“I am not a performer but occasionally I work in a public context. Some sculptures need the movement of people around them to work.” – Andy Goldsworthy

Public monuments in the Maltese islands are traditionally conceived as memorials of events or personages belonging to times gone by. These monuments’ inherent anachronistic presence in public gardens, roundabouts or piazzas does not engage the passersby or the car drivers in any viable exchange worthy of that name.

The effigies of Christian saints, important statesmen and national heroes from all walks of past lives impart a melancholic and elegiac dimension that one comes across in cemeteries. Death is a common denominator.

The onus set by the commissioning entities on the artists as creators of these artworks was a weight that excluded a free interpretation and, therefore, restricted creativity. A sense of gravitas usually accompanies them.

This effect is further compounded by a pedestal that projects them as unapproachable icons very much detached from the clichés of everyday life. Commemorations of nationally important events, which are tableaux extracted from history textbooks, lifelessly freeze particu­lar moments of national importance.

Sometimes the access to these monuments is restricted by a chain or a boundary that intentionally keeps the public at bay. To some degree, the descriptive adjective in the term ‘public monument’ is a misnomer.

Through Ħaġarna, Gozitan artist Victor Agius dispels the myth that monuments are to be rigorously left alone and appreciated from a harmless and safe distance. This prohibits any interaction, tactile or otherwise, with the monu­ment. However, the birds and other fauna, the falling leaves, the lichens and the fury of the elements are not precluded from doing so. The exclusion seems to be anthropo-specific.

Agius shares Robert Smithson’s view that monumental art is of vital importance in the landscape in which it is set. The American artist was one of the pioneers of what is known as ‘Land Art’, and during his short life, he contributed by his writings on his wide thematic interests that included geology, science fiction and Catholicism. These eclectic influences found their way into his body of work. He was, in his words, “for an art that takes into account the direct effect of the elements as they exist from day to day apart from representation.”

The oeuvre of the Gozitan artist similarly demonstrates a preoccupation with geology, that of his native island of Gozo. It defines him as an artist and it often provides the materials, among which are clay, roots and rock, that go into the creation of his art.

Two towering megaliths open up a space that invites people to walk through, like a birth canal of Mother Earth

His organic sculptures, so rough and earthy, evoke the tangible harshness of the early ceramic work of Lucio Fontana in which chance and accident are major players. They are like moments of birth as eruptions of magma from a pregnant Mother Earth.

Agius has effected a clean, surgical incision on the huge boulder, dividing it into two corresponding and towering megaliths and opening up a new space that invites people to walk through. The space between them is like a fissure, like a birth canal of Mother Earth.

One approaches the canal with a sense of expectation and adventure. Going through and traversing its length is a time of gestation and nourishment. The exit is a rebirth into the same old world, however, with the hope that Ħaġarna has altered one’s perspective even to the slightest of degrees.

The artist has collected red earth, ochre and roots from excavations at construction sites in Xagħra to create one of his signature terrarossa panels as the ground of the passageway. This is protected from degradation by a sheet of glass. He thus conceptually roots this one path to its Xagħra origins. The ingredients that make it up are the same ones that geologically and pedologically define the village’s fields and garrigue.

Ħaġarna performers leave from Ġgantija. Photo: Daniel CiliaĦaġarna performers leave from Ġgantija. Photo: Daniel Cilia

During an educational workshop, Agius involved the Year 6 students of the Gozo College Xagħra Primary School in the creation of part of the panel.

Inscriptions on the two vertical sides of the passageway bring poetry and sculpture together. The Gozitan artist is renowned for his interdisciplinary collaborations. Two thematically linked stanzas, one from contemporary Maltese poet Immanuel Mifsud’s Ġgantija II on one side and another from the late Xagħra poet Mgr Mikelanġ Apap’s L-Għanja tal-Inkurunazzjoni on the other side, are eloquent reminders of the unique pedigree of the Maltese islands’ temple heritage.

