Thomas Scerri’s Rooftops exhibition investigates the Maltese urban landscape and its evolution or regression, depending on one’s point of view. Joseph Agius and Lara Zammit met up with the artist and the exhibition’s curator Roderick Camilleri to discuss the underlying concepts of the exhibition.
When ‘rooftops’ is mentioned in a Maltese art context, one immediately associates the term with one of Malta’s 20th century modern masters, Esprit Barthet. His series of paintings chronicling the Maltese townscape in the latter half of last century essentially defines this important pioneer of Maltese modernism.
Decades later, Thomas Scerri and exhibition curator Roderick Camilleri have chosen this Barthet moniker as a title for Scerri’s current exhibition at the Malta Society of Arts. The artist portrays the different viewpoint underlying his works: “Barthet was looking at the rooftops from the vantage point of the roof of his house; he was looking down onto the architectural structures and other elements while I’m looking from street level, amid the architecture, up towards the skies”.
He remarks that the project took off while he was searching for minimal spaces, through a photographic exercise, and realised that such spaces could be encountered when looking up towards the sky, that space described by the smattering of buildings against the backdrop of the sky itself.
Camilleri admits that there is some measure of connection between Scerri’s work and Barthet’s eponymous rooftops. “The intention, the vision and the aesthetic of Thomas’s exhibition, however, is different as well, this coupled with an approach that strays away from Barthet’s own,” Camilleri points out. “But I can’t help but notice that the paintings in this exhibition have something in common with Barthet’s paintings, more pronouncedly from the phase when Barthet minimalised his depictions as monochromatic structures; I believe he described them as metaphysical paintings.”
Scerri’s sculptures are a different kettle of fish as there is a fusion of materials. “Thomas is investigating the notion of space within a contemporary Maltese context and debating how space is being swallowed up. I believe that this is such a unique and original concept,” the curator continues.
Lockdown and scant daily relief
The pandemic lockdown and the situation of personal exile ignited the embers that Scerri kindled to integrate as ideas for the Rooftops exhibition. The roof of one’s own house or apartment provided some relief from the indoors. The luckier ones could enjoy the luxury of a garden or a yard for a breather.
However, those dwelling in apartment blocks ‘crowned’ by a penthouse had to deal with a more claustrophobic situation by opening the windows of their homes to let in some air and to look at the world outside; in most cases to views of a neighbourhood of clustered buildings closing one in, and to yet more rooftops. This exile, even within one’s own domestic space, is one of the underlying themes of the exhibition.
Scerri is well-known as an artist who uses found objects, such as pieces of wood, metal and other materials, to recreate and revaluate into hybridised objects of aesthetic beauty. “There has always been a focus on the negative in my previous work, the situation being what it is. For the first time, I’ve discovered beauty amid the sheer ugliness of it all. I’m going for a simpler style which is easier on the eye,” the Maltese artist affirms. His use of construction material, cement and wooden beams was conducive to a more relevant narrative. Sand grains, used in the construction industry, were integrated to augment the texture of the paintings, endowing them with a materic substance that invites touch.
High-rise narratives away from these shores
New York is a sexy example of a city where conglomerations of high-rises are ironically involved in aesthetically pleasing architectural conversations. Contrastingly, the Maltese high-rise experiment elicits aversion and distaste in most. Even Zaha Hadid’s creation for St Julian’s sticks out like a sore thumb, whereas her projects in other cities are inspiring.
The view from Valletta across Marsamxett Harbour is blighted by the monsters that seem to menace a general toppling over of architectural elements and suggest stifling human overpopulation. The gothic quality of these edifices in cosmopolitan cities, as they reach towards the heavens, is blunted in the local context by a generalised abandon at ground level, shanty towns of hideous and haphazard architecture spreading like a pestilent undergrowth.
“Thomas’s sculptures are an attempt to ease order out of total disorder and comment on this Maltese characteristic for mediocrity, even on an architectural, urban level. One may look at it as a self-therapeutic exercise by the artist in rationalising and dealing with the chaos that is part and parcel of his life. He is creating these structures, which are aesthetically pleasing, while trying to come to terms with the bedlam that is so overwhelming,” Camilleri further extrapolates.
The paintings also exude a sensation of calm through their structured composition that relieves the dissonance of chaos. There is an implicit statement by the artist, according to Camilleri, that is propagated through the silence permeating Scerri’s work. The artist is also framing through his work the last pockets of domestic open space, be it the roof, the terrace or the yard.
