Artist Interview: Nigel Baldacchino and Tom Van Malderen
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Tom Van Malderen (left) and Nigel Baldacchino (right).
Valletta Contemporary (VC)’s first joint exhibition of 2021 includes the work of Tom Van Malderen (Home is the new travel) and Nigel Baldacchino (Clear Windows). Van Malderen‘s practice ranges from buildings to furniture, installations and exhibition design, probing the intersections between art, design and architecture and seeking out material gestures in “everyday constellations, split personalities in objects and ambiguities in the construction of social space”. Baldacchino is an artist and design architect working in various media, including photography, music production, video, text, and design of physical objects and spaces. He describes his photographic work as depicting “a close and personal reality, presented less as ‘something to be grasp’ than ‘something to witness’”. Both artists are based in Malta and their work presented in BLINK, the title of the duo show, addresses I rhythms of life and modes of perception. “Like a blink,” they say, “the work ruptures automated and familiar cycles, propelling them forward then back again”. Van Malderen and Baldacchino discuss their work for VC with Ann Dingli.
Ann Dingli (AD): Before we talk about the exhibition as a whole, I’d like to ask you both about your individual practices. You each explore the condition and characteristics of the traditionally defined ‘inanimate object’ – this exploration at times extending into inanimate ‘space’. In different ways, your work provokes a new reading of how manmade objects, furniture, and spaces impact the psyche and philosophies of human life. Can you both describe what draws you to these subjects and themes?
Tom Van Malderen (TVM): From my end, a lot of the work starts from being intrigued by the way people use space, and especially, by the objects resulting from that use. Some objects remain unnoticed and fleeting, whilst others – as the writer and photographer Teju Cole describes in his essay, Objects Lessons – can be reservoirs of specific personal experiences, filled with the hours of a person’s life. This points at objects as mediators between people and life, as carriers of things; leading to a myriad of situations, as well as interesting subjects and themes to work with as an artist.
However, this perspective is also very human-centric – looking at objects to find out more about ourselves than about the object itself. To make them ‘function’ for our purpose, so to speak. So what I’ve tried to do for this show is to challenge that so-called ‘inanimate’ character traditionally appointed to objects, and speculate about what would happen if they had a life of their own. The notion that the objects themselves may have something to say is an interesting field to explore as well. In my practice, I like to toggle between objects helping us to become ourselves, and objects having their own stories and existence. Let’s call it a very ambiguous, empathic relationship.
Nigel Baldacchino (NB): Even though the work I’m showing here revolves around the idea of ‘windows’ – to me, it is that which ‘animates’ windows that is in focus. It’s the way in which windows shape and modulate the general ‘animation’ of our reality, that is the real subject. The way they transform, partly reflect, partly refract, partly transmit daylight, sunlight and human vision; all of which are vehicles of reality’s most basic physical animation, throughout the hours, days, seasons, and years. In its bare bones, I would say my photographic work tries to explore the mechanics of this very basic sense of ‘animation’ of things; paradoxically, by freezing it in time. The best way I found to put to words what I’ve been consistently driven to achieve in my photographic work, in this sense, is to capture ‘moments of space’.
BLINK installation view, 2021
AD: Nigel, your practice seems to be fuelled by convergence – a multiplicity of viewpoints offered by practicing in different mediums. Can you talk about how these disparate mediums coalesce in this exhibition specifically? Should viewers expect a sonic element to the exhibits? Will there be moving imagery? Text?
NB: I have a fairly pragmatic outlook to what I do artistically, in that I see it as an ‘incoherent’ and hopefully twisted ‘coming together’ of my personal and artistic sensibilities and references. The way I see it, my practicing in multiple mediums mostly only means that my palette of ‘active’ influences and consequent artistic sensibilities is just as open. In other words, in an extended sense, the artistic sensibility developed from practicing in the visual and spatial arts like photography and architecture, often meaningfully influences my work in more time-based arts like sound and text. This naturally goes both ways. Of course, this is a common phenomenon to anyone practicing in any art form. In my case, perhaps, this merely happens more boldly and explicitly than for other artists, who focus on just one medium as ‘output’.
In terms of merging mediums, I didn’t find any real need for it here. For me, the idea of working with Tom immediately brought to mind this theme and series of photographs, as I find there to be a poetic resonance to be sought with his work. Adding anything to that, would only come across as diluting to me. That said, I will be including an extremely minimal ambient sound intervention in the space. Being a huge Scott Walker fan (spanning all his career), I’ve long loved his take on Burt Bacharach’s The Windows of the World. Many great covers have been made of this track, and they all feature this little recurring melody that somehow always sticks in my head in a surprisingly pleasant way. I therefore was struck with the idea to use the excuse of the thematic link to abstract, isolate and present it here and there in the space.
