Dreams and Leviathans: On Power, Imagination, and Plurality

For as at a great distance of place, that which wee look at, appears dimme, and without distinction of the smaller parts; and as Voyces grow weak, and inarticulate: so also after great distance of time, our imagination of the Past is weak; and wee lose (for example) of Cities wee have seenmany particular Streets; and of Actionsmany particular Circumstances. This decaying sense, when wee would express the thing it self, (I mean fancy it selfe,) wee call Imagination, as I said before: But when we would express the decay, and signifie that the Sense is fadingold, and pastit is called Memory. […] —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. 2, “Of Imagination”

Behold, the hope of him is in vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? —Job 41: 9, King James Version

On the evening of March 24, 2022, two exhibitions opened in Tirana: The Revolution of the City around its Dream at Bulevard Art & Media Institute, curated by Stefano Romano and Remijon Pronja, and Leviathan at the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), curated by Ajola Xoxa.[1] The former is a group exhibition featuring the work of Olson Lamaj, Ledia Konstandini, Driton Selmani, Lori Lako, Remijon Pronja, Alketa Ramaj, and Stefano Romano, and is organized by the MAD Center “Gëzim Qëndro” at Polis University, a private university located on the outskirts of Tirana and known for its focus on architecture, urban planning, and design.[2] The latter is a solo exhibition by the sculptor Ergys Krisiko, and is curated by one of the co-founders of Harabel Contemporary Art Platform. While their themes and approaches are distinct, the two exhibitions nonetheless merit some extended attention for the contrasting social imaginaries that they present. Both exhibitions express a profound ambivalence about a very basic element of the human condition—indeed about the basic element of that condition, if we are to follow Hannah Arendt: the fact of human togetherness, the need to act in plurality based upon shared perceptions of a world that we can collectively transform. The ambivalence of both exhibitions (and I think it is more than ambivalence, in fact a real pessimism) on this point reflects the troubling status of the politics of imagination in Albania today. 

Lori Lako, On Fog, Blur, and Other Uncertainties (2021), video

The Revolution of the City around its Dream (which I shall hereafter refer to as The Revolution… ) attempts to map the relationship of artists (and citizens) to the rapidly shifting urban environment of late capitalism. The works exhibited therein purportedly explore “the continuous need to re-know […] places that change faster than we start building a stable memory of them,” to quote the curatorial statement.[3] Leviathan, on the other hand, is focused on the space and the metaphors of political power, and the relationship of the public to that power. It raises questions about the contemporary status of the polity, and about the way political force exercises itself upon and between members of society. At stake in these two approaches is the status of a shared imaginary, as a viable horizon for both artistic creation and sociopolitical action that aims to transform current material conditions. Both exhibitions set themselves the goal of imagining possible futures, or at least of assessing who has the power to envision such futures and upon what grounds we might act together to produce them. But both exhibitions also implicitly reflect the failure on the part of politicians, citizens, and artists alike to credibly construct such speculative futures. On the one hand, there is cynicism about the efficacy of any collective manifestation of imagination, and on the other hand there is an honest uncertainty about the integrity of claims (aesthetic or otherwise) to see or foresee a truly shared world. This failure—which is certainly not an aesthetic or curatorial failure on the part of either exhibition—is a constitutive one: in this sense I think two exhibitions admirably reflect the real conditions of life in Albania today (which in turn are exemplary of the conditions of neoliberal capitalism as a global phenomenon), where an oligarchic state consistently gaslights the public in response to any criticism that highlights deepening inequities, insisting that such inequities are either the inevitable result of a smoothly-functioning market or else the fault of individual citizens who are unprepared to participate in democratic society. 

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

The curatorial approaches employed in both exhibitions take their impetus from classic texts on political theory—respectively, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in the case of The Revolution…, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) in the case of the exhibition at COD. This shared reference to early modern political thought is not entirely coincidental: it seems to me to indicate an effort to return to an earlier historical stage of political development in the former West. (Of course, the idea of utopia and Hobbes’ assessment of human relations are practically speaking about as evergreen as it is possible for political theories to be, at least in terms of being citable.) Return or not, this act of looking back signals an effort to find the point from which (social) foundations could again be established. Before we think about the kinds of foundations that either exhibition proposes, let us take a closer look at each in turn.

