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“Paqëndrueshmëria e Përherëshme”: PamorART year 2 nr 3, 1999

This post continues a series of scans of the issues of PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, during Gëzim Qëndro’s time as Director. The editor-in-chief of the publication was Eleni Laperi, and its editorial staff included Suzana Varvarica Kuka, Ylli Drishti, and Edi Muka. PamorART began publication in 1998, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. PamorART holds a tremendous significance for histories of contemporary Albanian art, since it is one of the few publications where we can get a glimpse of the relationship between the developing post-socialist and post-1997 art scene, in dialogue with the central artistic institution in the country, the National Gallery. It’s also a tribute to the important work done by the longstanding research staff of the gallery (including Eleni, Suzana, and Ylli)–work that I think is seldom recognized. The issues of PamorART are very hard to find–hence my desire to make them widely available to researchers. Thanks to Suzana Varvarica for lending me this issue to scan it.

The third issue of PamorART, published in March of 1999, was dedicated to the 1998 edition of the ‘Onufri’ exhibition, the annual exhibition and prize established for Albanian art in 1993. As outlined in Edi Muka’s article “Paqëndrueshmëria e Përherëshme” (“Permanent Instability”) in this issue of PamorART, the 1998 edition of the prize competition and exhibition brought certain foundational changes. First, Onufri became an exhibition that included international artists from various other countries in the Balkans(including artists from Kosovo, North Macedonia, Croatia, and Bulgaria). Secondly, and more importantly, this was the first Onufri to have a curator and a curatorial concept (the titular “Paqëndrueshmëria e Përherëshme”).

Muka’s text is historically significant because he attempts to lay out why the role of the curator and the curatorial concept are necessary to the success of Onufri: basically, he argues that the use of a curatorial concept to guide the selection of works included creates the ground for a critical position on the exhibition, opening up the possibility for dialogue about the appropriateness of the concept, the degree to which the works selected develop that concept, and so forth. Implicit in this claim, of course, is the idea that artistic quality is no longer a credible factor in selecting works, and that artists were by that time working in such various modes that traditional models of taste on the part of the audience would no longer suffice to explain the works exhibited.

Muka goes on to assert that the curatorial concept was reciprocally generated by examining the trends in artistic output in the Balkans. This series of claims is emblematic of the complex introduction of the curatorial function (which Octavian Esanu has discussed at length in his recent book The Postsocialist Contemporary) in the region. On the one hand, the curator is supposedly necessary to navigate the complexities of artistic production and social reality in the new post-socialist context. On the other hand, the curator is supposedly staying true to what artists are doing–the curator does not capriciously impose themes on artwork, but rather organically responds to the trends in artwork produced in their own time.

Of course, the introduction of a curator for Onufri (which already occupied a strange middle position between a prize competition and a general national exhibition) could not help but be controversial. A fascinating dissenting position on the 1998 edition of Onufri is presented in the issue through two short interviews with the painters Besim Tula and Stefan Taçi, two of the founders of the Nëntori group. The Nëntori group, and their annual exhibition, offered a different model: that of an exhibition without a determined theme and without a curator, a model that they saw as an alternative to the conditions of both Socialist Realism (which had imposed set themes on artists) and contemporary curatorial practice (which likewise organized artists by means of curatorial concepts). Tula’s response is very critical of Muka in particular, while Taçi’s s more circumspect in its evaluation of the changes taking place in the scene at the time.

In addition to Muka’s text and these two interviews, the issue also contains numerous other interviews with artists who took part in the 1998 Onufri exhibition, as well as short texts from other curators and critics in the region, such as Suzana Milevska.

I first began archiving the PamorART issues on this website back in 2016. You can see the first issue of the publication here, and the second issue here. These first two issues were scanned by Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, who received them from Gëzim Qëndro before he passed away. I think both of them for initiating the project. I subsequently posted the fifth issue here; in the next week or so I will finish posting the final two issues (issue 4 and issue 6)

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. 

“Probleme të Karakterit Kombtar Socialist në Arkitekturë” – Discussions from Drita, 1976

I have been doing a tremendous amount of scanning lately, for a number of different research projects. As always in my research on socialist-era Albanian culture, I’m on the lookout for material that will be helpful to my architecture comrades, since the literature on that topic tends to be so minimal. Today, I was looking over Drita (the weekly publication of the Union of Writers and Artists in socialist Albania) from 1976, and that year there was an extended series of discussions on the national character of architecture. Click the image below to read more.

These discussions from Drita are interesting for several reasons, but one main reason is that they represent the continued repercussions of the infamous Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Party of Labor, which took place in 1973. At this meeting, Albania’s communist dictator Enver Hoxha delivered a famous speech attaching “foreign manifestations” or “foreign influences” in arts and culture, and called for an aggressive end to liberal attitudes towards these foreign elements. The Fourth Plenum set the stage for a new era in Albanian socialist culture, one that closed off many of the forms of cultural experimentation and exchange that had been developing until the early 1970s. Instead, the subsequent decade would see an increasing turn towards national identity (although of course this had already been developing in the 1960s, in the arts and culture).

The rhetoric of national identity, however, can be clearly seen in the discussions about architecture that are included on the pages of Drita in 1976. The first essay in the series is by Kujtim Buza, then the secretary of the Union of Writers and Artists. Subsequent contributors to the series include painters, architects, sculptors, workers, heritage experts, and an economist, among others. They analyze themes as diverse as the relationship between architecture and decoration, the use of stone as a building material, the development of greenery in the city, the relationship between architecture and monumental sculpture, and the development of national styles in furniture and interior design. There are some interesting case studies discussed from Gjirokastra, Kukës, and Mat, and there’s also an article (not technically part of the series, but of interest) on new developments in Tirana.

It’s interesting to compare the ideas expressed in 1976 to those that appeared on the pages of Nëndori (also published by the Union of Writers and Artists) in June of 1971. In 1971, significant emphasis was placed on new directions and methods in architecture, and thus (implicitly) many of the discussants call for a modernist architecture. In 1976, the emphasis is on discovering ways to integrate novelty into a nationalist discourse that focuses on folk methods, motifs, materials, and types of forms.

“Midis Reales dhe Virtuales”: PamorART year 3 nr 5, 2000

After a long hiatus, this post returns us to a series begun years ago, featuring scans of the historically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, during Gëzim Qëndro’s time as Director. The editor-in-chief of the publication was Eleni Laperi, and its editorial staff included Suzana Varvarica Kuka, Ylli Drishti, and Edi Muka. PamorART began publication in 1998, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. PamorART holds a tremendous significance for histories of contemporary Albanian art, since it is one of the few publications where we can get a glimpse of the relationship between the developing post-socialist and post-1997 art scene, in dialogue with the central artistic institution in the country, the National Gallery. It’s also a tribute to the important work done by the longstanding research staff of the gallery (including Eleni, Suzana, and Ylli)–work that I think is seldom recognized. The issues of PamorART are very hard to find–hence my desire to make them widely available to researchers.

This particular issue focuses on the Onufri ’99 exhibition, including interviews between the editors and many of the participants. It also includes a creative, humorous, and very compelling interview “Between the Real and the Virtual: An Interview with the National Gallery of Arts.” Written by Qëndro, the interview unfolds between PamorART (as an entity) and the National Gallery (also a self-aware entity, and explores how the gallery itself considers its own history, its role in society, and its relation to viewership.

As part of a cataloguing and ultimately digitizing project at the Center for Artistic Documentation (QDA, at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Art, IAKSA, in Tirana), I’ve been working on gathering together materials related to institutional and exhibition histories of the 1990s and onwards. This scan is part of that project (the resolution of this one is quite low, since it’s from my phone, but there will also be a high-res scan made for the Center for Artistic Documentation). We will also be scanning copies of the rest of the issues.

I first began archiving the PamorART issues on this website back in 2016. You can see the first issue of the publication here, and the second issue here. These first two issues were scanned by Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, who received them from Gëzim Qëndro before he passed away. I think both of them for initiating the project.

“It’s Very Exciting to Talk about Artist-run Countries”: Edi Rama, the COD, and the Problematics of Celebrating the Artist-Politician [Archival Recoveries]

This analysis was originally published on December 22, 2016, as part of a blog residency at the now-defunct Blog at ARTMargins OnlineWhen ARTMargins Online’s website was restructured, its blog archive became unavailable, and as such the essay has not been available. In the wake of the destruction of the National Theater in Tirana on May 17, 2020, it has again become clear how few resources exist online offering a critical view of Edi Rama’s political actions and their intertwinement with art (and artwashing). For that reason, I am re-publishing this piece here. It was originally written in order to come to terms with the global artworld’s uncritical reception of the opening of the COD (Center for Openness and Dialogue), and in order to present a context for the few voices in the artworld who had openly questioned Rama (such as Eriola Pira, who confronted Rama at the reception for his show at Marian Goodman Gallery in November of 2016). I publish the essay here without any editing, merely to document its existence and to make it available to those who find its analysis and information useful. It was certainly not the first such critical view, and it cites some of earlier efforts to challenge the valorizing narrative of contemporary Albanian politics. It also provides a timeline of portions of Rama’s career and the early period of the COD, which may be useful to historians and critics alike.

_______________________________________

  1. “It’s Very Exciting”

The dream of the artist’s involvement in politics is not a new one. For well over a century, artists and critics have been engaged in debating the ideal combination of an ever-growing number of approaches: realism, aestheticized politics, politicized art, art-into-life, relational aesthetics, art-as-industry, and artivism, to name just a few. In the early 21st century, the avant-garde’s desire that the artist might take up an active role in political processes continues to exercise a strong sway over curators, theoreticians of art, and artists themselves. It should come as no surprise, however, that many of the apparent examples of artists involved in politics are drawn from geopolitical peripheries, sustaining an image of small and geographically distant cities, nations and regions as ‘research and development’ zones for debates that are then carried out at a remove in Western Europe and the United States. In this post, I examine the problematics around one particular example of an artist’s involvement in politics: the case of Edi Rama, once mayor of Albania’s capital city, Tirana, and now Prime Minister of the country.

Rama’s friendships with well-known contemporary artists such as Anri Sala, and curators such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, have made him a popular example of the possibilities of an artist entering the contemporary political realm. As Obrist put it in his introduction of Rama at a talk associated with an exhibition of Rama’s work Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, “In the artworld we talk about artist-run spaces, but it’s very exciting to talk about artist-run countries.” It may certainly be ‘exciting,’ but the actual dynamics of contemporary art, space, and political power in Edi Rama’s Albania are far more complex than Obrist’s overtly celebratory discourse would imply. In fact, in many ways, Rama’s recent artistic policies represent a retreat from the kind of utopian urbanism that characterized his earlier career. This retreat is evident only in the kinds of work Rama has recently exhibited in spaces like the Marian Goodman Gallery, but also in his recent project to transform parts of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building into an exhibition space. Understanding the full implications of these relations between contemporary art and politics complicate our understanding of politicized aesthetics, and problematize the celebration of art-as-politics for its own sake.

 

  1. “You Don’t Get It”

On the evening of November 12, 2016, following the opening of the solo exhibition of Edi Rama’s drawings and sculptures at Marian Goodman Gallery, a conversation took place featuring Rama in conversation with internationally renowned curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.[1] The conversation focused (ostensibly) on the relationship between politics and art in Rama’s career and work. Rama first gained notoriety as an artist-politician during his term as the mayor of Tirana in the early 2000s, when he initiated a project to paint the facades of several socialist-era apartment blocks along one of the city’s main roads with bright colors. The project was documented by artist Anri Sala, in Sala’s video Dammi i Colori (2003), and this fusion of politics, urbanism, and art subsequently made Rama a hero for a that segment of the transnational contemporary art establishment that desires to proclaim a continued political relevance for the arts in the age of global neoliberal capitalism. Since 2013, with Rama’s election as Prime Minister of Albania, he has also begun to more actively integrate his artistic activity into his political narrative; he has increasingly emphasized not only his interventions in urban space but also the importance of his colorful drawings in his planners and on official paperwork. These images—much more intimate in scale, yet chromatically akin to his painted buildings—have provided a kind of artistic synecdoche for Rama’s political work in Albania. That is, much to the delight of the aforementioned art establishment, they appear to provide a way to talk about the possibilities of art’s effects on the political reality of Albania without actually—to put it bluntly—talking about the political or artistic reality of Albania.

Despite the fact that there is ongoing criticism of Rama’s use of art as a kind of spectacle to mask a neoliberal and autocratic tendency in his politics, this criticism largely comes from a fairly limited circle of artists, critics, and curators based in or closely associated with Albania. This critique has, at least thus far, made essentially no impact on the celebratory discourse around Rama in artworld centers such as Paris and New York. Thus, it visibly came as a shock to Rama, Obrist, and Tiravanija when art historian and curator Eriola Pira pointedly addressed both Rama and the gathered audience in the open Q&A session following the talk. Pira asked two questions, one aimed at those in attendance, and the other at Rama, and they are worth quoting in full:

“As has been evident through out the discussion this afternoon, Rama’s art is deeply intertwined with politics. But, this primarily refers to his status as a politician and not his politics. In fact, as the art
attests, it is because of his status as a politician, who dabbles in
art, that we are gathered here. Politics, and especially his politics
, are entirely absent, invisible, or art-washed. And, since Rama has of
late gained a reputation of dismissing his critics and dissenters, be
they of the opposition or civil society, I will direct this question to all of you: How many of you do know his
politics beyond the ‘painting the town,’ which as he just told us was really just an affected behavior?

 

Let me help you
out with this. There is: systematic dismantling of public institutions such as higher education, which has led to the jailing and prosecuting of student protesters; corruption at the highest level of government and systematic collusion with the construction and narcotics mafia; autocratic control over mainstream media, which has been followed by censorship of alternative and social media; and lastly […] the use of art as a propaganda tool to aestheticize all these problems, [which] has put art in the worst position it has been in, including the [previous] eight years of [Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha’s] right-wing government.”[2]

 

When Rama responded by asking, “So, where is the question, or is it just a speech?” Pira added, “How do you suggest artists counter all of this politics, how do they protest these politics, without, you know, being jailed?”

And now we arrive at the curious occurrence I forecasted at the outset: faced with a series of quite harsh accusations about the policies that have characterized his time as Prime Minister and a question regarding the possible responses open to artists operating in Albania, Rama’s response was—as he put it—“very simple.” “You don’t get it,” Rama claimed, after citing the fact that Albania had recently received a recommendation from the European Commission to open accession talks with the European Union. “I think they get it; you don’t get it.” He added, “And also, you know, it’s a very […] vibrant society in terms of freedom of speech, as the European Commission stated, […] and you are the most outstanding representation [of that] here today. Nothing will happen to you. You’ll be a very happy citizen, […] so don’t worry.” What is curious about Rama’s response (and I am of course setting aside the belligerence of his answer and the not-so-veiled threat implicit in his assurance ‘so don’t worry’) is that he did not once mention art. In fact, he was almost admirably clear in stating his position on Albanian culture: the goal should be European integration at all costs, and Europe is the best judge of the state of Albanian society. (The inescapable irony, of course, is that this attitude is directly opposed to the one he claims for himself in the narrative of his role as mayor. Earlier in the evening, Rama had repeated his oft-told story of an enraged European Union representative telling him he couldn’t use EU funds to paint the buildings bright colors, because it was against European standards.)

This answer, however, clearly caused a certain discomfort in the representatives of the artworld present, although the only response the audience managed to muster—aside from laughing and clapping at Rama’s response—was Liam Gillick’s question to Pira: “Who are you?” Obrist, however, hastened to raise a quite obvious subject that was notably absent from Rama’s explanation: the Albanian Prime Minister’s recent transformation of part of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building into the ‘Center for Openness and Dialogue’ [COD], a combination library, project space, and exhibition venue. Obrist first cited Rama’s involvement of Tiravanija and Gillick in his painted buildings project, establishing a connection between Rama’s activity as mayor and his current projects. Obrist then brought up the recently established exhibition space and collection associated with Rama’s own government building, a space that includes works by Carsten Höller, Thomas Demand, and Philippe Parreno, asking Rama, “Could you talk about this new form of commissioning art, and bringing art into your government building?”

For the remainder of this post, I’d like to discuss the COD, [3] but it is worth pausing to consider the full import of the Rama’s response to Pira’s question, and Obrist’s rather desperate intervention (accompanied in grand style by a lot of hand-waving). Rama—either because he was too nonplussed by the question or because he simply did not care—chose to say nothing whatsoever about the role of the arts in Albanian society, neither about his own role as an artist nor about the role other artists might play in that society, and instead opted to privilege the viewpoint of an external bureaucratic organization (the European Commission). In response to this apparent rejection of the very premise of the conversation—that art and politics are productively intertwined in Rama’s Albania, that “it’s very exciting to talk about artist-run countries”—Obrist pitched Rama the topic that the Marian Goodman Gallery had in fact framed as a major conceptual facet of the exhibition. (The press release for the show asserted that Rama’s drawings transformed into wallpaper decoration—as Rama has used them in his building and as many of them appeared in the Marian Goodman space—“made sense in the context of his transforming the wider building from what had been a bureaucratic, sequestered stronghold into what’s now entitled the Center for Openness and Dialogue—including a contemporary art space, viewing rooms for public regeneration proposals, reading rooms and a lecture theatre.”) Even in pitching the talking point, however, Obrist couldn’t avoid a rather blatant retreat from what was supposedly under discussion (a productive relationship between art and society). Ultimately, his question—which not coincidentally named only foreign and quite successful artists like Parreno and Demand—was about a traditional avenue of art historical enquiry, but one that is less commonly raised in discussions of relational aesthetics and supposedly emancipatory contemporary art: the government commission of art and the integration (not to say appropriation) of that art into official state spaces.

The disjuncture between Rama’s response and Obrist’s attempt to redirect the tone of the conversation reveal the contrast between the ways that state-run contemporary art spaces can (and in this case, do) function in places like Albania, and the supposedly emancipatory possibilities that the transnational contemporary art establishment associates with these spaces. Needless to say, the import of Pira’s question at the Marian Goodman talk was precisely to reveal how out of touch with the ‘on the ground’ reality that art establishment is, and the import of Obrist’s answer was to reveal how far that establishment would go to maintain—however haphazardly—the spectacle of ‘peripheral’ contemporary art spaces as bastions of art, democracy, and dialogue.

 

III. “An Open and Transparent Encounter”

The question arises, then: what exactly is this Center for Openness and Dialogue? Following Obrist’s prompt, Rama went on to proclaim the space as a haven for protestors seeking to have their say? (He even, almost as an afterthought, invited Eriola Pira to have her say in the space, adding rather coldly, “But be prepared, because there will be also answers. And in Albanian you’ll be answered much better.”) However, his description was circular: “it’s not only art…it’s a center for openness and dialogue,” begging the question: what is going on with the art in this political space of supposed openness and dialogue?

The Center for Openness and Dialogue, frequently known by its acronym ‘COD,’ first opened in July of 2015. The center is housed in much of the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building located on Tirana’s axial central boulevard, the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation. It is comprised of multiple exhibition spaces, a ‘minilab,’ a library and digital archive, and a forum area. Rama’s primary speechwriter, Falma Fshazi, directs the space, and its board includes political aide and journalist Alastair Campbell as well as artists and curators like Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, and Christine Macel.[4] At the time of its opening, the COD was one of series of projects undertaken by Rama’s administration to open spaces that had previously been—for various reasons—inaccessible to the Albanian public. Before the COD, there was Bunk’Art in November of 2014 (a multi-purpose museum and art exhibition space opened in a large communist era anti-atomic bunker on the outskirts of Tirana), and the House of Leaves in January of 2015 (a museum housed in the former center of surveillance and torture under socialism). Bunk’Art closed for a lengthy period after its first opening, then re-opened under the private ownership and management of Italian journalist Carlo Bollino, who owns several media outlets in Albania. House of Leaves closed quite soon after a much-publicized opening to which several foreign dignitaries were invited; it has yet to re-open.

In contrast to these two architectural spaces, which relate explicitly to the socialist past and its traumas, and which were opened as part of the touristization (and consequent monetization) of Albania’s socialist-era history, the COD’s building has a longer history in relation to Albanian politics. Designed under the fascist occupation of Albania in the 1930s, the façade of the building bears a socialist realist relief executed by a group of artists that included Rama’s father, one of the most significant and celebrated sculptors of Enver Hoxha’s regime. (The fact that his father Kristaq played such an important role in shaping socialist ideology through his role in monumental government commissions is something that has curiously been left out of conversations on Edi’s relationship to politics and art.) Under previous administrations after the fall of socialism, the building functioned as most state institutions do: that is to say, it was not particularly accessible to the public.

The COD’s website proclaims that 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.” It aims to function as “a laboratory that investigates the very threshold where different fields of art, politics, and research meet and their potentials overlap.”[5] As Rama pointed out in his discussion of the space at the Marian Goodman conversation, the space has housed not only art exhibitions, but also lectures, book signings, and award ceremonies—to say nothing of numerous press conferences. In fact, the opening of the space itself coincided with the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the region, and documentation of her presence in the space for conversations and a press conference with Rama produced a kind of ideal media pseudo-event. Thus, the role of the space as a tool in a particular kind of political propaganda was evident almost from the start, and this tendency has been discussed elsewhere, in more detail than I can manage here.[6]

Rather than discussing the COD and its exhibitions spaces as an element of Rama’s political propaganda, I’d like to think in a general way about the model of art’s relationship to politics that the COD has produced in the nearly a year and a half since it opened. To anticipate: the COD evidences the increasing localization and partition of the utopian urbanism that Rama’s earlier painting of the Tirana buildings represents for curators like Obrist. The localization of art and art’s politics in the COD itself cannot really be treated as a fusion of art with society, unless it is imagined that society’s significant actions can be located in a particularized governmental space in which viewers encounter a certain kind of contemporary art. The COD does not just passively perform this function: the exhibitions that have opened in the space represent an active incorporation of exterior images, events, and actions, and their subsequent transformation into ideas and objects that escape the full weight of their political consequences ‘outside’ in Albania. In other words, the COD performs a quite essential function in linking Rama’s earlier urban artistic interventions (which now belong to a whole different stage of his career artistically and politically) to a kind of scaled-down and ironically de-politicized kind of art-politics that the transnational art establishment can turn to without becoming entangled in the real consequences of art or politics.

When the COD first opened, it featured a collection of works by three well-known contemporary artists: Thomas Demand, Carsten Höller, and Philippe Parreno. Three photographs by Demand—Sign, Attraction, and Tribute—were displayed in the main exhibition hall immediately within the entrance of the center. One of Höller’s mushrooms (Giant Triple Mushroom) was installed in a grassy patch immediately to the right of the main entrance. Finally, in what was (and continues to be) the most eye-catching aspect of the COD, one of Philippe Parreno’s glowing marquees (Marquee Tirana) placed over the entrance. (These latter two works were donated to the center by the artists and are thus, one assumes, permanent features of the space.)

The precise visual and ideological interaction of these three works has been analyzed elsewhere,[7] and so I would like to emphasize just a few points. The first is that there are both parallels and contrasts between the COD and Rama’s painted buildings: that project, like the COD, expanded to include the participation of other artists, although these artists were foreign, and already well known. (The list of other artists who deigned painted buildings in Tirana includes Liam Gillick, Olafur Eliasson, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.)[8] However, Rama’s narrative of the painted buildings has always emphasized it as ‘an undemocratic means to a democratic end’—according to him, the success of the project was that the citizens of Tirana began to take more ownership of their shared spaces, including the facades of their buildings and their green spaces. At least, this is Rama’s narrative—it is a quite separate question how to evaluate if the project was really successful in this way and to what degree—if at all—that success has been sustainable. In the case of the COD, from the beginning, it was decidedly more ambiguous precisely what kind of ownership citizens could take of the space, aside from taking part in the various official book signings, lectures, and award ceremonies held there. The fact that one must pass through a tall grey metal detector—a form that oddly mirrors the geometry of Parreno’s Marquee—as one enters the space makes it quite clear that certain kinds of authority are wholly surrendered by coming into the COD, and certainly does not facilitate mindset from which one might productively critique authority within the exhibitions.

The second point is that the initial works on display in the COD tried to stage a fusion of the center’s exterior spaces and its interior, while subsequent exhibitions have focused far more precisely on demonstrating the variety of spaces and objects that can be experienced—apparently fully—within the walls of the Prime Ministerial building itself. Parreno’s Marquee Tirana and Höller’s Giant Triple Mushroom can at least be viewed without going into the space of the state, but subsequent works have made the space increasingly only referenced the outside while in fact reinforcing the space as a self-contained interior, a microcosm with only tenuous connections to the ‘exterior’—the whole world of Albanian society and transnational politics. (Incidentally, this is precisely the relationship that has developed with Rama’s recent return to emphasizing his drawings: there is a presumed relationship between these ‘interior’ images, apparently produced out of Rama’s subconscious, and ‘exterior’ politics, but the relationship is left totally ambiguous.)

The second exhibition to open in the COD in fact heightened the degree to which the building’s urban surroundings are made to appear as fundamentally extraneous to whatever interaction of “art, politics, and research” is supposed to occur within the space. In January 2016, the COD opened its second season with a show of paintings by Edi Hila, a painter who represented Albania (together with his student, the well known artist Adrian Paci) at the 2014 edition of the Venice Architecture Biennale. Hila, whose peculiarly surrealist versions of socialist realism were harshly criticized under socialism, in the early 1970s, was clearly intended to lend the space an air of ‘resistance’ to state power. In his speech at the opening, Edi Rama spoke of Hila’s significance as an artist who showed the socialist regime its own image through the distorted mirror of painting. The cycle of Hila’s recent paintings presented in the COD was entitled Apparitions of the Boulevard [Vegimet e Bulevardit], and it focused on various architectural features of the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation: the Prime Ministerial building, the fountain in Mother Theresa Square, and the University building located at that same square.  These objects all represented, in some way, the vacuity of previous political regimes, or at least of the violence inherent in certain architectural and urbanistic interventions in the boulevard’s plan. However, the object of this critique was firmly located in the past, and the ‘ghostly’ grey aesthetic of Hila’s paintings solidified a sense of chronological distance. (Of course, Hila’s subdued palette also reified the notion that the appropriate objects of aesthetic critique are chromatically dull, rather than vibrant.)[9]

Further, Hila’s cycle of paintings—with its evocative title—also had the very simple effect of implying the spectral character of the very real spaces and objects that shared the boulevard with the COD (including the exterior of the Prime Ministerial building itself.  Hila’s works, devoid of human presence, nearly devoid of color, presented the actual urban space of the boulevard not only as ideologically violent but also as ontologically vacuous. (Shkëlzen Maliqi, a Kosovar writer and curator, and a political advisor to Rama, wrote—in a curatorial statement—that the subjects of Hila’s paintings were represented “at an ontological zero-level.”)[10] Thus, the presence of the works within the COD did not imply the vibrant political possibilities of Tirana’s urban spaces—quite the opposite. It staged the center as a node from which the adjacent boulevard—as site not only of official buildings but also of parades, protests, and other spectacles—appeared as something de-realized. In other word, the COD itself appeared vital and vibrant in contrast to a vision of its exterior surroundings as the apparitions of ideologies past.

In May of 2016, the COD opened the third exhibition in its main hall, featuring works by Kosovar artist Alban Muja and Albanian artist Olson Lamaj. The exhibition, entitled Qiell, mbi, nën [The Sky, above and below], featured works that conceptually spanned a much broader elemental purview than the previous two exhibitions. In contrast to Hila’s predominantly grey palette, the chromatic unity of The Sky, above and below derived from a shared exploration of the color blue. Muja’s works primarily focused on the sky and aerial views: his drawings and paintings were made based on sketches produced while travelling by plane to and from the US. Lamaj’s works, on the other hand, dealt thematically with both the sky and the earth, and aimed to blend politicized content with a poetic, metaphysical viewpoint achieved through color.

The Sky, above and below continued to present the COD as an abstract microcosm of its surroundings, this time one including not only its immediate urban context but also metaphorically the sky as the realm of utopian dreams and the earth as a space of concrete action.

Perhaps the most interesting work in the exhibition, and the most exemplary of the COD’s ability to transform political dissent into aesthetic objects, was Olson Lamaj’s Blue Meteor, an installation of twelve paving stones—in a vitrine—from the pedestrian area immediately in front of the Prime Ministerial building. These stones had been thrown in protests on December 8, 2015—protests organized on the 25th anniversary of the student demonstrations that contributed to the fall of socialism in Albania. The protests had in fact damaged Parreno’s Marquee Tirana, necessitating its repair. In these demonstrations, the protesters had also hurled blue smoke canisters at the entrance to the Prime Minister’s building, and it was from this act that Lamaj drew the idea of coloring the stones a deep blue that paradoxically recalled both the immaterial materiality of Yves Klein’s IKB (International Klein Blue), and the precious materiality of lapis lazuli.

For Lamaj, Blue Meteor was an investigation of the degree to which objects of political resistance could maintain their critical possibility within the space of the COD, and for him, the work demonstrated the continued vitality of concrete political action despite the state’s attempt at cooptation. From another perspective, however, Blue Meteor was a continuation of the COD’s assimilation of political dissidence and its transformation into art that is both highly conceptual and highly lyrical. In a quite literal sense, the work showed that the COD was a space that could absorb even the most material critique against it. (This was made quite clear to me when I visited the exhibition in the summer of 2016. As I was looking at Lamaj’s Blue Meteor, the security guard from the entrance approached me. “Those stones, they’re the ones they threw in the protests.” He laughed, and returned to his post near the metal detector. Any sense that I had had that the work might disturb the institutional authority of the space evaporated, at least for me.) In Rama’s discussion at the Marian Goodman Gallery, he stated, “There are two ways to deal with power: to consume it or to be consumed by it.” There is a way of seeing Blue Meteor as the consumption of a kind of political power, its processing into art and its re-deployment within the institutional framework.

The most recent exhibition in the COD’s space opened in October of 2016, and is organized by the space’s new official curator, Erzen Shkololli. Shkololli, a Kosovar curator and artist, draws the exhibition’s title, Duke Qëndruar Pezull [Just Hanging Around] from an included work by Kosovar artist Flaka Haliti. Shkololli explains that “the title of Flaka’s work, Just Hanging Around is a watchword and at the same time, the key to openness and dialogue with the aesthetics of contemporary art that, even in seemingly ephemeral subjects, finds the seeds and spices of the sublime.”[11]As Tirana-based philosopher, artist, and curator Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei argues, the works in the exhibitions “literally appear to be ‘just hanging around,’ never—with one important exception—questioning the space or context in which they are displayed. Upon entrance, the exhibition, though well-produced and properly executed, exudes an utter harmlessness.”[12] For Van Gerven Oei, the most significant artwork in Just Hanging Around is Nathan Coley’s A Place Beyond Belief, a work that can be construed precisely as a reference to the COD’s remoteness from the actual Albanian social situation, to the confusing ambiguity of its place in relation to any historical events or political situations, local or transnational.

I would like to return now to the argument I offered at the outset. In repose to the question about what the COD really is, I posited that it is a space in which the narrative of the artist’s involvement in politics can be safely partitioned and transformed into a highly localized utopia that avoids all the messiness of politics.[13] In fact, politics itself increasingly becomes framed as something ‘external’ to the space of ‘openness and dialogue,’ but at the same time politics is always susceptible of being transformed into something far more narrow and devoid of explicit content. This makes it, in fact, an ideal example for replication and citation in the discursive networks of the contemporary art establishment. To put it bluntly, the COD allows curators and critics like Obrist to retain the illusion that artist-politicians like Rama are working for ‘democracy’ and ‘community’ and ‘change’: if they do not care to investigate the broader political situation in a country like Albania, they can simply point to COD as an apparent microcosm of the country. The COD, over its lifespan, has increasingly become a space where institutional critique is in fact made all the more difficult (if not impossible) because it disorients both art and politics. The press release from the Marian Goodman Gallery is quite explicit in this. The statement compares the COD itself to Rama’s transformation of his drawings into wallpaper for his office, explaining that upon encountering Rama’s office walls covered with his colorful sketches, “local visitors or international heads of state are immediately disarmed, even momentarily distracted by their surroundings, thus initially open to lateral ideas.” Distraction and disarmament—especially when they are wielded by state institutions and governments—sound like far less desirable possibilities for an art that aims to productively bring about political change.

 

  1. “It’s Art in a Pure State”

Why, we might ask, does all this matter? On October 25, 2016, Hans Ulrich Obrist delivered a keynote lecture at the Creative Time Summit, held this year in Washington, DC. The theme of the summit in 2016 was “Occupy the Future,” and the conference—perhaps the best known international conferenced focused on the fusion of art and social activism—aimed to explore ways that artists and activists alike could occupy power in order to transform it. Obrist’s lecture,[14]entitled “The Case for Nonsense,” aimed to trace a lineage from Dada’s disruption through to more contemporary examples of artists attempting to produce new (political) realities in opposition to power. Obrist cited Fluxus, Joseph Beuys, John Latham and the Artist Placement Group, Edi Rama, Eileen Myles, (among others) as key figures in this trajectory. Of course, it was Rama’s actions as mayor that interested Obrist the most (though he relied on the fact the Rama is now Prime Minister to lend weight to the real possibility of artists entering politics. Obrist explained, “Anri Sala told me that very early on, Edi really wanted to rethink democracy.” Interestingly, however, Obrist chose to cite a quotation from Rama that emphasized instead the ‘purity’ of art, rather than political content: “Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It’s art in a pure state.”[15] There was obviously still a great deal of confusion in Obrist’s use of Rama: he was at once called upon to stand for the continuation of an avant-garde model of engaged art (the return of Beuys in a new context), the transformation of aesthetics into a purely political act (the painting of the buildings as community-building rather than art), and the apotheosis of politics into “art in a pure state.” This same confusion was evident Obrist and Tiravanija’s conversation with Rama at Marian Goodman in November, although the emphasis on Rama’s drawings and Obrist’s desire to bring the COD into Rama’s narrative seemed to privilege the latter possibility: that Rama exemplifies the possibility that art can consume (political) power and turn it into pure art, and all the problematic politics will fade away.

Obrist concluded his keynote by showing a video in which Cuban artist Tania Bruguera announced her campaign for president of Cuba in 2018. Bruguera’s statement was, of course, largely performative: she called upon viewers to imagine themselves as potential candidates for president in 2018, and thus to demand something more from Cuban politicians. She asked, “What if we actually had that power? Who would we be? What would we do?” The question is certainly an urgent one, and it is all the more urgent when we are faced with concrete examples of who artists are and what they do when they become politicians. The problem is precisely that these questions are seldom really asked, and the realities of Edi Rama’s uses of art and politics in Albania are not examined critically in some of the artworld contexts where they are also most frequently held up as exemplary. Eriola Pira’s question to the audience of Rama’s talk at Marian Goodman, and to Rama himself, should serve as a reminder that alongside, behind, and above the ‘purity’ of art, there are political situations that also demand analysis. History provides us with a wealth of examples of artists involved in politics, as does the present: we must have the courage to really try to understand what is done with political power in the name of art.

[1] A video of the conversation and the subsequent Q&A session is available at https://www.facebook.com/pg/mariangoodmangallery/videos/?ref=page_internal (accessed November 27, 2016). Subsequent quotations from the event are taken from the video.

[2] For Pira’s consideration of the significance of Rama’s talk in New York, and its relationship to political speech and censorship in Albania, see “Më e Keqja e Censurës Është…,” Peizazhe të Fjalës, November 19, 2016, https://peizazhe.com/2016/11/18/me-e-keqja-e-censures-eshte/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

[3] There have been several different recent online articles and posts devoted to the COD. For varying perspectives, see: Nicola Pedrazzi, “Angela Merkel a Tirana, lo ‘show’ di Edi Rama,” Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, July 13, 2015, http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/aree/Albania/Angela-Merkel-a-Tirana-lo-show-di-Edi-Rama-163040 (accessed August 10, 2015); Gentian Shkurti, Alban Hajdinaj, and Eriola Pira, “Parreno i Kapur në Monolog,” Peizazhe të fjalës, July 13, 2015,: http://peizazhe.com/2015/07/13/parreno-i-kapur-ne-monolog/?fb_action_ids=10207294564751530&fb_action_types=news.publishes (accessed August 10, 2015); Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “All That Frustration,” Berfrois, July 13, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/07/ vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-all-that-frustration/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Erion Gjatolli, “Art në oborr,” Reporter.al, July 16, 2015, http://www.reporter.al/art-ne-oborr/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Raino Isto, “Image//Anti-Image,” afterart, July 18, 2015, https://afterart.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/image-anti-image/ (accessed August 10, 2015); Romeo Kodra, “Center for Openness and Dialogue … COD-i ia bën muuuuu!!!: Pjesa 1,” AKS Revista, July 24, 2015, https://aksrevista.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/center-for-openness-and-dialogue-cod-i-ia-ben-muuuuu-pjesa-i-romeo-kodra/ (accessed November 27, 2016); and Jonida Gashi, “These are (not) the things we are fighting for!”, Reporter.al, November 29, 2015 (accessed November 27, 2016). For the most complete analysis in English of the COD as an aspect of Rama’s political propaganda, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Give Me the Colors…And the Country: Albanian Propaganda in the 21st Century,” Art Papers (March/April 2016), http://artpapers.org/feature_articles/2016_0304-Albania.html (accessed November 27, 2016).

[4] See the COD’s website, http://cod.al/?page_id=21 (accessed November 27, 2016).

[5] See the COD’s website, http://cod.al/en/?page_id=1434 (accessed November 27, 2016).

[6] For a clear summary in English, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Give Me the Colors…And the Country: Albanian Propaganda in the 21stCentury,” Art Papers (March/April 2016), http://artpapers.org/feature_articles/2016_0304-Albania.html (accessed November 27, 2016).

[7] For a more thorough consideration of the visual interplay of the works, see Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “All That Frustration,” Berfrois, July 13, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/07/ vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-all-that-frustration/ (accessed August 10, 2015).

[8] Strangely absent from many discussions of Rama’s ‘painted buildings’ initiative (and completely absent from Obrist’s framing of the project at the Marian Goodman talk) are critical works by Albanian artists Gentian Shkurti and Alban Hajdinaj, both of whom made video works that responded to Rama’s project. Shkurti’s video work was entitled Color Blind (2004), and it chronicles a conversation in which a woman tries to explain to a colorblind man what the facades of Tirana’s buildings look like in the wake of Rama’s project. Alban Hajdinaj’s Eye to Eye (2004) considers the disorientation of the city’s inhabitants from the perspective of a citizen whose apartment window opens onto one of the painted facades.

[9] On Edi Hila’s exhibition in the COD, see Romeo Kodra, “Edi Hila dhe manierizmi,” AKS Revista, February 12, 2016, https://aksrevista.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/edi-hila-dhe-manierizmi-romeo-kodra/ (accessed November 27, 2016).

[10] Shkëlzen Maliqi, “Vegime Bulevardi,” COD: Center for Openness and Dialogue, http://cod.al/?page_id=1485 (accessed November 25, 2016).  Translation by the author.

[11] See the description of the exhibition on the COD’s site, http://cod.al/en/?page_id=1657 (accessed November 25, 2016).  Translation slightly edited for grammatical clarity.

[12] Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, “Erzen Shkololli’s ‘Just Hanging Around’: A Place Beyond Belief?,” Exit.al, November 3, 2016, http://www.exit.al/en/2016/11/03/erzen-shkololli-just-hanging-around-a-place-beyond-belief/ (accessed November 25, 2016).

[13] It is also worth noting that, so far at least, Rama has avoided being seriously and critically compared to figures like Bogdan Bogdanovic (the architect, sculptor, and urbanist who served as Belgrade’s mayor from 1982 till 1986).

[14] The lecture can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQS5CU8WmJg (accessed November 25, 2016).

[15] This quotation, often cited in discussions of Rama’s painting of Tirana’s buildings, appears to come from an interview Rama gave in 2008. Some of the earliest sources that cite the quotation are “The art of re-imagining a city for the future,” The Irish Times, March 14, 2008, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/the-art-of-re-imagining-a-city-for-the-future-1.903237 (accessed November 25, 2016), and “You’ve Got to Tear this Old Building Down: Tirana’s Mayor: An Artistic Politician,” International Special Reports, January 12, 2002, http://archive.li/cYgGD (accessed November 25, 2016).

Contemporary Art in/and Public Space: An Interview with Pleurad Xhafa [Archival Recoveries]

This interview was originally conducted and published in 2016 as part of a blog residency at the now-defunct Blog at ARTMargins Online. An edited version of the interview was also published in Albanian on Peizazhe të Fjalës in 2017. When ARTMargins Online’s website was restructured, its blog archive became unavailable, and as such the English version of the interview is being re-published here. The interview took place via email between November and December of 2016, and was was conducted in Albanian; the translation is by the author.

Pleurad Xhafa is an artist living and working in Tirana, Albania. Xhafa studied in Bologna, and graduated with an MFA from the Academy of Fine Arts, Bologna in 2012. Xhafa works primarily in video, photography, and installation, and his works address the politics of public space, commemoration, and labor in contemporary Albania. We spoke about the state of contemporary art in Albania, the relationship between art and public space, and the possibilities for contemporary art as a form of critique under neoliberalism. 

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Raino Isto: What importance does contemporary art have—or what importance can it have—in the development of society’s consciousness of public space? Can you discuss a little bit about public space (or its disappearance) in Albania in recent years?

Pleurad Xhafa: In order to speak about contemporary art and its significance in society, let me first try to offer a diagnosis of the pathologies of public space in Albania. For the 45 years of the communist regime in Albania, private property was completely forbidden; no one had the right to own private property. Property belonged to everyone and no one at the same time. Every institution and natural resource was public, and only the political regime had complete access to them and control over them. I think that this factor altered and deformed the socialist citizen, who—after the change of the regime in 1990—rushed to swallow up that which had been denied to him for some many years. In the almost complete absence of a state, large cities underwent a fundamental change in demographics. People despoiled the factories; they destroyed and stole everything that they had previously considered communal property. They build houses that did not conform to construction criteria, and established businesses on every available corner. At the beginning of the new century and the empowerment of state institutions, the destruction of public space was further exacerbated. The surgical knife of sophisticated neoliberalism, with its mafia character, interfered in the legal system, privatizing both natural resources and public institutions. This phase, from my point of view, was the most dangerous one, as it infected absolutely every cell of society.

Over the course of the 26 years since the fall of communism, Albanian society has never been able to construct a middle class. Only 3% of Albanians are extremely rich, while the rest are poor or living in absolute poverty. For this reason, the lower classes and those living in poverty are forced to accept every compromise that the violence of capital imposes on them, just so that they can survive, even if it fundamentally distorts their way of living. The infection of public space is heightened to psychological and spiritual level, and manifests itself in high doses of anger, aggression, and fear directed at different ways of thinking. Precisely in this kind of infected terrain, I think that engaged contemporary art can be considered as a kind of emergency treatment, that it should play the role of an antibody that can break through the callouses caused by shock therapy. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that the artist needs to leave the prison of mental masturbation and to create the necessary space for debate and for interaction with ordinary people that live in the cities and in the periphery. Only then can we really begin to talk about the role of art in relation to social consciousness. Until then, everything I just said remains at the level of a wishful theory.

Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Falure, January 28, 2016. Work created in cooperation with MAPS (Museum of Art in Public Space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Can you discuss a little bit about the connection between art and politics in Albania today? I know this is a question that is already worn out from overuse, but I’m curious to know how you see the role of the artist in relation to politics.

PXh: Contemporary art in Albania is completely in a state of crisis. The form of this art is illuminated only by the reflection of [political] power located on the first floor of the Prime Ministerial building, in the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue], while its content is buried in the graves of Sharra [1], and one cannot even find this grave, since the bronze letters of the tombstones have been stolen at night by those living in poverty, to be sold for scrap. In my opinion, the majority of artists that could be considered ‘active’ today in Albania have been transformed into marionettes of political propaganda. This situation is at once concerning and desperate, especially since criticism, as a field of action, is nearly nonexistent. Even when criticism does appear, it comes from artists who are operating essentially as individuals. I’m quite happy to see the recent actions of the street art collective Çeta [2], who have been able to stir the stagnant waters of the Albanian art scene, but it remains to be seen whether or not they will survive the test of time.

To return once more to the question of the importance of contemporary art in raising the consciousness of society regarding public space, and to link that with the role of the artist in relation to politics, let me talk about an example that happened recently in Tirana.

Pleurad Xhafa, Monument to Falure, January 28, 2016. Work created in cooperation with MAPS (Museum of Art in Public Space). Photo courtesy of the artist.

The neoliberal policies that the current Albanian government has been following resulted in a reform in the education system that used taxpayers’ money to benefit the private university sector. This reform has been protested for several years by the “Movement for the University” [3]. As part of this protest, during an activity held to promote FRESSh (The Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth [4]), student activist Mirela Ruko poured a bottle of tomato sauce over the head of the Minister of Education, Lindita Nikolla. This action could have cost the student 3 years in prison. In my opinion, this action came about not only as a result of the reform in the education system, but also as a response to policies of privatization and to the general lack of democratic representation in the country. However, if the student’s action gave rise for the first time to a debate on the issue of education, dividing citizens into camps for and against, raising questions about the ethics of protest and about how far democracy and the freedom of expression can go, this still makes me wonder, and it pushes me to raise a fundamental question when it comes to artists: are contemporary artists in Albania really able, with their forms of expression, to incite as important a debate?

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Some of your recent works (I have in mind Monument to Failure and Negative I-II-III-IV) have to do with both memory and with monumentality. What role do you think monuments currently play in Albanian society, and what kind of relationship does contemporary art have with official monuments (whether from the time of socialism or the years after socialism) in public space?

