An Audio-visual installation by Norbert Francis Attard @ Public Convenience, Strait Street, Valletta
PETER SERRACINO INGLOTT
I do not quite know by what muses my friend and colleague Alexei Dingli, the Mayor, and the Council of Valletta were inspired to commission architect Chris Briffa with the rehabilitation of the five main public conveniences in Valletta. In consequence, Norbert Francis Attard was asked for an Art installation in a once notorious latrine situated at the crossing between Old Theatre Street and Strait Street, known as the Gut. This street so narrow that one gets the impression that people could shake hands from the balconies on one side across to those on the other was once the favourite haunt of sailors from the British Fleet and the many other vessels anchored in the Grand Harbour.
But I know that on October 9th, 2003, the Toilet Gallery, opened in London, in a media frenzy. Brit Art founders, Gilbert & George, cut the toilet paper ribbon to the tumultuous applause of the assembled crowd. That enthusiasm was echoed in the press and on television throughout the world. The Toilet Gallery is today present in all parts of America, Canada, France, Germany, Holland and Japan. Its mission is to provide a free and highly adaptable exhibition space to up and coming artists as well as the local community with the opportunity to engage with the challenges of contemporary art.
The rather narrow space available has been illusorily augmented by mirrors and other reflective surfaces like highly polished metal producing a number of inverted images and considerable uncertainty about what is real and what is mirage and even about what is being truly perceived and what is being merely imagined. This doubt about meanings, one, none or many of anything or everything around sets the mood in which the metamorphosis of this relatively small space from seediness to aesthetic brilliance can be enjoyed.
One of the main elements in Norbert Attard’s installation is the letter V. It is made up of alphabetic components: a double inverted inscription of I love Tracy Emin in red neon light. The red is not only immediately evocative of red light districts such as the Gut was, but also of the idea propounded by the most eminent philosophers of colour from Goethe to Wittgenstein - that red is the colour par excellence. Neon lighting had become normal in the garish vulgarity of the last almost pathetically boisterous phase of Strait Street history. What the red neon stands for is the stuff out of which V is made.
Actually, Pynchon’s novel opens with the focus on Paola, a barmaid from Strait Street, who had been married and taken away to the United States by an American sailor called Pappy Hod. (The episode is compared by Pynchon to Europa’s rape by the bull in Greek mythology and reflects his concern with the global role of the USA). Paola, is now working in a New York bar, called The V Note, disguised as a Negress and known as Ruby. This altogether fake appearance contrasts totally with the simplicity and peace of heart that had characterized her Strait Street persona. Ironically, when the novel opens, Paola is with Benny Profane, described as a schlemihl, a Jewish expression denoting a rolling stone that gathers no moss. Paola tells him that she is separating from her husband, alleging cruelty on his part, exactly at the moment when he is afloat again on his ship, bound again for Malta. Profane’s perpetually circular movements somehow always rotate around the enigmatic and elusive barmaid from Strait Street, who seems to embody the ideal of a person immune from the creeping materialism of the world which they inhabit. Paola persuades Profane to accompany her back to Malta, together with Herbert Stencil, the character in the book who is trying to identify what the letter V stood for. It had occurred in his father’s diary as standing for the force that threatened his life. V could have stood for Valletta. At first Profane was reluctant “I have been there once. Why should I want to go back?” “But didn’t Valletta – somehow – get to you? - Make you feel anything?” (“Stencil was scared to death of Valletta)”. “But hadn’t there been something about the bombed-out buildings, buff-coloured rubble, excitement of Kingsway? What had Paola called the island: a cradle of life.” However, what Paola does when they come to Malta, is find her husband Pappy Hod and return with him to the United States.
I have chosen to relate just this little fragment of the very complicated plot of Pynchon’s V because it relates to two of the main elements in Norbert Attard’s installation. The first is the audio-script that Narcy Calamatta, my cousin, has written for it. This dialogue is set in 1963. This year happens to be the one before Malta became independent and a change in the fortunes of Strait Street was heralded. It is also the year in which Pynchon’s novel was published and also the year of the birth of Tracey Emin, about whom more anon. This not-very obvious focussing on a particular date is yet another way of gently rubbing into our subconscious of the Pynchonite obsession with the question of design or absurdity or co-incidence in the unfolding of history.
One of the two voices belongs to a Maltese barmaid, the euphemism used for prostitute. She seems to me to have exactly the same type of character as Pynchon’s Paola. Her dialogue in English with the English lady now working in a very different context as a pimp has many of the linguistic characteristics that Pynchon endows Paola’s speech with in the context of the V Note bar in New York. Her desire to have a daughter in spite of her unfortunate experiences with previous children shows her to be a kindred spirit with Paola – “cradle of life”. The dialogue begins with cries of pain that sound at first as if sex-related but it quickly results that her suffering is rather more due instead to naïve and quasi-noble love.
The second is the inscription of the words: “I love Tracy Emin”. Let me note for a start that Emin spells Tracey with an e but confesses that she often misspells in her writing. She had a Turkish father, which may account for the Mediterranean look in some aspects of her character. Emin is now 47 and belongs to the group known as Britartists or YBA (Young British Artists) founded by Gilbert and George, the founders of the Toilet Gallery. She is perhaps most famous for having exhibited in 1999 in the Turner Prize Competition an installation called My Bed consisting of her own unmade dirty bed with used condoms and blood stained underwear. The attraction of her work seems to consist essentially in the combination of unabashed sexuality and a simple-hearted exhibition of her sufferings as for instance in the trauma left by abortion. She clearly has a character very similar to that which Pynchon attributes to Paola.
A third element in Norbert Attard’s installation is words beginning with the letter V inscribed on the large aperture on the front of the Public Convenience. The list of these words evokes the mix of sacred and profane that characterizes Strait Street overall. Famously the street was the birthplace and the breeding place of one of the three Maltese persons proclaimed Blessed (meaning almost ready for Sainthood) by Pope John Paul II, Nazju Falzon by name. Images of our Lady of Sorrows with oil lamps or candles lit in front of them were well known regular features of the dwellings of the so-called barmaids of the Gut. In Attard’s list one finds vagina and Virgin Mary, as well as Vat followed by Vatican. The allusion to Pynchon is not just simply in the fact that the main storyline in the novel is the search for what the letter V stands for in the diary of a mysteriously disappeared character, but also because the novel is philosophically an inquiry into whether there is a patter in history or it all happens by chance. Pynchon’s problem is that too many different patterns emerge out of the study of history. In the haphazard sequence of words beginning with V in Attard’s installation, the order of which is determined only by the vagaries of the alphabet, whole sets of logical connections emerge as it were on their own stimulus as in the two examples quoted above, or V-SIGN/VIAGRA & VOMIT/VOYAGE.
The letter V by itself evokes more singularly than any other word of which it is the initial just the word Victory. But in Norbert Attard’s installation, it is fashioned of red neon lights. Passion including suffering are the components of the eventual triumph, just as the Cross is the condition of the Resurrection. Thus, the transformation of a place initially identified as a receptacle of filth and waste into a brilliant and beautiful work of art can be seen to have patently a social value and significance, but also latently a sacred if not quite sacramental meaning.