Artist Series: Elisa Von Brockdorff

Sitting at a round wooden table, fresh cappuccino, surrounded by the cosy hum of chatter, Valletta’s Jubilee cafe has a habit of engulfing patrons in a 1940’s daydream. However I find myself in another bubble sitting opposite a vibrant character whose relationship with colour is as much a matter of professionalism as it is a character trait. This is Elisa Von Brockdorff, a 29 year old Maltese installation artist and photographer.

Elisa has been working in the creative industry as a visual artist for some time, she has moved away from tradition arts studies and has began her own contemporary explorations. Whilst she studied at BA level in Malta her further education took her away from Malta to Kent in England where she undertook an MA in Fine Art. The scope of the art-scene in the UK is rich and diverse, Elisa’s open minded approach to this scene allowed the British scene to strongly influenced her way of thinking.

Aside her art practice, Elisa works as a freelance photographer, this is how she survives, an occupation that she overtly distinguishes as different from her work as an artistic photographer. Though different, the informal exchange between discourses is present if only technically.

Conceptual Photograph Elisa Von Brockdorff
Conceptual Photograph: Elisa Von Brockdorff

Distinguished influences in the visual product and generally within the work are drawn from Pop art and Surrealist artworks. Although Elisa did not say it, one could see that her uses of toys and everyday paraphernalia, the play on scale, connect her with discourses regarding the uncanny (Das Unheimliche) in Western life.

As we speak Elisa has an exhibition currently on display in the Lily Agius Gallery in Sliema, Malta. Presented at the exhibition are a collection of works that are made following a distinct method. Not all installations can maintain themselves as installations and this is where the cross-over between photography and installation really takes place. The photograph captures a moment. The moment. Where the installation makes it’s definitive statement. For Elisa, this is how her photography becomes more than the installation itself.

Elisa at Exhibition Launch- Lily Agius Gallery - courtesy of Chris Briffa (
Elisa @ Exhibition Launch: Lily Agius Gallery. Image courtesy of Chris Briffa (

Describing one piece of work to me she expands on a narrative involving a wooden chair with four legs on the ground with an inflated helium balloon tied to it. The chair weights the viewer to the ground, a seated object that we have a utilitarian relationship with. The balloon pulls the chair up but it is an act in vain. The aspirations and potential of the balloon may represent hopes and dreams or positive thinking. The chair, which could be realism, will ultimately hold the balloon down to the ground and eventually it will deflate and fall. This intentional narrative relationship between juxtaposed objects is ubiquitous in her work.

Conceptual Photograph: Elisa von Brockdorff
Conceptual Photograph: Elisa von Brockdorff

How colour comes into all of this is immediately obvious as soon as one looks at a piece of her work. Photographs and installations become conductors for orchestras of colour-psychology. Such works might also be described as calamities of colour and reinventions of kitsch. In fact the adjective ‘kitsch’ is one that the artist tells me she has long since accepted as a part of her work. The blur between high and low brow culture is explored through the simple and often metaphorical reinvention of everyday objects. Some audiences to Elisa’s work will and do find contest with this approach to making work.

Conceptual Photography: Elisa Von Brockdorff
Conceptual Photography: Elisa Von Brockdorff

Even though the debate about the value and role of kitsch in fine arts has been thrown down, picked up and thrown down again, by art critics such as Greenberg (“All kitsch is academic”), this idea of kitsch being invalid persists. On another line of thought in regards to criticism connected to a kitsch identity is that Elisa’s work intensively uses found objects in her compositions. Whilst this is tangential, artists ever since the prodigious Duchamp have been using found objects and the legacy of his initial controversy has perceivable resonance even today.

The exhibition running between February and early March is not the first in Malta, though this was the first solo exhibition. Though Elisa has a number of Maltese exhibitions to her name there is one other European location where Elisa has exhibited; Luxembourg. There are future plans but there is also the price of living and living comes first.