PXh: I think that Albania is the only place in Europe that celebrates their Day of Liberation from Nazi occupation on two separate dates, depending on the political party that is in power. When the Albanian government is controlled by the PD (Democratic Party), we celebrate liberation on the 28 of November; when the PS (Socialist Party) is in power, we celebrate it on the 29 of November. This anomaly is the product of the political forces that attempt—at all costs—to maneuver and regulate Albanian history. Likewise, Albania is the only country among the former communist nations of Europe that still hasn’t really confronted its own past. The dossiers detailing the crimes of those who formerly collaborated with State Security forces and the secret police still haven’t come out of the dark nooks and crannies of the archives. There are still today public prosecutors, judges, and politicians who were directly responsible for approving macabre executions in the name of communist propaganda. This hypocritical relationship to history can be seen directly in the cases of monuments and memorials that spring up like poison mushrooms, commissioned by private citizens in cooperation with the party in power, using funds from Albanian taxpayers.

Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj planting a tree at the site where Monument to Failure was installed. Photo from the Facebook page of Erion Veliaj, January 28, 2016.

When I decided to create Monument to Failure [5]—which commemorates the judgment regarding the Gërdec case, where 26 people were killed—I thought of the work as a gift, as a missing monument for the city of Tirana [6]. During the process of the monument’s creation, I was trying to make a prediction; I was convinced that the bronze plaque wouldn’t stay on the tree stump very long, since bronze is a valuable material and it would probably get stolen. For a secondary documentation of the work, I decided to stick the plaque to the stump with glue. Everything went far beyond what I had predicted, however. A few weeks later, the mayor of Tirana [Erion Veliaj] pulled up the monument personally, along with the whole remaining tree stump, completely destroying the monument. In its place, he planted a new seedling tree. This action is clear evidence of the relationship that the current political regime creates with history, and the modifications of public space that the regime carries out in the name of political aestheticization.

Pleurad Xhafa, creating Negative I-II-III-IV, 2015. Work created with the support of the Department of Eagles/Departamenti i Shqiponjave. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many Albanian artists have told me that the absence of galleries devoted to contemporary art in Albania is a significant problem for the country, but it also seems to me that (in the neoliberal context) as soon as an artist exhibits in a gallery, his or her work—together with any critical message it might carry—is immediately in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution. What do you think? Is exhibiting in a gallery still important (at least as regards the political or critical message of the artwork), or are actions undertaken in public space more important?

PXh: It’s true that art, especially critical art, is in danger of being assimilated by the authority of the institution, even moreso when it becomes intertwined with the chains of capital. However, in Albania there is a fundamental difference, since here there is no art market, properly speaking, and as such no galleries and no collectors. I have a different kind of concern regarding art spaces in Tirana. (I’m focusing on Tirana because in other cities in Albania, contemporary art and art spaces are almost inexistent.) Spaces that have an independent viewpoint, independent especially from dominant political structures, are extremely important because that help shape critical thinking. In my view, those few art spaces that currently operate in Tirana are headed for capitulation. They can’t manage to include the wider public. This isn’t only the responsibility of the institutions, but also of artists. The low level of interest and small number of people who attend exhibition openings is in danger of creating a tight, vicious circle in which no one realizes that this system limits the possibilities for creating dialogue.  Personally, I believe that the artist—with the support of these institutions—needs to create political tactics to temporarily take control of public spaces, transforming them into ephemeral platforms for autonomous debate that are open to anyone.

RI: Several of your works also have to do with the concept of ‘justice’ (a concept that is frequently discussed in Albania, generally in debates on the war against corruption, ‘the rule of law’, etc.). Could you speak a little bit about how you conceive of the idea of ‘justice’, and about what connections contemporary art can make with justice? Do you believe that justice is something that primarily belongs to the sphere of political functions, or is it an element of all relations or connections between people in society? Is justice something that ‘acts’, or is it more of a situation or condition, and what does art have to do with this (either with the ‘action’ of justice, or with justice as a condition)?

PXh: Justice and art do not have any direct connection, but justice can be the subject of the work of art. Negative I-II-III-IV is a work that has justice precisely as its subject matter [7]. The work is about the protests of January 21, an event that is not very distant in collective memory, and which left behind four dead on the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation. On January 21, 2011, Edi Rama, the leader of what was then the opposition party in Albania [the Socialist Party], led hundreds of protestors in a protest against the government headed by Sali Berisha. This protest developed as a response to a video scandal made public in the media, involving Ilir Meta, Foreign Minister and leader of the Party for Socialist Integration, which was at that time in a coalition with Berisha’s [Democratic Party] government. In the video, Meta was caught on tape wrapping up a corrupt business deal. On the day of the protest, four citizens were shot to death by soldiers of the republican Guard, shooting from the windows of the Prime Minster’s building. During the elections in 2013, something surprising happened: two political opponents, Edi Rama and Ilir Meta, entered into a coalition and won the election. Rama became the Prime Minister and Meta became the Head of Parliament, which gave him immunity to prosecution by courts. The only sign that today remains from the shootings of January 21 are four bronze plaques that are embedded in the sidewalks of the boulevard, right along the edge of the sidewalks in the exact places where the four protestors were shot.

The primary condition for Albania’s membership in the European Union is the “Justice Reform.” Under the supervision and with the recommendations of the EU and the USA, this reform was unanimously approved in July of 2016, approved by all the political parties in the country, the same parties that produced the events of January 21, 2011. What made an impression on me in this whole series of events was the fact that all of these scandals and machinations are completely publicly ignored by all political and social actors. Perhaps the inaction of justice has created a situation that primarily aims to preserve the status quo of the regime, a status quo in which—by means of verbal abuse—that regime has stunted and corrupted society’s conscience.

RI: You’ve created several works in close proximity to official state buildings located along the boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation; have you encountered any problems from security guards or from the police during the creation of these works? Have the police ever monitored you afterwards?

The “21 January” Memorials by 51N4E. Photo by Pleurad Xhafa.

PXh: When I decided to create Negative I-II-III-IV, I faced two difficulties. The first was an institutional one, since to do anything with the bronze memorials; I had to get permission to act from the relevant institutions. One of those was the Municipality of Tirana. For about five months, continuously, I personally went to the offices of the municipality in order to get permission, which they never did give to me. This is understandable, since the mayor of the city at that time was Lulzim Basha, who—at the time of January 21 shootings—was the interior minister, and in all likelihood the order to shoot at the protestors had to pass through him. The second difficulty had to do with the technical realization of the work. For the work, I commissioned a professional sculptor, but as soon as he learned about the realization and the themes of the work, he withdrew immediately because he didn’t want to get involved with the debate about the shootings. After several meetings with him, I managed to convince him to take part, and the first thing he had me do was to take measurements of the memorials, which would assist in creating the structural molds for the poured plaster.

After I went and took the measurements of the memorials, I noticed—as I was returning to my house—that I was being followed by someone. Later, I assumed it was just my own paranoia, coming from the delicate nature of the event that was the subject of the work. Some time later, when we went to pour the plaster to take the negatives of the memorials, not only were the police present, but also the man who had followed me earlier, when I took the measurements. He approached me and asked me what I was doing, and what the purpose of these sculptures was. The only protection I could muster at that point was ‘Art’. After he took my personal documents, he continued to insist that I should not be getting myself involved in these issues, that art shouldn’t have anything to do with these kinds of things.

Pleurad Xhafa, Negative I-II-III-IV on view in ‘Teatri i Gjelbërimit’ at Galeria FAB, Tirana, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.

RI: Many of your works are—in some way—indexical. What I mean, for example, is that the photograph indexes light and with it a piece of reality in a particular moment. The sculptures that constitute Negative I-II-III-IV index the bronze plaques installed in the sidewalk of the boulevard.  The idea of art as an ‘index’ (often an imperfect or incomplete index) has been frequently discussed in theorizations of contemporary art. Could you speak a little bit about this? Is there something that attracts you about the indexical character of art?

PXh: If you think about it, it’s very interesting, because the memorials to January 21 are bronze replacements for specific pieces of the Boulevard of the Martyrs of the Nation, or the “Avenue of the Empire,” as the Italian fascists called it when they constructed it in 1941. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin analyzes the way that totalitarianism uses the experience of art as a way to control the masses by means of the aestheticization of politics. Thus, those memorials are nothing more that an imitation of the totalitarian concept. If we think about the index as the performative concept of a physical process, then in the case of the sculptures (Negative I-II-III-IV) taking the same form in the negative generates another viewpoint, that of the pointing-finger, where the signs in plaster materialize denial: the denial of justice, the denial of transparency and of accountability, and the denial of responsibility.

RI: It is often difficult to talk about ‘the working class’ or about ‘workers’ in Albania, because the concept of the worker has been so closely tied to the ideology of communism. But, at the same time, in a neoliberal-capitalist context, we need to talk about workers and the working class. Do you think that contemporary artists have a duty to address (insofar as it is possible) the issue of the worker? How do you see your own works in terms of the neoliberal/capitalist context?

Pleurad Xhafa, still from ‘Tireless Worker,’ video, 43min, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

PXh: In the communist regime, the working class was society itself. Although in a fiction, the working class had the most important position in the creation of the ideological dream of communism, while today, in the neoliberal context, the (under)worker is both unrepresented and positioned totally in the service of business owners, to the point that workers are forced to give up their own fundamental rights just in order not to lose their job. The absence, or more accurately the lethargy, of unions is a primary point of concern with regards to the organization of workers to demand their rights. This isn’t something I’m saying; our own Prime Minister said it in television broadcast in Italy, in which—on live TV—he issued a call to Italian businesses to come and invest in Albania, because unions are nonexistent and labor is cheap. [8]

In my work Tireless Worker, tried to show the hierarchical dynamics between the past and the present, the issues I was discussing a bit earlier. Completely by chance, I found out about a factory that produced bunkers [9] under socialism and now produces paving tiles for sidewalks. The terrible working conditions there, and the advanced age of the workers made me feel a duty and responsibility, as an artist, to document this reality, which exists just a few kilometers from the center of Tirana.  The work was gradually degrading and deforming these workers both psychologically and physically. What pushed me to continue the project was the life of a particular worker, Haxhi Xhihani, who had worked in this factory since 1973. During the communist regime, he had been decorated by the brigadier of the factory with a ‘Tireless Worker” Medal of Honor, for his contribution to collective work. The painful irony of this event was that after the fall of the communist regime, the brigadier became the owner of the factory, privatizing it in his own name. Currently, Xhihani makes $3.00 a day.

Pleurad Xhafa, still from ‘Tireless Worker,’ video, 43min, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

RI: In several instances, you have played the role of the documenter. How do you see the connection between contemporary art and the genre of ‘documentary’? I’m curious to know if you conceive of your artistic practice in relation to the tradition of realism (beginning in the mid-19th century), or with the tradition of documentary, which began later.

PXh: In nearly all the works I’ve made, the subject or argument that I’ve been interested in developing has in some way determined the language of the medium. When I work with moving images (in film or documentary), I prefer to maintain a position at some distance from the subject. The film Tireless Worker, for example, is significantly influenced by neorealist Italian cinema from the postwar period. The workers in the film aren’t professional actors; they play themselves in the film. The worker Xhihani places his own body in the service of the narration, and through him the viewers become acquainted with the dramatic landscape of contemporary Albania.

Recently, I’ve been in the process of documenting (on video) various protests that take place in Albania. The force of these images derives precisely from the weakness of the voice of the protest. All told, I’ve gathered about 3TB of digital material but I still don’t know exactly how I’ve going to use it. Maybe I won’t ever use it, but maybe after many years it will be valuable material to teach us something about today’s world…

RI: The problems that engaged artists face today in Albania are also problems that other artists throughout the world are facing, whether they are working in other countries in Eastern Europe, or outside this region… Based on to your experience,  is there anything that we can learn in general from the situation of artists in Albania? Are there any tactics, any experiences that you believe to be important for contemporary artists everywhere, in the conditions of global neoliberalism?

PXh: I don’t know if there exists a precise formula for how an artist should act, but what I think is most important is the attempt to create platforms for debate, and an insistence on problematizing the conditions in which we live and work, regardless of where or when we live.

[1] Sharra is a village on the southwest outskirts of Tirana. The grave of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was moved from the Tirana Cemetery of the Martyrs of the Nation—the large partisan cemetery overlooking Tirana—to the small cemetery in Sharra in 1992. The village is also home to the Sharra landfill. In August of 2016, 17-year-old Ardit Gjoklaj, employee of a private waste-processing company, died in the landfill. His death was seen by many as evidence of the deplorable conditions for workers in Albania, and of the lack of accountability for private companies that the Albanian government has increasingly supported through public-private partnerships. For more on Gjoklaj’s death, see “Ardit Gjoklaj’s Death Continues to Haunt Veliaj,” Exit.al, November 2, 2016, http://www.exit.al/en/2016/11/02/ardit-gjoklajs-death-continues-to-haunt-veliaj/ (accessed January 8, 2017).

[2] See my interview, “The Politics of Street Art In Albania: An Interview with Çeta,” at http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/interviews-sp-837925570/782-the-politics-of-street-art-in-albania (accessed January 6, 2017).

[3] The “Movement for the University” (Levizja për Universitetin, in Albanian) is a group of students and activists dedicated to advocating for free and quality public university education in Albania. The group, associated with the Leftist “Political Organization” (Organizata Politike) of students and citizens, aims to combat the ongoing privatization of universities in Albania. It advocates “an idea of the university as a state institution directly financed by state funds, but with an internal organization in which decisions are made by professors and students.” See the Facebook page for the group, here: https://www.facebook.com/Për-Universitetin-651561178215203/?fref=ts (accessed January 4, 2017).

[4] FRESSh, the Forum of Eurosocialist Albanian Youth (Forumi Rinor Eurosocialist Shqiptar) was established in 1992. According to the organization’s website, its goal is “to bring Albanian closer to the European mentality regarding democracy the establishment of the state, as well as European enlightened social democratic ideas more generally. Recently, the organization has used the broad umbrella of “European social-democratic ideas” as a way to draw youth into the current Albanian Socialist Party (Partia Socialiste). See http://fressh.al/fressh/kush-jemi/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

 [5] For documentation of the work, see https://vimeo.com/153532057; a further description is available at http://www.the-maps.org/assets/pressrelease-9_amonumenttofailure.pdf (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[6] For further information on the work, see Xhafa’s interview with Fatmira Nikolli: “Pleurad Xhafa: ‘Gërdeci’: aksident teknologjik, një monument dështimi para presidencës,” BalkanWeb, March 3, 2016, http://www.balkanweb.com/site/pleurad-xhafa-gerdeci-aksident-teknologjik-nje-monument-deshtimi-para-presidences/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[7] For documentation of the creation of the work, see http://departmentofeagles.org/portfolio_page/sculpture-in-negative-i-ii-iii-iv/ (accessed January 6, 2017).   

[8] For more on Rama’s claims about the positive aspects of a country without unions, see Vincent van Gerven Oei, “Urban Politics: The Unofficial View of Tirana (87),” Berfrois February 17, 2015, http://www.berfrois.com/2015/02/vincent-w-j-van-gerven-oei-urban-politics/ (accessed January 6, 2017).

[9] Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Albanian’s socialist dictator Enver Hoxha ordered the construction of concrete domed bunkers throughout the Albanian territory. Approximately 220,100 bunkers were planned, but only about 173,300 were actually built. On the bunkers, see Michael L. Galaty, Sharon R. Stocker, and Charles Watkinson, “The Snake that Bites: The Albanian Experience of Collective Trauma as Reflected in an Evolving Landscape,” The Trauma Controversy: Philosophical and Interdisciplinary Dialogues, ed. Brown Golden, Kristen and Bettina G. Bergo (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), pp. 171-87; Emily Glass, “A Defence Dictated: The Changing Role of Mushroom-Shaped Communist Bunkers in Albania,” paper delivered at the Modern Conflict Archaeology Conference, University of Bristol, 2009, https://mcaconf.com/about/2009-2/;  and Alison Reilly, “The Following is a True Story: Fiction, Bunkerization and Cinema in Post-Socialist Albania,” KinoKultura 16 (March 2016), http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/16/reilly.shtml, (accessed January 6, 2017). These bunkers continue to dot Albania’s landscape (although many of them have been removed or gradually covered over by the landscape itself), and they have become one of the most iconic symbols of the paranoia of Hoxha’s regime. The precise statistics on the number of bunkers constructed are drawn from informational texts at the Bunk’Art museum in Tirana, Albania (https://www.facebook.com/BunkArtAlbania/, accessed January 6, 2017).

“Për këtë është i nevojshëm botimi i më shumë artikujve, studimeve…”: Nëndori 5 and 6, 1971

Today’s post includes two scans of material from Nëndori, the monthly literary and artistic journal published by the Union of Writers and Artists in Albania during the socialist era. I’ve recently spent some time with several critical essays published in the pages of Nëndori [later Nëntori] in the late 1960s and early 1970s in preparation for a paper I presented at ASEEES 2019 (and an associated journal article), and I wanted to share two resources that I’ve found particularly useful.

The first is an essay by the critic Andon Kuqali (who I’ve discussed in other posts) entitled “Art dhe Revizionistë: Shënime për artin sovjetik të viteve të fundit” [“Art and Revisionists: Notes on Soviet Art in Recent Years”], published in Nëndori 5, 1971. This essay is one of the more interesting and thorough attempts to point out the ideological and aesthetic shortcomings of late socialist art in the Soviet Union, from the point of view of non-aligned Stalinism (the path Albania had taken by this time). In it, Kuqali argues against both what he calls “monumental falsity” [fallsitet monumental] and the so-called “strict style” [stili i rreptë in Albanian, surovyi stil in Russian], as well as against the “mysticism” of Soviet artists such as Dmitry Zhilinsky. The essay is one of the few pieces of writing published at the time that is illustrated with examples of some of the works criticized (albeit in poorly-reproduced, black-and-white images), and it shows Kuqali engaging with specific works and pieces of writing published in the Soviet sphere.

The second scan today is the following number of Nëndori, which contains the reports on the discussion of the first annual national meeting of architects, which took place on May 6, 1971. This selection of texts includes the main address given by Sokrat Mosko, a member of the directorial committee of the Union of Writers and Artists, as well as shorter speeches given by architects, artists, critics, and writers, including Fadil Paçrami, Kristaq Rama, Enver Faja, Valentina Pistoli, Petraq Kolevica, and Foto Stamo. Just as interesting as these discussions–which give a vital snapshot of the state of architectual and urbanist discourses in Albania at the outset of the 70s decade–is a portfolio of photographs that follow the reports. This selection of photos documents a plethora of socialist modern (and modernist) buildings constructed in Albania in the first decades of the communist period. These range from factories to apartment buildings to hotels, from bridges to a lapidar.

Of particular interest is the fact that Maks Velo (the architect of the lapidar commemorating Misto Mame, juxtaposed in the portfolio against his equally modernist architecture for the ‘Emin Duraku’ School in Tirana) is also featured on the back of this volume of Nëndori, with a primitivist illustration of women dressed in folk costumes.

 

 

Happy reading!

Klasa Punëtore në Artet Figurative/ The Working Class in the Figurative Arts [1977]

In honor of May 1, today’s post features a full scan of an art album published in 1977 in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania: Klasa Punëtore në Artet Figurative [The Working Class in the Figurative Arts]. This book represents a kind of companion to the earlier Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts, 1969], and indeed there is some inevitable overlap between the themes of the two, since socialist culture aimed to emphasize the direct cooperation and interdependency of the development of working class consciousness and the legacy of partisan military organization.

The cover of the book, featuring Hektor Dule’s “Në njërën dorë kazmën, në tjetrën pushkën”

The book contains a wealth of images of painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints (unfortunately nearly all reproduced in black and white) focused on workers in both industrial and agricultural settings. It includes scenes of work and leisure alike.

Vasil Kaçi, “Me këtë parti, me këtë pushtet, nuk na tremb ansjë termet”

The earliest images in the book are focused not so much on workers as on the founding of the Albanian Communist Party (later the Albanian Party of Labor) and the partisan struggle, while the later images (especially the prints and poster designs near the end) are keyed to specific political events (i.e. the 7th Congress of the Albanian Party of Labor).

 

Danish Jukniu, “Në kantierin e dritës”

Hasan Nallbani, “Tekstilistja”

Happy reading!

Eduard Guxholli, “Mobiliet dhe Estetika e Banesës” [1983]

Today’s post is a scan of the 1983 book Mobiliet dhe Estetika e Banesës [Furniture and the Aesthetics of the Home] by Eduard Guxholli. This slim volume offers a comprehensive overview of the components and arrangements of domestic space in late socialist Albania. It analyzes the relationship of furnishings to apartmental architecture, considers the optimal proportions and arrangements of furniture, and offers a series of projects allowing readers to create furnishings for their own homes.

Guxholli (also the author of a book on famous artists, Mjeshtër të Pikturës [1990]) does not provide a long history of the development of interior furnishings, but instead focuses on practical matters. He lays out the prevailing standardized models of apartments in socialist Albania, and suggests how different pieces of furniture may be grouped and distributed throughout the rooms of apartments. He considers the emotional impact each space should have: “the living room should create the feeling of comfort and warmth, the guest room [dhoma e mysafirëve] that of welcome, the kitchen that of cleanliness, the bedroom the feeling of calm, and so forth” (p. 14).

Evident throughout Guxholli’s text is an emphasis on the rational arrangement of modern space as a key aspect of domestic comfort and productivity. Published in the 1980s, a period when socialist Albania had cut off most of its prior ties to other socialist nations, the emphasis on self-sufficiency– educating readers on how to create their own furniture to match their standardized living environment–is particularly noteworthy. Although produced during the final decade of Albania’s socialist period, Guxholli’s book provides a glimpse into the project of socialist modernization, and specifically the effort to provide Albanian citizens with the knowledge to function as socialist citizens, optimizing their surroundings in the spirit of modernity’s emphasis on efficiency and productivity. Often at the forefront of Guxholli’s considerations are those to do with avoiding waste (either in the form of material or space). He is also, however, concerned with personalization, and the avoidance of monotony (the perennial accusation raised against socialist material culture by its critics). This text will be of interest to scholars of socialist architecture, material culture, and domestic space in socialist Eastern Europe. It will also be of interest to those broadly concerned with the implementation of modernist rationalism in socialist contexts.

This scan comes to us thanks to Kreshnik Merxhani, who tracked down a copy of the book.

Преглед на Спомениците и Спомен-Објележјата во СР Македонија [Overview of Monuments and Commemorative Constructions in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia], 1986

Today’s post is a full scan of the 1986 publication Преглед на Спомениците и Спомен-Објележјата во СР Македонија, a book compiled by Gjorg Trajkovski detailing monuments, memorials, commemorative plaques, museum-houses, and other commemorative objects in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, dedicated to events and personages ranging from the period of the National Awakening to the antifascist National Liberation Struggle and the rise of socialism.

The publication contains extremely extensive reference information (although it is of course impossible to know if it is comprehensive), including not only the names of monuments, their locations and dates of inauguration, and the names of artists and architects, but also information on the reasons for their construction, lists of names of those commemorated (in the case of cemeteries, for example), etc.

The visual documentation in the publication is minimal: a few key works are highlighted in the final section of the book with photographs, while most of the entries are not visually documented. In this sense, the book presents a different kind of publication than others I’ve uploaded here, many of which sought primarily to present the visual dynamism of socialist monumental art and commemorative architecture. Here, instead, the goal is a careful cataloguing of monuments and their basic information. Nonetheless, the resource is invaluable for anyone studying monumental sculpture in the former Eastern Europe more broadly, or in Macedonia in particular.

Happy reading!

Kujtim Buza, Kleanth Dedi, and Dhimitraq Trebicka, “Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar” [1973]

Today’s post is a scan of Kujtim Buza and Kleanth Dedi’s  Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar [Monuments to Albanian Heroism], (Tirana: Shtëpia Qëndrore e Ushtrisë Popullore, 1973), with photographs credited to Dhimitraq Trebicka. This publication presents documentation of monuments constructed in Albania through the early 1970s. Most of the monuments and memorials appearing in the book were constructed during the socialist era, although some (by sculptor Odhise Paskali) date from earlier periods.

Like Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală în România socialistă [1973], Veneta Ivanova’s Българска монументална скулптура: развитие и проблеми [1978), and Juraj Baldani’s Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977], Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar represents a socialist nation’s viewpoint on the history and development of its own monumentality. Published in 1973, the book comes precisely at the historical moment when socialist Albania turned decidedly against ‘foreign influences’ in art and culture (after a period of openness and in some cases experimentation in the late 1960s, a period during which the country had also aligned itself ideologically with China’s cultural revolution). In the 1960s and 70s in particular, a huge number of monuments were constructed in Albania (in many cases to correspond to the celebration of the 25th anniversary of liberation from fascist forces, in 1969).

The Four Heroines of Mirdita Monument. By Fuat Dushku, Dhimo Gogollari, Andrea Mano, and Perikli Çuli. 1971, Rreshen. [now destroyed].
These memorials included both lapidars, architectural and sometimes sculptural ensembles that were dedicated to the martyrs and heroes of the National Liberation War (the Second World War), as well as traditional figurative sculptures commemorating Skanderbeg, independence from the Ottoman Empire, the War of 1920, and so on. Monuments existing prior to the socialist period, especially those commissioned by the regime of the Albanian interwar leader King Ahmet Zogu, are absent–with the exception of works created by Odhise Paskali, whose messages were considered to be purely nationalist, and therefore ideologically amenable to the project of socialist nation-building in Albania. (The opening text by artist and critic Kujtim Buza and historian Kleanth Dedi discuss the memorial landscape prior to the rise of socialism as a blank slate, primarily attributing the rise of materialized history in Albania to the socialist regime. This is of course inaccurate–several memorials from prior regimes were destroyed by the socialists for ideological reasons.)

Relief from the Lapidar dedicated to the collectivization of land. By H. Beqiri, 1962. In Gore, Lushnja.

*Unfortunately, the version of the book that I scanned was a misprint and included a section of repeated pages. Thus, some images (for example, of the martyr’s cemeteries in Librazhd and Fier) only appear as thumbnails in the back of the book, but not as full-sized photographs. At some point, I will scan these pages from another copy of the book, but for now they are not present.

Two Museum-Cities in Pictures: “Gjirokastra: Qytet-Muze” [1978] and “Berati: Qytet-Muze” [1987]

Today’s post presents two photobooks devoted to the two settlements designated by the Albanian government “musem-cities” [qytet-muze] under socialism. (Both became UNESCO sites after socialism’s end.)

The former, with a text by Emin Riza and photographs by Refik Veseli, is devoted to the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra, the birthplace of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Gjirokastra: Qytet-Muze includes a wealth of images of the ancient and Ottoman-era cultural heritage in the city, as well as an impressive documentation of socialist-era buildings and monuments. (Interestingly, Hektor Dule’s monument to the battles of Skënderbeu–already seemingly out of place in the southern city–is omitted.) There are also images of the interiors of the major museums created in Gjirokastra during socialism, which are invaluable for understanding Albanian socialist-era exhibition design.

A group of students visiting the Gjirokastra county museum of the National Liberation War view a painting of Bule Naipi dhe Persefoni Kokëdhima, two young women who were members of the antifascist youth resistance and who were executed by Nazi occupation forces in the center of Gjirokastra in 1944

The second book, published almost a decade later, with a text by Gazi Strazimiri and photographs by Refik Veseli, focuses on the southern Albanian city of Berat, located between Mount Tomorr and Mount Shpirag (the latter the site of Armando Lulaj’s NEVER, of 2012). Berati: Qytet-Muze likewise focuses on the ancient and Ottoman-era structures in the city, as well as modern urban restructuring and industrial architecture (such as the massive ‘Mao Zedong’ Textile Factory, which of course–by 1978–was no longer identified with Mao). There are also interesting images of socialist-era monuments, although there are relatively few of these in comparison to Gjirokastra.

A day of celebration in Berat.

Of particular interest is a panoramic view of the city of Berat that features the massive ENVER geoglyph in the background, across the slopes of Mt. Shpirag.  Upon closer examination, however, the letters have been inscribed not on the mountain itself, but on the photograph: little attempt has even been made to make the letters correspond to the visual rules of perspectival recession into space. They appear to hover over the landscape, perhaps unintentionally positing the flatness of the photograph itself as the surface of history, rather than the immensity of the landscape indexed by the image. The image, therefore, clearly represents the alteration of a photograph made before the creation of the ENVER geoglyph in 1968, a studious updating of the landscape to match its more current visual actuality. Alterations of photographs—whether to contribute to the rewriting of history or to increase the legibility of the history supposedly depicted by them (or both)—were not uncommon in socialist culture, and Albania was no exception to this. This particular textual supplement to the panorama of Berat must have been particularly significant in 1987, just two years after Enver Hoxha—Albania’s socialist leader and eventually dictator from 1944 through 1985—died. Regardless of precisely when the photograph was originally altered, the inscription on Shpirag’s slopes represents an attempt to assert Hoxha’s longevity not only forward into the future (as the permanence of the geoglyph was not doubt meant to) but also backwards in time, as if it was somehow part of an eternal view of the city of Berat and the mountain. Of course, the details of this retroactive eternity were loose: close consideration of the photograph in comparison to later images reveals that the letters do not even appear on the correct slopes, but have been shifted to the left. This inexactness, however, has its own logic—its imprecision is the imprecision of myth, rather than the precision of documentation. This altered photograph provides a fascinating piece in the history to which Armando Lulaj’s subsequent re-writing of the geoglyph in NEVER (2012) belongs: a history of reinscribing the geoglyph across various historical surfaces: photographs as well as the mountain itself.[i]

A panorama of Berat with the ENVER geoglyph later added to the photograph.

[i] On this topic, see Chapter 4 of my forthcoming dissertation, Monumental Endeavors: Sculpting History in Southeastern Europe, 1960-2016, which focuses on postsocialist negations and temporal extensions of monuments in Albania and the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

Poem for the Albanian Woman, by Llazar Siliqi and Petrit Kumi [1972]

Today we have another scan of a photobook published in socialist Albania, in the period immediately following the height of the country’s Cultural and Ideological Revolution: Poem for the Albanian Woman, by Llazar Siliqi and Petrit Kumi [1972]. The book, published by General Council of the Women’s Union of Albania, features a text by poet Llazar Siliqi and photographs–in both color and black and white–by well-known photographer Petrit Kumi. (I have unfortunately only been able to find an Englishlanguage copy of the photobook, which is perhaps fitting considering these publications were primarily created for foreign export, as external-facing propaganda about the country’s advances.)

The photobook is a key example of Albania’s visual presentation of the emancipation of women under socialism, and features a wealth of images showing Albanian women painting, working in factories, tending to children, training in the military, and reading. Some images emphasize the sacrifices of female partisans who died liberating the nation from fascist occupation, while others depict Albania’s links to the global struggle for women’s emancipation in the socialist world. (A photo of Albanian Dictator Enver Hoxha wih a group of Chinese women is one of my favorites.)

Happy reading!

Spomenici narodnooslobodilačke borbe i revolucije SR Srbije 1941-1945 [1981]

Today’s post is a full scan of Spomenici narodnooslobodilačke borbe i revolucije SR Srbije 1941-1945 [Monuments of the National Liberation Struggle and Revolution in the Republic of Serbia, 1941-1945] (Belgrade: NIRO Eksport pres, 1981), edited by Razumenka Popović Zuma. The volume contains an extremely thorough (perhaps exhaustive) catalog of monuments dedicated to the Yugoslavian antifascist struggles created in the Republic of Serbia and the socialist autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The book includes information on the locations, dedications, and inscriptions of monuments of all shapes and sizes, from large-scale works documented in recent photographic surveys of Yugoslav monuments to smaller plaques and obelisks in villages and neighborhoods.

The book abounds in photographic documentation (though in black and white, and frequently low-quality reproductions), but of course the sheer number of monuments prevents complete visual documentation. The volume may be seen as a valuable counterpart to more recent publications such as Lapidari (edited by Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei, New York: punctum, 2015), which contains comparable information (and more complete photo documentation by Marco Mazzi) of socialist Albanian monuments to that country’s antifascist struggle.

Happy reading!

 

Jugloslavija: Spomenici Revoluciji [1968]

Today’s post is a full scan of the 1968 publication Jugoslavija: Spomenici Revoluciji [Yugoslavia: Monuments to the Revolution]edited by Miloš Bajić. The photobook contains many of the same monuments later documented in Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977], but also includes several monuments (or alternate views of memorials) not included in the later publication. The publication is entirely in black and white, and includes two supplementary sections, one with biographies of the artists and architects of the various monuments and one with descriptions of the significant events associated with each memorial or location.

In some cases, the memorials included are documented as maquettes (such as Miodrag Zivković’s model for the ‘valley of the heroes’ monument to the battle of Sutjeska). The publication showcases the variety of Yugoslav monumental forms and styles, showing examples of abstract, architectonic, and figurative monuments and monumental complexes. The recognition of this diversity is crucial in the face of the continued transformation of Yugoslav monuments (and especially the abstract ones) into what Owen Hatherley terms ‘concrete clickbait’–anonymous images of a conveniently ‘abstracted’ bizarre future past. It is also important to understand the forms of photographic representation (and, it must be said, photo-aesthetic fetishization) that were applied to these monuments long before Jan Kempenaers’ recent photo-documentation project Spomenik (2010-2014). While Kempenaers’ photographs are the source of much recent popular interest in Yugoslav monuments, and also the source of much recent fetishization of their supposedly ‘alien’ aesthetic paradigms, it is important to seriously consider how these monuments were photographed and presented by their contemporaries, and how they were framed both historically and aesthetically in these photographs.

Happy reading!

Niko Xhufka- Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [1976]

Today’s post is a full scan of Albanian photographer Niko Xhufka’s album Ritme të Jetës Shqiptare [Rhythms of Albanian Life], published in 1976. Xhufka was one of the finest photographers working in socialist Albania, and his works evidence the originality and aesthetic force of Albanian documentary and socialist realist photography during the socialist years. 

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Most studies of photography as it has developed in Albania have focused either on earlier phtographers, such as the Marubis, or else have treated socialist photography in the country as little more than a means of propaganda. Xhufka’s images are striking because they are so obviously ‘artistic’–richly indebted to and conscious of a tradition of avant-garde, realist, and socialist realist photography–even as their ideological content is plainly legible. It is truly impressive to survey this collection of works and see Xhufka shift effortlessly between dynamic, abstract compositons that recall Russian avant-garde photography; clear and legible compositions emphasizing the narrative clarity of socialst realism; and sweeping aerial landscape panoramas. 

While the entire album is a treasure, my favorite image is certainly a pair of juxtaposed photos entitled Zëvendësimi (Myzeqe) [Transplantation (Myzeqe)]. The first of the images shows a pair of storks nesting atop a twisted tree against a background of gray, flat fields. In the second image, the stork’s nest sits atop the skeletal structure of an electrical tower, and bottom edge of the photo is filled with stalks of grain or hay.  The image succinctly pictures the ‘modernization’ of Albania carried out under socialism in a way that is both iconographically and compositionally striking. 

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* Several years ago, I first came across Xhufka’s work at propagandaphotos, and I am indebted to that blog for drawing my attention to a truly amazing artist. This interview with Xhufka offers important information on his work, process, career, and life.

Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [1977]

Today’s post interrupts our series of scans of PamorART magazine to bring you a full scan of the 1977 publication Revolucionarno Kiparstvo [Revolutionary Sculpture], a photobook published in 1977 [Zagreb: Spektar] in Yugoslavia chronicling major monuments and works of public sculpture created up to that point in the country. The book features an introductory essay by Juraj Baldani, entitled “Jugoslovensko angažirano socijalno i revolunionarno kiparstvo” [“Yugoslav socially engaged and revolutionary sculpture”]  that presents a historical context for social/ist sculpture in the country beginning on the late 19th century and culminating in the postwar socialist years. The book also provides short biographies of the sculptors and architects whose works are represented. 

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This photobook showcases the truly impressive diversity of socialist sculpture (and its predecessors) in the former Yugoslavia, including the works of Bogdan Bogdanović, Vojin Bakić, Dušan Džamonja, Antun Augustinčić, Jordan Grabulovski, Drago Tršar, and Miodrag Živković, among many others. 

Happy reading!

 

Tradhtia e Imazhit- PamorART June 1998, year 1, number 2

Today’s post is the second in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. This issue contains, among other things, articles on Edi Hila and Kristaq Rama, as well as an insert in English.

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

Një Tribunë e Shumëpritur- PamorART March 1998 year 1, number 1

Today’s post is the first in a series of posts that will present scans of the historically and critically indispensable publication PamorART, a magazine published by the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana. PamorART began publication in 1997, and was a crucial reflection of the artistic and cultural  scene in Albania in the late 90s, providing a specialized venue for discussion and critical assessment of the visual arts in the country. The first issue takes up a theme that has seen heated discussion in recent months as well: the Onufri competition and its role in the Albanian arts scene. (Somehow the title of Edi Muka’s article on the subject, ‘Onufri ’97: Impas apo Shpresë?’ [‘Onufri ’97: Impasse or Hope?’] seems to describe the current state of Onufri as well as it might have described Onufri ’97. 

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The scans of the PamorART magazines are made possible by the tireless efforts of philologist Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, who scanned the issues, and art critic Gëzim Qëndro, who made the issues available to us from his private collection. My deepest thanks go to both of them for making these texts available to us. 

Choices to Be Made: An Interview with Sead Kazanxhiu

Sead Kazanxhiu (b. 1987) is an Albanian Roma artist working in Tirana, Albania. Born in the village of Baltëz, near the city of Fier in central Albania, Kazanxhiu’s work deals with the personal and political aspects of both Albanian and Romani identities. Kazanxhiu works primarily in painting, performance, and installation, and his art explores both his own personal search for cultural identity and the unique sociopolitical situation facing Roma communities in contemporary Albania. He has created installations dealing with Romani struggles for housing stability in Albania, as well as addressing the challenges related to Romani inclusion in political decision-making in the country. Kazanxhiu’s efforts and explorations highlight the diversity of identity in Albania—the artist uses his investigations of his own individual identity as a way to suggest the myriad linguistic, visual, cultural, and historical heritages that characterize modern Albania. I spoke with him in the summer of 2016 about his recent works and his thoughts on the relation between politics and the Albanian art scene in recent years.[1]

Sead Kazanxhiu: This project relates to the idea of the Roma resistance. The idea of the work is to create a discussion, to provoke those people who are working with these projects today, with this ‘resistance,’ if we can call it resistance. We can’t call it resistance because it doesn’t come from the bottom up, but it’s pushed from this middle, from the NGOs. I call them the ‘middle’ because the top is the government and the politicians. That’s why I don’t see a resistance that has the old meaning of the word ‘resistance,’ because today it’s pushed by the NGOs and the politicians.

Raino Isto: It’s still working within the system. You still have to apply for grants, and do projects, and hold activities, and give certificates, and so forth.

S.K.: Even when protests are planned, it doesn’t somehow come directly from the community; it comes from NGOs and donors and so on. Which is not bad, but still, there has to be some way to have continuity. When you resist, when you do something to resist, you have to take it to the end, you can’t stop halfway. That’s why I have a lot of confusion, after doing my research. Sometimes when you read too much, you know, you confuse yourself. That’s what has happened with me now, doing research for this project.

R.I.: When you said before that your were trying to provoke, are you trying to provoke the people in the middle, the NGOs? Or to provoke in general?

S.K.: That’s a good question, because if you say you want to provoke, you have to find a target. But, I think that provocation doesn’t always have to have a single target. For example, I also want to raise the subconscious of the Roma itself, like the grassroots. I mean maybe its difficult to try to do that with this kind of conceptual art, with the symbolic, but we have to try to educate people to understand this kind of communication. So, when I speak about raising the self-confidence or the consciousness of the community, that also means raising the consciousness of those NGOs, because they are part of the community too. So, the society I live in will see what I do, maybe not every day, but they will see, and this is a kind of provoking and challenging, making people see things in a different way, which can also create continuity. Because if I said that the government is my target, I won’t get anywhere…I will just be doing things for them. I will end up in the role of an NGO, trying to get the government’s attention, and then when an NGO gets the government’s attention, it shuts them up with some funds, and that’s it. I don’t know, I’m just trying to understand things first myself, reading and doing research, and then afterwards perhaps spreading them to other people.

R.I.: What do people in the Roma community here in Albania think of your work? Have they had a reaction to it?

S.K.: It is not like there is a constructive reaction. Of course, if they see something, they like it. But the idea is that it has to be beyond liking something, agreeing with something.

If this doesn’t happen with the people who are active for the Roma cause, I’m afraid that it wont happen in the community more broadly either. But, again, I don’t want to repeat myself, but if my work achieves a kind of continuity and a kind of standard—and it doesn’t have to be just me as an artist, there have to also be other artists, musicians, actors, painters, and moviemakers—then this will stimulate peoples’ imagination, seeing different perspectives. And that’s why it’s not only about an individual, because that individual can do his job, but there has to be a kind of ensemble that makes it stronger.

R.I.: So, these are the same paintings I saw when I came before, but before the chairs were empty?

S.K.: Yeah. Sometimes, you, know, when you miss particular things, you have this kind of emptiness. So then you want to put those things in your work. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in this case I think it was a good idea [to put the clothes in the paintings] because now viewers wonder about what the owners of the clothes are doing, they might be having sex or whatever, but you think about them. So, in the background, you have the house where they live, and then you have the clothes. It’s the contemporary moment of Adam and Eve. They are in front of the apple, in the central work, and it seems as if they have escaped from this life and they are in the Garden of Eden.

R.I.: We have talked before about colors your use of color. I’m curious what you think about color, given that it is such a popular topic in Albanian art today, in part because of Edi Rama’s promotion of his painted buildings. Before, you mentioned that people tend to think of the Roma as a ‘colorful’ people, in terms of their dress, but that that isn’t really true.

S.K.: There is this traditional saying: don’t respond in the same way that they speak to you. But in this case, I am answering in the same way that they are expecting, giving people the colors they are expecting from a Roma artist. But, being a Roma myself, and having years of experience studying textiles—and my diploma was actually on the traditional Roma way of dressing—I found out from interviews with my family and research that this idea of the exotic and colorful Roma dress is a myth. The reality is simply that each Roma mother or grandmother became a kind of ‘fashion designer’ for their children or grandchildren, making clothes and finding whatever materials they could. In fact, when you see old Roma clothes, they are very simple. In fact, they often just dressed the way people did in that society at that time; it wasn’t as if there was a sharp distinction in the manner of dress. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabo Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. Of course there were particular groups of Roma, like the Gabor Roma, or the Ola in Hungary, that had specific ways of dressing. But it wasn’t really to distinguish themselves as Roma. For example, the Gabor Roma in Romania dress like the northern Albanians, with the big dress, and the shamia, the scarf. And you can see this in Hungary too. But in Roma villages, there isn’t really a specific way of dressing, like some people imagine in this exoticizing way. So that’s why I decided, ok, if you want colors, I’ll give you colors!

But also, there’s something else. Maybe I’m being too philosophical. It’s also this: we are not victims. The Roma are not victims, but we are seen as victims. And we are brainwashed to think of ourselves as victims. So when I paint something from history, I don’t want to emphasize victimhood, I want to give it life.

R.I.: So that it doesn’t just appear mournful.

S.K.: Yes.

R.I.: Do you choose the colors just based on what you have, or what paints you can find? Or do you plan out the colors and then look for specific paints to create them?

S.K.: That’s a good question. I can’t say that I plan much. I usually just look at what I have. Sometimes I plan that, for example, I want to work with a particular color, like brown, and I will start with that. But usually it’s just: I find it, I like it, I use it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April], 2013, installation at the entrance to Albanian Parliament. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your piece 8 për 8 Prillin [8 for the 8th of April].[2] I know we talked about it before, but I think it is an important piece.

S.K.: The installation 8 for the 8th of April was done in 2013, and it was a project that I did as part of a fellowship that I had that year. The project was to block the entrance of the Albanian Parliament with these big tractor wheels painted with the colors of the Roma flag [red, green, and blue]. There was this funny coincidence, because the tires had ‘Goodyear’ written on them, so it was like the culmination of a ‘good year’. It was a good experience, because the installation gave me the opportunity to understand how things were working with the involvement of Roma in public institutions, because it was the year of the ‘Roma Decade.’[3] I wanted to do something in relation to this, and it turned out that the best way to do it was with an installation—because the protests here only work if you are a political party. You have to be a political party to have enough people to make a protest matter, but then it still doesn’t work because then the party is protesting, not the people. And that’s why I chose to go and install these eight big tractor wheels at the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. It was a way of symbolically blocking them—not really making their lives difficult, because you could just pass around them without any problem. I wanted to kind of exaggerate the issue, to show them that, okay, we Roma may be relatively small in number, but the issue of Roma involvement isn’t a small one. It can’t be ignored. There was this sign, that the government put up, for the Roma Decade, and they were supposed to actually do something, but they didn’t. I’ll tell you about it: there were all these activities and so forth, since it was the official International Romani Day, which is why I called it 8 for the 8th of April, because of the importance of that day. The installation was supposed to stay there for the whole day, but the police came—just the way they normally do, just to show up and make you feel pressure.

R.I.: How many police came?

S.K.: It was a minibus with four or five police, something like that. One of them, he was kind of the head of the group, and I was trying to complain to him. He was smart, trying to figure out how to negotiate with me. One of the other ones was like, ‘Come on! We left a very important operation just because of this garbage you put here in front of the Parliament! You have to move them.’ I told him, ‘I can’t move them.’ Then I called someone else who was in charge of organizing activities related to the International Romani Day, and they came, but the police still wanted us to move the installation, so I told them: ‘I won’t move them until I get an interview. This is the only way I’ll move them.’ The police said, ‘Okay, but can you just move them to the footpath that runs perpendicular to the entrance to Parliament?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t move them,’ so they said okay. I got an interview, which was good because it opened up the work to a bigger audience. Then, this other policeman, who had been standing there very straight and stern, he helped me move the wheels over to the footpath. So that’s the story of the 8 for the 8th of April installation. But I mean, you can do anything here with art, but the only feedback you’ll get is from a few artists or professors. For example, one of my professors, Vladimir Myrtezaj, he’s a friend of Edi Rama’s, he told me ‘Bravo!’ because it was the first installation done in the entrance of the Albanian Parliament. That was really the only feedback I got, and somehow for me it didn’t feel like I really accomplished something. But it was good because I’ve been able to continue this way of exhibiting. After that, I made another exhibition, with 2,500 small houses installed in front of the Prime Minister’s building (one of the iterations of Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014).[4]

R.I.: Yes, I’ve seen the photographs of this installation.

