” .. I like the idea of describing something and failing, like a weak flash of light across a huge object. None of the truths I have ever encountered have been ‘complete’, in a way, and that’s also what poetry is for.
I would like to understand how your training and architectural practices informed your photographic experience?
Nigel Baldacchino (NB): I started taking photos with some conscious artistic intent much before beginning my training and practice as an architect. I have early memories of feeling compelled to capture images I saw around me – long before I knew why I would want to. This pre-cognitive bond I have with photography holds to this day. I find that my architectural training had more to do with becoming more literate in perceiving space, mass and the perceptual phenomenon of physical presence. Developing finer vocabulary around reading spaces, spatial relationships, materiality, and dedicating a great deal of conscious energy in my formative years to developing my spatial sensibility, have doubtlessly affected the way I inhabit spaces mentally, which in turn is a large part of what my photographic work is concerned with. This is accompanied by the academic side of my studies, which exposed me to the built and written work of masters exercising and describing poetic expression in mass and space, which has always been my ultimate goal.
In the ‘Fog’ series, we see the desire to lose control over reality and the invitation to overturn the perception “on us” and how we represent the world. What are the reasons behind this intention?
NB: It’s fascinating to me that you frame it in terms of desire. That series collects photos that I think of as instances, where I externalise something I’ve observed myself experiencing in my own mindscape. One mode that anxiety has of enacting on me, is to alter what it feels like to live spatially, in my head. My mental landscape shrinks, loses its sense of depth; thoughts, concerns, ‘objects’ start feeling like they’re lined up around me, each as close and urgent as the next – close enough to intimidate, yet too far to enable me to reach out and act. After a while, depth loses its meaning. Everything feels flat, planar, claustrophobic, ultimately overwhelming. It becomes harder to discern one (anxious) thing from the next, and trying to do so, to cope with things, is a laborious and exhausting feat.
I liken it to a kind of fog, in the same way that fog settles, as all meteorological phenomena, around us helplessly, and also in the way it redefines the dynamic of how we engage with the space around us; our general sense of proximity with things. More poignantly, however, witnessing fog heightens our awareness of how fragile and transient clarity is. The beauty of fog owes much to one being aware of the clarity they’re missing out on. Being who I am however, it is also hard for me to deny my abject fascination with this peculiar crippling phenomenon, and the way it smudges definitions, reminding me how little agency my conscious mind often has when it comes to meaningful things.
I find that the photographs in this series, consciously only in part, express something poetically akin to this experience – my feeble attempts at owning it, nodding at its inevitability, sharing it effectively to attack the sense of isolation it bestows, and perversely indulging in its manifestation.
You wrote about the fog as your “invisible fortress” and that reminded me as well of what Benjamin said about photography as an optical unconscious. Why words? And how, in your view, should they be read concerning the images? What kind of reciprocity exists?
NB: My thinking around the subject, as per my previous answer, admittedly predates my reading about Benjamin’s ‘optical unconscious’, however it was one of those moments of awe-inducing cerebral resonance when I was first introduced to it. It is definitely something I had sought to describe, articulated far better than I would ever be able to.
In a sense, Benjamin’s theory is an answer to ‘why words?’ Not without irony, given what I do, I find most of my cerebral life to be governed by semantics and words, augmented by images, and not vice versa. I have long considered the written word to be the purest form of expression. In a sense, ‘why image?’ is more of a ‘question’ in my head; to which the best answer I can fathom is that photography is the easiest path I know of, to a genuine state of flow. Also, at this point in time I find myself to be a better photographer than a wordsmith. I am also much more visually literate than literary.
Regarding the reciprocity I seek between text and image in my work, I try my best for them to convey different glimpses of the same thing. I say glimpses as a way of acknowledging that my descriptions are always incomplete and insufficient. I like the idea of describing something and failing, like a weak flash of light across a huge object. None of the truths I have ever encountered have been ‘complete’, in a way, and that’s also what poetry is for.
Observing your works reveals certain intuitiveness, which expresses in recognition of an element that becomes the centre of a repeated action that has an almost cathartic effect. I think of the “noise” of a silent night in Bali, or the fascination with needle-like objects, a window as a device, or even the fog. Each work, however, then reflects distinct formal choices. Can you tell us something about your project development method? What are the difficulties and opportunities that you encounter?
