Political intent in the work of Norbert Francis Attard: Aesthetic and Thematic Categories
First published in book Soap to Think with, Norbert Francis Attard, 2022
The place of politics in Contemporary art is a profoundly vital question, especially in a time when images and audio-visuals have become such ubiquitous and powerful forms of communication. Although it is not the purpose of this essay to enter into the effect mass media has had, and is having, on the global development of society and culture, and hence also on Contemporary art patterns, the forthcoming discussion will unpack certain characteristics which have been identified in the work of Norbert Francis Attard, characteristics which oftentimes parallel those of the mass media, in an attempt to categorically analyse the socio-political relevance of his twenty-first century works. Notwithstanding the versatile and varied formal and conceptual nature of Attard’s output, his work inherently contains a set of consistent aesthetic categories which define his working process and his relationship with materiality, namely repetition, reproduction, seriality, the found object, and juxtaposition. The latter categories are tools used by the artist to explore various themes which will be analysed in this essay in relation to a selection of the artist’s projects and artworks.
These categories find their roots in the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde, mainly that of the Dada artists, and particularly with that of Marcel Duchamp, which radically influenced the evolution of art since the First World War and catalysed the redefinition of the term ‘art’ itself. The found object, reproduction, chance, unbridled juxtaposition, and indifference to art making and the object of art opened Pandora’s box. The Dada movement cut through the artworld like a kitchen knife (with apologies to Hannah Höch), offering a truckload of innards to a human butcher shop society in jest - a jest which society accepted with solemn excitement and which the artworld, with equal solemnity, accepted as their new norms of production and consumption.
Back in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin linked the Dada philosophy with the subversive potential of mechanical reproducibility in his ‘Work of Art’ essay; written, published, revised, and published again on the cusp of the Second World War. Benjamin observed that Dadaists “turned the artwork into a missile. [Their art] jolted the viewer, taking on a tactile [taktisch] quality.” This tactile quality was what transformed the work of art from an object of contemplation, which requires optical perceptive engagement, into one of distraction, and Benjamin believed that this fundamental shift could turn art into a tool for mass resistance. Hence, the characteristics which qualify the art of the Dada movement not only changed how art is produced and consumed, but also recalibrated the relationship between art, politics, and society. Contemporary art has vastly expanded upon these radical foundations, yet it is arguable whether the political mobilisation that Benjamin hoped for is a reality, or whether the art establishment has succeeded in muzzling art’s power of resistance. The forthcoming discussion on Attard’s output in this essay is precisely aimed at questioning whether the production methods inherited from the twentieth-century avant-garde still have political resonance in our twenty-first-century present.
As Angeli Jahnsen argues, repetition, seriality, and reproduction have been established as defining aesthetic categories in the contemporary age. In her own words: “the single compositions of the nineteenth century are no longer the norm” and since the twentieth century have been replaced by “repetitions, series, variations, sequences”. The single composition Jahnsen refers to is the unified, unique object, what Benjamin labelled as the contemplative work of art. The fall of the epoch of the unified artwork in exchange for that of the rise and ubiquity of the fragmentation of the artwork into a body of work or series proves the importance of Benjamin’s arguments on the production and consumption of art in our times. The notion of distraction has completely come to dominate the viewers’ relationship with art and the praxis of the contemporary artist. In terms more rooted in today’s cultural context, distraction may be referred to as the copy-and-paste approach to life, art included. This argument has been debated at length by Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci in relation to the evolution of Contemporary art in his lectures and talks.
Several are the doubts and difficulties of debating the term ‘politics’ in Contemporary art. The task to analyse how today’s art relates to politics, not in subject matter but in formal terms, as is very modestly and (wearily) being attempted here, invokes an overwhelming feeling. It is also an uneasy one, the reason being that there is a tendency today for overtly political or controversial topics to either be used as a means for validating an object as an artwork, or else are presented as a form of embellishment that evades the depth and purpose of such political statements. Trouble arises when the subject matter of an artwork and its form are juxtaposed without being inherently amalgamated, which is why Theodor Adorno argued that ultimate political freedom must be achieved through the complexity of aesthetic unity.