S.K.: Because I believe we don’t have to just try once and then give up, you have to create a kind of continuity. I mean, at the moment, I’m alone in this—because there’s another Roma artist from Albania who lives in the UK, but he isn’t very involved here in Albania—but I think in the future, there will be other artists who will continue in this way. Maybe not exactly like I do, but in other ways.

R.I.: When you do these installations, do you have friends help you? For example, to move the tires, or to install the small houses?

S.K.: I mean, for 8 for the 8th of April, there were some friends and artists, but mostly I was alone, and I had to call some people to help me. But people came, some friends and some people who were just passing by, sometimes ignoring it, like always happens. But at the protest that I did about housing, the installation in front of the Prime Minister’s building, there were some activists and some members of the community who had problems with housing. But not many people. Because they don’t really believe that as a single person, using art, you can change something.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
R.I.: One of the things that I liked about the installation of Shtepizeza was that, in the photographs, it looked visually interesting and compelling. I

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza [Little Houses], 2014, installation. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
think this is one of the possibilities of these kinds of works, because of course as you said, sometimes people don’t come, or they just ignore it in the moment, but also afterwards the event is preserved. I think this is important especially with the houses, because they were so small, but in photographs the smallness of the houses against the massiveness of the Prime Minister’s building makes a strong statement after the fact, in the photos.

S.K.: Yeah. You know what was interesting about the installation about housing: the same policeman came, the guy who came to 8 for the 8th of April, and we became like friends. My idea, originally, was to put them not on the sidewalk but on the stairs of the Prime Ministerial building, but it wasn’t possible. I was trying to resist a little bit, but they said it wasn’t an option, so we decided to put them on the sidewalk instead. We just kind of put them in a pile.

Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister's building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.
Sead Kazanxhiu, Shtepizeza installed in from the Prime Minister’s building in Tirana, Albania, 2014. Photo from Gazeta Shqip.

R.I.: That is funny that it was the same police officer.

S.K.: Yeah. And my cousin, who is always organizing protests, now he knows her and when he sees her, he’s like, ‘Oh, you came again!’

R.I.: Do you thinks that’s a good thing, even though it might not completely change his mind, that at an individual level there is this one person who is comes from the side of authority but now he is personally involved because he knows the people who are protesting?

S.K.: Yes, I think this is good, because when people see that you ask for something, and you don’t retreat from that position, they see that you are sure what you are asking for. And I think that that can influence—maybe not too much—but it can influence an individual person. Because they see that these people are taking it seriously, that it’s not just about making a show or whatever. That these people are seriously suffering, and that’s why they are doing it. And then you can build a kind of trust, with the authorities or whoever. Then, if the authorities understand that, they can see that maybe something really has to be done. That’s why I believe in trying to establish continuity.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: I would also like to talk about your performance A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid [2015].[5] I think you did it once at Tulla Cultural Center in Tirana and once somewhere else. You’ve done it at least twice?

S.K.: The performance was only done once publicly, at Tulla. It tried to record the performance here in my studio, to document it, but the space wasn’t good, so I asked the guys from Miza Gallery if I could film it there. But at Tulla was the first time it was performed for the public. The idea of this ‘Romani phuv’ [‘Romani land’] performance also came from thinking about housing, but also from living in a place where even though you are an Albanian citizen, the other side might not see you as being Albanian. Because people will ask about your story, and it will come out that you aren’t denbabaden Albanian [having a long Albanian heritage]. Even if you are a person whose family has been here for centuries, still they won’t see you as Albanian. And the Romani phuv as an idea came from reading some books by Nicolae Gheorghe, he’s a sociologist from Romania. I was inspired by what he says when he talks about the politics surrounding Roma issues: he says ‘there’s a choice to be made and a price to be paid.’ When you make a choice, of course there’s something you have to agree to. So that’s why I took this as the title of the performance. And I also wanted to provoke discussion about the issue of a territory. I believe, from my own experience as a Roma activist, that Roma never fight for their own land. That concept doesn’t exist for us. Of course, we Roma fight in other countries, like in Albania—our great grandfathers and grandfathers contributed to the fight for Albania, but they weren’t fighting on behalf of the Roma issue or anything. They were fighting because they were in this country and saw themselves as part of this country. So bringing the ‘Romani land’ into the discussion—if you bring this up in the European parliament, there will be a big mess, of course, because there are people who are afraid to speak about this, even if they think about it. For example, if we go further back to 1971, to the first World Romani Congress, people like Faik Abdi, Slobodan Berberski, and many other Roma activists wanted to speak about a Romani land. One of the proposals was Šutka [Šuto Orizari], which is a municipality in Macedonia populated by Roma, the mayor there now is a Roma. Faik Abdi was the first Roma MP in the Macedonian Parliament. This kind of discussion happened back at that time; now, Grattan Puxon and a few others write about this, but it is less discussed. So I wanted to raise this issue to show that we don’t have to be afraid to speak about things—it’s not that I want some kind of ‘Roma territory,’ but I want to provoke people in the Roma community as well to talk about this. The idea of moving around all the time, this is something that people do for economical, or social, or maybe even political reasons. If you read about how Roma first came to Europe, they were pushed from one place to another; for example in the Netherlands, at one time there was a practice that if you could kill a Roma, you would get a free beer. So the movement of the Roma is something driven as much by historical conditions as anything else; it’s not just some exotic practice. But this issue of a ‘Romani land’ is something that many Roma activists are afraid to talk about, but me—I’m not part of an NGO, so I can use my ‘freedom of speech and express my thoughts and ideas about it. I want to raise this issue of what it feels like to have your own land. For example in Baltëz, my village, the Roma have their own land.

There’s another thing I wanted to say about the performance. The kind of mud that I used in the performance, it’s a special kind of mud, it has a story, especially in the Roma communities. Nowadays it’s used for medicinal purposes, but before these shops for that kind of stuff existed, and it was difficult to find this mud. The Roma call it shishik, in Albanian they call it baltë krëri. People used it to wash their hair, and to wash their bodies. But when I did an interview with some old Roma women, they told me that there were some rules about going and taking this kind of mud. You couldn’t live near the mud, because if you lived near it, it would get polluted. So the people lived far away from it, and only the old women knew how to go and get the mud. When the women would go to gather the mud, they would take food with them because it was a long way, but you couldn’t eat immediately before taking the mud, because this would contaminate you. And you had to wash yourself before gathering the mud, in case you had lice or something. This was the paradox that was funny and interesting to me: you also had to wash your hands before taking the mud. So: they would go early in the morning to gather the mud, they wouldn’t eat before gathering it, and they would wash their hands before touching it. Which is funny because now in Albania we have this word baltosje [making muddy or dirty], but in this tradition, mud is actually cleaner than people think! So that’s why, in this performance, I used this shishik, because it’s a very intimate material, and I believe it’s cleaner than what politicians mean when they talk about baltosje. In fact, baltosje can clean you!

R.I.: So, this mud comes from a swamp, or near a river?

S.K.: You can find this kind of mud in the hills, I think, and near rivers, I don’t know exactly how they find it. But it’s not clay like you would use for terracotta or something. It’s different. Also, in older times, women would eat this mud when they were pregnant; this was crazy to me! And they would also use it to put on children, like a cream.

R.I.: When they go to find the clay, it’s soft? I ask because the clay you used in the performance is hard, and you were breaking it up.

S.K.: Yeah, the clay has a kind of gray color, but it’s also hard and you need to soften it with warm water; this is what they did to prepare it.

R.I.: Like you did.

S.K.: Yes, that’s why I did it.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: Is this practice something that is regionally unique, or is it a practice that exists outside of Albania too?

S.K.: All the Roma who lived in the villages were using this mud. They all knew about it, if you go to Roskovec, if you go to Levan, or to Baltëz—my village—or to Morava in Berat and Grabian in Lushnja…I really regret it because my father’s uncle’s wife was the expert on this mud, and I wanted to do an interview with her. It would have made her very happy—because my father also told me, when the women would put shishik in their hair, it made the hair very beautiful because the clay made it healthy. I wanted to do an interview with her because she was very old, and had cooked her whole life using fire, because the family was very poor, and I wanted to go with her when she went to collect the shishik. Because I thought it would remind her of that time. But when I went to the village, my family told me that she had died, and I thought ‘what a loss!’ However, there are still other women who know how to gather this mud. It’s also interesting because the name of our village is ‘Baltëz.’[6] I don’t know how it got that name.

Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sead Kazanxhiu, A Choice to Be Made, A Price to Be Paid, 2015, performance. Copyright Sead Kazanxhiu. Image courtesy of the artist.

R.I.: How old is it as a village?

S.K.: I don’t know exactly how old it is. Baltëz was like forestland before, but somehow they made it flat. The Roma, the Vlah, the xoraxaja or horahaja (muslim Albanians) and Dasa (the christian Albanians) were the first to live there. Later, people of Bosnian origin and Kosovars came too. In Baltëz, the Roma were in a place called Matkëz, it’s known for this manë [mulberry] tree, with those small fruit; it’s the tree of the Roma.

R.I.: As an artist, do you feel like you have something like a duty towards a community, either broadly or narrowly construed, or do you just feel like it’s something you’ve chosen, but you don’t feel compelled by a community?

S.K.: Of course, I feel a kind of duty because I am a part of this community. This is my artist’s statement: I am an Albanian Romani artist, and I have to dig through my identity and contribute to where I belong, through promoting my culture, through raising my voice about things that are happening in my own way, in a visual way. For example, I’m not a musician, so I can’t speak as a musician, but for example African American musicians made a great contribution to the culture in America. I cannot trust someone—a painter, a moviemaker, or an artist—who doesn’t also live what he does. So I stand by what I believe in. It doesn’t matter, even if people don’t think I’m an artist it doesn’t matter to me. I can call myself just a worker or a politician, because I believe that art is also politics. I think that we can use art to influence politics. I’m not talking about the art that is used by politicians.

R.I.: Since we’ve come to this issue of art and politics, what do you think about the relationship of art and politics in Albania today? Because some people say that there is a big problem now because art is being used so much to promote politics, that it’s more difficult to be an artist working in relation to politics. Because any art that you do might come to be related to or used by politicians for their own purposes. So I’m curious what you think about this.

S.K.: I don’t know if you saw this, but at CEU [Central European University] recently there was this discussion about politics and art, called something like ‘Why Politicians Hate Artists.’[7] They were saying that it’s not that politicians hate art, it’s that they only promote that kind of art that they think is part of ‘their vision’. So automatically, the other artists won’t be included. Here in Albania, it’s like that: politicians don’t hate artists; they promote that kind of art that promotes their view. Of course, the government can pretend to give you a stage to speak about whatever you want, but still you won’t actually have that possibility, because you will face a compromise. As we spoke about before, if I were to do a show at the COD [Center for Openness and Dialogue],[8] the only condition for me would be that I wouldn’t tell them beforehand what I would exhibit. I would just say, ‘I agree to make an exhibition here.’ But this couldn’t happen, because there is a curator there, and this necessarily introduces the influence of politics in the space. So, that means that as an artist, you have to make a compromise, because you will have to choose which works to exhibit there with the curator. They control this through talking about the necessity of ‘respecting the quality of the space’ and so forth, but it’s also a way of letting them prevent you from exhibiting anything they don’t want you to exhibit. And politicians hide behind this notion that ‘there has to be quality art, and we must respect standards.’ This creates this idea that there is competition for quality, but that’s not really true. Here in Albania, in the art scene, there isn’t really competition; there are friendships and connections between people, but not competition. I mean, this viewpoint is questionable, but I don’t believe there is competition. They create the idea that there is, saying, ‘oh yes, you must apply for this and that, and it will be reviewed carefully,’ but it doesn’t really come down to a competition.

R.I.: Now that we are talking about exhibiting works, I wonder if you think that in Albania there is something more effective about works that occupy public space, like the small houses or the tires in front of the Parliament. Do you think that there’s something more effective about artworks in public space than artworks shown in a kind of ‘white-box’ gallery?

S. K.: I’m for both sides. But, in the case of Albania—and I came back to Albania because I wanted to contribute something here, because I’m still young, because I still believe that things can be changed—if we talk about wanting to change the Albania art scene, we have to go outside the gallery. When we do things in a gallery, there is only a small circle of people who come. I don’t want to just do exhibitions like that; we have to go to the public, and the public is on the street, or in institutional buildings, outside them. Until now, we artists have kind of created a space between the public and artworks, putting them in a gallery. But, the gallery can only stay in one place; it can only be this one thing in one place, and many people won’t come to galleries. If you do works in public space, you can catch both the government and the public, speak to both of these audiences. It’s also a way of protesting. I think you can’t just make art for the people who are educated, who read a lot. You also have to make it for the majority. In Albania, it’s the right moment to use more public art. In many countries, it has become a normal thing, but here not so much. Many Albanian artists still like this idea of the gallery. Why? Because it seems difficult to exhibit in galleries here, because there are so few, so artists want to push to do this. When something is difficult, you want to challenge yourself to do it. But you forget that you could challenge yourself just as much exhibiting in an outside space. Even paintings—there are ways to exhibit paintings in public space. I mean, I’m not a street artist; it’s not just about street art. It’s about showing your thoughts not only to a small group, but to a larger group as well. Even if they just pass by, and ignore it, at least you are trying.

We have this kind of thinking that galleries are good, that they are good for the culture of the city, but I think that art needs more than galleries. When I have exhibited in galleries, people came who knew about art and the exhibitions. No one came who didn’t already know about these things. But when I exhibited in public spaces, like the Parliament entrance or the street in front of the Prime Ministerial building, there were also people who were totally ignorant about art that came up, and asked questions, and touched the sculptures. These weren’t the people that you think ‘oh, I want this person to come to my exhibition’—because if you exhibit in a gallery, that’s how you think, like ‘ah, the ambassador or whoever came to my exhibition!’ And I’m not interested in that kind of thinking anymore.

R.I.: Have you ever done anything with public spaces besides those in Tirana?

S.K.: Yes, before I went to Budapest, I was in Fier and I did this project with recycling, and installation about recycling. I did it in three different cities: in Korça, in Fier, and in Durrës. I got together with two other artists who finished the academy with me, and we gathered people from the communities and using recycled materials we made installations. In Korça it was good because it coincided with the Korça Beer Festival, so lots of people saw it. In Fier we did the same thing; we did this workshop with young kids and then did these installations. The theme was about the Roma community contributing to the environment in Albania. It was this way of showing that we contribute something to the culture and the environment in this country. In Durrës when we did it, we exhibited them in this open are where the partisan monument is. It was very interesting because we were just trying to give the community a way to think about their space, and they made this installation using newspapers, they made a table and a chair from the papers. It was a kind of symbolic recycling, like the way the news comes in from places, and gets processed by people, and then produces something new. It was the same with the newspapers: they got processed into something new.

 

[1] This interview was conducted in the artist’s studio in Tirana, on 20 June 2016. The interview was conducted in English; the present transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

[2] A video of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5e_Z0PPc-E (accessed 9 July 2016).

[3] For information on the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, see the initiative’s website, http://www.romadecade.org/decade-documents-decade-progress-reports (accessed 9 July 2016).

[4] A video of a different iteration of the installation can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dgXZvOR8sw (accessed 9 July 2016).

[5] The performance can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Wz48wNe350 (accessed 9 July 2016).

[6] The word ‘baltë’ in Albania means mud or clay.

[7] See “Why Do Governments Hate Artists?”, a short article discussing one of the conversations that took place as part of CEU’s School of Public Policy’s annual conference (this year entitled The View from Here//Artists and Public Policy), https://spp.ceu.edu/article/2016-06-16/why-do-governments-hate-artists (accessed 25 July 2006).

[8] The COD is a multipurpose center opened last year in the first floor of Albania’s prime ministerial building. It includes an exhibition space, as well as a library and a space for video projection. See the Center’s website, http://cod.al (accessed 25 July 2016). The space has generated controversy in discussions of contemporary Albanian culture. The government claims that it represents a space for artistic ‘dialogue,’ including critique of the current political leaders in the country (such as Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself an artist). However, others note that the space is essentially used as ‘artwashing’ by politicians, and does not actually present a space for substantive critique.

Weak Monumentality and Post/Socialism: A Theoretical Proposition

This text is a primarily theoretical effort to engage with Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo’s writings on the notion of monumentality, as they are elaborated in two texts: the essay “Ornament/Monument” in The End of Modernity, and the article “Postmodernity and New Monumentality”.[1] In particular, I want to consider the ways that Vattimo’s ‘weak monumentality’ might be helpful in considering socialist monumentality, and even more specifically how it might illuminate relationships between socialist monumentality and postsocialist monumental practices. In doing so, I seek to develop a model of weak monumentality both as a hermeneutic device (that is, as a way to approach and understand artistic practices), and as a descriptive term (that is, as a notion that actually describes certain practices at play in contemporary postsocialist art). Additionally, I seek to elaborate some of the differences between my adaptation of Vattimo’s weak monumentality and the idea of the ‘counter-monument’, but also to suggest that weak monumentality is something more specific than postmodernity’s response to modernist monumentality and its search for foundations. Although the orientation of my research is primarily concerned with the situation of post/socialist monumentality in Southeastern Europe, the ideas developed here are potentially much more broadly applicable as a theoretical framework.[2]

Monument in the Martyrs' Cemetery of Peza, Albania; by M. Dhrami and K. Krisiko, 1977
Monument in the Martyrs’ Cemetery of Peza, Albania; by M. Dhrami and K. Krisiko, 1977

The history of monumentality in the modern era—and in the subsequent and decidedly amorphous eras termed ‘the postmodern’, or ‘the contemporary’—is a conflicted one, and this history certainly cannot be traced as a steady continuity, development, or decline across any span of time or geography. The very notion of monumentality suggests a timelessness or eternity that is at odds with the idea of change, and indeed of heterogeneity, and it is this apparent quality of timelessness that led Lewis Mumford to famously declare, “The notion of a modern monument is veritably a contradiction in terms. If it is a monument it is not modern, and if it is modern, it cannot be a monument.”[3] The monument’s perceived eternal qualities, and their supposed incompatibility with modernity, however, has not necessarily led to the monument’s increased visibility (say, by contrast to the dynamism of modern life). As oft-cited as Mumford’s condemnation of the monument in modernity is Robert Musil’s assertion that “there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.”[4] As Kirk Savage points out, Musil’s concern about the fundamental irrelevance of public monuments was a fairly late addition in a long history of concerns about where the memory supposedly materialized in monuments actually resides; he notes that such concerns can be traced back to Pericles’ funeral oration and the idea that the monument “planted in the heart” was more noble than the one engraved in stone.[5] This notion has frequently found its way into postwar monumental practices; as Horst Hoheisel said of his inverted form of the Aschrott Brunnen in Kassel, “The sunken fountain is not the memorial at all. It is only history turned into a pedestal, an invitation to passersby who stand upon it to search for the memorial in their own heads. For only there is the memorial to be found”[6] (my emphasis).

The notion that memory has been displaced from the materiality of the monument, however, is not the only critique of the monument that has been made: the monument as a representative of ‘history’, according to some, evidences the dearth of memory in contemporary life, and such history even actively participates in the displacement and denial of memory. The most famous version of this argument is that put forward by Pierre Nora, in his discussion of ‘sites of memory’ (lieux de mémoire). Nora writes that “[m]useums, archives, cemeteries, festivals, anniversaries, treaties, depositions, monuments, sanctuaries, fraternal orders” are “the ultimate embodiments of a memorial consciousness that has barely survived in a historical age that calls out for memory because it has abandoned it.”[7] These manifestations of history appear precisely because “there is no spontaneous memory” in modern society, and their appearance testifies to the fact that—according to Nora—“Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition.”[8] Nora’s declaration that we no longer live in the time of memory but in an era of obsessive history and its production is dubious, however, at least in regards to monumentality and its paradoxical eternity and invisibility. If the public monument is truly somehow invisible—or at least if it escapes our notice—then is it really part of history’s replacement of memory? Does its invisibility, its role in the background of our experience, make it an object of memory, rather than history? Finally, are we so certain that the proliferation of history at the expense of memory still occurs today, in the period some call ‘postmodern’ and some ‘contemporary,’ and that others consider to be simply a continuation of modernity?

Writing in the 1980s, Nora remarked upon a proliferation of the manifestations of what he called ‘history,’ including monuments. (Although, perhaps quite tellingly, he was not necessarily discussing a proliferation of monumentality.) Let us consider this assessment alongside that made by Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in the mid-1990s, when he noted the recognition of “a newly found legitimacy for monuments” in contemporary society, and a proliferation of objects (often architectural) that are considered to be monumental.[9] For Vattimo, the context of this new legitimacy of the monumental form was in fact not modernity, but its passage into something else, and thus its context was also not strengthening of ‘history,’ but its enervation. In other words, society returned to monuments precisely in the context of “an era in which […] everything tends to flatten out at the level of contemporaneity and simultaneity, thus producing a de-historicization of experience.”[10] Vattimo’s assessment of the turn to a particular kind of monumentality coincides broadly speaking with a particular characterization of postmodernity—one that, it should be noted, implies a different kind of ‘modernity’ than the one Nora describes. Mikhail Epstein writes of postmodernism as the inversion of the utopian dreams of the avant-garde in the earlier part of the 20th century, arguing that “[p]ostmodernism, with its aversion to utopias, inverted the signs and reached for the past, but in doing so it gave it the attributes of the future: indeterminateness, incomprehensibility, polysemy, and the ironic play of possibilities.”[11] For Vattimo, the relatively recent rediscovery of the monument is premised precisely on its characteristic multiplicity—that is to say, its polysemy—and also on a kind of perpetual indeterminateness that might manifest itself either in obscurity or invisibility, or in our own uncertainty about its meaning.

We must say that Vattimo’s understanding of ‘modernity’ is quite different from that which caused Lewis Mumford to claim that the monument was incompatible with the modern. For Vattimo, the quintessential modernity of monumentality is precisely its apparent relationship to eternity. As he writes, “to the essence of monument belongs the illusion of uniqueness and eternity, and ultimately the ambition to be a monument of foundation.”[12] The operative word, however, is illusion: to equate the monument with eternity is to misunderstand that this association is an artificial one, an association that masks the complexity and potential dynamic multiplicity of meanings that the monument can either embody or engender. This still of course does not quite resolve the relationship of the monument to Nora’s discussion of memory and history, his assertion that “[m]emory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.”[13] In fact, Nora’s memory looks something like the de-historicized simultaneity of postmodernity that Vattimo laments as ubiquitous. At the same time, Vattimo understands the new turn to monumentality not as an attempt to consolidate memory’s evasive ambiguity into history, but instead as a dissolution of modernity’s search for metaphysical foundations, an acknowledgement that the monument in fact represents something far more amorphous and ‘ungrounded’ than it might appear to.

My purpose is not to engage in unraveling the sematic debates surrounding monuments, history, and memory in this corner of the extant literature,[14] but simply to reveal at least some of the complexities surrounding monumentality between modernity and what comes after. Vattimo himself attempted to provide a kind of philosophical description of the ambiguity of monumentality in late modernism and postmodernism, and it is this attempt that I would like to build upon in the remainder of this essay. In one of the essays in Vattimo’s The End of Modernity, entitled “Ornament/Monument,” Vattimo considers one of Heidegger’s relatively lesser-known texts on art, and in particular on sculpture.[15] This discussion develops into part of Vattimo’s broader project of discovering a mode of thinking and philosophizing after metaphysics, of discovering a ‘groundless’ mode of understanding for an era in which—thanks to the intellectual heritage of philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger—the transcendental and unchanging systems of metaphysics have lost their credibility for us. In his search for a new model of understanding, Vattimo turns to Heidegger’s description of truth and the work of art, and specifically to Heidegger’s spatial understanding of the occurrence of ‘truth’ in the sculptural (or architectural) monument.

This understanding is summarized (according to Vattimo) with the quotation from Goethe that closes Heidegger’s essay: “It is not always necessary that what is true embody itself; it is already enough if spiritually it hovers about and evokes harmony, if it floats through the air like the solemn and friendly sound of a bell.”[16] Vattimo’s exegesis on the meaning of this spatiality is heavily couched in Heideggerian language, which I should like—as much as possible—to avoid here, since this is not an essay on Heidegger. To put Vattimo’s insights on art, space, and monumentality in the simplest terms, we might say that (in Heidegger) he discovers the possibility of the monument as something marginal, as something that opens up a space and a place for meaning only by retreating from attention—in other words, as something weak rather than something strong. As he writes, “From a Heideggerian point of view, the work of art as the occurrence of a ‘weak’ truth is understandable, in so many senses, as a monument. It may even be thought of in the sense of an architectural monument that combines to form the background of our experience but in itself generally remains the object of a distracted perception. […] In the monument that is art as the occurrence of truth […] there is no emergence and recognition of a deep and essential truth.”[17] Vattimo recognizes, in Heidegger’s thought, the resolution of two aesthetic modes frequently (though not always, of course) thought to be opposed to each other: the monumental and the decorative; in Heidegger, the two are revealed to be deeply intertwined and coextant: the meaning of the monument derives fundamentally from its form as “marginality and decoration.”[18]

I would like to take this notion of ‘weak monumentality’ a bit further—and in a slightly different direction—than Vattimo takes it. First of all, I would like to transpose this theoretical category into a particular historical context, that of the transition from socialism to postsocialism in Eastern Europe. It is not, of course, that Vattimo’s philosophical move is completely ahistorical; it is, to a substantial degree rooted precisely in the historical shifts that characterize the close of the 20th century and the inception of the 21st. However, Vattimo’s history operates, as does Heidegger’s, at the scale of a history of Being (or of Being) moreso than anything else, and I should like to be a bit more geopolitically specific about the possibilities of taking up ‘weak monumentality’ as a theoretical category of artistic production. Secondly, I would like to add to Vattimo’s idea an insight that emerges from subsequent philosophies partially inspired by Vattimo’s own ‘weak thought’ or ‘weak theory’—namely, the insight into the role that affect can play in alternatives to ‘strong’ (critical or metaphysically-rooted) ontologies and epistemologies.

The historical question of the significance of socialist monumentality—in its own time, and now—remains unresolved, not only because of the relative heterogeneity of the phenomenon (in spite of its apparent homogeneity) but also because the curious remoteness that seems to consistently separate the present moment from the historical experience of socialism.[19] Of course, the very complexity of the issue deserves more space than I can properly devote to it here. However, I would like to draw attention to a few issues that I believe are important to understanding both socialist monumentality and what has come after it. As my area of study is Southeastern Europe, my examples are drawn from socialist Albania. However, monumentality as it developed there was certainly not radically different from other places inside and outside the Soviet bloc; as such, the observations are generalizable, allowing for the specificities of monumental industry and culture in specific regions. First of all, we should note that socialist culture, like many other cultures, wrestled with the location of monumentality; in other words, it did not see it as solely (or even necessarily primarily) an attribute of objects, such as monuments. For example, in March of 1977, Albanian monumental sculptor Shaban Hadëri wrote, “Despite the many successes that our sculpture has achieved, there remains a great deal of work to be done—especially to reflect the monumentality of our socialist life.”[20] Hadëri’s observation situates monumentality as a quality not of the art object as it is traditionally construed, but rather of life itself, and thus also as something changing and evolving, something exceeding artistic representation even as it shapes it. Secondly, socialist monumentality did not always seek to dominate space through the attempt to represent the sublime events of (socialist) history; it sought to function simultaneously as a kind of background for decidedly more mundane aspects of life, to accompany socialist citizens not only in moments of deepest pathos but also in moments that were comparatively insignificant. Muntas Dhrami, another of socialist Albania’s best-known sculptors, wrote in 1976 that “[monumental works] create an active aesthetic interaction between the working masses and the space in which they are placed. […] Standing before them we pause to think, we swear oaths, we pass by, we stop to rest.”[21] Dhrami’s account of the spatial function of monuments is important because it highlights the notion that monuments create not only an interaction between viewers and themselves, but also between viewers and the surrounding space. This point is almost so obvious as to be truistic, but it suggests precisely the degree to which the background character of the monument is as important as its centrality: the monument acts both directly and indirectly. It causes us to think, and solicits our devotion, but it also remains as something that we simply pass by, something we lean against as we pause to go on our way. Finally, we must acknowledge that socialist culture’s vision of the monumental was not confined aesthetically to those emotions most frequently associated with the majestic, the mournful, or the militant. As Albanian art critic Andon Kuqali wrote in 1977, the emotional force of socialist monumental sculpture could also derive from “positive emotions”: “joy, spiritual elevation, tenderness, enthusiasm, and longing” and other feelings were all within the purview of ‘monumentality.’[22]

Of course, this brief collection of observations is not meant to completely dismiss the pervasive view of socialist monumentality. This view that sees it primarily propaganda, as the attempt to consolidate an authoritarian system of beliefs and attitudes (and thus as a metaphysical structure par excellence), as the attempt to directly influence populations to follow leaders and sacrifice their lives for nation-states. All of this, undoubtedly, is true, and both history and theory have the task of understanding the function of the ideological systems that socialist monumentality played a part in.[23] However, the characterization of socialist monumentality as pure propaganda or ideology (in the narrow sense of the words—that is, as a lie or a deception) only helps us understand so much. We also need, I think, an understanding of socialist monumentality as a weak monumentality.[24] We need to understand the uncertainty and often the openness that characterized many of the monumental endeavors of socialism (both in its earlier and in its later years[25]), precisely because this uncertainty often revealed the ungrounded aspects of monumentality in socialist culture. Thus, to apply the notion of weak monumentality to socialist culture is not to argue that—in some straightforwardly identifiable way—socialist monumentality was ‘weak.’ Rather, it is to apply a hermeneutic framework to this art that looks for those formal characteristics, those aspects of production and reception, those affective valences that contribute to the consolidation of a worldview only indirectly, through their dispersal, their uncertainty, and their multiplicity.

In the postsocialist period, I think, the situation is slightly different. Not only can we use weak monumentality as a hermeneutic framework to pick out certain aspects of artworks and their meanings that escape our notice, but we can also use the notion of weak monumentality to name certain coherent sets of practices that artists use. Like socialist monumentality itself, the postsocialist artistic practices that engage with the issue of monumentality (either in terms of socialist heritage or in other ways) are too varied to easily summarize here. However, it is perhaps easiest to get at the idea of weakly monumental practice by considering what it is not, and among the things that weak monumentality is not is counter-monumentality.

Scholar James E. Young famously uses the term “counter-monument” in his discussion of recent monumental practices in Germany devoted to the commemoration of the Holocaust. The term describes those “brazen, painfully self-conscious memorial spaces conceived to challenge the very premises of their being.”[26] In the German context, these counter-monuments draw their self-critical aesthetic and epistemological skepticism not only from a general suspicion about the ways monuments can obscure history as much as reveal it, but also from a concern about the ways Nazi culture embraced the monumental. In the postsocialist context, there is certainly a similar turn against the perceived deceptions of socialist (monumental) history (as well as against official commemorative practices after socialism). However, with the use of the term ‘weak monumentality’ as opposed to ‘counter-monument/ality,’ I intend to make an important semantic and conceptual distinction. The practices that I would describe as ‘weak monumentality’ or as ‘weakly monumental’ are not explicitly conceived to “challenge the very premises of their [own] being,” or of the monument’s being. In fact, their relationship to this avant-garde or modernist position of (self-)criticality is highly ambivalent—they do not necessarily aim at the deconstruction of their own medium, nor at the critique of their own institutions.

I should note that I do not conceive of ‘weak monumentality’ as somehow starkly separated from ‘counter-monumentality,’[27] and it is clear that some works produced in postsocialism clearly could be helpfully discussed within the framework of the counter-monumental. However, the counter-monument—in its criticism of the premises of the monument/al—attributes a certain metaphysical primacy and wholeness to the monument (as something that can then be undermined). By contrast, the weakly monumental (as I develop it following Vattimo’s conceptualization), is committed neither to the metaphysical primacy of the monument nor to that of (counter-)memory. Instead, it disperses the monument, allowing it to remain a background for experience, and precisely in allowing it to remain in the background (as opposed to bringing it forward for criticism) it allows it to be preserved in a particular way.

Weakly monumental works function much more frequently as continuations, adaptations, or supplements to the monument and to monumentality. More specifically, they care for monumentality; they are as likely to criticize the monument’s absence or its degradation, as they are their own premises and aesthetic possibilities. Furthermore, they often take up socialist monumentality in a way that is neither wholly passive nor entirely critical, they both resist the demonization of the socialist era sometimes promoted by postsocialist governments and model new forms of both heritage preservation and historical discourse. When they take up the subject of official contemporary (that is, official postsocialist) monumentality, they do not necessarily do so from the point of view of an ideologically or metaphysically uniform or consolidated position. Rather, they are suspicious enough of official monumentality to seek an alternative mode of commemoration, but susceptible enough to the affective forces of both memory and history to avoid the urge to deconstruct them.

In his discussion of postmodernity and the ‘new monumentality’ (that is, the newfound legitimacy of monumentality at the close of the 20th century), Vattimo writes that monumentality “is always already based on a ‘former’ monumentality; it does not remember an event, a person, or a value, but only a memory, which it turns into monument insofar as it is a memory actually shared by a community that recognizes itself in it.”[28] This is perhaps the most salient characteristic of ‘weak monumentality’ in postsocialism: it is indebted to forms of monumentality that come before it, and it recognizes this debt in its own forms. It does not seek to overcome its predecessors through critique or transcendence, but to live with them, to occupy their time as well as its own. We might consider here the myriad photographic projects undertaken to document the current state of socialist monuments (and the relationship of these projects not only to art history but also to heritage studies). We might consider the performative projects that seek to recuperate monuments, to care for them, to renew their meanings—and to add something to them. We might consider the playful treatments of the archive in relation monuments, the proliferation of reproduced images of monuments not in order to exhaust them but in order to preserve them as ideas in an era without foundations. We might also consider those official commissions that essentially reproduce the formal language of socialist culture, but without a coherent project to reinstate that culture. We might consider recent returns to styles that once engendered only suspicion and critique, such as Socialist Realism, with an eye towards their emotional possibilities rather than their ideological dangers. It is in this curious collection of projects that we might distinguish something like a weakly monumental postsocialist practice.

[1] Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity, trans. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), and Gianni Vattimo, “Postmodernity and New Monumentality,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 28 (Autumn, 1995): pp. 39-46.

[2] The ideas developed here overlap with parts of my dissertation project at the University of Maryland, tentatively entitled “From ‘the Monumentality of Our Socialist Life’ to ‘Weak Monumentality’ as an Existential Structure: Sculpture, Lyricism, and Narrative During and After Late Socialism.”

[3] Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1938), p. 438, qtd. in James E. Young, “Memory and Counter-Memory,” Harvard Design Magazine 9 (Fall, 1999), http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/9/memory-and-counter-memory (accessed 5 July 2016). Mumford was, of course, speaking in the context of the development of the city, which leaves open the question of the rural monument (and thus also the question of ‘modern’ existing outside the urban environment).

[4] Robert Musil, “Monuments,” in Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, trans. Peter Wortsman (Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1987), p. 61, qtd. in Kirk Savage, “The Past in the Present,” Harvard Design Magazine 9 (Fall, 1999), http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/9/the-past-in-the-present (accessed 5 July 2016).

[5] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Charles Forster Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), II: p. 43, qtd. in Savage, “The Past in the Present.”

[6] Horst Hoheisel, “Rathaus-Platz-Wunde,” in Aschrottbrunnen: offene Wunde der Stadtgeschichte (Kassel, 1989), unpaginated; transl. by and qtd. in James E. Young, “Memory and Counter-Memory.”

[7] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire,” trans. Marc Rousebush, Representations 26 (1989), p. 12.

[8] Ibid., p. 12, 8.

[9] Vattimo, “Postmodernity and New Monumentality,” pp. 39-40.

[10] Vattimo, “Introduction,” in The End of Modernity, trans. Jon R. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 10.

[11] Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, trans. Anesa Pogacar (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), p. 330.

[12] Vattimo, “Postmodernity and New Monumentality,” p. 44.

[13] Nora, “Between Memory and History,” p. 8.

[14] Although I do believe that a consideration of the points of contact and divergence between Nora and Vattimo—perhaps mediated by Ricoeur’s hermeneutic discussions—would be a productive one for historians, philosophers, and aestheticians alike.

[15] The text is “Art and Space,” trans. Charles H. Seibert, Continental Philosophy Review 6:1 (1973): pp. 3-8.

[16] Qtd. in Heidegger, “Art and Space,” p. 8.

[17] Vattimo, “Ornament/Monument,” p. 87.

[18] Ibid., p. 86.

[19] Part of this, of course, might be attributed to the very ‘de-historicization of experience’ that at least sometimes characterizes our present.

[20] Shaban Hadëri, “Monumentaliteti i Jetës Sonë dhe Pasqyrimi i Tij në Skulpturë,” Nëntori 24:5 (May 1977), p. 246.

[21] Muntas Dhrami, “Vendosja në Hapësirë dhe Përmasat Kanë Shumë Rëndësi,” Nëntori 4 (April, 1976): p. 23.

[22] Andon Kuqali, “skulptura Monumentale dhe Disa Probleme të Saj,” Drita 13 December 1977.

[23] We must also acknowledge that in many cases, the artists who produced works of monumental sculpture under socialism essentially belonged to an elite class.

[24] Among other things, we must question exactly what was ‘socialist’ about this monumentality. To discuss socialist monumentality from the viewpoint of weak monumentality means not treating socialism as a monolithic power structure, but instead as a set of practices, aesthetics, and affects that were sometimes active and sometimes passive in the way that they shaped socialist citizens. This also means that we must pay all the more attention to categories that—in some socialist states, at least—were considered to be ideologically ‘neutral.’ (A great deal of public sculpture in the Czech Republic in the Normalization era might fit into this category, for example, or the skulptura e parkut [park sculpture] produced in socialist Albania in the final two decades of Enver Hoxha’s regime.) These works are interesting from the viewpoint of weak monumentality not because they somehow ‘escape’ ideology, nor because they show that ideology was still present even in the most mundane artworks; rather, they are interesting because they can show the complexities of establishing what monumentality (and socialism) was. They can show us that socialist monumentality was not a straightforward project, but a meandering navigation of spaces, emotions, and aesthetic forms.

[25] The question of so-called ‘late socialism’ (typically used to describe the period, especially post-1960s, after which many nations had broken direct ties with the Soviet Union) is particularly interesting, since critics often describe it as a period in which regimes no longer believed in the project of socialism, yet continued to perpetuate its forms. (see, for a paradigmatic example of this assessment, Aleš Erjavec’s introduction to Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Frequently, these critical models advocate attention to ‘nonconformist’ art in this period, assuming that regimes’ lack of conviction in the socialist project made their ‘official’ art uninteresting. However, I argue that official art in these years can be just as productive to examine, precisely because (although for very different reasons than ‘unoffical’ art) it also gave up the belief in its own metaphysical security and its attempt to construct solid foundations. Its loss of convictions was also parallel to that experienced in more ‘countercultural’ modes of artistic production, and thus there is no reason to privilege the study of one over the other.

[26] James E. Young, “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry 18:2 (Winter, 1992), p. 271.

[27] Part of the very character of the weakly monumental, I think, is that it is not starkly opposed to anything as a category, and yet at the same time it is also not ideologically neutral.

[28] Vattimo, “Postmodernity and New Monumentality,” p. 45.

Comparative Perspectives: Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală contemporană (1987)

Today’s blog post is another departure from the typically Albanian-centered content on this blog. The post contains a scan of Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală contemporană [Contemporary Monumental Art] (1987), an album documenting trends in socialist Romanian monumental art in a variety of media, including sculpture, tapestry, and mosaic. Grozdea (also the author of Arta monumentală în România socialistă [Monumental Art in Socialist Romania] (1973), previously presented here) provides an overview of the developments of monumental art in Romania, including information on the major artists and on the institutional framework for the production of the monuments (the introduction is in Romanian, but an overview in English—“Monuments: Insignia of an Epoch”—follows the illustrations).

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Happy Reading!

“Thesari i trashëguar në fushën e kulturës materiale dhe shpirtërore … është bërë pronë e popullit”: Shqipëria Arkeologjike [1971]

Today’s post is a full scan of Myzafer Korkuti’s Shqipëria Arkeologjike, published in 1971. The book—one of the most impressive historical photo albums published in socialist Albania—contains photographs of archaeological sites and objects from throughout the territory of the Albanian state.

Shqip Ark cover

The late 1960s and early 1970s in Albania were a period during which the socialist regime took some of its greatest steps in solidifying the unified historical narrative of the Albanian people and nation. Constructing this narrative involved not only the narration of the recent past and the building of socialism (for example, through the creation of monumental sculpture); it also involved investigating the remaining traces of earlier civilizations present within Albania and linking their prestige to the socialist present and to a shared national consciousness of deep history. This constructed history was aimed both inwards (at the socialist citizens of Albania) and outwards (at other nations). In the latter cases, Albania presented itself as a model of the democratization of history and archaeological heritage: in the opening pages of Shqipëria Arkeologjike, a quotation from Enver Hoxha asserts that “Under the care of the Party, the treasures inherited in the field of material and spiritual culture, everything positive and progressive created by our heroic people over the course of centuries, is being continuous brought to light, and has been become the property of the people. It has become a great mobilizing force in the struggle for a construction of a new life and culture in our country.”

Happy reading!

 

Comparative Considerations: Veneta Ivanova’s Българска монументална скулптура: развитие и проблеми (1978)

This post continues the series begun with Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală în România socialistă [Monumental Art in Socialist Romania] (1973), providing some comparative perspectives on socialist monumentality in the Balkan region via surveys published during the socialist years. Today the focus is on Bulgaria, with Veneta Ivanova’s Българска монументална скулптура: развитие и проблеми [Bulgarian Monumental Sculpture: Development and Issues] (1978).

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Bulgaria’s vast territory contains some of socialist Eastern Europe’s most striking monuments, many of which are perfect paradigms of what Christina Lodder calls the “restrained modernism” of the Soviet monumental style–a coupling of clearly legible figuration with dynamic Cubist influences that resulted in chiselled and muscular socialist heroes. The book is written in Bulgarian, but contains a summary section in German in its back section. Even for those unable to read the text, however, the images are invaluable evidence of the creative fecundity of artists engaged in monumental projects in Bulgaria. The survey stretches back to monuments created in the country’s ancient past, leaping forward to cover the 19th and 20th centuries in detail and establishing a sweeping narrative of monumental practices.

Happy reading!

“Të Shtyrë nga Mungesa e Ndijëshme e Literaturës Teorike”: Alfred Uçi’s Estetika Jeta Arti (1970)

Today’s post is yet another scan of a classic of socialist Albanian aesthetic theory, Alfred Uçi’s Estetika Jeta Arti [Aesthetics, Life, Art] , published in 1970. The book presents an admirable overview of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist aesthetic theory. As an introductory statement in the volume states, the book was published in response to the simultaneous intensification in Albania’s ‘class war’ coupled with the development of socialist art in the country, producing a lamentable situation in which artists, critics, and others lacked a solid theoretical foundation from which to assess the new art in its contemporary context. Uçi’s text aims to correct this, giving a historical introduction to the genealogy and categories of aesthetics, including the sublime and the beautiful, the tragic and the comic. Uçi also deals with issues such as art’s connection to reality and the relation between form and content. Obviously, these issues were familiar to artists active in Albania at the time (thanks to their education, frequently completed in foreign academies elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc), but Uçi’s book represents the initial effort to summarize them in the Albanian language, under one cover.

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Although Uçi essentially never says anything specific about Albanian art, the theoretical framework is historically useful (and historically useful when one considers the fact that it comes after the intense cultural production of the late 1960s in Albania—essentially, Uçi’s text serves as a kind of belated attempt to grasp what was happening in socialist Albania during one of its most prolific periods. In this sense it is both woefully disappointing (in its generality) and fascinating (one again, because f its willful generality, which has little to say about what was actually going on in Albania’s relatively unique case… The final chapter is particularly interesting: it focuses on various ‘revisionist’ theories, from those of Lefebvre in France to Lukács in Hungary to Vidmar in Yugoslavia, laying the groundwork for parts of Uçi’s subsequent Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste [Critique of Modernist Aesthetics].

Happy Reading!

Comparative Considerations: Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală în România socialistă (1973)

Today’s blog post is a departure from the typically Albanian-centered content on this blog. The post contains a scan of Mircea Grozdea’s Arta monumentală în România socialistă [Monumental Art in Socialist Romania] (1973), an album documenting trends in socialist Romanian monumental art in a variety of media. Grozdea (also the author of Arta monumentală contemporană (1987)) provides an overview of the developments of monumental art in Romania, including information on the major artists and on the institutional framework for the production of the monuments (the introduction is in Romanian, but an overview in French accompanies it).

Arta cover

Obviously, in the present context (read: with an eye towards comparison with the Albanian context), the album is logically compared with Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar [Memorials of Albanian Heroism], published the same year in the People’s Republic of Albania. Monuments such as Boris Caragea’s Monumentul Vicotriei (1968), Anton Eberwein’s Steag (1972), and Andrei Ostap’s Monumentul Ostașului Român (1958) immediately sugget formal comparisons with monumental works in socialist Albania. However, the broader range of media (including tapestries and mosaics) in Grozdea’s album provides a more sweeping (and diverse) aesthetic assortment than the images collected in volumes like Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar.

Happy reading!

 

“Gjithmonë i Ri dhe i Freskët”: Nëndori 1:1, 1954, and Nëntori 30:1, 1984

Today’s post is a brief interlude between the two rambling sections of my extended consideration of realism and contemporaneity in Albanian art. This post is also a ‘double feature’; it includes partial scans of the very first issue of journal Nëndori [later Nëntori], the monthly publication of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists, and of the 30th anniversary issue of the journal.

