Artist Interview: Victor Agius
Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Portrait of Victor Agius
Victor Agius is a multi-disciplinary artist who works in sculpture, painting, video, performance, and installation. He graduated from the University of Malta in 2004, and moved on to Perugia, Italy to continue his studies, followed by Central Saint Martin’s College for Art and Design in London, UK. Agius is co-founder of Ars Vitae Ensemble and a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta. His works have been exhibited at the National Museum of Fine Arts and at Spazju Kreattiv in Valletta, at the UNESCO World Heritage site Ġgantija temples, at the Mdina Cathedral, at The Royal Theatre in Valletta, at St Agatha’s Catacombs in Rabat, at The Mill – Art, Culture and Crafts Centre, and in local and international galleries including St Eufemia Gallery in Venice, the Lauba Gallery in Zagreb, Eduardo Secci Gallery in Florence, the Ceramic Context in Bornholm Art Museum in Denmark, and the Feanza Prize at the Museo Internazionale della Ceramica in Faenza, Italy. His practice demonstrates “a direct affinity with the earth and the natural elements” as well as “continuous research on primitive rudiments and rituals and man’s incessant rapport with nature, time and his own existence”. Here he speaks with Ann Dingli about his two-week exhibition at Valletta Contemporary (VC).
Ann Dingli (AD): It feels natural to start by asking if you believe your practice has a place in the wider canon of Land Art? If yes, can you talk about how and why it belongs there; if no, can you explain why it’s different?
Victor Agius (VA): My mixed media works and interventions in a way have always tried to connect on multiple layers associated with a sense of place, time and matter. I remember creating and playing with clay in my father’s studio, and with mud in the non-asphalted streets during the winters of the mid-80s. For me the prehistoric megalith constructions on our islands, as well as the ochre decorations both locally and in caves around Europe, were already Land Art or earth works thousands of years before the recent works of the 60s and 70s of Richard Long, Michael Heizer, Andy Goldsworthy and the others. I became more aware of these artists when I was studying in London and experienced the work of Richard Long at the Royal Academy.
I believe that although the aesthetic of many of my works seem familiar with works of Land Art, it is the ambience of the prehistoric Ġgantija Temples and the Gozitan rugged countryside of my childhood that sparked my interest to use nature – both as a medium and as a concept. My practice, whilst using earthy materials, strives to dialogue with the notions of ritual, time, spirituality in nature, and men’s preoccupation with consumption.
AD: Your training began in Malta, and then took you to London via Perugia. How did each of these places inform the evolution of your work? In London, you studied at Central Saint Martins, known to be strong on conceptual and experimental training – how did that seep into your seemingly very tactile, intuitive practice?
VA: My first art school was my father’s sculpture studio in Gozo. I frequented the art classes of the late Maltese artist, Harry Alden, for several years. My art education degree at university included many areas of study about the history of art. We also had some practical credits involving painting, pottery, etching, sculpture, fresco paintings, figure drawing and other traditional techniques. In Perugia, the emphasis was more on classical and Italian renaissance, traditional techniques and working directly from models. In London, the experience was a very intense one, in which contemporary art practice was the main area of my study. Our lecturers challenged us continuously to reflect on our existing approach and practice in a highly inquisitive manner. We had several experiences in galleries across London, complemented by crits, curators and artist talks at the college. It was also my first opportunity to see the works of Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone at the Royal Academy.
Consumed Earth, 2020
AD: One of the works you are showing at VC is a contained remnant from an earlier performance piece that took place in Ġgantija. The fact that you’ve chosen to show something that was once ‘active’, or in flux, and is now ‘still’, is interesting in and of itself. In a sense, the remnant may be experienced as having a ‘temporal’ bearing – an object from an event that moved, happened and is now passed. Is this something you considered when choosing to include it?
VA: I am aware that this work was part of an in-situ intervention at a highly charged site dating back to prehistory. However, I believe that the materials I used can still cast a statement in different contexts, in this case a gallery/museum setting. This sculpture, together with some other works in this collection, are built up in similar media and speak of fragility, earth, time, ritual and matter.
In fact, relics have this function and purpose of preserving an actual bone/object. Relics do not restage a person or an event but generally contain what is real such as bones, hair, textiles and stones amongst others. For me, these remnants are leftover relics that document that performance and intervention at Ġgantija Temples in July 2020.
This was an intervention in which I smashed concrete bricks with a mallet and covered rubble stones and my body with red ochre and terrarossa. A performance which centred on materiality, consumption, our relationship with nature and our fragile existence. It was a shamanistic act of expressing rage at the material of concrete, which is engulfing our village skylines.
AD: It seems impossible to divorce your work from current conversations on how humans are treating the planet. You in fact mention the Anthropocene in context with what you are presenting. Do you consider your work a form of protest in this respect?
VA: It is a silent protest wherein I am trying to let the materials speak!
AD: Your work is often connected to place and site. What are your feelings on the way the land in Malta and Gozo is being treated today? Do you think we have a national respect-deficit when it comes to our natural environment?
VA: It is very disheartening that vast areas of ODZ (Outside Development Zone), and now also areas literally next to UNESCO sites, are being targeted for massive high-rise buildings featuring apartments and hotels. As a nation, we are failing to safeguard our natural and built heritage. It is unbelievable that policy makers and those who are appointed to protect our national heritage and environment are making it easy for applicants to secure these barbarian permits! This is a very short-sighted approach where we are seeing the precious value of our landscape, garigue, ODZ and village cores reduced only to greed, concrete, and greyish skylines. Our future generation will condemn us for this.
AD: You mention there’s more you want to do with the VC space in future – can you give a hint as to what that might look like if you had the opportunity to use the space again?
VA: VC is an exciting space for any artistic medium and interdisciplinary intervention. After this two-week experience at the project room, I look forward to carrying on expanding my artistic research, whilst discussing further with the director an interdisciplinary project with site-specific interventions for VC.
Terrae V, 2021 (detail)