Tables as places of human encounter

In Turning Tables, MUŻA’s hidden treasures are served to the public in a “totally disruptive” way, with a drizzle of cheeky humour and a dash of playful provocation as a former dining room of the Knights has been turned on its head by artist-curators Francesca Balzan and Glen Calleja.
Artist-curators Glen Calleja and Francesca Balzan in creative collaboration. Photos: Lisa Attard

A former dining room from the time of the Knights in the Auberge d’Italie has been turned into an exhibition space for MUŻA’s hidden art collection, evoking and confronting the past in a provocative and playful way and whetting the appetite for art.

Turning Tables – the final stage of a research and experimentation project, supported by the Arts Council – is what happens when a sculptor and book and paper artist put their creative heads together, the common denominator being installation as a means to express their art.

And artist-curators Francesca Balzan and Glen Calleja have really turned the tables in their latest collaborative exhibition, focused on these items of furniture as “a place of human encounter”.

Through the installations in the Camerone, visitors are confronted with what happens around these spaces, where people meet and eat, said Balzan, referring to the tables as “focal points of power and revelry, silent witnesses to daily dramas”.

Working with “the spirit of the place”, they drew on the idea that the hall in the National Museum of Art was where the Knights of the Order of St John would gather and sit according to seniority, often resorting to squabbling and petitions, according to the archives.

Four chambers in the former dining room, where tables were, indeed, once the main focus, detail nuanced narratives about what goes on around them in daily life.

“All is played out in the key of disruption and is intended to reframe, in playful provocation, national patrimony,” Balzan says about bringing the museum’s reserve collection out of storage, shaking off the dust and showcasing it.

In a curator-led tour with Balzan, Turning Tables comes to life as she sheds light on details, coincidences and anecdotes around the exhibition.

Perhaps, the most important is the starting point, the first installation, where the table is actually absent. In keeping with the “disruptive” idea, the artists did away with the central focus.

“The table has exited the room, leaving the chairs behind.”

But these are no ordinary chairs, they explain. They are authentic relics, sourced from the workshops of important modern artists, including that of the founder, and first curator of the museum’s fine arts section, Vincenzo Bonello, down to an anonymous art student’s stool from Mcast, while Gabriel Caruana’s chair from his atelier is a work of art in its own right.

Their presence implies the table… and the absent table becomes the space where artists of different generations meet and “impossible conversations” unfold between the likes of Isabelle Borg and others.

Created by a series of coincidences, Balzan explains how she was looking for a “seat of power” from Cabinet, but her request was turned down. It was almost a blessing in disguise as her search shifted and everything fell into place.

When borrowing a wheelchair for this installation, she learnt it belonged to an artist who had recently passed away. This sparked the idea to focus on artists’ chairs instead and “it all made sense and came together”.

These chairs represent creative thinking, Balzan elaborates. After all, the art process often includes time for reflection and planning before approaching the easel.

In the second installation, a subtle and “cheeky” humour, a trademark of Balzan’s sculptures, continues to be served up – and is perhaps best seen in her nose sketches in the third chamber.

But before proceeding to the next course, the centrepiece of the dining table takes on an almost ironic role in the second chamber, where “the diners replace it, looking out at visitors, who, in turn, consume them”.

Historically, centrepieces were artworks used to decorate a table, be admired and provoke conversation, Balzan explains. In the baroque period, it was the trionfo da tavola. But the tables have again turned.

Here, it is composed of sculptures of heads, by the likes of artists Vincent Apap and George Borg, until now in storage and inaccessible to the public

The head of St John the Baptist lies on a plate… and the captions are written on a copy of an original 1950s menu from Palazzo Falson, treated by the paper artist to look old.

Then there’s the table of research – a dish best served cold – with its touch of the theatrical. Chained books, created by Calleja, are stabbed by knives, open to interpretation…

Eventually, the party is over, and all the guests have gone home… But their voices still echo around the table – suspended in this case and displaying Majolica vases from the 17th and 18th centuries, meticulously juxtaposed around wrapped jars, ready for storage and archiving.

“The Majolica pottery is as old as the Knights, who once dined here, and they have survived in storerooms,” says Balzan, pointing to their labels, left hanging to accentuate the sense of storage.

“It is about what you leave behind you as the cleaning robots, found in today’s homes, go about their business mechanically, just doing their job…”

What is nothing today, she says about the jars, wrapped specifically in the material used to protect items in storage, can be a museum piece tomorrow. The message in the bottle is: What are you leaving behind? How is it being cleaned up?

Finally, in typical Balzan style, the WhatsApp conversations between the artist-curators during their collaborative creative process form the background story – projected onto a wall – to be recounted and relived.

Details abound and nothing in Turning Tables has been left to chance as the artists provoke reflections about art practice, curation and conservation today, to the tune of layered soundscapes,

Turning Tables is on until May 7. Bon appetito!

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