The grand manner consists of four things: subject matter or theme, thought, structure, and style. The first thing that, as the foundation of all others, is required, is that the subject matter shall be grand, as are battles, heroic actions, and divine things. But assuming that the subject on which the painter is laboring is grand, his next consideration is to keep away from minutiae to the best of his abilities lest he offend against the dignity of historical painting by passing over with a hasty brush things magnificent and grand, and linger amid vulgar and slight ones. The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.—Nicolas Poussin
On Thursday, July 17, I finally had the chance to enter the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), the new multipurpose exhibition space, archive, and library that now occupies the first floor of the Prime Minister’s building [Kryeministria] in Tirana. The opening of this center represents the latest in a veritable whirlwind of moves made by Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government, to open spaces that have previously been—for various reasons—inaccessible to the Albanian public. These spaces include Bunk’Art and the Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves; the former center of surveillance and torture under socialism], both of which were turned into short-lived (since neither is now open to the public) and heavily-promoted (especially to international diplomatic audiences) multi-purpose museum spaces. (The “multi-purpose” aspect was only true of Bunk’Art, which—as its name suggests—was also some type of art installation space.) While the opening of these two spaces was part of a larger touristization (and consequent monetization) of socialist-era history, it seems to me that Rama’s claims about opening the Prime Minister’s building to the public are aimed more directly at his predecessor, Democratic Party (now laughable) leader Sali Berisha, than at earlier occupiers of the building. As such, it presents a different (though by no means unrelated) version of the recuperation of Albania’s architectural spaces from their past uses, and it also allows the Prime Minister’s continued insistence on blending art and politics to be fully realized—presumably in precisely the way Rama wants them to be, since the space is literally his front doorstep.
According to the COD’s website, its primary goals are to “offer an open and transparent encounter between various forms of public dialogue, aiming to demystify an institution which up until now has been closed to Albanians, despite the fact that it has a tremendous effect on their lives.” [“Duke ofruar një qasje të hapur dhe transparente përmes formave të ndryshme të dialogut publik, COD ka për qëllim të demistifikojë një institucion, i cili deri më sot ka qenë i mbyllur për qytetarët, edhe pse ka ndikim shumë të madh në jetën e tyre.”]. The COD (an acronym derived from a name that exists only in English, which already makes claims to “public dialogue” seem completely unbelievable) contains several different “installations.” (I use this catch-all term, since I do not know how else to simultaneously describe a small library, books laid out in various aesthetic arrangements on tables, groupings of laptops with videos of the space being renovated, slideshows of archival photos, a “minilab of souvenirs,” an art exhibition space, a space devoted to videos and books describing the three contemporary artists whose works are installed, respectively, in that exhibition hall, over the entrance to the building, and in a small patch of grass next to the building’s main entrance ramp.)
Despite the overt eclecticism of the space, much of the commentary has focused primarily on the installation of art in, on, and around the building, and this is no doubt the most spectacular aspect of the COD. It is also telling, since it indicates the degree to which the primary thrust of Rama’s (or whatever team he worked with to design and fill the space(s)) curatorial impact has been felt through the presence of the specific artworks in the space (as opposed, say, to the documents now made available, or the display of archival photographs, or even to the idea that—in theory—this will now be a changing exhibition space that will later be occupied by other works. The works in question are Triple Giant Mushroom by Carsten Höller (installed in a patch of grass to the right of the main stairs leading up to the building’s entrance); the flashing, glowing Marquee Tirana created by Philippe Parreno hanging over the building’s entrance; and three photos by Thomas Demand (Tribute, Attraction, and Sign) mounted in the entrance hall to the building on its three respective walls.
A number of astute and interesting commentaries (here and here and here and here; I’m sure I have missed others) have already been written about this space, and I doubt that mine will say anything substantively new. I refer readers to these pieces first, both because they nicely lay out (in three languages) the main issues. Nonetheless, I think it is certainly a space worth dwelling on, as it nicely encapsulates both the possibilities and the failures of the relationship between art and politics in contemporary Albania.
