Curator Ann Dingli talks with artist Sebastian Tanti Burlò about his work
on the theme of man’s dominance over the environment.
Seb Tanti Burlò: To be honest, it all began with a stack of government typewriter paper. No idea where it came from.
Whenever I’m faced with a pile of paper, I always assess whether it’s paper I can play with. This was very light, almost transparent paper. I thought it would be something I could just scribble on.
I just pulled out a sheet and with a drafting pen started annotating something. And I realised – okay – this takes pen quite nicely. And then, again, I was doing some watercolour drawing and I dipped my watercolour brush onto the paper, just to dab off excess water, and ran it across the surface. I was struck by the way it took watercolour. I realised that this paper that I had just thought was thin, flimsy and old – with not much more to it – actually was reacting to brush strokes and pen lines in a way that I really liked. So I was reacting to the material.
It was also a time where I was dealing with my cartooning, within a very politically charged atmosphere. I made the whole series between January and April of last year.
Ann Dingli: So they were made over a reasonably prolonged period of time, as opposed to all at once?
STB: Yes, and while I was doing a lot of travelling. The first one was about wanting to do something other than political cartoons. I had also just done a series on Maltese flowers, so nature was still at the forefront of my thinking. Nature has always been my respite from politics. It’s something I picked up both from my father and from growing up in the Caruana Galizia household – being surrounded by these gardens where no matter how bad anything was, no matter the situation, you could always go out and all of a sudden your heart is singing. You’re happy; because nature brings you back to a place of calm.
I wanted to try and do something completely different. My architecture background also came into play. I thought it might be interesting to play around with that. I just wanted to draw things from what I knew and things I’ve seen. But it wasn’t about representing things accurately – I had the liberty to push and to play and to move in any direction I wanted to.
AD: Because you were working from a lexicon that you knew...
STB: Yes, and then there was the introduction of nature, and then the materials – which started to dictate results. So the way in which the paper took watercolour had this sort of fairytale quality to it.
AD: In fact, across the whole series you at times apply paint very thinly, at others quite robustly. So it seems like it’s quite a hardy paper, despite being so fine.
STB: Exactly. It took what I was giving it. It became a kind of a relationship. And I didn’t start off with an intention. I was drawing and painting and at the back of my mind I began thinking of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which in architecture school was one of the first books you read. Richard England would give us a reading list and that was one of the first books you would pick up and read. It’s about Marco Polo recounting to the Kublai Khan his travels between Italy and his kingdom. It then turns out that all the cities that all appear to be very different are all actually just Marco Polo’s descriptions of Venice as seen in different lights. So every city is Venice from a different angle – all different aspects of a city. In reality, it’s very true that no city is static. For different people a city is very many different things. And even for one person, a city holds very different meanings.
So I had that knowledge, but I wasn’t interested in representing or replicating Calvino’s work. But I liked the notion of the reality of places represented through personal interpretation. So this idea of adding different colours, aspects, creating new infrastructures came through. Each of the thirteen drawings are all places I’ve been to – from Spain to London to Nepal – where I would pick up little things I had seen, noting them in my sketchbook as architectural details. I was looking to understand what was traditional, what was vernacular, what was new about different places, whilst playing around with stories in my head.
AD: The way you’ve painted some of the scenes from the series has a kinship with the way you write. You’re a lucid writer – very descriptive and visceral. I wondered, whilst looking at some of the work, what you feel about ‘detail’ in both painting and in writing? I’m specifically thinking of the scene with the knotted tree, which is full of texture. Do you consciously think about detail when you work – are you obsessed with it?
STB: I call that drawing the ‘Tree Temple’. I was on the back of a motorbike, riding with no helmet in Kathmandu in Nepal – dust everywhere. We turned a corner, and from the corner of my eye I see a massive tree that had enveloped and grown out of this tiny temple. It stuck in my mind and I later asked my cousin’s husband – who was driving the bike – whether he remembered passing it. And he said; yes, that’s the Temple to Hanuman, the monkey god. Details come from my memory of seeing things, which is often very distinct even if I merely catch a glimpse of something in a split second. I can see every detail in my mind as a permanent still image.
I don’t see a distinction between anything I do – writing, painting, photography, or whatever I can get my hands on. It’s the translation of the way I think, the language of the way I think. It’s always just me trying to distil my ideas into the most simple message possible. So in my writing, my description comes from my ability to draw – one discipline moves to another. This idea of keeping things as simple and as truthful as you can happens in tandem with going deeply into the detail of things. There are times, though, when I water things down and allow them to be quite vague. There’s an element of pulling and pushing. In writing, when you want to describe someone, you put in the details as though you were crafting a visual image of that character. So for me writing is describing an image in my head.