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At the time Nëndori first began publication, it replaced Letërsia Jonë [Our Literature], the monthly journal-length publication primarily produced by the Albanian Union of Writers (although it occasionally featured content related to the visual arts). At the time, the Unions of Writers and Artists were separate entities, and Nëndori, like Letërsia Jonë, primarily focused on literature, poetry, and translation. By the 1960s, however (at which point the Unions had joined into one), the journal began to feature illustrations more regularly and to deal with issues related to the visual arts more frequently. From the beginning, however, Nëndori dealt with the broad spectrum of Albanian cultural production, including theater, music, and film, as well as literature and the visual arts.

As the introductory section of the journal makes clear, the year 1954 (as the tenth anniversary of liberation from fascism and as the fourth year of Albania’s first ‘5-year plan’ period) represented a particularly important year in the young socialist nation’s progress towards joining the transnational network of socialist modernity.

Thirty years later, in the January, 1984, volume of Nëntori, several of socialist Albania’s noted cultural figures (including Dritëro Agolli, Kujtim Buza, and Aleks Buda) published short reflections on the journal’s importance for the development of the discourse on Albanian arts and letters. The volume also contains the announcement for the 3rd Congress of the Union of Writers and Artists, as well as the notes from the Directory Council’s plenary session laying out points for discussion at the upcoming Congress.

Happy reading!

 

Some Thoughts on Realism and Albanian Art

I simply wanted to draw forth from a complete acquaintance with tradition the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to be able to create, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art—this is my goal.—Gustave Courbet, preface to the pamphlet Exhibition and sale of forty paintings and four drawings by Gustave Courbet, Paris, 1855

The following post is the first of two posts that address the question of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ in contemporary Albanian art. These posts—perhaps more than what I usually write—are explicitly presented from the point of view of an outsider, because that is essentially what I am. I am neither an Albanian artist, nor an Albanian critic, nor an Albanian curator. I am a historian of modern and contemporary art in Eastern Europe, and I have focused a great deal on Albania, though primarily on its socialist period. The goal of these posts is not to offer some kind of objective critique, but to offer a few suggestions and provocations. Some of them, no doubt, would and will be roundly rejected by those who are critics, and artists, and curators, of Albanian art—and that is perfectly fine. I heartily welcome disagreement, or agreement if that is the case. The goal is simply to present a point of view. I hope to make it clear as I proceed the ways in which the point of view is narrow. However, I also hope that—at least in a few cases— these observations might present fruitful considerations for those who practice as artists, critics, historians, and/or curators in Albania and of Albania.

The posts are framed in terms of ‘realism’ and ‘contemporaneity’ for two reasons. The first is that, as a scholar of socialist realism, the question of ‘realist’ modernism(s) (or modernist realism(s)) is inescapable for me. It might also be a question that is of interest to artists and others working in Albania. The second is that my thinking about the issue of realism in contemporary art was further deepened by a recent post by Ardian Vehbiu on the blog Peizazhe të fjalës. The post dealt with the question of ‘contemporary art (arti bashkëkohor) and how it might remain relevant or regain relevance in the context of Albania today. A subsequent post by sound artist and electronic musician Ilir Lluka responded to the same issues. In both cases, it struck me that part of what seems to be at issue is the precise definition of ‘contemporary’ art—and while I by no means mean to answer this question, I’d like to raise at least a few propositions about what it might be. A further framing term is that of ‘kitsch’, which is raised in the first of the two posts and which seems to me to be crucial for nearly all debates on modern realisms and many debates on contemporary art. Finally, needless to say, I welcome responses—in English ose në shqip—and if any readers have lengthy responses in either language, I’m also happy to post them as individual guest posts.[1]

  1. Beauty, Kitsch, Realism

woman and tiger_bukuriaI was recently back in Tirana for a short time—a few weeks at New Year’s. Several mornings I had coffee at the same café, near the house I was staying in. The café’s interior was decorated with several pieces of digital art, printed in large format on unframed canvases hung as centerpieces on some of the café’s white walls. Calling these works ‘digital art’ is perhaps deceptive: these images were of the pseudo-Photoshopped variety so often found gracing the covers of cheap fantasy and romance novels published in the past decade: one showed a woman in a luxurious black dress weeping in a dark and misty forest, clutching a rose as her black makeup ran down her cheek, pining for a lost lover. Another featured a sorceress with an exotic headdress breathing life and fire into an orb of twisting metal tendrils held in the palm of her hand. Another—my particular favorite—showed a woman striding boldly and sexily along a dirt road towards the viewer while holding a tiger on a long silver chain at her side. A massive yellow sun set behind her and the landscape around the figures glowed in the vague, softly out-of-focus way that only digital manipulation can satisfactorily produce.

The pictures struck me for a number of reasons. First of all, they presented precisely the kind of apparently neutral visual content that attempts to reach as wide an audience as possible, and yet does not appear to say very much. Their colors were bold; their lighting was dramatic. The women were sexy. The images projected mystery, tragedy, sorrow, the slightest taste of danger, pleasure. Perhaps most significantly, the images simultaneously occupied two distinct space. One the one hand, they seemed quite typical of recent Albanian urban visual culture (I have seen many similar images in cafes around Albania); they seemed very much to reflect a set of ideas about desire and image that, in my own experience, seem to be prevalent in Albania. On the other hand, the images were completely disconnected from the Albanian context—they were the kind of pictures one can and does see anywhere (I see them whenever I open Facebook, whenever I watch a movie in America, whenever I go to the mall). Absolutely nothing about them suggested that they were created in Albania, and even if they were, they would have instantly transcended the specificity of that space. This was the beauty and the power of their undeniable kitschiness—the way they both seemed to reflect a very specific aspect of current visual culture and values in a particular place, and at the same time seemed so completely unmoored from that place, so general, so correspondingly vacuous.

I was glad that I saw these images early on in my short stay in Tirana, because they reminded me of a few things that I tend to forget when thinking about art in Albania. The first is the degree to which beauty very much continues to exert an amorphous yet undeniably ubiquitous influence over debates on both art and mass (visual) culture. The images were affecting—despite, or perhaps because of, their emptiness—not so much because they asserted a strong definition of the beautiful but because the part of them that belonged to their context asserted the relevance of the debate over beauty, over the aesthetic. No less thoughtful a critic than Hal Foster famously questioned—in the late 80s—whether one of the defining elements of the postmodern condition was its anti-aesthetic character, the way it seemed to place the question of aesthetic experience firmly in the past, in the project of modernity. Nowadays, it seems quite clear that if the postmodern was indeed a period or a style defined by a rejection or transcendence of the aesthetic, then we have now left behind the postmodern and entered something else (the contemporary?). A more reasonable explanation is that the postmodern never really overcame the aesthetic—it never left, and its categories are every bit as relevant now as they have ever been, even if we remain uncertain about how they affect us. Of course, from a critical point of view we might agree with how Foster once framed it: the aesthetic can no longer be assumed as something ‘outside history,’ as a purposeless and ideal form of experience. However, the aesthetic would seem to continue to make precisely that claim for itself—at the very least, we must admit that it is every bit as necessary to struggle to historicize the aesthetic now as it was 30 years ago.

The struggle to historicize the aesthetic is, I think, something other than the attempt to overcome the aesthetic, and this is why I think it is unfortunate that Foster called his (now definitive) edited collection of essays the ‘Anti-Aesthetic’. The aesthetic is something that I think we should all be content to work within, whether we are historians or artists or both. Furthermore, I do not imagine that—in the context of Albania today—we can say very much without acknowledging the degree to which aesthetic experience—and that of the beautiful in particular—is marshaled as a political and social discursive framework. Furthermore, it is a framework that transcends political divides—as often as Edi Rama or Erion Veliaj assert that beautiful art will make a better and more civil population, their opponents (myself included) assert—on the basis of taste, that most modern/ist of all standards—that their interventions are not beautiful but rather, ugly.

So, then, my first provocation for a contemporary Albanian art could very well be this: historicize the aesthetic. Tell the history, show the history, consider the history of the beautiful as a mode of judgment in Albanian society. The question of the beautiful is, in the Albanian case, a decidedly concrete question. It is a matter that is rooted in discourse, certainly, but also in the phenomenological encounter with both urban and rural Albania. Put simply, the question of beauty is a serious one that everyone encounters when discussing Albania, and it need not be avoided simply because questions of beauty seem too closely linked to an apparently outdated modernism, or to a conceptually and emotionally empty mass culture. Far from it.

Because there is something about the notion of beauty—its mass appeal, no doubt—that suggests a decisive element of kitsch, let us consider kitsch for a moment, and move through it to the idea of realism. One of the passages that particularly struck me while reading Ardian Vehbiu’s post on the state of contemporary culture in Albania was the following assessment: “Thus, each work of art presented for mass public consumption simultaneously metabolizes two traditions: that of its own genre, or the tradition inherent to the sphere in which it is created and exists; and that of contemporary art, sophisticated, and elite(/ist). A sculpture placed in a public space cannot reproduce the language of sculpture as it existed during the 18th and 19th centuries, rejecting the stylistic transformations of subsequent periods up till today. Likewise, such a work cannot loyally imitate the template of modern or postmodern art while completely rejecting the expectations of its public. Unfortunately, both of these mistakes have been made in Albania: either the public is given works that are completely kitsch, works that look as if they were conceived and carved in the time of Louis XVI; or the public is given works that are kitsch in yet another sense, works that use modern art’s language of abstraction, a language the public does not know—and thus the public eventually uses them as urinals.”[2]

This passage contains several points related to the issue of contemporaneity, but for the moment I want to pay closer attention to the issues raised about kitsch. The problem, as I see it, is that this passage suggests that kitsch is something to be avoided in contemporary Albanian art, that the kitschiness of works of art condemns them not only to art historical irrelevance but also, depending on what kind of kitsch they are, to popular irrelevance. For me, this is problematic. Of course, my viewpoint is quite different: as a historian (and particularly as a historian of a region that remains ‘peripheral’ in most histories), I am not particularly concerned about whether the art I study is ‘kitsch’ or not—which is another way of saying I am not interested in whether it is ‘good’ or not. For Vehbiu, part of the issue is to return attention to the importance of ‘genuine’ or ‘proper’ art (arti i mirëfilltë), an art that suffers from public indifference in Albania. For me, the division between such a ‘genuine’ art (associated with the avant-garde, in this case) and mass-cultural kitsch risks implying that one is more valuable than the other from the point of view of historical understanding. It is my conviction that kitsch teaches us very important things about who we are and what we are, and the ubiquity of kitsch demands that we understand it better.

Now, I am certainly not attributing to Vehbiu the assertion that we should stop trying to appreciate or understand kitsch works of art; that is not at he point of his post at all. However, there is a way in which relying on the division between kitsch mass culture and a more authentic (avant-garde or otherwise) kind of art parallels an analogous division within the historical and critical assessment of art, a division that I think obscures more than it reveals. The division, as James Elkins puts it nicely in Art and Globalization, is that between art that tries to act primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon and art that is anti-aesthetic and thus perceived to be more radical.[3] Obviously, this distinction is different than that between kitsch and avant-garde, but in both cases there is a line drawn between art that conforms to a certain set of expectations (aesthetic ones, ‘popular’ ones) and art that challenges the norms, an avant-garde or radical art. Elkins, following Benjamin Buchloh, points out that this division is both too easy and a bit of a dead end: it presumes that when we study art (or critique art, or make art) we are primarily just looking for the means to resist X (capitalism, globalization, mass culture, etc.) As Elkins says, “We could spend an equal time with contemporary international art that is unreconstructed, celebratory, nostalgic, ‘amnesiac,’ as Buchloh puts it, aestheticizing, retrospective. For me, this is the function of an economic or sociological analysis: otherwise we are mining the phenomena of globalization in order to create the strongest possible resistance, rather than trying to understand the generative conditions, the current states and processes of globalization” (2-3).

To me, it is not just a matter of performing a more thorough economic or sociological analysis, although that is certainly necessary. It is also a matter of recognizing that the lines between mass culture and various types of art practices (‘unreconstructed’ and otherwise) are mutually (re)constructing. From a historical point of view, this means that it is fairly unhelpful to focus on artists who are perceived as pushing the boundaries at the expense of artists who continue to practice within relatively stable conventional categories. Likewise, it means it is fairly unhelpful to focus on avant-garde practices as if they could exist solely in opposition to kitsch, when in fact they at least as often function alongside it, with it, and through it. I suppose that the second provocation to Albanian contemporary art, art history, and criticism would be: one shouldn’t allow the search for a means of resistance to prevent one from engaging with the concrete realities of the situation.

And so we come to the question of realism. I recently read Sabine Eckmann’s admirably succinct essay in the catalogue for New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933, and was reminded that no less a luminary of early debates on postmodernism than Jean-François Lyotard wrote, in 1982, that “Realism, whose only definition is that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art, always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch” (75).[4] Now of course, the realism I am about to try to make a case for is not the kind Lyotard is dismissing—but it is first necessary to point out that Lyotard’s dismissal of both kitsch and academicism is already problematic, in that it assumes that practices falling into these categories have nothing to tell us about the world we live in. Perhaps—perhaps—a case could be made that academicism has relatively little to say about the present conditions of cultural production, but it has become one of the defining features of kitsch that it comments endlessly on itself and its appeal. Furthermore, Lyotard’s definition of realism is clearly drawn from socialist realism and National Socialist neoclassicism, and he believes that because these art constellations attacked the avant-garde, they were not critically engaged with the conditions of reality.

There is a long argument to be made here; I frankly think Lyotard is simply wrong about certain historical kinds of realism. The argument can be partially bracketed, however, because Lyotard is ultimately speaking about the present, and I want to speak about the present as well. But: we will not have a very robust view of art in the present if we insist that the art of the past was naïve and disengaged from the world. Perhaps a better question would be: why would we ever assume that realism (or Realism(s)[5]) were incompatible with the avant-garde? What kinds of realism in history have actually “intend[ed] to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art”? No doubt there are some, but we may say: relatively few. Socialist realism was certainly not among them—it was very deeply concerned about the question of reality implicated in that of art; indeed, that was one of its primary foci. So, contrary to Lyotard, isn’t realism in fact one of the first approaches to art to question both the nature of reality and the relationship art could have to it? And isn’t that project something that seems vitally necessary in the current moment?

As Eckmann points out in her essay, Realism as it was first practiced in 19th-century France (by Courbet) was precisely not about the uncritical use of established aesthetic conventions; it was instead “devoted to a new and unfamiliar form of depicting the world” (33). This involved both creating new iconographies and subject matter as well as mobilizing new aesthetic categories and formal devices. And yet, the consensus was for some time—and in many cases still is—that after the end of the 19th century, r/Realism never again held these functions. (Of course, even by seeking for these ‘radical’ or ‘avant-garde’ functions, we are falling back into the kind of trap I outlined above, whereby we first divide art into ‘radical’ or ‘not-radical’ and pursue a deep historical or critical investigation only of the former.) However, as Eckmann also points out, recent critical approaches and revisionist histories of various 20th-century and contemporary art have identified new genres, movements, and styles with the idea of ‘realism.’ One of her key examples is Okwui Enwezor’s discussion of political realism, the documentary, and vérité.[6]

Another example, one Eckmann does not mention, would be Alex Potts’ recent (and perhaps overly ambitious) attempt to re-survey much of the canon of postwar Western art—including not only Art Brut and Nouveau réalisme but also Pollock’s abstraction—under the rubric of ‘modern realism.’ For Potts, realism and abstraction “should not be seen as opposing and mutually exclusive polarities but, rather, as existing in a dialectical relationship with each other” (1). His goal is essentially to reclaim (a bit late, it would seem to me) the idea that much of the work produced in the postwar period is importantly “not just of the world, as the pure modernists would have it, but it is also about the world” (1). In other words, a realist work has “world-referencing” elements—and it is certainly undeniable that much postwar art has such elements (46). However, what Potts means by modern realism is an art that does not simply mirror the world (naturalistically, let us say), but one that is “committed to achieving a defamiliarizing of the phenomena it reference[s] or invoke[s]” (27). For this reason, Potts does not consider—to take one example—socialist realism (or even, really, social realism) in his survey; he does not believe that it complicates our relation to reality enough. In other words, he shares Lyotard’s assessment of socialist realism, “that it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that of art.”

Now, there are certain things I would like to take from Potts’ definition of modern realism, and certain things I would like to jettison. On the one hand, I think his definition of realism as—essentially—any art that is about the world, is too broad.[7] However, I want to retain Potts’ willingness to treat even ‘abstract’ art as ‘realist’ in certain historical circumstances. Abstraction can be a quality of the world as much as it can be a quality of transcendental realms and forms.

On the other hand, however, I think Potts is too reductive in treating certain kinds of figurative realism as too naïve in their ‘mirroring’ of the world. Why should we assume that extremely ‘mimetic’ forms of art have an uncomplicated relationship to reality? And, why should we assume that the only critical process available to realism art is that of radical defamiliarization of phenomena?[8] I prefer a definition of realism closer to that adopted by Eckmann in her discussion of the New Objectivity: “Realism signifies an artistic focus on the visible[9] world that is articulated through mimetic methods. Yet realism, in contrast to naturalism, does not imply an exact replication of reality, nor is it measured in terms of the degree to which it resembles the real.[10] It doesn’t necessarily accommodate truth to nature. Rather, realism entails questioning and inquiring in to the nature of the real to reveal truth, or vérité” (30). Now, there is no claim on my part (or Eckmann’s) that the ‘truth’ needs to be singular, only that it is tied to an actual experience of the world.

Here, I hope, I have tied up at least one dangling thread from the discussion of beauty above. My claim is this: no matter how much we wish to claim that, in postmodernity, we no longer believe in ‘experience,’ I think this claim is demonstrably false. It is demonstrably false because at least one kind of experience, aesthetic experience, has remained an important element of both modernity and postmodernity (or contemporaneity—I don’t feel like I am yet in the position to debate this distinction). Our understanding of our selves and our environment is still strongly influenced by our understanding of sensory perceptions, our desires related to them, and our attempts to restructure them—this is true as much in art as in other fields of life. Thus, at the very least, a realist art would be one that undertook an investigation of the actual conditions of our aesthetic categories, either in the realm of kitsch mass culture or high/avant-garde culture. In the specific case of Albania, as I’ve noted, the investigation of the category of beauty would be one quite ‘realist’ object of artistic investigation.

There is another element to r/Realism that I would like to introduce before I undergo what will no doubt be an unsuccessful attempt to satisfactorily bring together all the strands of my thought on the possibilities a contemporary artistic realism might offer in the Albanian context. Realism—at its inception, in the 19th century—did not simply turn to its present surroundings as a subject matter by chance. As Linda Nochlin argues in her seminal study of the movement, the rise of Realism coincided with a new vision of history (23-33). History was no longer exclusively the realm of history painters, who dealt with the great deeds of antiquity; it became the realm of genre painters. In turn, these genre painters were no longer attempting to depict a timeless kind of ‘everyday life,’ but began to seek for the traces of historical understanding and historical structures in that everyday life.

In a recent post, I discussed Gëzim Qëndro’s book Heronjtë Janë të Uritur, and the possibilities it offered for using the search for ‘realism’ in art as a critical method. One of the most interesting facets of Qëndro’s study, from my perspective, is the way it explicitly understands realism not so much as a style but as a kind of historical consciousness. True, I think Qëndro in fact pays too little attention to the visual aspects of the (realist?) painting he discusses, but I do think he convincingly draws attention to the way that realism is tied to an explicitly historical mode of understanding the world in 20th-century Albanian history. That is, Qëndro’s quest for realism draws our attention to the role art can play in relation to history. This would be perhaps my most assertive provocation for Albanian contemporary art: How can Albanian art help us achieve a more nuanced historical understanding of the world (or ‘reality’)? This is not to insist that art try to turn itself into history, nor to imply that all contemporary art must be, first of all, about history.[11] However, it is to insist that one of the most important projects of a contemporary Albanian art should be the attempt to reveal, to understand, to clarify, and to challenge the present moment as the outcome of historical processes. This kind of confrontation with the present is something that r/Realist art—broadly construed—has always attempted, and for this reason it seems to me that realism is one approach that would serve artists in Albania today well.

Before I conclude by saying a bit more about the challenges that face any historically conscious model of realist contemporary art, let me say how the earlier discussion of kitsch fits into this model. Of course, in some ways, the discussion of kitsch was simply a way to move from Vehbiu’s insightful thoughts on the challenges facing contemporary art and culture in Albania. My attempt to assert the need for a more nuanced understanding of the relation between avant-garde and kitsch in contemporary culture was in part meant to introduce the notion that realist art is an art that many have dismissed and some continue to dismiss as kitsch (because it is figurative, because it is mimetic, because it sometimes has broad popular appeal, and so on); and yet realism turns out to much more critically relevant than the term ‘kitsch’ implies. But that isn’t everything. I also think it is important for contemporary art to conceive of itself as kitsch as much as it conceives of itself as avant-garde, and this is—I think—particularly the case for a realist art. All art, no matter how radical, ultimately performs (in certain contexts and for certain audiences) the project of familiarization and repetitive conformity that kitsh (broadly speaking) performs.[12] The key—and this is where a self-consciously realist sentiment is beneficial—is to for art to investigate where and why and to whom it produces the effect of familiarization, or conformity, or comfort. Ultimately, this is neither a very radical, nor in any way an original. To me, the realist approach to art and aesthetics asserts the following: the point is not to try to produce ‘art’ as opposed to ‘kitsch,’ but to produce art that is more aware about when and where it might become kitsch, and when and where it might remain ‘art.’

Of course, this brings us back again to Vehbiu’s observation that artworks can be considered kitsch in different ways, and that every work of art operates in (at least) two contexts: its own artistic tradition or historical genre, and the expectations of its public. These two contexts have different histories, and understanding how these two histories come together in the work of art is a duty that artists, historians, and critics must collectively shoulder. It is not, I think, a burden that is frequently shouldered in discussions of Albanian art, in exhibitions staged in Albania, in Albanian artist’s writings on their works, in the writings of foreign scholars and curators on Albanian works.[13]

During my recent visit to Albania, I only visited two exhibitions. One of them was the Onufri XXI show at the National Gallery of Arts. I did not spend as much time as I should have with the show, and so if I seem to condemn it in what follows, that is no doubt partially my own fault. This year’s Onufri was curated by the duo VestAndPage (artist Verena Stenke and artist/writer Andrea Pagnes), and it was devoted to the idea and medium of glass (hence the show’s rather lengthy subtitle “SiO2 – The Reason of Fragility, How Do We Spell The Word C-A-R-E When Staring At Glass?”). To be frank, I did not understand the exhibition. It seemed, to put it bluntly, eclectic in the pejorative sense of the term—it contained a number of works that related to each other (in terms of their shared engagement with or use of a particular material, glass) that at first seemed related but ultimately revealed themselves to have little to do with one another. There are, no doubt, a number of reasons the exhibition as a whole escaped my understanding. However, the reason that is most salient for my current discussion is this: the show did not know how to bring together works that spoke primarily about the history of art as a broad (Western) phenomenon, and works that seemed to speak more directly about the historical (contemporary) Albanian context.

This failure is significant because—according to the organizers—they were seeking precisely to avoid aestheticism and produce “a vision of the essence of reality”:[14] “In fact, the artistic image of the world cannot be adapted or compared to purely cognitive rational paths, because it represents a way of appropriation of the world that, in its specific and unique form, is possible only in the artwork. It is after bearing these considerations in mind that we can understand how a material such as glass – for its linguistic, symbolic and metaphoric potential and the intrinsic properties of fragility, transparency and resistance – is the most appropriate to indicate that an intuitive knowledge of art escapes any ‘correctness’ criterion, as its difficulties – its beauty – must be conquered by intuitive thought, and therefore must be realized as a result of a “vision of the essence.” It is exactly this concept that the exhibition aims to communicate, since in any way it may be judged, the experience of a vision of the essence of reality leads to a thought that art is not limited to the unsullied pleasure of pure aesthetic contemplation, but it is capable of generating a powerful reflection and consequent awareness on the multiple dimensions of meaning that are behind the human thought itself.”

In fact, the exhibition seemed to be organized very much in line with the vision of material(ist) modern realism that Alex Potts describes—the curators believes that by framing the exhibition around a material, the works included would somehow automatically constitute a critical engagement with reality (or ‘the world’). And to ensure that this was framed historically, they included works that belong to a broader history of Western and global postwar art—works that read as belonging to art history (Abramovic, Kosuth, Yoko Ono, and so forth). In this sense, it was helpful that Armando Lulaj’s The Large Glass framed the entrance to the exhibition, since it framed the show in reference to a work that belongs to the canon of Western art history. Yet, within the exhibition itself, the link between two (clusters of) histories—one a global history of artistic practice, the other a relatively localized history of Albanian ‘reality’—felt conspicuous by its absence. It was not only the weakness of the curatorial text, or the way that even the most ‘conceptual’ works were expected to hold their own as aesthetic phenomena. It was primarily the way that the show did not seem to take seriously the need to understand how these histories might or might not relate.

The two works that I felt most drawn to in the show both dealt with the same subject matter—and it was slightly strange that two works dealt with the same theme. Ermela Teli’s video and multimedia installation Glass, a weapon! (2015) and Sead Kazanxhiu’s mixed media installation On the Wall (2015) both dealt with a common feature of home architecture in Albania: the practice of cementing pieces of broken glass to the top of garden walls in order to prevent intruders from climbing over them. Facing each other across one of the gallery’s rooms, these two works seemed to be the most directly tied to everyday life in Albania.[15] And yet, at the same time, the gap between these works and works belonging more directly to a general history of art (say, Lawrence Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass) seemed absolute.

Ermela Teli, Glass, a weapon!, 2015, installed at Onufri XXI
Ermela Teli, Glass, a weapon!, 2015, installed at Onufri XXI

Sead Kazanxhiu, On the Wall, 2015, installed at Ounfri XXI
Sead Kazanxhiu, On the Wall, 2015, installed at Ounfri XXI

Perhaps I like my art a bit too literal, but what appealed to me about both of the works in question (Teli’s and Kazanxhiu’s) was the fact that the looked like something I had seen during my time in Albania,[16] they referenced a structure of the environment that I encountered several times. Furthermore, they were the works that made me think most about my encounter with Tirana afterwards. I found myself looking at the way people had installed glass on the walls around their gardens, observing the density of the glass fragments, their color, wondering what kinds of vessels they had broken to produce the glass, wondering who was really deterred by the glass in the first place, wondering how long it would be before each of the walls I had seen with such glass on it would be leveled along with its house in order to construct some new apartment building that needed no such defense against incursion. And at the end of the day, this thinking seemed much more productive to me than a lengthy consideration of Weiner’s Impacted to the Point of Fusing Sand into Glass.

What I craved most as I was wandering through Onufri XXI was a work of art, a text, anything that would tell me something about “the essence of reality” in Albania today, and about what the essence of that reality might have to do with local histories, with individual histories, with global histories. That, I imagine, is the task that a Realist artistic practice would set for itself. Of course, there are many kinds of art-making, and most of them do not need to have anything to do with this task. However, I find it hard to imagine how an art that called itself ‘contemporary’ could dispense with such a project.

 

Books Cited:

Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983.

Eckmann, Sabine. “A Lack of Empathy: On the Realisms of the New Objectivity.” In New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. Exh Cat. LACMA, 2015. pp. 27-39.

Elkins, James, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim, eds. Art and Globalization. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2010.

Enwezor, Okwui. “Documentary/Verite: Bio-Politics, Human Rights and the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 5:1 (2004). pp.11-42.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism? [1983]” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. Pp. 71-84.

Nochlin, Linda. Realism. New York: Penguin, 1971.

Potts, Alex. Experiments in Modern Realism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013.

Notes:

[1] I’ve only done this once before, and it strikes me it would be fun to do it again. So please feel free to write long responses and contact me if you’d like to post them as entries in this blog, instead of just comments. Comments are of course also encouraged.

[2] “Kësisoj, çdo produkt artistik që ofrohet për konsum masiv metabolizon njëkohësisht dy tradita: të zhanrit të vet, ose të traditës brenda sferës ku vepron; dhe të artit bashkëkohor, të sofistikuar, elitar. Një skulpturë që vendoset në një vend publik nuk mund të riprodhojë gjuhën e këtyre veprave të përpunuar gjatë shekujve XVIII-XIX, duke shpërfillur gjuhën e re skulpturore të përpunuar më vonë e deri në bashkëkohësi; sikurse nuk mund të ndjekë besnikërisht shabllone të artit modernist a post-modernist, duke shpërfillur pritjet e publikut.

Për fat të keq, të dyja këto shmangie kanë ndodhur në Shqipëri – ku publikut i janë dhënë ose vepra totalisht kitsch, që duket sikur janë konceptuar dhe gdhendur në kohën e Luigjit XVI; ose vepra sërish kitsch, por që përdorin gjuhën abstrakte të artit modernist, të cilën publiku nuk e njeh dhe as e vlerëson; prandaj edhe qëllon pastaj ta përdorë si urinore.”

[3] When I say the division is analogous, I mean that the two forms of kitsch Vehbiu identifies are, essentially, forms of culture that rely heavily on aestheticization—whether it is a nostalgic aesthetic that longs for the ‘high’ art of the past or a (post)modern(ist) aestheticism that ignores the public taste in its claims to universality. It seems to me that Vehbiu is calling for an art that would counteract these two forms of aestheticization, and in this sense the dichotomy he outlines is similar to that between uncritical aestheticism and radical or critical anti-aestheticism.

[4] It’s always refreshing when famous thinkers say things that, in retrospect, turn out to be so completely misguided.

[5] Elsewhere in this essay, I sometimes write “r/Realism” to indicate that artists and critics may take realism to be a general term for a particular approach or as the proper name of a style/movement. For me, it is not particularly important that it be one or the other—more often, I believe, it should be thought of as both.

[6] As Enwezor puts it, “Vérité has been defined as: truth. But also it refers to lifelikeness, a trueness to life. In the latter definition it is predisposed towards mimeticism. For example, in French, vérité also means to strive to be true to life in art: s’efforcer a la vérité en art. Similarly vérité refers to realism to real life, naturalism, authenticity, pragmatism, verisimilitude” (34).

[7] For Potts, this definition allows a more materially-focused re-assessment of certain forms of abstraction, since materials are by definition part of the world, but I don’t think this helps us much in the present context.

[8] Of course, Potts is not speaking about the immediate present. However, I would argue that—given the pervasively ‘defamiliarizing’ effects of late capitalism in much of the world today—it is just as easy for art to be both ‘uncritical’ and radically ‘defamiliarizing.’ In some cases, making the world familiar again is a first step that art can undertake in order to provide us with means to deeper engagement with our surroundings.

[9] I myself do not think the focus needs to be necessarily only on the visible world alone, but I would not equate the ‘invisible’ would with the spiritual realm, as some earlier forms of abstract modernism did. Rather, I think it is entirely ‘realistic’ to assume that there are material realities that we cannot see, and that realist art can attempt to mimic those material realities in a number of ways.

[10] Potts, on the other hand, dismisses certain kinds of realism as retrograde because he does judge them on how much they resemble reality. He believes they resemble it too closely.

[11] However, for reasons I’ll discuss in a subsequent post, I think it is difficult to conceive of an art that is truly contemporary and yet sets aside historical investigations. After all, as Nochlin writes, it was the Realists who first demanded that art concern itself with contemporaneity.

[12] Calling something kitsch, or referring to it as mass culture, is not primarily asserting that the object in question is different in kind from an art object. It is asserting that it produces particular kinds of effects among certain (‘popular’) audiences/consumers more often than it produces those effects among others.

[13] Of course, this is the case in many places, but here I am speaking primarily about Albania. It is of course also unfair to suggest that this kind of thoughtful evaluation never happens—I am happy to say that sometimes it does. But not as often as I would like. Hence this post.

[14] The English translation is that of the National Gallery or the organizers, not mine. The Albanian, from the Gallery’s website, is as follows: “Në të vërtetë, imazhi artistik nuk mund të adaptohet apo të krahasohet me shtigje të thjeshta logjike e racionale, sepse përfaqëson një mënyrë të përvetësimit të botës që, në formën e saj të veçantë dhe unike, është e mundur vetëm brenda veprës së artit. Përsiatjet e mësipërme janë të domosdoshme për të kuptuar se një material si qelqi – për potencialin e tij gjuhësor, simbolik dhe metaforik, krahas vetive të tij kompozicionale të brishtësisë, transparencës dhe rezistencës – është mëse i përshtatshëm për të treguar se njohja intuitive e artit i shmanget kritereve të korrektësisë, dhe se vështirësia e tij – bukuria e tij – duhet të kapet nga një mendim intuitiv, e si rezultat të realizohet si një “vizion i thelbit të realitetit”. Është pikërisht ky koncept që ekspozita ka për qëllim të komunikojë, sepse në çdo lloj mënyre që gjykojmë, përjetimi i një vizioni të thelbit të realitetit të çon në mendimin se arti nuk është i kufizuar vetëm tek kënaqësia sublime e mendimit të pastër estetik, por është i aftë të gjenerojë një reflektim të fuqishëm dhe ndërgjegjësim të mëtejshëm për dimensionet e shumfishta të kuptimit që janë përtej edhe vetë mendimit njerzor.”

[15] Of course, I’m speaking here of my life while there…but I was drawn to these works precisely because, every day as I walked home during my two weeks in Tirana, I passed homes with just such conglomerations of jagged glass installed atop their garden walls.

[16] They weren’t, of course, the only works in the show to do this. But they did seem to me to be the two that made this reference most explicit.

History and Method: The Quest for Realism in Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur

This post offers a review of art critic and curator Gëzim Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur (Tirana: Onufri, 2015, 115 pp.). It also serves as a sort of introduction to the two forthcoming posts, which will deal—in part—with the potential relationships between r/Realism and contemporary art, understood historically and critically, in Albania today.

Least of all can modern realism be characterized in conventional terms as a commitment to naturalistic resemblance. […] There is a clear continuity between the realism of late nineteenth-century experiments and creating more convincing portrayals of modern life and modernist or avant-garde attempts to invent artistic forms that challenged existing ways of picturing the world.—Alex Potts[1]

Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana
Spiro Xega, Ceta e Shahin Matrakut, 1930, oil on canvas, 108x130cm, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana

It is perhaps, finally, becoming a good time to be a Realist again. From the increasingly ubiquitous (if still frequently denigrated) philosophical efforts of the Speculative Realists, to the art historical recovery of global Realisms from social realism to socialist realism and beyond, there can be no doubt that notion of Realism has ceased to be associated with various cultural paradigms of the past and has become—again—something truly contemporary. This is a good thing for historians, critics, artists, and aestheticians for many reasons, and not only because it challenges the (undoubtedly decaying, but also undoubtedly still shambling) corpse of abstraction’s institutional victory in the second half of the previous century. Nor again is it a good thing merely because so many forms of Realism seem to explicitly challenge—with carrying degrees of efficacy—certain aspects of the postmodern love for ungroundedness and its dismissal of shared aesthetic judgments about the world. Indeed, if the ‘aesthetic’ as a category is gradually being returned to the postmodern configuration (after it first appeared that the postmodern left the aesthetic well in the past), it might also be said that r/Realism is returning as a central category of the contemporary.

However, the recent return of/to the r/Real (and not only in Hal Foster’s Lacanian sense,[2] but in fact in many different senses of the term) and its ‘isms’ is not only significant as a category of culture in the current moment but also of our understanding of the writing of 20th-century (and of course also late 19th-century) art history. The hope—at least for myself, as a historian of Eastern European art—is not just that widespread yet regionally distinctive styles like Socialist Realism will be unquestioningly introduced into the field of acceptable subjects for art historical investigation. (Although much ground has been gained, a great deal more remains to be gained in this area alone.) The hope is also that other specific Realisms (such as Photorealism) and less easily delineated kinds of Realism (academic realism, historical realism, the vast and extremely globally significant category of social realism) will be understood as crucial to the development of art in both the West and elsewhere (in Eastern Europe, for example). Of course, in many cases, too much attention to stylistic categories does not do much justice to works of art, but the focus on Realism as a category (it seems to me) is foremost a way to re-orient attention towards how artists were engaging with the social and material world—as opposed to solely either investigating their own subjectivity or the institutional confines of art and aesthetics. (Of course, these are in no way exclusive; artists were frequently doing all of them, and it perhaps one of the weaknesses of Qëndro’s study that it does too little to emphasize the potential diversity of Xega’s aims in the work discussed.) As such, the foregrounding of Realist aspirations in historical/critical investigations of artworks is a way to learn about how artists made works that were meant to actively intervene in and comment upon material systems of labor, empire, spirituality, sexuality, and so forth.

There are (at least) two ways to consider the approach to Realism taken by Gëzim Qëndro in his recent book-length essay Heronjtë Janë të Uritur [The Heroes Are Hungry], which focuses on a single painting by Spiro Xega (one of the artists of the Albanian National Awakening period), Çeta e Shahin Matrakut [The Warrior Band of Shahin Matraku] (1930, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Arts, Tirana). The first is as an art historical investigation of the significance of Realism in modern Albanian art; the second is as a critical method meant to deepen our understanding of cultural production’s relationship to society not only in Albania during the late Ottoman Empire and early post-Ottoman period, but also in the present day. For a number of reasons, the book is rather unsatisfactory from the former viewpoint (as art historical inquiry), but incredibly rich and compelling from the latter viewpoint (as critical method).

Qëndro is without a doubt one of the most astute and creative commentators on Albanian art, and it is a pleasure to see him looking closely and thinking closely about a work (and an artist, and indeed a period) that has received relatively little attention in studies of Albanian art. The course of Qëndro’s thought is emphasized by the tone and narrative of the book itself, which begins with a first person account of the author’s enduring fascination with the painting in question and his attempts to uncover some of the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Eventually, the book moves away from this narrative style, and in a way this is to its detriment: the argument is at its best when its flaws are revealed as endemic to the individual critic’s forever-partial encounter with specific details about the artwork; as we follow Qëndro’s path of discoveries, we are taken down a number of interesting paths of speculation. However, when the author comes back around to making strong statements about the significance of the painting (as I will discuss below), these statements seem unconvincing precisely because the immediate historical circumstances surrounding the painting seem to be so ambiguous and uncertain. To some degree, the conjectural nature of the study is made clear at the outset: a brief introduction to the book makes clear that, as part of Onufri’s Khora series, the text “attempts to be a liminal space, generating interpretations that are never exhaustive, to be a fortuitous meeting of the sensory and that which can be grasped by the intellect.” Books in the series are intended as exercises in the “understanding of the interstitial spaces, so frequently disregarded, between the cultural and the natural” (7). In this light, it is almost certainly forgivable that the book raises far more questions than it answers—that is its most ideal function, no doubt. For this very reason, however, the book’s assertive conclusion and Qëndro’s rhetorical framing of these conclusions as the product of a kind of matter-of-fact logical argument ultimately undermine the text’s most satisfying element—its inherent open-endedness and speculative quality.

Through the course of the book, Qëndro argues that Spiro Xega’s painting is far from the heroically Romantic image of Albanian brigands as national(ist) heroes that it has long been framed as being (especially by the discourse of the socialist period, which sought to strengthen national emotion by treating all Albanian paintings of Albanians, especially figures from the Ottoman period, as examples of the highest values of the Albanian people). As Qëndro points out, in the socialist historiography, even a painting of a band of notoriously violent and lawless bandits was held up as revealing the character of the Albanian people as “brave, hardworking, and freedom-loving” (trim, punëtor dhe liridashës) (63). Unlike Xega’s undeniably Romantic portrait of Skanderbeg on horseback[3]—painted the following year—Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is, according to Qëndro, fundamentally a Realist work. All the details of Xega’s painting (from its scrupulous depiction of the apparent social equality of the two captains—Shahin Matraku and Leftenar Nuriu—seated next to each other on the same gunë [cloak], to the depiction of the band engaged in the everyday act of eating dinner), according to Qëndro, represent the artist’s commitment to observing and recording straightforward and optical facts about the event and persons in question. Ultimately, Qëndro claims that Çeta e Shahin Matrakut is not just a key example of Realist painting in early 20th-century Albania, but also the first and only example of historical realism.[4] That is, not only is it a realist scene with known historical characters, but it is also a scene whose content challenged the social and historical understanding of its time; its emphasis on the realities of brigandage exposed the heterogeneity and also the trauma in Albanian society under the Late Ottoman Empire. Far from aiming to create a r/Romanticized portrait of freedom-fighters, Xega (as Qëndro argues) treats the theme of hajduks because it is in these marginal and violent figures that the vicissitudes, dangers, shortcomings, and also possibilities of Balkan society at the time could be most completely depicted.

Qëndro offers this argument by way of a thorough reading of what the painting shows us and, to some degree, of the formal means[5] used by Xega to convey its subject to us; and by way of a broader investigation of the way brigands (or hajduks, as they are known; hajdut in Albania) like Shahin Matraku’s band functioned in the society of the Late Ottoman Empire. Qëndro draws much of his evidence for the latter investigation from another primary source, Gjerasim Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat (Zagreb: Illiricum, 1921, published in an earlier version in 1902; in English: Captured by Brigands), which tells of how the author—a member of the Istanbul Bible Society and publisher of several religious books in the Albanian language during the National Awakening period—was captured and held ransom in the mid-1880s by Shahin Matraku’s band until, eventually, his associates were able to muster the ransom money and he was freed. Noting the difficulties in taking Qiriazi at his word about Matraku’s band—who were, of course, both Godless and lawless, and thus for many reason’s the subject of Qiriazi’s disdain—Qëndro nonetheless uses Rrëmbyer nga cubat as the primary source of information for much of the book, alongside some histories of brigandage in the Balkans and general histories of the region and period.

Although there is nothing wrong with this particular limited focus, it is also the case the Qëndro draws essentially all of the painting’s context from a book published much earlier. Furthermore, given that Xega (who did know the band in question, although it is a bit unclear how many times he has contact with the group and when he might have had occasion to sketch or paint them) had direct contact with the subjects of his painting (44), it is curious that Qëndro does not spend more time talking about the artist himself. This would not necessary be part of a mission to install the artist’s intention as the primary source of the painting’s meaning, but would rather be a quite essential part of understanding what the painting meant in its time and to contemporary viewers. This latter aspect is almost entirely neglected, which makes it difficult to make the art historical link Qëndro repeatedly asserts between Courbet’s desire to “paint the historical portrait of my closest friend, the man of the 19th century” and Xega’s painting of Matraku’s band. To call Xega a Realist in Courbet’s sense, at the end of the of day, requires us to understand something about Xega himself. How, for example, does Xega’s participation in Çerçiz Topulli’s çeta [band][6] affect the way we read Çeta e Shahin Matrakut? What does it mean that Xega was most likely primarily self-taught, and that his works were seemingly only exhibited in his studio during his lifetime, only after his death being shown together in group exhibitions?[7] What does it mean, socially, that he was first of all a trader and only later an artist? All of these are questions that Qëndro avoids because his inroads to the painting’s historical context come from a quite separate set of historical documents, ones that treat the same subject matter but not necessarily the same situation of cultural production and reception.

This avoidance of dealing with (even by way of expressly saying that they are beyond the author’s scope) certain kinds of historical details is made more frustrating by the rhetorical flourishes that make the book’s argument seem logically complete (even if it supposed to be open-ended). Qëndro is a master of titles (how could one ask for better than the title of the book itself, Heronjtë Janë të Uritur?), and the section headings benefit from his own poetic brand of intellectualism: “Transparenca e subjektit,” “Primo inter pares,” “Ndërlikimet estetike të tranparencës së subjektit,” “(Pa)mundësia e transhendentimit të situates,” “Opaciteti ideolojik i subjektit realist,” [“Transparency of the subject,” “Primo inter pares,” “The aesthetic complexities of the transparency of the subject,” “The (im)possibility of transcending the situation,” “The ideological opacity of the realist subject,”] and so on. However, there’s a way in which all this apparent display of theoretical and philosophical elan is a bit at odds with the claim that the book is making; after all, Qëndro is, at bottom trying to make a claim for the simplicity of the painting: far from being some metaphysically elaborate example of metahistorical idealism (of the kind socialist realism would subsequently produce in Albania), and far from being a lofty Romantic image, it is a painting that represents Xega’s attempts to lay out just the facts. Of course this attempt is deeply sophisticated and interesting, but Qëndro repeatedly reminds us that Xega is really trying to show us a simple scene—a dinner among brigands—and that in this simplicity and honesty we in turn come to understand the wider social web of interactions that Xega wants us to see. Why then, is the philosophical language accompanied so strongly by the claim to a kind of abstract logical structure (one that seems ‘transcendentally’ at odds with the concreteness Qëndro claims for Xegas painting)? For Western students of Realism, the easiest explanation might be the following (and, given Qëndro’s constant reliance on Courbet as the exemplar of Realism, it is an appropriate one): despite the book’s initial narrative kinship with a book like T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, what Qëndro has written is quite far from Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, and is in fact something much closer to Michael Fried’s Courbet’s Realism (a work that Qëndro cites several times in the text).

There is nothing inherently wrong with writing this kind of book—for many, it might be a welcome approach. However, in many ways, it makes the book of secondary interest in an art historical sense: it seems by the end of the book, that almost everything we could have gleaned about the social complexities of the period in question could be gleaned from Qiriazi’s Rrëmbyer nga cubat, since that book is used as the basis for many of Qëndro’s observations about what is going on in the painting. Thus, the book is a cipher for the painting, but what is left unclear is what the painting tells us about its time. Ironically, after introducing the painting with a quite close visual reading of it, Qëndro proceeds by spiraling outwards not only to the painting’s wider social context, but also to other sources of information, and in this sense the book—as a study of a particular painting—is a bit disappointing. However, Qëndro’s method of setting out to investigate the painting as a manifestation of Realism is productive as a critical method, even if it falls short as a pathway to certain kinds of (art) historical understanding.

