In Book V of Homer’s The Odyssey, there is a significant detail about how Odysseus, a far from willing ‘prisoner’ of Calypso on the nymph’s isle of Ogygia, often used to go down to the seashore and look out “with streaming eyes across the watery wilderness” in the vain hope of seeking a means to leave the remote island and go back to his wife Penelope in his native land of Itacha.
Young Gozitan artist Christopher Saliba is not really following the wily Greek hero’s insatiable desire to leave Calypso’s ardent embraces and her island, so often identified with the mythical Ogygia. Rather, he is enraptured by its beauty and the solace it offers to contemporary stress, but with some vital differences.
He is currently showing 20 photographs of his own installations at the Banca Giuratale in Victoria. Since 2001 he has put up four other solo exhibitions on the sister island, the last one of which, called “Idylls of Gozo”. In 2003, this same exhibition was also held at St. Columba’s church hall in London. Also, since 1998, he participated in a number of collective exhibitions held in Perugia, where he studied.
The current exhibition, called “Transcending the Ordinary: from an islander’s perspective”, takes its starting point from Saliba’s deep interest in land art. He uses raw materials – earth, sand, rocks, pebbles, charcoal – together with selected ready-made commercial artefacts, and assembles them in a natural environment.
Saliba explains the idea behind his work as illustrating what he calls “the expressive, emotive, symbolic, spiritual and contemplative qualities of my art”. According to him, man has nowadays arrived at a point where he has lost the spiritual security that he had before. The whole exercise behind his installations is to recoup that lost relationship with nature, and therefore indirectly with God.
Living in Nadur, which is the second highest Gozitan village after Zebbug, Christopher Saliba has come to better assimilate the feeling of being an islander where the surrounding sea defines the limits of one’s immediate belonging and yet links the small territory of the island to the lands beyond the horizon.
He has taken it as a habit to roam the coast of the island, finding little nooks or at times inaccessible places where a feeling for the awesome nature around him inspires him to put up his little temporary structures, looking like snippets of vocabulary from the metaphysical language, against a backdrop of rocks, salt-pans, sea, sand or maybe even an example of a girna, that rural structure in the fields that throws us back to another time.
In doing so Saliba generates a surreal feeling, which at times can combine a contained drama with the beauty of the site itself. Perhaps one of the best exercises is that entitled On the verge where, against the vast, open shimmering sea and the sheer cliffs on one side, a glass flower vase is precariously balanced on a pile of loose stones a the edge of the precipice in such a way that the vase seems to be floating on water. Other works include the ceramic pot placed on the skeletal framework of a wooden drawer set against the fascinating feature of the Azure Window, a single stone balustrade bearing a small sphere as blue as the deep sea beyond, superimposed wood structures framing other items of glass or ceramics as in Contemplating Time, a straight path made of shingles going straight ahead into the sea in Towards, the carapace of a turtle cryptically ‘heading’ towards the open sea as it appears both in Utopia and in Endless Journey, or a circular clamp of charcoal (maybe a subtle means of protest against human interference) on the deep, orange sand around.
With his efficient manner of eliciting a metaphysical dimension through simple shapes and objects, Saliba has well managed to ‘frame’ for the viewer’s attention what he calls “the primordial and the divine qualities of nature”. Nature is after all the essential part of creation, which carries along with it a timelessness for which, even if we are not subscribers to any pantheistic thoughts, we must be grateful.
E. Fiorentino, The Sunday Times , September 12, 2004