The Revolution… is installed, as noted above, at Bulevard Art & Media Institute, an exhibition space opened in the fall of 2021 along Boulevard “Zogi I,” in the former headquarters of Bashkimi (“Unity”), the newspaper published the Democratic Front of Albania starting in 1943. Bulevard occupies the underground level below the new Destil Creative Hub, one of the most prominent and popular examples of the slew of hip co-working and multipurpose event spaces that are becoming increasingly widespread in Tirana. Bulevard’s space is relatively large, with high ceilings, but its below-ground location imposes certain limitations on the space. While natural light enters through a series of rectangular windows in the ceiling (which were formerly used to lift the printed newspapers out of the lower level of the press headquarters), the space tends to feel dark and enclosed—a challenging venue for an exhibition that aims to explore utopian dreams about the city. A wide foundational column (practically, a wall) divides the space into two distinct sections, and the rough, exposed concrete of the column’s surface provides an interesting (if sometimes intrusive) surface for both hanging artworks and projecting videos.

As the visitor descents the stairs and enters the exhibition space, they first encounter a room containing Ledia Konstandini’s Untitled (the cage balcony), Lori Lako’s On Fog, Blur, and Other Uncertainties, Alketa Ramaj’s Rritesja 1 (carrying structures), and Stefano Romano’s Unfinished Archive. To the right as one enters, in a sort of narrow dead-end hallway that also functions as its own room, is Remijon Pronja’s Home. These works set the stage for the exhibition’s encounter with the city, an encounter that moves between nostalgia, suspicion, kitsch, and documentation, constituting a series of earnest efforts to answer the question: how can we know the city, and our place within it?

The second room, on the far side of the broad concrete wall, contains a cluster of works by Konstandini (two small video installations collectively titled I Look at Them They Look Back at Me, and a separate video installation Bath Tube), as well as two videos: The Goldfinch, by Olson Lamaj, which is projected on the wide concrete dividing wall; and These Storiesby Driton Selmani, playing on a large television monitor. 

Ledia Konstandini, I Look at Them They Look Back at Me (2019), video installation in wooden box

The curatorial text for The Revolution…, written by Stefano Romano, presents a markedly optimistic story about the potential relationship between art and urban life. The text begins with a kind of long history of humans living together, passing through a short discussion of More’s Utopia before arriving at the beginnings of rapid urban transformation at the turn of the century. It describes contemporary cities as being imbued with “the feeling of disorientation, as if the places in which we live did not really belong to us, as if we could not own them entirely.” This uncertainty of the city produces the “continuous need to re-know” (mentioned in the introduction above). And yet, the curators are still certain that despite this apparent epistemological quandary—that we are no longer able to know the city in the way we once believed we could and would—there nonetheless exists a singular “dream” of the city, and it is around this titular dream that the city turns, in revolutionary motion. “The dream is to be sought in small and large things, in everyday gestures and in the tallest buildings, in the corners that seem blocked in time, and in the great expressways that never stop….” The artist, according to the curatorial text, is uniquely equipped with “a gaze trained to grasp the nuances of things,” and thus art has the capability of laying bare that hidden, intangible dream that moves the urban world. Art becomes the tool through which (by means of a utopian vision) the world can be remade: “In reflecting the new world post-pandemic scenario, art can contribute by re-thinking the spaces of the city through utopia: exiting the frame imposed by the establishment, [and] entering the infinite resources of imagination. […T]he works in [the] show point at contradictions while revealing the constant pursuit of possibilities driven by utopia.”[4]

This is all a little straightforward, although one assumes this is the point. I am less concerned with what I take to be the curatorial text’s rather predictable pairing of art with urban utopic aspirations. What I find more interesting is that I do not think the works themselves present the kind of optimistic picture that the curatorial text wants them to. Put briefly, the text wants to present the contradictions and the engagements with necessarily mediated perceptions that appear in these works as evidence of a desirably open-ended search for a future form of knowledge about the city. I see them, instead, as engaged in a thoughtful exploration of doubt, an exploration of the failure of art (and the artist) to even robustly conceive the city as a phenomenon, much less to envision a better future version of it. 

