“La Luz no absuelve ni condena, no es justa ni es injusta” ­ − light does not absolve or condemn, nor is it just or unjust, Mexican writer, Nobel laureate and diplomat Octavio Paz reflects. The title of artist Antje Liemann’s exhibition Light Is Time Thinking About Itself is lifted from the same poem by Paz.

Antje’s post-Anthropocene landscapes and objets-trouvé imagine a world no longer inhabited by humans or morality, where nature has taken over.

Kitsch porcelain statues, plastic fruit, an inkstand and an 18th-century clock, all flea-market finds representing the ‘detritus of a bourgeois life’, have been petrified and returned to the natural setting they have tried to emulate.

“In western culture, every single sitting room features some kind of a nature-inspired ornament. Mass-produced china figurines of bucolic shepherdesses, dolphins and eagles are attempts to bring nature into the home, purchased for status, to ‘complete’ the idea of a home but eventually rejected, sold or thrown away. The paradox is that, simultaneously, these homes with their plastic-covered sofas are obsessed with keeping dust, dirt and nature out,” Margerita Pulé, the curator of the exhibition, muses.

“Once everyday objects find themselves in a museum, they take on a meaning of their own.”

A plastic lobster finds itself sprayed to a disc on the wall, one of two mixed media and acrylic ‘memento mori’, a genre of vanitas where symbolic objects serve as a reminder of mortality.

“Nothing is here forever. Every piece has a meaning. The candle will burn down; the fish will decompose,” Liemann almost whispers. 

Questions provoked by the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown provided the artist with the springboard for the imaginary scenarios she has created in the exhibition.

“I had already been shortlisted to exhibit in the community space at MUŻA and originally had another idea for the exhibition. But, then, as I watched how wild animals were approaching previously out-of-bounds areas and the effects the lockdown had on nature, I felt I had to do something about this, to reflect how the world had transformed so suddenly from one day to the next, how our lives had changed too,” Liemann explains, her placid smile beaming childlike and her soft-spoken manner contrasting but complementing a contained solidity which she projects.

It is ironic that, a year on, another COVID lockdown forced the early closure of the exhibition, which opened in March 2021, and its postponement to this August. 

Nothing is here forever. Every piece has a meaning. The candle will burn down; the fish will decompose

Human-made materials now outweigh the earth’s biomass, ice is retreating, permafrost is melting and water levels are rising. However, the egocentricity of a default apocalyptic or dystopian vision of human and economic activity to ‘extract, produce, consume and dispose’  assumes that, in obliterating itself, humankind will do the same to the natural world.

Rather the reverse is portrayed in Liemann’s egg tempera and linseed oil landscape of fungus rock topped by a giant neon-yellow apiary.

“The etymology of Malta is connected to bees. If humans can build these large crazy apartment buildings, why not create an alternative Sliema made up of giant beehives? Maybe we can reflect how violent our impact on the environment is,” she ponders.

“What are you doing,” a perplexed security guard anxiously asks Letta Shtohryn, who has placed a contact microphone against one of the enormous megaliths at Mnajdra Temples.

“We are recording what the temples are saying,” Shtohryn calmly answers.

“I have been working here for 20 years and no stone has ever talked to me,” is the guard’s bemused reply.

Shtohryn’s sound piece, specially commissioned for the exhibition, accompanies Liemann’s large canvas of the neolithic temples completely repossessed by once-extinct, endemic, colossal orchids. Shtohryn, who describes herself as ‘ceaselessly inspired by deception’ in pursuit of ‘the origins of the real and the artifice’, digitised the vibrations emanating from the temples, the rumblings of nature and birdsong in Maqluba (limits of Qrendi) and other locations. The recordings were juxtaposed with the background to a compilation of imagined dinosaur noises to recreate a soundscape of nature devoid of human intervention.

“Do you think humankind will disappear? What do you think will happen if they disappear? Are we too late to reverse a collective doomsday or does nature adapt as we evolve? Liemann poses these and other questions to a motley crew of cultural and social activists, environmentalists, an economist, a neuroscience-based life coach and an ornithologist, whose answers are recorded in an installation that serves as an extension to the existential debate the exhibits elicit.

Perhaps, as Pulé proposes, “by recognising our colonialisation and capitalisation of all of the earth’s resources” the opportunity presents itself “to rethink our relationship with the natural world”.

Ornithologist and environmentalist Marie Claire Gatt, one of Liemann’s interviewees, concurs. Our future here on planet earth is “very closely linked with the decisions we take today, to keep the world inhabitable tomorrow”.

What is required, she says, is “a strong paradigm shift in our values”.

Light is Time Thinking About Itself runs at MUŻA, the Malta National Community Art Museum, until September 5. The exhibition is open every day except Tuesdays from 10am to 4.30pm. The exhibition is supported by the Arts Council Malta’s Project Support Grant, and the Embassy of Germany in Malta.

Warren Bugeja is executive communications, Heritage Malta.

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