Cracks and all, Strait Street’s (once?) Splendid Lounge bar has been resuscitated.

Although its purpose, designation and “clientele” might differ from that of its former self, the old ghosts are still somewhere embedded in its walls and fabric. Which is a good thing.

From lounge bar to cultural incubator, the Splendid re-opened its doors to the public on April 16, when a visual art show titled Strada Stretta was launched by Fondazzjoni Temi Zammit (FTZ).

This collective show, in this splendid of spaces (for lack of a better word) is the collaborative effort of some 15 artists, designers and photographers, and surely countless others behind the scenes.

The space in itself is a stunner. For those who like the raw, rustic and retro, that is. The period furniture, the threadbare upholstery, the knickknacks, the rotting soft toys, the crumbling staircase, the “dirty” laundry and quasi-blinking/often limbless dolls fill the place with charm, character and a little cheek. Again, I felt this was a good thing.

What is not a good thing, however, is that the ghosts and all the leftover carcasses and remnants of the Splendid’s former glory have been left to lie about so overtly – perhaps even placed/specifically positioned around the rooms – that they override the exhibits. At times at least.

The show needed to be curated. It appeared to have been set up somewhat hastily. Even the “mixture” of chosen artists seemed a little random. Most of the ideas and concepts were good, but they were seeds that required germination. Concepts needed to be further developed and fine-tuned; clearly some of the participating artists required a little guidance.

One case in point was Francesca Schembri’s installation. Although her idea was relevant as well as being a direct reference to Tracey Emin, I do believe her projection would have been far more effective and successful had it been directed onto the bed itself rather than on the wall.

I was also disappointed by Anna Grima’s paintings. I am quite a fan of her soft abstracts recalling Malta’s primitive past. Yet the three paintings presented here left much to be desired. Perhaps it was the figures’ “sweetness” and her romanticised rendition in the portrayal of prostitutes and sailors which irked me, yet the works didn’t seem credible. I don’t believe in sugar-coating. Not in 2011.

Contrastingly, the same space also offered Pierre Portelli’s cutlery-crafted “bass-relief” titled Home Coming, portraying the silhouette of a swallow and heart tattoo. It is perhaps one of the more memorable works on show; besides being very effective it is one of the less obvious pieces, which is decidedly playful in nature – an aspect which resonates through most of Mr Portelli’s work.

The Phonography exhibits were a welcome surprise. The images were kept small, intimate and pertinent to theme; most were also hung in the cosier of rooms equipped with a fireplace, armchair and luggage. I say “most” because two artists opted for this medium, namely Seana Willis-Yuste and Laura Peischl in separate areas of the space which smacked a little of repetition and almost resulted in overkill.

The works positioned in the staircase, which didn’t even carry a caption (to my knowledge) could have easily been done away with. They appeared weak, almost placed as an afterthought, which unfortunately only ends up lowering the show’s standards.

Bertrand Fava’s site-specific installation is his calling card, and as such must be commended. His blood bath, titled Time Freeze, is an impressive spectacle of red. The battered and beaten mirror hanging above the red pool gives viewers a gorgeously eerie reflection of themselves hovering over a bloody almost whodunnit-like scenario.

Paul Mizzi, Danjeli Schembri and Julian Mallia’s work also deserves special mention. Their united strengths has produced an interactive video installation worthy of the Splendid. A hand-written invitation hangs from the bulb in the middle of the room instructing visitors to “Sit and play the notes of the Splendid”. A nearby piano eagerly waits to be played, each key revealing a portion or character in their projected, somewhat surrealist world, depicting The Gut.

Enrique Tabone’s work was also quite intriguing in itself – although it lacked a pointed title – yet knowing Austin Camilleri’s history with “jelly babies” it proved difficult to attribute individual merit to Ms Tabone’s pocket-sized foetuses.

Strada Stretta has a long and intricate, if not controversial history. The context, the imagery it conjures, the connotations, the stories... each presents a highly colourful springboard for artists to work and play with. Yet Strait Street’s notoriety, its omnipresence in our minds and in our not-so-distant past and culture deserved deeper scrutiny in this show.

I do wish to stress however that this initiative, despite any failings, is highly admirable and should definitely be lauded. The project has moreover proven popular with visitors. On opening night alone, it was a joy to witness the hundreds of people, young and old, walking through the Splendid’s hauntingly nostalgic rooms. Dozens of similar potential art spaces exist – not only in Valletta, but across the Maltese islands – but it takes guts to open one up and re-propose it to the public with renewed vision and purpose. Strada Stretta is a clear manifestation of the need for contemporary art spaces in our capital, not to mention in Malta in general.

I do have my reservations regarding the design/architectural plans affixed at the Splendid’s entrance which also include plans for No. 111 set to become the Strait Street Museum and guest house. No. 74, The Splendid, will eventually become a boutique hotel and cultural venue (not vice versa), comprising a theatre, open artists studio, live music bar and guestrooms. Although commercial and cultural venues can easily be combined, I would hate to see a ton of good intentions go down the drain. But I’ll address those reservations on another day...

• Strada Stretta runs till May 15. Opening hours: Monday to Thursday 10 a.m. till 1 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 5 till 9 p.m.

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