those eyes – these eyes – they fade at Valletta Contemporary, Malta

In the early months of 2010, the writer and celebrated art critic, John Berger, was slowly recovering from cataract surgery. The left eye was the first to be operated upon, followed by a period of months, before the right eye’s cataract was also removed. Between the two surgeries, Berger stumbled upon a curious time and space, resembling, as he puts it, “a kind of visual renaissance.” Making notes and drawings, musing on distortion, glare, distance and light, the renaissance was a revival of Berger’s interest in the phenomenon of sight.

The primary role of artists is similar to that of writers: they both work to help us relearn, to look again and to question the nature of things. The same inquisitive energy is found in those eyes – these eyes – they fade, a group exhibition at Valletta Contemporary, Malta, featuring the work of photographic artists Nigel Baldacchino, Bénédicte Blondeau, Bernard Plossu and Awoiska van der Molen. These artists, in particular, are concerned with how we might see with photography a little differently. And like Berger, they ask us to experience photographs with an altogether slower pace.

The exhibition was born out of a series of conversations, held between Baldacchino and Blondeau, which nurtured a shared sensibility and belief in “what they see photography as being”. Their search for a renewed and collective understanding of ‘photographic-reading’ is at the heart of this collaboration. Expanded through ongoing, nourishing conversations with guest curator, Anne Immelé, they gravitated towards photography not as ‘evidence’, or pure ‘record’, but as something more slippery and enigmatic, with the capacity to ‘disturb’ the visible. “The show”, as Immelé introduces, “is conceived as an extended meditation, an active and poetic contemplation on the medium transcending its defining purpose.”

I find ‘purpose’, generally, hard to define. For argument’s sake, let’s say the purpose of photography is to depict things, “for the truth and accuracy of their thingness.” These artists, collectively, are not concerned with what photography should do, more so, what it can do. In the show, various strategies are employed to reposition photography away from the ‘real’, and into the realms of the metaphysical. A type of photography, admittedly, that’s hard to put your finger on, and even harder, I might also add, to write about. But I know it when I see it, deep in my gut. Photography here is preoccupied with ontology: the study of the fundamental nature of things in the world and how they exist. These photographs are not so easily rationalised and this exhibition, among other things, helps me navigate how and when the metaphysical might appear. 

The metaphysical hangs in the air as I move around Valletta Contemporary, a labyrinthine space housed within a four hundred year old former warehouse. Identified as the epicentre of the Maltese contemporary art scene, the gallery seamlessly blends 16th-century architecture with a sleek, effortlessly cool contemporary membrane. Immelé has carefully curated a selection of works from the artists’ existing oeuvres. In the case of Awoiska van der Molen, Immelé brings lesser-known early works back into our line of sight. The effect is one of a ‘total experience’, whereby each artist’s contribution could be seen as potentially ‘de-authored’, due to a certain dynamism, or kinship, that ties them together. There’s a flow, an unspoken bond, lingering. 

The title of the exhibition aligns itself with the degradation of sight, and how, over time, distortion and glare can often build in the eyes—and consequently the mind—of the seer. The subject matter of the show too—urban fringes, expansive landscapes, forests and caves, on the march from day to night—equally mimics this sense of transition, of disappearance, and represents the collapse of traditional forms of photographic representation or ‘sight’ (what is depicted, and how we can see it—whatever it isclearly). Ironically, as we move away from the vestiges of realism, the exhibition posits a renewed appreciation for seeing, and photographic-thinking, simultaneously; this cave-like sanctuary of a space reengages the body, prioritising feeling and a primal sensuality as core to experiencing the photographs.

Nigel Baldacchino is drawn to the distortion of seeing, and how the effects of distance and obstruction can play havoc in the image world. Fog is a series of photographs of parklands that, according to the artist, “articulates pollutants of space.” By generating obstacles (aided by, in some cases, windows, curtains and extreme focal lengths), he entices photography away from its habitually ‘straight’ and mostly all seeing vantage point. On closer inspection, Baldacchino, who is also a poet, harnesses and personifies the ‘fog’ into a living, breathing, character. Derived from the artist’s anxiety disorder, he describes the ‘fog’ as a returning feeling of urgency. Baldacchino uses photography to “build a vocabulary of visual perceptions”, a cathartic act which both emulates and subdues the trepidation of the ‘fog’. This is an artist materialising a mind-scape, and if his photographs were words, fog, distance, distortion and glare, would certainly be among them.