BLINK installation view, 2021
AD: You enlist the window as a device for unpacking ideas around the way people live and their connection to the world. You talk about windows as “valves of equity”. This resonates on many levels. In art history, the image of the window carries a depth of metaphor connected to hope, listlessness, wonder, glamorisation of the natural world and a lamentation of humanity’s separation from it. In real life, the window is a signpost for wealth and urban privilege – its size and coverage directly tied to the quality of life enjoyed by its user. What commentary are you looking to make with the window as protagonist?
NB: Indeed, being a practicing architect, I have a fair grip on the symbolic weight that different sizes and typologies of windows have come to represent with regards to status (how expensive different types of windows are) and history (what kinds of windows were available when, and to whom). For instance, among other things, the index of reflectivity of glass tends to be a good indicator of price: the less reflective it is, the (much) more expensive. It’s actually more nuanced than that, somewhat, but it’s a decent rule-of-thumb to go by. Of course, that on its own is a major contributor to the perceived physical ‘presence’ of glass to the human eye. It also drastically changes the way buildings, and therefore cities, look on a very basic level, in ways not many can appreciate.
More than anything, however, I would say the photographs are mostly born from the recurring fascination with windows that’s forever stuck with me: the role that windows have in our perception of (urban) physical reality. When designing and building, we often tend to give roles to different materials we use. These roles are often product of mental abstractions and ‘caricaturing’ of materials. In the case of glass, I find that ‘our default setting’ is to cast it as a neutral, ‘invisible’ material placed there to transmit light and human vision. We know however, that the actual physical reality of glass is broader than that. Glass is constantly apportioning light and human vision. Throughout the cycle of the days (and seasons, with the quality of daylight changing), as levels of luminance fluctuate opposingly in recurring cycles both in interior spaces and externally, the glass in windows becomes an enactor of that specific difference.
As the day goes by, windows modulate the interior onlooker’s perception of what is outside, and vice versa, by reflecting, refracting (when half open, at an angle) and transmitting light in different degrees. The ‘unintended’ physical implications of this cycle, a reminder of the difference between the ‘role’ we give the things we use, and what they actually are, I would argue is the real commentary implied in this work – the reflected window-shaped patches of light on city roads and pavements; the reciprocal glance of one’s own reflection in shop windows during bright days; the voyeuristic knowledge of being invisible looking clearly into people’s houses at night ,and conversely the window-shaped patches of light drifting in interiors. Ultimately this all affects our perception of personal and interpersonal reality. Capturing this, I think, is one thing that I find photography to be the natural medium for.
Tom Van Malderen, Downward facing desks, 2021
AD: Tom, your work in the exhibition consists of a furniture line that you developed over the past year for a local manufacturer – therefore a body of work that was not made expressly for this show. Yet you equally position the objects within that body as vehicles to explore wider themes. Does the space between the initial purpose of the furniture line and its role within an art space have bearing on your development of the conceptual aspect to the show? By means of offering a buffer, or dissonance, of intention.
TVM: In earlier works I’d already began working with furniture pieces, or pieces that looked like furniture, and deliberately mixed up their function, appearance and identity. So when I came to work on this extensive line of furniture for a manufacturer during the pandemic, whilst also having been invited to produce new work for a show at VC, these furniture pieces inevitably started to develop split personalities in my imagination. We, the pieces and I, simply spend too much time together, and it turned the show into a fiction about my own furniture.
A story unfolded between the ‘original character’ and possible new identities for the furniture, between the usual ‘functional’ expectations they evoke, and unexpected possibilities, between useful and usefulness, between the abstract and the figurative. It became a series of overlapping stories in combination with other objects and materials that can be found up and around furniture, bringing forward a multitude of possible associations, but at the same time, leaving enough mystery to let the viewer's imagination make their own. I tried to look at it in a humorous way – what happens if we don’t become occupied with the usual functions, rhythms, habits and necessities our furniture prompts?
AD: You present a provocation through a letter addressed to audiences in the voice of the furniture itself, suggesting a transference of domestic or spatial power between objects and their users. It mingles between notes of humour, disparagement, and didacticism. Can you elaborate on the motivation behind the letter?
TVM: The ‘fictitious’ letter from the furniture’s spokesperson to the audience was definitely motivated by finding a tongue-in-cheek way to give the furniture a chance to speak up and vocalise its issues about our very human centric view of everything happening around us. Given we are currently living in a world where everyone has a platform or a spokesperson, why exclude the furniture?