Listen to Elisa Van Brockdorff’s interview:

My interview with Elisa is a part of a larger program that I have began with the intention of profiling the local art-scene as it is developing in the place that I live today. This is by no means a small feat to accomplish and there are many complications, many of which are to do with the process, especially when it comes to the informal presentation. However I have attempted to present the artist and their work as honestly as I can. By doing so I hope that I can contribute to a greater appreciation of what people are doing in the world.


Film of the week: African Peasant Farms The Kingolwira Experiment

Colonial Britain. Filmed in 1936 by Notcutt, L.A. as a part of the Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment’s (BEKEs) The Kingolwira Experiment program, African Peasant Farms was one of many films that were intended to educate the indigenous African people about farming and how to live under colonial occupation. Watch the film on Colonial Film dot org.

African Peasant Farms – which was referred to in BEKE (Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment) material as ‘Peasant Holdings’ – was the eighteenth BEKE film produced and was filmed between 19 August and the end of September 1936 (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 130).


African Peasant Farms follows an unnamed African protagonist – ‘He is on his way to apply for a farm. He comes to a fly-post’ – and encourages the audience to identify with this African character. However, this protagonist is, like the audience, merely undertaking a tour of the area and the film’s emphasis is on the details and processes of the scheme, rather than the desires and goals of the character. The film prioritises the industrial processes, such as the manufacture of bricks, and highlights the details within the scheme : ‘each holding is 14 acres’. This emphasis on the scheme is apparent in Notcutt and Latham’s account of the film, as they explained that ‘we filmed the three different stages of development of the holdings and endeavoured to bring out the main points in the scheme’ (Notcutt and Latham, 1937, 56).

Although the scheme is viewed through the eyes of an African protagonist, in many respects the film appears to be directed towards British audiences. First, in its representation of the Africans the film contains a number of ethnographic scenes, such as an African in traditional costume dancing while others play drums and instruments, which were popular with British audiences. The intertitles also highlight aspects that may appear obvious to local audiences: ‘This settler is of another tribe and he has built his hut differently’. Furthermore, the language used – ‘this film shows a practical experiment to establish a new native settlement in Tsetse-Fly country’ – seemingly bypasses the largely illiterate local audience, and presents the scheme as evidence of the welfare work of the British in Africa.

The film addresses topics prevalent within other BEKE films, such as the construction of ‘compulsory’ pit latrines and the use of the cassava plant, but also represents a more modern Africa than in, for example, Tropical Hookworm (1936). This can be explained by the increased British presence within this film, which culminates with the British man, positioned on a step and looking down on the African, signing the African protagonist up to the scheme.

James Burns noted that the topics within these films ‘shared a common theme that the filmmakers described as “progress vs African methods”’ and this is apparent within African Peasant Farms (Burns, 2002, 27). An early intertitle explains that ‘the agriculture is adapted to native tradition, but improved methods are introduced by stages’ as the filmmakers, in accordance with governmental writing on the scheme, highlighted the gradual developments introduced by the British. The African man encounters modern developments as he walks past a car, sees new farming techniques and visits a brick-built house. Ultimately the film serves as an indication of the attitudes of both the filmmakers and the government, in seeking to direct and ‘educate’ the Africans, perceived as ‘primitive’ and impressionable, in modern European methods.

Tom Rice (May 2008) ref

The film is owned by the BFI and is available to watch at colonial film dot org. Unfortunately the film is embedded in a swf. and can’t be shared. Luckily, by going to the website you can also access texts that explain the context and history of the film fully.

African Peasant Farms: The Kingolwira Experiment (still)

An Introduction to Parametric Design

Architecture is not limited to Gothic churches and ornate baroque constructions, this article on parametric design illustrates how the 20th century was not a rest period for architecture. Since the inception of design software on computer systems in the 1940’s, great revolutions in design have taken place. Even today innovations in the evolving field of Architecture are using parametric design.

