COVID-19 has precipitated a reality check in most of us and a recalibration of priorities. RYAN FALZON talks to Joseph Agius about his current exhibition at Mqabba’s Kamra ta’ Fuq.

JA: In my opinion, the title of the exhibition can be read in two ways. Firstly, as indicated in the exhibition mission statement, “plants are a perfect non-demanding companion”. Secondly, the introduction of nudes in some of the compositions might suggest that these people are friends with or in the company of plants. Was this an intentional pun?

RF: The joys of indoor gardening were rediscovered in the beginning of the pandemic. Plants are rooted, offering the grounding and security that we all longed for, where our foundations were shaken by the sudden change in lifestyle. Unlike other trends, such as knitting and baking bread, indoor gardening is still going strong, as individuals are portraying themselves as ‘plant parents’ on social media. Amateurs and models are having nude photoshoots in environments overloaded with greenery.

The pun here is on the term ‘Friends with Benefits’, where two consenting individuals engage in sexual activities outside the traditional relationship- Ryan Falzon

Plants allow a single individual to be away from home all day, travel when the need or wish would arise, and left to their own devices if one is too self-absorbed in post-modern self-crisis. Such luxuries cannot be applied to pets such as dogs and cats, who need constant feeding, cleaning andattention. The pun here is on the term ‘Friends with Benefits’, where two consenting individuals engage in sexual activities outside the traditional relationship and romantic sphere. With restrictions in place and limited interactions scaled down, individuals could not hunt for new friends, and turned to plants as means of distraction, companionship and fulfilment.

Sunny Winter Days, 2021Sunny Winter Days, 2021

Plants also served as another accessory to fuel the Instagram lifestyle, where, consciously or not, the activities one does render themselves valuable depending on their popularity on social media and how many interactions can be achieved if one posts images of such subject. This modern phenomenon portrays a worrying crave for validation. Individuals were already needing such attention pre-pandemic when surrounded by people all the time, let alone once cooped up in some concrete box binging on Netflix all day.

JA: The Botanika series of paintings, exhibited in December 2020, extolled the virtue of secluded domestic open spaces like gardens, rooftops, balconies, yards. It was maybe the need for finding a safe space in one’s home, bringing the outside in, sanitising it through a sort of reclassification of open space. We are hoping that the pandemic’s worst is over and that we can venture outside with less restrictions. Do you feel this exhibition relates to agoraphobia in the face of relative freedom in the attenuation of COVID restrictions?

RF: I am interested in the now, responding to the immediate. Most probably, the idea of retuning back to pre-pandemic patterns would be the next, and final step in the Botanika series. We all experienced the pandemic in a personal way during the past two years, at points struggling like never before. Linked together, all the botanical paintings are a personal visual diary, a direct reflection of the way Millennials and Gen-Z generations dealt with the pandemic.

The first exhibition explored the relief brought by breaking routine and the slowed down pace of life, where for a couple of weeks we believed that it is possible to cut down traffic to a bare minimum and live off deliveries. The grim prospect of catastrophic death rates that fortunately never hit gave the way we interact, share and communicate a mellow edge. In 2021, this relatively calm period gave way to frustration, isolation and tension. The uncertainty surrounding the duration of a pandemic that was supposed to last a couple of weeks had everyone on edge. This was not helped by the fact that we lived a relatively eventless summer.

Pizza and Plants Are a Vibe, 2022Pizza and Plants Are a Vibe, 2022

In spite of all this, plants kept filling and cluttering indoor spaces, giving much needed hope, tranquillity and growth to those who share space with them. Friends with Plants captures all of the above, presenting narratives and stills that we can all relate to.

JA: This exhibition integrates the theme of the Botanika exhibition with that of another series, Selfies, which was never officially exhibited.  The term Selfies evokes technology, smartphones and social media – realities that you have investigated in the past. Has this transposition altered the concept of the latter series into a new ‘hybrid’?

RF: In a sense, yes. In the past two years, drunk selfies at clubs and from after-hours shenanigans were few and far between when compared to pre-pandemic days. The longing for drives with loud music back home from a party, the possibility of meeting new people at events, the ease of planning, it all feels a lifetime away.