Siegrfied Kracauer made a parallel observation in relation to cinema by noting that films “hint at subversive points of view without exploring them.” This he thought to be unavoidable due to the corporate and consumerist basis of the film industry, claiming superficiality to be a bourgeois quality of art. To transpose Kracauer’s observation onto the present-day context makes one realise that the bourgeois art phenomenon has expanded and pervaded all levels of art as the drive to consumption is what dominates the relationship between artist and viewer. Art lacks coherence if the stated politics are not embedded in its form, in its language. To focus on subject matter alone, I believe, is to miss out on understanding art’s very purpose, and strength, of visual communication.
The essential and primary question here is on whether the aesthetic categories and the means of production of today’s globalised art industry can indeed provide the tools for subversive, critical, and novel Contemporary art practices. Hence why emphasis is here being placed on the aesthetic characteristics of Attard’s works, as well on a number of thematic considerations that recur in his practice and how these propose ways of artistically addressing the contemporary socio-political context.
This brings us to the discussion on Norbert Francis Attard’s work and his creative relationship with past and contemporary political matters. Attard’s oeuvre has, thus far, been written about quite prolifically, yet it has rarely analysed as a body of work.
Attard’s relationship with politics has changed across the past couple of decades when he shifted towards installation, assemblage, and new media from painting and printmaking. Despite the radical change in his choice of media, Attard’s penchant to create series and variations on his chosen themes is present from his early oeuvre. In these early works is also evident his obsession with multiples and pattern, best exemplified in his Walled Cities print series (1970s and 80s) which weaves patterns out of people and buildings. These depicted patterns were transformed into found image and found object-based work: two-dimensional photographic and image-based collages and three-dimensional assemblages of mass-produced found objects.
Attard’s work is meticulous and calculated. His multiples are perfectly placed. He exploits the prosaic mechanical geometry of found objects to collectively transform these into a work of art. The artist’s creative imagination bears the shadow of the Postmodern obsession with the imitation of the everyday, at times more pronounced as seen in SOAP TO THINK WITH. Contemporary art does not (only) iron out nature’s wrinkles, it uses the present day’s overwhelming wealth of production as its direct reference point. This is Nicolas Bourriaud’s point in his 2002 text Postproduction, in which he argues that Contemporary artists “remix available forms and make use of data”, a practice used by Attard in his work. The artist makes use of such a methodology of artistic production to manifest recurrent thematic preoccupations that are used to explore socio-political conditions. These central themes are duality, ambiguity, liminality, boundaries, and contradiction. Attard debates and grapples with such themes in all his projects. His own relationship with political events is articulated according to these preoccupations, all of which effectively address the actuality of paradoxes and grey areas in matters that affect all of us on a global level. Not only do such contradictions emerge in political situations; they are crucial to our human existence and relationship with nature, and to all layers of our everyday and spiritual lives.
Attard’s work is derived from the modern world of objects and images primarily produced for consumption. He has also worked on a number of projects that deal with nature and the landscape, such as the land art installation GRAVE FIELD (2010) which underlined the importance of salt to life its preservation, and a mirrored boat for the project BALANCE (2001) that created a balance between art, land, and water. In Attard’s work, as in Contemporary art in general, there is a determined drive to reinstate our first-hand connection with nature in the arts, an effort which may be observed in other areas of human activity. Attard exploits the commonplace status of objects or images to recreate his work; a remixing approach that aims for novelty. Transformation is at the root of the artist’s relationship with the readymade object. He presents these objects to us in new configurations, forging an unexpected discourse between the objects themselves and their ordinary contexts and functions. As Richard Demings writes on the presence of the ordinary in art, “[…] discussing the ordinary comes with a consideration of how we think about the ordinary as well as wrestling with beliefs about reality and how life might be led.” When re-packaged to us as art, ordinary objects and experiences acquire a focus that would have otherwise been easily overlooked, and thus meaning itself flourishes from the attention of the artistic lens. One’s relationship with reality is thus altered by the artist’s intervention.
