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Dispatches from the boundary zone: the recent projects of Norbert Francis Attard



Norbert Francis Attard wants to know where the boundaries are. He has made a life of seeking out and discussing otherness. Whether it’s from the chain link fence between an office building and a community garden, a television screen between the viewer and the viewed or by using the image of a ladder, Attard is speaking to us from the middle, from within the boundary zone. One could argue that it is from within this boundary zone that a creative body can do the most relevant and rewarding work. The maker is free within the meeting place of anything and its other to experiment with and critique the relationship between the two. This is where the value of Attard’s work lies in greatest quantity. It is refreshing to see a polymath with a healthy sense of his own neophyte status in the search for broader universal knowledge in the contemporary landscape. Attard’s approach is simple and direct yet there is never a sense of expertise or didacticism. He is recording his impressions. He’s letting us see his notes.


In Attard wonders about the relationship between the garden and the office. He is comparative and intuitive when considering the problematics of industrialization, urbanism and contemporary career trajectories on both the health of the individual, the community and the environment. The project was done in New York, a vertical city struggling to maintain its sense of self while coming to terms with its ecological and sociological quandaries. Attard’s stance here is that the two are bound eternally and the answer lies in approaching them equally, radically and simultaneously.


His vantage point is the chain link fence between office and garden. He goes back to the fence again and again in this body of work. It’s as if to call attention to the unavailability of the very space where balance can be found that we often face when locked into our nine-to-five lives. In the boundary zone, or in this case literally on it, Attard applies implements of labor from both worlds. He remixes computer components, office supplies, plant life, gardening tools and technology, discovers their component parts and their potentials. When he has gathered his materials he begins to play. He plays with symbol, signifier and material juxtapositions and builds the work up from a line of questioning addressed through this play.


Power Surge posses a logic loop that barely holds itself together logically and philosophically but visually the tension created by seeing a catchment barrel drain into a laptop computer is completely unnerving. By connecting the computer to what is ultimately the seed of its power, hydro-electricity, and cutting out the industrial process to get water from catchment barrel to refined energy resource Attard is asking us to consider what slowing down now at any cost could do for our lives. Between the visual tension and the activation of significant objects like a catchment barrel and a laptop Attard achieves the simply worded poetry of the possible. What would happen if the hose was doing its job in this piece? Would that really be a completely terrible thing? What would we do with ourselves instead?


The ladder is the at once a passageway and a membrane. In the middle of the ladder we are nowhere. We are neither here nor there. We are in a state of emergence. Again Attard brings us to the place of one who is comfortable talking about the in-between. He’s comfortable with what is possible there. With this work, a ladder fashioned out of light, Attard reaches out into the fields of philosophy, symbology, even his own history to discuss the mythology of progress. Once again a conundrum arrises in Attard’s research. Wittgenstein used the ladder to illustrate the need to discard of a way back from current achievement or understanding. Once one achieves a thing, climbs up the ladder so to speak, it is imperative to kick out the ladder from underneath oneself in Wittgenstein’s perspective. Conversely in Malta, Attard’s home, the Great Seige of 1565 brings other connotations to the table. When the Moors attacked the redoubt of Valletta they used ladders to scale the high fortress walls surrounding the city. Progress of another sort is representable by the ladder here, not through a war from within oneself, as the quest for knowledge often is, but a war brought about from a foreign enemy. One could argue that war is, at least in the perspective of the victor, a progressive act with potentiated space the gain of the conquest. The ladder intact and crafted of light thus could be arguably be a symbol of victory. With Wittgenstein’s Ladder Attard is trying his hand at symbological construction, the establishment of new symbols for a new time.


Plus = Minus is an exercise in forcing a system of symbolic logic into gridlock. When one’s oeuvre is centered on sign and symbol this can be a risky thing to consider. Attard’s choice to display a work that alliterates running into a wall on a wall is of key importance to the voice of the piece. This is his attempt to illustrate the critical essence of mankind’s often fallacious progressivist obsessive movement “forward”. This work poses a kind of retort to his Wittgenstein’s Ladder by asking what is really at the heart of our idea of progress. We are climbing the ladder, or rather it is there for us to climb, but if plus equals minus then what is the point? Together these works address the central problem of de Certeau’s user. We have the tools, we have the will to operate within our spaces using our tools in unsanctioned and creative ways, but at a certain point the crisis of meaning comes to the fore and threatens our will to go any further.


There is a thread of simplicity and visual monolithology that weaves it’s way through Attard’s work. This is certainly no indictment, it is only to say that this is what makes his work accessible and broadly translatable. It also sets up a series of practical questions to be answered through the artist’s handling of imagery and material. In Tamed In the Net of His Mind (Intelligence Series and Androgyn Series), Attard introduces a juxtaposition that requires the viewer to look closer. The image of the warplane is ubiquitous in our visual lives. It’s interesting to me as an American how the symbol of the warplane has been introduced to me. At air shows at military bases all over the world American warplanes are held as symbols of powerful liberation, yet in the rest of the world, particularly those zones that we are involved with militarily they are often symbols of anxiety and terror.