NB: That’s a very incisive observation, which got me thinking. I start by taking photos intuitively – I put myself into a specific situation (which is your opportunity, if you will), and I start seeing photographs here and there, which I subsequently take. I alluded before to the act of taking photos as being conducive to a state of ‘flow’. These moments are therefore not governed or led by much else other than pure intuition and curious drive. It’s respite for me, being the kind of person that lives trapped in his own head, to be able to switch off for some moments, letting something else take over. More often than not my cognitive self kicks in, and I start observing myself gravitating towards and around things or ideas (noise, fog, needle-like objects, etc.) discerning something emotively. Being the analytical, obsessive type, once I trace some such pattern, I get perversely curious about it and dig deeper, until I feel happily deluded that I have exhausted it for a while. After a couple of days, I typically then scrutinise, weed out and process the images to reflect that specific experience of ‘seeing’. A friend and mentor of mine assists me to crop and edit further. The problem I encounter is often a sense that the batches of images don’t ‘belong’ to me entirely.
Paradoxically I am editing my first photo book, wherein the basic idea came before the images. This is new ground for me however it’s a theme that I grew up with in a sense, so it also felt very familiar along the way.
Travel is a common feature in your works. Is it a creative dimension that you privilege? You are a resident of Malta. What is your relationship with this Mediterranean island? How would you describe it in a few adjectives?
NB: Since my photographic work is so much of an introspective expression of my relationship with the immediate reality around me (physical, cultural, psychological), it’s no wonder that being elsewhere for a while would hit some reset button. My curiosity usually creates the right mindspace for me to begin the process referred to earlier. There’s also the pragmatic side, in that I work as an architect, and I typically go abroad for extended periods of time annually, instead of taking a week here and there. This also signifies disengagement from my work and routine, and a relocated sense of focus. I would therefore not say that most of my work does not portray Malta as a result of what the island represents for me, having lived here all my life. As a matter of fact, my most recent work, and the book I’m working on, has to do with Malta exclusively.
That said, my relationship with the island tends to sound rather peculiar to anyone that is not familiar with it. I love Malta, geographically, dearly and recognise my home in various surviving parts of it. I’m still childishly excited by what it has to offer – nature and its constituting geology etc. The sharp bitter end to it is that an unfortunate conglomerate of elements such as an absence of urban planning, historic ties between big business (real estate) and governing bodies, its size and a string of counterintuitive planning incentives, set in motion a machine of rampant speculative development a while back, that is set to obliterate the soul of the place (Malta was already the most built up place in Europe in 2013, and experienced an abrupt economic boom shortly thereafter). Add to this a recent history of unprecedented political corruption and crime, and I would say it’s ultimately tough to embrace something that is so intent on its own destruction.
You are part of the exhibition ‘those eyes – these eyes – they fade’, which gathers your photographs with those of Bénédicte Blondeau, Bernard Plossu, and Awoiska Van der Molen. Curated by Anne Immelé, the exhibition at Valletta Contemporary (Malta) approaches metaphysical photography, from the apparent clarity of day to the evanescent depths of night shadows. How important is it to create these forms of dialogue in photography, which somehow deny the assumption of truth that the technical mechanism preaches (its defining purpose)? Your work certainly fits well into this possibility of experiencing poetic contemplation. How do you see the possibility of expanding the field of investigation to the crossover of other works?
NB: I find the driving notion of the exhibition to be, in a way, reacting to an overpowering visual media landscape which increasingly typecasts photography as a vessel of ‘evidence’. It seems to say ‘here is something true (a subject) – look at it’. Photography is a great tool for this kind of dynamic, as we know – as its technical defining purpose is exactly that (albeit plenty of caveats and debates around that too)
Historically, however, various schools of artists have proposed different narratives around the medium, which take a paradoxical stance: using photography as means of introspection, wherein the gist of the work has less to do with the subject and more about the photograph in itself. I believe this form of engagement with the medium is what the exhibition is celebrating. In the specific context of the work shown, as you say, I find that the curator has drawn a strong curatorial line around photographs that document some kind of existential search or investigation within every photographer. In each case, we witness an internal journey through gazing at the outside world. I remember the first time we had a group call and Awoiska van der Molen shared something which stunned me in the context of the show: she mentioned that her works featured in this show represent a critical spiritual steppingstone; she was taking photographs of these urban landscapes, looking for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She would later find that something in her renowned mountain works, however these urban works were crucial in her quest. Anne Immelé could not have known this then, and yet she must have picked up on it. Photography has this power, and it’s beautiful to commend it.