Darkness at The Splendid

Darkness At  Noon was the name of a collective exhibition held at The Splendid in Valletta between February 6th and 24th. I was able to attend on the very last day. Crossing the threshold of The Splendid had been on my bucket list for years and, last Wednesday, I was finally able to do so.

Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

The Splendid

My first encounter with The Splendid came around ten years ago when I was roaming around Valletta with my camera. I came across the word 'Splendid' etched in red paint on the doorstep of a dilapidated house on Strait Street. I was immediately curious and tried to hunt down as much information about this building as I could. The Splendid does not have very salubrious origins. In its heyday as an important harbour town for the Royal Navy, Valletta had a sizzling  and often-sleazy nightlife. The Splendid was just one of many brothels that lined The Gut, as Strait Street was affectionately known. But the murder of a prostitute by her client in the 1960s has ensured that The Splendid's notoriety is a cut above the rest.
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

So what, you may ask, were my first impressions when I finally crossed over those bold red letters on the doorstep and found myself inside? It's difficult to explain without letting the history of the place affect me. But I couldn't shake away the feeling that the air felt heavy, as if it was suffused with too many memories and too much pain. The arched hallway that I was standing in was bare, except for an upright  piano to my left. Hanging from the ceiling was one solitary lightbulb encased in pink glass that cast a rosy hue on its faded surroundings. In contrast, the colours of the patterned Maltese tiles were bold, garish even and they kept drawing my eyes towards them and away from the walls with their layers upon layers of peeling paint. Opposite the door, at the other end of the hallway, a short flight of steps led to a small landing. To the left of this, the main staircase went up to the first floor where the exhibition was being held.
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

Darkness At Noon Collective Exhibition

The title of this exhibition immediately suggests that something is strange, uncanny, and that the normal course of nature has been altered. Darkness At Noon showcased the works of three artists: painter Gabriel Buttigieg, ceramist Paul Scerri and photographer Charles Balzan. It was curated by Joe-Phillipe Abela and Gabriel Zammit. In an interview with Ramona Depares both curators expressed the wish that the viewer is challenged by the exhibits. They also acknowledged that for their vision to be effective a certain degree of unease on the part of those attending was to be expected. I did not listen to the interview or read up about the exhibition before visiting but I will share my impressions as best I can (even though I find it hard to express the feelings that any type of art gives me in words).

Buttigieg's paintings were bold, colourful and instantly eye-catching. His depictions of creatures from myths and literature that were interspersed with the human form reminded me of the surreal dreams we sometimes have and of the fairy-tales and legends we all grew up with - those stories that disturb us a  little but, because they are part of our culture or folklore, which we suppress into our subconscious until they erupt in fantastic dreams or nightmares.
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

Scerri's ceramics were more muted in colour. Each figure appeared to be fragmented, as if each androgynous image was made up of multiple parts.  There was a vulnerability about these ceramic figures that I found quite touching. Each one seemed to highlight the fragility of the human spirit in a different way.
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

I found Balzan's photos to be the most thought-provoking part of the exhibit. Each photo was raw and intimate, forcing the models to lay bare aspects of their humanity that are usually hidden under the veneer and layers that are necessary to survive in modern society and exposing their most primeval side. 
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta

The Splendid As A Performance Art Theatre

After its turbulent history, it seems that The Splendid has found a new lease of life as a centre for  creative industries managed by FTZ (a non-profit organisation based at the University of Malta). As I walked through the few rooms in which the exhibition was taking place, it was clear to me that, apart from a good clean-up, the building has been left intact. The paint on the walls, the doors, windows and shutters are still the same ones that were there when the place was closed down in the late 1960s.  The rawness and bareness of The Splendid is not contrived and it forces the visitor to focus on the artist. In this space nothing else matters.
Sincerely Loree: The Splendid, Valletta
Or does it? Visiting The Splendid felt like an experience in itself. I came away feeling moved and rather subdued. I was not sure whether the uncanny feeling I had was due to the exhibits I had just viewed or because I couldn't forget the building's violent past. It is easy to conjure up ghosts here and perhaps I was guilty of doing just that.
Sincerely Loree: Strait Street, Valletta

For upcoming events at The Splendid, visit their  Facebook page here.
You can read more about the exhibition in this article by Lara Zammit for The Times of Malta.
Mary said...

Following you through the entry and past the exhibits, I too felt something heavy and morbid. It was like searching for a location to film a scary movie and then suddenly coming upon the movie itself!
Here, I am currently trying to design a wall to hang my collection of paintings gathered over time. In all honesty Loree I would not be adding anything from this show. My taste is definitely different from what you viewed but, as in all art, one must look to learn and love what speaks to ones own heart.

Thanks for the visit - and you did take some great photos.
Hugs - Mary

Parnassus said...

Hello Loree, Although we all love the high-gloss marble temples of art, smaller and sometimes dilapidated galleries have a vibe all their own that can enhance certain exhibitions. I congratulate the operators of the Splendid for not cleaning up the place too much. This way it retains its past and does not look like every other building. Moreover, I like old things to show their age. Marble columns are uplifting, but the sordid past of the Splendid is part of our common history, also.

La Contessa said...


Gattina said...

The Splendid is not really splendid to raise your mood and the exhibition is rather very depressing ! But I would have gone in their to imagine its past and the fact that it hasn't changed at all since the 60. It was probably splendid for the girls and their customers at that time !

Debbie Nolan said...

I think Loree you captured very well the uncanny feeling of the place in your photos. Isn't it strange how certain places with tragic history have a depressing feel. Glad you were able though to visit and see the art exhibit. Hope you are doing well friend. Hugs!

Loree said...

@Mary: I wouldn't say the art was to my taste either. I prefer flowers and pretty scenes. But the colours of the paintings was nice and vibrant and I did like that.

@Jim: yes, I think that sometimes we nee something like The Splendid yto take us out of our comfort zone.

@Elizabeth: that is the narrowest street in Valletta. It's called Strait Street and a part of it is in the shade at any time of the day. It was purposefully planned to be this narrow.

@Gattina: yes, it's very raw and no longer very Splendid :)

@Debbie: thank you. I hope to visit other art exhibitions in the future - maybe not at The Splendid, at least for a while.

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