Attard’s sensitivity to the materiality and function of objects, as well as their place in our everyday lives, has resulted in the creation of poetic yet minimalist site-specific installations, such as his BEYOND CONFLICT for the 2002 Second Liverpool Biennale, which will be discussed in a further section, and the immersive PALESTRINA AND HELL (2003) for the Johanniterkirche in Feldkirch, Austria. The latter project presented transcendence and its opposite in one instance. Humanity’s strive to reach the heavens and eternal life through religious veneration contrasted with the crypt space beneath, showing death in its most blatant form as matter returning to dust. In this early site-specific installation, Attard was investigating the tense binary of otherworldliness and the earthly, revealing his own inner conflict with faith and reality. His uncle, the leading Maltese Modern artist Frank Portelli, manifested parallel concerns with his La Vie (1951), a painting that exposed the futility of science to save a life once fate is determined and the corresponding futility of faith to resolve the despair of mortality. PALESTRINA AND HELL consisted of a sound installation and a simple shallow pool structure dividing the church from the crypt that reflected the mystical character of the upper part. Here, the site itself acted as the readymade and the artist’s intervention merely exposed the contrasts present in this one space. The work manifested Attard’s preoccupation with irresolution, hence why duality re-appears throughout his art.
The inter-relationality of opposites and the unresolvable status of duality despite coexistence were the central concerns in these projects. The year 2003 was a seminal one in Attard’s artistic formation as he produced site-specific projects for major international artistic platforms that debated the relationship with ritual, both spiritual and secular, and the mundanity of reality. Aside from the two aforementioned projects, he participated in the 8th Havana Biennale in Cuba with the work Cycle and exhibited Path to Transcendence at the Macedonia Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece. The theme of duality was at the centre of both these installations. Cycle, set in a fortress and former prison, wrestled with the contradictions of life and death and the role of the female body in the cyclical nature of reproduction. With this work, Attard succeeded in bridging the Biblical with the everydayness of life and death. A blindfolded crucified female lends her body to the process of transformation, which itself is at the basis of religious ritual – God himself becomes material through the ritual celebration of the Eucharist – and then perishes, only to remerge from the water, the source of life. Water appeared on the negotiation table set as the protagonist for Path to Transcendence, highlighting the duality of Malta’s island position as isolated and the sea as a path to the world beyond during the year of Malta’s EU membership referendum. As Mario Azzopardi underlines, the table and surrounding chairs show the space where political transactions are held. Attard placed these within a shipping container signalling movement, trade, and confinement.
Although the preoccupations of duality and irresolution persist in his work, in his more recent output Attard shifted his focus to themes of boundaries and censorship, and the norms of inclusion and exclusion to modern democratic society. In a historic move for Maltese art, Attard participated in the 25th Alexandria Biennale in Egypt (2009-2010) with the installation PASS+PORT. The found object – a boat used by migrants to make the Mediterranean Sea crossing which was filled with life jackets – was surrounded by reproductions of passport documents, contrasting means of travel and exploration and the political tickets that permit such journeys to continue or which force them to change course. Photographs of real boats which ferried migrants on their Mediterranean crossing and filled with the belongings of their passengers also flanked the physical boat, the latter itself a staged replica of an actual boat used by migrants. Attard here added an interesting counterpoint to the found object by inviting two artists, Mohamed Ahmed and Ramadan El Tayeb, to paint the first and last line of the Koran on the boat’s oars: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, “In belief of the great God”. Prayer and ritual are here bound to the found object, transcending the notion of indifference to bring forth the collective humanity of the object. In so doing, Attard rooted the work within the Arabic calligraphic tradition and its significance to North African and Middle Eastern Contemporary art. Artists such as the Moroccan-American Lalla Essaydi, Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui, the Algerian Rachid Koraïchi, and the Egyptian Ahmed Moustafa are just a few of the modernist and Contemporary artists who used calligraphy as a means of resistance. As Schembri Bonaci argues, “calligraphy was one of the most important double-railed alternatives to Western hegemony” alongside vernacularism. Attard’s gesture not only adds a spiritual dimension to a readymade, but in so doing also challenges the dominance of the Western artistic canon by referencing Islamic prayer using Arabic calligraphy.