For Qëndro, seeking the r/Realism of Xega’s painting is a necessary (and significant) step in responding to the vision of history created by art of the socialist period in Albania (much of which could be categorized as socialist realism). As he puts it, “Xega’s painting can’t help but be seen today as a ‘struggle’ against socialist realist painting, which viewed everyday life [such as the act of brigands sitting down to eat a meal] as something subversive when it was removed from the context of the rituals and political framework of the totalitarian system” (105). However, even this opposition seems a little strained. Qëndro is known for his observations about what is absent in Albanian socialist realist painting (Enver Hoxha’s shadow, rainy weather, and—in the present study—protagonists eating meals). However, in juxtaposing the positive content of Xega’s painting (its overwhelming wealth of details resulting in Barthes’ ‘reality effect’) to the negative content of socialist realism, Qëndro seems to be making too easy a contrast. Is it really the case that socialist realism functioned in Albania primarily in terms of absence, while Xega’s painting (as a one-off example of historical realism) functions only in terms of presence? What about what was really there in socialist realism, and what is really absent (violence, looting, death, laughter, joy, desperation, to name a few things) in Xega’s painting? Here, again, one yearns for a more robust art historical framework in which to consider the work, for this would not detract from the critical and aesthetic possibilities Qëndro is seeking but would, rather, expand and multiply them. However, these possibilities would involve not just the relationship between Xega’s r/Realism and socialist art, but something much more

No, in the end, it isn’t really the critical lens that Xega’s painting (very certainly) can turn on subsequent Albanian realism of the socialist variety that makes Qëndro’s quest for Realism as critical method in Heronjtë Janë të Uritur compelling. Rather, I think, it is the lens that the painting might turn on contemporary Albanian art and life. Even if Qëndro’s investigation of the work lacks all the historical details we might wish, it nonetheless establishes Realism Although Qëndro himself does seem to make the connection between Xega’s project and the contemporary moment explicit, it is easy to see the parallels given Qëndro’s insistence on realism as a project of contemporaneity—that is, as a project concerned with understanding how its own time exists and what its own time truly is. This is even more clear in Xega’s case, since the emphasis (at least if we follow Qëndro’s reading of the work) is on a consciousness of history rather than a simple chronicling of the conditions of everyday life. As Qëndro argues, there were many Realist painters in Albania during the period of National Awakening, but they lacked Xega’s attempt to link the genre painting aspect of Realism with the movement’s history painting aspect. In Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, Xega attempts to link the careful observation of everyday life, in its most mundane aspects, to larger flows of social time and interactions of economics, religion, and politics. It is the attempt to figure this interstitial space between individual and collective direct experience and the consciousness of a broader time that makes the painting historical.

This returns us to the questions that Qëndro’s book raises, even if its author does not seem to register them as fully as art historians such as myself might wish. First of all, what does this say more broadly about the relation of socialist realism to earlier realisms in Albanian painting? While it is certainly not the case that (as socialist criticism tried to claim) there is a smooth transition from one to other, it is perhaps possible to say that—in a way—socialist realism in fact learned from Xega: it tried to make the earlier tradition Albanian Realist painting historical.[8] Granted, it did so in a very ideologically specific way, and many elements of Realist subject matter dropped away in this quest, which passed through historical understanding into metahistorical mythmaking (and sometimes back again), and in doing so it tried to grasp even more robustly the character of the present.[9] The failures of this attempt to grasp the present, its absences, are still being elaborated, but many have been noted, especially by authors like Qëndro. However, it seems to me that what both Xega’s historical realism (as elaborated by Qëndro) and socialist realism call for as critical models of cultural production is the careful understanding of the historical quality of the present. In other words, with Qëndro’s particular interpretation of Xega as a model, we might imagine a practice of contemporary art in Albania that would be both deeply engaged in documenting its social conditions and in understanding the historicity of those conditions. It would not necessarily strive for avant-garde status, although—as the passage from Alex Potts quoted at the outset of this essay suggests—it might very well pass into avant-garde experiments with vision and representation. It would do so, however, only on the basis of a close observation of the world, an engagement with (and, perhaps, a real belief in) facts and materiality. This art could look like many different things: it might look like kitsch, it might not; it might be performative or installation-based, or it might continue the tradition of painting; it might embrace its own ‘ideological’ status, or it might avoid that status as a way of searching for a new ground for experience. No matter what it looked like, however, this would be an art that made us think about how we see the world, and what that world really is as a historical phenomenon. It would make us question what times we share with the world, and which ones escape our experience, Qëndro’s Heronjtë Janë të Uritur reveals the necessity of understanding Realism in Albanian painting as a historical phenomenon, even if the book itself does not fully take this task on. It remains to us to carry on both the speculative futures and pasts that come to light when we search for Realism in the history of Albanian art. One hopes that others will take up where Qëndro has left us at the close of the book.

The next two posts will be devoted to some further—and broader—considerations of how art made in Albania today might make claims to either ‘contemporary’ status or to ‘realist’ status.

[1] Experiments in Modern Realism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 23-24.

[2] As laid out in his now-famous study The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

[3] One crucial question that Qëndro never addresses—because he is not engaged in providing an art historical context for the wok he examines—is also an important one: what does it mean for Xega to have created a deeply Realist work in one year and, the following year, a deeply Romanticist one? What are the Romantic aspects of Çeta e Shahin Matrakut, and how do they interact with the painting’s Realist aspects? These are questions that must be dealt with if the investigation is to be anything but a sort of thought experiment. The answers would not necessarily defeat Qëndro’s reading of the painting, but they would suggest an event richer relationship between the work’s representations and its conditions of influence and production.

[4] The claim—asserted in the final sentence of the book—that the work represents the sole example of this kind of painting in the history of Albanian art makes the study seem suddenly much more closed than it did at the outset (113).

[5] Although Qëndro’s reading of the painting is thorough, it focuses almost completely (with the exception of some discussion of color and composition) on the recognizable aspects of the painting, and indeed primarily on the people in the painting (as opposed to their environment, which gets rather short shrift and is treated as somehow just a setting for attention to social issues, instead of an integral part of them). Although Qëndro at one point mentions the naivety of Xega’s compositional strategies, it would be worth examining the painting’s formal qualities much more exhaustively. This is especially true given Qëndro’s repeated references to Courbet as the paradigmatic Realist—Courbet knew, as many of the Realists did, how to paint ‘badly’ or awkwardly precisely in order to emphasize the socially (and academically) traumatic character of his subject matter and the emotional charge of his paintings. Although it might be difficult to make an entirely analogous case for Xega, who was largely self-taught, it seems like it would have been worth Qëndro’s time to pay more attention to how the painting is painted, and to consider how Xega’s naïve aesthetics might have contributed to the painting’s meanings in its own time and now. After all, what if the lack of convincing naturalism in the painting was not primarily the result of lack of skill or experience on Xega’s part, but rather the intentional avoidance of academic naturalism (in the way that Alex Potts describes as endemic to modern realism in the epigraph to this essay)?

[6] See the entry on Xega in Ylli Drishti, Suzana Varvarica-Kuka, and Rudina Memaga, Monografi: me Artistë Shqiptarë të Shekullit XX (Tirana: Galeria Kombëtare e Arteve, 1999), p. 115.

[7] For more on Xega, and on the art of the Albanian National Awakening period, see Ferid Hudhri, Arti i Rilindjes Shqiptare (Tirana: Onufri, 2000), especially pp. 202-203.

[8] This is perhaps an overstatement, but it has long been my conviction that socialist realism in Albania was part of the first truly successful conceptualization of a history of the Albanian people (in art, but also in society as a whole), and although I am not sure that Qëndro would agree, I think that socialist realism does in fact try to take up where Xega’s painting leaves off, to build upon earlier realisms while also developing (perhaps, beyond recognition) the historical contemporaneity of a work like Çeta e Shahin Matrakut.

[9] This is an argument I try to make in my “Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Representation in Albanian Socialist Realist Painting,” in Workers Leaving the Studio, Looking Away from Socialist Realism, ed. Mihnea Mircan and Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum, and Tirana: Department of Eagles, 2015), pp. 25-39, available from: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/workers-leaving-the-studio/.

 

Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon [1969]

Today’s post is a complete scan of Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon [Socialist Albania Marches On], no doubt the most impressive photo book published in Socialist Albania. Produced in 1969, the year in which Albania celebrated the 25th anniversary of liberation from fascist forces, the book (aimed at projecting the nation’s success to foreign audiences, as well as reinforcing this image to domestic ones) also arrived at the close of the peak period in Albania’s cultural and ideological revolution. It also bears witness to the close of a decade during which Albania had built its new international relationship with China. In fact, it is interesting to consider the image projected by this book in the same year that the first part of Mao’s cultural revolution rounded itself out. There’s very little implication of international aid in the photos in this book, although there is one fabulous image of a Chinese engineer teaching Albanians. There’s also no hint of anything like the turbulence that China experienced in its cultural revolution; Albanian socialism appears almost as stable and conflictless as one could imagine.

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It’s worth comparing this book with Artet Figurative në Republikën Popullore të Shqipërisë, published the same year, also in commemoration of the anniversary of liberation. (Likewise, Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative is from the same year.) There, there is a good deal more reference to the international character of socialism, although it leads to some interesting incongruities (How does a bust of Mao fit into an art book ostensibly primarily devoted to commemorating the National Liberation War?) In any case, it is worth considering the struggle to undertake the project of socialist modernization with heavy reliance on foreign aid while still projecting the image of being the (last) socialist country in Europe, embattled by the revisionism of the Soviets and Yugoslavs as well as Western Imperialism. Shqipëria Socialiste Marshon gives us an important part of the history of images that promoted Albania’s success as a socialist nation, and the life it depicts is indeed a beautiful one.

A few notes about the scan: The book is a bit too wide to accommodate even the fancy scanner I have access to, and this means the outside edges of the images, along with the occasional page numbers, are often cut off. If an image really seemed to suffer from having the outer edges cropped, I’ve tried to scan that image separately. Likewise, glare is occasionally an issue. Given more time, I’d love to correct these issues, but at the moment I don’t have that time. The goal is for people to get a good idea of what the book contains, not to have the most perfect scan imaginable. I’m never able to get the book for longer than short ILL stints, and my own personal copy is pretty beat up and lacking several pages. If anyone has a copy and wants to produce better scans of certain images (or even the whole thing), let me know and I’ll drop them into this PDF. If not, this may be the best that there will be (unless anyone knows of a better scan elsewhere).

Happy reading!

Mbi Rritjen e Rolit të Letërsisë dhe Arteve në Edukimin Komunist të Masave— Nëndori 11, 1965

Today’s post contains selections from the November 1965 issue of Nëndori, which features Ramiz Alia’s report delivered at the 15th general Plenum of the Central Committee of the Albanian Workers Party. Given on the eve of the most intense period of Hoxha’s cultural ‘revolutionization,’ which extended from 1966 till 1969 or so, Alia’s report clearly lays out guidelines (though of course the instructions for their actual realization are left vague) for the coming transformation of the arts and letters in relation to the masses.

Nendori_Nentor 1965_cover

Among other issues, he stresses the importance of the cultivation of aesthetic taste, since the everyday totalized experience of the socialist state is fundamentally an aesthetic one. As Alia explains,

The problem of conceptual-aesthetic [ideoestetik] education is not merely a problem for a few specific organizations, but rather for our entire society. In fact, people, throughout their entire lives, constantly encounter problems that relate to their education in understanding the beautiful—from their families and work environments to art institutions, from the construction of villages and cities to the creation of handicrafts in wood and knitting. […] Wherever we go, we encounter buildings, parks, flower gardens, monuments, and even the arrangements in store windows—all of these have no choice but to influence the aesthetic education of our fellow citizens. (42)

The issue also contains some reproductions of artworks and brief notes about cultural events, including a short report on an exhibition of graphic art, caricature, and poster design that travelled to socialist Albania from the People’s Republic of China.

Happy Reading!

One Bunker After Another

The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.—Donald Judd, “Specific Objects”

The fortification, once an object, tended to become a “subject.”—Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology

Recently the question of the bunkers returned with a vengeance in Albania, and indeed now it is beginning to seem that it never really left. It is almost certainly the case that the frequent, if unsystematic, documentation of the bunkers, together with commentary on them and attempts to appropriate them in various ways all play into an unfortunately all-too-common brand of post-socialist Orientalizing (especially when this commentary and documentation comes from the West). The bunkers are easy ruin porn, and they lend themselves straightforwardly to generalized collective psychological diagnoses about the mentality of peoples that once lived ‘under’ communism—that is in fact precisely what the phrase “bunker mentality” is able to convey.[1] However—despite the fact that many of the Albanians I have met who live outside of Tirana largely regard the bunkers as something to be forgotten or something to store tools in—it seems that the bunkers remain strongly contested in their political, metaphorical, and aesthetic relation to Albania’s past.

To (very) briefly recap:[2] over roughly a ten-year period beginning in 1972, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s socialist dictator, ordered the construction of approximately 750,000 dome-shaped concrete bunkers throughout the entire country. Ostensibly built to shelter the population and provide defensible structures in case of a foreign invasion, the bunkers effectively served as an ever-present reminder of the regime’s paranoia—and continue to do so today, since a large number of them remain in situ. This number is shrinking, thanks to both the landscape itself (which is gradually displacing, upending, or covering over many bunkers) and the concentrated efforts of individuals and companies (many of them foreign, as I understand it[3]) to destroy and remove them.

Even if the bunkers are (very) gradually disappearing from prominence in the Albanian landscape, they continue to live on as both material and symbolic resources for commentary on and re-appropriation of the socialist heritage and past. Bunkers have been the subject of works of art (ex.: Anila Rubiku’s Bunker Mentality/Landscape Legacy, at the First International Kyiv Biennale ARSENALE in 2012). They have been the subjects of theses (ex.: Emily Glass’ A Very Concrete Legacy: An Investigation into the Materiality and Mentality of Communist Bunkers in Albania [2008]) and book chapters (ex.: Michael Galaty, Sharon Stocker, and Charles Watkinson’s “The Snake That Bites: The Albanian Experience of Collective Trauma as Reflected in a Changing Landscape,” in The Trauma Controversy [Albany: State University of New York, 2009]). They have been the subject of projects to mobilize the socialist architectural heritage to create hostels for tourists (ex.: Elian Stefa and Gyler Mydyti’s Concrete Mushrooms, and Iva Shtrepi and Markus Pretnar’s [award-nominated, though to my understanding never completely carried out—not sure how that works] Bed & Bunker), and they have been documented in several photography projects (ex.: Alicja Dobrucka in conjunction with Concrete Mushrooms and David Galjaard’s Concresco). They have lent their name and image to music events (ex.: Bunkerfest). More recently, they have been incorporated into monuments (as in Fatos Lubonja and Ardian Isufi’s Postbllok memorial along Tirana’s main boulevard, installed in 2013). Finally, they lent their image and name to the (now closed—indefinitely?) furiously publicized opening of Bunk’Art, a museum/installation venue/all-purpose-space house in a huge underground bunker on the outskirts of Tirana, originally constructed to house the nation’s socialist leaders in the event of a nuclear attack.

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

Then, just a few weeks ago, construction began on a new bunker, modeled on those that still dot the countryside, in the center of Tirana, in the space near the National Theater and the Transport and Interior Affairs Ministries. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei offered a lucid and searing critique of this new bunker in a recent post on his Unofficial View of Tirana blog; at that time, henoted that there had been little public protest of the new bunker construction. Subsequently, however, the bunker was itself ‘fortified’ (surrounded with metal panels and covered with a sheet), and there have been protests and public pushback against the ‘mushroom.’

Finally, yesterday, the artist Ardian Isufi, one of the two people behind the Postbllok monument, wrote a quite violent condemnation of the new bunker, taking the opportunity to draw a firm line of demarcation between the use of the (pre-existing) bunker in Postbllok and the construction of the new bunker in the center of the city, presumably on the entrance to the network of underground space beneath the square.

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

I would like, quite briefly, to raise certain questions about the bunkers (and about the construction of the new bunker in the center of Tirana) that I do not think have been fully examined in the recent commentaries and protests.[4] It is not so much that I disagree with any of the points raised thus far—although, as it will become clear, I have serious issues with the way Isufi tries to distinguish Postbllok from its new cousin—but rather that I think the discussion can be enriched by considering more carefully some of the possible modalities of experience that are actually being presented. At the outset, I will say that my own reading of the bunkers—or ore precisely of their recent appropriation in pseudo-events like Bunk’Art’s opening (and even in Postbllok) is relatively strongly invested in interpreting the bunkers as part of an aesthetically modernist project. Put simply, the bunkers are often treated in a hermeneutical way: as Jameson put it, “the work in its inert, objectal form is taken as a clue or a symptom for some vaster reality which replaces it as its ultimate truth.”[5] This is, I have argued elsewhere, certainly the case with Bunk’Art, which strives to recover the modernist depths of memory in the touristic perambulation of the underground bunker. It is also, I think, the case with Postbllok, which likewise uses the instantiation of a particular “triptych of artifacts” (Isufi’s term) to lay bear a deeper truth about the experience of the dictatorship. (Isufi himself writes that the bunker in Postbllok is “a metaphor of the ISOLATION and the VIOLATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL” [Isufi’s emphasis]”—that is, it is in keeping with modernism’s metaphorical approach, which asserts deeper meaning, as opposed to postmodernism’s metonymy, which is lateral as opposed to essentializing. Let me be clear: I am not (as some might) using the term ‘modernist’ in a pejorative sense in relation to either Bunk’Art or Postbllok—I simply think that it is necessary to recognize that they bring with them a certain baggage that all models of depth-thinking do. Namely, they really believe in the hermeneutic model; they believe in underlying structures and truths; they believe in deep, shared experiences that pre-exist and underlie surface appearances.

This position, however, is a difficult one to sustain in the case of the bunkers, since they are—fundamentally, also first and foremost a surface phenomenon: they map out a cartography that is lateral and grid-like as much as it is oriented to the depths (of the territory or of the psyche). Thus, the bunkers are useful to think with precisely because (both materially and ‘metaphorically’, if I may be allowed the term) they straddle the seeming schism between depth-models of epistemology/aesthetics and surface-models of the same.

What I am getting at is that I do not think the new bunker under construction (the ‘outer form’ of which is already, apparently, being changed) functions in precisely the same way as either Postbllok or Bunk’Art. (On this much, at least, Ardian Isufi and I apparently agree.) This difference, however is not one between memorializing and aesthetic violence, nor is it one between authentic originality and kitsch inauthentic production. In fact, the dismissal of the bunker as ‘kitsch’ is one of the least convincing points Isufi’s condemnation makes: there is almost nothing sentimental about the new bunker, and the use of the bunker form is hardly some acquiescence to mass taste.

However, what is more problematic is Isufi’s reliance on a model of original/copy to describe the relationship between the bunker in Postbllok and the new bunker under construction. He asserts that the bunker in Postbllok is an “ARTIFACT” (his emphasis), dating from 1976, placed at the entrance to the ‘Bllok’ (the elite section of socialist Tirana) at that time. In other words, he says, the bunker in the memorial is a site-specific work of art, and as such it carries with it a historical, artistic, and hermeneutic authenticity that cannot be produced by a bunker constructed with new concrete, with new iron, by new workers in the center of the city. Setting aside the rather obvious (I think) point that the aims of this new bunker are in no way memorializing, I find Isufi’s privileging of authenticity to be problematic, precisely because it misses an important aspect of what the bunkers are—namely, they are the kinds of structures that are not copies of a privileged original, and that even if they once were copies of such an original, they are now all—as Rosalind Krauss puts it, “multiple copies that exist in the absence of an original.”[6]

Thus, privileging the historical circumstances of any particular bunker (say, the one in Postbllok) as if they made it more closely and authentically linked to traumatic memory is nearer to the kind of misunderstanding inherent in kitsch sentimentality. This is, of course, not to argue against the importance of historical preservation, or a denial of what we can learn about the past and present through concrete engagement with objects. Rather, it is to deny the inherent and underlying link between objects [of heritage] remaining in the present and any particular past. Such links are always in the process of being constructed, or at best re-constructed. The bunker in Postbllok is not a hermeneutic device for confronting and understanding traumatic memories (if indeed it is such) just because it existed in the past. Furthermore, the past (and its emotional or existential valence) is not simply something that can be “revealed” with “transparency.” Isufi seems to like the idea, set by other models, of using transparent materials for monuments to the traumatic past, in order to show an effort at “transparency and tolerance”; I would argue that this version of transparency is essentially a reiteration of the depth-model: it believes both that it is possible to make the veil separating us from the past transparent and that the pasts and presents revealed by this transparency are deeper and truer than those characterized by opacity.

This, finally, brings me to a point about the kind of memorial (and remember: it still seems fairly clear to me that the new bunker in Tirana is not meant as a memorial, but also that, for Isufi, it represents the wrong way to memorialize), or even the kind of public intervention in space, that might be appropriate in contemporary Tirana. It seems quite clear to me that many of the protests related to the bunker relate to the fact that it is divisive, even violent: it stands as a mockery of certain members of the population, who were persecuted under the socialist regime, and it prevents a safe and shared public space from developing. It is, to adapt Isufi’s language intolerant.

However, the dream of tolerance, of shared remembrance, of the role architecture or public art could play in the peaceful cohabitation of public spaces, is as dubious as it is important. What is ultimately at stake here, I think, is the vision of democracy that one hopes to advance. Is it a democracy based on shared and essential conditions, including the shared understanding of a traumatic past (the socialist one), based upon the belief that mutual respect and rational discussion between subjects will bring about an ideal political condition, one in which “the rights of the individual” are paramount? This is a popular image of democracy, one that is—I would argue—both quintessentially modern and quintessentially neoliberal. An alternative would be the model of democracy as agonistic, one that does not dream of installing a permanent consensus, either in the present or with regards to the past (I am of course referring to the kind of democracy advanced by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, among others). If this second model of democracy, one that recognizes the persistent possibility and indeed necessity for conflict in the public arena, is more appealing as a radical possibility against the incursions of global neoliberalism, then we must—I think—abandon the depth-model of historical epistemology, especially in cases like the bunkers.

I began this consideration with Donald Judd’s famous quote on order and repetition because I think it encapsulates, quite well, the logic of the bunkers both in the past and in the present case of the new bunker under construction in Tirana. “The order is not rationalistic and underlying, but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.” The bunker, in other words, is not always deeply and essentially linked to a memory, or an identity, or even a history, and treating it as such will never fully combat either the violence or the constructive work it can do. The logic of the bunkers was and is both the logic of modernist depth and the logic of postmodernist surface: they both are and are not ‘rationalistic and underlying,’ and they are not originals and copies, but simply ‘one thing after another.’ Although I do not much like (from what I have seen and read of it in the media) the new bunker in Tirana, I do not think that arguments about its psychological violence or lack of historical authenticity, its ugly or kitsch aesthetics, are very credible in the contemporary world. Indeed, if nothing else, the new bunker has shown us what Miwon Kwon asserted over ten years ago now[7]: that the notion of “site-specificity” continues to be hotly contested, and that no straightforward return to essentialist models of site and community will sort out the conflicts surrounding public space and art or architecture.

[Right around the time I initially published this piece, Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei published a second post dealing with the background of the Tirana bunker in greater depth than previous articles. It is invaluable for its speculations on the political role (and reason, or lack thereof) for the bunker’s construction. However, I still think that it takes the talk of “redering the past transparent” too much at face value, and thus some of what is important about both bunkers is missed.]

[1] I should say that I am not in any way condemning the use of the term “bunker mentality,” which has now almost become a kind of vernacular. The phrase itself neatly encapsulates both the dangers of extending descriptions of psycho-spatial states to collectives, and also the concise explanatory power that such psycho-spatial concepts can hold.

[2] The following overview of the bunkers does not intend, in any way, to be comprehensive. The point is simply to give a bit of history of the bunker as both a material entity and a symbol.

[3] For example, I have heard –though cannot verify—that foreign firms were contracted in the large-scale removal of bunkers from the fields in the south of the country, near Gjirokastra.

[4] I also fully realize that I have not had time to read everything on the subject, and thus—as always—welcome comments that would direct me to other sources that have already made the same points I make here, or raise questions I have not adequately addressed.

[5] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 8.

[6] Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 152

[7] Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

Për Një Hov të Ri: The Proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

Nendori 1_1966

Today’s post is the January 1966 issue of Nëndori, which contains the proceedings of the 1965 Plenum of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists. The opening speech for the plenum, which took place on December 3-4, 1965, was delivered by Shevqet Musaraj, author of the satirical poem “Epopeja e Ballit Kombëtar” [1944]. The writer and poet Dhimitër Shuteriqi, director of the Union of Writers and Artists at the time, also delivered a lengthy speech related to the proceedings of the 15th plenum of the Central Committee, which called for “an increase in the role played by literature and the arts in the communist education of the masses.”

The issue also contains summaries and excerpts of the talks and discussions held by other members of the Union in attendance, including Andon Kuqali, Foto Stamo, Odhise Paskali, Kristaq Rama, and Pandi Mele.

Three of Pandi Mele’s graphic works are reproduced in the issue, including the dynamic (and undeniably Modernist) linocut Thatësira po mposhtet [The Drought is Being Defeated]. There is also a review of Mele’s October 1965 solo exhibition written by Vangjush Tushi, which gives a partial picture of the early reception of Mele’s painting and graphic works.

Perhaps most interesting (and most frustrating in the lack of information given) is a short note in the back matter of the issue describing an exhibition of works by the Korean painter Lju Hien Suk (in the Albanian transliteration), held in November of 1965 at the Puppet Theater. Liu Hien Suk was, the note informs us, vice-director of the central state Gallery of the Fgurative Arts in the Korean Democratic Republic, and his month-long stay in Albania (part of the still woefully understudied cultural exchange between socialist nations in the mid-20th-century) had included time spent in the Albanian Riviera—the landscapes of which inspired his painting. The exhibition opening was attended by officers of the Union of Writers and Artists such as Foto Stamo and the note in Nëndori contains excerpts from Rama’s speech. Although much of the study of Albanian socialist-era art has focused on the specificity of the conditions in Albania during its increasing isolation, and although much of the commentary produced within the country during the socialist years does not readily acknowledge the role of international cultural exchange in shaping Albanian art, it is precisely events like Lju Hien Suk’s exhibition that deserve our close attention and our greatest efforts in attempting to recover documentary evidence. These events, if we could trace their genesis and impact more fully, would give us a more fully rounded picture of how Albania related to international networks of socialist culture, and how artists from other nations participated in the formation of the narratives socialist Albania told about itself.

Happy reading!

Some Notes on the Apparently Mutually Exclusive Status of (M/m)odern (A/a)rt and Socialist Realism

I have recently—and finally—had the time to read Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion, 2012), by the great (and unfortunately now deceased) art historian Piotr Piotrowski. For many, like myself, in the field of Eastern European art history, Piotrowski’s attempt to model and facilitate what he calls a “horizontal art history” remains a continued source of methodological and theoretical inspiration. Piotrowski’s scholarship always seems—to me, at least—to admirably walk the line between overarching regional and even global syntheses and, at least in those geographical areas where he had expertise, engagement with the specificity of local conditions and traditions. Of course, Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe is, like Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion, 2009), a survey, and as such it is engaged in the methodological project of understanding broad narratives and trends as opposed to delving deeply into particular, concrete situations.

One of Piotrowski’s key goals in mapping out these narratives and trends is to come to terms as fully as possible with the geographical (and geopolitical) implications of art history—both its limitations and its possibilities. With this geographical sophistication, however, comes a certain theoretical bluntness. Piotrowski embraces this—he declares at the outset that he is “not a political theorist” (even as he explains his use of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy as a frame for the book). Additionally, he declares the book to be far more concerned with contemporaneity and its disjunctures than with providing a history (as In the Shadow of Yalta aimed to do). Nonetheless, as all historians are ultimately constrained to do, Piotrowski must start somewhere, and his starting point is a swift yet nuanced reiteration of the map sketched out in In the Shadow of Yalta.

In a way, what I want to do next is completely unfair to Piotrowski, but I will proceed regardless precisely because I believe that—in selecting a very specific moment in Piotrowski’s text, indeed a single sentence—we can grasp a vast and complicated problem that evidences the power of Piotrowski’s methodology. It also presents us with precisely the kind of problem that any “horizontal art history” should—indeed, must—be able to confront, if never resolve. Discussing the dubious merits of treating Eastern/Central European art history according to the model of “colonization,” Piotrowski suggests that the obvious angle would be to treat Soviet culture as the occupier, but points out that this dissolves in concrete cases, since Socialist Realism was only “an official ideological façade” in many countries in the region. He then declares, “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe [a term Piotrowski uses to encompass areas often described as either ‘Eastern’ or ‘Central’ Europe] between 1945 and 1989” (46).

Above all else, I think this sentence is a fair summation of Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta, which charted many of the Modernist movements in postwar Eastern Europe against the foil of a (/n always unfortunately un-illustrated and therefore amorphous and spectral) Socialist Realism. (One chapter, on the significance of figuration, is even titled “Un-Socialist Realism”.) It also raises the difficult problem that I alluded to above, namely: What is the relationship between “Socialist Realism” (let us note the capitalization) and “modern art” (let us note the absence of capitalization)?

Having raised this question, and moving in the spirit of Piotrowski’s desire to decenter hierarchical art history, we can almost immediately imagine a number of related, yet deeply different questions: What is the relationship between socialist realism and modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern art? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modern Art? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and modernism? What is the relationship between socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between Socialist Realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and Modernism? What is the relationship between socialist realism and modernism? Etc., etc. This list of potential questions is not a fanciful play with the ambiguities presented by the un-codified (or, differently-codified) norms of capitalization. It is, instead, a very serious interrogation of the relationship between style, periodization, and ideology. It suggests the truly exhausting number of potential topologies that can be developed by really considering the question of Socialist Realism in Eastern/Central Europe (and remember, we have not even moved—as Piotrowski demands that we do—beyond a crude and generalized global-regional frame of investigation).

Allow me to elaborate what I think is deeply problematic about Piotrowski’s statement, and to attempt to present some of the ways we might both be more careful about our use of the language of style and periodization, and gain a more comprehensive picture of what “the cultural identity of Central[/Eastern] Europe” was in the years between 1945 and 1989. Juxtaposing “Socialist Realism” to “modern art” posits three related conceptual moves, both—in my opinion—fundamentally flawed. First, it assumes the monolithic (and therefore capitalized) quality of Socialist Realism, which we are invited to assume is clearly defined as the Soviet variety (which we are in turn invited to assume was a clearly codified and unified phenomenon, without meaningful ambiguity or internal, chronological strife). Second, it invites us to treat Socialist Realism as a movement or style that is straightforwardly and exclusively distinguished from the already vastly general term “modern art.” Third, instead of aligning “Socialist Realism” against a clearly (or at least what I would interpret as a clearly) stylistic alternative—namely, Modernism—it aligns it against a term that seems (again, at least to me) more clearly chronological—namely, “modern art.” The lack of capitalization in “modern art” implies the absence of an emphatic ideology (it is not even “Modern art,” or “Modern Art”); that is, it is the art that comes after pre- and early-modern art, and yet before post-modern art. This implies that Socialist Realism, a stylistically unified category belongs to a different chronological period, presumably an earlier one, yet this is never elaborated. The fact that both Modernism and “modern art” are generally considered to begin in the late 19th century (at least in the Francophile model Piotrowski implicitly critiques) means that the conventional way to read Piotrowski’s statement would be to say that Socialist Realism is a retrograde return to some pre-modern form of art-making, and thus—by implication—that it offers little of art historical significance.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of interpretation that Piotrowski’s “horizontal” art history would want to reject. Therefore, even if Piotrowski himself continues to use “Socialist Realism” as a convenient historical foil (and to use both “modern art” and, as is more frequently the case in In the Shadow of Yalta, “Modernism”), this should not prevent us from thinking critically about the ideologies at play here, and from rejecting the apparent premises and implications of a sentence like “In fact, one could say that it was modern art, not Socialist Realism, that defined the cultural identity of Central Europe between 1945 and 1989.”

I would like to offer, as it were, a series of both theoretical and polemical guidelines for thinking the relationship between Socialist Realism (I will retain the capitalization, but—as I note below—reject any implications of unified ideology or style) and both “modern art” and “Modernism.” These are, of course, methodological directives steeped in ideology, and not meant to be universalizing; they are intended quite explicitly to move away from the “hierarchical” art history Piotrowski critiques but does not fully escape. They are also the result of my own engagement with 20th-century Albanian art, much of which relates fundamentally to (a decidedly, I would argue, diverse and stylistically conflicted) Socialist Realism even if it cannot be subsumed under that label. As such, the applicability of these guidelines will vary geographically, just as do theories of psychoanalysis, postcolonialism, and postmodernism.

Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
Edison Gjergjo, Lavdi Deshmoreve, no date [before 1969], oil on canvas
So, then, a kind of incomplete methodological manifesto, and a challenge:

1) We must resist the urge to treat “Socialist Realism” as an a priori factor in our analyses of “modern” or “Modernist” art (to say nothing of our analyses of Socialist Realism itself). In other words, it is never enough to simply assert that such-and-such an artist, or a movement, rejected “the official doctrine of Socialist Realism.” As tempting as this summation may be, it tells us little, and even less when we have left the demarcated sphere of Soviet cultural policy. (Even there, especially in the absence of close visual analysis and illustrations supporting the point, the assertion that a work of stands opposed to Socialist Realism has little obvious meaning. We must think about what a particular group of artists understood by “Socialist Realism,” and about how that understanding might have played out in discourse, in material manifestations, at the time of the creation of a particular work. If we lack the resources to make these distinctions, then we are just as well off to avoid the statement that a work or an artist stands opposed to Socialist Realism.)

This is not a matter of ignoring what official documents and discourses claimed Socialist Realism to be, in particular locations. Nor is it a matter of ignoring stylistic, functional, and philosophical similarities between works typically described as “Socialist Realist.” It is simply a call to do what the best scholarship of Modernism does: enact a marked suspicion towards generalizations and a priori assumptions about the well-formed character of particular styles. (In a discussion of Antimodernism, for example, we would never take the term “Modernism” to be a self-evident (and stably codified) factor. )

2) As a continuation of this first point: We must resist the urge to straightforwardly oppose Socialist Realism and either “modern art” or “Modernism.” Whatever might be gained by such a general opposition, too much is lost. In short, what is lost is the status of Socialist Realism as a form of Modernism. The “modern,” and “Modernist” aspects of Socialist Realism—in nearly all of its manifestations—range from a stylistic indebtedness to schools of Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism on to philosophical affinities with Futurism, Surrealism, and Conceptualism. Just as it would be strange to starkly oppose Expressionism (as a particular strand of modern art) to “modern art” in general, so do we accomplish little of worth when we oppose Socialist Realism to modern art.

This is not a matter of obscuring the ideological, aesthetic, and historical clash between many manifestations of Modernism and many manifestations of Socialist Realism. The perceived conflict between the two was, of course, fundamental to the official rhetoric that grew up in many countries around Socialist Realism; it often represented itself as the enemy of “bourgeois revisionist” Modernism, and set out to distinguish itself from much that Modernism stood for. But this differentiation was not only a temporal process that changed over time (as the character of both Socialist Realisms and Modernisms changed) and an exercise in the unstable process of identity production. Taking the word of Socialist Realism’s theorists that the style was not Modernist would be as pointless as proclaiming that it really is the true style of the future simply because they asserted it was so.

3) We must recognize that, insofar as it was a Modernist style, Socialist Realism was not a single “ism” but rather a constellation of the “isms” mentioned above, combined in new ways and in many cases incorporating new elements.

This is not a matter of throwing as many “isms” at a particular work of art or set of works of art as possible, but rather a matter of getting at the complex assemblages hiding behind the monolithic terms “modern art,” “modernism,” and “Modernism.”

4) We must pay close attention to how we periodize Socialist Realism, and avoid treating it as a simple (and naïve) throwback to pre-modern or early-modern ideologies, styles, and practices of artistic creation. (This is precisely what is risked by Piotrowski’s juxtaposing it to “modern art.”) Elsewhere, I have discussed the potential significance (narrowly speaking, in the context of Albanian 20th-century painting) of Boris Groys’ assertion that Socialist Realism was “a style and a half,” falling somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism. This is one approach, but there are of course elements of Socialist Realism in particular cases and geographies that escape this chronology.

This is not a matter of returning to a kind of Wölfflinian art history that is concerned with the careful delineation of different periodic styles and eras of thought. (Though in actuality a truly Wölfflinian history of, say, Socialist Realism in Eastern Europe, would be much more subtle and stylistically and psychologically sophisticated than Wölfflin’s detractors would insist.) However, it does mean being more honest about what kinds of factors we are truly focusing on when we periodize artistic movements and styles, and thus about what we are claiming is innovative as opposed to that which we claim is conservative, traditional, or retrograde.

5) When we consider Socialist Realism, we must also grapple honestly with the heritage of Romanticism, Realism (more on this below), and (Neo-)Classicism in the 20th-century. Again, the problem often arises in the case of a double standard: we would seldom deny the influence of Romanticism on many Modernisms (if indeed we would even set the two apart so sharply), but are often far more willing to set, say, the “revolutionary romanticism” of Chinese Socialist Realism over against the development of “Modernism.”

This is not a matter of historicist devotion to the continuity of discrete concepts or movements through time, nor is it methodological devotion to the elaboration of a particular venerated “tradition”; it will suffice to point out that in many cases (and this is undoubtedly the case in Albania), the presence of a strong ‘tradition’ in the visual arts was absent in many fields. In other words, we are not speaking of the continuation of Romanticism, of Greek or Italian ‘schools,’ of Classicism or Neo-Classicism, of some primitivism archaism—we are speaking instead of the emergence of these styles, ideologies, and tendencies in the context of modernization and Modernism. Of course, Socialist Realism did look to particular elements of past art history, such as 19th-century Realism and Classicism, for inspiration, and it did so because they preceded the “decadence” of Modernism. However, the lesson that this teaches us is not so much as lesson about a backwards-looking ideology, but about the continued (re)invention of certain styles and philosophies in the 20th century. Modernism participated in this (re)invention, and—as a Modernism—so did Socialist Realism, in a number of temporally and geopolitically specific ways that bear further investigation.

6) Finally, we must take the engagement with Socialist Realism as an opportunity to re-evaluate the status of Realism(s) in both 20th– and 21st-century art and culture. “Realism” (and its sometime partner, “materialism”) have recently enjoyed a resurgence in cultural theory, and this has—to some degree—triggered a re-evaluation of R/realism in art historical narratives. However, some of the recent efforts at this, such as Alex Potts’ survey Experiments in Modern Realism (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2013) do not fully address the problem, since they often simply embrace already canonical figures (like Pollock) as ‘realism’ and continue to dismiss styles that have already been too often dismissed, such as Socialist Realism. We owe it to ourselves to write a history of the relationship between Real/ism and the 20th-century (neo-)avant-garde that does not simply reiterate the geographical and artistic foci of, say, Hal Foster. Part of this history must be the histories of various Socialist Realisms, and these Realisms must be acknowledged to be as diverse as the Realities they denied, reflected, distorted, emerged from, and constructed.

Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative

Today’s post is a special one: a complete scan of the 1969 publication Ushtria Popullore në Artet Figurative [The People’s Army in the Figurative Arts], a massive publication featuring paintings, sculptures, prints, and posters chronicling the glories of the Albanian People’s Army. The book should be invaluable to anyone studying Albanian art and culture in particular, or socialist realism in general.

Ushtria cover

The album features a number of works I’ve never seen published elsewhere (including works by Edison Gjergjo, Danish Jukniu, and Isuf Sulovari) and, with over 100 illustrations, represents on of the largest collections of visual art published during socialism in Albania. Some of the images are in color, others in black and white, and their quality varies drastically, but some of the reproductions are quite clear and details are visible.

Happy reading!

Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare: Nëntori 9, 1977

This is the twelfth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. More posts with critical content are in the works, but for the time being I’m too busy to do anything except scan more documents…

 Nentori Shtator 1977_cover

Today’s post contains selections from the September 1977 issue of Nëntori. The first selection is Dalan Shapllo’s fascinating “Mësimet Konsekuente Revolucionare të Partisë dhe të Shokut Enver: Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin,” a review and ‘study guide’ for Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin, a collection of Hoxha’s writings and speeches on the subject of literature and the fine arts, produced between 1944 and 1976. (The full text of that book is available here.) Shapllo concludes his review of the collection by drawing the reader’s attention to two sections of the book in which Hoxha made concrete statements and suggestions regarding the realization of works of art. The first is, of course, the well-known letter written (in 1969) by Hoxha to the trio of monumental sculptors Kristaq Rama, Shaban Hadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami in connection with the realization of the Independence Monument in Vlora. The second is the 1962 statement made by Hoxha to the Shkodran creators of the drama Plaku i maleve [Old Man of the Mountains], devoted to Bajram Curri. Shapllo points out that in both cases, one of the key ideas expressed by Hoxha was that the ‘great figures’ of Albanian history (Ismail Qemali and Bajram Curri, respectively) should be depicted as acting in close concert with the masses. Shapllo notes that Hoxha’s aesthetic interventions can be summarized as expressing the following two key principles: “1) Historical works [of art] must be characterized by revolutionary ideas, thus preserving their historical truth; and 2) the relationship of the masses and of the hero must be conceived as a dialectical and materialist one, in order to show that the masses create history and heroes can emerge from the masses and play a positive role only when they embody and reflect the interests of the people” (19). As formulaic and ambiguous as these principles might be, one can’t help but think that they might prove instructive for current politicians and artists in Albania.

Also of interest is the second part (I regret that I don’t have the previous issue of Nëntori, so I can’t offer you the first half) of an essay by aesthetician Alfred Uçi entitled “Arkitektura dhe Estetika.” Uçi, the author of the monumental Labirintet e Modernizmit, was one of the most prolific and distinguished aestheticians of socialist Albania, and his analysis of the relationship between architecture and the other arts—including the factors that distinguish socialist architecture from Modernist formalism—is enlightening for anyone interested in considering the precise character of the relationship between representational art and abstract arrangements of space and form in socialist Albanian culture.

Finally, the issue contains several great prints and drawings highlighting the activity of the Albanian youth in aksion in agricultural development.

Happy reading!

Beyond (The Grid)

There are two ways in which the grid functions to declare the modernity of modern art. One is spatial; the other is temporal. In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.—Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer, 1979), 50.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana
I admit that I had never looked closely at Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej [Further], 1969, hanging in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, Albania. The work—which I have elsewhere seen reproduced under the title Elektrifikimi, and referred to a one panel of a triptych, though I have never seen the other panels that supposedly accompanied it—always seemed a rather straightforward image: a man and a woman, standing just to the left of center, consult a large piece of paper, either a map or a set of engineering plans. The man gestures with one arm out towards the space over the viewer’s right shoulder, indicating the expansive work to come. He is speaking. The woman listens attentively, her eyes following his gaze, her hands holding the expanse of paper that contains the plans, the designs, or the outline of the territory that will soon be included (indeed, is already included, but only conceptually) within the painting’s purview. In a truncated space to the left of the figures, a welder completes the skeletal structure of a tower for electrical cables, while to the right, this time in a space that seems to descend too quickly into the abyss of the valley behind them, another figure directs a crane that moves another such electrical tower towards its final position. At far left, more workers ascend scaffolding, and behind all the figures in the painting stretches first a bare valley crisscrossed by large trucks and finally a mountainous wilderness devoid of greenery: grey stone against a yellowish sky.

I remember having noticed, before, the way Hysa’s painting looks unfinished; particularly in the figure at right, the work gloves are left as a mass of brushstrokes that lack a clear delineation, and even the folds of the back of the worker’s shirt. The same is also true is areas such as the woman’s hand at center, as it grasps the map or engineering plans. (For the purposes of brevity, I am going to refer to it throughout as map. As we will see below, I do not think there is a tremendous difference between a map of territory and a set of plans for the construction and placement of electrical towers, especially not given what is actually shown in the space of the piece of paper.) These areas of loose brushwork also stand out, and particularly as unfinished, precisely because of the thinness of the paint in these parts of the painting. Elsewhere, for example in the stone upon which the figures stand, the brushwork is just as free and—at close range—abstract, but it is thick with layers and layers of paint that suggest the materiality of the rocks they also depict.

Likewise, in certain areas, Hysa has utilized a meticulously linear technique, for example in the rendering of the steel beams of the towers under construction. However, in some cases, he has left the pencil lines used to plan the layout of the lines, their points of intersection and extension. Indeed, in some cases (again, particularly in the figure at left and the tower he gestures the crane to position) it looks as if these pencil lines have actually been applied on top of flat areas of thin color, as if Hysa had laid down a ground, then planned out his lines, then decided to leave both thin ground of paint and lines visible without covering it over in a more meticulous fashion. This gives the painting the look of being incomplete, but as far as I know it was regarded as completed and the version reproduced in several publications during socialism was the same version that now hangs in the National Gallery. Thus, I can only assume that Hysa quite intentionally allowed many areas of the painting to retain an unfinished look, to show the thin layers of paint and even the canvas beneath, to emphasize in places the pencil lines that index the artist’s arrangement and re-arrangement of forms and their contact. In a way, this aesthetic fits perfectly with Socialist Realism, as perfectly as it did with the other Modernists (too numerous to name) who allowed the image to appear in its ‘finished’ state still bearing the marks of its conception and creation. What better way to articulate the labor of creating a work of art?

As I examined Hysa’s painting more closely (I admit, I had started to look at it because I wanted the cleaning lady to stop following me so I could covertly snap a photo of another image; I never got the photo of the other image, but I did get a detail of Hysa’s painting), I saw something I never had before. Almost directly in the center of the canvas lies the zone occupied by the map the woman is holding. We can see nothing of the images or words that may appear on it, and indeed much of what we see is the inverse of the paper, a sickly green expanse of loose brushstrokes thinly painted…and there, showing so clearly through this thin stretch of paint, so centrally placed that—in person—I could not understand how I had ever missed it before: the grid. A neat crisscrossing of lines that correspond in no way whatsoever to the forms that are painted over them, left not even as a trace of the specific preparation of the surface to receive the map, but indeed solely to reference the preparation of the surface to receive an artistic image, no particular one.

Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Shaban Hysa, Më Tej [Beyond], 1969, National Gallery of Art, Tirana (detail)
Obviously, the presence of these lines suggests graph paper, suggests the cartographic, geometric division of the map (and indeed, this is why I assume the piece of paper to be a map, rather than a set of engineering drawings), but at the same time the abstract of the grid from the three-dimensional form of the map indicates the ontological priority of the grid itself in relation to the finished painting. The grid in Më Tej indexes not only the process of artistic creation, the preparation of the canvas with a set of lines to facilitate the copying of a drawing that will later be filled out with paint, but also the absolute anti-naturalism of socialist realism’s vision. It is left, I think, so blatant in its pseudo-presence, to show precisely the ambiguous metaphysical gap that exists between the work of socialist realist art and the perceived object of naturalistic painting (‘the world’).

As Rosalind Krauss famously puts it in her obsessive study of the grid, “the grid does not map the space of a room or a landscape or a group of figures onto the surface of a painting. Indeed, if it maps anything, it maps the surface of the painting itself” (Krauss, op. cit., 52). However, this ‘surface of the painting’ as it is emphasized by the grid is not any straightforward entity; the grid possesses, as Krauss asserts, a decided ambivalence: it seems to be both rooted in materiality (pointing to the existence of the painting itself as surface upon which paint is dispersed) and spiritual (pointing to the abstract realm of absolute ideas cherished by painters like Mondrian or Malevich).

This same ambivalence exists, I think, quite clearly in other forms of socialist realist art in Albania, where art is called upon (and the artist is tempted) both to reflect a kind of purified, simple, and universally accessible materiality and to index the schema of the sacred, to partake in the spiritual elevation of the religious icon. (See, for example, Gëzim Qëndro’s reading of Odhise Paskali’s sculpture Shokët, in “The Thanatology of Hope,” in Lapidari, ed. Vincent WJ van Gerven Oei (New York: Punctum Books, 2015), 61-66.) And it is, it seems, one of the central issues raised by Hysa’s Më Tej. Even the title, Më Tej, suggests the gesture towards another level of understanding and being, an index of a beyond that bears either a merely horizontal relation (as the grid of the map suggests) or else (also?) a hierarchical relation (as the grid beneath the painting suggests).

However, the grid here is not merely a self-referential or circular encapsulation of a (tautological kind of) statement art makes about itself. The grid in this instance, showing through the layers of the image in its center, has a quite specific relationship to reality (which I want to distinguish from ‘the world’ as a phenomenological setting that only sometimes coincides with ‘reality’). The grid unfolds in a space that is situated immediately prior to the figures’ current attention: they have looked at the map, and now they look out at where the unfolding grid of electrification (another grid that is both tangible and material, yet also somehow ineffable) will lay over the country. This grid will leave its trace on the unyielding stone of the mountains, much as the words etched on the stone at far right (“25 Vjet Çlirimit” [25 Years of Liberation”]) mark the passage of time and the expansion of man’s influence over the landscape.

The grid suggests not just that the expansion of the electrification is in some sense already present in some nascent (or ontologically superior) form long before the territory itself that will be the subject of the material grid of power lines. It also suggests that the progressive expansion of the grid is in some way not a narrative one. The grid at the center of Më Tej in fact simultaneously effects a certain undermining of chronological progression, suggesting an eternity or timelessness that is the other of socialist realism’s assertion on dynamic transformation and progress. Hysa’s painting, as an image of the Albanian socialist reality (which is not to say, an image of the Albanian socialist ‘world’), emphasizes the irreducible schism between the grid as an element of the expansion (to infinity) of the socialist space and the static pre-existence of that space at an ontologically privileged level. The construction of the electrical field is both necessary and redundant—it makes material and explicit a dispersion that on the one hand must always be physically instantiating and thereby multiplying itself, and on the other hand has no need of instantiation precisely because it remains in the realm of foundational myth, without beginning or end.

Ultimately, the thinness of the paint in the region of the map seems to allow the grid to emerge at the conceptual heart of Hysa’s painting, and so its appearance as the logical (as opposed to the compositional) underlying force of the composition, and in this way the grid as eternal paradigm seems somehow the stronger reading in Më Tej. However, as I have tried to suggest, the ambivalence remains unresolved; the role of and emphasis on the grid is ambiguous. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the intentional incompleteness of Hysa’s painting: it allows the polysemy of the grid to fuse with the polysemy of the ‘reality’ presented, with maximum effect. This effect, of course, is missed if we merely look at the image in reproduction where these details are lost and the material circumstances of the painting are covered over.

A question posed by all Realist art, at some level, is: “What is reality? Where can it be found? What is our access to it? What is its relationship to our lives, to our art, to our politics, to our ethics?” The success of Realist artworks—whether they are Socialist Realist, or Photorealist, or New Realist, or Capitalist Realist—depends to a large degree, I would argue, on how successfully the work poses these questions, how deeply it pushes them, not necessarily in the direction of resolution, but in the direction of their own proliferation and epistemological sophistication. Shaban Hysa’s Më Tej raises precisely these kind of questions in the context of Albanian socialist realism. It asks, what is art’s access to reality, and does that access place it before the unfolding project of socialism, or after? Does art possess a narrative power that depicts—in a robust and accurate way—the dynamism of “building socialism,” or does it precisely precede and even undermine all narrative forces, in favor of an eternal instantiation of a fundamental principle? Does the grid, with its metaphysical priority, intervene before our experience of the socialist reality—the point at which is becomes, for us, a ‘world’—or after, emergent in the unfolding of territorial and material-ideological expansion?

Above all, Hysa’s painting reminds us of the importance of looking closely at socialist realism. To quote an omnipresent phrase from the American system of transport, one of which I was recently reminded by a book I sat down to read on the same day that I visited the National Gallery and saw Më Tej: “if you see something, say something.”

Image // Anti-Image

Preliminary Expectoration

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

Attunement

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.

SAM_0123 SAM_0055

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.

Problema 1

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!

Problema 2

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!

Problema 3

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.

SAM_0050

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!

Problema 4

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!

Problema 5

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!

Problema 6

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.

Kilica_Shoku Enver Hoxha_1976

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.”

 

 

 

 

Krijimi i Organizatës së përbashkët “Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve dhe Artistëve të Shqipërisë”—Nëndori 11, 1956

This is the eleventh in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, so I’m going ahead and posting more scans for the time being.

cover_Nendori 11 1956

Today’s (again, rather short) post contains selections from the November 1956 issue of Nëndori. The selections discuss the creation of the collective organization “The Union of Albanian Writers and Artists” [Lidhja e Shkrimtarëve dhe Artistëve të Shqipërisë] Formerly, the two organizations—the Union of Writers and the Union of Artists—had been separate, and the issue contains the text the text of the decision announced by the Council of Ministers to unite them under one roof.

Also of interest is the “Kronikë Kulturale” section from the back pages of Nëndori, which briefly details, among other events, the opening of the first exhibition of Soviet art in Albania (and also the first exhibition of foreign figurative art in the country, according to the editors). The show opened in Tirana in October 1956, in the premises of the “Society for the Friendship of Albania and the USSR” [Shoqëria e Miqësisë ‘Shqipëri—BRSS’].

Happy reading!

“Aktiviteti i Lidhjes deri më sot…”: 1955 Plenum of the Union of Albanian Artists

This is the tenth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, so I’m going ahead and posting more scans for the time being.

Nendori 3 1955 cover

Today’s (rather short) text is some selections from the March 1955 issue of Nëndori, the monthly journal of the Albanian Union of Artists. The issue contains the texts of some of the talks given at the annual plenum of the Union, as well as a summary of the events and discussions that took place. Given that the Union had been in existence for only about two and a half years at this point, it is particularly interesting to read painter Foto Stamo’s assessment of “The Development in the Figurative Arts” at this early stage in socialist Albania’s cultural project.

Of equal interest is Baki Kongoli’s “Activity of the Union of Artists from its Beginning till Now,” which summarizes the Union’s work in the preceding two years. In part this overview is notable because it specifically makes note of the help given by outside artists and cultural producers (such as composers, painters, and sculptors from the Soviet Union) to Albanian artists. Even more interesting, however,  is the fact that Kongoli’s assessment of the Union’s efficacy largely takes the form of a collective self-critique. In contrast to later plenary speeches, which would assert the endless successes of the Union and of Albanian culture in general, the middle section of Kongoli’s speech is grim. For example, he writes: “Ne mund të themi me keqardhje se konferencat dhe leksionet me karakter ideoprofesional nuk janë ndjekur jo vetëm nga anëtarët e Lidhjes por shpesh herë edhe nga anëtarët e komitetit drejtonjës.” No one has been doing their job. No one has shown up to the meetings. None of the annual goals have been met. In fact, not only were the goals not met, but the following year no one even tried to address what hadn’t been done the year before. No one has made contact with artists in communities outside of Tirana. …and so on and so forth.

In perhaps the most damning sentence, Kongoli writes “Nuk është përfituar sa duhet nga eksperienca e artit sovjetik.” Reading these early assessments of Albanian culture reminds us that the assertions of complete cultural independence—of a kind of socialist cultural apex ex nihilo—that would characterize later socialist discourse in Albania in publications like Nëndori were not always the norm.

Happy reading!

Labirintet e Modernizmit

This is the ninth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. I am still in the process of planning several posts with actual content—that is, analysis, rather than simply more scanned texts—but they are still some ways off, and I wanted to go ahead and post today’s rather imposing volume. Nonetheless, the book’s visuality demands at least some analysis—and no doubt much more than I offer here.

L e M_cover

Today’s text is Labirintet e Modernizmit: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste by aesthetician Alfred Uçi. The copy of the book I own is the 1987 2nd edition of the book; I have flipped through the earlier edition of the book, which I believe is from 1978, but I’ve never had a chance to sit down and see exactly what was added to the subsequent version. First off, I don’t recall the original edition having much in the way of color illustrations (and the 1987 version certainly has several of those), but I could be wrong about that. Certainly some or all of the final chapter on “Postmodernizmi” must have been written for the second edition, but it is unclear to me precisely what other changes and additions were made.

Uçi (who continues to publish on aesthetics today) was one of the most prolific writers on art and literature in socialist Albania, and—together with writers like Tefik Çaushi and Andon Kuqali—he was one of the most sophisticated aestheticians and art critics of the period. His work, of course, carries a high ideological charge, and nowhere is this charge felt more directly than in this truly mammoth (over 400 pages) volume on The Critique of Modernist Aesthetics. (It was, nonetheless, to be dwarfed two years later by the 1989 publication of his three-volume Estetika; I understand that, in the postsocialist period, he has published another such multi-volume work on aesthetics in general.) I was first introduced to this book by the philosophy and literature teacher at the high school I taught at in Albania—at the time he showed it to me, I could barely read any Albanian, otherwise I might have been a bit horrified that he was using it as a reference for teaching a high school art history course—and I have always been fascinated by Uçi’s compendious (if decidedly one-sided) knowledge and presentation of the history of aesthetic modernism. Indeed, I would venture to say the book is more thorough (in its elaboration of different persons and movements), at least with respect to Modernism, than many texts now used in America to teach Modern Art.

While I think the content of Uçi’s book is certainly interesting and useful for understanding the context of Albanian socialist aesthetics, I think its form is much more interesting (and it is here that I would very much like to be able to compare the earlier edition to this post-Hoxha, late-80s one). As Alban Hajdinaj has written, “Alfred Uçi’s theoretical writings, from the 1970s, could very well have been called postmodernist in the context of our country.”[1] Indeed, it seems to me that Uçi’s book occupies precisely a time of “the deepening of crisis” (which is the title of the first section of the last chapter, on Postmodernism)—and this is particularly the case in the insistent presentation of the apparent (but always defeated) correspondence between text and image. Indeed, the book is perhaps one of the best illustrations (forgive the pun) I have seen of the overwhelming failure of images to precisely convey what the author wants them to, and both in relation to other images and to the text of the book.

The cover of the book is already a fascinating example of this: Standing tall next above the title Labirintet e Modernizmit is Sali Shijaku’s Vojo Kushi (1969), and placed precisely below him—as if it will receive the explosion of the grenade he is about to hurl downwards—is one of Malevich’s Suprematist Paintings, alongside of which appears the book’s subtitle: Kritika e Estetikës Moderniste. However, Malevich’s painting has already been truncated, cut off perhaps to ensure that it remains subordinate to Vojo Kushi‘s violence both in its position and in its proportion.  Already on the cover, then, the book pathologically turns a kind of violence back on Modernism —pathologically, because throughout the text the book (like almost all moral condemnations of Modernism) accuses Modernism of precisely this kind of corporeal violence.

In one particularly telling comparison, Uçi places the Venus de Milo alongside an egg by Brancusi and declares “Before the works of antiquity, which celebrate the beauty and purity of mankind, Modernism puts forth, with cynicism, works that scoff at human dignity.” A few pages later, he blithely dismisses the Futurists by setting the Nike of Samothrace opposite Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space (1913) and simply asking “A human being in flight, or a bottle on a pedestal?” The problem with this strategy should be almost immediately obvious— Uçi wants these juxtapositions to be completely self-evident and self-transparent, to the point that sometimes he provides no aesthetic judgment whatsoever, simply placing (in another of my favorite examples) a seascape by Vangjush Mio above a work labeled simply “Op-Art.” The clustered color illustrations in the book seem to relate only vaguely (at least as far as I have been able to discern) to what Uçi specifically says in the text, and sometimes the black-and-white illustrations interspersed directly throughout the printed text perform—in their seemingly complete dissociation—precisely the function of high Surrealism (or else the best practices of postmodernism). An image of Kristaq Rama’s Shote Galica dropped right into the section detailing Kafka is brilliant precisely in the way it causes one to question precisely what kind of aesthetic response the book is aiming for in its use of image-paired-with-text.

To return to the examples of the Venus de Milo  and Bracusi, and the Nike of Samothrace alongside Boccioni: what is most striking about these comparisons of classical and Modern sculpture is the corporeal woundedness of the works Uçi chooses. Indeed, the comparison is decidedly morbid—in spite of Uçi’s caption, the reader is almost forcefully directed to think instead “The works of antiquity celebrated the beauty of humanity, but now they are broken, and Modernism reminds us of these wounds.”… Or even more straightforwardly in the case of the Nike: “A human being without a head, or a bottle on a pedestal.” Thus, even as Modernism is accused of abusing the human figure and destroying its body and its dignity in the move towards formalism, the evidence as presented is somehow unable to convincingly argue that there is any true wholeness to human being—in art or elsewhere. Above all else, Uçi’s text (and his use of images) seems to be profoundly unable to put forward an alternative. Of course, the text is in the form of a critique, rather than a celebration of—obviously—socialist realist aesthetics…but the fact that it does haphazardly throw in a few illustrations of (Albanian) socialist realist works only makes the relationship between these works and Modernism more confusing.  Even the cover image reads both as the undisputed triumph of socialist realism over Modernism and simultaneously as an assertion of the profound similarities between the compositional strategies of both.

It is perhaps simplest to say that I have rarely seen a book in which the image (here, the photographically reproduced work of art) fluctuates so aggressively between two positions somewhat analogous to studium and punctum. Uçi’s book constantly has something quite clear to say, but at the same time both the text and more assertively the images in their discontinuity with the text wound us, suggesting disorder, fallibility, misunderstanding, the slow and gradual accumulation of crisis beneath the veneer of ideological and epistemological certainty. Viewed in this way, it is unsurprising that the book (both in its first, 1978 edition and in this subsequent edition) struggles to chronicle the degeneration of modernism in precisely the years (the late 70s and 80s) when the situation in socialist Albania began to slip towards its own constellation of unravelings.

Happy reading!

[1] Alban Hajdinaj, “Piktura e Jetës Moderne,” in Onufri XVIII (Tirana: Galeria Kombetare e Arteve, 2012), 10.

Lirizmi që Merr Jetë…: Llambi Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën

This is the eighth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Llambi Blido_shenime per pikturen dhe skulpturen_cover image

Today’s text is the complete volume Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën, published in 1987 by Albanian artist and critic Llambi Blido. Blido is quite an interesting figure in his own right; as a painter and as an illustrator of children’s publications, his works often experimented explicitly with stylistic strains of Modernism that—by the mid-1970s in Albania—came under harsh institutional criticism as ideologically dangerous. (See, for example, his Vajza në Pultin e Komandimit [Young Woman at the Controls](oil on canvas, 1971), hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Tirana and visible here. Toni Milaqi’s text “Emancipimi i Gruas dhe Ndikimet e Huaja” provides an insightful overview of Blido’s career and significance. An interview with Blido from 2009 is available here.)

Blido’s Shënime për Pikturën dhe Skulpturën is a collection of essays written, it seems, throughout the artist’s career up to that point, thought since the original sources and dates of the essays are not given, it is a bit difficult to determine their chronology. Some (particularly the exhibition reviews) are clearly from Drita, the weekly publication of the Albania Union of Writers and Artists, while others may have appeared in Nëntori (the aforementioned Union’s monthly journal) or elsewhere. Despite the lack of information about original publication (and indeed some may not have been previously published), the breadth of the sort essays is impressive and insightful. Blido’s writings span both analyses and interviews, and he engages with many of the greatest figures from Albanian twentieth-century art, including Abdurrahim Buza, Kristaq Rama, Mumtas Dhrami, and Vilson Kilica. While the book is not illustrated, images of several of the major works discussed can now be found floating around the internet. Blido’s observations are particularly enlightening given the specificity of many of his aesthetic discussions (a specificity sometimes—often intentionally—lacking in official discourses on art from the socialist period); he discusses the details of color and composition, and asks important aesthetic and ideological questions based upon these formal observations.

Happy reading!

 

 

Në Dritën e Partisë…

This is the seventh in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

ScreenHunter_173 Apr. 03 18.53

Today’s text is the complete volume Letërsia dhe Artet në Dritën e Partisë (1975), by Razi Brahimi, one of the principle literary critics during the time of socialism. The work won the first prize in the literary-artistic competition devoted to the 30th anniversary of Liberation.  For historical purposes, the timing of Brahimi’s sweeping analysis of socialist culture in Albania is interesting because it appears relatively soon after the (in)famous 4th Plenum of the Central Committee, in 1973—an event which is traditionally understood to represent the end of a period of relatively liberal ideas on culture and politics, marking the beginning of a shift towards a decidedly stricter dichotomy between Albanian socialism and “foreign influences.” (Hoxha’s oft-quoted speech on the occasion was entitled “Të Thellojmë Luftën Ideologjike Kundër Shfaqjeve të Huaja dhe Qëndrimeve Liberale Ndaj Tyre” [“To Deepen the Ideological Struggle Against Foreign Influences and Liberal Attitudes Towards Them”]. One way to read Brahimi’s book, which concludes with a bibliography mapping Hoxha and Ramiz Alia’s relevant works on culture up till that time, is as a kind of guidebook for post-4th-Plenum aesthetic criticism. As such, its overarching summary of the role arts and letters have and should play in the context of socialist Albania is decidedly valuable for historians.

Happy reading!

The Question of Actually Existing Communism: A Response to Romeo Kodra

This post comes from some thinking I have been doing (for quite some time, in fact, though perhaps not with the rigor I should have) in response to two posts by Romeo Kodra, on the blog AKS Revista. In essence, both posts concern the appropriateness of the use of the adjective “communist” to describe the period between 1944/45 and 1991 in Albania. The posts in question, “Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” and “Communism Never Happened … edhe nё Shqipёri,” argue that there is something both wrong and more than slightly insidious in describing the culture of socialist Albania as “communist.” The particular context that Kodra singles out for critique is the publicity and terminology of the Albanian Lapidar Survey, conducted by Departamenti i Shqiponjave and recently documented in the three-volume catalogue Lapidari.

Given that I am a contributor to the catalogue, and that I am one of those singled out for critique in Kodra’s second post—since I use terms such as “communist regime,” “communist art,” and “communist state,” among others, in my essay in the catalogue—I would like to offer a defense of my thinking vis-à-vis my use of the term. I certainly cannot presume to speak for the other authors represented in the Lapidari catalogue, nor for Departamenti i Shqiponjave, and it may be that others’ reasons for using the term “communist” (perhaps ‘lightly,’ perhaps not) are quite different from my own. Two things bear saying: first, this post is meant in the spirit of dialogue—I am quite willing to entertain and be convinced by counterarguments, but I think there is a certain justification to my use of “communist” as an adjective in the contexts for which I am chastised for using it; and second: I realize that this response might come entirely too late. It has been several weeks since the second of Kodra’s posts, and more than half a year since his first critique. I can only say that thought on some issues takes time to unfold, and I hope that the delay is not taken as a sign that I do not value the critique presented by Kodra’s writings—quite the opposite. I also apologize for not responding in Albanian, although I honestly feel that my knowledge of the language would not permit me to respond as fully as I wish to do; the hypocrisy inherent in such an excuse is acknowledged, and I bear the weight of it.

In the first of his posts, from June of 2014 (“Albanian Lapidar Survey: Lehtёsia e papёrballueshme e pёrdorimit tё konceptit ‘komunist’” [“The Unbearable Lightness of the Use of the Concept ‘Communist'”], Kodra raises a very important set of issues surrounding the precise implications of using the term (or, specifically, the concept) “communist” to describe a period of Albania’s past that I consider to be the time from the end of the Second World War (or the ‘National Liberation War’) till the very beginning of the 1990s. It seems to me that Kodra is both concerned about the potential vagueness of the term (what is ‘communism’ anyway? who ever claimed that Albania was communist? and therefore why use that term?) and the specifically negative and sensationalist meanings that the word has taken on in a number of contexts in 21st-century Albania. I quote Kodra at length: “Opinioni im ёshtё se me anё tё gogolizimit tё termit konceptual “komunizёm” kanё kaluar nё shoqёrinё shqiptare lloj lloj konceptesh, qasjesh, praktikash fashistoide, nё rrafshin e shkencave sociale, humane apo edhe nё tё pёrditshmen e jetёs publike, qё nё njё botё normale dhe demokratike, siç ёshtё ajo e Bashkimit Evropian nё tё cilin shpresojmё tё bёhemi pjesё, as qё mendohet se duhet tё ekzistojnё. [“It is my opinion that alongside the transformation of the conceptual term ‘communism’ into a kind of boogeyman [in discourse], there are also a whole set of concepts, approaches, and practices of a fascist variety that have entered into Albanian society in the fields of the social and human sciences and even in everyday life. These concepts, approaches, and practices are not the kind that we should even imagine should exist in a normal, democratic world of the kind represented by the European Union, the kind of world we hope to become a part of.”]

Allow me to set aside the characterization of the European Union as a “normal, democratic” world[1]—as an American, my opinion on this matter is of little import regardless, since I have no pertinent experience living in the EU—and say that I am quite in agreement with Kodra’s critique. I do often hear the term communism demonized in an entirely polemical way in Albania (though this is perhaps as much as result of the move towards the EU as not), and I would like to avoid using the term in the way that it is used, say, by the organizers of exhibitions like Bunk’Art or Shtëpia e Gjetheve [House of Leaves]. (These latter two museums are also singled out in Kodra’s second post for their misuse of a rhetoric on “communism.”) It is entirely true that there is a sensationalism surrounding the term that cannot be avoided—though this does not mean that it cannot be engaged through the use of the term in less sensationalist ways.

There are a few defenses I will not permit myself, but that I wish to lay out so as not to be seen to be hiding behind them. The first being that I wrote my essay for the Albanian Lapidar Survey imagining an international audience, not simply an Albanian one—and therefore both the potential understandings of the term “communist” and the dangers of its use are even broader. (In conservative America, for example, the damage done to any image of Albania 1944-1991 might be significantly increased though the use of the term “communism”—but then, I am guilty of calling myself a communist in numerous public venues, and so be it. I do not use the term pejoratively.) The second defense I cast aside is the assertion that—in America at least—many of us simply use the term “communist” (as in “communist state”) when perhaps, strictly speaking, we should not—since communism was always a utopic possiblity and not an “actually existing” state. (I will return to this utopic possibility below, since it forms the crux of why I do use the term “communist.”)

Kodra seems concerned that the use of the term “communist” (or “communism,” which I think are two actually quite different things, but perhaps in Albanian this is not true) obscures “the simple fact that communist Albania never existed” [“faktin e thjeshtё sepse Shqipёria komuniste nuk ka ekzistuar asnjёherё“]. Perhaps it does. Nonetheless, I would like to ask (either Kodra or anyone in deep agreement on the issue): what are the alternatives? One obvious term/concept that suggests itself is “socialist,” the term most often used by the regime itself to describe Albania’s condition ca.1944-1991. In fact, in my writing, I have often attempted to limit myself to the use of the term ‘socialist’ in place of ‘communist,’ for precisely this reason. However, I find myself equally unsatisfied with this term: it ultimately preserves nearly all the vagueness and—at least in America—many of the potentially negative and sensationalist connotations. However, at the level of usage by the Albanian 1944-1991 regime, it at least has greater historical accuracy, and perhaps that is the reason it should be used. Another possibility is “Marxist-Leninist,” which I find dissatisfying because it seems to simply link a more specific context (Albania in the years of Hoxha’s leadership and immediately afterwards) to a very general set of philosophical principles that were taken up and applied in numerous contexts—but then, so was “communism,” and I have used that term. So perhaps Marxist-Leninist is the answer. However, it seems to me that it would take some heavy discursive work for “Marxist-Leninist Albania” to become a term that a broad audience could conceptualize…but perhaps the work should be done by those of us who write on this period.

Along similar lines, the term “Enverist” (or “enverist”) could be used. This would acknowledge the specificity of Hoxha’s version of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism (the list could go on, of course). This seems to be one option Kodra would prefer, since he uses the term “Albanian Enverism” in his second post. However, I protest this term on the grounds that it treats the collective manifestations of culture and politics (I am interested specifically in culture, but of course they cannot be separated) of Albania 1944-1991 (or 1944-1985?) as solely the product of Enver Hoxha in some essential way. This to me seems equally sensationalist.[2] Kodra clearly wants to divide the negative associations of Enver Hoxha’s regime from the term “communism”, but this seems to me to simply transfer any negativity to the construct “Enver Hoxha,” as if he was the sole actor and bestower of meaning in “communist” Albania. Yes, I would like to preserve the potential of communism as a way of acting, believing, thinking, and living that is quite separate from Enver Hoxha’s method of cultural and political existence. However, I think this is done not by using alternative terms/concepts, but simply by acknowledging that the term “communism” (or “communist”) does not have a single hard and fast meaning. It most certainly does not always mean that the reference is to “actually existing communism.” I think I can say, of myself, that I have never used the term “communist” to imply that something (a sculpture, a painting, a regime, a dictator) corresponded completely with the concrete actuality of a communist reality. And this is precisely because I do not believe “communist” reality (or even “socialist” reality, but this is a separate conversation I am happy to have with Kodra or anyone who desires) to be something that appears concretely in the world in an empirically verifiable way. Quite the opposite.

To put it plainly: I regard all “communist” discourse as utopian, which is to say I regard it as taking up an attitude towards the world that posits an impossible endpoint that one nonetheless comports oneself towards. I realize that some (indeed, many) believe that communism is something that could be ‘realized’ in a way that would not merely be representational or utopic. I politely disagree, and I stake my use of the concept “communist” on this. When I have used the term “communist” to describe art or politics relating to the creation of art in Albania 1944-1991 (for this is the field I study), I mean that this is an art, a politics, a regime, a culture that takes up a particular attitude towards a utopian future reality of “communism”—a future that is never realized.[3] Communism is not a (and was not) a condition that ‘actually existed’ and made the things ‘within’ it “communist”; rather, “communism” as a horizon makes certain things “communist.” I hope that this at least clarifies my use of the term, and the futural quality of the Albanian art and culture I have used it to describe.

In his speech “Shkrimtarët dhe Artistët Janë Ndihmës të Partisë për Edukimin Komunist e Njerëzve Tanë” [“Writers and Artists Help the Party to Achieve the Communist Education of Our People”], delivered in December of 1974 at the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the People’s Republic of Albania, Enver Hoxha stated that “Marxism-Leninism leads the people [of the world] towards the new life, towards socialism, and towards communism.”[4] This forward-directedness, the motion towards an unachievable utopia  that nonetheless stands as the final term in any list of social transformations, is the meaning I intend to capture with my use of the term “communist.” Perhaps it is not the right word, but it seems at least as appropriate as the others I have considered here.

I hope that this post makes clear my use of the term “communist” to both my readers and to Romeo Kodra. I thank him again for raising the issue—and pressing it—and welcome a discussion from any and all parties about the way we might treat the valences of the term “communist” in a way that respects the weight of responsibility associated with that use—and does not simply linger in sensationalism.

[1] It is perhaps enough to say that I do not know why the EU should be the standard for ‘normal,’ not am I clear on why exactly it should be exalted as a place where “communism” is not sensationalized as a term.

[2] Likewise, the term “totalitarian” has sometimes been applied to Albania 1944-1991 (or some subsection of this period), but seems equally—if not more—sensationalist. I should also like to point out that I am also unsatisfied with the implication that everything ‘bad’ about Albania 1944-1991 should be blamed on Hoxha and his government, as if there were nothing good about ‘enverism.’ Likewise, speaking of “Albanian Stalinism” seems equally weighted with negative connotations. In short, I find myself at a loss to propose an alternative term that would not suffer the same fate as “communism/ist.”

[3] One could, of course, say that Hoxha’s regime never legitimately aimed at this utopic future horizon of communism…but this is to ignore the regime’s rhetoric, and I would argue that that very rhetoric created a reality that—at least in part—unavoidably looked to a utopic communist future.

[4] Hoxha, Mbi Letërsinë dhe Artin (Tiranë: 8 Nëntori, 1977), 476.

Të Thellojmë Njohjen e Jetës

This is the sixth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism. Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nentori, April 1965 cover 

Today’s volume is an excerpt from the April 1975 volume of Nëntori, featuring the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists of that year. The proceedings, written by critics such as Dritëro Agolli, Kujtim Buza, Sterjo Spasse, Pipi Mitrojorgji, and others, often deal with the intellectual results of the 4th Plenum of the Central Congress and the influence of the National Exhibition of figurative arts devoted to the 30th anniversary of liberation.

The art in the issue is devoted to the 30th anniversary of the Forcat e Kufirit and the Policia Popullore. The cover features a great painting by Pandi Mele, which in turn features a Lapidar!

Happy reading!

Eros on the Roads of War: Some Brief Notes on Hektor Dule’s Në Udhët e Luftës For and Against the Decadences of the Flesh

Another in my continuing series of posts giving vaguely idiosyncratic readings of Albanian socialist realist art. 

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, plaster version, photo by A. Kruti in Drita, 8 September 1975.
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, plaster version, photo by A. Kruti in Drita, 8 September 1975.

First exhibited in during the National Exhibition dedicated to the 30th Anniversary of National Liberation, Hektor Dule’s Në Udhët e Luftës [On the Paths of War] (also called Në Rrugën e Luftës) now stands in Tirana’s Great Park,[1] near to the fountains (and also to the new assortment of exercise equipment installed in the last few years). The bronze statue, depicting an Albanian woman holding up a jug of water and allowing a partisan soldier to drink deeply from it, seems appropriately placed in its pseudo-natural surroundings. It is, after all, about the nourishment of the body in the course of its struggles…what better location for it that the Great Park, where the body—in exercise, in sex, in relaxation and communion with an artificial nature—is fundamental to the creation and experience of space?

In 1975, writing of the work’s appearance in the exhibition (in its earlier version done in plaster), Fatmir Haxhiu wrote that “precisely in this moment both ordinary and life-affirming, in this fundamentally simple act—one that may people have encountered during the war years (a mother giving a jug of water to a partisan)—the artist struggles to show the love and intimacy that our people felt for the partisans, and the support that ordinary people gave to the partisans during the National Liberation War. And the artist achieves his goal. The two figures are connected to each other in a conceptual unity and by the complete harmonization of their forms.”[2] Later, Haxhiu writes, “It is an intimate work” [my emphasis].[3] The remainder of his article praises Dule (who at this point was one of the important figures in a new generation of Albanian sculptors, best known for the Mushqeta monument and his work with the famous ‘monumental trio’ of K. Rama, Sh. Hadëri, and M. Dhrami), offers the typically supportive assessment of his treatment of themes from the National Liberation War, and makes some minor aesthetic criticisms aimed at his future improvement as a sculptor.

Without dismissing the relevance of the ever-present theme of the partisan struggle, and certainly without wishing to poke fun at either Haxhiu’s analysis or Dule’s work, I would like to suggest a slightly different interpretation of Në Udhët e Luftës. Perhaps it is more accurate to say: I wish to expand upon our understanding of the themes of the partisan struggle precisely by pausing as we read the words love and intimacy, and considering what sculptural traditions Dule’s work is truly in dialogue with. In short, I would like to introduce (or perhaps, since so much popular discourse seems so committed to separating the two, to reintroduce) the question of the body, sensuality, and sex into the discussion of Albanian socialist realist sculpture.

For it seems undeniable to me that Dule’s sculptural group carries an immense sexual charge (and not just because of some vague associations with what goes on elsewhere in the Great Park). If Haxhiu’s analysis of the work seems to avoid this aspect, I think the fact that he uses the words “love and intimacy” to characterize the work indicates his awareness of the issues potentially broached by the work and an active attempt to undercut them. In much the same way, I think that Dule is trying to use the tropes of a certain sculptural tradition in the context of socialist realism in order partially to undermine them and partially to harness them.

Clodion, Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from the Met's website
Clodion, Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo from the Met’s website

To see the eroticism of Dule’s sculpture, we need only compare it to a work that I dare say it was actually intended to be in dialogue with: Clodion’s Nymph and Satyr Carousing (also known as The Intoxication of Wine), 18th century (ca. 1780–90), terracotta, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Clodion’s work, which straddles (as the sculptor himself did) the turn towards the Neoclassical in sculpture with the more playful sensuality of the Rococo, is a kind of decadent mirror of Dule’s work. In Clodion: a satyr, the preeminent mythical being of male lust, leans back, allowing himself to rest upon a stone as he lifts one animal leg off the ground and pulls a naked nymph to him, his fingers digging into the flesh of her back. She leans into him, straddling his left leg, wrapping her right arm around his neck, and holds a goblet of wine above his mouth, pouring. In Dule: an Albanian woman, barefoot and dressed in garb that suggests she must be a villager) stands before a male partisan. Her feet are slightly apart, and one of his booted feet steps forward, placed firmly between hers. Her left arm and shoulder are drawn back, her clothing flowing out a bit behind her, and her right hand reaches out to steady a full, rounded jug as the partisan holds it in his right hand, by its handle, above his head. His head is thrown back, the jug held a few inches from his open mouth to allow the water to flow down his throat. His left shoulder is likewise thrown back, exposing his chest, and he braces his weight on his left leg. His left hand steadies the his rifle at waist height, as its barrel juts out phallically, but directed away from the woman. The only contact between the two bodies takes place between her sleeve and his chest as she steadies the jug, but she stares directly at his face as he drinks in a fixed gaze that connects the two emotionally, physically, and compositionally. Like Clodion’s pair, Në Udhët e Luftës rewards viewing in the round, shifting perspectives that give us different views of the two bodies and their intimate connections.

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana's Great Park
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana’s Great Park

I do not think that Dule’s sculpture intends to posit for its viewer a narrative of sexual engagement between the village woman and the partisan he shows, although that is certainly possible.[4] Rather, I think that Dule takes the tradition of which Clodion is emblematic (a Neoclassical sensibility, but with one foot still in the aristocratic tastes of the Rococo,[5] celebrating not only the sobriety of antiquity but also its Bacchic excesses) and attempts to overcome it in the context of socialist realism. Socialist realism was, after all, as much a “logic of cultural supplementarity, a logic that established itself by qualifying previous aesthetic traditions that were already…known” (as Devin Fore asserts), as it was a style in itself.[6] At the same time, however, he brings sensuality into socialist realism, offering a view of the National Liberation War—in its most “ordinary” and “life-affirming” moments—as a struggle that includes the sensual gratification of the body and its desires, of the partisan reinvigorated physically by is encounter with the village mother. There is no need to digress into Freud, and love, and the death drive (though indeed one could) to consider the equation of war, sexuality, and physical release that Në Udhët e Luftës presents. As much as Haxhiu seems careful to ensure that “love and intimacy” have strictly Platonic meanings in the context of Dule’s sculptural pair, the suggestion of sexual fullness present in the jug, the rifle held stiffly at waist-level, the partisan’s head thrown back, and the assertive offering of the village woman trace the contours of a very different set of connotations.

Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana's Great Park
Hektor Dule, Në Udhët e Luftës, bronze version in Tirana’s Great Park

One could certainly go further, and perhaps one should. All I mean to suggest here is the necessity of reasserting the body and its pleasures—sexual and sensual—at the heart of socialist realist sculpture (and art in general) in Albania (and elsewhere, of course). Works like Në Udhët e Luftës reveal the tension of inheriting the sculptural tradition of bodily desire made materially manifest, and the rich possibilities of bringing that ‘decadent’ tradition into the context of the National Liberation War narrative—of denying the pleasures of the flesh, but also of reaffirming them in the context of sacrifice and struggle. It should also remind us that the war years were not simply a clash of battalions and strategies, of ideas and ideologies, but also of bodies and their desires.

[1] I would welcome anyone with information about the precise year in which the bronze version of the statue was placed in the park—I confess I have no information regarding this placement.

[2] Fatmir Haxhiu, “Në Udhët e Luftës: Shënime rreth grupit skulptural të H. Dules,” Drita, 28 September 1975.

[3] Ibid.

[4] And the narrative itself seems plausible, though I have read no accounts that discuss the occurrence and/or frequency of sexual dalliances between partisans and the ‘ordinary people’ that gave them support and shelter during the war.

[5] Indeed, what style or period could more fully epitomize the “decadence” of bourgeois culture—that perennial enemy of socialist society—than the Rococo?

[6] Devin Fore, Realism After Modernism: The Rehumanization of Art and Literature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 244

A Style and a Half or Half a Style?: Modernism, Socialist Realism, and Postmodernism in Albanian Art

Vilson Kilica realist? Më 1960 ai ishte një nga themeluesit e Institutit të Lartë të Arteve, të cilin ai e drejtoi. Në ateljenë e tij, një portret i presidentit të vjetër Hoxha tregon që ai di t’i pikturojë gjërat ashtu siç janë, por të gjitha vepra të tjera të tij afirmojnë vizionin e pastër dhe subjektiv të botës. Dhe për të, arti është një problem individual, e në asnjë mënyrë kolektiv. Herezi? [Vilson Kilica, a realist? In 1960, he was one of the founders of the Institute of Arts, for which he served as director. In his atelier, a portrait of the former president Hoxha shows that he knows how to paint things as they are, but all his other works affirm a pure and subjective vision of the world. For him, art is an individual problem, in no way a collective one. Is this heresy?]—Denis Picard, in Connaissance des Arts, 1990[1]

Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993
Vilson Kilica, Peisazh, 1993

Among Boris Groys’ most famous formulations is that of socialist realism as “a style and a half,” occupying a middle position between the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century and the postmodernist ironic eclecticism of the latter part of the century.[2] Indeed, reading Groys—still probably the most oft-cited Western theorist of socialist realism—one has the impression that the acceptance of socialist realism [hereafter: socrealism] as a legitimate subject of study is based firmly (and solely) upon its role as theoretical, political, and visual fodder for the subsequent Moscow conceptualists and heroes of Sots Art. Groys’ analysis of socrealism has been the subject of a number of critiques, both in terms of its reading of the relationship between the avant-garde and socrealism and its reading of the relationship between socrealism and postmodernism, and my purpose is neither to summarize these critiques nor to add to them. Rather, I would like to pose a question that might seem to some to be straightforward and  even retrograde: What can we say about Modernism after Socrealism—in the case of Albania in particular? In a history of styles, how do we do justice to modernist paintings done in the wake of the system of socrealism? How does socrealism change the relationship between modernism and postmodernism? Is such a ‘belated’ modernism[3] a style and a half? Half a style?

Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004
Zef Shoshi, Grup Portret Zadrimoresh, 2004

The corpus I want to understand is not so much those ‘modernist’ paintings done in Albania during the period of socialist control, during which socrealism as the mandated style—and which were often ether condemned or kept secret, but which in some cases were celebrated as exemplars of socialist art. Instead, I am concerned with how we might understand the art (and in this case, I am most concerned with painting) created in the late 1980s (after Enver Hoxha’s death in 1985), the 90s, and the early 2000s that might be described as ‘modernist,’ much of it created by artists who began their careers as socrealists. (I use the term ‘modernist’ here in the vaguest and most uncritical sense, as a descriptor for art that tends towards abstraction [though it is still often figurative]; is concerned with formal experimentation more than content; and often embraces subjectivity or universality, or both in spite of their apparent contradictions.) What can we say about this art and its stylistic significance? What do we say about Zef Shoshi’s (seemingly unending) images of Zadrimoret ? About Vilson Kilica’s colorful surrealist landscapes? The question will, no doubt, be uninteresting to many readers, and I should like to elaborate some of the potential objections to this investigation, if only to make it clear what I am not concerned with understanding or criticizing. First, of course, one could ask: what is the use of trying to fit a belated, post-socrealist, pre-postmoderist modernism into a history of styles anyway? Hasn’t the history of styles long been an implicit enemy of the study of non-Western modernisms (and even of early-20th-century American modernisms), since it often inevitably privileges teleological narratives of the purification of stylistic paradigms (in regions where artists nearly always mixed the most diverse styles), not to mention continually drifting close to the trap of tying visual properties to ideological schemas in stable systems? Aren’t we art historians well and truly done with such a formalist enterprise, and aren’t we better off for it?

The answer, I think, is no on both accounts. I will not fully elaborate all of the reasons for the continued relevance of this question here, but one is of particular significance here: the history of styles is a global history, and it is a history of abstract ideas as much as of localized agencies, forces, and differences. The well-founded critique of the global history of styles is that, at best, it misses the specificities of the local and, at worst, it subsumes local specificities to dominant (Western) paradigms. Unfortunately, this critique often takes the form of a call for histories ‘radical contextualized,’ which both assumes that such contexts are actually and significantly present for particular works of art and often paradoxically implies that the only way to recover the importance of marginalized art histories is to discuss them on a political, social, and visual level almost totally divorced from that of the global history of styles.[4] Insofar as I am quite interested in the specificity of the Albanian case, I am here also interested in using it to help tell a much broader story about the temporal emergence of modernism and its possible chronological positions in a history of styles.

The second objection (or set of objections) that might be raised to the investigation of post-socrealism Albanian modernism as modernism is that this approach 1) heroizes modernism as the escape from the artificial confinements placed on painting under the socrealist system;[5] 2) perpetuates the idea of a country like Albania as ‘behind’ in the global cultural trajectory, since it has only recently produced modernist painting; 3) [the implicit corollary to the previous objection] reveals that there is nothing much of interest in such painting from a stylistic point of view, since it only repeats what has been done before elsewhere (at best it is significant in a ‘radically contextualized’ political-artistic history;[6] and 4) devotes too much attention to a (be)late(d) modernism and ignores the very real work to be done on modernist painting in Albania before the advent of socrealism. Against this set of objections I have little to say except that they represent points of views and approaches that are not immediately of interest to me. What I am interested in is the possibility of discussing modernism as something ancillary to socrealism in both a chronological and a conceptual sense, something that builds upon socrealism rather than being distorted or erased by it. Furthermore, I am interested in thinking more critically about how modernism-after-socrealism might continue to serve a real stylistic political function in a time when critical attention is more squarely focused on both ‘postmodern’ and ‘contemporary’ art.[7]

Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008
Vilson Kilica, Fushe e Blerte, 2008

I doubt that many would insist that modernism (or, let me say for the moment, Modernism) is insignificant in the current and recent Albanian political context (and argue instead that the Albanian politico-cultural context is purely ‘postmodern’). Modernism’s current relevance—both stylistically and philosophically—is continually reaffirmed by debates surrounding public aesthetic policy in Albania, from the designs for the 2012 Monument to the Anniversary of Independence, to the aesthetics of projects like Bunk’Art, to Edi Rama’s own state-as-a-work-of-art political paradigm. No amount of metacommentary (of the kind, for example, represented by Anri Sala’s documentation of Rama’s projects) can completely displace recent examples of public art from the realm of modernist aesthetics into the realm of postmodernist post-aesthetics.

However, I hope that my present argument amounts to saying more than “We—or at least, Albanians—are still in Modernism; we never escaped it” (a decidedly unsatisfactory assertion at best). The traditional art historical trajectory sees the formalist concerns of modernist painting (as abstract expressionism, or as art informel, for example) in terms of an escape from the explicitly political contexts of the wars and subsequent totalitarian states, and a new kind of traditional reading of socrealism credits its explicit politicization of aesthetics with the postmodernist realization that ‘everything is political.’[8] What would it mean, however, to set alongside those general accounts of stylistic trajectories, and to take seriously, these three propositions: 1) Socrealism (as a realism) can predate modernism.[9] Alternately, it can come into being as an early, embryonic form of modernism rather than a late one; it can be “half a style” and not only “a style and a half.” 2) Positioned at in the earlier stages of modernism, socrealism is not so much partially responsible for the political awareness of postmodernism as it is partially responsible for the political awareness of later forms of modernism. In other words, it is not simply that socrealism inherits the philosophies of the avant-garde: it also forges the avant-garde. 3) With and in contrast to 2), socrealism doesn’t just help to create the collective, politically-aware positions that characterize some postmodern artistic practices; it also helps create the possibility of the modern artist as individual creative subject. This creative subject can be alternately conceived as radically political (a politician-artist like Edi Rama being a [perhaps worn out but still quite accurate] prime example), or as apolitical and ‘free’ from social pressures. This third proposition in effect reverses the implicit logic of Denis Picard’s quotation used to introduce my essay: there (in quite a cliché manner, but that does not mean it is any less critically relevant) the “pure and subjective” vision of art as an “individual problem” is considered primary, and any “collective” distortions are subsequent. Instead, let us entertain the possibility that socialist realism does not construct a collective aesthetic epistemology (for example, by effacing, subjugating, and distorting a more primordial individual artistic subject-position), but instead generates the individual subject, and with it the style of the individual artist, as something secondary.[10] Thus, the modern (or Modern) artist is the supplement of socrealism, not the reverse. Socrealism is not always something added on en route to postmodernism; sometimes it is modernism that is added on.

