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.

“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!

 

“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!

“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.