Medium and the Message, 2009 by Dr Raphael Vella on Urbanisation Games and Under Construction.
The Medium and the Message
The work of Adrian Scicluna raises questions about the relationship between the aesthetic and the real. If the expanding urbanisation of the Maltese islands represents ‘reality’, how should an artist translate it into an aesthetic object? Can you – indeed, should you – beautify ugliness? These are not new questions, mainly because the more unattractive side-effects of urbanisation are not new problems. Several nineteenth-century proponents of aestheticism argued for a form of art that responded to the increasing industrialisation of the land and social life by avoiding it – by rendering all art quite useless, to use Wilde’s quip. There exist in fact several possible responses to a developing new urban order: one can aspire to a much older system (Ruskin and his fascination with the Gothic style), return to a primitive world (Gauguin), steer clear of the problem by turning to lyrical abstraction (Kandinsky), make subtle references to new urban geometries (think of Mondrian’s last ‘Boogie-Woogie’ paintings), or even celebrate the new revolution in architecture (Sant’Elia and the Italian Futurists). The list can go on right up to our times: French art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has referred to the city as an essential backdrop in the formulation of new ‘relational’ aesthetics in the 1990s. From these few examples, it becomes clear that the urban environment of modern life has been a key idea in Western art during the last 150 years.
Avoiding the issue definitely does not form part of Scicluna’s programme of work. His way of doing things involves working within the problem rather than around it. It’s a bit like saying that the most effective way of understanding crime is to inhabit a criminal underworld, to live and breathe it on a daily basis. In one of the earliest pieces he installed in public, for instance, Scicluna created a huge spider’s web made entirely of flimsy red lingerie and spanned it across a vault at St James Cavalier in Valletta. The reference to prostitution in the work kept away from a straightforward representation of prostitutes (the history of art is replete with painted prostitutes, so why paint another?); instead, Scicluna entered the prostitute’s world by weaving her best selling device into a giant metaphor of her slavery to the world of sold sex. The medium is the message.
This marriage of medium and concept revealed itself in a much more extended piece of visual research from the second half of 2007 onwards. Scicluna became fascinated with the urban sprawl that has characterised Malta’s ‘growth’ in recent decades and started researching the problem by making several sketches and personal annotations or comments in small sketchbooks he carries with him. Relevantly, the media he chose to give form to these initial ideas were cement, concrete and metal bars, highlighted by touches of pigment and other industrial materials. It is important to state from the start that for Scicluna, this is no celebration of Maltese building contractors and their profitable ambitions, nor is it an illustration of a simplistic fondness for nostalgic architecture (he knows that we already have enough of both in Malta). Rather, it represents an attempt to confront a problem head-on by working with the very materials that constitute the problem. If Scicluna had the financial capability to develop his ideas on a much grander scale, he would probably develop full-scale, concrete architectural works of art that functioned (structurally and semiotically) both as ‘buildings’ and as conceptual works that commented about the act of building. The work itself would become the problem because it would contribute to Maltese urban sprawl at the same time as it interpreted the problem artistically. Indeed, even though Scicluna has so far restricted himself to sculptural works on a smaller scale, the materials he works with evince a very thorough form of artistic honesty. The hard, heavy and bulky materials he uses are far from easy to handle and rapidly lead to storage problems, yet Scicluna’s artistic integrity (his desire to maintain a strong connection between all aspects of the creative process) does not tolerate convenient solutions.
Scicluna’s investigation of urban themes has been quite methodical; his research can in fact be broadly sub-divided into conscious and rather diverse conceptual developments. His earliest pieces show a rather more literal reconstruction of imaginary urban ‘landscapes’, formed by grey cubic growths interspersed with elements of colour and metal bars. The reference to construction works is more immediately palpable in some of these sculptural pieces than in others. Some of these relief-constructions made of concrete casts border on abstraction and exemplify a deliberate exploration of geometric form, almost an attempt to re-arrange the urban environment into something more aesthetically digestible. Viewers who have already grasped Scicluna’s thematic premises and are knowledgeable about the history of twentieth century art may very well read these works as subtle détournements of Mondrian’s geometric abstractions, translated into a stark and chromatically subdued sculptural material that utterly recontextualises the Dutch artist’s work.
While Scicluna’s earlier work on the theme of urbanisation focused more on the austerity of form and material he found in the Maltese environment, Scicluna started to redeploy this idea in 2008 in a more playful manner. Heavy, concrete bricks are painted in bright colours to simulate infants’ building blocks; cuboid forms are joined to make large dice, complete with black dots; tall architectural structures become different chess pieces, referring ironically to hierarchical structures in Maltese society; a stainless steel segment of a Euro note (resembling a large-scale jigsaw puzzle piece) leaves no doubt about the prime motivation in the building industry. There is a very evident shift in meaning when one compares his reliefs, described in the previous paragraph, to these works. While the ‘meaning’ of the reliefs was located in the medium itself, the medium of these visual puns is disguised within the seemingly ludic function of the objects. Putting things differently, in the first class of works, concrete (the medium) is a metonym (because a single attribute of urbanisation comes to represent the whole building industry), while the works belonging to the second class are metaphors (because two apparently unrelated ideas – building and games – are united in the same form).
Other individual works cannot be classified into either of these groups. One minimalist work stands out from the rest. Maltese Bonsai is a floor-piece composed of a number of bricks with a small plant growing in a circular hole cut into one of these bricks. The brick is metonymic, while the plant does not represent or symbolise anything beyond its own existence. This little patch of greenery is exactly what it looks like, a stunted growth suffocated by concrete. Here, more than in any other work, Scicluna comes across as an environmentalist at heart. The built environment is offset by the living organism it walls in and which, by implication, it eventually replaces. If Scicluna’s first experiments with the medium accentuated geometrical relationships, this work is about the possibility of life itself.