This doubt, this sense of failure is manifest, I think, in the majority of the works’ attention to first of all to distance, and to mediation. (I must say again: when I attribute to the works a sense of failure I am not accusing them of failing artistically, but rather of signaling a failure that ostensibly belongs to art, in its relationship to the city.) Consider Lori Lako’s On Fog, Blur, and Other Uncertainties, a work that I take to be emblematic of the exhibition’s approach as a whole. In this video we first see a number of views of a city: parks, alleyways, what appears to be a factory—all obscured behind a ubiquitous white fog. If the viewer watches closely, there are patterns, slight movements, that appear in this layer—showing us that it is, in fact, a layer, and not the result of some atmospheric condition. Eventually, the camera retreats and it is revealed that the fog that has obscured all these views is in fact a thin sheet of cloth held suspended between two poles by two individuals, a young man and a young woman. There are many ways to read this gesture of revealing, and some of them are optimistic (both because the gesture can be read an act of deciphering, and because the thin white sheet of fabric has in fact imbued the preceding images with such a calm beauty). But at the same time, the video challenges the imposition of this calm beauty, and it and in doing so it challenges the assumption that the artist’s role is the projection of such possible (utopic) futures. The tranquil city behind the white fog might, in its own way, be read as the possible image of a society without contradictions, without conflict, rendered peaceful but also sterile. If this is a dream of utopia, then the artwork does not so much reveal it as the central dream around which the city revolves, as it engenders a phenomenological skepticism about the sensory access we have to the city.

Driton Selmani, The Stories (2018), single-channel video installation

A similar skepticism, expanded to the scale of planetary history, seems to animate Driton Selmani’s These Stories, a video that juxtaposes footage and audio from Neil Armstrong’s moon landing with narrations from one of the artist’s relatives, speaking about the arrival of electricity at his village in Kosovo, a very late development in the former Yugoslavia’s electrification project—an event that occurred in the same period as the moon landing. The interweaving of these two stories highlights the remoteness of the moon landing from lived reality at the time, and in doing so it introduces a schism between the personal and the global, a schism that grows out of the inequities inherent in all modernization projects, and in all projects to construct the urban. 

Segment from Olson Lamaj, The Goldfinch (2014), video, as projected in the exhibition

If the scale of Selmani’s video suggests the impossibility of projecting a unified experience of history that could be shared at a planetary scale, the works on view by Ledia Konstandini, Remijon Pronja, and Olson Lamaj all focus on the domestic sphere, in different ways, approaching the urban through the lens of the home. Konstandini’s video installations—especially the pair of works I Look at Them They Look Back at Me and Untitled (the cage balcony)—play with voyeurism and the forms of (in)visibility that characterize both the body and the home. Eyes peering through wire grating, behind hanging clothes; linens hung up to dry gradually filling out the teeth in a smile; a balcony framed as the outline of a house, locked behind crisscrossing strands of thread. The balcony, as the artist says in her statement, becomes a “small stage from [which] we perform our desires, needs, and possibilities.”[5] But the balconies in these works are also places where anxiety emerges: they are also cages, also places of concealment, where eyes peer out but also hide behind. 

Pronja’s Home ironizes the nostalgic associations of the word, suggesting its flexibility as a concept. Yet the kitschy quality of the artist’s large lightbox photograph—which shows an interior with the word ‘home’ written out in string lights on the wall behind an empty living room—also can’t help but propose that the concept is not only mobile but also increasingly empty (especially in a moment when home ownership has become more and more impossibly expensive in Tirana, and real homes are being demolished to make way for new roads and gentrified neighborhoods—more on this later). Finally, Lamaj’s The Goldfinch is a video filmed inside the villa of the former communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, located in the ‘Blloku’ section of Tirana, the neighborhood occupied by the elite under state socialism. As a goldfinch flies about, apparently trapped inside the villa, the camera pans across the modernist interior of the home, lingering on chairs, bookshelves, and tables, while Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Hitchcock’s Psycho lends a grim urgency to the bird’s flitting movements. According to Lamaj’s statement about the work, the video explores the lasting impacts of dictatorship—for which the closed and isolated villa serves as a visual metaphor, with the goldfinch (a bird often kept in captivity, but which can return and thrive in the wild if released) standing in for the society that might emerge after the end of the such a period of isolation. 

