Inside the forgotten Knights’ Ospizio: How Malta will make its mark in the art world

Deep inside the belly of the Msida bastions, excavations are paving the way for one of the island’s most exciting projects ever: the Malta International Contemporary Art Space

Art future: the old is given new life with the MICAS project expected to be completed in 2021
Art future: the old is given new life with the MICAS project expected to be completed in 2021
Architectural rendition of the MICAS project

Phyllis Muscat has already trod the dusty lanes from the Ospizio down to the Ritirata three times today, to check on the progress of works taking place just a few metres away from the Sa Maison gardens. Our guided tour of the site, from above the bastions’ ramparts down to the former ordinance stores, is punctuated by Muscat breaking off her explanation to speak to workers and restorers. She picks up where she left, always with a sense of wonderment about the magnificent project that is taking place here.

For it is indeed one of Malta’s most daring and exciting projects: the Malta International Contemporary Art Space, a 7,000 sq.m centre to be situated inside the former Knights’ Ospizio at the San Salvatore bastion, to be completed by 2021.

Ipostudio’s cantilever will cover the entire space
Ipostudio’s cantilever will cover the entire space

As we pass stacks of rocks collected from the construction works that will be re-used to pave the walkway that will take visitors to the centre, the skew arch of the fortifications above the Sa Maison garden comes into view. Through the scaffolding we can make out the yacht marina below. The arch itself, visible from the Msida seafront, is now revealed from this previously inaccessible area: a 30-foot span that is unique because of, as its name implies, its oblique skew. The arch, also referred to as Barbara’s arc, spans the Ritirata from the San Salvatore counterguard on the Sa Maison gardens, but this part has now been excavated deep into the ground to provide MICAS with various levels of exhibition space. All around the multi-level terraces of the counterguard and the labyrinthine Ritirata are rooms and galleries that will house exhibitions and artist residencies.

The skew arch of the fortifications above the Sa Maison garden comes into view. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday
The skew arch of the fortifications above the Sa Maison garden comes into view. Photo: James Bianchi/Mediatoday

“We’re just so excited about this site, about working with architects Ipostudio and the Restoration Unit, led by architect Norbert Attard, because we will be regenerating this space,” says Phyllis Muscat, who until recently was charged with coordinating and delivering the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta. “This space has been forgotten for years. It is a magnificent line of fortifications, former military installations and gardens that had been rather neglected. And now we are restoring these gardens and the historical fortifications to give it back to the community. And I think that building on ‘the old’ here, is what adds to the prestige.”

There is no doubt that this area will be reclaimed for the benefit of the community. With a ferry stop to be located near the Haywharf docks, the project could actually offer a direct link from the sea right into the cavernous belly of the fortifications and into the Ospizio grounds, in Floriana. With its mighty cantilever sheltering the entire complex and thousands of square metres of landscaped areas, MICAS will provide another grandiose entrance to Floriana and Valletta. “We’re restoring this entire perimeter and connecting the entire area,” Muscat says, pointing out how this could well be a model for similar areas on the island.

The proposed MICAS interior (C) Ipostudio
The proposed MICAS interior (C) Ipostudio

Even three years ahead of its completion, MICAS next week will mark its arrival onto the international stage with the launch of a concept sculpture by the world-renowned Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, the creator of Human Nature, a collection of totemic towers of monumental stone figures first exhibited in the urban setting of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Centre. “This is about the internationalisation of the project,” Muscat says not just of Rondinone’s sculpture, but of the various A-list speakers who will host MICAS’s ‘Conversations On The Rock’, among them the CEO of the Serpentine Gallery, Yana Peel and curator Hans Ulrich Oberist– again a testament to Muscat’s role and her team’s ability to rope in international art market leaders to kick off MICAS.

Above the MICAS complex (C) Ipostudio
Above the MICAS complex (C) Ipostudio

As we move from one area to the next, the fortification’s changing spaces – all originally designed for their military and defensive utility – are being reclaimed for their new cultural purpose. Graffittos and signposts of the explosives stores are what is left of the former colonisers, their ghosts maybe not entirely exorcised as we pass through a burrow of connecting corridors and dark tunnels. MICAS art director Ruth Bianco’s ‘Connecting Geographies’ will capture this exact feeling, a swirling, sprawling piece that goes from one room to the other to explain the ‘work-in-progress’ that MICAS is at this point.

Muscat gives me an exuberant description of the works taking place and the vision for the bastions, but it is her passion for business and art – she is herself a collector – that is driving this project forward.

These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies
These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies
These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies
These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies
These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies
These old stores housed British munitions, but until recently they had been left derelict and used as a storage space for Enemalta. At MICAS they will be turned into spaces for artist residencies

“A contemporary arts museum had been on various governments’ agendas... finally, this administration committed itself to creating this space. I was appointed to chair a board that had to select a capital project for culture, and MICAS was the one we settled on, and with that, also identify the area that would host it. We partnered with the Restoration Directorate and we finally agreed to select this area of the bastions.”

Muscat says her board has been crucial in securing the right connections to truly give MICAS a global outlook, which is why she hopes the ‘space’ – and not merely a ‘museum’ – becomes its defining feature, as a place that hosts artists, exhibitions, and art programmes and democratises hidden spaces.

MICAS chairperson Phyllis Muscat. Photo by James Bianchi
MICAS chairperson Phyllis Muscat. Photo by James Bianchi

“It is a team effort, but this is the challenge I have before me: building the structure that will lead MICAS onto the international stage, creating programmes that market MICAS even while we are still working towards its completion.

“My role is to lead this very small but hardworking board to choose the best strategy possible for MICAS. Ugo Rondinone’s work...”  – she points at his ‘stonehenge-like’ giants – “could have practically walked out of our own island’s prehistoric heritage,” she says, pleased at this marriage of MICAS’s networking abilities and the ‘Maltese’ patina of the Rondinone sculpture.

Muscat’s reflects on her own relation with contemporary art, choosing to approach it with a child-like sense of wonderment.

“When I saw Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ at the Tate I just stopped and stared and took the whole thing in... we are always faced with this question of why something like this is ‘art’, and that is of course a challenge posed by contemporary art. For me it is something that makes you re-evaluate the way you think and your own sense of judgement and take in different world-views. And I see that even in children – in children I see walking in contemporary art museums, seemingly at ease with these works because nothing to them appears ‘shocking’. Children are open to this engagement with contemporary art, because there are no prejudices filtering out what they see before them.”

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