Forgotten Landscapes, currently on show at St. James Cavalier, is an exploration of decrepit, abandoned buildings around Malta. This exhibition should be the first in a series of exhibitions that ‘]seek] to fuse art and history in order to unveil the narratives behind abandoned structures and locations dotting the Maltese Islands’.
Four artists —Mark Mallia, Caroline Said Lawrence, Jeni Caruana and Marika Borg—set out to each explore an abandoned building: Torri ta’ L-Aħrax, Mġarr ix-Xini Pumping Station, Fort Campball and Jerma Palace Hotel.
The featured buildings are in truly pitiable conditions; most victims of politics. What makes the abandonment of these buildings potentially frustrating is the current political clime of land-grabbing and mediocre architectural developments. Those unhappy with the current state of the architectural sites and spaces of the island, are instinctively finding comfort in nostalgia, and in the ‘old days’ when things were perhaps, supposedly simpler.
Even so, Forgotten Landscapes features buildings that, in some way or another, represent important historical milestones for the islands and capture both the history and that inimitable, quaint Maltese-ness.
The stance of the exhibition as activism through awareness is commendable, as is the fusion of history and art. Balancing aspects of a museum and a gallery setup, between the informative and the visually appealing is an interesting combination as it provides context, education as well as a process.
It is quite evident that the exhibition has the good intention of promoting the significance of local heritage but unfortunately, it suffers from being underwhelming.
If the point was for the artists to unravel narratives behind the abandoned buildings, this was a complete failure. Not only do the paintings not unravel narratives, but they are lost in the set-up amidst photographs from the site, big boards with information about the artist and buildings’ history, and a giant bright flat screen with a video on (national fascination with giant screens).
The paintings are only there as an obvious end of the process, the end product.
All this makes the exhibition feel more like an activist marketing stunt—personality artists visit abandoned building sites and paint it. Furthermore, the paintings themselves were conventional landscapes and vignettes. They’re not fresh or challenging, and they fail to depict or shine new light on the themes of abandonment, heritage, history, or art as renewal.
This is especially disappointing because art does have the power to re-invent the old; to breathe new life into ‘boring’ history. If this is the face of future history-meets-art exhibitions, show me the door, but hopefully this is the first of a series that has the potential to get better.
As usual, go see it for yourselves! Let us know what you think.
This exhibition is on show till Sunday 2nd April in the Lower Galleries of St. James Cavalier.