AD: Each of these paintings has a narrative, but it’s not necessarily explicit. Although it now appears to me that you do have quite a clear personal back story in your mind for each scene. Are you interested in the narratives viewers will build from these ‘other places’? Do you care what they are?
STB: I’m not sure I care. Most of the things I create I do for myself.
AD: Ha! And is it a case of – if it interests me, it will interest other people – or does it not even go that far? Is it just – if it interests me, then that’s all that matters?
STB: No, no. Look, when I created these works, in my mind I was writing a short story for each one. And now, every time I look at the paintings, the stories develop. So it’s like an architect who designs a park – you create the framework but all the people who are bound to walk through that park are going to create their own story within it, have their own impact, their own version of the space. An architect doesn’t design a place and say: this is the story. No. People come in with their own interpretation, with their own imagination, with their own back story. I’m just creating a space for somebody to look in and play – if they want to. It could also come across as nothing. It could just be an illustration.
It can just be that.
AD: Will anyone ever know the actual stories behind these paintings?
STB: I’m not really interested in sharing them.
AD: If people asked, would you refuse to offer them up?
STB: I might lie to them.
AD: Fair enough.
STB: There are some parts that are very light, there are some that are very dark. There are parts where, while I was drawing them, I thought – what’s happening here? Why are these figures doing this? I’m not really prescribing anything, I’m just playing. There’s no plan. So anyone can make up their own interpretation as to why there’s a figure perched up in a tower whilst another appears to be climbing up towards him. What’s happening? Are they friends? Is one trying to topple the other one over? Why is that other guy laying down on the floor? Is he dead? Has he over-dosed?
AD: Maybe he’s just napping?
STB: There’s no answer. I let the spaces dictate the different moments in the works. Which is what happens with short stories. You’re writing, you have somewhat of an idea of where you want to go, but all of a sudden you develop a character and they begin to take on a life of their own. You don’t try and force them down a path, because that character will resist. And then things don’t ring true. You’ll find though – like these scenes being based on things I’d seen in reality – that characters are usually based on real life.
AD: I want to talk about nature again. Nature in these paintings seems to be the ultimate hero, but not in an extroverted or overtly triumphant way. More as a demure champion. Nature here seems to say: I am persisting despite the fact that nothing is going my way. Is that what you believe? Is nature the underdog emerging as modestly victorious? Also, is your depiction of nature as the winning force a message of protest?
STB: Yes. This is a reaction to the way we have treated nature. Nature is in no way the underdog. Nature is the planet, the world. We’ve turned it into this underdog. We have tried to dominate it for the survival of our species in such a way that now we have created these cities where nature is alien. Nature is now fixed in pots. Nature is prescribed to certain areas – to traffic islands. Those are the national pockets that we’re allowing to be green. It’s again going back to my architectural background, to the big issues that I have with architecture – that it’s very human-focused. Architecture only thinks about the realm of man.
If there are a hundred indigenous trees in a spot earmarked for a road, we will willingly sacrifice these trees just to lay down tarmac. So it is this constant battle between man’s survival – where we don’t even need to survive anymore, because we’re thriving; and not just thriving, we’re cancerous – against nature, which is our home. We seem have removed ourselves from the natural order, we think we’re separate from it. When in reality, we are part of it – not above or below it. We’re another piece within it. I don’t think there’s any difference between a tree and us. There’s as much responsibility to protect a human life, as there is to protect natural life – an animal or a tree. These are thoughts I carry with me a lot. These ideas of man’s place in nature. In these drawings I’ve tried to create a fairytale relationship between man and nature. Man being architecture – our mark on the natural world, which is urbanity and the encompassing manner of our inhabitation.
I simply want to say: wouldn’t it be so much easier if our architecture actually looked towards nature rather than just towards man? How can our buildings respond to the nature around us, not just to the public? Or to the building
AD: Or where to put your car.
STB: Exactly. We just think about our species, whereas we are neighbours of an entire ecosystem. So that’s why I call it a fairytale. Firstly, because a fairytale...
AD: Can never be?
STB: It can never be. It’s an ideal, it’s a parable. Fairytales are aimed at teaching younger generations.
AD: Didactic? Meant to teach what’s right and wrong?