As said above, I am interested in understanding and documenting the now, therefore it is wrong to assume that this was a formula where Selfies and Botanika met for the sake of adding a new element. In Botanika, the figure was not needed as the companionship of plants was enough in 2020. Figure cropped gradually and organi­cally among the plants. In 2021, it was no longer enough to present serenity in gardens and plant set-ups in the second year of the pandemic. The figure needed to make a statement. Here I am, here I am not, I am being missed, you are being missed. Friends with plants is about isolation the need for company and the tranquillity of solitude.

Understanding and documenting the now

The figures presented here can be interpreted as self-reflections, mirages of lovers. prospective ones or actual partners. All the figures are solitary, presented in the company of plants. With titles such as I Spend the Nights with My Plants and Cat and Show me Your Plants not Your Bedroom, the mood is very set. When others’ company was not possible, plants were there to save the day. For some, discovering the joys and perks of indoor gardening made them feel fulfilled and needed, thus the metaphors and play on the friend-plant idiom. 

Guten MorgenGuten Morgen

JA: Selfies are intended at times for dissemination through social media. Some of them are nude self-conscious images advertising intimate parts of the body and inviting pleasure in erotic engagement. However, in Friends with Plants, I feel that there is ‘Garden of Eden’ non-erotic joy in rediscovering the comfort in one’s own zone and within one’s own skin. Is this exhibition an exercise in investigating the dualities of the contemporary human condition?

RF: Let’s say that Friends with Plants can be the wild lovechild of the song The Garden by Guns N’ Roses, with their sleazy wah wah sound and the utopic state of being depicted in Le Bonheur de Vivre by Matisse. We want it all, from A-Z and back; therefore yes, this exhibition can be seen as an investigation of dualities.

The paintings are sensual and subtle, even when the body is fully exposed, crude in an unsophisticated teenage flirt kind of crude. The figures are nude, exposed, unashamed yet asexual and lonely – like everyone behind a screen. I think that everyone loves the comfort of being detached and somewhat sad behind the screen. When one is happy, one is fragile. Being sad means that the shield of sadness stops one from overstepping, getting excited over others and letting guards down. We are living in a highly ego-central scenario, and the pandemic showed everyone how all our luxuries can vanish in a very short time.

The curation of the show, flowing with the gallery structure and features, aims at creating a sensory experience where still lifes, garden scenes and figures exist in a very delicate harmony. Just like the composition and colour scheme, it all feels about to disarray, as much as the modern world feel disarrayed, where achieving balance in all aspects of life is a daily struggle.

JA: These paintings somehow evoke Matisse in the depiction of lush foliage.  The nudes remind me of Maria Lassnig’s flowing forms, but without the anger and the overcharged erotic ‘dirty’ overtone. The French artist once said: “We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.” Do you think that this statement defines this exhibition in some way?

RF: There is no distinction bet­ween plants and figures in my works, they are given the same treatment and importance. Anger is present in my political punk paintings from 2013 to 2017, in Quick Fix: A Morality Tale and We Lost the War. Although still distinctively Ryan Falzon due to the vivid palette and juxtaposition of images, the garden paintings are personal as much as universal. These vibrant works evoke reflection, harmony and search for the simple joys and meaningful actions. Joys brought by a visit to the garden centre, a new leaf on the Monstera that cost an arm and leg but it’s all worthwhile; or swapping chilli seeds with an enthusiast you met online through snail mail like the good old days.

My Chilli Collection, 2021My Chilli Collection, 2021

As for artist references, one has to draw parallels with David Hockney. Hockney welcomed the first lockdown with open arts, working in the north of France and presented a series of digital works in his 2021 exhibition The Arrival of Spring, Normandy 2020. The same sentiment that Hockney expressed in these works are the same undertones that created Botanika exhibition in 2020 and set the foundations for Friends with Plants. Other two main influences were Chaim Soutine and Danny Fox.

The fragility yet intensity present in Soutine’s work still haunts me years after seeing the works at a retrospective in 2018. Danny Fox is an obvious reference, as he is somehow credited for the exciting new wave of painting that has been growing around the globe for the past 10 years.

Friends with Plants, curated by Art Sweven and hosted by Mqabba’s Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq will run until March 14. Log on to the event’s Facebook page for more information.

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