Rituals by the shore

Skalda, an installation by SACES, Marsamxett coast, Valletta / 20.10.20

A tarmac moat ploughs the perimeter of Valletta’s bastions. In its wake, dusty limestone crests stand seemingly frozen in time. The gentle slope that once slipped inland from the coast is abruptly fractured, dislocating shoreline from City. You can smell the sea but you cannot yet see it. At the yellow mounds’ tips, distant building tops sprout amongst tufts of greenery which force out from the ground. An accidental bastion mirroring a mightier counterpart. 

At the cusp of this wispy terrain and its angular footing, a small assembly of blocks appear. So crudely placed, only their weight seems to deter the thought of walking away with a souvenir. Their purpose is obvious yet curious. Take the offered leg-up. The sculpted steps guide a footing into an already worn path carved into the rock, like small hoof-sized footprints. Not yet aged by the stains of time, new gives way to old to complete the climb. You collide with the sea’s breeze.

Atop the mound the eye is met with a new stage. A timber platform projecting out from the sandy stone, connecting your gaze with the deep, deep blue. It greets a descent, now inches away from the water. And the closer you get, the more the roles seem to reverse. You are now the audience seemingly with a window unto a world. The sea appears to delineate not just space but time. Across the bay a skyline in constant motion. Down here, a slow stillness, moved only by the waves that lapse onto the shore. This humble peripheral object claims only a small piece of coastal life. Of watching, of jumping, of basking in the sun. Of sitting with friends and sitting with oneself. Of sunrises and of conversations into the star-lit night. It reveals itself not to spring out of an untouched virgin land but on the contrary to sit within an archive of scars and incisions inscribed into the coast. Ritual carved from the earth.

Dwelling by the shore is an old occupation, traces of which are discoverable in the landscape: steps and ledges polished out of the bare rock, smooth pools cut deep into the ground, rusty mooring points and lonely ladders hanging on against the constant lapping of waves. Together these traces fill the quiet landscape with an otherwise invisible sedimentation of peripheral history, that grows thicker with every additional trace. The informal (referring to its lack of physical form) quality of these traces often make it difficult to distinguish when they were formed and so they feel timeless. Chronology is unimportant for as long as people sit on the rocks absorbing the salty sun to simply dwell. Such peripheral histories belong in the ephemeral rituals of the everyday – in the process of dwelling – documented in the land or passed on by word of mouth  in stories largely ignored by the grand narratives of the past we call History.

In its unassuming nature, Skalda is an intervention held together not by timber scraps and nails, but by the etchings of many a lifetime; of the fishermen on their sunrise catch, the bathers on sun soaking sessions and of dreamers with their coastal contemplations. The kiosks, deck chairs, sunbeds, tents and platforms are merely frugal structures – props outlived by time and the insistence on returning to a place. The makings of these modest appropriations may wither away, but their traces read as documents of territorialisations in a landscape otherwise perceived as untouched.

Like the fainting rock cuttings slowly washing away at the mercy of the water, Skalda too will wear down to its ultimate surrender. But as a new summer turns, the path to that deep blue will again be trodden. Maybe it’s the sea. Maybe it’s a yearning to belong.

Skalda is a product of SACES’ 2020 summer workshop. The project was lead by Mirco Azzopardi, Martina Chetcuti & Tara Zikic, and was carried out in collaboration with Valletta Design Cluster, GHRC, Samuel Ciantar & Mattea Ciantar. Susannah Farruggia, Rachel Grech Flores, Federica Formosa, Adam Micallef, Karen Muscat and Luke Scicluna were participants.