The most important feature of parametric design, as you can tell from it’s name, is to do with it’s application of parameters. The seminal conception of parametric design actually has nothing at all to do with parametric processes. Internationally the industrial boom was affecting the architectural scene, modules were the vogue. However modules were ineffective, they didn’t make the most of the space that they had, they were not very adaptable, monotonous and were considered a fast, budget conscious way of housing people. In response to this a more fluid form evolved that deviated from the square rigidity of modular design. Antoni Gaudi may be an early precursor to this innovation as he moved architecture towards organic forms, even considering how natural light would enter the building. However Gaudi did not create parametric buildings, only after the introduction of computer aided design (CAD) would such design be possible.

CAD programs made it possible to design without draftsmen, and drafts were infinitely adaptable. Computers allowed designers to calculate areas and spaces in a way that would be otherwise impossible to calculate. Buildings no longer needed to be boxes, they could be created to fit spaces, to respond to the local environment and to natural elements. In collaboration with computer numerical control machines (CNCs), which custom cuts unique pieces for construction one by one, architecture was and has been revolutionised.

Cutting with the CNC makes economical use of available resources and reduces the amount of waste created. The CNC cutter is precise and ranges from small iron car parts to huge curved wooden ceiling beams. Architects typically use the Rhinocerous design program, along with the Grasshopper plug-in to design for the CNC. This software is designed to calculate intelligently how an architectural construction might be built whilst retaining maximum efficiency. Parameters that are determined by the architect or designer ultimately determine the possible forms of the end design.

The first bureau to implement this system did so without all of this knowledge, they were Frank O. Gehry & Partners. After winning the Guggenheim Museum commission in Bilbao with their curvy model, they started looking for ways of making the design a reality. Realising that existing architectural design programs would not suffice, they turned to software (CATIA) intended for the airplane and automotive industry. This unusual methodology was an unprecedented success, the building was finished before the settled deadline and with less money spent than expected.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

This represents the beginning of an era, however it was not without problems. Frank O’Gehry’s designs required heavy duty structures in order to sustain their grand facades. Later this trend would evolve and the structure and façade began to share roles, the structure even doubling as the buildings façade. Today, architects are challenged to innovate ways of making the best use of space and location. Better control of the interior climate of the space is preferable, less air-conditioning equipment will be needed and less energy will be consumed. Parametric design can be used for making sure that the space within a building is being used at it’s maximum capacity. The new category of buildings that have their structure working as the facade include Jacques Herzog, de Meuron and Li Xinggang‘s The Bird’s Nest.

The Birds Nest (China's National Stadium, Beijing)
The Birds Nest (China's National Stadium, Beijing)

The purpose of building using parametric design is to warrant sustainability. The better it is designed for use, the longer it ought to be inhabited and preserved. Similarly, buildings consume energy and create pollution during their life cycle as well as during their construction. If this is reduced and is manageable then it will be more valuable to the people who inhabit and use it.

Kartal Pendik Masterplan © Zaha Hadid Architects from Zaha Hadid Architects

A pioneer in the uses of parametric design is Zaha Hadid although she is not alone. Buildings of a parametric nature are already widely spread (British Museum Courtyard, London, UK by Foster and PartnersMetropol Parasol, Seville by Jürgen Mayer HOrdos Museum, Ordos, Inner Mongolia by MAD) and propositions for parametric cities (read a damned good article by Patrik Schumacher) have also been made (and see video below). The most intriguing property of parametric design is it’s diverse applications, it is a technology that can be used in any design field and designers have exploited it to create furniture and even shoes.

Mojito by Julian Hakes
Mojito by Julian Hakes

Launch! Call Your Girlfriend

A low quality photograph of a glass of wine is not an acceptable featured image for an exhibition of such professional and considerate figurative photography. Matthew Attard Navarro‘s images that are currently on display at St. James Cavalier in Valletta are certainly fine art, they are also highly sexual, modern, and latently controversial. The exhibition entitled “Call you Girlfriend” was launched on 25th February and continues to 17th March 2012.