For the artist, the particular pale chromaticism of the works reflects the haziness, the pollution, the leaching of colour courtesy of a Mediterranean sun that bleaches everything in its wake. The lack of open countryside, systematically sacrificed on the altars of greed and bad taste, makes everything look more lacklustre, lifeless and bland.
Brutalist architecture is one which “is characterised by minimalist constructions that showcase the bare building materials and structural elements over decorative design”. Scerri approves and admires this sort of architecture when it is in the right context. “This is my first exhibition in which I veered away from being monochromatic. However, I cannot categorically discount that I wasn’t influenced by Brutalist architecture. It probably figures somewhere in the process.”
The particular pale chromaticism of the works reflects the haziness, the pollution, the leaching of colour courtesy of a Mediterranean sun that bleaches everything in its wake
Camilleri believes the minimalist ethos underlying the exhibition originates from an aesthetic that could be pleasing to the eye of some, notwithstanding that most demonise its qualities. It’s not a question of the intrinsic qualities and use of a material that makes it ugly, it is how the base product is manipulated and exploited through masterful design, through an overall context that accepts that even concrete could lead to beautiful architecture.
One needs to integrate whole streetscapes to conform to this aesthetic, a single specimen of it in a neighbourhood creates non-conformity and disharmony. Moreover, integration of architecture within the urban environment is key, a consideration which is not being given its importance locally. This exhibition should serve as an eye-opener in this respect.
Scerri, Scully and the call of the land
The Irish artist Sean Scully, whose minimalist paintings evoke to some extent Scerri’s geometrical paintings, once declared: “I’m constantly referring to land, cutting into land.” The square is the dominant configuration in Scully’s abstracts, representing neat agricultural fields. This reflects the perspective of an artist whose country of origin is defined by the green meadows and the pastoral serenity of its landscapes. Cottages and man-made structures blend harmoniously with the contours of the land, blessed as it is with a more lenient climate that does not scorch and reduce everything to shades of brown, especially during summer.
The idiosyncratic nature of the traditional Maltese terraced field, its mostly quadrilateral geometry framed by the rubble walls that used to delineate one’s property from that of one’s neighbour, have been usurped through the progressive encroachment via rampant quadrilateral urbanisation. Scerri’s exhibition represents this culture change in the transformation of the local landscape, the quadrilaterals being a constant that, unlike Scully’s reality, do not represent an almost unchanging, timeless quality characteristic of the Irish landscape.
Scerri’s Malta is a work in progress that exploits its open spaces to their destruction, by creating quadrilateral and unsightly structures. Both artists weave their countries’ narratives through their art, an elegiac one in the case of the geometrical abstracts of the Irish artist, glum and resigned in the case of Scerri.
Scerri’s sculptural constructions are moulded by him into block-like simulacra of quarried masonry. The disturbed land of quarries are blemishes in our landscape ‒ we ‘cut’ into our land, we hue into it and ravage it like barbarians.
“In the past, my art represented a dystopia. I can now understand that things will never change and that protesting serves no purpose at all. So, here I am embracing dystopia,” Scerri ruefully remarks.
The artist, the curator and environmental concerns
“Most of Thomas’s work was ready when he asked me to curate his exhibition. This excludes any influence on my part on the aesthetics of the pieces. Both are interested in the local context and its dynamics, it was a process of a natural synthesis; I would say that was a point of convergence.
“We are both interested in the concept of materiality and in making an artistic statement as regards the materials we use. As a curator, it is my duty to suggest and give my world view, without denaturing the exhibiting artist’s concepts,” says Camilleri.
The advent of cable TV in the early 1990s has brought on a change in the configuration of elements on Maltese rooftops – the aerials that used to be one of the defining features of 20th century urban rooftop townscapes were gradually dismantled and views from rooftops for a time were unencumbered. But in the last years, this temporary harmony was destroyed by the chaos of cranes, solar panels and the propensity towards higher building.
“Aerials were temporary structures. It’s true that they created some chaos which could be easily resolved as their nature wasn’t irreversible, unlike the contemporary chaos of the new Maltese rooftop townscapes; buildings cannot be readily dismantled.
“The generations which will succeed us will look down on this one with disgust, thanks to the hideous legacy that they will inherit,” Scerri concluded.
The rooftops depicted by Esprit Barthet and Antoine Camilleri documented Malta in which the aerials predominated as symbols of communication with the world outside. The rooftops of Thomas Scerri propagate a sense of enclosing, of boundaries that are progressively getting more constricted, of a claustrophobia.
It is not easy for a contemporary artist to discern some poetry in all of this mess.
Rooftops, curated by Roderick Camilleri, is hosted by Malta Society of Arts and runs until July 22.