COVID-19 has precipitated a reality check for most of us and a recalibration of priorities. ROYAL FALZON talk to Joseph Agius on his current exhibition at Mqabba Kamra ta’Fuk.
JA: In my opinion, the title of the exhibition can be read in two ways. First of all, as indicated in the specifications of the exhibition, “the plant is a perfect non-demanding companion”. Second, the introduction of nudes into some of the compositions might suggest that these people are friends or in the company of plants. Was it an intentional pun?
RF: The joys of indoor gardening were rediscovered at the start of the pandemic. Plants are grounded, providing the grounding and security we all yearn for, where our foundations have been shaken by the sudden change in lifestyle. Unlike other trends, such as knitting and baking bread, indoor gardening is still going strong as individuals market themselves as “plant parents” on social media. Amateurs and models perform nude shoots in environments overloaded with greenery.
The pun here is on the term “friends with benefits”, where two consenting individuals engage in sexual activity outside of the traditional relationship.-Ryan Falzon
Plants allow a single individual to be away from home all day, to travel when the need or wish arises, and left to fend for themselves if one is too self-absorbed in self-crisis. post-modern. Such luxuries cannot be applied to pets such as dogs and cats, which need constant feeding, cleaning and attention. The pun here is on the term “Friends with Benefits,” where two consenting individuals engage in sexual activity outside of the traditional relationship and romantic sphere. With restrictions in place and limited interactions reduced, individuals could not chase new friends and turned to plants for distraction, companionship, and fulfillment.
Plants have also served as an extra prop to fuel the Instagram lifestyle, where consciously or not, the activities one does make themselves valuable based on their popularity on social media and the number of interactions that can be realized if we publish images of such a subject. This modern phenomenon depicts a disturbing thirst for validation. Individuals already needed such attention before the pandemic when they were surrounded by people all the time, let alone locked in a concrete box that hounded Netflix all day.
JA: The Botanical a series of paintings, exhibited in December 2020, extolled the virtue of secluded domestic open spaces like gardens, rooftops, balconies, courtyards. Perhaps it was the need to find a safe space in his home, to bring the outside in, to sanitize it through a sort of requalification of the open space. We hope the worst of the pandemic is over and we can venture outside with fewer restrictions. Do you think this exhibit relates to agoraphobia over relative freedom in easing COVID restrictions?
RF: I am interested in the now, responding to the immediate. Most likely, the idea of returning to pre-pandemic patterns would be the next and final step in the Botanical series. We have all experienced the pandemic on a personal level over the past two years, through difficult times like never before. Linked together, all of the botanical paintings are a personal visual diary, a direct reflection of how Millennials and Gen-Z generations coped with the pandemic.
The first exhibition explored the relief brought by breaking away from routine and the slower pace of life, where for a few weeks we believed it was possible to cut traffic to a bare minimum and live off deliveries. The grim prospect of catastrophic death rates that thankfully never hit has given the way we interact, share and communicate a softer side. In 2021, this relatively calm period has given way to frustration, isolation and tension. The uncertainty surrounding the duration of a pandemic that is supposed to last a few weeks has everyone on edge. It wasn’t helped by the fact that we had a relatively uneventful summer.
Despite all this, plants have continued to fill and clutter interior spaces, providing much needed hope, tranquility and growth to those who share space with them. Friends with Plants captures all of the above, presenting stories and stills we can all relate to.
JA: This exhibition incorporates the theme of Botanical exhibition with that of another series, Selfies, which has never been officially exhibited. The term Selfies brings to mind technology, smartphones and social networks – realities that you have explored in the past. Has this transposition transformed the concept of this latest series into a new “hybrid”?
RF: In a sense, yes. For the past two years, drunk selfies in clubs and after-hours shenanigans were rare compared to pre-pandemic days. The desire to drive home with loud music after a party, the ability to meet new people at events, the ease of planning, all of this seems like a lifetime away.