Attard’s juxtaposition of Maltese lace and warplanes is at first confounding and unsettling. The first wave of imagery that comes to mind has much to do with the ego, man’s desire to control as much space and humanity as possible through force, and the decline of the agency of the ego, old age represented by the lace patterns. This is interesting but upon digging a bit deeper I realized that this piece has heartier roots in the historical narrative of Malta. Literally in the center of the Mediterranean Sea and thus in the center of the Ancient Western World, Malta has been the conquest, colony, and home of everyone from the Phoenicians to the British. It is an island nation that has been creolized over the course of 7 millenia. It is a nation born of layered traditions, imported mores and foreign tongues and customs stewed together over the course of centuries. What is referred to as Maltese Lace is the descendant of a Genoese tradition imported at the behest of Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s consort in the late 18th century to stimulate the economy after a period of depression. The upheaval of 18th and 19th century colonialism, cultural creolization and foreign influence produced what is now seen as a traditional artisanal mode of craft-making in Malta. My sense is that at the crux of Tamed In the Net of His Mind is the notion of historical cultural hegemony juxtaposed with the symbol of contemporary global domination.


Here again Attard is playing with symbology and doing so from the proscenium so-to-speak. Like the chain-link fence in Malta is in the center of the boundary between two worlds, two senses of time, two senses of space. Like the flower made of typewriter ribbon woven into the fence, the Maltese lace applied to the silhouetted warplane is a compound symbol easily understandable in one respect, obfuscated by another and born of the middle ground, the boundary land of Malta.


Flight as a means of escape or as transformative act sits comfortably in the scope of Attard’s pantheon of philosophic concern. Like much of his work that deals with locating threshholds, Wonderful Man III is also asking about balance. When does a connective, productive, technological advancement become a thing of death and destruction? When do we go to far? Where is the line that we all too often cross ironically when we buffer ourselves from one another? Again by conflating his visual language, Attard achieves a highly readable fugue state of identity crisis. Jet aircraft used in war are drab neutral colors, not bling-ed out and visually loud as the shattered glass and gobo slide seem to suggest. What they do is usually not as glamorous or entertaining as the mirror ball reflections spraying the walls of the former abattoir that it is installed in seem to suggest. To layer disco tech lighting on German slaughterhouse walls is a powerful move. To make the plane out of one of its potential bi-products, piles of broken glass after a bombing raid, is to establish an immutable connection. The craft is made of the very thing it surrounds people with after its job is done well. Its success is defined by the metrics of destruction.


The middle is a place of observance, often a quiet slow space, the space from which to view everything at once continually. It is also a destination point, to come to, to leave and return to cyclically. In his work V., an homage to the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same title, Attard compounds meanings and uses form as material to continue his research on the relationship of nexus to boundary. He plays with symmetry and optics to create the central piece, a V within which is written “I love Tracy Emin”. The convergence and inversion are simultaneous much in the same way Pynchon’s novel is structured. In Pynchon’s V. the narratives of Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil, divergent in time and space throughout the novel, eventually converge with Stencil hiring Profane to escort him to Malta to solve the mystery of the woman known only as V. Pynchon’s oeuvre, particularly this novel, is of deepest importance to this work of Attard’s.


In Attard’s work a half V springs out from a mirrored perpendicular wall creating the illusion of a V with this inscription in it. The result is one where the statement reads both correctly and backwards simultaneously. In Attard’s V. one’s eye is bounced back and forth always returning to the convergence point as reference. The argument could be made that Pynchon’s V. could be read as easily in reverse as it could be read properly from the beginning.


After all meaning and sentiment are qualified in how they are perceived. In the same way that plus can not equal minus, anything combined with its inverse renders a null set; a non-thing. Nullification and convergence is central to the resolution of Pynchon’s book. After V releases Stencil’s father he becomes the victim of a shipwreck, in effect distancing Stencil from a direct connection to his own history via his father. The fact that it is written in neon is at once a nod to Emin’s work and the ubiquitous light source of choice in red light districts like where this piece is housed in a former public toilet. The context of the public toilet coupled with Emin’s body of work and the non-statement of admiration serve to call into question our initial impressions of Attard’s esteem for Emin. In the same way that nothing is as simple as it reads, nothing is ever as smooth as its surface implies. The grit and privacy of Emin’s bed coupled with the slickness and public-ness of neon light, the application of a visual palindrome encrusted in neon light to the re-appropriated public toilet and Pynchon’s novel are rife with convergences and yet still full of interwoven nullifiers. Attard understands this fully. My esteem of this work lies in my sense that he is unafraid of working with perceived nexus points even if they are heavy or surfacial. The quality of his work lies in his ability to equivocate all angles of approach and slowly, methodically weed out the ones he feels will cloud the finished work.


