Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Roxman Gatt (b. 1989) is a Maltese artist living and working in London. Roxman's work encompasses text, painting, video, sound, photography, installation and performance and has been exhibited in Denmark, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Malta. The artist studied Graphic Design and Visual Communication in London at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art respectively, and has been awarded the Chris Garnham Prize (2015) and the Magnum Showcase Online Photography Award (2013). Gatt's work explores themes surrounding feminine identity, sexuality, pop culture and language, very often taking the form of performance and moving-image work. Gatt formed part of Valletta Contemporary’s first group show – HERE&NOW – in June 2018, alongside eight other emerging contemporary Maltese artists. In this interview, the artist speaks with Ann Dingli about how love and loneliness have shaped Roxman's works, as well as how the nature and stature of contemporary art in Malta is changing.
Ann Dingli (AD): Before we discuss the work that was selected to be featured in Valletta Contemporary (VC)’s first group show, HERE&NOW, can you talk about your art practice in broad terms. Your portfolio is distinctly multidisciplinary – what are the main themes you strive to address, and do you have a preferred media?
Roxman Gatt (RG): Love and loneliness have been two ongoing themes that have significantly influenced my work. I am most often looking at the artist in the studio – usually alone – with the only human interaction being via taps on the keyboard. In 2015, I created a video piece reflecting on a realisation I had once in the studio, where I recognised that I was spending more time in contact with my swivel chair rather than with my then-partner. This prompted me to create a piece of work where I was having a ‘moment’ – writhing up my swivel chair in the studio as if we were the two lovers (Sexual Healing, 2015, video, 4:13mins).
Sexual Healing, 2015, video, 4:13 minutes
A new body of work that I am working on at the moment continues to look into these themes and is inspired by a tragic love story – a car crash. The work will somehow manifest in the form of a dismantled car. It is examining the humanisation and interaction with consumer objects. This work uses the consumer object to delve into themes that relate to the real and the fake; fiction and non-fiction; dreaming and reality. These notions and provocations have evolved through a series of poems and texts that discuss love and the pain it brings. It is a depiction of contemporary love and its complexities. The work is vulnerable and intimate, drawn from the personal, yet it is universal and relevant to anyone who has loved, been loved and is just trying to figure out why love hurts.
I want to make these texts tangible, visible. My praxis exploits various media depending on what seems fit for the emotions being evoked. For instance, at the moment I am looking into wax as a material, since it is very symbolic of the flesh. I am also inspired by hyperreal wax sculptures, and how, as [Umberto] Eco explains in his book Faith in Fakes, the hyperreal wax sculpture becomes more real than the original, which becomes somehow invisible.
This work explores what’s real and what’s fake and the close proximity between the two. Soft and hard are two words that often resonate within the work, and also help determine the choice of materials to work with. I am making use of wax, which in my case symbolises the softness of the flesh, and harsher materials such as the car components often made of steel that symbolise the pain and tragedies that contemporary love brings with it. Recently, movement and dance has become a crucial part of my practice and I feel that it is mostly through this medium that I can truly and honestly express the work at its best.
AD: Your work has a very present and relevant relationship with the internet and its users, which you very often describe as being unavoidable and prescriptive of the way of life of your generation. Can you expand on your relationship with the internet and how it manifests in your work?
RG: I feel that there is a less obvious reference to the internet as a subject in itself in my present work; this is not because it is not relevant to me now, but because it is part of our existence and it has become inbuilt within us. Everything I do is 95% connected to the internet, and I guess that is how it gets manifested in the work as it is unavoidable. Like, for example, looking at social media where it can be seen both as a tool by the artist as well as an anxiety inducing organism.
AD: Your work I Want 2 Protect U, which was included in the HERE&NOW group show, seems to be a culmination of earlier videos in your portfolio – heightening your interrogation of female sexuality, vulnerability, power and lust. Can you describe how this work came to be and what you hope it will communicate to viewers?
I Want 2 Protect U, 2016, video, 2:46 minutes
RG: I was thinking a lot about how it seems and feels as if there is little difference between how we sometimes fetishize or consume an object, to how we fetishize or consume a human being. The desiring, possessing and the making of an icon as well as the act of disposing, replacing or upgrading to a better version, sadly and even horrifically is at times uncanny. Humans don't come in latest models.
We are vulnerable and fragile human beings, we want to protect our loved ones, yet sometimes it is from us that they need the protecting. It feels like we are born without the proper tools to live – we have been denied the instruction manual book at birth, and now we find ourselves a bit like lost wild animals, trying to navigate through all of these complexities that the world puts before us.
AD: Unlike many of your other videos, I Want 2 Protect U juxtaposes your own performance against an earthy, if desolate, natural landscape. What does this backdrop signify?
RG: I wanted the human to seem that it is being taken care of by mother earth yet they still upset her and they are sad that they are doing so. However, they don't know otherwise, and despite wanting to show respect and love they end up injuring her and themselves.
AD: How relevant is a typical Maltese upbringing in relation to the reading of your work (fervently Catholic, patriarchal, community-driven). i.e. Does your work relate to the universal feminine persona, or feminine identity specifically in Malta?
RG: I would be lying if I had to say that there is no relation to this in my work. Being born in a very conservative and catholic country has impacted me as a human being as well as my work. The work has definitely changed throughout the course of leaving the country and religion is not really a theme I find myself referencing in my work as much now – but that wasn’t always the case. Societal norms, gender norms and the patriarchal system are unavoidable. They are important issues that I will continue to be aware and reference in my work as they are universal issues. However, I somehow find Malta more exciting if not more important as a place to bring my work and ideas to, as I still find it is still suffering greatly from certain inbuilt tropes concerning gender, sexuality and the patriarchal system in general.
AD: Your treatment of sexuality, physicality, language and profanity is prevalent in most of what you create, not least in your work for the Malta Pavilion at the 57th Venice Art Biennale (Virgin Mary 's Love Juice, video, 1:18mins). In interviews about the work, you expressed trepidation about its reception with the Maltese public – were your concerns justified?
Virgin Mary's Love Juice, video, 1:18 minutes
RG: Maltese people are still quite conservative when it comes to certain topics such as religion and sexuality. This work for some was too provocative and they weren't pleased about it at all. However, with the new legislations related to censorship, as well as the start of a new era for Malta's contemporary art scene, I think it came at just the right time! Some people were very against it, to the point of not wanting to be part of the Biennale. However, others saw its importance and relevance – they fought to have it shown there and that means everything to me.
AD: Do you feel like the contemporary art scene in Malta is changing?
RG: Yes, I really do think that things have changed quite drastically within a very short period of time, there are a couple of really great people who have worked hard to put our country on the contemporary art world map, and I am hoping that these efforts will be amplified even more in the next couple of years. There is a lot of potential and I am very interested and excited by the idea of the younger generation setting afoot and making a mark in the local contemporary art scene.