As said above, I’m interested in understanding and documenting it now, so it’s wrong to assume it was a formula where Selfies and Botanical encountered to add a new item. In Botanical, the figure was not necessary because the company of the plants was sufficient in 2020. Figure cropped gradually and organically among the plants. In 2021, it was no longer enough to present serenity in gardens and plant establishments in this second year of the pandemic. The number needed to make a statement. I’m here, I’m not here, I miss myself, I miss you. Friends with plants is about isolation, the need for companionship and the tranquility of solitude.
Understand and document the present
The figures presented here can be interpreted as reflections on oneself, mirages of lovers. potential or actual partners. All the characters are solitary, presented in the company of plants. With titles like I spend the nights with my plants and cat and Show me your plants, not your room, the atmosphere is very good. When the company of others was not possible, plants were there to save the day. For some, discovering the joys and benefits of indoor gardening has made them feel fulfilled and needed, hence the metaphors and play on the friend-plant idiom.
JA: Selfies are sometimes intended for distribution via social networks. Some of them are self-conscious nude images advertising intimate body parts and inviting the pleasure of erotic engagement. However, in Friends with plants, I feel like there’s a non-erotic ‘garden of Eden’ joy in finding comfort in your own zone and in your own skin. Is this exhibition an exercise in investigating the dualities of the contemporary human condition?
RF: Say Friends with plants maybe the wild child of the song The garden by Guns N’ Roses, with their sordid wah wah sound and utopian state of being represented in The happiness of life by Matisse. We want everything, from A to Z; so yes, this exhibition can be seen as an investigation into dualities.
The paintings are sensual and subtle, even when the body is fully exposed, raw in a kind of unsophisticated adolescent flirtation. The characters are naked, exposed, shameless yet asexual and lonely – like everyone else behind a screen. I think everyone likes the comfort of being detached and a bit sad behind the screen. When we are happy, we are fragile. Being sad means that the shield of sadness prevents him from overdoing it, getting excited about others, and letting his guard down. We live in a very ego-centric scenario, and the pandemic has shown everyone how all of our luxuries can vanish in a very short time.
The curation of the exhibition, flowing with the structure and features of the gallery, aims to create a sensory experience where still lifes, garden scenes and figures exist in very delicate harmony. Much like composition and color palette, everything seems about to fall apart, as much as the modern world feels disorganized, where achieving balance in all aspects of life is a daily struggle.
JA: These paintings somehow evoke Matisse in the representation of lush foliage. The nudes remind me of the flowing forms of Maria Lassnig, but without the anger and overloaded “dirty” erotic connotation. The French artist once said: “We must look at ourselves with the same curiosity and the same open-mindedness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the whole universe. Do you think this statement defines this exhibition in any way?
RF:There is no distinction between plants and figures in my works, they receive the same treatment and importance. Anger is present in my political punk paintings from 2013 to 2017, in Quick Fix: A Morality Story and We lost the war. Although distinctly Ryan Falzon due to the vivid palette and juxtaposition of images, the garden paintings are personal as well as universal. These vibrant works evoke reflection, harmony and the search for simple joys and meaningful actions. Joys brought by a visit to the garden centre, a new leaf on the Monstera which costs an arm and a leg but it’s worth it; or trade chilli seeds with an enthusiast you met online via snail mail like the good old days.
As for the references of artists, it is necessary to draw parallels with David Hockney. Hockney hosted the first lockdown with open arts, working in northern France and presented a series of digital works in his 2021 exhibition The Arrival of Spring, Normandy 2020. The same feeling that Hockney expressed in these works are the same shades that created Botanical exhibition in 2020 and laid the foundation for Friends with plants. The 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 in a retrospective in 2018. Danny Fox is an obvious reference, as he is somehow credited for the new wave of painting exciting industry that has been growing worldwide for the past 10 years.
Friends with plantsorganized by Art Sweven and hosted by Il-Kamra ta’ Fuq from Mqabba will run until March 14. Connect to the event’s Facebook page for more information.
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