Attard returns to the myth of forward motion with Swing III. He sets up a swing of cast aluminum shaped like two high-powered pistols in mirror image of one another, the nexus and the crisis of meaning again, in the breezeway of a barn. His rearrangement of a specific arsenal of constructs project after project allows him not to have to rely on thematic information in order to choose projects. He is always looking for boundary, nexus, problematics surrounding meaning making and metaphorical allusion. He presents his work in a deceptively approachable way, for example a swing, but then flips the switch on the gravity of the visual language of the object itself, in this case the swing is a pair of killing machines. A fun toy that will never go anywhere but back and forth fashioned in the shape of a pair of weapons that will protect some and harm others. One step forward, one step backward.

It is inevitable that a practice so rooted in the boundaries between poles would eventually turn its focus on gender identity as a place to discuss both the connective tissues between the genders and their divergences. Attard’s recent works have all dealt with objects particularly imbued with gender symbolism in understated ways and combined in ways that amount to a nod to the division lines between the genders. The garden and the office and the lace and the war plane are examples of this. Attard’s Third Gender project represents a practical break in origin and direction of tone in terms of what he is trying to accomplish conceptually. His process is inverted here. In Third Gender, Attard wants to know were the boundaries are. He is not proposing them or using them so much as he is searching for them with this work. It is only in the context of his broader body of work that one can gain this insight. Whereas in Wittgenstein’s Ladder and his statements were directional and specifically oriented from the membranes between worlds; here he not only wants to know how two supposed binaries interact with and inform one another but also where and under what circumstances. 


This project is Attard’s most media rich series of works of the last few years. He addresses his line of questioning dealing with gender identity and normativity through bas relief sculpture, photography and video. He uses video and photo to compress the timeline of four “transformations” of gender identity through dress, hair and makeup. He uses bas relief to address the anthropomorphising of materials as specific human gender identifiers. He collages ribbon, nails, action figures and dolls into forms that embody both genders but express them in different ways. Through a variety of clues and visual cues one can sense the balance of gender signified objects and gender specifics such as male genitalia fashioned from a trio of popular girl’s dolls. Here the artist is looking for the colloquial and the vernacular as much as he is the literal, because in truth there is no exactness, no real foolproof map to the concrete location of the boundaries between the genders. In the context of his recent work, Third Gender is uncomfortable territory for Attard. It neither initially establishes a place from which to speak nor does it operate within a defined symbological system. On the contrary it is the search for these two components of a properly delivered thesis that defines these works.


Part of Attard’s play in the boundary zones is rooted in touch or physical interaction between the multiple disparate ideas, symbols, objects, etc. He’s usually in search of how one component touches, addresses or reaches to another. With the Berlin Laughter Project, a work included in the Meridian | Urban project produced by Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt in Berlin, Attard and his collaborators Simone Eisler and Orlando Britto Jinorio use video and performance to expose the boundaries between us in our increasingly mediated and monitored lives. Again Attard exposes and plays with divergences, this time in the goals and means of his media of choice. The lens and the screen distance us from one another by disallowing us to be able to know our subject other than through our gaze. Community performance achieves the opposite effect by bringing people together physically. Attard, Eisler and Jinorio collaborated with Hauptstadt Lacht, a consortium of Berlin based laughter yoga therapy groups to create “a meridian of actions and performances”, as Attard puts it, all over Berlin as a means of bringing people together to promote community health through laughter. How do we controvert the directive of the mediating forces in our lives? We do a thing that is both contagious and universal. We laugh and to put a point on it we should do it in concert with one another in order to re-establish our bonds with one another. It is Attard at his reductive best. One thing that makes this work in particular sing is that Attard has become comfortable talking about boundary zones conceptually as well as visually. He has set up the television as the wall between us, but he asks us to do a thing that subverts that barrier’s ability to gain advantage by having us communicate with a total stranger not in real time, in public, and using a form that is non-lingual. Everyone laughs and there is no language requirement to begin doing so with anyone anywhere. The mental and physical barriers have been taken down. There is nothing between us that can’t be denied control.


The nexuses and boundaries within us, between us and surrounding us are zones of experimentation. All sea port cities and their citizens know this to be true. Norbert Francis Attard is a product of a place like this. Malta is an ancient nexus point in the center of the Mediterranian Sea, the center of the center of the ancient world as-it-were. Attard’s sense of space and his understanding of the osmotic ebb and flow of all things physical, intellectual and emotional have been shaped by his environment. His visual language seems to spring at once from both the quiet center and the space just beyond the reach of previously systematised symbological structures. The value of the work of a visual linguist like Attard lies in its slow evolutionary effect on our own internal symbological selves. His body of recent works amounts not to a crashing storm of imagery and noise; rather it is a steady breeze of carefully considered layers of information that in most cases do not require language to grasp. Typical of a researcher of meridian and meeting place, Attard is aware that reductive lines of thought must achieve a sense of balance or the work will be cast away as simplistic. The joy of considering these recent works has been the discovery of his finely tuned concern for the balance between readablity to all by virtue of their reductivity and the sense of energy and intrigue that is brought on by the subtle juxtaposition of his visual koans.

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