This sensitivity to contrasts reveals itself throughout the artist’s work, often in apparent ways. For example, the TRANS-FORMATIONS and HERMAPHRODITES series (2011), both part of the THIRD GENDER project, offered viewers moments or images of irresolution with the juxtaposition of gender normative dress, jewellery, stances, objects, and appearances. This irresolution was described as the ‘liminal space’ encountered during the gender transformation process and through the juxtaposition of gendered everyday objects to achieve a blurring of such categories. Back in 2011, the reality of gender fluidity was still somewhat of a taboo topic, especially in Malta. With this project, the artist was also testing his own boundaries in tackling a new subject together with the reality of human performativity and transformation. In the previous year, Attard also grappled with the duality of fragility and strength with his INTELLIGENCE SERIES (2010) in parallel manner, wherein military imagery was married with the arabesque patterns of Maltese lace: delicate materiality woven by craft women versus the icy cold metal of militarisation. The relationship between aesthetics and real-life situations, both the tragic and the more commonplace, were at the forefront of the artists work during these years, and he delved further in the THIRD GENDER project in his sensitivity towards duality as an embodied perception.
Boundaries and exile are two other themes prevalent in Attard’s work of the past decade. The interactive DE-FENCE (2013) offered an invitation to explore the possibility of entering and exiting a boundary gate at will, playing on the paradox that the space being entered is contained and hence even more restrictive than the external area. Since 2008, the artist has been based in Berlin, as well as in Gozo and Valletta, and DE-FENCE was born from his regular visits to the Berlin Wall, the fall of which was a memory clearly etched in Attard’s memory. The ladder is a direct reference to the instrument of communication used by families and friends whose lives were literally torn apart by the wall that divided East from West Berlin. The ladder functioned as a form of hope and of access, but simultaneously underlined the unjust and arbitrary nature of human division through the building of walls, a reality very much alive today in Europe with the Lithuania-Belarus border fence and the North America-Mexico border wall.
The EXILE series, a three-year project executed from 2013 to 2016, tackled the exclusionary aims of censorship and the literary and historical figures who were subjected to it, with some even being exiles for their ideas and beliefs. These latter two works and series formed part of the project HERMETIK, titled so in reference to the act of locking, enclosing, and, as implied in this case, censoring unwanted ideas. Copies of censored books were placed in toasters, alluding to the torture of some of their authors and the burning of books. DE-FENCE further elaborated upon the topic of persecution by making reference to the incarceration of dissident thinkers. The list of victims is extensive; from Ovid and Dante, Victor Hugo and Charles Chaplin, to those living under threat in today’s supposedly modern democratic society, namely Julian Assange. Actual books were also used in his sculpture PRESSURE BOOKS (2013) composed of a pile of books by authors such as Joyce, Kafka, Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, held tightly by a lifting strap to underline how the mental and emotional liberation of ideas has historically led to political backlash resulting in tension and control.
