The double frustration of painting
Appeared in The Sunday Times, Malta, 15th November 1998.
Norbert Attard has given up his painting vocabulary to venture into environmental and ecological art. Or maybe he has not, after all. Adrian Bartolo reviews his latest projects in Germany and Korea.
Excluding Pablo Picasso's 360-degree authoritative prodigy - having turned everything his fingers touched into gold - and Jackson Pollock's acrobatic act of painting, which mystified the irrational in this medium 20th century art has been fathered by another monumental figure: Marcel Duchamp. The French artist harassed the New York art bourgeoisie of the 1910s by exhibiting an enamelled pottery urinal, where a crass, ready-made piece, provocatively entitled Fountain, was transmuted into a work of art. The alchemy stands in the context, the change in environment that elevates and mythologises the meek profile of junk into an aesthetic, intellectual challenge. Duchamp's new art kept on sailing through an important number of daring, happy cousins, but his legacy passed silently unnoticed in Malta. Or almost unnoticed. There were some artists experimenting under-ground, but thought it to be too dangerous a business to shock, particularly since they were still young. Others just decided to give it the cold shoulder.
Norbert Attard is seriously different. Of course, he is living in a different age, but he is also of an ambitious pedigree. Together with a breed of up-and-coming young artists, he has decided to live his period and emulate the fashionable philosophy of the late Nineties; the philosophy of an absence of fashion.
Art in the world is in a sort of cleaning process, with a total absence of a labelled art movement as much as of a clear direction. In this period of transition, artists tend to come out stronger as individuals. And Attard is reading this moment as an opportunity to venture into the never-tried-and-tested-by-a-Maltese, rather than a weakness due to an absence of a prominent centre of reference. Without the backing of a chorus of artists and a manifesto, he still shouts loud for consideration. Contemporary art's nemesis lies in the nomadism, or the sense of travelling of each individual artist to compensate for the lack of an art's clan. New York, as much as Hollywood in the film business, is a centre of money, and therefore of cultural vulgarity, at least sometimes.
Germany is the refreshing flagship of postmodernism, and Attard exhibited there last June with five other artists. The environmental art project was entitled Transkutan, and its composition blessed the building of four temples on the pastoral hummocks of Munich's Olympia Park. An Entrance was constructed by a German, whereas the Temples of Air, Water, Fire and Earth were laboured out by a Korean, an Austrian, a German, and Attard respectively. The Dragon's Tail, or an exit from the twisting complex, was finished by another Korean, of course!
The empirically-sophisticated physiognomy of Attard's temple consisted of eight right-angle triangles coupled at the shortest perpendicular to shape out four corridors in a Latin cross format, the side-walls of which were made out of clean-shaven beams of wood nailed vertically.The hypoteneuses of both triangles stood buttressed by a plethora of selected pebbles sloping down to landscape into the park in the form of a circle 20 metres in diameter. The temple is thoroughly consistent with the geography in which it sits, in that the geometry of the part-to-whole is complete, and the work fails to act more potently than the social context, and vice versa.
The bias begins to loom when the piece is measured on its architectural qualifications or sculptural anthropomorphism. It is excessively easy to interpret the large scale of Attard's work as architectural due to its multiple terms of appearance, the technical and engineering principles behind its creation, and because of the cheering interaction between spectator and object.
Indeed, the temple provided the appropriate theatre-space for a number of performances, including a stunning non-theatrical happening by a Korean group calling themselves the Nine Dragon Heads. This, however, is not sufficient to help classify the work as architectural, for its specific utilitarian function fails to be complete.
Attard has thus succeeded in creating a piece of architectural sculpture although, I hazard to say, it is not miles away from being an environmental painting too, because as Pollock's canvases - or environments - speak a flexible, sculptural dialect Attard's temple is a natural extension of his abstract paintings.
The analogy holds in that the most important decisions on his three-dimensional pieces are made in the studio, including not only the design, but also issues of the process to determine the construction. Then, the temple is consistently 'artful', clearly arranged, and full of finesse, aspects of a consummate control in his painterly expression. The freeing from painting is incomplete.
I am not aware how much the Transkutan exhibition was bound to arrive at a definition of God, but Attard certainly is, albeit perhaps unknowingly. His circular temple indeed emulates a medieval definition of God, namely that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.
Descartes and Spinoza later hooked onto this somewhat Aristotelian philosophy in their pantheistic writings. The definition remains formal, although the mystery and paradox is ever-present. And this is ultimately what makes a work like Attard's true art.
The Temple of Earth is thus more than a piece for rubber-necking, as much as his other important project in Korea last August, where Attard was invited to participate in another ecological art exhibition entitled Breath. He produced a 2.7 metre square cage made of wood and Korean rope - discovered on site - rhythmically hitched around the wooden framework with the help of improvised assistant - the curious and astonished folk from a nearby village. Their most friendly industrial material - the rope - was for the first time being used as an abstract element in a work of art. The cage is today a keepsake for the Korean contributors.
The powerful form was then made to sit on the bed of a soupy lake called Taechon, which has one peculiar, distinction: the water level rose or lowered wildly and unpredictably. This, of course, created the magical and dramatic effects within the structure since, although the cage is airy, when the water level rose, it was transmuted into a suffocating prison. Like Duchamp's Fountain, it is the geographical context that makes the work of art here, although this goes a step further, it is site-specific, and ceases to breathe if transported outside the lake's environment.
The cage, entitled Breath of Mind, is as witty as it is aesthetically beautiful, a condition that seems unnecessary and inapplicable, but which Attard wet-nursed for maximal play of solidity against flimsiness and dissolution - or physical decay - seen through the wrestling reflections of the imposing ochre structure on the green water. The physical nature of the grained wood and the harsh rope equates in importance the first idea for the piece itself.
Attard is utterly seduced by the aura of landscape and its silent celebrity. His pieces concert emotionally and physically with nature, possible due to their high aesthetic pitch, a constant and essential point in his art. The two monumental projects are indeed another primary colour on his palette, and the frustration with painting is double in that the conversion from canvas to sculpture and architecture is incomplete. For Attard, materials have a double life: form and colour. This simply places his work within a comfortable distance from Minimal Art concerns with such monuments - where aesthetics was an unquantified qualification - and gives more relevance and power to his evolution and maturity into a complete artist.