Having a background in fashion photography, the well produced photographic works on display were received last night by a mixed, though largely young, and engaged crowd of people. Clean and clear the skill of the fashion photographer is clear, from the photo-shoot set-up, through development to the final photographic product. The models that Matthew have used are beautifully photographed and the characters he creates in his works are easy to read. There is no ambiguity about the roles and meanings of the men in his work. More than a few comments passed on his use of light and tone as well as the sexual nature of the work. However, even as the audience swelled and grew as the night wore on there remained a stubborn positive attitude towards the photographs that evening.

This may well be because the work was compelling. Putting skill, composition, and sensitivity to one side, the exhibition was then compelling in another four words; beautiful men; nudity; sexuality. These words are also why the images carry some latent controversy. Sex appeal might not be engendered, but in terms of idolizing or ‘making icons’ that are sexual in a strong Catholic and patriarchal society is brave, having sexual men as ones subject is brave. One can look into recent events (1, 2) in Malta to see that in quite a transgressive way even the appearance of homosexuality is considered offensive. Therefore, in the given context of Malta this is a notably progressive exhibition that is taking place.

One might note that there are some quite evident parodies of photographic stances or poses that might be made by female pin-up models. This only serves to enhance the audience awareness of the theme ‘sex’. In regards to this parody or mirroring there came an intriguing question from one member of the audience. As the photographer is male and the subject is male there is a sense of homo-erotica present to the work. In absence of the knowledge of the photographer gender the homo-erotica would only exist within males in the audience as they relate to the images, or within the images themselves when they are featuring men with men. However if the author was female then the images are then something else entirely and the controversy is lost. The role of the author is quite significant in marking the events’ status as progressive.

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Connected to this exhibition, though indirectly, there is a video interview that was carried out by Christopher Buttigieg that looks at Matthews entrepreneurial projects. There is some insight to how he approaches his work and where his inspiration has come from. What he has to say is interesting so I would consider watching this even if you are unfamiliar with the exhibition that is currently going on.

EUR 908

In Spring 2011 I got together with two Maltese artists and another British artist to work on a short film project. Entitled EUR – 908, the resulting short film commented upon a ubiquitous past-time of the Maltese people that seemed too peculiar to avoid. Since then the film has been exhibited in:

(ICA) 9th London Short Film Festival: Leftfield and Luscious (London, 2012)

Konnektor #4 “Sommerfest” – Direct Action Performance Video Show (Hannover, 2011)

Direct Action Festival 2011 (Berlin, 2011)

Gram [May Program] (Istanbul, 2011)

Let me give you the synopsis for this piece of work.

One of Malta’s popular past-times is sitting in the car outside of the city, along the coast, in the hills, looking at the surrounding vistas. Over the weekend, coastlines and coastal car parks are populated by vehicles that are often hosting whole families, groups of friends, or couples. The car is the living environment and the landscape is only a spectacle. We are a step away from a cage here. Inside the car one performs one’s routines, social and personal. Looking out of the car, the landscape is framed by the car’s body – the landscape is cut into the classical landscape perspective – one is voyeur of the world outside. With the exception of cars with tinted windows, from the outside looking in the car frames the occupants as in classical portraits – head and shoulders. Additionally a situation is arranged for the voyeur looking in. Like the car, a cage performs the same voyeuristic role except the cage now adds some new paradigmatic characteristics to the situation: None of which are liberating to the subject.

Maltese culture to the side, the film documents an active exploration of site. An exploration that utilised two performing bodies, a sculpture (a cage on wheels) and the camera perspective in the formation of a film-work.

The title of the work is written in the style of a car registration plate and is the total amount that project cost to create over a 10 day period. On the one hand the registration plate number is the legal and authorised identity of the vehicle. On the other hand this is the value of that vehicle; Or is it the value of the work that took place or the value of the artists themselves.

All of these points are in reference to the arts and culture industry as an industrial process.

As as an educational and informal accompaniment to the short film, a short video piece was made that explained the creative process that we were applying. In it we explain what site specific means to a creator and what problems did we encounter as we worked.