Ilirian Shima: “Farajon” – A Frank Assessment, Or, The Eroticism of Nationalism

My take on the recently opened “Farajon” exhibitionGKA Farajon

“Farajon” [roughly, “OurSeed”—”fara jonë”], an exhibition of works by Albanian sculptor Ilirian Shima at the Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve [National Gallery of Art] in Tirana, presents an interesting paradox. The exhibition, curated by Ylli Drishti of the GKA, opened on May 29 and will remain in the gallery until June 22. It contains works of varying size and material—primarily carved wood, marble, and bronze—created by the artist from the 1990s to the present day. Thus far most media response and commentary on the works in the exhibition has been focused precisely where one would expect: on the forthright eroticism of many of Shima’s sensual sculptural forms. I would like to examine the exhibition with a slightly different critical eye, to go beyond discussions of the works as a challenge to norms of Albanian society (implicitly assumed by much of the media response to be prudish and conservative, and likely to be shocked by the display of erotic material, however abstract). If I set out to explicitly problematize the exhibition, it is not because I find it entirely in poor sociopolitical taste, nor because I have any issue with the quality of the works (a discussion I wish to leave completely aside). Rather, I simply wish to consider some of the more potentially insidious aspects of eroticism—and an explicitly aesthetically Modernist realization of eroticism—when explicitly envisioned alongside ideas of historical recovery of national(ist) roots, nostalgic longing for the ancient past of the homeland (as well as diasporic longing), ethnic and genetic identity and the drive to reproduce that identity so it might flourish in contemporary society. If the show raises these kinds of more challenging questions in the minds of viewers, it will have done the job of confronting its audience (Albanian and non) on multiple levels, of provoking debate both about certain conservative Albanian values vis-à-vis sexuality and about the ways these values cannot be transformed simply by exposing the public to artfully presented eroticism.

There are two primary points I wish to discuss: first, the treatment of the female form in the exhibition (and the ways in which it interacts with the male form); and second, the implications of the interaction between eroticism, virility, and national-cultural heritage apparent in Shima’s works and Drishti’s curatorial statement. The first point raises the question of whether “Farajon”‘s implicit challenge to Albanian attitudes towards the body’s sexual nature (I will forego putting the term in scare quotes, since I take it that the discourse of the body’s ‘nature’ is still widespread in Albania) truly attempts to alter perceptions of the female body and, by extension, women. I would argue that the answer is “no,” and not because the female nude sculpted by the male artist can no longer function as a critical tool, but because the primary trend of the works exhibited associates the female form with the wild mystery of both the ancient (through references to myth and legend) and the carnally unknown and often treats the whole of the female body as analogous to the vagina. There are works, such as Eternity [wood, 2014] and Aenaon [wood, 1990], that explicitly reference the ying and yang, positing an eternal—and equal—convergence of the male and female, situating both as active forms in a circle of recurring metaphysical, sensual relationships.

Far more striking, however, is the depiction of the headless female torso, with thighs spread apart, split by a darkened crevice extending up from the vagina through the chest (as in works such as Satir [bronze, 2014]). Elsewhere, in Untitled [2002], two semicircular pieces of carven wood resting on the floor, separated by the thin gap, resolve into buttocks from one angle and thighs and a vaginal opening from the other. Shehrazad [“Scheherazade,” red marble, 2000] is a languid vaginal form. Genesis [wood, 2006] presents a full, pregnant female torso, the lines of the wood accenting its protruding round belly and curved back. Most significant is that these works present not people but bodies, or more specifically parts of bodies. (While one could read this deconstruction of the form as a kind of violence directed at the female body, I think it more likely that this is simply a result of Shima’s orthodox Modernist style, especially since nearly all of Shima’s figures and torsos are headless, regardless of sex[1]). Furthermore, the eroticism of the parts stands as a surrogate for the eroticism of the entire body—the vagina traverses the female torso and in so doing it becomes the entire body cavity, the inner life of the body imagined as the source of sexual ecstasy.

So, the female body appears in the guise of its component parts, and these parts materialize in objects imbued with a pure and mysterious sexual force. An article by Fatmira Nikolli reviewing the exhibition calls Shima’s forms “provocations.” But the question is: provocations to what? Is it not possible that these ‘provocations’ do not so much challenge a patriarchal attitude towards female sexuality as reinforce it, taking a particular pleasure in revealing secret, uncontrolled sexual urges rooted in female physicality (rather than in the lives of actual women)? Let us not forget that it has been 14 years since “PostEva,” the first retrospective exhibition of nudes by Albanian artists, opened at the GKA. One might have expected that Albanian attitudes towards the female body would have changed, and that the discussion surrounding an exhibition like “Farajon” would focus not on the potential controversy of erotic art but on the relationship between social systems of power and the politics of said art. However, lest someone protest that in fact Albanians truly remain in the midst of a deep sexual repression—the Victorians that we further-Westerners once thought ourselves to be, until we read Foucault—let us look no further than Tirana’s streets for a sort of counterexample. As usual, capitalism has already made certain that the fragments of the female body are hyper-sexualized: one can barely walk down a single major street in Tirana today without encountering one of a recent slew of new advertisements, which show a pair of bare female legs in red high heels alongside the caption “E re. Seksi. E freskët. E zhveshur. E kuqe…” [Young. Sexy. Fresh. Undressed. Red…].