Awoiska van der Molen’s work centres around liminal spaces, but rather than being based in not quite seeing through haze, they have the paradoxical appearance of emergence and dissolution. Darkness (a reduced lightness which renders and represents her images as latent ones, much like in a developing tray) is van der Molen’s main device. These works—images of urban borderlands—occupy a quiet space, in a low lit antechamber. They depict the kind of places we never truly know, but sometimes find ourselves in, inadvertently waiting or wandering (carparks, empty streets and offices where people have long since departed). The images are strangely sculptural, and I imagine van der Molen is in fact a photo-sculptor, slowly filling photographs as if they were vitrines, with an oil-like substance. The void slowly engulfs them, “consuming” as van der Molen remarks, “that which is known”.

In the grand central atrium is a towering fabric work by Bénédicte Blondeau. The piece—titled 00_CQR—stands confidently in the space, but a sudden gust of wind could push or pull the image. The fabric is imprinted with a photograph of a stalactite (a tapering structure hanging like an icicle from the roof of a cave, formed, over the course of millennia, from calcium salts deposited by dripping water). What, I wonder, would happen if photographs embraced the length of geological time to expose? The ripples, or natural billowing, induces a trompe-l’œil effect, situating the photograph in-between the two and three dimensional worlds. Preoccupied with a regression, or a ‘retreat’ into nature, a distancing from humankind and our continuously detrimental impacts, Blondeau takes solace in shifting scales, away from the modern world, and places her attention towards the things that, we hope, will endure. 

The metaphysical appears not just as subject matter alone, or as a drift from the real, but through what we might call a ‘performance-state’ that’s activated when making pictures. This is a crucial aspect that I was eager to ask each artist to elaborate further upon. I’d describe the ‘performance-state’ as a heightened moment when the artists’ bodies and minds are focused, decluttered and in a meditative-like trance when taking pictures. They work intuitively, even automatically, blocking out distractions and in rhythm with their surroundings. This approach renders the camera almost indifferent to what it records, as the metaphysical exudes out of their bodies and into the photograph, escorted by thoughts of cosmologies, deep time, space and the non-human world. The photograph in essence becomes a sponge, an object which absorbs their narratives of existential longing. Metaphysical photographs, it seems, carry the tenderness of their makers. They set viewers adrift, and slightly out of place. Like flowers emitting scent in a jungle at night, they ensnare us. 

Bernard Plossu is an artist who travels. Since his highly-acclaimed book Le Voyage Mexicain (1979), Plossu has built an extensive archive of photographs from across the globe, all made with a 50mm lens—the closest equivalent to the vision of the human eye. Immelé has chosen photographs from this extensive oeuvre, depicting deserts, rock formations and the open road; in most cases, they are in keeping with the veiled touch of underexposure seen throughout, but there are times, when the blinding light of the desert, the arid and scorching hot rocky terrain, assaults the eyes. This is a good thing; a change of pace; a blank slate compared with the otherwise pitch darkness of the rest of the show that facilitates a feeling of expansiveness, a reduction of the self in the face of “the immense and the immemorial”, as Immelé writes. Plossu’s process also draws upon the notion of the ‘performance-state’. “More than the brain or the eye,” he notes, “it is the body taking pictures while walking.”

Berger’s Cataract has scaffolded this review; it has guided my understanding of these artists, because photography, after all, is closest to the eyes. I’m reminded that, like urban spaces, forests, or even deserts, the eyes have peripheries too. The periphery is a zone akin to the liminal and the metaphysical, highlighting the blind spots of eyes themselves, and the edges of spaces where things can sometimes disappear. those eyes – these eyes – they fade is an exhibition that plays and disrupts the way photography ‘sees’, and in doing so, it opens up a space where the body’s internal eye can roam, focus, and indulge in what it means to feel and be with photography. On the 50th anniversary of Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), it seems only fitting that a photographic exhibition should continue to expand on what we can learn from photographs.

“The removal of cataracts”, writes Berger, “is comparable with the removal of a particular form of forgetfulness. Your eyes begin to re-remember first times”. First times, first loves, firstness is so hard to regain, but in those eyes – these eyes – they fade, we’re given a space in which to reinvent. Analogously, the removal of cataracts aligns itself with a demystification, a revitalisation of what we think we know and how to see. When did you last gaze, longingly, at a photograph? In an act akin to the fanning of embers, or the dusting of cobwebs, these artists begin again, in an attempt to see further and deeper than ever before.  –Alexander Mourant

‘those eyes – these eyes – they fade’ is open until 13th August 2022 at Valletta Contemporary, Malta. The exhibition is supported by the Project Support Fund by Arts Council Malta, with additional support from Valletta Contemporary, Noi Studio, Valletta Vintage, Embassy of France, iLAB Photo, People & Skin and Saint Paul Valletta. 

Valletta Contemporary
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Anne Immelé (website)
Awoiska van der Molen (website)
Bénédicte Blondeau (interview)
Bernard Plossu (interview)
Nigel Baldacchino (interview)

All Rights Reserved: text © Alexander Mourant; images © their respective owners; installs © Laura Besançon, Anne Immelé and Nigel Baldacchino

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