The location of Ħaġarna in the vicinity of the Xagħra playground is not coincidental. This establishes its ethos as a monument accessible to all. The sense of adventure and discovery comes natural to all children. Playgrounds are oases where young ones can let loose and are allowed to be themselves without fear of being punished for any transgression. Agius has admirably added a public sculpture as an educational corollary to their adventures.

Agius is renowned for his versatility as a contemporary artist. Unlike the British land artist Andy Goldsworthy, he is a performer that “works in a public context”. He uses performance as an immersive tool, thereby breathing life into the work itself and engaging the members of the public as performing artists in their own right.

The official inauguration of the Ħaġarna monument in Xagħra was one such performance that involved the population of the village through its cultural, folkloristic and youth organisations as well as through its unique archaeological fabric – one that includes the Unesco heritage site of the Ġgantija Temples, the Xagħra Stone Circle, the Għar ta’ Għejzu and the Santa Verna Temple.

The monument’s name, Ħaġarna, translated into English as ‘our rocks’, suggests an inclusive, possessive and collective dimension. These two hemispheres of Gozitan hardstone rock, quarried from a Gozitan site harking from the village of Qala, belong to us all at a seminal and primordial level. Ħaġarna’s cardinal orientation towards the east adorns it with astronomical significance in much the same way as some of Malta’s prehistoric temples.

On May 11, the official day of inauguration, each of the Xagħra groups: Xagħra Historical Re-enactment Organisation, Għaqda Kumittiva Għawdex and Xagħra Youth Centre, which were chosen by the artist as representatives of the village, assembled themselves at the four archeological sites as pre-determined.

A chosen representative of each group carried an earthenware vessel filled with red ochre clay, which is the oldest natural pigment known to man. In prehistoric eras, it was used by the communities during different rites; they used it to embellish their pottery as well. Traces of it can still be found at Maltese prehistoric sites and on artefacts originating from them.

Ħaġarna, Victor Agius, Photo: Daniel CiliaĦaġarna, Victor Agius, Photo: Daniel Cilia

The earthenware containers were delivered to Agius on site, who then embarked on an artistic performance in which he lovingly caressed the pigment onto the harsh surfaces of the three-metre and 39 tonne boulders. The interaction between the vulnerable hands of the artist as they daubed the pigment and the harsh surfaces of the megaliths was emphatically one of the highlights of the evening. This initiation rite complemented the Xagħra people’s rite of passage through the passageway.

The legacy of the sister island’s temple period, the location of Ħaġarna between important archaeological sites, the participation of the villagers as inaugurators during this celebratory ritual all contributed to a sense of belonging that is timeless.

Agius thus declared that the monument represents Xagħra as an organic and flourishing narrative. As another interdisciplinary collaboration, Gozitan composer Mariella Cassar Cordina was commissioned by him to write a piece for violin for the inauguration; a piece which she herself performed and which complemented and enhanced the whole experience.

The ephemerality of the performance and the monument’s intrinsic characteristics point towards a Richard Long sensibility. In the British artist’s words: “I really like the notion of the visibility or invisibility of the work as well as the permanence and transience.”

Through Ħaġarna and the Xagħra community’s ritualistic performance as the official inauguration, Agius has managed to achieve this in no uncertain terms.

The launch of an illustrated catalogue which documents the process and the events linked with Ħaġarna with texts by various scholars and curators accompanied by an art talk entitled Ħaġarna: Community Engagement in Public Arts will take place on Thursday at 7.30pm at MUŻA, the Malta National Community Art Museum in Valletta.

Ħaġarna was presented in 2015 during a National Call − Art in Public Spaces that was launched by the Ministry for Transport, Infrastructure and Capital Projects, in collaboration with the Ministry for Justice, Culture and Local Government, Arts Council Malta, MUŻA (Heritage Malta), the Ministry for Gozo and Xagħra Local Council.

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