“Experiments in Entropy – 10 years ago I joined Architecture School” is a recent group exhibition held between the end of 2022 and February 2023, at the Valletta Contemporary Gallery curated by Andrew Borg Wirth. The exhibition invited 10 architects, plus the curator himself, to revisit their individual trajectories as architects/designers, through an exploration of Entropy as a universal force. The analysis of the architect’s role today and the critical themes that emerged remain poignantly relevant.
OWS’s own Tracey Sammut was one of the artists, while Andrew Borg Wirth, Matthew Scerri, and Mike Zerafa all previously worked in our sister office, NIDUM.
Openworkstudio’s Leo Chircop met up with the artists to reflect on the show and their work. Below is a look back at each of the artist’s contributions and a further exploration as to what their varied initiatory process was like in applying themselves as artists, and to understand their viewpoints as contemporary practicing architects and how their work was developed.
We congratulate the artists on their successful initiative:
Maria Azzopardi, Andrew Borg Wirth, Isaac Buttigieg, Lucia Calleja, Jean Ebejer, Felic Micallef, Suzi Mifsud, Tracey Sammut, Matthew Scerri, Nick Theuma, Mike Zerafa.
Click below to listen to our podcast discussion with the curator of the show Andrew Borg Wirth and participating artists Tracey Sammut, Suzi Mifsud, Felic Micallef, and Jean Ebejer, or scroll down to read part one of a transcript of the interviews.
Leo Chircop: Andrew, your work ‘Monuments to Sleep On‘ incorporates a text-based statement, similar to the referenced artwork in this exhibition text: Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’. The words are written in cursive – ‘This is not a nightmare’. Am I correct to see it playing at the intersection of satirical, surrealist, romantic, and minimalist?
Andrew Borg Wirth: Yes, the tone is ironic. I think the minimalism comes from my ambition to speak about something experiential; all-encompassing, claustrophobic, and at times overwhelming.
‘Monuments to Sleep On’ by Andrew Borg Wirth
LC: Is this something you feel a pull towards – are these elements that you find missing in this hyper-accelerated day and age of the industry?
ABW: I feel like we live in an age of distraction, where we are inundated with impulses. Artmaking offers the opportunity to set an alternative point of view and way of seeing. I think the colour choice is quite pronounced and the cues immediately transport the viewer to the experience I am referencing. Without cluttering my offering, I am taking the audience to a particular sensory experience they know well. This is the aim of the piece.
‘Arka’ by Felic Micallef
Leo Chircop: Felic’s work refers to the kitsch use of stone and how we make use of it simply as a façade, not only because it is somehow an endangered resource, but because other materials have made their way through the identity of the Maltese construction industry and therefore our environments. Am I grasping your work correctly? Can you tell me more about your process in going about interpreting the theme of entropy in this way?
Felic Micallef: The building industry in Malta has transformed radically over the past years, with the processes regulating planning and construction largely not having kept up. This has led to some very slapdash approaches when it comes to developing property within uniform streetscapes once dominated by the use of Maltese limestone, where the material is used in a way that is not true to its properties and aesthetic.
LC: Keeping in mind the scarcity of our indigenous stone what alternate future do you see for our construction identity?
FM: There are creative ways in which by-products of the limestone industry (currently discarded) may be used. Susannah’s work right in front of ARKA is indeed a beautiful example of this whilst at the University of Malta there is long-running research on the use of reconstituted limestone as a building material, which is very close to producing commercially available solutions. On a more macro level, over the past decade, Europe has had a marked pivot towards retrofitting and reusing existing building stock as an alternative to demolishing and replacing with new buildings where practicable.
LC: I’m interested in the represented child-like drawings with chisel marks on ‘ARKA’. They’re almost totemic portrayals of what we inherently value and how we see ourselves as a nation.
FM: The motif of the triumphal arch is what underpins ARKA. I sought to employ this tradition, associated with imperial power since the time of the Ancient Romans, within the context of Malta – a young nation that is still building an independent identity after millennia of foreign occupation. The chiseled impressions on the stone slabs are a testament to this process of nation-building. To me, this motif is also very appropriate considering the grandiose tone of political discourse that has accompanied the past decade’s accelerated economic growth.
‘Vessels’ by Suzi Mifsud
Leo Chircop: I couldn’t help but investigate the original purpose of the ‘Amphora’ – where in ancient times it was a central item in the representation of vessel making. It also reminds me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction – wherein Le Guin proposes: ‘Before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.’ I am curious about the use of the standard ‘Jerry Can’ which alludes to an ‘Amphora’, how is this parallel drawn? Why was this type of object chosen?
Suzi Mifsud: Through the creation of these vessels, I wanted to showcase how waste material can be transformed and manipulated into a collectible design. The composite material that we created, allows us to inject new life into objects that would have otherwise been discarded. Initially, I was more interested in the outcome of transforming any waste material, but upon further reflection in the studio, I noticed how many of these jerry cans we had lying around. Inevitably, waste is created in the studio and the question we are always trying to ask ourselves is how can we repurpose this waste? The plastic Jerry Can now becomes the centerpiece, something made new.
LC: Moreover, according to the EU, ‘Construction creates an estimated third of the world’s overall waste, at least 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.’ Inherently this is a problem. What kind of reminders do you wish to speak of about alternate materials and their responsible use?
SM: It has become an integral part of our design process to look at materials that already exist around us and explore ways in which they could be reimagined. Limestone dust is the by-product of the quarrying process and is left to collect in mounds on quarry sites. By mixing it with a binder we can work with it like clay whilst still retaining all the qualities that attracted us to the material in the first place. There are so many processes that leave us with by-products that could become suitable materials for fabrication, and this is the statement I am trying to make with this work. Ultimately, construction waste remains a very big problem, however, this project illustrates new ways of working with waste.
‘Edifice‘ by Jean Ebejer
LC: There is almost an element of anti-climax in this piece. In ‘edifice’ it reveals to us the idea that there is only so much autonomy on ‘gusto’ or ‘beauty’, an architect can impose in their process. I’ve also understood that you seem to appreciate the gold aluminium for what it is. Why so and how come specifically the choice of this? What is your thought on beauty through time?
Jean Ebejer: Just as through entropy, a system goes from a state of order to a state of chaos, long-sustained collective notions of objective beauty seem to be becoming obsolete nowadays, in a shift towards more individualistic expressions of ‘taste.’ Whereas historically the architect’s role was to purvey meaning through buildings, today it seems that the architect is merely reacting to the trends of the day, void of any driving concept or ethos. Famous Japanese architect I.M. Pei had once described buildings as, “the very mirror of life. You only must cast your eyes on buildings to feel the presence of the past, the spirit of the place; they reflect society.” By extension, does the language we use to describe our buildings, have any bearing on how we see/choose to describe ourselves, and our society?
LC: What’s your thought on it intrinsically becoming a common archetype of the Maltese average household – has it become a quasi-kitsch cultural monster or a representation of innocence?
JE: The starting point for this piece was an investigation into what people like/dislike, and more importantly, why. Participants were asked to reflect on and describe a building of choice; their thoughts were recorded as an interpretation of their tastes. Within the gallery, the gold aluminium and mirrored glass stood in for the building, as a device for (self)reflection. Raising a mirror, the audience poses questions to the viewer. Do we like what we see? To me, the physical manifestation of the piece, the aluminium doors, now transposed into an altogether new context is itself asking us the question you are posing, ‘Is it a quasi-kitsch cultural monster or a representation of innocence?’ It could be either, neither, or both. It all depends on who is looking!