Creativity, Conflict and Desire: Vince Briffa’s “Outland” at the Maltese Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Although Vince Briffa has explored the expressive potential and possibilities of a diversity of media, he does not wish to be confined or constrained by any of them- declaring himself “neither a painter or a sculptor, film-maker or writer.” 1 Briffa’s prolific creative energy seeks out the interconnections across and between the borders of contemporary fine art practice, developing works and an outlook which embrace and embody a passionate belief in what he has defined as the holistic ecology of the visual arts. 2
Outland, Briffa’s new mixed media installation for the Maltese pavilion provides us with an eloquent example of his approach, which explores a complex set of themes and preoccupations whilst simultaneously seeking to provide links between (and a bridge across) the two other works on show in the Maltese pavilion. Drawing on and adapting an episode from Homer’s Odyssey of Ulysses and Calypso, Outland weaves a blend of sound and video imagery of the land and the sea with those of actors portraying the protagonists- Ulysses and Calypso/Penelope. Briffa’s overriding concern for the co-existence of dualities is at the forefront of this new work, which strives to create and sustain multiple narratives depicting the complexity of human relationships. Through Outland Briffa presents Ulysses as the embodiment of an “obsessive indecisiveness” consumed by his attraction to Calypso, whilst simultaneously longing to return to his wife Penelope. Drawing on ideas articulated by the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan, Briffa has explained that the work depicts the human struggle with desire and the paradoxical relationship with the ideal:
We don’t want what we think we want, we want the desire itself. With a lack of lack, the anxiety does not disappear, rather boredom takes its place out of the escape and turns the anxiety into a new symptom.3
In Outland Briffa has created an imaginary “Isle of Calypso” for Ulysses in an ancient olive grove in the hills of Bidnija on the island of Malta. In this location Ulysses (played by the actor Paul Portelli of Theatre Anon) was filmed inside a semi-transparent tent-like structure, effectively isolating him from the natural environment in order to depict his sense of deprivation and conflicting state of mind. Briffa portrays his Ulysses character as compulsively driven to write and draw within his tent/cocoon, expressing his anxiety and desire via a burst of creative obsession- a powerful metaphor for his internal conflict, but perhaps also a reference to the compulsive nature of the creative act itself.
Through the physical installation of the work, with it’s multiple projections, image reflections and immersive soundtrack, the viewer is encouraged to engage in a participatory experience. This physical aspect is enhanced by the positioning of a series of interconnecting shallow water troughs which both reflect the projected images and represent the ever-present surrounding waters of Ulysses’ island paradise/prison. Briffa has explained that these reflective containers are intended to resemble salt pans, serving a further metaphoric function, referencing “a place where the sea is destined to die a natural death, where salt is liberated from the constraining water that enslaves it.” 4
In counterpoint to the natural location of the olive grove, for the dual character of Calypso/Penelope, played by fellow Theatre Anon actor Sandra Mifsud, the filmed locations are largely interior. Briffa has set these scenes in the stores and reserve collection of the Maritime Museum in Vittoriosa and in the Museum of Archeology in Valletta. The contrast between these two interiors is marked; the starkness of the massive vaults of the Maritime Museum with its store of historical artefacts, versus the diffused sunlit warmth of the ornate and richly decorated interior of the Grand Salon. As a foil to the obsessed and conflicted Ulysses, Briffa has sought to portray a composite female character:
(Calypso/Penelope)…embodies the complex spectrum of the female gender, a duality that is able to manifest itself in the same person concurrently, just as in nature, so beautiful, yet having total disregard for the individual (be it human or animal). 5
With Outland Briffa has developed a complex installation that brings together a number of key themes and concerns present in several of his previous works. In Terrain Vague (2010-2011), a body of work which includes video, painting and photography, all works are deliberately located in transitional sites- places where the urban meets the natural, locations which the artist identifies as containing the potential of infinite possibility. This series of works includes the video installation Between Smoke and Clouds (2011) in which the looming image of a single male figure (again played by Paul Portelli) encircled by clouds of smoke, is surveyed by a rotating camera. Briffa has sought to confront the viewer with a figure that gazes out from the screen to survey a space that is both geographical and psychological; a space which the artist defines as “an unfathomable gap where man is destined to loom over nature as he becomes the surveyor of implied happenings. “ 6
Body of Glass (2006), a twin-channel video installation, explores themes of uncertainty and the gap between physical action and embodied memory. This installation, drawing inspiration from two of Caravaggio’s Maltese paintings- the Beheading of St John and St. Jerome, addresses the relationship between states of being and not being, presenting the human body as an object which, via art and through memory, can transcend its own physicality; through the video image and the sculptural presence of sound Briffa presents us with evidence that the body is simultaneously resilient and fragile; capable via culture of transcending its physical limitations.
Through the development of ideas explored in these earlier works, Briffa has declared an interest in identifying and presenting aspects of a duality in which the borders and edges are deliberately blurred, creating vehicles to contain and identify co-existing and opposing realities. This approach has been extended and refined in this new installation. For Briffa, Outland “depicts man’s struggle with coming to terms with his own reality and his desire to escape the anxiety of its perceived, privileged freedom” 7
But the central metaphor of Outland is perhaps the sea itself, present both as imagery on the screen and in a physical form within the gallery space. This fluid, reflective expanse echoes the images on the screen, multiplying and extending the image surfaces, whilst it simultaneously serves as a barrier or boundary, marking a divide between the known and unknown, between the security of “home” and the lure of new horizons.