This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly precisely the claim of socrealism in Albania: the collective made possible the individual aesthetic personality of the artist. Kujtim Buza states it most clearly:

Në qoftë se M. Dhrami realizoi me sukses skulpturën “Lart frymën revolucionare”, K. Rama “Shote Galicën”, H. Dule kompozimin “Brez pas brezi”, Sh. Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut”, etj., kjo ndodi sepse personaliteti i tyre krijues u poq në mes të kolektivit, u farkëtua në shkollën e madhe të kolektivit. [If Muntas Dhrami successfully created the sculpture “Lart frymën revolucionare”, Kristaq Rama the work”Shote Galica,” Hektor Dule the work “Brez pas brezi,” Shaban Hadëri “Herojt e Vigut,” etc., this happened because their creative personalities matured in the midst of the collective, were forged in the great school of the collective.][11]

To a certain extent, taking seriously the model I have suggested here amounts to a structuralist reading of art history, where modernism and postmodernism always exist as stylistically or thematically distinct possibilities that need not conform to any teleological progression. I am certainly not opposed to such a framework, and I think it moves beyond certain teleologies that—no matter how much we insist they have been debunked—still guide the writing of 20th-century art history. However, I also want to suggest—in my use of the Derridean vocabulary of the ‘supplement’—that a reassessment of the chronology of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism does more than enrich our understanding of a structure: it also destabilizes and redoubles a set of conceptual and aesthetic categories that (and here the ‘radical contextualization’ will slip back in) have too often been considered primarily in the context of Western Europe, Russia, and/or America, and only secondarily (supplementarily) in places like the Balkans. This destabilization might result in a fresh set of questions regarding the presence or absence (read: the interiority or exteriority) of modernism, socrealism, and postmodernism to each other both in the 20th century and in the 21st—questions that the chronological placement of socrealism as “a style and a half” cannot ask. What would it mean to write socialist realism as the effaced origin of a (be)late(d) Modernism, and to see that Modernism as interwoven throughout every attempt to go beyond it, every postmodernism? In this context, I think we might find a new significance in the (both valorized and decried) colorful geometric landscapes, abstract partial torsos, and Fauvist folk scenes of Albanian modernist art in the decades around the turn of this century.

Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009
Zef Shoshi, Malesor i Qeshur, 2009

This might seem a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, but I mean the previous discussion as an incitement to discussion rather than a definitive statement—not least because it seems that relatively little has been said about the (allegedly naïve, at worst hopelessly kitsch) emergence of modernism[12] in the past three decades in countries like Albania. Allow me to close—with a sort of footnote—by returning to Groys, who refers to the work of the Russian ‘postmodernists’ as “post-utopian,” suggesting that the utopia envisioned by the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde was ‘realized’ in a sense by socrealism, and that contemporary artists work in this fallout. Something in this implies (although I do not think this is Groys’ point) a spatio-temporal incompatibility between the failure (or the end) of utopia and the practice of modernist aesthetics…as if modernism can only prefigure utopia and all that comes after utopia is either ‘postmodern’ or ‘contemporary.’[13]  If the interior of the body of Modernism continually—and absolutely—reforms itself, why not consider the utopian dreams of socrealism yet another block of ‘becoming-Modern’? What kind of temporality would we have to conceptualize to envision stylistic modernism after utopia?

[1] Qtd. in Vilson Kilica: Një Jetë në Krijimtari (Tirana: Studio Kilica, 2012), 10.

[2] See Groys, “A Style and a Half: Socialist Realism Between Modernism and Postmodernism,” in Socialist Realism Without Shores, ed. Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 76-90. Of course, Groys is quite explicit that socrealism is a modernism, albeit one “of a very particular kind” (76). Thus, the significance of socrealism is also argued based upon its realization of particular principles inherent to modernism and the modern project or experience more broadly.

[3] I use the term ‘belated’ with a great sense of aversion and caution, but I think it is appropriate. While I think the term is often misplaced in discussing developments in Eastern European art of the (earlier) 20th century, there is a sense in which any modernist art coming in the final decades of the century (to say nothing of the 21st) is ‘belated’ not in the sense that it comes after the same developments have occurred elsewhere, but that it comes after developments that elsewhere, it preceded. For example, if it is generally the case that socrealism grew out of and ultimately against modernism, what can we say about modernism that grows out of socrealism and ultimately against postmodernism?

[4] These are, of course, extreme positions, and they most certainly should not imply either that all those who seek ‘radical contextualization’ adhere to these ideas, nor that ‘radical contextualization’ is unhelpful. It is. However, as an art historical strategy, it often displays an aversion to overarching discussions of style that are still helpful in understanding art history in the longer view. After all, it is not necessarily likely that subsequent histories of the 20th and 21st centuries will see the shift from modernism to postmodernism as we do, or even that they will see them as distinctly as we do.

[5] The quotation at the beginning of this essay is emblematic of this heroization of painters as ‘modernist’ (as opposed to ‘realist’.

[6] The implication being that one misses out on what is being done by actually innovative artists if one focuses on those who merely uncritically repeat or dabble in earlier paradigms. This may be true, but it is far more convincing from an aesthetic/art-critical standpoint, and less so from one that attempts to theorize as inclusive a history as possible. The more problematic side of this objection is when it also carries the implication that what we can all agree on is that such belated (or worse, pseudo-) modernist painting from contemporary Albanian painters is bad. I disagree that it is all bad, but that is not the point: questions of style are not all questions of  aesthetic merit, and I am not interested in aesthetic merit.

[7] In fact, I consider the designation ‘contemporary’ to be quite helpful in contradistinction to ‘postmodern,’ but  often theorists of contemporary art avoid using the label for art that seems squarely rooted in the presuppositions of  earlier modernisms. This is, in my view, a bit too limited; I would prefer that the term ‘contemporary’ also included the (set of rather uncritical) revisitations and re-appropriations of modernism that are often found in chronologically ‘contemporary’ and postmodern art. (I prefer it to a term like Svetlana Boym’s ‘off-modernism’, which, while I think it is accurate and appealing, seems to somehow imply that the off-modern is not coterminous with the contemporary…and in many cases it is.)

[8] Recently, for example, the relationships between the political position of socrealist art and that of contemporary art in China have been discussed by Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu, in ” From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism,” e-flux 5 (2014), available from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/from-the-issue-of-art-to-the-issue-of-position-the-echoes-of-socialist-realism-part-i/ (accessed 1/7/2015).

[9] When I say, in the context of Albania, that socialist realism can predate modernism, I do not mean to imply that Albanian culture existed in some vacuum where modernism did not penetrate. This was manifestly not the case, since nearly all of the earliest modern painters in Albania were educated abroad. However, there is a difference between a style being practiced by some and a style achieving heightened significance in society. The point is not that there was no modernism in Albania before socrealism, but that socrealism was part of the development of modernism, and not a break away from that development (either in a regressive sense, or in the sense of prefiguring what would come after modernism).

[10] We can of course still be suspicious of this individual creative artist, and the search for his or her origin, but we gain a new understanding of the origin of the myth of such a figure.

[11] “Puna Krijuese Kolektive në Fushën e Arteve Figurative,” Drita, September 27, 1970. Here too, there is the danger of imposing the kind of binary that theorists like Jameson impose, wherein ‘first world’ cultural production starts from subjectivity, and ‘third world’ cultural production starts from collective political analogies. However, one need not embrace such a rigid framework to extract valuable insights from the idea of beginning from the collective

[12] Note that I do not say “return to modernism.” if it is, in some cases, a return, a retreat from the excesses of postmodernism, I think that this is not always the case. Precisely because the movement I am suggesting here is not teleological, I do not think it is necessary to view the appearance of something very similar to (if not identical to) modernism in contemporary works as a ‘return.’

[13] Of course, the dream of utopia shows up in many ‘contemporary’ works, and I do not think that these works are all (or even mostly) modern.

The Unofficial View of Tirana (83)

Today’s essay—an examination of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s recent speech at Creative Time—is a guest post by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, the 83rd in his ongoing Unofficial View of Tirana series.

While local journalists were once again busy regurgitating worn-down, coma inducing positions about yet another spectral appearance of Enver Hoxha at the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Tirana, very few cared to analyze the rather remarkable speech of PM Edi Rama at the 6th Annual Creative Time Summit on November 15 in Stockholm. According to the Creative Time website, an internationally operative (public) art organization based in New York, Edi Rama “led important post-Communist reforms, including the vetting of government officials to reestablish civic trust.” This “Get To Know” catch phrase seems to suggest that the entire period up to Rama’s advent to power, including the previous 8 years of Sali Berisha’s reign, can be labeled as “Communist.” As for civic trust, let’s hope that the currently developing scandal around several tenders handled through (or dumped on) the Ministry of Culture will not break its spell. A pull quote on the same page cites Rama as follows: “I’m not sure I am a politician. I would say that I am still an artist, and I’m trying to use politics as an instrument for change.”

Each year, ArtReview publishes the “Power 100” list, comprising the most powerful figures in the global art scene. This year’s most powerful person is Nicholas Serota, director of the TATE in London, followed by gallerists David Zwirner and Iwan Wirth on positions 2 and 3. But who on this list wields a fully functioning army, the nominal monopoly on violence across a territory the size of Belgium, and an annual spending budget of about 3.35 billion euros? Who on this list gets to reorganize city centers, decide immigration policies, and negotiate with the Worldbank? This is not to say that Rama wields all this power personally, but with a nearly absolute majority in parliament, an unquestioned authority within his own party, and an opposition that is scattered, desperate, and simply a sad joke, none of the above has proven particularly difficult to pull off. While Neue Slovenische Kunst invented a state “in time,” without territory but also without temporal finitude, whereas my colleague Jonas Staal travels to communist enclaves in the Philippines, Azawad in Mali, and Syrian Kurdistan in search of the “stateless state,” Edi Rama has captured what could have well been a “failed democracy,” and has turned it – with barely anyone noticing – from the “state art” of socialist realism into the “art state” of realist socialism, with Tony “Third Way” Blair as its counsellor. Considering this state of affairs, we would do well to look closely at Rama’s speech (which has not been published on his homepage), keeping in mind that his audience here consisted precisely of those artists, curators, intellectuals, writers, who are not featured in ArtReview’s Top 100.

Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.
Edi Rama in a fluffy yellow frame, his desk on the background.

Edi Rama is explicitly introduced as someone (an artist) in the position to act, that is, different from the regular artist down the street who merely contemplates, incites, reflects, suggests, complicates, and mirrors, someone who can have things done. His presentation therefore necessarily begins with an image of the place where he gets things done: the desk in his governmental office (I wrote about his desk before in the Unofficial View of Tirana 70, which unfortunately has been removed by my previous host continent.), his colored pencils in focus and the Albanian flag and founder of the nation Ismail Qemali in the blurred background: the prominence of the symbols of art is emphasized over those of the state. This is an image that will be constantly reaffirmed by Rama’s speech, which otherwise features no other images but his painting of Tirana’s façades when he was a mayor. This desk is therefore the only image of his contemporary political practice.

I have transcribed his entire lecture  in full from the video recording on the Creative Time website, and provided it with a running commentary between the different sections.

We are all, whether a country or a human being, a product of our past and of what we learn from it. A product too of our character and our ambitions. I am a prime minister now. I developed from what I was to become what I am. I am the same person doing different things. I was an artist. I still like to paint and draw, I just have less time. But in politics too, I try paint a canvas. I visualize how I want our country to be, to feel. How I want to change as the world changes around us. I am not saying that all prime ministers should be artists of course, far from it. It is good if politics is a gathering of people how come from a variety of backgrounds. From Reagan, who was an actor, to the Swedish prime minister, who is a welder, to variety in experiences is amazing. And even when the variety in professional backgrounds is less striking – Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, Angela Merkel a PhD in chemistry – their brush in the larger tableau is far from being similar, but both impressive. I think the skills we have in one field may help or hinder in another, though, in spite of all, the artist in me is never still.

The opening paragraph sets up the main metaphor of Rama’s speech, namely the idea of politics as “painting a canvas,” something he will later connect to the metaphor (if not cliche) of the “big picture.” At the same time, he suggests that not only artists would be able to engage properly in this politico-artistic act. He names a variety of politicians with vocations different from artist: an actor, a welder, and two chemists. That by far the majority of the politicians from the US, UK, Sweden, or Germany never had any other vocation than being a politician–bureaucrat–corporate manager is ignored, or maybe Rama intends to suggest that “professional” politicians would be unable to engage the political canvas on the same terms: the ancient idea that politics should never be someone’s profession.

The examples listed by Rama, supposedly from a left-wing party, are surprising. The first politician he names is none other than Ronald Reagan, hardly a thinker with left-wing aspirations, who is than followed by other right-wing hardliners such as Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Typically, the working class representative among the politicians remains nameless (his name is Stefan Löfven, from the Swedish Social Democratic Party). Adam Curtis, among others, already suggested that the Third Way advocated by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton at the end of the 1990s was nothing but a continuation of the neoliberal politics of Reagan and Thatcher. That these two names – and we again keep in mind that Blair is a close advisor of the Prime Minister – reappear in this context as contributing to the “variety of backgrounds” creates a certain discomfort as regards the type of canvas that is supposed to be painted with this “amazing” “variety of experiences.” Why not  Polish prime minister Ewa Kopacz, a pediatrician? Or what about José Mujica ex-guerrilla fighter and president of Uruguay or Evo Morales, anti-War on Drugs campaigner and president of Bolivia? In other words, the friendly sounding term “variety” here is used to obfuscate that his examples do not suggest any variety whatsoever – they all point into the same political direction.

Two pages of Rama's doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party's website from 2005.
Two pages of Rama’s doodles: a calendar page from December 11, 2006 (when he mayor of Tirana) and a printout from the French Socialist Party’s website from 2005.

Once I met someone who got really offended because I was drawing while we were talking in my office. Regular visitors are used to this, I do it all the time. I doodle all over my daily agenda. My office table is somehow my atelier. But the visitor who became offended by my drawing, thought I didn’t care about what he was saying. He said: I came here and I have a problem, so don’t draw while I’m talking to you. I apologized, put down my pen, discussed the issue, he bowed to me and he left. The next time I met with him, I remembered the offense he had taken so I push my pot of pens to the other end of the desk and I did not draw. Yet, still he was not happy. At the end he said: I feel that you are not listening. You are looking at me, but you are not here. And I said: You see, allow me to draw if you want me to concentrate. If you want me to listen to you and be myself.

This anecdote reveals several aspects of Rama’s politico-artisthood. His drawing and doodling is a compulsion. He does it “all the time,” and without it, he is not himself. Drawing here is a necessary supplement to listening, as he cannot “concentrate” without having a pen in his hand, sketching out the conversation. There is thus a direct mediation between the conversation partner, who puts forth his “problem,” and “drawing the picture” – a mediation that is thoughtless and effortless. Because of the position of this morality tale, which is at the same type an example of his political ethos and a warning not to disrupt it, just after the introduction of the canvas of politics, this image suddenly becomes much more concrete. While engaging in politics, discussing the issues of the country, studies for the larger canvas are doodled on his agenda and memos. Continuous artistic production therefore slowly contaminates and erases the minutiae of administrative language. Contrary to the slow trickle-down of bureaucracy, Rama authoritatively transforms the concerns of the citizen immediately and without interruption into the bigger, political picture. Doodling here becomes a sovereign gesture that cancels out bureaucratic and administrative procedure. It is therefore not difficult to imagine an absurdist scene in which dozens of government officials are peering over Rama’s colored notes, interpreting the colors, shapes, and forms of the doodles as if they were divining a sheep’s liver or the drivel on the bottom of a coffee cup.

The first time in my life that entered a state building in Albania was when I assumed public office, when I became Minister of Culture. It happened in a moment, in very extraordinary circumstances. Life takes many turns, and this was not one I had expected. But this is a story for another day. It was 1998 and I settled into this new life. I imagined I buried the painter in me. But then two years later I stood for elections for Major of Tirana. And I won, and I saw a city facing so many challenges. In front of us such high expectations of my campaign. That is when I felt my political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future, fused with my artistic impulse. I oversaw a plan to splash brightly colored paints on drab and soulless buildings in the city’s main entrance roads. To me it was political action with colors. Not with words, either with legislation.

Our analysis of the first anecdote is corroborated by the next story. The surface of papers, agendas, and memos is replaced by the “drab and soulless” surface of the buildings in Tirana. The unstoppable “artistic impulse” to doodle on the face of and equally “drab and soulless” bureaucracy is combined with a “political impulse, the desire to offer people a better future.” What constitutes here a “better future” – not to mention that which would have “soul” – remains utterly vague, but if we are to take a cue from the politics of the only other politicians mentioned in the speech – Reagan, Thatcher, and Merkel – this does not bode very well for anyone who had hopes that this prime minister would be true to “socialism” in any form or function. That he painted his own party’s headquarters into a fuchsia pink instead of the traditional red, has been the first indication for this, and yet the present opposition seems utterly blind to it, bleating about communism and enverism at Rama’s every move. The problem is that, different from Thatcher or Reagan, this clear political ideology is obfuscated by exciting language about “artistic impulse” and unorthodox practices of “doodling,” spoken at a conference of like-minded artistic souls, who all feel the desperate need “to act.”

When we painted the first building by splashing the red and orange on the somber gray, something unimaginable happened. There was a traffic jam and a crowd of people gathered as if it were the location of some spectacular accident, or the sudden sighting of a visiting pop star. The French EU official in charge of the funding rushed to block the painting. He scratched(?) that he would block the finances. But why?, I asked him. Because the colors you ordered do not meet European standards, he replied. [laughter] Well, I told him, the surroundings do not meet European standards too [more laughter], even though this is not what we want. But we will choose the colors ourselves, because this is exactly what we want. And if you do not let us continue with our work, I will hold a press conference right now, right in this road, and I will tell people that the old censors of the communist era have been reincarnated as EU financial officers [laughter]. He was kind of troubled and asked me for a compromise. But I told him, I am sorry monsieur, compromise in painting, in colors, is always grey. And we already have enough grey to last us a lifetime. So it’s time for change. The greens and yellows and purples and oranges that we splashed around our formerly communist capital were not going to make people less hungry or more prosperous, but this first big act had to be something telling that the space they lived in was their space. So these colors did make them feel better about the place where they lived and it made them see possibilities in a space where there appears to be no space. It made them see that change could come in different ways, in spite of the city budget, being nothing comma something.

In times of austerity, of empty national and municipal pockets, what can a mayor do? Bring some colors into people’s lives, make them feel empowered (to do what, consume, enjoy?), and “better.” It is true that Rama became mayor of Tirana under desperate circumstances, in the years following a complete breakdown of the economical system, which itself was an immediate and disastrous effect of the shock doctrine imposed on Albania after the fall of the Soviet Block – a direct consequence of the economical policies of precisely those people that Rama now seems to court. But the problem is that the current state of affairs in Albania is incomparable to the state of economical emergency that existed in the early 2000s. The tale of colorful hope and rebellious attitude now seems more like an act of simple propaganda, aiming to make people feel “better” without actually improving their economical conditions. Rama is no longer mayor of Tirana, with very limited means to increase his budget; he is the prime minister of a country with ostensibly full control over the taxation system and government budget. What in his former function was an act of resistance and defiance, would in his current function just be a sugarcoating. It is thus typical that all the images in the slide show accompanying his speech, except for the image of his desk, are from his period as Tirana mayor. He continues to bank on this rebellious image, pleasing his audience with the depiction of canvases larger than they could ever imagine – to paint an entire city! But it would have been more honest if he would have also shown all the urban projects he and a number of affiliated contractors are undertaking in every major Albanian city. The audience would then perhaps be moved to ask questions about budget allotment and tender procedures, about corruption and nepotism. Nevertheless, all these thorny, pressing, and actual issues are effectively shielded behind the happy façades of Tirana city blocks.

The exchange with the figure of the French EU bureaucrat, who becomes a caricature of petty procedural nitpicking, complaining about the paint while the “pop star” artist–mayor is completing his latest “spectacular accident,” has a similar rhetorical function. Albania recently became candidate member of the EU, and Rama has been actively lobbying for it. EU MPs and ambassadors constantly and arrogantly interfere with Albanian internal politics, and are devoutly listened to. So Rama’s rather shocking comparison between EU bureaucrats and Soviet censors is either sincere, in which case Rama’s EU aspirations are purely opportunistic, or he is disingenuous and just aiming to please his audience of fellow politico-cultural travelers. Like myself, most of the listeners in his audience were probably skeptical toward the enormous bureaucratic apparatus of the EU, which remains largely outside of any democratic control. Siding with them against they the “drab and soulless” EU bureaucracy (and drab and soulless it is) is a safe choice, which masks the serious economic and political dependency of Albania on the EU.

When I was spending most of my time as an artist, mainly in Paris, I was anti-politics, at least politics of the Albanian–Balkan kind. I think most artists are. But is through the years as mayor that I understood, and as party leader and as prime minister, I became quite sure that politics at its best is a worthy and meaningful activity which makes the world a better place. And art does the same, in different ways. I have been so happy to be in a position to bring the two together. As an artist, as a politician, or as an artist and politician, I don’t just argue with EU bureaucrats. I once had an argument with a Worldbank guy too, when I told the Worldbank director many years ago that I wanted them to finance a new reception hall for citizens to engage with public services as part of a campaign against corruption. They did not understand me. They were quite confused when I was telling that beautifying and dignifying public space would be a great contribution against corruption. But people who are waiting in long queues, under sun and under rain, in order to get a certificate, or just a simply answer from two tiny windows of two metal kiosks. Their reply to the request was met by a voice coming from this dark hole and on the other hand a mysterious hand coming out to take their papers while searching through the documents for the bribe. The system was working for the corruption, not for the people, who, if they wanted to skip the queue, had to pay the bribe. We could change the invisible clerks within the kiosks every week, but we could not change this corrupt practice. Thankfully I finally persuaded the Worldbank to fund this idea. So we removed the kiosks, built the bright new public space of reception hall that made people, Tirana citizens, think they had traveled abroad, when they entered to make their requests. We created an online system of control and so speeded up all the processes. We put the citizens first, and not the clerks. And we proved something which was very helpful. It’s not about genes. It’s not about somebody being with a high conscience, and some others not having conscience at all. For example, we cannot imagine an Albanian emigrant in Germany driving without a seatbelt. But I have seen German embassy people in Albania doing so. It’s not about genes, it’s about environment and respect, and it’s about system and partnership.

Repeating the tropes of artist-become-reluctant-politician (“I developed from what I was to become what I am”) and the “drab and soulless” bureaucrat who can only think in terms of monetary incentives, Rama again positions himself as out-of-the-box bigger-picture thinker, who in a seemingly innovative way considers architecture as an important influence on people’s behavior, and manages to convince the bureaucrat to think beyond his efficiency targets. This once again masks the obvious fact that architecture already for a long time, perhaps since its origins, has been used by those in power to influence human behavior and regulate populations. The entire restructuring of Tirana under the Italian fascist occupation would be an appropriate example, as well as the recent restoration of part of the city center along the lines of precisely this fascist template. The only difference in Rama’s example is that in his case he needed to get the funding to do so from the Worldbank, instead of from his “own” budget. If anything, this tale is therefore not a story of luminary insight into the role of art in society, but rather displaying his prowess as negotiator with institutions that practically hold the Albanian economy hostage.

So now as prime minister, I am once again trying to improve the environment in which people go about their daily lives. We are once again bringing down illegally constructed buildings, we’re once again trying to put art and culture at the heart of our economic and social renaissance, and to make culture part of our governance. And our ongoing project is to transform the Council of Ministers building into a mixed use [building]: first floor for culture, second floor for governance. And this I know, that just as politics can be a force of bad, so it can be a force for good. And at its very best it can be transforming for the world, as art can, because art encompasses the [inaudible] for change whilst it is about understanding, as Kafka once said. Artist must strive to interpret the world, being the changers of perspectives within it. So must politicians. Artists are providers of hope. So must be politicians.

Still no word about economic policies. We hear about cleaning up public space, mixed-use buildings, creative innovation (and don’t forget: economic precariousness)! Perhaps Rama is aware that artists don’t like economics, perhaps he doesn’t like economics, hell, I don’t like economics! But he is the prime minister of a country, and the Worldbank financed a whole lot more than his public reception building in Tirana, for example as a hydropower plant that threatens a protected nature reserve in Përmet. And no Kafka will be of any help in negotiating with them. Whether you like it or not, “changing perspective” and “providing hope” requires quite a budget, but again this is of no concern to his audience, which is right now imagining itself close to the real source of political power, just one floor below the prime minister’s office in a very modern mixed-use building, drafting plans in brotherhood with politicians to reshape the entire nation according to a sublime vision!

How often throughout the years have we heard political leaders talking about the need to focus on the big picture. What is the big picture? It is the vision we have for the world. What does this vision constitute? It is made of the big bold strokes that are combined to deliver the change we need for the world. What does the artists have in mind as he paints a picture? He has in mind a vision of a finished work. So today as he leader of my country, I have a vision in my mind for a country that is more modern. A country whose people are more prosperous. A country whose public servants serve the people, and not those who run them. A country where public space becomes a common space. I know what it feels like and through my leadership and decisions we now make I am trying to turn this vision into reality. These are the big pictures trying to grasp the right moment to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one. Think about it and you will find a lot of examples in world history. The creators of the European Union are written down in history as people with a vision but also the ability to make it become real through politics as a force for good. We can see them as the painters of a very great tableau of nations and histories and people who put their own and their country’s narrow interests in the service of a very greater idea.

Rama here returns to his initial metaphor of “painting on the canvas of politics.” The “big picture” is a “vision […] for the world,” consisting of “bold strokes […] combined to deliver the change we need for the world.” This vision is “modern” and has to be turned “into reality.” But once again this turning into reality requires an act of interpretation. There is no immediate and self-evident link between the doodle, painting, canvas, vision, etc. and political reality. Rama gives us merely a political esthetics without ethics. He only tells us that he acts, not how he acts – the only hint of the quality of his action is prefigured in his doodling: crossing out, erasing, coloring in – bureaucratic text as palimpsest. Or in his own words “to create space where there appears to be none and even impossible to have one.” This is not an emancipatory politics of creating new “truths” or following “ideals,” this is a politics that cleans up and makes way: open the bunkers, open the archives, open the country! The only reference point I can summon here is Walter Benjamin’s text “The Destructive Character,” inspired by his banker (sic!) friend Gustav Gluck:

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air is stronger than any hatred. […]

The destructive character has no interest in being understood. Attempts in this direction he regards as superficial. Being misunderstood cannot harm him. On the contrary, he provokes it, just as oracles, those destructive institutions of the state, provoked it. The most petty bourgeois of all phenomena, gossip, comes about only because people do not wish to be misunderstood. The destructive character tolerates misunderstanding; he does not promote gossip.

A separate article would be needed to hold Rama against the description of Benjamin’s banker friend. But his continuous emphasis on breaking down buildings and bold strokes, combined with the utter disregard he has for his political enemies, other country’s prime ministers, and the terrific amount of slander he faces on a daily basis make it difficult to ignore the parallels. If anything, Edi Rama continuously “tolerates misunderstanding.” Benjamin makes the other suggestion that “[t]he destructive character does his work; the only work he avoids is creative.” We should take this qualification of the destructive character seriously, especially since Rama continues to claim he is an artist. But if we were to inspect his doodles as we would inspect a regular work, how much of it would withstand artistic scrutiny? Indeed very little. As simple art works his drawings are as significant or creative as George W. Bush’s shower paintings, and the latter may even show a higher level of artistic introspection. In fact, except for the enormous compulsion and drive they are a witness of, they are hardly different from the doodles we all make in our notebooks.

The metaphor of the political canvas here threatens to break down. How to actually link his own doodles with the bold strokes of politics? How are we to think the erasure of bureaucratic texts with the creation of a new beachfront walkway in Vlorë? And how are we to see the grand vision of the European Union if indeed it is now made up of petty bureaucrats? Benjamin, once again: “The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong. Therefore, the destructive character is reliability itself.”

Another part of my picture is of a new Balkans, a peaceful, prosperous Balkans. Now that surely would be a space such as never existed before. But think, this year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but also this week there is the commemoration of the end of it. A war which started the Balkans, which spread across continents heralding death and suffering that is hard to imagine for our generation. And this year, 2014, we have the first year of peace in every border of our region, as never before. And I come to you here today in the same week as I became the first Albanian prime minister in more than sixty years to visit Serbia. The peaceful, prosperous Balkans, a strong Albania as part of a strong European Union. These are big bold strokes that I long to make part of our big picture. It is a vision that inspires me, inspires me to work, day and night, to make it happen. And these two parts of the same vision hang together: a peaceful, prosperous Balkans would be good for the European Union, just as the European Union, despite the occasional overzealous bureaucrat, is good for the Balkans.

Think of the forces that have led to the scaring of Europe: racism, nationalism, xenophobia. Together we can beat them. Together we can create a space for a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, and identities, to live side by side. And here is where my life as painter and my life as a politician diverge. When you do a painting, or when you do a doodle, when I doodle in my agenda, there comes a point where it is done. The job is finished. But in politics, the picture is never fully completed. Trying to paint we never have complete control of where the brush may leave. So, still we must hold on to the vision and persevere. And when people say, as far too often they do, that politics can never bring change, I say they are wrong. It can and it does. But of course we know that just as politics can deliver change, so politics can hamper change. Just as politics can bring peace in between peoples, it can bring conflict. Every step on the way we face choices, just like the artist: This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space? What is the picture we’re trying to paint?

In this penultimate section, after some quotes for international news agencies, we witness the final breakdown of the “big picture” theory of art and politics, namely on the decisive question of finitude: a picture is finished, politics never is. The “bold strokes” of the founders of the European Union, Edi Rama’s grand “vision” of Albania, all of it depends either on some version of the mistaken idea that politics is a finite process, in other words, utopia, or reduce politics to the very bureaucratic, results-oriented processes with manageable targets that Rama seems to despise. Therefore, it only seems fair to once again pose the question how he reconciles the finite with the infinite, the work of art with the work of politics, the creation of an image and the creation of a state – both are finished with a final stroke, but in case of the latter, the cost will be in human lives. Rama seems unable to pull himself out of this conundrum as he ends this paragraph with a series of rhetorical questions which on the one hand suggest bureaucratic procedure (“This color or that color? This brush or that brush? This space or that space?”) and a utopian vision (“What is the picture we’re trying to paint?”).

And if ever any of you would come to Albania and you come to see me in my office and you notice me doodling, please do not be offended, as that man once was. It is part of who I am, the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none. That is not a bad way to think of how we make progress. Thank you.

The “And” of this final paragraph is misleading. There is no continuation here, nor a logical conclusion, but rather an attempt to cut through the entire problematics encapsulated by the skewed “big picture” metaphor in art and politics: a complete regression to the subjectivity of the artist, “the hand that moves freely, creating space where there appears to be none.” It is no longer a question of communal canvas painting. Instead the bold stroke of the single artist creates the canvas, the doodle creates new policy, the hand creates the vision. “It is part of who I am”: Edi Rama is essentially this authoritative, modern, freely moving hand, making way no matter what: “What exists he reduces to rubble – not for the sake of rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.” Is this indeed not a bad way to think of how progress is made?

‘Dëshmi e asaj që ishte por që s’mund e s’duhet të jetë’: Bunk’Art, History as Touristic Itinerary, and the Infantilization of Collective Memory on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation: A Placeholder

I call this a placeholder in the sense that it represents a set of very preliminary ideas about a topic that I think no one can effectively respond to only a day after it happened. Still, all analyses have to begin somewhere, at some point. Call it a rant, but one that is intended to spur conversation—and to further my own thoughts about the issue—and by no means to exhaust the rather vast number of things that could be said about Bunk’Art. As always, insights are welcome.

Yesterday, so the official story goes, Albania took another step on a long and painful road of transition, out of the obscure darkness of its communist past and into the light of transparent democracy. A vast underground bunker constructed in 1978[1]—during the country’s socialist period—to house the leaders of state in the event of an atomic attack by the Soviet Union or America has been transformed into museum and artistic installation space that will be open to the public until December 30. The installation opened yesterday, with a ceremony that included speeches by Minister of Defense Mimi Kodheli and Prime Minister Edi Rama. The American ambassador Arvizu and German ambassador Hoffman were present, among other dignitaries.[2] Today some 2,000 visitors (including, as the Albanian media and the Bunk’Art website excitedly proclaim, numerous foreign tourists) made the trip to Tirana’s periphery (in a special, free bus leaving from alongside the National History Museum) to visit the site. The event (again, as enthusiastically reported by the Albanian media) has already begun to receive attention in the foreign media.

Perhaps the most salient image from the opening event was of Rama delivering his speech, standing on a stage littered with four concrete domes that recall the thousands of concrete bunkers that inhabited (and in some places still inhabit) even the remotest reaches of Albania’s communist landscape. These concrete domes were colorfully decorated with painted images recalling children’s drawings—floating flowers, puffy clouds, and simple boxlike houses with picket fences.[3] On a backdrop behind Rama loomed the logo for the installation, a semicircle fractured into irregular planes of pure, bright color, with a red door at its center topped by the red star of communism. Below this logo, the name of the exhibition, BUNK’ART, was accompanied by the phrase “70 vjet pas çlirimit” [70 years after liberation], a reference to the liberation of the country from fascist occupation. If the connection between the country’s more than 40 years of socialist history and a stage with several concrete bunker-forms covered in childish imagery was not immediately apparent, I can only assume that this was part and parcel of the confusing and confused spectacle orchestrated at the opening (and, it seems, endemic to the installation as a whole). There are certainly any number of insightful analyses to be made of Bunk’Art, and the present discussion is meant to focus on only a few: the diagnosis and treatment of past traumas through the model of the touristic itinerary and the infantilization of the notion of collective memory in the process of navigating this itinerary.

Insofar as I find it difficult to find a spot to begin an analysis of Bunk’Art, even having set the above limits upon my investigation, I would like begin rather arbitrarily with a curious translation. During his speech, Edi Rama made the (tremendously fraught) statement, “Sot, ne jemi dëshmitarë se kemi çelur derën e një thesari të kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [My translation—certainly a bit awkward: ‘Today, we are witnesses to the opening of the door to a treasure of our collective memory.’] When the BBC reported on the event, Rama’s speech was glossed with this quotation: “We have opened today a thesaurus of the collective memory that presents thousands of pieces of the sad events and life under communism.” Now, the term ‘thesaurus’ does literally mean ‘treasure’, so that the translation of the word ‘thesar’ (Albanian for ‘treasure’) is understandable, if awkward and not, I think, true to Rama’s intention. Nonetheless, this confusion—emblematic of the whole confusing scenario of the opening and the installation in general—is a productive one, since it invites us to consider Rama’s quotation more closely. For what could be more appropriate than the image of past not as treasure but as a treasure-house of words, of concepts, and what more fitting counterpart to the confusion of the installation’s concept than he image of flipping through a thesaurus, looking for the right words, getting lost in a sea of synonyms and losing any straight line of thought.

The most cynical response to Rama’s statement—and the obvious one—is to pass it off as evidence an undisguised and callous greed: Bunk’Art, already a hit with Albanians and especially with foreign tourists, if we can believe the media, is a ‘treasure’ in the most banal sense of the word: a source of actual and symbolic/cultural capital on the world stage.[4] Cynical though it may be to take this reading, it is also, I think, very much what Rama is getting at. In his speech, he asserts, “Këto mjedise janë trashëgimi e një kulture të jetuari që, ju siguroj, do të tërheqin shumë herë më tepër turistë sesa ç‘mund të tërheqë ajo Shqiponja e tmerrshme që kanë vendosur tek rrethrrotullimi i doganës.” [‘These premises are the inheritance of a cultural way of living that, I assure you, will draw a good deal more tourists than that awful eagle at the traffic circle at Dogana [imports].’] On Twitter, the day of the opening, Rama declared “Bota e nendheshme e diktatures do kthehet ne nje haperise atraksioni historik, kulturor e turistik pa asnje dyshim” [‘The underground world of the dictatorship will, undoubtedly, turn into a historic, cultural, and touristic attraction.’] Thus, the language used by Rama (who has, in the media, already become the de facto curator and author of the exhibit, despite the fact that the idea has numerous sources and has been under discussion in a number of circles for some time) describe the opening is that of history-as-touristic-attraction. This is the ‘treasure’ of the bunker and the collective memory it supposedly embodies.

I am being more than a little unfair, for I am attributing to Rama’s rhetoric a confusion it may not really contain, that between history and memory.[5] However, it is undeniable that the two intermingle in Rama’s speech, sometimes emerging as interchangeable and other times as separate. The question of collective memory will concern me below; what I wish to examine first is the idea of traversing history (one’s own history, or another’s) as a touristic endeavor—for that is precisely how Rama characterizes Bunk’Art. “Është vetëm fillimi sepse ne kemi një projekt për të krijuar një intenerar historik dhe turistik të nëndheut komunist dhe njëkohësisht për ta kthyer këtë intenerar, në një intenerar të imagjinatës krijuese, duke synuar nga njëra anë çlirimin dhe nga ana tjetër pjellorinë e kujtesës sonë kolektive.” [This is just a beginning because we have a project to create a historical and touristic itinerary of the communist underground and at the same time to turn that itinerary into an itinerary of the creative imagination, with the goal of both liberating and harnessing the fecundity of our collective memory.’] The project of coming to terms with the past is the project of establishing a touristic itinerary—what could be more profoundly and problematically Modern than this project? Were not many of the exemplary Modernist projects (we need only think of the relationship between the colonial, the primitive, and the past in so much Modernist cultural production) precisely the projects of ‘tourism of the creative imagination’? Now, Rama emerges as the quintessential Modernist-as-statesman, a role he has long courted (though I think he has never been forthright about its modernity—for it is, I think, in no way ‘post’-modern).[6]

The Modern touristic itinerary is certainly open to a number of different ‘tourists’—from foreigners, to Albanians living (or born) outside of Albania, to those who live within in the country, and who may or may not remember the Hoxha years—but what is unavoidable in this model is the transformation of history—lived or otherwise—into capital fueling the global tourist industry. Tourism has been an important aspect of Rama’s time in office—his policies have often been focused on Albania’s coastal regions, but here the language of touristic development falls squarely in line with a project to mine the imaginary of a people (here conceived as having such a unified imaginary, or ‘unconscious,’ if you prefer). As he puts it, the hope behind Bunk’Art is ‘to create new spaces: new spaces of the imaination, of thinking, of living together, through the power of art.’  [“…për të krijuar hapësira të reja [:] Hapësira të reja të të imagjinuarit, të të menduarit, të të bashkëjetuarit përmes fuqisë së artit.”] This is certanly a worthy goal, and one in keeping with Rama’s prior projects, at least at the level of its rhetoric—what is new is the idea that the primary way to orchestrate this encounter is through the vague distance and ignorant enthusiasm of the tourist: not just the tourist of someone else’s past (that is an easy enough position, I can tell you, as someone who has often been a tourist in Albania), but as the tourist of one’s own past.

It is not only the transformation of the encounter with (communist) history  into a touristic itinerary that is key to Rama’s project—it is also held together (insofar as it holds together) by a psychoanalytic model of collective memory, as I have already mentioned. Thus, traversing the itinerary of history is more than a simple hermeneutic exercise; it is self-diagnosis, self-diagnosis of the collective of its own imaginary, through the consumption of the past-as-commodity (in this case, the communist past as commodity). The ideal consumers for this commodity, however, are not so much adults—in Rama’s rhetoric—as children. Here (what I can only imagine to be) the logic of bunkers decorated with childlike drawings becomes clear. Rama makes it very clear in his speech that Bunk’Art is, in an important way, ‘for the children’—for those who cannot remember the time of communism, who cannot understand what the isolation of communism was like.[7] Thus, in a way, Bunk’Art as an itinerary is not only about the Modernist project of tourism—it is also about the Modernist ideal of a return to youth, to innocence, to ignorance of the past that only adults can know. And yet here we come to the impasse: if Bunk’Art is about coming to terms with history, how can it also be for those who did not live that history, who do not remember it, unless the goal of its diagnosis is to make its tourists children, so that they may both forget and be taught again how to remember?[8] In other words, collective memory will be most effective when it returns to the imagined zero-point of childhood, among the flowers and puffy clouds and box-houses,  and then consumes history as touristic itinerary.[9] From this perspective, what seems ‘infantile’ about Bunk’Art—the fanfare, the bright colors, the bright lights, the confusion, the desire to do everything all at once—must be considered quite intentionally so: part of its explicit goal it to infantilize the collective memory of the Albanian people.[10]

Having been at pains to find a place to begin, I am also at a loss as to how to end, so I will simply say that this analysis—provisional, as I have said before, all too desperately retreating from saying anything really controversial—is meant as one attempt to think critically about Rama’s project and the real and symbolic appropriation of the communist past in Albania. One hopes that other, more thoughtful and thorough, analyses are already being written. [Thanks to certain acquaintances more well-read and attentive to the discussion of this issue than I am, I would like to draw attention to two thoughtful analyses of the issue: here at Postbllok and here at Peizazhe të fjalës.]

I intend to return to these thoughts in the coming week(s), but for now they stand as they are—a call to think critically about Bunk’Art and what it means to treat the past as tourism, to infantilize memory.

[1] The tunnels were begun earlier, in 1972.

[2] Several news clips show Rama guiding Arvizu through the various rooms of the bunker, explaining them (in English to Arvizu).

[3] One can only assume that some pun on communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s assertion that Albania was a “fushë me lule” [field of flowers] was intended.

[4] This is not the place to enter into a deep discussion of the way the communist past has been and is being appropriated as cultural capital in Albania. Suffice it to say that—unsurprisingly—this practice is very much ubiquitous at the moment. There are others more qualified to comment on this at length and in detail than I am.

[5] This too is a debate that I prefer not to enter into here—so I will instead merely gesture at its existence and go blithely about my way.

[6] Most recently, at Creative Time, Rama trotted out his now rather repetitive tale of his time as mayor of Tirana and his artistic projects there. One (read: I) feels an almost painful nostalgia for those days, looking at the image of him standing before flowery bunker-forms.

[7] “…që s’e kanë jetuar atë kohë. Nuk mund ta imagjinojnë, edhe duke ua treguar me fjalë, sesi Shqipëria e vogël mund të ishte një botë e tretë e izoluar nga dy botët e tjera, nga Perëndimi dhe nga Lindja, që luftonte, në mënyrë imagjinare, me imperializmin amerikan dhe me social-imperializmin sovjetik.”

[8] Apologies are no doubt in order for the truly egregious use of italics.

[9] I am reminded of a quote often attributed to the author Henry Miller: “The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”

[10] In case it is not clear, I am quite suspicious of all claims of collective memory, and I am not claiming that Rama’s project ‘distorts’ some ‘true’ collective memory—rather, it is one way of most assuredly creating it. the problem is that this is not how it is being discussed.

Ta Vlerësojmë Drejt Letërsinë për Femijë si Mjet i Fuqishëm i Edukimit Komunist- Nëndori Mars 1971, Plenumi për Letërsinë për Fëmijë

This is the fifth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nendori 9_Mars 1971 coverToday’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1971 volume of Nëndori, featuring the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists devoted to children’s literature. This topic is particularly interesting (to me, at least) because it gives us a glimpse of the function of socialist realism functioning as part of the education of ‘pioneers’ (as children of the socialist era were called in Albanian communist discourse). The essays are by authors, poets, and artists including Bleri Dedja, Naum Prifti, Kolë Jakova, and Agim Faja. Agim Faja’s essay, “Illustrations in the World of Children,” will be of particular interest to scholars of the visual arts. Faja writes:

Illustrations, the companions of a story, are stations that help the reader to expand his imaginings of the people and settings described in a book. They are necessary for both novels and for volume of short stories, and I believe that the time has come for us to publish well-illustrated books as well, just as elsewhere such volumes have recently achieved new successes. But illustrations are even more necessary for children’s books; the dynamic flow of life, with all its complexities, should be represented not only in children’s literature, but also in the illustrations for such books. […] For our illustrations to reach a worthy level of realism, I believe that our illustrators must spend time wandering from school to school, from schoolyard to schoolyard, from nursery to nursery, from neighborhood to neighborhood, drawing different types of children and gathering raw material. (39, 42)

I’ve also scanned a photo essay by Petrit Kumi called Fytyra të Grave Tona [Faces of Our Women] that appears in this issue, as well as a review of the Portraiture Exposition that opened on February10, 1971 (written by Andon Kuqali).

Happy reading!

“Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm”: Nëntori, March 1986: Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists

This is the fourth in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

Nentori 3 1986

Today’s volume is an excerpt from the March 1986 volume of Nëntori, featuring the keynote address and excerpts from the discussions at the Plenum of Albanian Union of Writers and Artists held on January 27, 1986. The keynote address was given by sculptor Muntaz Dhrami, and is entitled “Për Një Pasqyrim më të Thellë e të Gjithanshëm të Realitetit Socialist në Pikturë.”

Of particular interest is Agim Faja’s ” Kërkesa më të Mëdha Ndaj Gjinisë së Peisazhit” [“Greater Expectations of the Landscape Genre”], where he argues:

The reflection of our socialist reality presupposes a full and beautiful interpretation of our new landscape, of mines, factories, work yards, and industrial complexes, of out new cities and our transformed nature. This interpretation must be all the more emotional, all the more diverse, executed with a deep artistic understanding. When the painter, like a true poet, chooses to depict simple motifs, studying and fully understanding the scope of nature, he brings [to his art] a fineness of detail, brings facts and original impressions. Even if he returns to the same motif, he always discovers new nuances. …The true artist never conceptualizes nature as an inorganic body. (44)

It is interesting to compare and contrast Faja’s ideas with another statement on the ‘landscape’ of socialist Albania, from more than a decade earlier, by Kujtim Buza in Përmendore të Heroizmit Shqiptar (1973):

Wherever one looks in Albania, one sees a landscape of stone, of marble, a landscape of bronze. It is the new landscape of the fatherland.

