A capital city in transit
David Pisani, Mark Dingli, Elise Billiard, Julia Pallone: Transit, Zvezdan Reljic – Ede, 2012, 160pp, €24
Released by Malta’s stylish new publisher EDE Books, Transit is a temporal guide through the former Bieb il-Belt (City Gate). The book is a solid work of contemporary Melitensia, of value to collectors and people who are simply interested in Valletta’s changing cityscape.
It’s the culmination of an on-site and online project, pulled together by photographer David Pisani,film maker Mark Dingli, researcher Elise Billiard and guest artist Julia Pallone.
The group worked in partnership with Architecture Project (the Renzo Piano workshop’s Maltese representatives). The Transit website dedicates an entire, enthusiastic section (The City Gate Project) to Piano’s proposals.
Anybody expecting an uncompromising collection that hasn’t already settled on one side or the other of the Piano controversy might not appreciate what’s been done here. But thanks to its immediate visual impact, Transit has a story worth telling.
The book includes a series of photographs by Pisani (both before and during the new construction projects), the transcript of a public lecture delivered by Billiard, and images from Pallone’s art exhibition. At its heart this is a book of photos, and it is the ambivalently evocative layering of black and white pictures that really strikes a chord.
The photo series allow for that quintessentially Maltese pastime –a ramble down memory lane, all the while safe in the knowledge that things are so far gone, they have changed so much and people have given themselves over to the process so freely, that this book can’t be anything more than a memorial.
A time set outside of time, where we can mull over what has gone before and know, to our chagrin or triumph, that it will never be the same again.
Pisani offers us a glimpse of a transitory world that was never really fixed down at all. Laparelli’s original gate, the Porta San Giorgio (1569), was replaced in 1632 by Tommaso Dingli, and again in 1853 when the British created their ‘Kingsway’ to the city.
However, the book creates an illusion of past stability to me and to others who don’t remember anything except the modernist, ever so slightly neo-fascist, gate inaugurated in 1964. We are the ‘Fourth City Gate’ generation, and we’re out of date.
The pictures are mostly black and white, some grainy and others lush in inky reflective darkness. All are evocative, stir memories, recall journeys to and from Valletta.
It’s funny to imagine that new generations of Maltese people will have no idea about the gate we all took for granted – its coffered ceiling, stark lines in shadow that cut across the light – pigeons bobbing, people leaning against columns to smoke a cigarette and chat. The bread vendors, the old men with their crackling radios.
Also, the conspicuous absence of that plague of mobile phone representatives trying to push their infuriating products.
The pictures sift through layers of city debris and the book, as a whole, is most successful where it stays true to what it is – a collection of wonderfully communicative images.
The conceptual backbone of the work (city as mouth, city as persona) is interesting, especially when it integrates into the pictures themselves – but there’s more text than might be expected, snippets of stories that are provocative and whimsical in their way, but obscure the story we will each bring to this collection.
Unless there is a depth of connection between text and image, juxtaposing media always comes off as contrived – both may be worthwhile in their own right, but there’s conflict for the reader’s attention.
In ‘The Shape of Valletta’ (one of the books’ several appendices) Julia Pallone has produced some very elegant and simple, enjoyable art-works. The artist has created maps of Valletta in formal geometry, exploded shapes and vivid colour. The city becomes a maze, a tangle of neurons, a life-sustaining artery.
Anybody who sets eyes on this puzzle of photos and paintings will inevitably create their own meandering line through the streets, under arched porticoes, into familiar spaces.
For more information, visit http://edebooks.eu/transit-boo.k/ .