This subject is one of which evidently confounded Attard as he remained immersed in it for a few years and produced various series that engaged with the relationship between freedom of speech and injustice. Historical erasure through the subjugation of literature is a subject at the forefront of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s work, especially evident in the project ex libris (2010-12) which addresses Israel’s looting of books from Palestine in 1948. The most notable of Attard’s works in this series is THE ROAD NOT TAKEN (2017) – a wall of image reproductions exhibited at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Attard here explored the complexity of global injustices concerning freedom of speech with reproductions of book covers, magazine covers, posters, photographs. His choice of imagery alludes to another paradox; that between the troubling depth and trauma of these historical figures and events coming into contrast with the superficiality of the found image. Many of these images of dissident figures and of their books were found on the internet and engage with social media aesthetics. This tension between the internet readymade and the complex biographies and ideas of the protagonists speaks volumes about the troubling consequences of ‘nobody reading books anymore’ to misquote Ray Bradbury, a concern which led the author to write his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953).
An inevitable closeness between play and superficiality in scenarios of war and human loss rear their macabre face in ORA PRO NOBIS (2000), the SWING series (2005, 2007, 2011), and THE GAME (2006), inducing a bittersweet sensation, both sombre and satirical. In the former, life itself “seems without end like the repetitive prayers” which played on a mantric loop. Attard here bridged the readymade with spirituality, as in PASS+PORT. However, whilst prayer and calligraphy offered a moment of respite to an event of despair, in the earlier work ORA PRO NOBIS prayer is configured as futile in a world of suffering – it is a repetitive gesture in hope of peace engulfed within a cycle of endless misfortune. This aspect of futility appears amidst a sea of used shoes with no wearer. Mario Azzopardi captured this hopelessness in his textual portrayal of the installation:
The silent presence of the shoes is manifestly deceptive: every pair of shoes, far being “silent”, are having a harrowing story to divulge. The supplication of prayer over the uncanny remnants in the tunnel seems to invoke pity, rather than hope, infusing the scene with relentless despair.
Albeit the appropriation of Arte Povera aesthetics in the pile of shoes, Attard’s here used materiality to underline the poverty which terror inflicts upon the human condition. A decade later, French artist Christian Boltanski also used mounds of clothing in his massive monument to dehumanisation, Monumenta (2010).
Attard counterpointed the dead-end path in ORA PRO NOBIS with his SWING series and THE GAME, both of which induced joy and pleasure. The former fused aluminium casts of two guns from their barrels to create a swing, ironically turning conflict and violence into a playful affair. Attard exhibited the work in three different sites: an underground shelter in Malta, hence a reference to war and the shifting of human lives below ground; the Casoria Museum for Contemporary Art in Naples, the stronghold city of the criminal mafia organisation Camorra; and lastly at Watou in Belgium, a city not far off from Dunkirk, located in region that was greatly affected by the horrors of the Second World War.
Also exhibited at the war shelters of the Malta at War Museum in Birgu, THE GAME invited viewers to engage in a game of chess in which the chess pieces were blue cowboys and red Indians set on a glass chess table. The traditionally boys’ game of cowboys and Indians popularised through Western movies is here merged with the strategic game of chess. The choice of pitting red versus blue figures was an apparent reference to the polarisation of Maltese party politics and the tribal divisions of the local political scenario. Hence Attard further highlighted the childish nature of this reality, aside from the references to military intelligence and warmongering inherent to the chosen site. THE GAME is also a direct nod to Duchamp’s abandonment of art making for chess playing. Perhaps through this work Attard expressed his own doubts on the bind between art and politics, resorting to playful yet thought-out action instead of passive contemplation.
Dualities and irresolution persist in Attard’s work across various subjects, often adding a sarcastic, ironic, or macabre layer to matters of deep significance. For example, the artist himself performed the unified role of deity and fanatic in THE ZEALOT (2003) – a photographic staging of Christ’s crucifixion featuring the artist replicating the stigmata with a frightfully easy grin. The image recalls Chris Burden’s 1970s performance Trans-Fixed, a work conceived in a time when the definition of art was transgressing all established boundaries. These apparent contrasts reappear throughout Attard’s oeuvre as a form of watermark or visual leitmotif that permeates regardless of the subject matter being explored. From illustrating the conflict of local political parties in MLP LOVES PN AND PN LOVES MLP (2001), which bridges archaeology and stone with the clannish culture of party politics, to work like BEYOND CONFLICT which speaks at a universal volume. The former work was the artist’s response to the defacement of Mnajdra Temples, an act of petty vandalism which Attard linked to the relegation of arts and heritage due to the skewed priorities of provincial governance. His sculpture comments on such destruction as an indirect iconoclasm, one that results from ignorance.