Remijon Pronja, HOME (2013), installation with neon light

Elsewhere, Alketa Ramaj’s Rriteset: Rritesja 1 (carrying structures) presents a plaster cast (part of a series) of a structure used to ensure that recently planted trees grow straight and remain upright. Without the trees, the artist describes these structures “turn[ing] into ‘worthless bodies’”[6]—they become vestigial organs that no longer have a specific role to play. Like the dictator’s villa in Lamaj’s The Goldfinch, the object of Ramaj’s act of artistic intervention is an object that gestures most directly at a moment past: it looks at what is left behind after the event of urban transformation, and lingers on the semiotic confusion that emerges in the wake of that transformation, turning the object of forward (and upward) mobility into something spectral. 

Alketa Ramaj, Rritesja 1 (carrying structures) (2012), sculpture in plaster

If there is a work in the show that captures the open-ended optimism of the curatorial statement, it is (probably appropriately) Stefano Romano’s own Unfinished Archive, a series of photographs with small drawn and written interventions that the artist has been assembling since 2006. These photographs of curious situations (a pair of legs dangling from the ceiling, for example) and strange—often apparently unintentional—interventions (a pair of dentures left in the grass) do present a kind of hopefulness about their titularly unfinished character as a collection. But even here, there is a sense of melancholy to many of these photos, which still almost exclusively appear to have the character of remnants.

Stefano Romano, Unfinished Archive (2006–ongoing), photographs

All of this is to say that this is an exhibition in which the city emerges as defined primarily in terms of absence, incompleteness, doubt, and a kind of protective distance that is both furnished by and potentially exacerbated by memory. If I was to set aside the curatorial text’s hopeful assessment of art’s relation to a utopian urban future, I would say this exhibition shows that our primary relationship to the city is as something past.[7] This does not make it any more certain as an object of reflection: with the waning credibility of modernism’s future-oriented acts of creation, the past also became something unknowable and uncertain. Imagination here serves primarily not as a productive source of new configurations, but as the waning or “decaying sense” (to briefly interject Hobbes into this framework) of the world, a sense that is always tending towards memory but that is also always skeptical of that memory. The collection of works more convincingly puts into question the possibility of assembling a plurality of experiences and perceptions into any kind of unified center around which the future (or past) city might be said to revolve. It postulates a sort of remoteness from the city, a remoteness born out of the inability for us—as inhabitants of the city—to hold on to a belief in the plural vision of humanity that urban life once represented. 

It must be said too that the remoteness manifest in the exhibition also sheds light on precisely what is not represented within its collective imagination. At a moment when Albanian citizens are being forcefully ejected from their homes, and those homes in turn demolished to pave the way for new and gentrified neighborhoods, these images of violence and destruction are absent (even if their echo can be felt in the exhibition). The towers that have sprung up around Tirana’s center, a reflection of the oligarchic machinery of money-laundering that has effectively driven urban transformations in Tirana’s recent history, are likewise absent. I am not saying that the artists represented have a duty to represent these elements of the city that most immediately gives the context to this particular exhibition; rather, I think that the desire to place the city itself at a remove, to put into question the meanings and the hope invested in that city, is itself a response to the increasing unlivability of Tirana. Reading the curatorial text’s line “as if the places in which we live did not really belong to us” in the wake of the recent demolitions in the “May 5th” neighborhood of Tirana—demolitions that are already part of a much longer series of evictions and demolitions of homes—should produce a sobering reflection on what kind of future many Tirana citizens could possibly imagine for their city.