E Kuqe

If this is the image of the female body that pervades the streets of the capital city, then the eroticism of Shima’s female forms can be little more a naïve attempt to return some dignity to sexuality by retreating from capitalism’s explicit re-production of the spectacle of eroticism by adopting both Modernism’s aesthetics and its metaphysics.[2]

Indeed, the show does perhaps accomplish that social and metaphysical task which has long been perceived as the purview of Modernism (in contrast, for example, to Socialist Realism—a contrast to which I shall return later): it allows the audience to exercise taste. As a review of the exhibition in Panorama notes: “In these 23 years [since the end of Socialist Realism] a public has emerged that can judge [mund të shijojë] an artwork” (my emphasis).[3] However, this judgment remains at an abstract, formal level (appropriate to Shima’s pseudo-abstractions); one wonders what might be discovered by an audience who read the works not merely in terms of their forms but also—after Arendt—in terms of their political aesthetics. Just such a political reading, however, would raise more questions than have generally been asked about the story “Farajon” tells about the relationship between male and female sexuality.

I said above that I took for granted—in keeping with Shima’s Modernist bent—that the exhibition believes in a natural sexuality, in the immutability of sexuality materialized unambiguously in the male and female reproductive organs.It is not, therefore, my intent to critique this questionable stance, but rather to examine what its political implications are in relation to the ways certain works in the show are displayed and described in the curatorial statement. “Farajon” is most politically duplicitous in its construction of the relationship between the male and the female, and its association between these two forces and the Albanian nationa itself. The entire exhibit takes its name from the work Farajon [bronze, 2014, created especially for the show], a gleaming, stylized erect penis 141 cm in height, inspired (according to Drishti’s curatorial statement) by a phallic image on a 4,000-year-old Illyrian earring. Drishti explains that “this erotic male artwork symbolizes, for the artist, the great reproductive vigor of the Albanian nation.” Thus, the primary thrust of the exhibition (to use a perhaps unfortunate metaphor) is that of the association between the phallus, the nation, and virility required to reproduce this nation through the centuries (from the time of the ancient Illyrians to the present day).

Farajon looms large in the exhibition space, placed on the slightly raised platform (which in turn leads to the awkwardly blocked stairway to that wing’s second level). It is certainly not the most imposing work in the show—that honor certainly belongs to the multi-piece instrument-artwork Briharpa [multimedia, 2014], which lends the entire exhibition space an additional Dionysian tinge—but it does assert itself visually over neighboring works, and especially over the feminine forms of Untitled and Genesis. Indeed, there is a distinctive sense in which many of the feminine forms in the exhibit seem to place themselves in a passive relationship with Farajon. Untitled seems almost to prostrate itself before the emblem of the phallus, the languid form of Shehrazad (the reclining nude reduced to reclining vagina) complement’s the penis’ verticality. Even Genesis is diminutive in size, placement, and therefore meaning in comparison with Farajon‘s glistening shaft. (One almost longs for a vertical, monumental vaginal form in the exhibition, an Ilirian-Shima-after-Georgia-O’Keeffe, for example.)

A microcosm of this relationship between the male form (the penis) and the female form can be found in the three small bronze figure of Satir [2014]. Two female forms, one black and one gold, cavort with vaginal openings wide before a burnished green phallus on two feet (presumably the eponymous satyr). Here the male body, like the female one, is reduced to its most ‘basic’ component, but there remains a quite definite valuation of the male over the female. After all, it is the male member which is seen to express the continuity and fecundity of Illyrian-Albanian culture and, ultimately, national identity. Female sexuality is openly celebrated, certainly, but under the aegis of male “reproductive vigor.” Thus, intentionally or not, the erotic longings for homeland, history, and nation become longings that are fulfilled by the masculine materialization of sexuality, not the feminine. Perhaps even more problematically, this masculine erotic drive is linked not to some general condition of the search for continuity in the era of globalization and uncertain national boundaries; rather, it makes an explicitly ethnic claim to the purity of genetic continuity. Shima’s works are, in a sense, Modernism-as-genetics, and as if this were not problematic enough, it is also a genetics that transfers the power structures of both nationalism and genetics onto the erotic qualities found in the (universal, but also ethnically specific) body. In short, they partially conceal an ascendant biopolitical power behind the ‘life of forms.’