BEYOND CONFLICT, which was installed on the portico of the Oratory of the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, aimed towards resolution by a poetic sense of coexistence by weaving – an act which recalls Penelope’s patient and cunning weaving of the shroud whilst awaiting Odysseus’ arrival - a piece of red drapery and green drapery, complementary colours, in a hopeful ode to peace. BEYOND CONFLICT was the artists attempt at transcending the ongoing reality of confrontation and hostility. Aside from this installation, he never seeks reconciliation, and in so doing retains an explicit juxtaposition of dialectical forces. Conflict and explicitness of contrasts is what keeps Attard’s politics relevant and meaningful. He does not assume the Aristotelian expectation of finding a conclusion, so much so that his series are never finite, and the artist obsessively adds and reworks, forfeiting sleep for endless loops and re-loops within the same point of departure. Embedded in his choice of productive tools is the lack of a conciliative ending: the facsimile repetition of manufactured objects, their exactitude, is a revelation of their imperfection and lack of individuality. Their artificiality is the quality which reveals the impossibility of perfection or of a utopic world. The one exception is seemingly the photographic installation WHERE ARE YOU FROM? (2008-2009) through which plurality was showcased as a coexistence built upon the strength of difference and not as a cause of tension and strife. Here Attard wanted to incite true intercultural dialogue and challenge the latent racism prevalent in Maltese society. Global issues find their local resonance in Attard’s work as he manages to root universal problems to his own native context.
It is the act of juxtaposition, a core aesthetic category in Attard’s work, which bears the greatest political opportunity, not as a call for action, but for realisation or awareness. Without synthesis, the struggle ensues, and it is this continuous struggle which defines the essence of existence. The intrinsic fragmentation of seriality as an ethos of art production today is precisely the material reflection of society’s lack of synthesis. The indifference to uniqueness in the world of art due to the methods of appropriation and postproduction, to use Bourriaud’s terminology, is also reflective of the reengineering of ‘novelty’ as the practice of intertextuality, remixing, and creative repetition. If wielded with political intent, such practices and exploitation of contemporary objects, images, and materials can become tools of resistance.
This was made evident in Attard’s THE TRUTH MAY NOT SET YOU FREE (2015). In this wall installation formed of red, blue, and green plastic soapboxes, the artist questions the relationship between truth and freedom, planting doubt in our minds and idiosyncratically evading a conclusive answer. The complete image has disintegrated, as the pile of boxes placed on the ground indicate. Attard here confronted the notion of unity as one that fails to encapsulate the contemporary world, a world that embarks on missions of division and difference and which proves that the harrowing lessons of the Second World War have dissolved into the recesses of our subconscious.
The artist tells this to us frontally and manifestly. His practice of working in series shows a concern with repetition, but also allows him to return to and rethink his work to find different aesthetic solutions to the same topic. Site-specificity was also a tool used by the artist to challenge the history and identity of certain spaces and to open up the meaning of such spaces, either by metaphorically revealing their anatomical structure, or by adding layers to their pre-existing form. There’s no denying that Attard’s recent work has become explicit in its political message and associations and so too has his artistic language taken a more direct tone. The everyday object and reproduction are primary tools for such straightforward means of communication. Perhaps it is this straightforwardness which is needed to speak and be heard in our present context of over-information, slogans, post-truth, false perfection, and the consumerisation of everything.