Exhibition interview: That Other Place
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Raphael Vella’s solo exhibition at Valletta Contemporary (VC), the first on the islands in several years, draws inspiration from Susan Sontag’s ‘citizens of that other place’ in her book, Illness as Metaphor. The exhibition title, That Other Place, refers to the kingdom of the ill, which Sontag opposes to the kingdom of the well by exploring dehumanising myths and metaphors associated with the most infamous illnesses of modernity. Vella is an artist, educator and curator based in Malta. He has exhibited his works in international exhibitions and venues, including the Venice Biennale, Domaine Pommery (Reims, France) and Modern Art Oxford and has curated several group and solo exhibitions in Malta and internationally. Ann Dingli speaks to Vella as well as the shows’ curator, Maren Richter, and artists about That Other Place.
Ann Dingli (AD): Can you both talk a bit more about the "kingdom of the ill" that is built in this show – its historical allusions and how the theme still holds ground in our contemporary psyche?
Raphael Vella (RV): The term refers to Susan Sontag's 'Illness as Metaphor', in which she writes about the way diseases are used as metaphors for terrible things, stigmatising sick people in the process. The ‘kingdom of the ill’ is therefore a place of isolation, metaphorically separated from the rest of society. No theme has been more prevalent in recent times. The pandemic dominated public discourse, daily life and personal relations around the globe. I've been interested in this theme for years, chiefly in the way institutions, public figures or disciplines are presented as metaphorical cures for society's ills. This is why both medicine and politics dominate the exhibition's imagery.
Maren Richter (MR): Susan Sontag’s ‘kingdom of the ill’ poses the question of how and by whom a body, a group of people, is systematically defined as healthy or sick. At the intersection of economics, and technology, ‘kingdom of the ill’ investigates a shift in the relationship between health and illness, contamination and purity, care and neglect. Migration politics, welfare systems, wars – to name a few. They all fabricate mechanisms of exclusion. Which goes back to ancient societies.
I am not sure if this has become stronger over the course of time and history, but for sure it happens faster. Through technology and new forms of governance, it has become possible to build ‘That Other Place’ within a scarily short period of time. Raphael’s work, to me, suggests standing up and resisting these categorisations.
Antibody (2022) by Raphael Vella.
AD: Raphael, you've not had a solo show in Malta for a few years. Does this show feel like a culmination point, a climax, or a marker in a longer thematic trajectory? Will you break with the theme of illness as metaphor after this?
RV: I have been showing my work internationally, as well as in group shows in Malta. The exhibition actually brings in older works to indicate a long process of reflection, selection, sifting of ideas, and so on. I don't see it as a culmination. It's more like – this is what I've been doing for the last few years and this is where I'm at right now. Where I'm going is hard to predict because creative ideas typically evolve organically, along with the things that happen around us.
AD: Maren, you talk about Raphael's "unique and profound artistic language for voices and choices of resistance". Can you unpack this, beyond the content of this show to Raphael's wider practice.
MR: Raphael’s technique of using old books as canvas for his drawings and paintings to create multifaceted narratives is very unique. I remember when I came to his studio the first time, I was very intrigued by his artistic response to the book contents, in which ‘erasing’ – for example, the erasing of lines of text from book pages he uses – and ‘unveiling’ new contents playfully interact.
Collective amnesia and political manipulation oppose questions, such as: what is revolution or utopia? Failed ones, not yet considered or practiced ones. Could or should we use them in today’s social fabrics? And what keeps us away from creating new forms of living together? At the opening reception of this exhibition a visitor was reminded of graphic novels, which is an interesting way to frame Raphael’s practice.
Words and texts are very central in Raphael’s works. His practice of commenting on political and social dynamics, which also always includes an ironic tone, is like reading. Raphael’s works often analyse the politics of time, the chrono-politics, and offer multiple temporalities that mediate discourse and imagination – for example, understanding historic events and contemporary narratives in different ways.
There is so much more to say about his work though.
Installation view of That Other Place by Raphael Vella. (Photo by Michaele Zammit)
AD: The video works in this show are incredibly detailed and laden with process – their jerky visual narration belies the labour of your hand. Can you talk a bit more about how you begin, make, and then conclude each of your pieces?
RV: As you say, they are very labour intensive. For me, shifting to moving drawings and collage was like a logical process that just had to happen. It introduces narrative, dynamism, sound, and several other elements into the picture. I normally begin with a sort of loose storyboard, but I prefer experimental processes that allow for 'undisciplined' or abstract visuals, textural sound, and so on. I produce many small drawings on paper which I then scan, but I also work with digital drawing and collage. The sound landscape is a mixture of found sounds and created sounds and chords.
AD: The scale of this exhibition oscillates between minutely detailed vignettes and then large-scale screens and compositions. The application goes from intricately painted and drawn subject, to roughly pasted cuttings and background supports. Can you comment on this contrast?
RV: This exhibition revolves around a multimedia approach that is deliberately complex rather than minimalist. It mixes different themes and detailed drawings with quicker sketches and imagery that has been borrowed from other sources like medical texts. To some extent, it reflects the multitasking approach that characterises my daily life.
bitterbetter (2023) by Raphael Vella. (Photo by Michaele Zammit)
AD: What do you believe that "other place" is vis-a-vis the exhibition's immediate context – i.e. Malta, now, sitting as ever in the middle of an evolving world?
RV: For me, it's an ambiguous title, and I don't like to overanalyse it. It can refer to the place 'others' reside in – the sick, migrants, peoeple we like to classify and separate from whoever we think we are. It can also be a place of resistance, beyond the increasingly dirty and economy-driven political scene that we experience in Malta.
MR: The other place is not necessarily definable in a clear sense. The other is the opposite of the Self, of Us, and of the Same. It is different for each and every one of us, and can change at any time. I think it is no coincidence that ‘the other’ has been extensively written about in philosophy, psychology, ethics, and post-colonial studies. There is also the active term of Othering: The practice of Othering excludes persons who do not fit the norm of a social group and displace them to the margins of society.
I’d like to comment and conclude with a beautiful quote from Sontag’s mentioned book. ‘Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.’ But as Raphael already said – on top of that, in his work, the other place is to be seen as a place of resistance.