I begin this post with Nicolas Poussin’s words on the “grand manner” because the artist Anri Sala—the Prime Minister’s longtime friend and collaborator—begins his own curatorial statement on Edi Rama (available here) with a discussion of Poussin’s Landscape With a Man Killed By a Snake of 1648, a painting that has long presented interpreters with a quandary. If Sala begins his discussion of Rama with the painting precisely because of the kind of mystery the work presents, in its play of layers of meaning and attention, I begin with Poussin’s words on the grand manner because, in a sense, I think they de-mystify precisely what Rama is about in the creation of the COD space. There is, I think, no better summary of Rama’s artistic-political strategy than “The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible.” The Prime Minister’s building, and indeed all of Albanian politics is the matter, and the idea of beauty will not descend until preparations have been made. This messianic descent of beauty into the reality, with its classicizing overtones, is, I think, finally the promise of Rama’s Rilindja.
In a series of (often disjointed—perhaps necessarily so) problemata, I would like to consider the dangers and possibilities of this strategy, as they are embodied in the COD. Most of all, I would like to truly suggest a multiplicity of points of potential engagement, precisely as the COD claims (however disingenuously) that it wishes to facilitate encounters, and I wish to do so in part precisely by comparing the installations of the COD to existing works of art that occupy or depict the Albanian space.
The most straightforward criticism that can and should be made of COD is that it really has nothing to do with openness and dialogue and everything to do with the expressions personal aesthetic taste on the part of the Prime Minister and the elaboration of an authoritarian example that may guide discourse in particular directions even as it occludes other avenues of articulation. In a sense, the primary goal of the COD should be posing the question: what should be said next? And who will say it? These are both, in their own right, very difficult questions to raise, but I do not think that the COD effectively raises them. Precisely because of its completeness, its neatness, its cleanliness, its security guards and polite young women dogging the visitor’s every step, its ban on photographs—all of these things (to say nothing of the fact that it is in the Prime Ministerial building) conspire to make its statements seem definitive rather than open-ended. (Although this does not exclude a definitive open-endedness from characterizing the space as well.)
However, the very goal of “dialogue” is itself questionable. Dialogue presupposes the presence of well-formed, even essentially constituted subjects; it often presumes the presence of a shared object between those subjects, giving shape to their world. Dialogue may perhaps be defined by some as antagonistic, but it is not the condition of a plurality of antagonistic viewpoints defining and redefining their positions vis-à-vis an always-emergent field of objects. If we acknowledge this, then dialogue is in fact a condition quite apart from politics. It is even, if we view politics as ground of the possibility of subject-formations, a subordinate condition that is no longer directly political. Thus, if the COD presumes to fuse art and politics in the realm of dialogue, it adopts a view of politics that is already quite narrow, a view in which meaning-giving subjects have been ontologically united by shared reference to objects (in this case, the Kryeministria and the works displayed within and upon it.
Furthermore, the goal of “openness” is likewise open to suspicion. I once argued (in a talk on the relationship between the new placement of Odhise Paskali’s statue, the now-crumbling Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, and Postbllok) that the primary thrust of Rama’s Rilindja, as it manifested in the monuments erected around the anniversary of Albanian nationhood, was characterized by a paradoxical movement from closedness to openness that nonetheless retained the claustrophobic interiority of the former enclosed space. Thus, the Rilindja in politics was part of a constellation that also included the imaginary celebration of “opening” of the Albanian nation after it became independent from the Ottomans, and with the “opening” of the country in the wake of socialism’s end. This “openness” is suspicious because—as the publicity surrounding the COD’s opening and German chancellor Andrea Merkel’s visit to Albania as a “short break from the tortuous eurozone negotiations over the resolution of Greece’s financial woes” made abundantly clear—it creates a situation of disparity between Albania and its “outside” (namely, Europe). While this is certainly not the only, or even the primary, meaning of “openness” that the COD allegedly aims for, it seems clear that “openness” is—as it appears in the Monument to the Anniversary of Independence and Postblloku, an exterior condition, while closedness belongs to Albania itself at an essential level.