If The Revolution… approaches the question of living together through the lens of the city (and the effort to imagine its present and future development), Leviathan instead approaches this question through the lens of the body politic. In this particular case, the embodiment—and consolidation—of political power is dually represented in both the exhibition space and the theme of the exhibition itself. Leviathan is a solo exhibition of the work of sculptor Ergys Krisiko (the son of sculptor Kristo Krisiko) presented in the Center for Openness and Dialogue (COD), a multipurpose exhibition space opened by artist-politician Edi Rama in 2015, inside the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building. The exhibition presents three distinct large-scale sculptural installations, one of which is installed outside the entrance to the COD and two of which reside inside it. One of these latter groupings—two massive hollow segments depicting the tail of an immense sea creature—is installed in the main entrance hall of the COD, while the second is a set of gargantuan, lens-shaped metal forms that take up most of the space inside the COD’s side gallery (Salla “Tako Artistin”), located immediately off the entrance hallway. 

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

The curatorial text for the exhibition, written by Ajola Xoxa, traces the mythological narrative of the Leviathan from its appearances in Judeo-Christian texts through to its appearance as the titular metaphor for the body politic in Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book. If the works in The Revolution… consistently established a sense of distance between themselves and their subject matter, Leviathan forthrightly embraces its proximity to power, and Krisiko’s emphasis on the association of the building itself with centralized power is emphasized in Xoxa’s curatorial statement. Even in this proximity, however, the curatorial framework wants Krisiko’s work to question the source(s) of political power, to complicate the relationship between authority and the buildings (and political offices) that wield it. The text poses a series of questions: “[I]s the Leviathan the building or the power that it carries? Or is Leviathan […] the force that brings the power, that is, the voting people? Is it the building that enslaved the Leviathan and trapped him in a cage, or is it the Leviathan himself who clutched it? Who is the Leviathan? Should he be feared?”[8]

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

The sensation of fear, or at least of awe, is indeed one that emerges in the exhibition, in which the viewer is confronted by (to quote the curatorial text again) an installation that “seeks to occupy the entire COD space, leaving little room for movement,” making the viewer “feel small.”[9] And indeed, Krisiko’s exhibition is the first one that I have seen that truly feels like it competes with the space of the COD itself, rather than simply occupying it. Before we talk about the space itself, we need to talk about what is positioned outside of it: three life-size resin horses are placed on the steps and outside the entryway of the COD. Their bodies are completely black, and have the appearance of being composed from individual pieces of shaped leather or patches of some other material that has been sewn together. Despite this sewn-together look, the horses are quite naturalistic, and from a distance appear very real (with the exception of their black color). The three horses placed outside the COD instantly enter into dialogue with two artworks first installed when the space was opened in 2015: Philippe Parreno’s Marqee Tirana, which hovers over the entrance to the building, and Carsten Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom, installed off to the right of the entrance in a grassy area on the building’s side. Höller’s mushroom is frequently taken indoors to prevent it from damage in protests, and as far as I know it was not on view for most of the time Leviathan has been open. However, the horses visually dialogue in a rather interesting way with Parreno’s Marquee, which (due to recent protests about the steeply rising prices of gas and food) has been covered by a layer of shielding that protects it from thrown cobblestones and other damage.[10] I will have more to say about the role the horses play below, but their presence effectively produces a sense of calm that is belied by the shielded Parreno. They are a playful touch that counterbalances the weight of the installations inside the COD, and their visual distinctness from the metal surfaces of the Leviathan also serves quite nicely to imply a continuity between the metallic sheen of the shielding protecting Marquee and the and body of the sea creature that appears to merge with the structure itself.

Ergys Krisiko, horses installed outside the COD as part of Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

As a visitor enters the COD, they pass through a metal detector (a stark reminder that one is not simply entering a gallery), and immediately confront a wall of black curtains. Moving to the right, the visitor passes behind the curtains and confronts the massive tail of a fish, made of metal and split into two sections. One section terminates in the tail fin, while the other section disappears into the wall at right. The fact that the two are split apart allows a viewer to pass between them and look into the darkness of their hollow interiors. The second section, the one that disappears into the wall, is nearly as tall as a person, and once feels that one could crawl inside. In fact, from photographs taken at the opening, this half of the Leviathan’s body held a single candle illuminating a quotation from Hobbes: “As a draft-animal is yoked in a wagon, even so the spirit is yoked in this body.” On my two visits to the exhibition, however, both sections remained dark—there was no candle, and the quotation was not visible. While this quote certainly helps frame the exhibition’s emphasis on the material shell of the COD—reflected through the material shell of the metal sea beast laid out within it—I am not convinced it is necessary. It makes the work a little too literal, and in my mind distracts from the overwhelming effect of the darkness within both halves of the Leviathan’s tail, which in turn creates the impression of a tunnel that one could enter into.

