A Dialectic Progression from “Elisabeth: or, to be a Mann” in Malta to Grave Field, Connecticut in the United States
PETER SERRACINO INGLOTT
Among the themes with which Norbert Francis Attard has most deeply engaged in his Installation Art is bringing the confrontation of death out of the chilly nooks and secluded corridors of hospitals to which the final moments of our lives have often been banished in recent times. Instead Attard holds up spaces that can be called zones of death for the attention of the living even at the height of their search after aesthetic pleasure, perhaps especially because in such context death is surrounded with the aura of beauty and clothed in dignity. Such images yield experiences that constitute opportunities to search for meaning at the boundary of life possibly even inducing existential transformation as in a rite of passage with a ray of hope lighting up dark times. Many artists throughout history provide precedence in very different idioms from scenes of martyrdom to dances of death, as well as of consolation, but perhaps the theme has never been handled with such intensity as in the two great periods of Maltese Art: the Pre-historic spiral representations of cyclical death and life in the megalithic temples that are a thousand years older than the Pyramids of Egypt, and in the counter reformation art after the Council of Trent, notably in the work of Caravaggio who developed a veritable ars moriendi for his own use including the spectacular burial scene of St Lucy at Syracuse. The spirit of these death-zone depictions essentially of triumph over death is marvellously recaptured in works by Norbert Attard in a contemporary idiom ranging from glass coffins to derivations from details in Caravaggio. However, the most powerful are two more recent installations.
In 1967, Malta proposed at the General Assembly of the United Nations that Ocean Space should be declared Common Heritage of Mankind, meaning that its resources were to be managed on behalf of mankind as a whole by a supra-national Authority set up for the purpose. Elisabeth Mann Borgese saw it as the first step towards the World Government that her father, Thomas Mann, had committed the last years of his life towards fostering. She told me (I was advisor to the Prime Minister of Malta) that a model was about to be set up at sea that was destined to be later taken up on land. I pointed out to her that when she was born her father had written a mock epic poem in which he used the sea over-running the land as a metaphor for the chaos that he saw disrupting the order of humanist culture; he had then called upon his new-born child (recalling Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue) not to strive uselessly to conserve the past but to create a new higher order of human conviviality out of the chaos.
Elisabeth had forgotten the passage. Her feelings at the time about her father were quite ambivalent, especially as she had read in his diaries that he had proposed an abortion for her. She then started re-reading her father’s work and was amazed to find that he had prophesied her career almost as if she had been a character in one of his novels. When Elisabeth, my close friend by then, died in 2002 I decided to write a short opera, with music by our common friend, Charles Camilleri, on the fascinating father-daughter relationship, perhaps the only thread that had not been highlighted in the complex web of the life-story of the Mann family, which has been aptly compared to that of a Greek tragedy.
Norbert Francis Attard produced what is perhaps best described as an enormous Installation that was placed in a large empty space that had come about through Nazi bombardment of university warehouses on the Valletta waterfront of the Grand Harbour in Malta. The dominating bastions that had been built by the Knights of Malta after they had repulsed the Turkish Siege of 1565 provided wall space on which huge images devised by Attard were projected. They were mainly taken from films depicting both the Communist and the Nazi marches that had been Thomas Mann’s direct experience of the chaotic forces destroying civilization; out of their ocean-like surge, he trusted his offspring would generate a better world.
Attard was inspired by the salt pans that had been possibly since pre-historic times a source of livelihood for the inhabitants of the almost bare rock that constitutes the island of Malta. The vast stage area about the same size as the auditorium was flooded with sea water, divided into oblong pools separated from each other by low barriers of stone. The singers, embodying Thomas and Elisabeth, had to sing treading perilously, or so it seemed, on these narrow ledges that criss-crossed the water, except for the times when they had actually to splash in it. The display of forced existential brinkmanship aroused a constant, tremulous thrill throughout the performance.
The audience showed that it greatly appreciated Camilleri’s music, with the parts recalling the classical forms so dear to Thomas Mann’s heart being disrupted by jazz or rowdy militaristic sounds, only eventually to yield place to music of such simplicity that it amounted almost to silence. Yet many afterwards told me that the most powerful dimension of their experience was the visual. It enabled them to perceive as it were from the inside the mysterious living out by a daughter of the future envisaged for her by a father, always emotionally distant from her, whom she always referred to as “the Magician”. Indeed, Attard’s Installation, as I prefer to call it rather than stage-setting, practically determined the theatrical enactment which grew almost spontaneously in response to the constructed environment. Out of it, a pathos emanated that oscillated between the liminally sinister and the ultimately serene.
Additional depths of the visual imagery that enveloped participants in the evocation of the inextricable tangle of deadly and life-restoring themes associated with the Mann family came to the surface in yet another Installation, Grave Field, made of pumice stone, volcanic ash, set up by Norbert Francis Attard in the sculpture part in East Haddam, Connecticut in the United States in 2010. The word Grave Field refers to a prehistoric cemetery without above-ground structures or markers. Grave Field was part of an exhibition called THANATOPOLIS, a visual and aural exhibition foreshadowing I-Park’s proposed memory park. Salt pans are one of the rare instances of architecture in the negative, in the sense of its being hollowed out instead of being constructed like the famous Hypogeum pre-historic cemetery in Malta.
The basic imagery was still reminiscent of saltpans, more especially of the famous ones in Gozo called Il-Qbajjar, a word in Maltese that has affinities with Necropolis or City of the Dead, but with an almost affectionate ring to it. The saltpan memory colours the graveyard suggestion with a strong highlighting of the preservative instinct. It glistens like a mineral coating, with the inbuilt deep intention of conserving and perhaps even replenishing the life-force beneath the outer semblance of extinction. Salt has religious associations across the cultures of the whole planet from Hindus to Aztecs. Jews dip their Sabbath bread in salt. Sumo wrestlers scatter salt at matches invoking the Shinto gods. In all cases salt has the tang of liminality and threshold – crossing.
The play between the solid and the void gets mirrored, in the souls of those who transit in this somewhat limbo-like place, in feelings of wavering between worlds. It is as if they discovered themselves poised between a disintegrating material sphere and the embryonic structures of a new universe in the throes of a spiritual birth.