A political institution declared that it served particular goals, but did not. Instead, it contradicted these goals in nearly every instantiation of its policy. But the goals themselves were uncertain in their own right, and eminently corruptible. Lucky the public whose institutions do not pursue their stated goals!
The COD clearly wears its relational aesthetics on its sleeve, not just in the inclusion of particular artists often associated with the movement, but in its overarching conceptualization. This, however, seems to suggest that Rama’s fusion of art and politics is fundamentally a relational one. On this account, the continuum between art and politics is framed in terms of relations. It is worth considering, however, precisely to what degree the COD is a space not primarily of relationships but of objects. This in turn prompts us to ask: to what degree is Rama’s politics a politics of relationships, and to what degree a politics of objects?
An artist’s goal was to create relationships among his viewers, but his works stubbornly retained the qualities of objects. Lucky the audience that could still behold an object!
Part of thinking beyond the Kryeministria as a site of enclosure and thus paradoxically as (according to the logic of the COD) a primary possible site for “openness” must involve reconceptualizing the Kryeministria and its new installations in a broader spatial network. This network might extend across the entire globe, through economic flows, or through the intertwining careers of the artists, curators, and politicians involved. It might extend across the country, shifting through levels of citizenship, history, and access (since, as the COD points out, the Kryeministria has long played a key role in the lives of the Albanian people).
I think, however, that one of the most productive approaches to contextualizing the COD in space is to consider it in relation to the Postbllok memorial (installed in 2013) located diagonally across from the Kryeministria on Tirana’s main boulevard. This memorial, erected to commemorate those who died during Albania’s socialist period, was designed by Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi, and consists of three elements: a concrete bunker that once guarded the corner of Blloku, the area of Tirana where the nation’s elite resided during socialism; concrete beams from the gallery of the Spaç forced-labor mining camp; and a graffitied section of the Berlin wall.
It has been suggested that Carsten Höller’s Giant Mushroom bears a resemblance to the “concrete mushroom” of Postbllok, a resemblance that is certainly weighted with meaning. I do not think, however, that this is the only visual—to say nothing of conceptual—connection between the two installations (COD and Postbllok). If Höller’s Triple Giant Mushroom connects the COD to the bunker of Postbllok, this irrevocably transforms both works. The mushroom becomes not merely a conglomeration of fungal types that “can be seen as a commentary on Albanian politics”; it is also part of a spatio-temporal dispersion (the “spore” of the dictatorship) that grows up in a new guise, echoing in turn the tripartite division of the socialist realist relief on the façade of the Kryeministria (created in 1974 by Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, Shaban Hadëri, and Hektor Dule). At the same time, the bunker of Postbllok might also take on the multiplicity of Höller’s mushroom, its claustrophobic space now internally divided against itelf and its apparent direct relation to the traumatic memory of the socialist period brought into question.
The skeletal, crooked concrete pillars of the Spaç structure, in which tourists often stand to have their photographs taken, likewise present a logical juxtaposition with Parreno’s Marquee. Both frame an emptiness that is linked inextricably with the past. Indeed, the aesthetic(ization) of ruins that defines the logic behind the installation of pillars is inverted by the sterilized brilliance of Parreno’s Marquee, which would seem to threaten to empty out the emotional and material resonance of Postbllok. However, these ruins also function as a metaphorical gesture at the ruins of the Kryeministria’s first floor. In doing so, the building itself takes on some of the characteristics of the “prison of memory”—it joins even more closely with Postbllok’s rhetoric of “opening”, not longer simply on a rhetorical level but also on a visual/structural one.
Standing tall and isolated, the thin section of the Berlin Wall that forms part of Postbllok is adorned on one side by scrawls of colorful graffiti, while its inverse is a blank expanse of grey concrete. In other words, on one side, signs proliferate—but they are fragmentary, illegible, exaggerated, split apart from their original context. On the other side, one looks in vain for the sign, and the materiality of the object asserts itself: it is a pseudo-presence that obscures, suggesting a role something like what Tony Smith suggested when he explained that his Die was neither a monument nor an object. This same blankness, juxtaposed onto the three walls of the entrance hall of the Kryeministria, also resonates through Thomas Demand’s works, particularly Sign, which takes on something of the Berlin Wall fragment’s dualistic semiotics when the space is viewed in relation to Postbllok.