I think it is important to consider how these two landscapes reinforce each other, and work against each other, in the history of Albanian communist (and post-communist) art.

The Nëntori volume also includes Sterjo Spasse’s essay “Epoka që më Ndriçoi Udhën e Krijimtarisë [The Epoch that Lit My Creative Path]”, and a review of a retrospective show dedicated to the painter Sali Shijaku.

Happy reading!

 

 

Shadows of Hands, or, The Dictator Born From the Sign: Brief Comments on the Representation of Enver Hoxha’s Body in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare

As part of a recent project, “Talking Back to Dictators: Reading Art and Culture In, Through, and Against the Writings of the Great Leaders,” I’ve been spending more time thinking about representations of dictatorial bodies—and particularly the body of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s communist dictator. This observation grew out of this research. As always, thoughts are welcome!

In this brief essay, I would like to nuance a commonly made observation about the representation of Enver Hoxha in paintings produced during his regime, namely: that he does not cast a shadow. This observation, on the whole, is quite accurate, and my purpose is not to dismiss it, nor to suggest that it does not raise a plethora of important questions about the material and metaphysical status of the body of the dictator. However—like all good observations—it is not absolutely true, and I think we may learn just as much by looking at these cases in which it is not true. In particular, I want to consider the significance of the shadow cast by Hoxha’s hand in Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare [Comrade Enver Hoxha During the National Liberation War], of 1974 (originally in the Museum of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; I am unaware of its current location).

Before I discuss Kristo’s painting, however, I want to begin by considering how the phenomenon of Hoxha’s immateriality manifests itself in Albanian socialist realist painting. Let us a classic image of Hoxha: Zef Shoshi’s official portrait, which was frequently reproduced in official publications, especially in the editions of Hoxha’s writings. In Shoshi’s image, Hoxha sits at his desk, dressed in his familiar grey suit and red tie. Hoxha’s upper body forms a stable pyramid, his hands resting gently—weightlessly—on the surface of his desk, which holds a number of carefully placed and clearly delineated administrative accessories. We come upon Hoxha as he is about to write: his right hand holds a pen to a blank sheet of white paper laid out before him on the desk. He appears either deep in thought or else suddenly distracted: his gaze looks out of the image to our right, missing us. The moment is uncertain: is he composing the first word of a letter, an official memorandum, an entry in his diary, mapping out the text in his mind before he begins to write? Or has he been distracted by some stray thought, some sound, perhaps even by the entrance of someone who has come in behind us to bring news to the Dictator of the Proletariat. In either case, Hoxha’s poise is exemplary: his face betrays neither the strain of thought nor surprise. His eyes are open and attentive, their darkness in contrast to the muted grays of his suit, hair and the wall behind him drawing us to ponder the purpose behind his look. On the desk before him, his left hand gently holds the upper left corner of the page in place, while his right hand rests just as gently upon the paper, holding a pen close to the surface of the center of the sheet.zef shoshi_enver_hoxha

In no small part, the perceived weightlessness of Hoxha’s figure comes from the fact that he casts no shadow. True, the light that bathes the room comes from no definable source (though it illuminates the right side of the dictator’s face more than the left), but nonetheless there is no trace of a shadow cast on the wall behind Hoxha, either by his body or his chair. Furthermore, at the point where Hoxha’s hand meets the paper, pen gripped firmly and purposefully, there is only the vaguest hint of a darkening in the white surface of the paper. Even at the very edges of Hoxha’s right hand, Shoshi’s soft and meticulous shading gives virtually no hint that the dictator’s hand exists as a material form obeying the laws of illumination. That Hoxha casts no shadow places him in a world apart from us, either more or less real than ours (or both at the same time).[1]

This is, undoubtedly, the standard for images of Hoxha produced during his regime: a brief survey of portraits and history paintings by Vilson Kilica, Sali Shijaku, Shaban Hysa, Kujtim Buza, and others will confirm that Hoxha never casts a shadow. Or doesn’t he? The first thing to be said, an issue I think is extremely important but which I do not wish to dwell upon here, is that figures in socialist realist paintings more often than not do not cast shadows in general.[2] Thus, Hoxha is part of a general rule. However, it is more fruitful to consider the counterexamples that prove this rule, one of which is Spiro Kristo’s Shoku Enver Hoxha Gjatë Luftës Nacionalçlirimtare (1974). Here, we see Hoxha as a young commander,[3] presumably in the headquarters of the resistance: he stands at left, a map at his back and a table before him, where his left hand rests on yet another map. A rifle and binoculars hang on the grey wall to his left, and documents, a lamp, an ashtray, and notebooks clutter the surface of the table. The lighting here is once again quite vague, but the source clearly comes from the upper right side of the canvas, high over both our and Hoxha’s heads (not at all from the lamp at the desk). The map on the table disappears out of the frame at lower right, while its bottom edge is folded over the edge of the table against which Hoxha stands. A magnifying glass rests on the map, and black and red arrows mark the movements of the occupiers and the resistance. Hoxha holds a red pencil in his right hand, lax, while his left is firmly planted on the map, at a swirling cluster of arrows (presumably near Tirana). And there is the shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_1

It is slight, let us make no mistake, but also distinct: here, at the tips of Hoxha’s fingers, Kristo has used the deepest black found in the image, present in only a few other places (the black arrows on the map, a few folds of Hoxha’s shirt, the shadows in his hair…). The shadow is quite necessary aesthetically, for it differentiates the flesh of Hoxha’s hand from the colors on the relief map. At the same time, it accentuates the tips of his fingers, which end the dynamic diagonal downward movement of his straightened left arm; the fingers are pressed so firmly against the map that their joints bend inversely, the index finger concavely and the knuckle of the middle and ring fingers convexly. Even the tip of his thumb, pressed to the map, casts a small but distinct dark shadow. If the hand, and its shadow, are necessary to link Hoxha’s monumental body to the map itself, this is also the case because his gaze (in some ways, similar to Shoshi’s portrait) is not focused on the surface before him, but gazes off the right side of the canvas, looking at something we cannot see. As above, Hoxha seems to pause suddenly in the midst of an action, caught up in thought, looking at nothing. Here, however, his body is anchored to the map, and it takes on a material aspect through its connection to the map, where it casts a shadow.

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_2

Spiro Kristo_Enver Hoxha gjate luftes ncl_1974_3

            Why the map? I want to argue that Kristo’s emphasis of Hoxha’s hand as a material object touching the map is not accidental. What Kristo depicts is the becoming-material of Hoxha’s body in the presence of the representation of Albania. If we place the image alongside a host of paintings in which Hoxha’s feet, planted firmly upon the soil of the fatherland, cast no shadow, the significance will become clearer. The dictator does not become material when his feet touch the earth, he becomes material out of that most simulacral of simulacra: the map of the territory that does not yet exist (the future socialist ‘utopia’ of Albania). In this case, we might say that it is the map that precedes the dictator: out of the swirling represented motion of troops on the map, out of the flat surface made to mimic dimension, Hoxha emerges as something tangible. He is not simply historicized (his role in the war made the key element of the so-called National Liberation War [WWII]); his ‘reality’ (in the haptic sense) is a function not of the nation itself (whatever that might mean), but of the sign for the territory of the nation. is existence becomes material not at the level of interaction with everyday objects so much as at the level of meta-representations of the world. Kristo’s painting, and his depiction of the dictator’s hand with its shadow, gives us a glimpse of Hoxha taking material form in the higher realm of maps, the realm of surfaces and images that precedes our own.

Is it any wonder that amongst us, before us, at his desk about to write, he casts no shadow?

[1] For one discussion of the metaphysical significance of Hoxha’s body and the realm of appearances, see Gëzim Qëndro, Le surréalisme socialiste: L’autopsie de l’utopie (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).

[2] Stylistically, this is no doubt in part due to the tremendous debt owed to Impressionism, where intense light and dark give way to light as pure colors. This cannot of course fully explain the ideological significance of a world without shadows.

[3] This is also, I think, important: we see Hoxha here before his apotheosis: he is nothing superhuman, or beyond human, quite yet. Of course many images depictng Hoxha in the war years show him without a shadow. Some however, like this one and Guri Madhi’s Formimi i Shtabit të Përgjithshëm, portray parts of his body casting a shadow.

“Do të Kapërcehet e Shembet e Vjetra edhe në Art”: History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature

This is the third in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

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Today’s volume is Historia e Letërsisë Shqiptare të Realizmit Socialist [History of Albanian Socialist Realist Literature], edited by Koço Bihuku and published in 1978. While the text deals exclusively with literature, it is nonetheless invaluable for a consideration of socialist realist visual culture in Albania, since it establishes both general principles regarding the elements of he socialist-nationalist narrative, and identifies the canonical works of this narrative. I’ll give the last word to Comrade Enver, quoted in the introduction:

The new content that gives our socialist realist literature its force is found in the reflection of the new socialist reality in its revolutionary development within the contradictions of the times, which give literature and art their necessary drama and conflicts.” (14)

Through the positive hero, the new triumphs in life; therefore, it triumphs in art. The old is overcome and destroyed in life; therefore it is overcome and destroyed in art. A living symbol of creative labor comes into existence; therefore, in art as well a hero will be born to inspire the masses with love of labor, with the spirit of sacrifice and selflessness in the service of socialism.” (18)

Happy reading!

…I promise the next post will actually be an analysis of something.

“Monumentaliteti i Jetës Sonë”: Nëntori, May 1977: More Resources on Albanian Socialist Realism

This is the second in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but I barely have the time to scan them, much less write extensive commentaries. 

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Today’s volume is the May 1977 issue of Nëntori, which contains the proceedings of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists plenum held on March 11, 12, and 14, 1977. The keynote speeches, given by Ramiz Alia and Dritëro Agolli, are both of interest, and passages from the essay “Tablotë e Gjera të Jetës dhe Heroi Pozitiv” by Kristaq Rama formed part of my analysis of Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës, published earlier on this blog. Also of particular interest (to me at least) is Shaban Hadëri’s short essay, “Monumentaliteti i Jetës Sonë dhe Pasqyrimi i Tij në Skulpturë.” In this piece, Hadëri grapples with one of the perennial problems of socialist realism: how to balance the glory of the past with the ‘monumentality’ of the present. He writes:

But even with all these successes that our sculpture has newly achieved, it is still far from conveying the monumentality of our socialist life, from reflecting the resoluteness of our people—under the leadership of the Party, with Comrade Enver at its head—to march forward on the road to socialism, struggling bravely against the savage imperial-revisionist blockade. (247)

A professor, who studies late-20th century American art, once asked me, “What would it really mean to construct a monument to the present?” This question, it seems to me, was at the heart of the socialist realist enterprise, and it remains one of the fundamental questions that we, as scholars of socialist realism, have to grapple with.

Happy reading!

The Washing of Mother Teresa

The Pope’s visit to Albania brought with it a number of changes in the public face of Tirana: I admit that I have followed these urban restorations (mostly centered, as far as I have seen, on Mother Teresa Square) only casually in the media, and have insufficiently pondered their full import in conjunction with Edi Rama’s disturbing rhetoric, with its combination of fiery neoliberal Europe-adoration and barely-concealed orientalism. In the midst of many other discussions about the significance of the Pope’s visit, I nearly forgot an event that appeared in the news in early September, and then seemed to pass into oblivion: the removal of the two Mother Teresa statues in Mother Teresa Square (by Thoma Thomai) and in the Rinas Airport (by Luan Mulliqi) for cleaning, restoration, and eventual replacement in preparation for the Pope’s visit. Ultimately, the plan was for the two statues to switch places—the Thomai going to the airport and the Mulliqi (possibly) coming to the square—but I have not seen any evidence that this was completed on schedule. In fact, I would welcome information from those who were in Albania for the Pope’s visit (or who have simply seen news broadcasts I have not seen) about whether or not the statues—one or both—have found their new homes.

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In either case, the case of the two statues’ cleaning and restoration is fascinating for its symbolic significance. I should say at the outset: I am entirely supportive of the actions taken to keep both statues in good condition, and I have absolutely no interest in the aesthetic merits of either statue. The decision to re-assess the appearance, integrity, and placement of the statues would, in my opinion, have been appropriate regardless of the impending visit of the Pope. However, the relationship between these two events introduces an entirely different discourse that I think cannot be avoided, even if it only lurks in the peripheral subconscious of political debates surrounding the Pope’s visit: the cleaning of the female body.

Allow me to describe the event in slightly different terms: in preparation for the visit of the Pope, representations of Mother Teresa’s body were found to be impure; they were not only unclean, but also contained internal impurities requiring the intervention of experts to prepare them for the physical presence of the Father. Further, their physiological defects were noted, at least in the case of Mulliqi’s “sticklike” figure. The very process of their creation was found to be lacking (again, in the case of Mulliqi’s work, which was “realized in less than optimal circumstances and cast in a defective manner” according to Agim Rada).

I do not want to overstate the point, but I think that the full import of the discourse of cleaning and purification cannot be overlooked—we are not simply dealing with material facts, although it is in itself of interest the care taken to assert the role of ‘experts’ in the intervention on behalf of the sculptures: “It would be best for public opinion and news agencies to consult with us, the specialists in this field, before releasing any news about this matter,” as Agim Rada put it. However, in some quarters, the abject positions of Mother Teresa’s body was cause for outrage: they suggest that her body has been left like garbage to decay, without its due respect. This alone should be enough to remind us of that these monuments are not simply bronze: they are animate sculptures that hold, for some, part of the holiness of Mother Teresa’s body and spirit within themselves. The treatment of the statues is not simply symbolic: those who are restoring them (or leaving them lying about in the bushes and trash, as the article insists) are profaning the body of Mother Teresa herself. Thus, the discourse surrounding the statues is both that of the sacred body of the Mother and that of scientific expertise, as much as it is also that of political rhetoric.

So, to return to the question: what are we to make of the need to purify the female body—and not just any female body, that of Mother Teresa—in preparation for the visit of the male figure whose visit, as Edi Rama put it, “rilindi Shqipërinë në sytë e botës” [read: in the eyes of the Western world]?[1] We cannot, I think, ignore the parallels between a number of different discourses of purification, such as that directed against the taint of Islam, which a close friend has elaborated here. Ultimately, like the Albanian nation placing itself before the Western Gaze, Mother Teresa’s body was found wanting—it was in need of an intervention, of the hands and tools of specialists, to make it ready for the Father’s presence. I am wary of psychoanalytical and metaphorical readings of collectives that try to impose too all-encompassing a reading on events that are as often as not chaotic, unplanned.

But—for there is always a but—should we not see the cleaning of Mother Teresa’s embodiments as part of the discourse on the cleanliness of the female body in modern society in general? As part of the troubled and troubling attempts to ‘preserve’ and ‘protect’ the family in Albania? The attempts to wash whatever is impure so the West sees nothing but cleanliness when he comes looking? To rid the flaws from that which was “realized in less than optimal circumstances and cast in a defective manner”?

 

 

[1] I’ve left this untranslated since I’m suddenly unable to find a verb in English that conveys “rilind”: “to rebirth”…but we can, down here in the fine print, say the visit that “renewed Albania in the eyes of the world.”

“Kritika të Orientojë e të Hapë Horizonte”: Some Comments and Resources Related to Aesthetic Criticism in Communist Albania

This is the first in a series of posts containing PDFs of texts that may be of interest to those studying Albanian socialist realism (and 20th-century art in general, because socialist realism is some of the 20th century’s most intriguing art). Initially I had planned to write thorough descriptions and analyses of the content of the documents, but that seemed unnecessary—the goal is primarily to make these resources available, and only secondarily to offer me a venue to ramble on about them. So, without further ado:

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The first text is the portion of the April 1972 volume of Nëndori devoted to the papers delivered at the 1972 Writers and Artists Union Plenum on aesthetic criticism (held on February 24 and 25). It contains a keynote address by painter Vilson Kilica, then the general secretary of the Writers and Artists Union. This fact alone is interesting, since ’72 was the year following Kilica’s creation of the work Brigadieret, one of the more overtly Modernist works produced in Albania during the period. (In 1972, Brigadieret was printed on the back cover Shqiptarja e Re and, I believe, Ylli.)  It was also the year prior to Kilica’s expulsion from the leadership of the Union for his “liberal viewpoint”.

Of the essays included, one of the most interesting is “Kritika të Orientojë e të Hapë Horizonte për të Ardhmen” [“Criticism Orients and Opens Horizons for the Future”] by Andon Kuqali, one of the most (in my view) perceptive historians/art critics of the Hoxha years. Kuqali’s essay is insightful and intriguing for many reasons, but especially because of Kuqali’s clarity in articulating the necessity for interpretation on the part of the artist in creating the work. This interpretative stance was one of the hallmarks of the Marxist orientation towards artistic production, but it is (in my opinion) too often understood in a shallow way, as propagandistic deception (i.e. critics and historians treat the ‘interpretation’ called for by socialist realism as a ‘lie’ because it was not ‘real(istic)’). In fact, Kuqali rejects the possibility of the straightforward depiction or understanding of historical events. He insists:

We can in no way accept the correctness of the assertion that there are works that [simply] illustrate “historical facts.” […] From an eclectic position, the proponents of this assertion wish to accept the compatibility of the existence of an archaic and academic art with one that is innovative and revolutionary, to defend academicism. In doing so, art’s interpretative, conceptual-emotional essence is taken away from it. For even historical works cannot become artistic unless they express the aspirations, ideas, and worldview of our time, and for us, the worldview of the working class—the most advanced viewpoint in our times. (81)

With this essentially Tolstoyan declaration, Kuqali sets forth one of the tenets of (socialist/) realist art and criticism: that art must be an interpretation, and must be interpreted by criticism, in order to be realist. For Kuqali, artistic realism is also fundamentally metaphorical (which is to say that the socialist realist understanding of reality is metaphorical), and as such any attempt to simply paint ‘the world’ flounders in naturalism. While it has been said many times, I think it bears repeating: the perceived distance between socialist realist artworks and the ‘reality’ that prevailed in socialist countries is only significant if one assumes a literal model for (understanding and encountering) reality. While there has been sufficient theorizing on art, language, and other phenomena to  cast this model into some doubt at a general level, it is enough to restate the obvious in this particular context: when one looks at “the reality of socialist life” in socialist realism, one is looking not just at a metaphor for reality, but reality as metaphorical.

For those who do not read Albanian, I have also translated one of Kuqali’s articles, published in Drita in 1971. Its subject is Epika e Yjeve të Mëngjesit [Epic f the Morning Stars],the work that ultimate saw its author, Edison Gjergjo, imprisoned. (I have also posted my images of the article below, for those who read Albanian, with apologies for the poor quality of my snapshots.) It is interesting to consider not only Kuqali’s relatively lax critical attitude (from reading his criticism, one would not immediately assume the work went on to be so harshly denounced by the state). It is also, I think, an example that fulfills Kuqali’s own call, in his talk given at the plenum, for an aesthetic criticism that says what is in the work, not only what is not in it (which, as he notes, was all too common in communist Albanian criticism). It also praises Gjergjo—with mixed praises, to be sure—for his interpretation of the scene, for bringing his own aesthetic experiences to the depiction of a scene that still maintains a link to the reality of socialist life (albeit a confused and contradictory one).

“Expressive, But Also Eclectic”, in Drita, December 19, 1971, page 7

by Andon Kuqali

On the one hand, a use of color, a manner of composition, and a style not normally seen in our exposition; on the other hand, a complex and contradictory inner content—these factors made Edison Gjergo’s Epic of the Morning Stars [Epika e Yjeve të Mëngjesit] hold the viewer’s attention in the midst of a great number of other works in the most recent exposition in the national art gallery.

The theme of the National Liberation War has been a continual source of inspiration for our art. All our writers and artists, including painters and sculptors, have captured and dealt with not only the significant historical events of the war, but also other aspects of this great epic of our people. The subject of Gjergjo’s tableau has originated and developed against this historical background. His works speaks of happenings and ideas that characterize the century—that are perhaps even eternal. A deep, blue night, filled with stars; a village or a castle, or a still-standing mass of rock; people, partisans, villagers: full of feelings and thoughts, great, monumental. In their midst the ancient song of the rhapsodist, which comes from centuries ago and enters into new struggles, into bloody and historic wars.

A shade of blue enriched by the human figures and the twinkling of the stars: it is the atmosphere of beautiful evenings, those pure and dreamlike evenings of summer. Within this expanse of blue, the dark shadows; the deep tones of red and violet; the silent silhouettes; the sublimation of the rhapsodist, with his head hanging down, and of the partisans, with their rifles in their hands; the attention that one woman partisan directs at the blood red rose she grasps in her hand—all of these aspects create disturbing ideas and give a sad, tragic note to the work. All of this—within a closed, square composition.

Entitling his work “Epic of the Morning Stars,” Edison Gjergjo has attempted to convey his thoughts and ideas to us by means of words. But this title, it seems to me, is somewhat incomprehensible, and is of little help to us in grasping the substance of the work, for the title in figurative works is an accessory perhaps even further outside the work than the frame or the pedestal. However, in this case, it does offer us some insight. The tableau speaks of the idea of a long history, a history of centuries; of the epic, dramatic, and tragic wars of our people; it tells of the history that is carried on by the rhapsodist, that stands beneath the looming boulder, that is in the roots of the struggle of the young partisans on this blue, starry night, from which will emerge the new day and the new epoch. But this new epoch emerges, through the painting, together with both the partisans and their rifles and with something mysterious, calm, and quiet.

This slightly confused complexity and the contradiction between the foundational idea of the work and the truth of the historical moment arise from the artist’s uncertain emotional and artistic attitude and a wavering attempt to find his own path, his own creative personality. They also stem from a kind of nostalgia for the past which has taken hold of him.

We have seen these contradictory and incoherent feelings in previous works by Gjergjo: powerful dramatic struggles, youthful leaps, bursts of energy, and—at the same time—feelings of tragedy and sadness. The painter draws more from his own meditations than from our own social reality. The epic of his most recent painting is not an innovation, but a new variation on the artist’s central idea, with a more adequate subject and theme: a more mature work conceptually and artistically.

Gjergjo’s painting expresses itself by specific aesthetic means: the ideas take artistic forms and become concrete through color, light and shadow, pictorial style, and composition. This is one of the merits of this painter and of a entire group of other painters who are now in the process of advancing our art. A few technical mistakes weaken the aesthetic perception of the painting, damaging the interaction of the beauty of the colors, of light and dark, etc. But this, let us say in passing, is a problem with many of our painters and—keeping n mind the way in which a painting communicates with the spectator—cannot be ignored by the artist without artistically damaging the resulting work. Edison Gjergjo has managed to create a work that draws you in, that holds you with the intensity of its colors and contrasts and with the expressiveness of his style, even if this expressiveness here and there become exaggerated. In this manner, he has managed to create an extremely moving figure in that of the rhapsodist, who is characterized by an almost inhuman monumentality. However, this figure is not without connection to reality, especially if we keep in mind the degree to which our singers physically take part in the interpretation of their songs. The feeling of tragedy has also touched the partisans, who have the character of strong, brave warriors tested by battles. The psychology of the young female partisan and her connection to the scene is slightly unclear. But perhaps not everything in a work of art can be explained with a great degree of exactitude.

Without a doubt, the painter has greatly exploited the experience of Expressionism—which is connected with moments of tragedy and sadness—without succumbing to the melancholy of that movement. He has also exploited the experience of Cubism, especially in the treatment of the landscape, in order to arrive at universal forms that suggest monumentality but retain their connection to the suggestion of reality. Whereas in the treatment of the figures, and especially of their faces, he has taken to heart the lessons of classical painting. All of these factors make the work eclectic and damage, without a doubt, both the expression of the painter’s ideas and the unity of the work. Thus, it is impossible not to damage the content of the work as well. The unity of a work does not exclude complexity of emotion. A work without complexity risks being a poor work. But unity requires the full expression of the conceptual and emotional content of the work.

[translated by Raino Isto]

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Some Thoughts on De Certeau and the (Re)Use of Albanian Communist Posters

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I was recently prompted—after re-reading Enis Sulstarova’s insightful essay “Mbijetesa e Përditëshme nën Komunizëm” in Përpjekja 21—to actually read De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, a text I confess that I had previously only read the introduction to. This was in part because I have always felt a (rather kneejerk) ambivalence towards De Certeau’s thesis regarding how the “tactics” of everyday life function in relation to the “strategies” of systems of authority. Part of my ambivalence comes from the fact that I think De Certeau often calls practices “subversive” could just as easily be called “collaborative” (though this would truly problematize the use of the term of “heroism,” no matter how much De Certeau wants to posit a new image of the hero). I think that his identification of certain “ways” (of reading, cooking, walking, and so forth)  as falling outside the dominant system of authority/socioeconomic paradigm comes from a failure to sufficiently conceptualize the complexity of systems of authority, not actually from the discovery of the limits of these systems. At the same time, many authors seem to face difficulties when attempting to elaborate concrete examples of the practices De Certeau repeatedly insists are so elusive. In light of Sulstarova’s essay (which is admirable in its efforts to provide real examples, but still reads more as an exercise in theory rather than an examination of phenomena), I have been thinking about examples of everyday, anonymous “manipulation and enjoying” in communist Albania. And I think I have found a rather interesting one.

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            Last summer, I was lucky enough to acquire (from some very good friends in Albania) several issues of the journal Nëndori, the monthly periodical of the Union of Writers and Artists under communism. Most of the issues seem to have come from the same personal collection, an assumption I make based on the fact that many of them were individually wrapped in protective paper coverings, with the date written on the paper covering. (They are not, however, stamped on the inside of the cover with a personalized “This book is from the personal library of________”, as are many of the old books from the communist period that I’ve acquired.) When I first got the collection of Nëndoris, I thought it interesting and encouraging that the previous owner showed such concern for the preservation of books (a value, sadly, that seems to have been more prevalent in communist Albania—at least among those who owned books—than it is in Albania today).

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            The books were not wrapped in just any paper, however. Most of those that were bound were wrapped in propaganda posters, which had been carefully cut to tightly wrap the individual copies of the journal. (They were wrapped so that the blank backs of the posters were on the outside, with the images concealed.) While the art historian in me is of course dismayed at seeing the use to which the posters were put—it’s not the condition I would like to have found them in, cut up and folded around books—their use does, I think, raise a number of important questions of the kind that De Certeau’s theory is trying to get at.

Where exactly do the propaganda posters re-purposed as book covers fall in the typology of practices that De Certeau wants to bring to our attention? Certainly, the fact that they have been used to wrap books, and thus would appear to be linked to the act of reading. Of course, it is also possible that the conservation of the volumes of the journal was linked to the drive to preservation but not necessarily to the drive to consumption. Perhaps the anonymous owner of the volumes never read them, or read them once, dutifully wrapped them in the posters, put them on a shelf, and forgot them. In any case, the care evident in the cutting and folding of the posters to perfectly wrap the journals was striking. What is truly striking, to me at least, is the way the use of the posters shows a casual disregard (if that is not too strong a word) for the imagery of the regime while it paradoxically acts to preserve the words of that same system.[1] This paradox represents, I think, something of the difficulty of pinning down whether or not such a use of the posters can count as “subverting” the communist system of strategies. As is so often the case, it is an act both subversive and collaborative: the owner of the books repurposed images with no regard for their impact as images—since the images were hidden in the wrapping—but did so in the interest of honoring and preserving a different form of the same propaganda present in the images themselves.[2] This raises a question not just about the status of words versus images, but also about how this “everyday” (re)use stands in relation to the power of the communist system in Albania. Should it be seen as an example of that system’s ingenuity at perpetuating itself even in the most mundane acts (one cuts up posters to save the words of the Party)? Or should it be seen as an irregular (I would not say rebellious or subversive) act of consumption, which uses (and uses up) the ideology of the regime in a way that weakens it by hiding it away, cutting it up, fragmenting it, disrespecting its privileged role as image of the New Life?

Recently, I have been unfolding the pieces of poster and using them to decorate my own walls. In the course of doing so, I was able to piece together 3/4 of one of the posters. In doing so, however, I realized that the three pieces I had, while all pieces of the same image, were not from the same poster—which thus frustrated my own attempts to make the images perfectly align. This, it occurs to me, is a perfect metaphor for the difficulty of examining evidence like the posters and their re-use. Reconstructing the motivations for such practices is always part of a new act of repurposing, one that is most accurate when it preserves the subtle evidences of dislocation and disjuncture—even if the significance of those disjunctures is not always, and may never be, clear.

I assume that the use of the posters dates from the communist period (and not afterwards) primarily because of the amount of wear on the posters and the Nëndori journals themselves. Most of the posters appears to be from the mid 1980s, celebrating various 40th anniversaries. Below are several images of the poster fragments opened up.

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[1] Of course, there is some irony in the fact that Nëndori was a journal that also devoted many articles to the visual arts.

[2] It is worth noting that since several copies of the same poster were used, the owner may indeed have preserved the posters as well—but only one copy, the others of which s/he used as wrapping.

Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës and the Metaphysics of Albanian Socialist Realist Painting

The first in a series of posts in which I haphazardly analyze several of the incredible socialist realist paintings I looked at (chiefly in reproduction) and thought about this summer in Albania. First up is Sali Shijaku’s Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974

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The innovative aspect of this painting is not that its author invited several other people into the studio, and depicted them alongside the painter. Its innovative, and national, character comes from the fact that it incorporates [class-]conscious workers, that their thoughts and their ideology are included within it. …the image’s novel quality stems from the artist’s attitude towards the working class and towards our new reality.” –Kristaq Rama, “Tablotë e Gjera të Jetës dhe Heroi Pozitiv në Artet Figurative,” Nëndori, May 1977, pgs. 227-228

Let us, for the moment, take Rama at his word, and accept that insofar as Shijaku’s painting represents an innovation, a new comportment towards artistic creation that accords itself to the ideological framework of the socialist ‘New Life,’ it does so because at its conceptual and compositional center stands the worker. This, of course, leaves open the question that Rama’s essay–which takes Zëri i Masës [Voice of the Masses], 1974, as its point of inception–never fully answers. Namely, what is the relationship between art, the working class and ‘our new reality’ as it actually appears in the painting? On the one hand, we must keep in mind that this ambiguity was not only endemic to the criticism of the socialist realist period in Albania, but was in fact an integral part of its functioning; it was just such an ambiguity that allowed the idea of ‘reality’ to remain so nebulous and elusive. At the same time we must accept that the socialist realist system possessed a great sense for metaphor, for the discovery of concrete hidden meanings–that is, it understood the possibility that the signs of subversive, revisionist ideology could appear anywhere, at any time, and thus that a heightened hermeneutical  sensitivity was always necessary, especially when encountering works of art. Thus, no matter how superficial Rama’s critical treatment of a work like Zëri i Masës  must seem at first glance, this should not prevent us from approaching the work as a complex system of meanings, and from accepting that that this complexity would have characterized the work in the context in which it was created and viewed. Of course, there is a right way to view and understand the painting–that is precisely what Rama’s description gives us–but that right way is not as reductivist as it might seem, for it involves  understanding how the totality of the painting’s diverse threads of meaning are to be united in the correct aesthetic comportment towards the new Albanian socialist reality.

To begin with, let me plainly state my argument: Zëri i Masës  depicts a system that encompasses the creation and reception of works of Albanian socialist realism. It describes a hierarchy of the materialization of ideas as well as of modes of perception and contemplation. In the depiction of this system, it engages with certain well-known tropes from the history of painting (the representation of the interior of the artist’s studio, of the creative process, of the absorbed reception of art, and of the blank back of the canvas, for example). One could say that Shijaku simply adapts these tropes to the conditions of socialist Albania, and to a certain extent this is true (which of course does not make the work any less important and informative as a document of that ideological territory). However, in keeping with Rama’s insistence that the work represents an innovation, I wish to proceed on the assumption that Shijaku has not merely changed certain thematic elements to make the painting at home in its political-historical context, but has in fact attempted to introduce a new structure–which is not to say that this structure is wholly innovative or without precedent, but rather that endemic to this structure is the production and sustenance of the new reality. The work does this by playing upon the same kinds of ambiguity that characterize Rama’s critical appraisal of the painting, by revealing the origin and reception of its reality without ever attempting to reflect or depict the reality itself. In this way, the work is perhaps one of the most honest works of Albanian socialist realism (a description that I will qualify below, for it certainly demands qualification), and one of the most successful, in that it understands the reality of socialist realism to be, as Dobrenko puts it, the image of production of socialist reality itself. In other words, the painting is a machine that produces socialist reality by showing the inner workings of the production of socialist reality.

At the center stands the worker, but for the time being we need merely note that the painting has a center, that all the elements and movements that make up the work as a whole take up their places around this center (which is, I will argue, not necessarily the only ‘center’ of the work in a phenomenological sense). So let us set aside the worker, caught mid-sentence, not because his role in the painting is merely formal (necessitated, for example, by the aesthetic demand for centrality in socialist realism) but because we will not fully understand his role until we examine the other elements of the painting.

There are, I think, two major movements in the painting. The first is a kind of ebb and flow that centers on the worker and his gesticulation, reflecting his own oratory back at him and then spinning it back out into the small groups of onlookers, and even into the canvas itself, seen only from the back. The second movement is the more quintessentially metaphysical one, the one that moves from the top of the canvas to the bottom and that, at first glance, seems to represent the movement from abstract ideas to concrete materializations of socialist reality. (There is also an element of the movement from the past to the present, to which I will return below.) Both movements pass through the worker, and as such he functions as the medium through which they become tangible and comprehensible to the viewer. However, both also ultimately draw the viewer’s attention down to the lower left of the painting, to the back of the painting that the onlookers are gathered to contemplate and discuss. Since the front of the canvas remains a mystery, it is left to the viewer to (re)construct the content of the work from the reactions and attitudes of the depicted viewers. The unseen painting within the painting thus functions as a second center, absorbing the viewer into its ambiguous space (since it occupies more than a quarter of the work) and then redirecting her attention back to the various modes of attention modelled by the onlookers in the studio. These onlookers display various levels of engagement with both the painting and the worker-orator at center. Two on the right (one of whom has a copy of Drita, the weekly publication of the Union of Writers and Artists, shoved in his back pocket, revealing a literary and ideological preparation to engage with works of art) gaze raptly back towards the worker who is speaking. Some of those to the left seem absorbed in their own activity, such as the man lighting a cigarette, while others either look to the worker, to the canvas at lower left , or–in one case–stare directly out of the painting. The artist himself stands unmoving just to the right of the speaking worker, his gaze fixed on the work that he has, presumably, just completed. His lowered hands, one holding his palette and the other his brushes, offer a counterpoint to the expressive gesture of the worker’s hands, and together the two suggest a definite parallelism: there is expression to be found in the work of the hands of both the artist and the laborer, both produce the kind of meaning that ecstatically pours forth (through the mysterious concealed image and through the worker’s narration) by means of gesture. Finally, at the lower right sits another worker, this one seemingly wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the canvas, his face cradled by a hand in turn braced upon his knee in an undeniably classical pose.

There is a sort of triangle formed by the central worker–the orator–the second worker–the contemplator–and the looming back of the canvas. In a certain sense, the canvas forms a second center to the painting. It not only conceptually anchors the gathering of figures in Zëri i Masës , it also visually holds sway over all other elements present, drawing the eye to its broad brown swath, even occluding part of the central worker’s body with its corner. Above all, the blank back of the canvas creates an air of mystery that pervades the experience of the painting: one wonders what is depicted on its surface. The final version of one of the sketches found on the wall behind the figures (one sketch, complete with color, is of Shijaku’s famous Vojo Kushi, another recalls his painting of Mt. Dajti)? Some other scene entirely? Perhaps even a depiction of the very people present in the room? (For one possibility is that the hidden canvas is a double of the work we are in the process of viewing, creating an infinite loop of viewing that includes both the viewer and all those present in the scene.)

The back of the canvas, placed so far forward in the scene, serves in some way to block off the space depicted within the work from the space of the viewer, but in doing so also employs the well-worn strategy of drawing the viewer into the work by just such a impediment. At the same time, the placement of the canvas (nearly, but not quite, reaching to the bottom of the painting) contributes to the hierarchical arrangement of space mentioned above, which maps the flow from ideas to their concrete materialization along the axis from the top of the painting to its bottom edge, which in turn suggests the transition to our space. At the uppermost level, the level of the artist’s sketches mounted on the wall, is the realm of ideas. The world of ideas is indistinct–devoid of color except in the case of the brilliant red and black of Vojo Kushi–and amorphous. Several different scenes form the white register, as if this ideal realm was coterminous with the artist’s mind. However, since the artist is not the central figure, I think it unlikely that the upper register of the painting merely offers a psychological snapshot, an inventory of creative ideas present for the artist, waiting to be (more) fully realized. Instead, I think that the upper level of the painting is meant to represent the metaphysical primacy of the images portrayed, and it is significant for this primacy that they are linked to the past. Images of war heroes (Vojo Kushi), of partisans, of the mountainous terrain of Albania itself: these images form part of a realm of primordial myth that both acts as the foundation for and is transformed by the ‘new reality.’ This transformation occurs through the artist, but his action alone is not sufficient to establish the full significance of the new reality–his bringing it to vision does not suffice to make it a part of the New Life. (This, I think, is one reason why we do not, and need not, see whether or not the images the artist has sketched find themselves realized on the canvas.)

Below the realm of myths and ideas is the space of the painter’s studio, where the motley group described above are gathered. In some cases (such as the man at far left) the transition between the sheet with the artist’s sketches and the figures present in the studio seems sufficiently ambiguous to warrant the assumption that there is an intentional and significant spatial bridge between the two; certain figures seem to occupy both spaces, or to be emerging from the upper space into the middle space (whose ambiguous flatness also suggests its continuity with the paper hung on the wall behind). It is in this middle space that the worker first enters the painting (and with him, Rama argues, his ideology and worldview, giving the work its revolutionary quality). Even the centrality of the worker who is explicating the canvas before him, however, cannot compete with the movement that draws the viewer’s attention down to the back of the canvas and, at the same time, over and down to the worker who silently contemplates the canvas.

As I have argued above, it is this third space or register that is meant to most closely relate to ‘our’ space. What is closest to us is most ‘real’–although I also want to suggest that it is meant to be more ‘real’ than us (a point I will return to below). Since we cannot see what is depicted on the canvas, we must default not only to the worker-orator at center, but also to the worker seated at lower right. In fact, if anything, we are more directly tied to this worker, since he models, in his rapt contemplation, the comportment towards the canvas that–presumably–we are meant to hold towards Zëri i Masës .

If the worker at lower right (who is also the final point of a sweeping diagonal beginning from the floating bust of the man at upper left), is meant to model our own engagement with the work (with a work of socialist realism in general), it is also important to note that his absorption in the work is not merely visual. After all, the very title of the painting–Voice of the Masses–reminds us that Shijaku’s painting is also about listening. Here again Shijaku references a rich tradition of images of people absorbed in listening (to music, to speech), and at the same time he creates an inner world for the worker who gazes at the canvas. This inner world is not one already populated with ideas and emotions; instead it is a world that exists only in relation to the prior to levels (the realm of ideas and the realm of the studio). (Here, we might observe, is the production of the space of the socialist subject, who can then be filled in with the ideological substance of the more metaphysically primary levels–not, we must say, with the substance of his own ‘world’).

To encounter a work of socialist realism–and thus to encounter socialist reality–the worker at right shows us, is both to look and to listen, to be shown and to be told. One need only consider the significant role played by radio and television, by speeches, in the life of citizens of socialist Albania to understand the phenomenological situation that Shijaku has translated into a strictly visual medium.

Allow me to restate some of the principal points outlined above, and hopefully to clarify my thesis about how Shijaku’s painting works as a paradigm of socialist realism. Put simply, and perhaps too bluntly, the painting shows that to understand reality is both to contemplate it and to listen to the explanation of what reality is. The image depicted upon the canvas is not just a mystery to us–it is also, insofar as we viewers imagine it is some recognizable scene of socialist life or history–but it is also superfluous in an important sense to the process Shijaku is depicting. This is what is most radical–and most honest–about Zëri i Masës : in this innovative example of socialist realism (if we take Rama’s description to be accurate) the artist has shown the futulity of comparing art to reality, as if we could examine the completed canvas with an eye towards its correspondence to some element of lived experience. Such an encounter with the image would be futile not because no such correspondence exists, but because we would learn little about the ‘new reality’ from such an encounter. The artist has chosen instead to show the new reality as a reality of mechanisms, the mechanisms of the metaphysics of aesthetic creation and interpretation. The reality of the painting is that it depicts the artistic process–both practical, in the sense of the physical production of the artwork in the space of the studio, and metaphysical, in the sense of the relationship between nascent ideas and myths and their materialization in the artwork–that gives rise to works of socialist realism. This artistic process is both visual and auditory, and it is both conceptual and ideological in addition to these aesthetic aspects. The outcome of this process is not simply the work of art depicted in the image but, by metaphorical extension, the whole ‘new reality’ occupied by the viewer.

I said at the outset that Shijaku’s painting was one of the most honest examples of socialist realism. I hope it has become clearer what I mean by this: that the work frankly depicts the production of a reality, its imposition and ideological strengthening, its genesis through different levels of metaphysical and ideological clarity to arrive in the world of the ‘new reality.’ Its truth is that the image of that reality is the image of image production, contemplation, and interpretation. To reflect this reality is not to reflect a finished object, but to reflect the mechanisms by which a viewer is produced who knows the ‘right way’ to encounter the world, to understand the interplay of authority and ideolgy as reality.

 

Conversation with Sculptor Muntaz Dhrami

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Monumenti i Pavaresise, photo by P. Cici, from the November 29 issue of Zeri i Popullit

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with sculptor Muntaz Dhrami for the second time, and he was able to clarify several questions I had regarding the Vlore Independence Monument (relatively unimportant ones, but the answers to which nonetheless shed further light on the genesis of the artwork).

First, Dhrami explained that the initial maquette that was approved by the commission did in fact include the figure of the flag bearer. I had been uncertain about this detail, since the only photo I have found of an earlier version of the monument is cropped in such a way that the top of the boulder (and thus the flag/flag bearer) are not visible. However, Dhrami did explain that initially the flag itself had been much different–it was not, as Hoxha would later take issue with in his letter to the sculptors, “flamuri i betejave”. Furthermore, in the final version of the monument, the figure of the flagbearer was sculpted exclusively by Dhrami and Shaban Haderi, as Kristaq Rama had recently fallen and suffered a head injury that made it impossible for him to work on the flag bearer.

The pieces of the monument were cast in bronze in Tirana, then transported to Flora, where the sculptors mounted and welded them. Dhrami recounted that the final piece of the monument that needed to be mounted was Qemali’s head. When the sculptors completed work mounting the head, they quickly returned to Tirana to continue work on other projects, neglecting to remove the ropes that had been used to lever the head in place from around Qemali’s neck. A concerned official immediately called Tirana, claiming that the sculptors had symbolically ‘hung’ the national hero. The misunderstanding was apparently resolved without incident, but it demonstrates a humorous level of paranoia and a heightened sensitivity to any symbolism, no matter how ambiguous or unlikely…a kind of sensitivity that is still evident today (let us only recall the Skenderbeu i Qafe-Kasharit).

I also asked Dhrami about the accuracy of Hektor Dule’s characterization of the four warriors as a Tosk, a Lab, a Kosovar (or simply a northerner), and a Myzeqar. He confirmed my hunch that the figure of the Myzeqar was not intended to be read with as much specificity, and that while the idea of alluding specifically to the four different regions of Albania (as Dule interpreted the monument) was–in his opinion–quite logical and in the spirit of the work, it had not been the specific intention of the artists.

Additionally, Dhrami informed me that after Hoxha’s visit to the studio of the three sculptors–during which time he made the observations and critique that he would later elaborate in his letter to the artists, published in Drita in June of 1969–the artists completely reworked the maquette of the monument from scratch, taking into account Hoxha’s suggestions, which Dhrami considered to be well-reasoned and productive. Hoxha never saw the reworked version of the monument until the final work was installed and inaugurated in Vlora in 1972. Dhrami interpreted this as a sign of the dictator’s faith in the skill and experience of the three sculptors; he explained (as we had discussed briefly when I met him last summer, that Hoxha’s suggestions had been just that–suggestions–and that the dictator had left the final decision about how to carry out any changes that seemed necessary or appropriate in the hands of the artists. When the monument was inaugurated, Hoxha congratulated the sculptors on the work they had done, saying that they had done well.

There are two interesting aspects to Dhrami’s description of the exchange. The first is that he was still able to quote to me, verbatim, lines from Hoxha’s letter (although of course it was reprinted in last year’s MAPO, with an introductory text explaining that it had been ‘discovered’ in the state archives–a truly ridiculous assertion that both Dhrami and I chuckled over). The second is that Dhrami considered the exchange between the dictator and the artists to be relatively two-sided; in the studio (as referenced in his letter) Hoxha seemed to have implied the need for the presence of a partisan, which the sculptors protested at the time, and which Hoxha later clarified-he did not wish for a partisan to be included, merely for the monument to link the past struggles of the Albanian people together, to unify these conflicts into a single narrative. This, as I have argued elsewhere, is one of the aspects that makes the monument so significant, and it was interesting (and self-satisfyingly encouraging) to hear Dhrami characterize the exchange as significant precisely because it offered an example of how Albanian artists could best engage in the visualization of Albanian history through the medium of socialist realist monumentality.

My conversation with Dhrami also touched on other topics, including the Mother Albania monument, but as these observations will feature in an essay for the upcoming Albanian Lapidar Survey catalogue, I will direct the reader to that publication (due out late this year).

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.