It gave me an opportunity to turn things a bit upside down, to direct the audience into a certain mood, if they are willing to go along, and to raise doubt in a light-hearted way. It also allowed me to make certain statements that I am not even too sure about myself. In that sense, it doesn’t attempt to draw specific conclusions. If anything, it wants to be an invitation to begin to learn things afresh, as part of taking responsibility for our understanding of the world. I see the letter is an extension of the work itself, as an attempt to break down meaning in favour of new experiences, or new mixtures where intuition and rationality can work together instead of being considered to be opposites.
BLINK installation view, 2021
AD: Furniture and the inanimate object have been used diversely by artists to unlock dialogue around bigger issues. Mona Hatoum is a genius in this respect – developing compositions of man-made subjects that represent powerful feelings of displacement, terror, entrapment, despair. There are many others. You both approach objects in a different way – Tom, you compose and make them; Nigel you capture and metaphorise them. Can you talk about both the crossover in your work and the differences?
TVM: Irrespective from the fact that we approach objects in different ways, I feel that our bodies of work have gravitated towards each other for this show. I see Nigel treating his selection of photographs in a sculptural way, and my sculptures have definitely becoming more photographic, so to speak. We both produced and composed a series of stills, or moments of environments, that contain objects and elements that are at first sight rather familiar to us. Nonetheless, there are at least as many, if not more, elements at work that are not present in the ‘picture’ as such.
Some things we can’t even speak of or put into language, but only sculpt or frame. Things that float from being in the world, into the mind and back again. Pictured and non-pictured elements that can only be internalised by the audience in a very personal way, through their own experience and understanding of the world. All of this together sets up a space for ambiguity and empathy, which is in my opinion more interesting and needed than the polarized spaces and voices we currently see at work in politics and social media.
NB: We undoubtedly cross over meaningfully in our artistic and spatial sensibilities. We both tend to favour, and hence produce, work which at its core actively puts into question every-day basic assumptions through which we all relate to the reality around us. More specifically, I find there is a common sense of a certain physicality at the base of our thought, outlook and expression, which does imbue a specific character that this exhibition hopefully brings forward.
One thing that possibly differs is that, while Tom puts into question the relationships between us, as human beings, and the objects ‘we make’ to serve seemingly static, but actually very fluid purposes; my work in photography most often concerns itself mostly with the relationship between objects and their animate surroundings, and what our perception of these relationships says about us. There are recurring questions of how we absorb visual reality by discerning foreground, background, proximity, distance, contrast, luminance, focus etc. My work is therefore using objects mostly as ‘punctuation marks’, of sorts, while Tom’s work in turn perhaps presents objects as ‘word’ or ‘sentence’.
Nigel Baldacchino, 1408_SANTA MONICA and 1389_SANTA MONICA (left to right) , 2021
AD: Finally, through your exhibits you both seemingly make a comment of a changed world following Covid-19. Do you consider the pandemic as a catalytic game-changer to the way we live; or is it just another passing prompt that pulls our priorities into sharp focus until we all resettle back into the status quo?
NB: Well, ironically, all the photos showing in the exhibition were taken early in 2019, when pandemics were something you read about with some perverse curiosity. However, of course, as a series and a theme, the photos were chosen and curated for this exhibition fairly recently. I would say that for many adults in urban areas (I suspect children experience reality in a different plane, that I’m not much in contact with), it definitely affected our notion of lived space, and brought new significance to the physical boundaries presented by the walls and windows in our homes. In this sense, this discourse regarding the ways we negotiate the barriers between our living spaces and the external spaces, is very much at play in the work I’m showing. The pandemic also transformed, for many full-time employed people like myself, the day-to-day rhythms of our lives, which is another thing that I find the exhibition contemplates.
TVM: I titled the work for this exhibition ‘home is the new travel’ as a consequence of spending a lot of time at home. The home, once a place we mostly considered to be a point of departure, now has also become our ‘destination’. I can tell that people are giving more importance to home and the things they surround themselves with, especially now that the digital world – previously very much a form of escape – has been hijacked by work-related things. To a certain extent, moments of escape are increasingly found again in the ‘real’ world. There’s no way to tell whether this is here to stay post-pandemic, but I certainly hope this will have a positive effect on rebalancing the body-mind divide. With technology and the online world always preferring the mind over the body, our ‘bodily-being’, as much as all ‘other being’ around us, could do with a boost.
NB: With the pandemic-driven long-term changes to ‘life as we knew it’ (in itself an idea that’s open for debate), I suspect that different macro and micro cultures will absorb the impact very differently in the short-to-medium term. However, I do feel, with some sense of resignation, that with enough time, given the structures of power we’ve evolved to favour as an extended society, will always re-normalise things in favour of the few and their priorities. And in a lot of ways the latter priorities are sadly, historically, fairly predictable and ever-recurring. I find that our reality, in the western urban world, is shaped by this very fact from a very basic level. Ultimately, I think it’s up to us (whoever that is), only up until it’s not.