It is worth noting that, looking out from one of the rifle slits of the bunker in Postbllok, positioning oneself precisely in alignment with metal rifle cradle, one looks out directly at the entrance to the Kryeministria. The gaze of the past is inescapable, and it echoes through the structures of the COD.
Designing an exhibition, an artist struggled to decide whether it was more important to enforce a tripartite reading of the works presented, or a dualistic one. Lucky the audience that need not choose between the logic of threes and the logic of twos!
The most satisfying aspect of the installation of Thomas Demand’s Sign—a photo depicting a vast white expanse that—upon closer observation—the viewer realizes is actually the silhouette of a model of a giant handshake. The incomplete handshake, which Demand identifies as a piece under construction for the 1939 World’s Fair, a piece commenting on “partnership of the people of the world by consumerism,” mounted behind glass, is not simply a vast expanse of white that gestures at the fundamental openness and instability of all signs. It is also a sensitive reflective surface that functions in the way that is similar to the way John Cage interpreted and used Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of the early 1950s. Standing before Demand’s photograph, one sees both the photo and, inescapably, one’s own reflection against the bright light flooding in from the doors of the Kryeministria. Thus, Sign is both empty and ironic and full of situational meaning. Indeed, it seems to contain the entire situation of the viewer’s encounter with COD within it. One moves from one side of the image to the other, trying—in vain, at least as far as my experience went—to really see Demand’s image without the superimposition of reflected light and shadow clouding what is ultimately, in the end, just a photograph of a painted white field.
An image suggested a deep, almost pessimistic emptiness that threatened to escape the understanding of those who confronted it. But in this image, viewers could always see—at least—themselves reflected, however distorted and incomplete that reflection was. Lucky the audience that can see itself reflected in an empty image!
If there is, in my mind, a single aspect about the COD that is most problematic from the standpoint of practical engagement with the space, it is the ban on photography (of which both the security guard and the polite young woman who shadowed me through the space reminded me). Of course, I understand the practical considerations that plague any installation of art in terms of copyright and so forth. The ban on “non-professional” photography, however—and by this I mean, the ability of the public to snap a few photos of the exhibition with their smartphones or cameras—seems most philosophically contradictory to the interior space of the COD itself. The entire interior space, especially the installation of Thomas Demand’s photos, is concerned precisely with the possibilities of the image, as both object and sign. In the video accompanying the exhibition, in which Demand and the other artists explain their work, Demand insists on his inspiration by the kind of superficial and generalized media images that are ubiquitous in the capitalist era (and certainly in Albania). This is further reinforced Demand’s production of the photos of his models as the finished works (in most cases); the image, not the object created, is what matters. The fact that most members of the public first encounter the COD through media images confirms the relevance of Demand’s ideas to the space, and—in a sense—contributes precisely to its “closed openendedness.” According to the logic of Demand’s works, the whole COD itself could be encapsulated in an image; if it disappears tomorrow (as Bunk’Art and House of Leaves have done), the COD will still retain its ontologically primary existence, as image (rather than as space, or object, or relation).
Given this thought-provoking but circular and somewhat pessimistic reading of the space, it seems to me that exactly what the COD should allow is photography—and photography of the most superficial variety. Although many lament the rise of selfies, and the gradual waning of interest in surroundings themselves, in this case precisely what is needed is an engagement with the space that acknowledges and repeats—ad nauseam—the image of power presented by COD, wearing it out through prolonged (re)exposure and (re)transformation into an abundance of images. This would be a far more appropriate form of “dialogue” for the space to promote—and one in keeping with the title of Zef Paci’s archival installation Fotografitë Rishkruan Historinë [Photographs Rewrite History]. It seems unlikely to me that the COD will open itself up to any truly democratic political condition if it does not open itself to the dangers and possibilities of the proliferation of images. This proliferation holds within itself an ambiguity that is—in an important sense—anathema to the meticulous curation of the space, its perceived teleological completion.
