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.

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

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

Nendori_Nentor 1965_cover

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

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

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

Happy Reading!

One Bunker After Another

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

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

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

Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan
Photo by Carrie Ann Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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