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

This tunnel-like effect is also important because it allows the viewer to perceive the adjacent room (the open doorway of which is also always visible from the curtained-off space in which the Leviathan’s tail languishes) as a kind of continuation of the fish’s body. This continuation is surely intentional, and thus the idea that the section of the fish would be ‘walled off,’ so to speak, by a quotation from Hobbes seems unhelpful in terms of the overall impact. Furthermore, it is this effect of continuity that makes Krisiko’s installation one of the most interesting and certainly effective uses of the COD’s space that I have seen. As the visitor passes into the adjoining room, which is bathed in red light, they immediately come to a halt before a series of massive lens-shaped metal discs mounted from one wall to another. These discs give the impression that one has entered a massive turbine, or perhaps some immense threaded grinder. One can barely even take in the contraption (which does not move, and the discs rest their lower edges on the floor), so much does it fill the space. Visitors can pass under it to reach the other side, hunching over in the process, but here again one finds oneself trapped against the wall, with no real way to take in the form as a whole. The installation does indeed make the viewer feel small, as the curatorial text suggests, and with this feeling comes a sense of awe: the idea of having gone into the beast itself, of being inside the guts of power. 

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

As is the case with The Revolution…, however, I am not fully in agreement with the direction the curatorial texts wants us to take in reading this work. The text not only wants to raise questions about whether the Leviathan has somehow been trapped in the COD (a reading I do not find particularly plausible); it also wants us to believe that being able to enter the beast’s insides makes it somehow less threatening, and more vulnerable. “Leviathan’s portrayal as a creature trapped within the walls of the COD – the Prime Minister’s Office – inevitably brings about a special poetics, almost melancholic: this great beast, this monster is in fact all alone despite its greatness; silent, fearful, but harmless.”[11] I find it difficult to reconcile the scale of the work, the idea that it appears to disappear into the walls themselves, and the angry red light of the turbine room with this notion of a melancholic, misunderstood beast. It is impossible not to feel a kind of threat implicit in the Leviathan, and this is made all the more true by the elaborate theater of black curtains that keeps the viewer from understanding their relationship to the rest of the space. This not only imposes a closer proximity on the viewer—it produces a kind of disorientation that I cannot fully square with the idea that the Leviathan should be interpreted as harmless. 

Ergys Krisiko, Leviathan (2022), sculptural installation

According to the curatorial text, however, it is the presence of the horses—“quietly eat[ing] grass, as within a peaceful idyllic landscape, undisturbed, unafraid”[12]—that clinch the idea that we have nothing to fear from the Leviathan within the COD. But it is here that the exhibition’s exploration of political power feels most disingenuous. The idea that the horses are in some kind of ‘peaceful, idyllic landscape’ is blatantly contradicted by the shielding covering Parreno’s Marquee. The horses seem to be meant to suggest that the public should likewise become docile, that it should pay no attention to the beast whose body has become the building of the COD, that it should content itself with ‘quietly eating grass.’[13]  

Xoxa, Leviathan’s curator, is one of the co-founders (in 2018) of Harabel Contemporary Art Platform[14] and also the wife of the current Tirana mayor Erion Veliaj. Those familiar with the politics of the Albanian art scene will see the rather narrow circle of political power and cultural production at work here: Edi Rama, a Prime Minister (and former mayor of Tirana) who has long used his role as an artist to propel his political career, opens an art space in his governmental headquarters. A few years later, the wife of the current Tirana mayor (himself also a prominent member of the Socialist Party, and a prime candidate for Rama’s successor as the leader of that party) co-founds a platform devoted to public art and to gathering contemporary artists’ portfolios. This platform consistently receives substantial funding from the Ministry of Culture, including for the realization of a series of public art commissions. Xoxa’s move from cultural promoter to curator, and her curation of an exhibition at the COD, closes a fairly short circuit, producing another viable artworld ambassador for Albania’s artistic elite. One imagines that Xoxa might soon appear as the curator of a future Albanian national pavilion at Venice, or else as the organizer or curator representing Albania in some other regional or transnational event. 

