Matthew Attard on Representing Malta at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April – 24 November.

Matthew Attard is representing Malta; the pavilion is in the Arsenale.

Matthew Attard. Photo: Therese Debono

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Matthew Attard I lived in Venice for five years when I was younger, and the city gave me so much that it feels like a second home to me. It also ignited my artistic career. I have been exploring the city since 2009, and yet, it never ceases to surprise and mesmerise me.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

MA The exhibition in Venice aims to converge historically-etched ship graffiti, an expanded form of contemporary drawing, and digital technology. These are three areas of keen interest to me, and I have always been eager to explore them within my artistic practice. The historical ship graffiti speak of my country’s past as a small island in the Mediterranean, and I examine these vernacularly-drawn maritime images using an eye-tracking device as a form of contemporary drawing. By drawing via my eye movement data, I aim to reinterpret the metaphors and meanings of the historical images, provoking questions about our future and our blind faith in digital technology, including AI processes.

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgement?

MA The Venice Biennale has a history that underscores its enduring importance as a major platform for artists. Its global visibility has proven to enhance artists’ reputations and draws attention from influential figures in the artworld. Moreover, the recent editions of the Venice Biennale have shown an expanded meaning of recognition and inclusion within the international art community, promoting fertile cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. I believe that the recent editions have demonstrated the Biennale’s capacity to recognise and celebrate artists and artworks that were previously overlooked. I am confident that the upcoming edition will continue to uphold this spirit, which I believe is important.

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

MA Not really. What I strive to keep in mind is a general understanding of how our cultural backgrounds provide each of us with a unique way of perceiving and experiencing imagery, artworks and installations. I do this by looking closely at how we inhabit a world saturated with images that evoke diverse meanings and emotions for different individuals. I am intrigued by how visual culture encompasses elements that are universally understood, as well as those that contribute to a more individualised experience. This inherently implies that things, narratives and projects are always multilayered, and for me, questioning the status quo is also significant. Consequently, each project and work undergoes its own development process.

Matthew Attard, Eye-tracking concept sketch (I WILL FOLLOW THE
, 2023, eye-tracking drawing, photo, generative algorithm. © Matthew Attard and Galleria Michela Rizzo

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

MA I believe that the work in the pavilion will directly address your last question. The ship graffiti I am examining are found on the walls of wayside chapels scattered across the Maltese islands. Dating from the late fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, these maritime images were originally drawn as ex-votos. I perceive these ephemeral traces on walls as powerful expressions of hope, fears and other human emotions related to our existence. What intrigues me is that these drawings were created by anonymous individuals who were not trained artists. These images are made out of humbly etched lines in the countryside symbolising acts of hope and meanings through an act of drawing. While ship graffiti can be found in various places near port cities – Venice being a prime example – the sheer number of examples discovered across the Maltese Islands is truly unique.

In response to your inquiry about whether art is universal, I would argue that it is the act of doing, or making a visual thing, that is truly universal. For instance, we all engage in drawing during the early years of our lives, yet many of us abandon this practice as we grow older.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

MA I think that my nation is as multilayered as its history, and if I had to summarise its rich cross-cultural complexity in three places, these would be: 1) The prehistoric temples at Ggantija in Gozo. These are some of the most impressive prehistoric structures and artefacts that speak of an ancient past. 2) A long walk across the city of Valletta. This would allow one to listen and look at the cultural variety embedded within our capital city. 3) My hometown Rabat and the adjacent old capital city of Mdina.

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

MA There are so many influences! I often find myself influenced by a wide array of things, practices and processes, not all necessarily related to art. However, undoubtedly, I was directly influenced by the many artists I met while exhibiting at Galleria Michela Rizzo in Venice, ranging from Vito Acconci to Hamish Fulton. I believe that every encounter that leaves some kind of impression can evoke a reaction or reflection towards one’s own practice.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

MA Is it too much to simply answer by saying ‘all of it’? I look forward to seeing what this Biennale has programmed, including the collateral shows, national participations and especially Adriano Pedrosa’s exhibition Foreigners Everywhere. I also have my favourite Venetian spots that I always try to visit, such as The Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the mosaics on Torcello island.

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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