A government declared itself to be merely an image of power, and power to be a function of images. Lucky the population that has recourse to images in the face of such a government!
As it is, the COD occupies a curious conceptual space that I would like to try to elaborate further. One of the strongest—and I think, quite legitimate—criticisms of Rama’s curation of the space (and the establishment of the COD as an art space within the Kryeministria) is that it drifts quite close to a totalitarian model of the aestheticization of politics. While I think this is true, I also think there is more to be said, and that this can most effectively be said by comparing Rama’s work to that of Albanian socialist realism. There was a time when I would have shied away from such a comparison, considering it entirely too sensationalist (given both that Rama is the son of Kristaq Rama, one of the great sculptors of Albania’s socialist years and that the mention of socialist realism generally often provokes negative responses and declamations of kitsch). Now however, the comparison is unavoidable. I wish to consider just one work of Albanian socialist realism, and from it to extrapolate—metaphorically—the interstitial space of the COD installations.
One of the greatest paintings from Albania’s socialist period is Vilson Kilica’s portrait Shoku Enver Hoxha [Comrade Enver Hoxha](1976). The work, which is a three-quarter portrait of Albania’s dictator, places Hoxha against a vast and utterly flat red background. The Leader himself stands looking out, a kind and strong benefactor, one fist raised in salute. The assertive flatness of the background is undeniably modernist; it creates a non-space of color that seems, quite explicitly, to turn to the tradition of Byzantine icon painting for many of the same reasons that Modernist painters did.
However, the lower edge of this red expanse is broken; it in fact resolves into the lower edge of a waving flag—although it is clear that this is not a real, material flag, but merely its abstract and perfect foundational Form. Its two-dimensionality is complete and utter, and in this way it draws our attention to the surface of the canvas as a field where two coeval zones of color meet, framing the figure of the Leader. It is in this thin, tan strip of ambiguous space that—at lower left—Kilica has signed painting. One could say that, placing his name outside the zone of red that serves as the ideological ground prepared to receive the Leader’s image, the painter has removed himself from politics, has attempted to sidestep his role as a shaper of ideology. On could likewise say that, placing himself outside the zone of the red flag, Kilica precisely draws attention to himself as articulator of the ideological and conceptual round that levels the image to prepare for the clarity of the dictator’s presence. Rather than including himself within the zone of ideological construction, Kilica reveals himself to be in the elevated position of creator, imposing form and order to heighten the effects of ideas. In this reading, the space in which Kilica signs the work is behind the flag, and thus also behind the Leader—and in this space behind it is also before.
The ambiguity of this position is heightened, however, by the way that the flatness of the painting’s backdrop removes the hierarchical conditions normally asserted between creator and creation (just as the flatness brings into question even the robust ontological character of the Leader by suggesting that he too exists on a plain with the composition’s other formal elements, that his power is abstract like the symbolic charge of the flag’s brilliant red). This space, at once removed from ideology but continuous with it, creating and controlling it through partition and metonymy rather than imposing form from above, is also—in a way—the space of the COD. It is a space that wishes to escape certain ideologies, but at the same time articulates itself as their point of origin. Finally, it is in interstitial space in which hierarchy is both preserved (since the image of power is celebrated to its utmost) and undercut, since the insistent blankness of that image places it alongside—rather than above—its perceived effects. The COD operates in the space where surfaces sometimes appear to be behind others, while at other times that are continuous with them, unable to escape their dispersion in a space that may be multiple or may only seem that way. Far from creating a space where there appears to be none, the COD seeks to create an image in a space where there appears to be only image.
A politician sought to create space, but in doing so looked to art to tell him what space was. In the place of space, he found only image. Lucky the politician who finds only images, and no space!
Epilogue on Beauty
‘The idea of beauty does not descend into matter unless this is prepared as carefully as possible. This preparation consists of three things: arrangement, measure, and aspect or form.”