Although it is difficult not to interpret the exhibition at the COD as a logical career step for its curator, the exhibition also makes an interesting political statement (though one I personally find problematic). It wants to create doubt about whether or not power is actually centralized in Albania, by undermining the metaphorical Leviathan as an image of authority and instead suggesting that it is somehow trapped or vulnerable, permeated by the people who enter into the building and therefore into its inner workings. At the same time, it wants to suggest that there is nothing to fear from power: the horses grazing outside the COD to suggest that there is no reason to be concerned about the power the Leviathan represents. And both of these facts are in turn marshalled to make a statement about the enfeebled character of imagination in the contemporary world: “in the political world of 2022,” Xoxa’s text explains, “no mythological creature manages to challenge reality, because reality transcends fantasy.” That is to say, the actions of politics transcend the need for any imagined future (of the kind that might have been hoped for, for example, in the curatorial text of The Revolution…)

Does the exhibition convincingly make this argument? As a viewer, but also as a critic, it is hard for me to evaluate, perhaps because I disagree so strongly with the first two claims: power (at least power of a certain kind) is centralized in Albania, clearly so. And the actions that have been taken to further consolidate that power and tie it to certain economic interests—actions such as the destruction of homes in the Astir and May 5th neighborhoods, as well as the destruction of the National Theater in 2020, but not only these—show that there is indeed reason to fear this centralized power. And yet the conclusion might still stand: is there any kind of art that could effectively—through an effort of the imagination—simply overcome that political reality, replacing it with something better? Is there any fantasy that could challenge the realities currently unfolding in Albania, in both its urban and rural settings?

And here I think the answer is no, and the exhibition makes that case through the very process of its own production: as a product of the political and cultural elite in Albania, staged in a space that aims transforms art into a kind of theater to hide the machinations of politics, there is certainly no fantasy that can compete with political ‘reality,’ at least in most of the ways we might construe it. I think that this fact, at least implicitly, informs the remoteness from ‘the dream of the city’ that I have tried to argue is also present in The Revolution…. That exhibition’s ambivalence about the imaginative projection of the city (or society) in its ideal form stems plausibly from the suspicion that—at least now, in this historical moment—no such utopian projection could plausibly replace what is happening in Albania today. 

In contrast to the remoteness that one finds in many of the works in The Revolution…, as I have said, Leviathan derives much of its impact from immediacy and proximity. It suggests that the public can get close to power, to the power that shapes our ways of living together and the futures of the cities (and peripheries) we live in. Whereas The Revolution…presents a series of studies in mediation—looking at our understanding of plural living through both formal and conceptual filters—Leviathan hopes to place us directly inside the mechanical beast that is at the same time the machine through which power produces its subjects and governs them. But this proximity is not intended to produce any action; it is simply intended to leave the viewer either in awe of that machine or else—paradoxically—to make them sympathetic to its isolation within the halls of the state. 

The visions of the social that The Revolution… and Leviathan present are certainly not the only ones that have been presented by artists working (and curators making exhibitions) in Tirana in recent years, but I nonetheless think it is important to map the way these two exhibitions present the relationship the plurality of human being, imagination, and art. I should stress again that this effort to find a parallel between the two exhibitions is my own conceit: there is (as far as I know) no intention for such an affinity to exist. What strikes me most about both exhibitions is that their positions on the question of imagination tell a decidedly grim story about the possibilities of the artistic imagination in Albania today: Leviathan wants to dismiss that imagination in the face of political realities (implying all along that one feels that political reality to be moving towards a better world). The Revolution… uses that imagination to outline a series of ambivalent responses to urban life, engaging with memory, uncertainty, absence, and the fragmentation of a shared sense of social existence. The urgent questions seems to me to be: how can we credibly reclaim a role for the artistic imagination that is critically engaged with existing conditions, and at the same time that shows a way beyond those conditions without falling into a kind of naïve optimism about the future (the same kind of naïve optimism that is regularly used to suggest that we, like the horses, should calmly continue our grazing)? 

