If you enter that brownish booth behind a row of souvenir sellers in front of the Courts in Valletta, be prepared to have a solemn, meditative voice haunting your thoughts for a whole day. The repetitive rhyme echoes from one moss-coloured wall to another, twirling between ghostly hanging roots. Susan Philipsz’s ‘Who by Fire’, the sound installation that currently inhabits the vaults of an impressive underground cistern, engages multiple senses and feels like it belongs to this spooky, but awe-inspiring space.
The air feels damp underground, and for this reason visits are limited to 15 minutes. A flight of steps leads into the depth of a spacious cistern – over the year that it took to prepare and install the art work, the space has been cleaned up and kept dry. Tunnels leading to other sections of the underground system in Valletta have been closed off to protect the installation from whoever roams around the tunnels. Roots of the trees next to St. John’s Cathedral, eating into the rock and forever reaching for a source of water underneath, hang suspended like tentacles of some mysterious creature, or shadows, or netting. Visitors struggle to snap a photo of them in the dim light.
The installation is a part of Dal-baħar madwarha exhibition, spread across multiple locations in Valletta. Philipsz, the artist behind the sound installation, makes use of every bit of the strangeness of this place. Hidden between the cathedral and the courts, these rounded walls shape the way her sound travels. The Berlin-based artist likes to explore the psychological and sculptural potential of sound, mainly using her own voice. She has received a prestigious MoMA fellowship in New York and a Turner Prize in 2010.
Not only was the cistern was observed to take a shape of a basilica, with some spaces resembling distinct naves (although only two). Apparently, prayers and masses did take place there when people gathered underground to save themselves from bombardment. So the solemn, introspective, contemplative sound piece throws the visitors of this space back in time with the help of the artist’s soothing voice and recordings of battered bells.
“While on a research visit to Valletta I was fascinated by a damaged naval bell at the National War Museum Fort St. Elmo that had been salvaged from HMS Illustrious,” the artist wrote in her project proposal. Fractured in an attack in 1941, the bell stands witness to the impact of air raids.
If anything, the installation in this unique space calls for more curiosity about what the underground of Valletta has to offer. As Valletta 2018 staff told me, various businesses, too, are pitching ideas to make use of spaces under the surface of Valletta. For now, we can see the former water cisterns in their serene, self-contained form. This is an opportunity not to be missed.