STB: Yes. And that was the notion. I wanted to create a space where I could play around with the ideas of man’s place in nature through architecture, and so on. All things that I’ve held dear in my upbringing. Trying to create little short stories that give the opportunity for us to think: what would places be like if somebody designed their home, or a tower, or a dome, in relation to their natural surroundings?
AD: So, it’s not about nature overcoming...
STB: It’s about man overcoming himself. Overcoming his own ego and understanding that – yes, we’re a brilliant species; and as far as we know, we’re the only species to have been able to develop literature, art, and to have this level of cognisance. But we really went wrong somewhere. Where did we go so wrong?
AD: On that note – let’s talk about Malta. You make reference to a place we’ve destroyed. What do you miss about that place?
STB: I’m not sure I ever knew it. I’m not sure I ever knew a place that hasn’t been fucked. Because the reality is that we grew up in a scenario that was already barrelling down towards the place we’re at now. I don’t think there was any pulling of brakes at any point. So I don’t know if it’s about something I miss. It would be melancholic romanticism to say – ‘oh, I miss the days where the sea was so clean you could look down and see sea urchins because the water was crystal clear’, or ‘I miss all the bees that populated the natural landscape’. We’re talking about Malta here. We grew up with flats already dominating the
coastline. It was a reality we were born into. I don’t remember Malta before
AD: And is it actually Malta you’re referring to when you reference this foregone place? Or do you mean the entire planet?
STB: I mean the planet.
AD: I guess it can be both.
STB: Yes, of course. Malta is a massive reflection of the problems with the planet. It’s the microcosm. It is everything that is going wrong in the world on a tiny, little, insignificant spit of rock that people have decided to populate and call home. And instead of understanding that – look, this place is really tiny, we really need to put great care into the way we develop and grow... Xejn [Nope]. So, yes, it’s a reflection of what’s going on elsewhere. But a mediocre one. Because, let’s face it, whatever we do is mediocre
The truth is that it’s not everyone. Not all people are these greedy, cantankerous beings. But they are the dominant. And, yes, I think Malta is a very ugly mirror to the rest of humanity.
AD: Many people expect a consistent output of rage from you. You’re a political cartoonist and so by nature your predisposition is to channel collective criticism and outcry. And more generally, your work is known to be bold and uncompromising. Is there a layer of rage in these works?
STB: They wouldn’t have been made if there wasn’t any rage.
AD: But I also feel as though it’s more of a lamentation than a tirade. Even though you say you don’t miss anything, you do seem to be mourning something that never was and never will be.
STB: Well, yes. There is a sadness about that. But I think I would have never been able to draw these, or that I wouldn’t be able to draw anything, if I didn’t feel that rage. A rage that grips me and to which I have to retaliate in scribbling marks and massive, bad drawings. And at points, with my cartoons, I want that rage to be in your face and transparent. But it’s also important for me to understand how to control that rage. To dial it back. Because if you’re always shouting, then no one’s going to listen.
You’ve known me since I was very young. You know me as being a shouty, loud, antagonistic character. In the end, you can let that dominate, but you’re just going to be another loud-mouth, rage-driven person in a sea of loud-mouthed, rage-driven people. The alternative is that you try and learn how to use that rage. Rage – like any emotion – is a tool. They’re all tools that are useful in an artist’s life, in a creative life. If rage is a driver, what does it look like when it’s really controlled – when you want to focus it?
AD: Artists have used nature to tell stories about humankind for as long as art has existed. Turner, Millet, Titian, Hirst and others have all used nature to talk about humanity. But they are usually outlining the evils of the world: racial supremacy; fear of the machine; power of lust; death, and so on. You did say that these paintings can be taken as parables. So what I’m curious to know is: what’s the ultimate lesson you’re trying to teach here?
STB: That we are not the top of the food chain. We are only part of something bigger. We somehow became these beings that have been able to create such wonders, but also orchestrate intense destruction. Baruch Spinoza said that ‘God is in everything, so everything is equal’ – that there isn’t a hierarchy between a dog and a person. Or nature and humankind. We’re all part of the same design. Now I’m not talking about god as in...
AD: Capital ‘G’.
STB: Exactly – the divine. I’m talking about god as in life, as in nature. We’ve all come from one place and we’re all part of that place. The fact that we think we have dominance, that we believe that we are kings of this home, is a story that is not working out for us. We need to realise that with what we’ve attained we have a responsibility to curate our environment, to take care of our
home. The only takeaway I’m willing to give from all these stories is – learn your place.
Seb Tanti Burlò’s upcoming exhibition Other Places has been postponed until further notice for public health reasons. For more information, visit his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/sebtantiburlo/.
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