regular bands of black paint which were seperated by thin pinstripes of unpainted canvas. I was not only aware of these paintings in the 70’s but I found them very inspiring, however not as a painter but as a graphic designer at the time. However, this ‘pinstripe’ aesthetiic kept on repeating itself in several other projects including The Archetype Series even though there is no real formal connection with Frank Stella’s work.
The works of Sol Lewitt and particularly Donald Judd were inspiring in a somewhat different and deeper way. Both artists are associated with Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Lewitt’s wall drawings and “structures” (a term he preferred instead of ‘sculptures”) have always been motivating. Sol Lewitt was prolific in a wide range of media including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and installation, including practicing as a graphic designer, all of which I could identify with throughout my long career as an artist. Apart from his wall drawings he created many structures in the form of towers, pyramids, geometric forms and progressions. His first serial sculptures were created in the 60’s using the modular form of the square in arrangements of varying visual complexity. This became the basic building block of the artist’s three dimensional work. The concept of having a ‘building block’ is what I found inspiring and hence the ruler series which shares this spirit. On the other hand, what I understood and what influenced me most from his wall paintings, especially the ones painted directly on the wall, was the intersections between art and architecture. Eventually, in my own personal way and capacity and as yet another indirect influence, I created site-specific installations (even though they do not resemble in any way a Sol Lewitt), were I would turn a space into a painting (Intervention I, Bradford, UK, 2003; Turn to Colour, Margate, UK, 2007 and Jacob’s Ladder, Brisbane, 2009). In 2011 I was most fortunate to be in the US exhibiting in North Adams, Massachusetts, where MASS MoCA is located. There I witnessed a most extraordinary retrospective comprising of 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall paintings spanning the artist’s career from 1969 to 2007. This exhibition left a great impact on my thinking.
Donald Judd, on the other hand, who is generally considered to be the leading exponent of “minimalism” and its most important theoretician through such writings as ‘Specific Objects’ (1964), has the biggest say in The Archetype Series. I am influenced not by Judd’s aesthetic per se as the last thing I want to do is imitate or copy his style, but what is of interest to me is his philosophy behind his body of works. Judd sought autonomy and clarity for the constructed object and the space created by it. He embraced free-standing constructions in which materiality was central to his work. He refused to call them sculpture, pointing out that they were not sculptured but made by small fabrictors using industrial processes. He used simple, often repeated forms to explore space and the use of space. He believed that methods should not matter as long as the results create art, a groundbreaking concept in the accepted creation process. It is all these ideas that mattered to me and his concepts which had an impact on my work, not only in these particular series but also in other past recent works as well.
AD There are fifteen sculptures in the series. Which one did you start with? Are there any that hold more significance personally to you than others?
NFA As I said earlier, the first one was Hashtag, the second one was V and the entire series developed from there. I am fond of five particular works of the fifteen in the series and for different reasons for which I identify more on a personal level. These are: ZERO because this the only real number which is neither negative nor positive; SQUARE because it reminds me of a high-rise building hence this links to my interest in architecture; SWASTIKA because it represents two swastikas, one turning right (Nazism) and one turning left (an ancient religious icon in Eurasion cultures) representing duality and dichtomy, a characteristic of many of my past works; QUOTATION MARK because it overlaps two distinct symbolisms representing complexity, which somehow feels like my present life; and lastly PARTIT LABURISTA because it represents the times.
AD You began this series during the most stringent Covid-19 restrictions a time when the gallery was closed and no one was really sure when anything would be open again. Did this forced isolation impact the direction of the series?
NFA Covid-19 forced me to work completely indoors, in my studio in Gozo. In the last eighteen months, since Covid-19 broke out in March 2020, when the gallery had to suddenly close for thirteen and a half months, I was confined to my studio creating object making rather than site-specific installations which is what I was mostly known for. In a way, I am very gratefull to the pandemic because it gave me the golden opportunity to re-invent myself as an artist.
The Archetype Series installation view, 2021
AD The series is steeped in symbolism and metaphor, with many of the structures being linked to social, cultural, political and even religious themes. At times, the structures relate directly to topics and ethical dilemmas that are occurring in the here and now. How important do you think an artist's role is in commenting on the progression or moral health of society?
NFA The two things that make these fifteen pieces a kindred collection is that they are all made from the same material, the four-sided ruler, and importantly, that all represent or reflect a symbol. These two aspects were conscious decisions that I made from the very start because I wanted the collection to be homogeneous visually, emotionally and conceptually.
Symbols have power because they concretize the abstract and have multiple layers of meaning, they help us to understand the world around us, they go beyond the literal, they can be used in a poetic way and therefore produce more impact. There are various types of symbolism, metaphor and archetype are two types which are present in this series. Maybe there are others like irony (V ), simile (Swastika ) and allegory (Partit Laburista )? Yes, the topics vary, and I make sure that I include social (Hashtag and Universal Currency ), cultural (Quotation Mark, V, Ladder ), political (Partit Laburista ) and religious (Cross ) themes. I wanted the series, at least some of them, to have a numinous beauty. All people relate to symbols regardless of their culture. We relate to these symbols because we authomatically make connections between the object and the concept that represents them.
I consciously include these themes because I believe an artist has a responsibility to society, even a duty, to respond and reflect his/her art to what is happening around this world of ours, to record, document and to respond to the times we live in. The artists’ role is simply to express what he/she witnesses, what has happened or what is happening, ask questions without the necessity of having to give any answers.