Disclosures: No one paid me to write this text (I’m not sure who would have). I wrote this essay after having seen both exhibitions, and wondering—for a few weeks at least—if they had anything to do with each other. I decided they did. I spoke with some of the artists (and the curators) of The Revolution…, but here I’ve tried to analyze the exhibition using only the information that is available to the public (namely the curatorial text and the works themselves). I’m currently collaborating on research for a project that is projected to open at Bulevard Art & Media Institute later this year. My thoughts about the relationship between the arts, imagination, and society were inevitably shaped by an exhibition I have been working on while viewing both of these exhibitions, a solo retrospective of the work of Pleurad Xhafa, organized at Zeta Center for Contemporary Art and supported by the Debatik Center of Contemporary Art. That exhibition provides an alternative viewpoint on the possible ways art might frame the political—and the urban—in contemporary Albania, or at least so I believe. But I leave that analysis to visitors with a more objective perspective. 

I’ve update the text to fix some errors in the captions to the photos.

[1] There seems to be slight confusion about the name of the exhibition. Initial press and social media materials referred to the exhibition as Leviathan, but some subsequent materials have instead used the title of the curatorial text—“Leviatani Mekanik/Mechanical Leviathan”—to refer to the exhibition itself. I have retained the former title, as it seems that this simpler version of the title, without any qualifications, was originally intended. 

[2] Of the seven artists included, four teach at Polis University, and in a way the exhibition can be considered as a kind of effort to reinforce the university’s claim to relevancy in the Albanian art scene, a claim about its own institutional relevancy as a thought leader in terms of the relationship between art, design, architecture, and urban space. But, for the reasons I will outline below, the exhibition does not really reinforce this claim: the ambivalence that characterizes the different imaginative approaches to the city—and artistic knowledge of it—concisely undermine the kind of narrative that might position a university as a source of authoritative knowledge about building the future city.  

[3] Stefano Romano, “The Revolution of the City around its Dream,” exhibition handout, 2022.

[4] Romano, “The Revolution …,” exhibition handout. The exhibition’s themes clearly align with Romano’s ongoing interest in the relationship between art and public space, a set of concerns he has pursued since the seminal 1.60 Insurgent Space project in 2005­–06, through the MAPS (Museum of Art in Public Space) publication series, and in his involvement with exhibitions such as Teatri i Gjelbërimit (Theater of Greenery) at FAB Gallery, 2016. 

[5] “The Revolution…,” exhibition handout. 

[6] “The Revolution…,” exhibition handout.

[7] It is also worth noting that many of the works in the exhibition are not particularly recent—several were created in the first half of the 2010s decade.

[8] Ajola Xoxa, “Mechanical Leviathan,” exhibition handout, 2022. I am here quoting the Egnlish translation, which is also available on Harabel’s website: https://harabel.com.al/exhibition-ergys-krisiko-leviathan-cod-25-mars-15-prill-2022-tirana/.

[9] Ajola Xoxa, “Mechanical Leviathan,” exhibition handout. 

[10] See Armando Lulaj’s project Armored (2019), https://debatikcenter.net/strikes/armored

[11] Ajola Xoxa, “Mechanical Leviathan,” exhibition handout. 

[12] Ajola Xoxa, “Mechanical Leviathan,” exhibition handout.

[13] I find it almost impossible to believe that the phrase “fare të qetë hanë bar” can have been used without some implied eye-winking about the recent declaration from the American ambassador about supporters of Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha. And the ambassador’s reference in turn hearkened back to the dictator Enver Hoxha’s declaration “Edhe bar do hamë, dhe armikut nuk i dorëzohem” (thanks to A.K. for the exact quotation). But perhaps in this case it really is simply a coincidence.

[14] Some people have consistently referred to Xoxa as (one of the) director(s) of Harabel, but the organization’s website does not in fact list Xoxa, nor any current executive director. At the time of the space’s founding, however, she was identified as the co-founder, together with artist Driant Zeneli, and she is still identified as co-founder on the Tirana municipality’s website listing art spaces in the city. 

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