Valletta 2018’s major multi-site exhibition, “Dal-Baħar Madwarha”, opens its doors to curious visitors across the Islands starting from the 10th of March. Curated by Maren Richter, large installations, performances and public interventions are taking place in both traditional and unexpected locations across Malta, exploring the idea of “islandness” in playful and critical ways.

Susan Philipsz‘ commissioned sound installation in the newly discovered cistern underneath the Law Courts in Valletta will be opening on the 25th March. Underground Valletta is a magical, almost secret city, which contains memories and history over time. It was a shelter, an escape, a trade route and a means of storage.

The installation refers to a damaged naval bell at the National War Museum Fort St Elmo that had been salvaged. After the Illustrious was eventually decommissioned, the battered bell was exhibited and now serves as a reminder of the impact and force of the air raid. Susan’s work addresses memories and the losses of local cultures over time.

On her first trip to Valletta, Susan found a damaged naval bell at the National War Museum in Fort St. Elmo. The bell had been salvaged from the HMS Illustrious after being the target of heavy German bombardment. The battered bell is a graphic reminder of the impact and brute force of war on the local population.

The artist became aware of the rich history of bell ringing in Malta and found other bells at the church of Jesus of Nazareth that had also been damaged during WWII. Philipsz made recordings of these damaged bells and installed the recordings in the incredible double vaulted cistern underneath the law courts. The bells sound in arbitrary fashion, suggesting forlorn abandonment. One bell randomly calls to the other, activating the acoustics of the cisterns. As the sounds of the bells fade away, Susan’s own voice is heard singing in unison, two separate recordings of ‘Who By Fire’, a song by Leonard Cohen.

The bells sound a warning, they’re ominous, they’re ringing for someone and the lyrics speak of mortality and absence. The lyrics of this song are very imagistic. They’re archaic and elemental; and describe the many ways one may meet one’s end. Who by fire/ Who by water/ Who in the sunshine/ Who in the night time/ Who by high ordeal/ Who by common trial.

High ordeal was generally trial by combat and was usually reserved for nobles and knights in matters of honour. For the artist, these lyrics have a resonance in Valletta, between the Knights cathedral and the law courts, and compliment the sounds of the war damaged bells.

Internationally widely known artist Susan Philipsz was born in Glasgow, and she currently lives and works in Berlin. She was the recipient of the Turner Prize award in 2010 amongst other prizes. Using sound recordings, the artist creates immersive environments of architecture and song that heighten the visitor’s engagement with their surroundings while inspiring thoughtful introspection.

Opening days and times:

The underground cisterns are open from Tuesdays – Sundays from 11am to 7pm (Last ticket sale at 6.15pm, last admittance 6.30PM). Closed on Mondays.

This project is supported by The British Council.

With special thanks to ECA Consultants Ltd.

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Tickets cost €5 and grant patrons one time access to each and every exhibition venue. The ticket remains valid for the entire duration of the exhibition period.