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category: Art,Gazette,Review

Capturing A Space Between Worlds

Friday, September 26, 2014 by

Kris Micallef is the architect of his own underwater kingdom, a fabled little place constructed from floating gymnasts and golden specks. But he is not going to tip you over a cliff to see his world. Instead, he invites you to Blitz, where his creation comes to life through a photography exhibition under the name of REGNVM.

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REGNVM is the result of more than two years’ work for Kris, and an even longer fascination with underwater photography. Bringing together his long-standing work in portraiture and fashion photography, REGNVM was never meant to simply be an array of shots taken under the sea; it was created to be a complete kingdom, with its own queen and king, inspired by a lifetime of characters, places and events that have made Kris the person he is today.

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In fact, wandering round Blitz and taking in every shot is almost like being allowed through a little window into his mind, as the creation of his kingdom and how he chooses to capture it were led by completely personal intuitions. While this is not Kris’ first exhibition, it may well be seen as his attempt at somewhat breaking away from his background in fashion photography and moving towards a fuller realisation of portraiture, using this creation of an imaginary underwater space to place the human body in a surreal  medium and capturing the results. This, of course, does not translate as a completely new style of photography for Kris, as a strong influence from the fashion world is still very evident even if perhaps unintended, yet it is innovative for its placement of the photographer’s interaction with this sort of world in a new space away from the typical commercialised sphere in which his typical photographic work takes place.

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This reference to Kris’ past work is also relevant to his interpretation of the human body, which, to him, was always at the forefront of his interest throughout the whole REGNVM experience.  While the series does contain nudity and elements which may be seen to push the boundaries of our culture’s somewhat limited definition of what is tolerable, Kris’ aim was never controversy or to be a splash in local culture’s pool in any way. It is purely a search for an aesthetic ideal, and an exploration into the human body that threads through the photographs. Again, this is best appreciated when considered within the context of Kris’ style of photography; his interpretation of aesthetic values and ‘the celebration of youth and beauty’ that the series portrays do not run parallel to the philosophical aesthetic evaluation of the body that features in art history. Yet,  in terms of experimentation with the image of the body when suspended in an environment that is alien to it, this  results in a glorification, almost idealisation of the human form captured in minute detail.

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‘I think humans are fascinated by other humans, and that is also why I think REGNVM was such a success. It is not consciously aimed at any one audience; I simply followed what I had in mind, an idea that I’d had for so many years and just needed to get out of my head somehow.’ This lack of an emphasis on one concrete concept is perhaps what drew so many to the exhibition’s launch; while Kris does admit that he got criticised for attracting more of a ‘fashion crowd’ than an ‘art crowd,’ he himself saw a colourful mix of characters from all sectors of the Maltese artistic community show an interest in his work. ‘At the end of the day, what is fashion? What is art? My invites were sent to friends, colleagues and a number of people connected to all aspects of art production. While my background in fashion photography and, indeed, REGNVM’s element of fashion did perhaps attract such a crowd, everyone who can appreciate art was welcome to attend.’

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This concentration of people oriented towards the fashion industry, however, did not go unnoticed at the launch, which may point not only to the obvious fashion baggage with which Kris’ past work is weighed down and which inevitably attracts the circle in which he is most integrated, but also a perhaps unconscious touch to his work which make it more attractive to collectors of couture pieces rather than your average art buyer. That being said, one would seriously be blind to the multitude of elements that make up REGNVM if they were to dismiss it as merely a combination of portrait and fashion photography, as, even to those foreign to photography, an unmistakable fairy-tale element runs through the photographs, unfolding through the surreal lightness exhibited by the shapes and forms of the human body when captured away from the heaviness of the world above. This conscious mythical nature of REGNVM has culminated into the compilation of a limited-edition storybook, penned by Stanley Borg, which also showcases shots that have not been exhibited, for those who would like to take a bit of REGNVM back home.

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The dreamlike nature of the photographs, however, may be misleading, as Kris explains that creating REGNVM was no mean feat. The very idea of underwater photography brought on a whole new list of complications, the most evident being that of actually shooting underwater. When SCUBA proved to create more obstacles namely because of the time and equipment required, regular diving was opted for, which also gave Kris more freedom to give his models instructions. Shooting in locations around Malta and Comino for two years, REGNVM initially included a lot more than it showcases, with some of the pictures being rendered useless as a few of the models unsurprisingly exhibited an uneasiness being underwater that took away from the fluidity and lightness of the whole project.

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Yet another hurdle was funding a project on so large a scale, which was tackled by Kris and his trusty colleague Adrian Mamo through the innovative concept of crowdfunding. The success of such a new way of funding artistic projects manifested with REGNVM, as the target was not only reached but surpassed. ‘Crowdfunding made funding the project so much easier. Although it was relatively new to Malta, the way it was designed, with reward packages allotted to those who donated, saw it make a huge success and I will definitely be using it for future projects. Together with marketing through Facebook, it also helped to get people talking about REGNVM.’ REGNVM not only saw an overwhelming crowd on its opening night, but Kris is also pleased that a lot of people came back for a second look.

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The final verdict on REGNVM is as multidimensional as the photography exhibition itself. Whilst, on the one hand, one can acknowledge and widely appreciate the whole concept of an underwater kingdom, it cannot be ignored that the portrayal of the human body in REGNVM is still very much tied to the fashion world in which Kris is most known. This is indubitably not a negative thing at all, as to expect work which is completely unattached to the photographer’s past experience and style would be asking for an impersonal rendition which, more often than not, would leave much for want. In this case, however, one can respect and even take pride in how something so intrinsically tied to Kris’ life, the human body that he has photographed time and time again, has been thrown out into a new, surreal sphere, the underwater world, to yield a new and splendidly rendered portrayal.

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REGNVM by Kris Micallef is exhibited at Blitz Gallery in Valletta until 20th March.

You can find Kris at www.facebook.com/krismicallef

All colour photos taken on location at Blitz Gallery by Matthew Grech.

All black and white photos taken by Kris Micallef.

Category Art,Gazette,Review

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