We might ask, in the exercise of taste that the show seems to see as its most fundamental goal: Why is Modernism the appropriate language for a statement about both the universal, fundamentally erotic character of human existence while at the same time promoting essentially the fecundity of a particular ethnic group (the Illyrians), which is assumed to have passed down this reproductive vitality to a contemporary ethno-national group (the Albanians), if not as practice then certainly as a model for the preservation of its culture? Quite simply because it allows the focus to remain primarily on the forms of the works, rather than upon an explicit sociopolitical networks of power that they reinforce or reproduce. At the same time, the qualities of the forms—their contrasts, their sensuality, their polysemic representational properties (grounded in their most-often-merely-pseudo abstraction)—retain the claim of universality for any associations they make (between the erect penis and an image from an Illyrian earring, for example). This has nearly always been both the saving grace and the danger of Modernism, that it leaves itself open to various political readings—and indeed often does not deny them—even as it presents its critique as a critique of perception in general (or, in this case, a critique of taboos and conservatism).

This is perhaps to insist too much upon the political valence of a Modernism that seeks to be apolitical (though not, of course, asexual)—except for the fact that a) the seeming neutrality and/or universality of Modernist aesthetics has always been what allowed it to be duplicitous in the political machinations of states and organizations, and b) the potential political content of Shima’s works does not seem to be hidden that deeply (since one can no longer, I think, consider references to the Illyrian ‘genesis’ of the Albanians is in any way apolitical, if indeed one ever could consider such ideas to be apolitical). Furthermore, I do not think that Ilirian Shima’s works are truly trying to ‘hide’ this ideology beneath a veneer of formalism and ‘provocation.’ However, the discourse around what an exhibition of Modernist works like Shima’s really have to say contemporary Albania will almost certainly need to go beyond endless circling about taboos, lingering ‘Victorian’ morality vis-à-vis sex and sexuality, and the degree to which Albanian audiences are ‘ready’ for abstract art. It will need to grapple with the real sociopolitical implications of the convergence of eroticism, reproduction, the body, and nationalism, to consider what kind of ‘taste’ is needed to see Modern art as truly critical of social norms, and above all to enter into a much more nuanced discussion of what social norms in Albania are in terms of sexuality.[4]

I want to return, in order to cast a different light on the political significance of Shima’s Modernism, to the contrast presented by the Panorama review of the exhibition, that between Socialist Realism’s attitude towards sex and that which is available to Albanians 23 years later. So the argument goes, the system of Socialist Realism clearly delineated what was moral and immoral, and it made certain that the immoral was not even to be thought, much less materialized in art. Thus, female sexuality was not allowed to be imagined, much less to appear. The problem, of course, is that Socialist Realism never denied the importance of female sexuality and the essential role women played in reproducing (for) the nation. It merely hid certain aspects of this sexuality, brought others to the fore, and made the task of reproduction explicitly political and patriotic. Its was an eroticism of duty, and it subsumed the individual to the collective Eros of the New Life.

However, is “Farajon” really so different? Certainly, in that it celebrates the recovery of erotic experience in art as something to be explored, savored, ‘tasted,’ as abandonment to and in a deeper, more timeless level of existence. Certainly not, in that it urges viewers to recover the sexual as the vigor of the ethnically delimited nation, to seek the ancient past of that nation in the sensual, to love and reproduce for the sake of national History. As Slavoj Žižek is so fond of saying, Coca-Cola tells you “You must enjoy.” Here, “Farajon” is perhaps not quite so demanding, nor quite so empty in its promise, but its insistence on the recovery of erotic pleasure is most certainly not without the call to fulfill the national duty of reproduction.

[1] The single significant contrast comes from a pair of bodiless heads locked together in a kiss.

[2] One might argue that the “taboo” Shima is breaking is that against the depiction of the reproductive organs,  specifically, and not any taboo against eroticism (a taboo which certainly continues to exist in some circles but which has been thoroughly assaulted by advertising and global/Western culture in others). (This is the claim implied by an article in Panorama.) This may be the case, and Shima’s works are to be praised for initiating this debate. However, the fact remains that Shima’s sculptures so explicitly graph their eroticism onto the entire body—the bodies not just of individuals, but the entire enthno-national collective body—and indeed onto the soul. Thus, I maintain that whatever taboos Shima’s works break at the level of representation of parts of the body, they nonetheless reiterate more discourses than they disrupt at the level of the body as a whole, in society.

In any case, the “provocation” in terms of the male gaze upon the female body parts depicted in “Farajon” seems to be quite straightforward: it is the provocation to possess the female body in the throes of passion, because that body—in its sexual fragments—yearns for an ecstasy that takes no account of distributions of social power. But is male sexual power really privileged in the exhibit? Yes, quite simply by the fact that conceptually the whole show centers on the virility of the male reproductive organ, which I will discuss below.

[3] Since the Albanian word for the exercise of taste in the cultural sense is also “to taste,” the statement retains a sensuous aspect lost in English.

[4] Implicit in this, I hope, is the assertion that global capitalism’s use of eroticism to sell products in Albania cannot be uprooted until it is confronted, and it cannot be confronted by a naïve embrace of Modernism paired with a nostalgia for the ancient past. At worst, this course of action only further hides the inequalities and abuses that masquerade as a ‘free’ and ‘liberal’ embrace of typically masculine (and typically consumerist) sexuality.

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